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The Works of Mary Bosanquet Fletcher Project

Biography: Michael Onions (1768-1785)

Reference:Mary Fletcher, 'A Short Account of the Death of Michael Onions', Arminian Magazine 8 (1785), 522-25, with notes by D. R. Wilson.

Manuscript Reference: MARC: MAM Fl. 11/5

A Short Account of the Death of Michael Onions.[1]
About Christmas last, Michael Onions, of Madeley, then about sixteen,[2] began to sicken of a decline. To that time he had been very carnal, and often expressed a dislike to the means of grace. His Uncle said, Michael, thou seemest to be ill; perhaps the Lord is about to take thee. What thinkest thou of another world? There are but two places, a heaven and a hell, and thou must go to one of them. He answered, ‘If I knew I should go to heaven I should not be unwilling to die.’ Well, said his Uncle, there is such a thing as knowing our sins forgiven here. ‘What! replied he with some emotion, while we are alive can we know that?’
His desires for life being very strong, he made many promises how good he would be if the Lord would spare him. His mother-in-law[3] often talked with him about his future state. After a little time his heart was much softened, and he would often weep because he had offended so good a god. In a few days the Lord revealed himself unto him. On which he cried out, ‘O, mam! what do I feel? O, what love is this! My heart is full! brim full! O, it is sweet! what would I give, mam, that you could feel it too! O, How sweet!’ She said, What! sweeter than honey and the honey-comb?[4] He replied, ‘O, far away! far away above it!’
From this time he appeared much changed. His desire for life was gone. He wanted nothing now but to die and be with Jesus. His bodily sufferings were very great. He often cried out, ‘O, I am afraid I shall be impatient! but I cannot help it. Lord give me patience.’ He would beg of those who visited him to help him by their prayers to be patient. To his mother-in-law he expressed great thankfulness, saying, ‘I wish I could carry you with me. If God would let me, mam, I would take you in my arms; but if not, I should like to die in your bosom.’ He had now frequent visits from the Lord; particularly three manifestations, each of which seemed to exceed the other. But as he was very ignorant, being brought up in a coal-pit, and having never read the word of God, nor conversed with serious persons till the time of this illness, he had some difficulty in explaining his meaning:[5] and at times, when the Spirit of God was poured out afresh upon him, he would cry, or rather groan, Oh! Oh! what is coming to me!—What is this! what is this!’ Then with his eyes fixt up, he seemed to be lost in deep contemplation.
One Sabbath-day some people came into the house, and were talking of worldly things. He looked at his mother and said, ‘I would go to bed.’ As she was helping him into bed, he lamented the hurt the company had done him. But his adorable Redeemer did not long leave him to mourn; for in a few moments he was overpowered with love, that his weak body was ready to die beneath the weight thereof.
About six days before his death his spirit seemed wholly taken up with prospects of glory. Sometimes there seemed to appear before him beautiful crowns. Sometimes companies of glorified spirits who appeared to him as men, women and children walking in a glorious place. ‘There is, said he, in that place something like a table, and angels sitting round it; and there is one taller than the rest who seems to be teaching the others; but I can’t hear what he says.’ One day he said, ‘I see a river, over which I am to pass, and two angels standing on the other side, ready to receive me.’ Being quite overpowered he cried out, ‘O, what’s a coming!’ Then panting, as for breath, he called his mother to come and see too. Then with his eyes fixt upward, with a deep solemnity he said many times, ‘What do I see!—What do I see!—O, what do I see!—I see the gates of heaven!—They stand wide open!—How glorious! O, how glorious! Why, they are brighter than gold!—Brighter than the most fine gold.—And there stands a woman in white.’ One present said, Who is she like? He answered, ‘I do not know; but she is a large, tall woman,* in a white dress; but O, mam! how much whiter than any thing here on earth, you cannot think! And I see Isaac and Polly too! O, how pretty they look! How bright Polly shines! And now, said he, I am going over that river, and see such a beautiful green pasture beyond it as I cannot describe!’
Another time he mentioned a river so clear that the clearest glass on earth was not so bright. This he told them was in heaven, and that he must be washed in it. With the sight of this river he seemed quite ravished: saying, ‘I am washed! I have on that white robe! I am whiter than snow.[6] And now, said he, to his Uncle, what do I stay for!’ Then throwing open his arms, he said, ‘O, I long to be gone! Why do I stay! Nobody can think what pain I feel! Why do I stay!’ His Uncle said, Perhaps there is more to be done in thee. ‘No, said he, Christ hath washed me! I am whiter than snow!’ But perhaps, continued his Uncle, there is yet something for thee to speak. With that he seemed quite content. After lying still sometime he seemed afresh overpowered, and said, ‘Call my mam, that she may see too.’ Then, as if just swallowed up with the power of God, he said, ‘O, the glory!—O, the glory!—Don’t you see!’ They answered, No; what is it like? After lying silent some moments he said, ‘Why ten thousand, thousand!—thousand instruments of music, sweeter than I ever heard! O, this is most glorious of all! He then for three hours believed he was out of the body: and thought he was actually there; and said, ‘It is time now for this bit of clay to go down to D—ly’[7]  (their parish church.) During these three hours he complained of no pains; but afterwards though he found them in a measure return; yet he was quite calm, waiting for the happy moment. Soon after, with a low voice, he said, ‘There is the most glorious place of all! and I am going up the ladder into it!’ and then, in a few moments stepped into eternity, and took possession of the glory prepared for him in the presence of God.
March 22, 1785.
Transcription of the Manuscript Edition of this Account, forthcoming.



[1] The manuscript edition of this work is at MARC: MAM Fl. 11/5. Although Mary Fletcher constructed the narrative for publication, the account was related to her by David and Nancy Onions, who, the manuscript indicates, are the uncle and ‘mother-in-law’ respectively referred to in the account. A transcript of the original manuscript will be added to the site in the near future. Mrs Fletcher must have sent her account almost immediately, for in John Wesley’s letter to her, dated 2 April 1785, he wrote, ‘The account of Michael Onions is very remarkable and may be of use to the public.’ JW to MF, 2 April 1785, LJW, 7:264. He published the letter in the Arminian Magazine in the October issue of that year.

[2] Michael Onions was born in Dawley, a parish along Madeley’s northern border, and baptized on 28 February 1768. He was the son of Thomas and Susannah Onions. See Dawley Parish Registers at SRO.

[3] Given his young age the reference is probably to his father’s second wife (i.e. his step mother), or perhaps the wife of his uncle with whom, it appears from this narrative, he probably lived. For this use of ‘mother-in-law’ and the fluidity of kinship terminology in the eighteenth century, see Naomi Tadmor, Family and Friends in Eighteenth-Century England: Household, Kinship, and Patronage (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001),154.

[4] Cf. Psa. 19:10.

[5] Mrs Fletcher’s description here serves at least a dual literary purpose, and reveals an important aspect of evangelical spirituality in the period. In the first instance, her notice that Onions was untrained in his expressions of his experiences gives credibility to the experience in its own right, for it would thus be independent of the influence of others, suggesting a truly numinous experience. In the second place, given that she was writing for evangelical purposes in a Methodist periodical, her notice of Onions’s spiritual inexperience up to this point rhetorically emphasized the joys available even to the newest of converts. Mary Fletcher commonly read spiritual biographies (following the pattern suggested by John Wesley) to those in attendance at her religious meetings, and it is likely that this biography was no exception. Also, her mention that he was not well-read in scripture subtly suggests that although his numinous experience was extraordinary, it was by no means unbiblical, and indeed, had Onions been versed in biblical devotion, he would, it is implied, have found words to describe his experience easily enough. On Mary Fletcher’s own thoughts on dreams, visions, numinous experiences, and communion between the living and saints now departed, see Moore, LMF; Mary Fletcher, Thoughts on Communion with Happy Spirits (Birmingham, William Rickman King, n.d.)[the manuscript editions of this work are at MARC: MAM Fl. 12/2/10and 12/3/2]; D. R. Wilson, ‘D.R. Wilson, ‘ “Thou Shal[t] Walk With Me in White”: Afterlife and Vocation in the Ministry of Mary Bosanquet Fletcher’, Wesley and Methodist Studies 1 (2009), 71-85.

 On dreams and dreaming in the Methodist tradition in the eighteenth century, with special attention given to Mary Bosanquet Fletcher, see Phyllis Mack, Heart Religion in the British Enlightenment: Gender and Emotion in Early Methodism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 219-60; on dreams, dreaming, visions, etc. in eighteenth-century religion, see Ann Taves, Fits, Trances, and Visions: Experiencing Religion and Explaining Experience from Wesley to James (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999).

* [This footnote is Mary Fletcher’s] His own mother was a large and tall woman, who died before he could remember: her last words were, ‘I must go and meet Jesus.’

[This footnote is Mary Fletcher’s] Two children died a little before: the boy was killed in a pit; Polly died very happy since I came here.

[6] Cf. Psa. 51:7.

[7] i.e. Dawley Parish.

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