Susanna Wesley – Mother of Methodism
By Anne Adams
As a wife and mother in a small 18th century English parish Susanna Wesley herself received little recognition for how she managed her household, raised and educated more than a dozen children and coped with a sometimes impecunious, idealistic and occasionally difficult clergyman husband. Yet from her personal influence and loving home came a son who would experience a spiritual awakening and use that inspiration to begin a ministry that would fill a void in the national spiritual life and also develop into a world wide church. Indeed, it might be said that the movement called Methodism had its foundations in the home of Susanna Wesley.
Born on January 20, 1669, as the daughter of a London pastor and the youngest of 25 children, Susanna Annesley was quite familiar with both a clergyman’s household and large families.
Seven years before Susanna was born the Church of England asserted its supremacy over the other English Protestant “Non-Conformist” or “Dissenting” churches. With the 1662 Act of Uniformity, all Church of England ministers were required to support the Book of Common Prayer or be forced out of their parishes and banned from preaching in an Anglican pulpit. When some 2000 refused they were forced from their parishes, homes and university positions leaving many to make a living by teaching, writing or preaching where they could.
Susanna was educated at home, with her lessons supplemented by the intellectual atmosphere of her father’s many scholarly visitors. One of these was the son of a Dissenting minister, Samuel Wesley, then a student.
Born in 1662, Samuel had come from a background of poverty since his Dissenting father had been deprived of his parish. However, after much thought Samuel decided to affiliated with the Church of England and because of that decision he was able to attend Oxford University where he lived on an extremely limited budget with little luxury.
Samuel Wesley was ordained in 1689 and he and Susanna, who had also decided to affiliate with the Anglican Church, were married soon after when she was 20 and he was 28.
As a new clergyman Samuel would encounter a national spiritual apathy for English religious devotion was at an all time low. Many had developed a belief in Deism, seeing God as a withdrawn and disinterested Creator and devotion to God had been replaced by cold logic and church services had become dull and dry. Following his ordination and marriage, Samuel served other parishes before 1696 when he came to Epworth in the North Lincolnshire area, the church he would serve most of his life. Also during this time Susanna had had seven children in those seven years, three of who died.
The Epworth area was primarily rural in economy and in mindset, and for Samuel as a city minded scholar it proved difficult. He was a rigid and moralistic pastor and some parishioners responded with occasional hostility. Samuel also lacked business sense so it was left up to Susanna to manage the household and business expenses – and all with no word of criticism for Samuel.
More children were born in the next few years, but many did not survive. For Susanna, “churching” – the Prayer Book’s “Service of Thanksgiving Following Childbirth” – was an annual occasion. Ten of Susanna’s eventual nineteen children lived to maturity, making for a large family to raise and educate while she carried out all her other household responsibilities. Yet Susanna accomplished it well and often with only just servant.
One scholar described the Wesley children as “a cluster of bright, vehement, argumentative boys and girls, living by a clean and high code, and on the plainest fare; but drilled to soft tones, to pretty formal courtesies; with learning as an ideal, duty as an atmosphere and fear of God as law.”
However, Samuel and Susanna were both strong characters each with definite opinions and while they were devoted to each other there were occasions when they had marital difficulties. For example, one time royal politics entered their home life and caused a separation.
Susanna was a strong supporter of the Stuart King James who had been overthrown in 1688 and replaced by William, his Dutch son-in-law. In 1702 when in family prayers Samuel prayed for King William Susanna refused to say “Amen.” She was, as her son John described it later, “inflexible”, and Samuel was equally so.
“Sukey,” he told her as he left home. “We must part for if we have two kings we must have two beds.” Susanna asserted that she would apologize if she was wrong but she felt to do so for expediency only would be a lie and thus a sin. Eventually after five months and the death of King William Samuel returned home and from their reconciliation was born John in 1703.
The Wesleys had many challenges over the years, again occasionally caused by some parishioners’ opposition to Samuel as pastor. At times some locals would demonstrate their displeasure by mocking the children, burning the family crops, damaging the rectory and abusing the family cows and dog. Then in 1705 when they disagreed with Samuel’s political choices a group of villagers harangued the parsonage all night in Samuel’s absence – shouting, drumming and firing guns and with Susanna just recovering from the birth of her sixteenth child. Unfortunately, the baby’s nurse was so exhausted after all the commotion she lapsed into a deep sleep and rolled over on the baby smothering it.
Another time a parishioner demanded immediate payment of a debt that Samuel could not pay so he had the pastor imprisoned. At home Susanna struggled to manage on a reduced budget while Samuel became self-appointed pastor to his fellow prisoners. The church eventually paid the debt and Samuel returned home.
Then in 1709 there occurred another tragedy that affected the family but also endangered John – then a small boy. On February 9, 1709 the Epworth rectory caught on fire and though John later considered it set by vindictive neighbors it could well have been accidental. With their home in flames the family scrambled to safety including Susanna who was expecting what would be her last child. However, when the family assembled they were missing one – six year old John. Then after they spotted him standing in a window, a neighbor lifted another man to his shoulders so the second man could snatch little John to safety just seconds before the roof fell in. John saw his deliverance as God’s work and for many years referred to himself as a literal “brand snatched from the burning.”
Yet though the family was safe they realized the fire had destroyed not just the house but also all the contents including family papers and Samuel’s library. The rectory was rebuilt but while it was under construction the family was separated by staying with various relatives.
To manage such a large household and properly educate her children Susanna established a definite routine for her household and family, aiming to help each child learn, mature and develop Christian character. At a time when severe physical punishment was a standard part of education Susanna’s policy was “strength guided by kindness.” She gave each child individual attention by purposely setting aside a regular time for each of them. Later John wrote his mother fondly remembering his special time with her.
In 1711 Samuel’s absence and Susanna’s attempts to meet the spiritual needs of her family caused another family difficulty. Samuel was attending a long church conference leaving his pulpit in charge of another minister, a Mr. Inman. However, the man proved a poor choice since his almost constant sermon topic was paying one’s debts when he owed many. Some saw this as a slap at Samuel.
Since there were no afternoon church services, Susanna began an evening family gathering where they sang psalms, prayed and Susanna read a short sermon from her husband’s library. It began with the family and the servants but soon word spread and others neighbors appeared, and soon there were too many for the parsonage. Susanna had written her husband of what she was doing, but then in his own letter when he perhaps saw the services as competition, Mr. Inman complained to Samuel. His claim to Samuel was that such irregular services could cause criticism or even scandal for the church. For while women have been ordained in many Methodist churches for more than 50 years at that time the idea of a woman having any part in a worship service – even in her own home – was unheard of. Samuel suggested to Susanna that she have someone else read the sermons, but still Mr. Inman complained and finally Samuel told Susanna to discontinue the meetings. However, she declined as she described how the meetings were a genuine and effective ministry to those who attended and that Mr. Inman was about the only one who‘d objected. The services continued.
As his health slowly failed, Samuel continued to work on his life long project – a book called “Dissertations on the Book of Job.” Though Samuel hoped its publication would assure his family’s financial security it did not prove so. Written in Latin, the ponderous and scholarly account did not appeal to the average reader. Samuel could possibly have been more successful by writing shorter and more popular pieces, but he preferred to devote his talents to what he considered a high level of scholarship.
After Samuel passed away on April 5, 1735 when John had paid his debts Susanna had very little. For the rest of her life she would depend on her children.
Soon after with Susanna settled in a daughter’s home, John and Charles Wesley joined a group of colonists settling in Georgia. For some time they had been searching for spiritual fulfillment and through various experiences in America and after their return to England they finally found the peace and assurance they sought. Their conversion not only fulfilled them spiritually but also inspired them to begin the preaching and outreach that would be a part of their new ministry, dubbed Methodism after a “methodical” religious routine John had developed while at Oxford. In 1740 John moved Susanna into the center of this new ministry in London, a former cannon factory known as the Foundery. The large building held chapels, a school, a clinic, and living quarters for John and other workers. Susanna would spend her final days among loving people involved in a new ministry and with her other children nearby. Then as the end neared and with her family around her, she instructed them: “Children, as soon as I am released sing a psalm of praise to God.” She passed away July 23, 1742.
Susanna’s place in Christian history is indeed based on what her sons accomplished but it could be said to have been her example and influence that helped them to do what they did. Susanna’s best legacy was indeed her children, particularly John. For it was in the Epworth parsonage that he acquired the focused leadership that would empower and inspire the man who “represents the force which has most profoundly affected English history,” as one scholar put it, referring to the 18th century.
Indeed, a great legacy from a woman who expressed a simple desire: “I am content to fill a little space if God be glorified.”
Currently on the staff of St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Houston, Anne is a freelance writer/teacher. She has published devotionals, fiction and non-fiction, and her book “Brittany, Child of Joy” was issued from Broadman Press in 1985. She holds two degrees in history and has taught on the junior college level.