Last year I wrote about three significant colleagues of John Wesley who had a major impact on early Methodism: Charles Wesley, William Grimshaw, and John Fletcher. To that list also belongs Mary Bosanquet Fletcher, who among other things was one of the first women preachers in Methodism.
Because having men as lay preachers was highly controversial in the eighteenth century, having women as preachers was almost unthinkable. Certainly, there were women in significant public roles from the early days of the Methodist movement, offering prayers, giving testimonies, leading classes, and sometimes even exhorting listeners following a sermon. But actual preaching was a much more radical step.
Wesley’s reticence was shown in how he responded to Sarah Crosby in 1761. Expecting thirty but finding two hundred in attendance at a meeting, she felt led to publicly exhort the people. She wrote Wesley for guidance, in the meanwhile speaking to yet another large crowd while waiting for a response.
Wesley’s reply sought to reassure her while avoiding what might be technically called preaching: “Hitherto, I think you have not gone too far. You could not well do less …. When you meet again … tell them simply, ‘You lay me under a great difficulty. The Methodists do not allow of women preachers: neither do I take upon me any such character. But I will just nakedly tell you what is in my heart’” (cited in Paul Wesley Chilcote, John Wesley and the Women Preachers of Early Methodism [Scarecrow, 1991], 122).
Despite Wesley’s caution, he nonetheless continued to support the public speaking of Sarah Crosby and others.
Crosby’s letter was apparently conveyed to Wesley by Mary Bosanquet. Born in 1739, Bonsanquet was the daughter of a banker, and her loyal Anglican parents were dismayed when as a teenager she became involved with the Methodists, especially with her desire to wear plain clothing and avoid attending plays. At age 22 she and her parents mutually decided she should leave home, living on an inheritance from her grandmother.
With her friend and mentor Sarah Ryan, she opened an orphanage and school at Leytonstone. Ryan, who was 18 years older than Bosanquet, had been a domestic servant, a radically different background from the well-to-do Bosanquet. But the two women bonded and became the nucleus of the most important center of women’s ministry in early Methodism.
Joined by Sarah Crosby, the women moved to a farmhouse called Cross Hall in Yorkshire in 1768. That same year Sarah Ryan died. It was during this period that Bosanquet first heard Sarah Crosby preach.
Bosanquet began her public speaking at prayer meetings for orphans and women. As neighbors began attending and the numbers grew, her public speaking increasingly took the form of preaching, and began to evoke criticism.
Writing Wesley for advice in 1771, Bosanquet noted that her peaching had reached hundreds who might never had entered a preaching house. This was followed by a lengthy interpretation of the relevant passages of Scripture. She notes that Scripture is thought by many to permit a woman to speak in public “now and then, if under a peculiar impulse, but never else.” But how many times does this really mean? “Perhaps you will say, two or three times in her life; perhaps God will say two or three times in a week, or a day — and where shall we find the Rule for his?” (cited in Chilcote, 301) She claimed she had received such an “extraordinary call” to preach.
Wesley’s response was a complete endorsement of her preaching as an “extraordinary call,” the same extraordinary call received by the male lay preachers. Soon thereafter the Methodist conference began giving women preachers letters of endorsement for their ministry, signed by John Wesley.
Mary Bosanquet’s work at Yorkshire continued for another decade, until she married John Fletcher and moved to his parish at Madely. Their happy marriage was cut short by his death in 1785.
Mary Fletcher continued her ministry for another thirty years, until she died at age 76. She led the Methodist society at Madely — the only woman to lead a society — and preached regularly at the preaching chapel she and John Fletcher had built at there. In 1814, a year before she died, she was preaching five services a week. The heart of her messages was thoroughly Wesleyan: the promise of a heart perfected in love, grounded in God’s love for us in Jesus Christ. It was to this good news she gave her life, and in which she mentored a new generation of Methodist women leaders.