John Fletcher’s Evidences of the Christian Religion
Rev. John Guilliame de la Flechere, a French speaking Swiss born at Nyon in 1729, became an Anglican priest and a leading theologian of early Methodism. John Fletcher, as his name was Anglicized, was parish priest at Madley from 1729-1785 and for a time was president of Trevecca, the new college in South Wales founded by the Countess of Huntingdon. A close friend of both John and Charles Wesley, Fletcher wrote polemical essays and tracts which made Scripture the criteria for theology and understanding. For a time Fletcher was considered John Wesley’s successor, but, dying in 1785, he preceded Wesley in death. Wesley said he had never found Fletcher’s spiritual equal, “one so inwardly and outwardly devoted to God; and I scarce expect to find another such on this side of eternity.” At his death, the Conference of Minutes remarked “John Fletcher, a pattern of holiness, scarce to be paralleled in a century.”
In the following essay, included in Matthew Carey’s 1805 quarto edition of the Bible, Fletcher answered some of the critics of the Bible and the followers of the Enlightenment which rejected the Bible’s veracity and authority.
A Concise View of the Evidences of the Christian Religion
1. The sacred pen-men, the Prophets and Apostles, were holy, excellent men, and would not; artless and illiterate men, and therefore could not, lay the horrible scheme of deluding mankind. The hope of gain did not influence them, for they were self-denying men, that left all to follow a Master, who had not where to lay his head; and whose grand initiating maxim was, Except a man forsake all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple. They were so disinterested that they secured nothing on earth but hunger and nakedness, stocks and prisons, racks and tortures; which indeed was all that they could or did expect in consequence of Christ’s express declarations. Neither was a desire of honour the motive of their actions; for their Lord himself was treated with the utmost contempt, and had more than once assured them that they should certainly share the same fate; Besides, they were humble men, not above working as mechanics for a coarse maintenance, and so little desirous of human regard, that they exposed to the world the meanness of their birth and occupations, their great ignorance and scandalous faults.
Add to this, that they were so many, and lived at such distance of time and place from each other, that had they been imposters, it would have been impracticable for them to contrive and carry on a forgery without being detected. And as they neither would, nor could deceive the world; so they neither could nor would be deceived themselves: For they were days, months, and years, eye and ear’s witnesses of the things which they relate; and when they had not the fullest evidence of important facts, they insisted upon new proofs, and even sensible demonstrations; as, for instance, Thomas, in the matter of our Lord’s resurrection, John xx.25. And to leave us no room to question their sincerity, most of them joyfully sealed the truth of their doctrines with their own blood. Did so many and such marks of veracity, ever meet in any other authors?
2. But even while they lived, they confirmed their testimony by a variety of miracles, wrought in divers places, and for a number of years, sometimes before thousands of their enemies, as the miracles of Christ and his disciples; sometimes before hundreds of thousands, as those of Moses. These miracles were so well known and attested, that when both Christ and Moses appealed to their authenticity, before their bitterest opposers, mentioning the persons upon whom, as well as the particular times when, and the places where, they had been performed; the facts were never denied, but passed over in silence, or maliciously attributed to the Prince of the Devils. By such a fruitful slander, as this, Porphyry, Hierocles, Celsus, and Julian the Apostate, those learned and inveterate enemies of Christianity, endeavoured (as the Pharisees had done before them) to sap the arguments founded upon the miracles of Christ and his disciples. So sure then as God would never have displayed his arm, in the most astonishing[i] manner, for the support of imposture, the sacred pen-men had their commission from the Almighty, and their writings are his lively oracles.
3. Reason itself dictates that nothing but the plainest matter of fact, should induce so many thousands of prejudiced and persecuting Jews, to embrace the humbling, self-denying doctrines of the cross, which they so much despised and abhorred. Nothing but the clearest evidence, arising from undoubted truth, could make multitudes of lawless, luxurious heathens receive, follow, and transmit to posterity the doctrines and writings of the Apostles; especially at a time when the vanity of their pretensions to miracles, and the gift of tongues, could be so easily discovered had they been impostors – at a time when the profession of Christianity exposed persons of all ranks to the greatest contempt, and most imminent dangers. In this respect, the case of the primitive Christians widely differed from that of Mahomet’s followers; for those, who adhered to the warlike, violent impostor, saved their lives and properties, or attained to honour, by their new, easy, and flesh-pleasing religion: But those who devoted themselves to the meek, self-denying, crucified Jesus, were frequently spoiled of their goods, and cruelly put to death; or if they escaped with their lives, were looked upon as the very dregs of mankind.
Add to this, that some of the most profound parts of the scriptures, were addressed to the inhabitants of polite Greece, and triumphant Rome, among whom[ii] philosophy and literature, with the fine arts and sciences, were in the highest perfection; and who, consequently, were less liable to be the dupes of forgery and imposture. On the contrary, gross ignorance overspread those countries, where Mahomet first broached his absurd opinions, and propagated them with the sword: A sure sign this, that the sacred writers did not, like that impostor, avail themselves of the ignorance, weakness, and helplessness of their followers, to impose falsehood upon them.
4. When the authenticity of the miracles was attested by thousands of living witnesses, religious rites were instituted, and performed by hundreds of thousands, agreeable to scripture injunctions, in order to perpetuate that authenticity. And these solemn ceremonies have ever since been kept up in all parts of the world; the Passover by the Jews, in remembrance of Moses’ miracles in Egypt; and the Eucharist by Christians, as a memorial of Christ’s death, and the miracles that accompanied it, some of which are recorded by Phlegon the Trallian, an heathen historian.
5. The Scriptures have not only the external sanction of miracles, but the internal stamp of the Omniscient God, by a variety of prophecies, some of which have already been most exactly confirmed by the events predicted; witness, the rise and fall of the four grand monarchies according to Daniel’s prophecy, chap. ii. and vii; and the destruction of the city and temple of Jerusalem, foretold by Christ, Matt. Xxiv.2. while others are every day fulfilled in the face of infidels, particularly the persecution of the real disciples of Christ in our times, as well as in all ages (see Matt. X.22,35. John xv.20. and Gal. iv.29) and the present miserable state of the Jews, so exactly described by Moses, above three thousand years ago.. See Det. xxviii.65.
6. Sometimes the plainest prophecies, the most public miracles, and the annals of kingdoms, well known when these books were first received, wonderfully concur to demonstrate their authenticity. Take one instance out of many: A prophet out of Judah, above three hundred years before the event, thus foretold the pollution of Jeroboam’s altar at Bethel, before Jeroboam himself, who was attended by his priests, his courtiers, and no doubt a vast number of idolatrous worshippers: O altar, altar, thus says the Lord, behold. A child shall be born unto the house of David, Josiah by name, who shall burn men’s bones upon thee: and this is the sign: Behold this very day the altar shall be rent, and the ashes that are upon it scattered. King Jeroboam inflamed with anger, stretched forth his hand against the man of God, saying to his guards, Lay hold on him; the rending of the altar, and scattering of the fire, instantly took place; and the capital prophecy was exactly fulfilled by pious king Josiah, as you may see by comparing I Kings xiii.1, &c. with II Kings xxiii.15, &c. Can we reasonably suppose, that books, containing accounts of such public events, would have been received as divine by a divided people, if their authenticity had not been confirmed by indubitable matter of fact? Nay, is it not as absurd to assert it as it would be to affirm that the offices for the 5th of November, and the 30th of January, were forged by crafty priests; and that the Papists, Puritans, and Royalists of the last century, agreed to impose upon the world the history of the gunpowder plot, and of King Charles’s decollation, with which those parts of the liturgy are so inseparably connected?
7. This scattered, despised people, the irreconcilable enemies of the Christians, keep with amazing care[iii] the Old Testament, full of the prophetic history of Jesus Christ, and by that means afford the world the striking proof that the New Testament is true; and Christians in their turn show, that the Old Testament is abundantly confirmed and explained in the New. The Earl of Rochester, the great wit of the last century, was so struck with this proof, that upon reading the 33rd chapter of Isaiah, with floods of penitential tears, he lamented his former infidelity, and warmly embraced the faith, which he had so publickly ridiculed.
8. To say nothing of the venerable antiquity, and wonderful preservation of those books, some of which are by far the most ancient in the world; to pass over the inimitable simplicity, or true sublimity of their style; they carry with them such characters of truth, as command the respect of every unprejudiced reader.
They open to us the mystery of the creation, the nature of God, angels, and man, the immortality[iv] of the soul, the end for which we were made, the origin and connection of moral and natural evil, the vanity of this world and the glory of the next. There we see inspired shepherds, tradesmen, and fishermen, surpassing as much the greatest philosophers, as these did the herd of mankind, both in meekness of wisdom and sublimity of doctrine…There we admire the purest morality in the world, agreeable to the dictates of sound reason, confirmed by the witness which God has placed for himself in our breast, and exemplified in the lives of men of like passions with ourselves…There we discover a vein of Ecclesiastical history and theological truth, consistently running through a collection of sixty-six different books, written by various authors in different languages, during the space of above 1500 years…There we find, as in a deep and pure spring, all the genuine drops and streams of spiritual knowledge, which can possibly be met with in the largest libraries…There the workings of the human heart are described, in a manner that demonstrates the inspiration of the Searcher of hearts…there we have a particular account of all our spiritual maladies, with their various symptoms, and the method of a certain cure; a cure that has been witnessed by millions of martyrs and departed saints, and is now enjoyed by thousands of good men, who would account it an honour to seal the truth of the scriptures with their own blood…There you meet with the noblest strains of penitential and joyous devotion, adapted to the dispositions and states of all travelers to Sion…And there you read those awful threatenings and cheering promises, which are daily fulfilled in the conscience of men, to the admiration of believers, and the astonishment of attentive infidels.
9. The wonderful efficacy of the Scriptures is another proof that they are of God. When they are faithfully opened by his ministers and powerfully applied by his Spirit they wound and heal, they kill and make alive, they alarm the careless, turn or enrage the wicked, direct the lost, support the tempted, strengthen the weak, comfort the mourners, and nourish pious souls. As the woman of Samaria said of Jesus, Come, see a man that told me all that ever I did: Is not this the Christ?A good man can say of the Bible, “Come, see a book that told me all that was in my heart, and acquainted me with the various trials and dangers I have met with in my spiritual travels; a book where I have found those truths, which, like a divinely-tempered sword, have cut my way through all the snares and forces of my spiritual adversaries; and by whose directions my soul has happily entered the paradise of divine and brotherly love. Is not this the book of God?
10. To conclude; it is exceedingly remarkable, that the more humble and holy people are, the more they read, admire, and value the scriptures; and on the contrary, the more self-conceited, worldly-minded, and wicked, the more they neglect, despise, and asperse them.
As for the objections which are raised against their perspicuity and consistency, those who are both pious and learned, know that they are generally founded on prepossession, and the want of understanding in spiritual things; or on our ignorance of several customs, idioms, and circumstances, which are perfectly known when those books were written. Frequently also the immaterial error arises merely from a wrong punctuation, or a mistake of copiers, printers, or translators; as the daily discoveries of pious critics, and ingenuous confessions of unprejudiced enquirers, abundantly prove.
To the preceding arguments, I beg leave to add the following queries. Do not disbelievers, by supposing that the Scriptures are a forged book, and consequently that Christianity is a false religion, run upon the very rocks, which they seem so afraid of? And may they not be charged with indirectly setting their seal to opinions, far more incredible than those which they reject?
(1) O ye Disputers of this world, if ye believe that Moses and Jesus Christ, St. Peter, and St. Paul publicly worked sham miracles for years, in various cities and countries, before thousands of their sharp-sighted opposers, without being ever detected in any of their tricks; might you not as reasonably believe , that thousands of shrewd men were at once turned into stupid asses?
(2) If you believe, that the gospel is the production of human deceit; and yet, that in the prodigious number of apostates once concerned in carrying on the amazing villany, such as Judas, Demas, Simon Magus, Alexander the coppersmith, who did St. Paul much evil, &c., not one was ever found, that would prove the forgery: might you not as reasonably believe, that if there were two violent parties in a state, and that one of them had been guilty of some egregious villany, which was known to many of the other party, yet that none of the latter could be prevailed upon to disclose and prove it to the world?[v]
(3) You believe, that the miracles and resurrection of Christ, together with the gifts of the Holy Ghost, were nothing but enthusiastical or knavish pretensions: and yet you are forced to grant, that thousands of Jews, strongly attached to their religion, amazingly averse to that of Jesus, and guilty of persecuting him unto death, took him openly for their Saviour a few weeks after they had seen him publickly scourged; and in the very city in sight of which he had just been crucified between two thieves. Now is not this as absurd as to believe, that if a few fishermen cried up the last person hanged in London for a notorious forgery; and if they affirmed that he was the Son of God, appealing to a great number of miracles supposed to have been wrought by him in the squares and hospitals of the metropolis, and especially in St. Paul’s church-yard: and maintaining that some of them had been acknowledged genuine by the[vi] great council of the nation: they could, by such notorious lies, engage thousands of citizens, to put all their trust in the villain hanged at their special request?
(4) You believe, that Christianity is a gross imposture; and yet you cannot deny, that thousands of learned Romans and wise Greeks, who agreed to despise the Jews above all other men, took for their Saviour that very Jesus, of whom his own countrymen had been ashamed, and whom they had crucified as an impostor. Is not this as absurd as to believe that thousands of wise Englishmen and sensible Frenchmen, could be induced by the absurd tale of two or three Hottentots, to worship a certain Hottentot, whom the whole nation of Hottentots had condemned to be hanged, as being more worthy of an ignominious death, than the bloody ringleader of a seditious mob?
(5) If you believe with some infidels, that the History of Christ is “a mere fable,” and that there never was such an extraordinary person, you believe that the Heathens, the Jews, and the Mahometans, have agreed with the Christians, their sworn enemies, to carry on a most amazing imposture. For Pliny, Tacitus, Lucian, and Suetonius, heathen authors, who lived soon after Christ, make express mention of him: as do also Mahomet, many of the Rabbies, and Julian the Emperor, that powerful and crafty apostate, who not only never denied Christ’s existence, but openly acknowledged that Paul, Mark, Matthew, and Peter, were the authors of the gospels and epistles, which bear their name. Now is not this as ridiculous to believe, that the Pope, the Mufti, and the inquisitors, have laid their heads with Messrs. Voltaire, Hume, and Rousseau, to favour a forgery subversive of popery, mahometanism, and infidelity?
(6) If you deny the authenticity of the four gospels, which are the only ancient histories we have of our Saviour, and yet believe there was such a personage as Jesus Christ, whose fame so spread through the Roman Empire, that in less than 330 years, he was not only reckoned superior to the Roman emperor, but to Jupiter himself; and that nevertheless not one historian, during all that time, gave the world a particular account of him (which must be the case, if the four gospels are a forgery:) Might you not as reasonably suppose, that if a blazing meteor appeared in our day and eclipsed our stars, the moon, and the sun itself; no astronomer for several centuries would take particular notice of so wonderful a phenomenon?
(7) If the gospel is a delusion, you believe that St. Paul, who was a man of sense, learning, and intrepidity, was seduced by – no body, to preach for near 30 years, with astonishing zeal and matchless hardships, an imposture, against the abettors of which, he just before breathed nothing but threatenings and slaughter?
(8) The instantaneous conversions of thousands was wrought by means of public appeals to notorious matter of fact. Hear the language of the Apostles to the Jews:
This ye yourselves know, Acts ii.24. Ye know the things done through all Judea, Acts x.37, 38. The king knoweth these things. This thing was not done in a corner, Acts xxvi,26. Now if Christianity is not founded upon indubitable facts, might you not as well believe, that twelve men broke loose from Bedlam, brought last year thousands of deists over to Christianity, by saying to them, “Ye know” – what you are perfect strangers to; that is, “Ye know” – that we are a pack of bedlamites?
(9) If the gospel is forged, you believe that the Corinthians, handed down to posterity, as a sacred treasure, Epistles where St. Paul mentions their amazing conversion from gross immoralities; congratulates them about the spiritual or miraculous gifts, in which they abounded, I Cor. xii.1 and gives them particular directions, how to use the gift of tonguesto edification; when yet they were totally unacquainted with any such things?
(10) If you say that the Apostles were fools, you must believe, that foolish fishermen laid a scheme with so, muchwisdom, and carried it on with so much art as to deceive the multitudes of Greeks noted for their acuteness, and numbers of Romans famous for their prudence. Might you not as well believe that twelve poor, unarmed idiots, once combined to take the strongest towns in Europe, and accomplished their strange designs by means, that strike the profoundest politicians with astonishment?
(11) If you affirm that the Apostles were cheats and liars, you run into a great difficulty, for you must believe that the greatest knaves that ever existed, contrary to their own principles and advantage, went through the world, exposing themselves to the greatest hardships and severest tortures unto death, to recommend both by their example andprecepts, the strictest piety towards God, and the most scrupulous honesty towards man; perpetually denouncing eternal destruction to cheats and hypocrites, and the torments of a lake that burneth with fire and brimstone, to every one who loveteh or maketh a lie. Would it be more absurd to believe, that the twelve greatest epicures in England, have from course of years, fulfilled a mutual agreement of preaching night and day, abstinence and fasting through the three kingdoms, merely to have the pleasure of starving to death for their pains?
(12) To conclude: If the gospel (and consequently the scripture) is an imposture, you suppose that some poor Galilean fishermen, only by means of an absurd lie, which they told without wit, and wrote without elegance, foiled the multitude of the Jewish and Pagan priests, who had prejudice, custom, possession, learning, oratory, wealth, laws, governors, and emperors on their side; yea, and truth also, upon your principles, at least when they decried the gospel as a cheat. Would it be more ridiculous to believe, that David killed Goliath, with a grain of sand, and cut off his hand with a spire of grass: or that our sailors sink men of war with a puff of breath, while our soldiers batter down ramparts with snow-balls?
O ye sons of worldly wisdom, drop your unjust prejudices; candidly weigh both sides of the question, and you will soon see, that in rejecting the gospel as an imposture, you display a far greater degree of credulity, than we do in cordially receiving it.
[i] Once indeed the Lord permitted the Magicians of Egypt so to use their art, as to counterfeit for a time some of Moses’ miracles; but it was only to make the authenticity of the others more conspicuous; this being the happy effect of the contest, when those ministers of satan withdrew confounded, and forced to acknowledge, that the finger of God was evidently displayed through the rod of their antagonist.
[ii] Not many Noble, not many Wise are called, says the Apostle; nevertheless some of both, even at the rise of Christianity, openly stood up for its truth. Among the noble we find Joseph, a member of the great Jewish council, Dionysius, one of the Judges at Athens, and Flavius Clemens, a Roman Senator; and among the wise, Quadratus, Aristides, and Athenagoras, Athenian philosophers; Clemens, Arnobius, Ammonius, Annatolius, &c. men of great learning at Alexandria; and at Rome, Justin Martyr and Tertullian, both famous apologists for the religion of Jesus, the latter of whom in the second century told the Roman governors, that their corporations, councils, and armies, and the emperor’s palace, were full of Christians: Nor is this improbable; since so early as St. Paul’s days the saints of Cesar’s household saluted those of the Roman Provinces. Phil. iv.22. How credulous are they who can believe that persons of such rank and learning could be deluded by Jewish fishermen into the worship of a crucified impostor!
[iii] If the histories contained in the Old Testament, were in general for the credit of the Jews, the love of praise might indeed have engaged some of them to join in a public forgery. But that book, of which they have always been so tenacious, presents the world chiefly with an account of their monstrous ingratitude, unparalleled obstinacy, perpetual rebellious, abominable idolatries, and of the fearful judgments, which their wickedness brought upon them. Moses, who leads the van of their sacred authors, sums up his history of the Israelites, and draws up their character in these disgraceful words, which he spake to their face: You have been rebellious against the Lord from the day that I knew you, Deut. ix.24. And even David and Solomon, their greatest kings, are represented in those books as guilty of the greatest enormities. O ye deists, I appeal to your reason, and ask; Would you die for would you even connive at a notorious forgery, supposing the design of it were merely to impose upon the world as divine, a book that should perpetually stigmatize your ancestors, and fix horrid blots upon the names for which you have the greatest veneration?
[iv] It is remarkable that the wisest heathens with all their philosophy, seldom attain to a full assurance of the immortality of the soul. Cicero himself says: Nescio quomodo, dum lego assentior; cum fiosui librum, et mecum ipse de immortalitate animorum capi cogitare, assentio omnis illa elabitur. Tusc. Quest. Lib.I.
[v] Pliny, a learned and prudent Roman governor, who was employed by the emperor Trajan in stopping the progress of Christianity, wrote to him, that the apostates affirmed, the whole of their crime had been to meet before day, and sing an “hymn to Christ as to their God.” His own words are: “Affirmabant hane fuisse summum vel celpa sua vel erroris, quod essent soliti stato die ante lucem convenire, carmenque Christo quasi Deo divere.”
[vi] Some remarkable instances of this we have in the sacred books, published when the facts mentioned therein were notorious, and when some of the persons named were probably yet alive. After the resurrection of Lazarus, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered a council, and said, What do we? For this man does many miracles. If we let him alone, all men will believe on him. John xi.47. – And after Peter and John had publicly cured the cripple, who used to beg at the gate of the temple; the rulers, and elders, and scribes, and Annas the high priest, and Caiaphas, and John, and Alexander, and as many as were of the kindred of the high priest, were gathered together at Jerusalem, saying, What shall we do to these men? For that indeed a notable miracle has been done by them, is manifest to all them that dwell in Jerusalem, and we cannot deny it. Acts iv.5-16.