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Joseph Francis Fletcher papers

Identifier: MS-27

Scope and Contents

The Joseph Francis Fletcher Papers comprise two groups of materials: correspondence and subject files. The correspondence files consist almost entirely of professional letters written to Dr. Fletcher throughout his career as a theologian and ethicist, including numerous letters from members of the general public reacting to his most famous and controversial book, Situation Ethics (1966). The subject materials are presented in various categories, often assembled by Dr. Fletcher himself. These include correspondence and related items on the Chinese Revolution, the Episcopal Church magazine "The Churchman," the Bishop Paddock Fund, and the World Peace Movement. Other materials include notes and case studies related to ethical issues presented in his courses and seminars, numerous texts of Fletcher's lectures and sermons, manuscript drafts, and reprints of articles by Fletcher and others. In addition, the subject collections include miscellaneous newspaper clippings, reviews of Fletcher's publications, programs and brochures from his speaking engagements, and scrapbooks containing examples of all types of items assembled by Fletcher early in his career. Rounding out the collection are a series of interview transcripts made near the end of his life, and a folder containing autobiographical essays.


  • Creation: 1931 - 1991

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Biographical / Historical

Joseph Francis Fletcher (1905-1991), a theologian and medical ethicist, social activist and scholar, was a life-long advocate for humane solutions to the problems of modern life. Fletcher spent the majority of his professional career at Cambridge, Massachusetts' Episcopal Theological School, where he held the Robert Treat Paine chair of Social Ethics from 1944 to 1970. Subsequently, he joined the University of Virginia Medical School faculty as the University's first professor of medical ethics (1970-1983). With medical school dean Thomas Harrison Hunter, Fletcher established the Program in Biology and Society and the Medical Center Hour lecture series. Both were early expressions of the critical importance of the humanities to the practice of medicine, and both innovations later bore fruit in the University's Center for Biomedical Ethics, founded in 1988, and the Center for Humanism in Medicine in 1990. The Medical Center Hour continues to bring challenging weekly discussions to the University and on-line communities.

Fletcher began childhood in New Jersey, but as a nine-year-old boy moved with his sister and mother to his maternal family's home in West Virginia. There he remained for a decade, completing high school in three years instead of the usual four, and at age 16 started three years of coursework at the state university at Morgantown. Initially, West Virginia University denied him a diploma because of his radical thinking, though ultimately the faculty relented and granted Fletcher an A.B. degree five years later, in 1929. Always an independent-minded young man, Fletcher had worked one high-school summer for the Consolidation Coal Company, management side, and the next as a trapper boy in the shafts of a small mining operation; from these experiences he developed a lasting sympathy for mine workers and a deep commitment to the struggle to unionize. This era of the late teens and early twenties was a period of great radicalism -- analogous, Fletcher later stated, to the period of social transformations of the 1960s -- and young Joseph read voraciously much of the literature critical of unregulated capitalism, in addition to working on the education staff of the United Mine Workers' local, and volunteering with the Sacco-Vanzetti Defense Committee -- the bellwether legal case pitting liberal critique against conservative patriotism.

During this period of intellectual development and activism, Fletcher became convinced that "Christianity . . . had a tremendous imperative for social justice," and that the social change he sought could be achieved through the church. ("Memoir," p.7). In consequence, the nineteen-year-old enrolled at Berkeley Divinity School, an Episcopal seminary then located in Middletown, Connecticut. After completing his coursework, Fletcher undertook a multi-year research project for the National Council of the Episcopal Church, which led to the publication of his first book, The Church and Industry (1930), co-authored with Spencer Miller. Fletcher received his Masters of Divinity in 1929, along with a prestigious fellowship for further study: he took courses in economic history at Yale, then traveled abroad to study at the London School of Economics with Richard H. Tawney, a scholar likewise intrigued by the church's potential for social reform.

Fletcher and his wife, Forrest Hatfield -- whom he had met at West Virginia University and married before receiving his divinity degree -- returned to the States from England in 1932. They moved to Raleigh, North Carolina, where Fletcher taught at Saint Mary's Junior College, and proceeded to enrage the local bishop by involving himself with the Piedmont Organizing Council of the United Textile Workers' Union. At the close of his third academic year there, Fletcher resigned and took a double appointment as Dean of Saint Paul's Cathedral in Cincinnati, Ohio and first Dean of a new Graduate School of Applied Religion. Fletcher remained in Cincinnati nine years, from 1936 to 1944, directing this certificate program for seminarians and junior clergy. The curriculum centered on the practical aspects of community services organization and the design of outreach programs. While in Cincinnati, Fletcher also taught social ethics at Hebrew Union College, and courses in labor history for the University of Cincinnati, the local Cincinnati unions, and, in Mississippi, for the Southern Tenant Farmers' Union organizing project, where he was twice subjected to beatings, not only for the labor work itself but also because of the union's interracial staff and membership. The virulent anti-communists of this and later eras viewed Fletcher with profound mistrust -- particularly when he advocated substantive meetings of both sides -- though he pithily summed up his life-long position by stating, "[the] war against fascism is a war against dictatorship, whether of the left or right . . . of the proletariat or the racists." ("Memoir," p. 19).

The stimulating intellectual atmosphere of Cambridge, Massachusetts drew Fletcher to the Episcopal Theological School (ETS) as World War II was ending. Here his scholarship of ethics matured, as represented in numerous publications -- seven more books and well over a hundred papers. "My heart was in the front line," Fletcher stated, but academic life became his dominant zone of activity. ("Memoir," p. 11). Yet for all the theoretical contemplation, Fletcher remained quintessentially a pragmatist, and his method of pedagogy using case studies constantly recalled the discussion to its most practical elements. This concern with the particular over the universal revolutionized ethical studies. Fletcher argued that the simple charge to love one's neighbor as one's self -- the Christian ethic of love -- supplanted orthodoxy and conventional moral values, a notion as new and radical as it was original to Christian thought. "My main principle," Fletcher wrote, was "that concern for human beings should come before moral rules, and that particular cases and situations are more determinant of what we ought to do than 'universal' norms are." ("Memoir," p. 24). This attitude underlies all of his writing, but above all exemplifies his two most influential books: Morals and Medicine (1954), and Situation Ethics (1966).

Today scholars consider Morals and Medicine the inaugural work of bioethics. Fletcher believed it to be the first contemporary treatment of medical ethical issues developed outside the boundaries of the decalogue, that is, without reliance on the biblical ten commandments so crucial to orthodox theology. Framed in terms of human rights, Morals and Medicine addresses the patient's right to be informed truthfully of medical diagnoses, to control conception -- including use of artificial insemination or sterilization -- and to employ euthanasia. Fletcher's arguments overturned the traditional paternalistic approach of medical practice and challenged physicians and patients to confront moral questions directly, ultimately rejecting the artificial isolation of science from ethics.

With Situation Ethics, Fletcher refined his thesis still further, and crafted an approach to ethical problems of all types. The book was an instant best-seller "about ideas whose time had come," he modestly stated.("Recollections," number 126). No less controversial for all its popularity, Situation Ethics also earned rebukes from the doctrinaire and frightened. Fletcher engaged their objections in The Situation Ethics Debate(1968) and in countless lectures and conversations, but the irony was not lost on him that much opposition came from religious communities. Fletcher's consequentialist resolve never wavered, and he began to find in humanism a more apposite and logical framework than Christian faith and theology. Shortly before his retirement from ETS, Fletcher left the church, "to keep faith with myself, without anger and with lots of thanks to [the church] for many things." ("Memoir," p. 27).

Thus Fletcher began another absorbing career, as first professor of medical ethics at the University of Virginia Medical School. "As I used to tell people, nobody could believe how much I learned after I was sixty-five years old," he stated of his characteristic energy. ("Memoir," p. 28) Besides developing new courses, pursuing an active traveling lecture schedule, publishing numerous papers, and holding additional visiting professorships at the University of Texas and at Australia's Monash University, Fletcher wrote two new books, The Ethics of Genetic Control (1974) and Humanhood: Essays in Biomedical Ethics (1979), bringing the total to ten. The Hastings Center recognized his innovative work in biomedical ethics with the Beecher Award in 1981, and the national medical honor society, Alpha Omega Alpha elected him in 1982 an honorary fellow, the only scholar from the humanities to be so recognized in the organization's history. Fletcher retired from the University of Virginia in 1983, though the University's Board of Visitors annually extended to him the honorary title "visiting scholar" until his death in 1991.


  1. "Memoir of an Ex-Radical," Joseph Francis Fletcher Papers (20: 29).
  2. "Recollections," Joseph Francis Fletcher Papers (20: 31).


15.75 Linear Feet

Language of Materials



The collection comprises 35 boxes. Boxes 1 to 15 contain correspondence, arranged chronologically, one letter to a folder. Boxes 16 to 31 contain related materials, ordered by an alphabetical sequence of subject headings, as follows: Chinese Revolution, Churchman, Ethical Issues, Financial, Humor, Interview Transcripts, Lectures, Manuscripts, Memoirs, Miscellaneous Clippings, Notes, Paddock Fund, Programs and Brochures, Reprints-Fletcher, Reprints-Miscellaneous, Reviews, Sermons, and World Peace Movement. Within each of these 18 subject headings, items are organized chronologically wherever possible. Boxes 32 and 33 contain oversize materials: scrapbooks assembled by Fletcher and a small collection of photographs, placques, and posters. Boxes 34 and 35 contain additional materials: manuscripts, miscellaneous documents, and student papers.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Mary Faith Marshall, Ph.D., donated the papers to the library in 2001.

Physical Description

16.5 linear feet; thirty-three 5" x 10.5" x 15.5" manuscript boxes and two 13" x 11" x 16.5" boxes


Processed by:
Historical Collections Staff
Web version of the finding aid funded in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Processing Information

Processing was completed in 2006 by Henry K. Sharp of the Historical Collections and Services Department.

Box 18: Folder 8 was removed from the collection in 2017.

A Guide to the Joseph Francis Fletcher Papers, 1931-1991
Claude Moore Health Sciences Library
Language of description
Script of description
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Language of description note
Web version of the finding aid funded in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Repository Details

Part of the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library Repository

Claude Moore Health Sciences Library
1300 Jefferson Park Avenue
P.O. Box 800722
Charlottesville Virginia 22908-0722 United States