Women’s History Month: March
“Mothers in Israel”: Susanna Wesley
“The Wesleys were indeed a most unusual family. A family that can produce two men of genius like John and Charles Wesley, a scholar of the stature of Samuel Wesley Jr and seven daughters whose minds were equally brilliant, must be admired and, where possible, emulated.” ~Frederick E Maser
This item was initially posted in my “Women in Ministry—Preachers” and fit in nicely immediately following Phoebe Palmer’s Wesleyanism. However, I moved it because something needs to be said about sources. The most readily available online information—Wikipedia (unreliable, because it is unsigned: you never know who wrote it) and other nonhistorical websites claiming authority—have mangled Susanna’s profile and maligned her husband (someone needs to go back and do her homework). The history of the Wesley family goes back a long way. Over the centuries tons of paper and miles of library shelves have been devoted to handing down their story. As a child, thanks to my dad’s library, I was exposed to biographies of famous Christians like John Calvin, Martin Luther, George Whitefield, and John Wesley. Before I even attended kindergarten, I knew of Epsworth and the Wesleys. A person can do better than the internet. Go to a library or Christian bookstore and get some hard copy. Preferably, something written by historians or ecclesiastics who know what they’re talking about—a writer learned and authoritative. Look for credentials. The older the book, the better. The last thing a reader needs is revisionist history! Don’t accept any (feminist, unlearned—not necessarily redundant) written account that sympathizes with Susanna at the expense of her husband.
Susanna Wesley (1669-1742) was born twenty-fourth of twenty-five children, in England, to Dissenter Dr Samuel Annesley, and his wife, Mary White. (Imagine if they had used birth control: we’d never have known Susanna or her son!) As a teenager—revealing her spunk—she voluntarily left her parents’ church and joined the Church of England, where she, nineteen, met and married twenty-something Samuel Wesley (1662-1735). The couple had nineteen children, half of whom survived to adulthood; of the surviving children only three were male: Samuel Jr, John, and Charles.
Susanna’s husband, Samuel Sr, was an accomplished scholar, writer, graduate of both Oxford and Cambridge, and ordained priest in the Anglican Church. Susanna, a pastor’s wife, was a vivacious personality, and it would be incorrect to suggest that Susanna suffered hardship because of spousal neglect (some of the nonsense I’ve encountered online). Samuel had his hands full trying to support the family, write, and keep up with all that was going on at home. If anything, it was a marriage of equals—soulmates—and the Wesleys, both Dissenters turned Anglican, were a lively pair.
To understand the dynamics going on in the couple’s dynamic marriage, one would almost have to be a student of British history and understand the politics of the era. Samuel’s grandfather, Bartholomew Wesley (1596-1680), was a non-Conformist. He refused to use the authorized prayer book, to accept the Thirty-nine Articles, or to swear a loyalty oath. As a result, Bartholomew was forced out of his parish; but a graduate of Oxford University, with studies in theology and medicine, he had no fear of finding a job. He became morally independent from everything except character and conscience.
Bartholomew’s son John (1636-1678), Samuel’s dad, was converted to Christ as a schoolboy and was a Puritan by instinct. He earned his AB and AM at Oxford. Though never officially ordained, he became vicar of Winterborne Whitechurch (1658). When the Stuarts were restored (1662), John, a Dissenter [Puritan] was forced out of his parish. He was charged with neglecting the Book of Common Prayer and with treason because he spoke against the monarch. He was subsequently convicted, imprisoned, and released. Unrepentant, he died at age forty but was denied burial in hallowed ground. He left behind two sons: Matthew, a physician, and Samuel, a minister. Samuel was the husband of Susanna and father of Samuel Jr, John, and Charles.
Samuel, unlike his dad, was pro-Anglican and anti-Dissenter. He too attended Oxford University; he also published poems and articles in London magazines and was ordained an Anglican priest. He took his AB at Oxford and his AM at Cambridge. He married Susanna Annesley, daughter of a Dissenter, the year of the Glorious Revolution (1688), leading to the ascension of William and Mary (1689). That same year, Susanna’s dad, Samuel Annesley—as Samuel’s dad, John, had been—was forced out of his parish, St Giles, Cripplegate, because he was a Dissenter, and Samuel took the curate of St Botolph, Aldersgate. Afterward, Samuel also served as curate at Newington Butts, Surrey, and as a Navy chaplain, and wrote for a gazette.
Samuel was known as a king’s man, meaning he supported the monarch. His loyalty to the Crown attracted the attention of the Marquis of Normanby, who became his patron. Normanby gave him the parish at Epsworth, at £130 per annum, where he stayed almost fifty years, until his death. Epsworth was a mere village on the Isle of Axholme, cut off from Lincolnshire by five rivers. Samuel was a traditional Anglican clergyman, schooled in canon law, rite, ritual, ceremony, and liturgy. He imposed a rigid penitential discipline on his parish. Simultaneously he pastored other churches, such as South Ormsby parish, to which he was appointed (1691).
The patronage system (ecclesiastical benefices), Samuel’s writings, and his respective duties required frequent trips to London. He published The Life of Christ in Verse (1693), eventually Commentary on the Book of Job, which was many years in the making, and other writings, which reveal his Renaissance mind. He was familiar with classical and biblical scholarship, church history, scientific inquiry, British antiquity, history, architecture, geography, philosophy, literature, linguistics, and philology. He was also a founding member of the Society for the Reformation of Manners [Morals] (1691), whose aims were the suppression of profanity, immorality, and vice.
Samuel and Susanna differed on politics. Susanna refused to accept William of Orange as rightful sovereign. When Samuel prayed for the king (1702), Susanna, claiming liberty of conscience, refused to say Amen. When she justified her rebellion, Samuel threatened to desert parish and family. According to Susanna, he went to London “at Easter where he designs to try if he can get a Chaplain’s place in a Man of War.” Locked into the patronage system, Samuel had no choice but to kowtow to authority—something, evidently, Susanna did not understand or appreciate. By mid-summer Susanna was on the point of foreswearing her beliefs so as to avoid “the great many evils which would inevitably befall her” if she refused to bend to his will. Though Samuel was vowing never to return, Providence intervened. A clergyman prevailed upon him, he retraced his steps, and quickly resumed married life. Before the year was out, they’d had another child: John Wesley (1703-1791), the father of Methodism.
These years of married life between two strong-willed persons were interesting, if not comical at times. The barn collapsed (1701), the house caught fire (1702), the flax crop failed (1704), and a mob attacked the rectory (1705). Samuel borrowed £3 from a man to finance a trip to London to attend convocation. When Samuel refused to back the man’s candidate, he called in the loan, landing Samuel in debtors prison for three months. Actually, I’m told, the Wesleys were perpetually in debt and somewhat dependent on the charity of friends. Though today’s comfortable biographers reason the Wesleys had no idea how to manage money, I suspect such a conclusion is anachronistic. More likely, there was no money to manage: the Wesleys were just plain poor. That a person could go to prison for owing £3 should reveal the scarcity of cash.
When the barn caught fire (1709), the Wesleys “slept the sleep of the just.” No one awoke until the whole house was ablaze and timbers were falling. Samuel Jr, an undergrad at Oxford, was away at school. Samuel Sr discovered he’d left the house keys in his bedroom and had to climb back via blazing stairs to retrieve them before he could open the front door and exit the building. Neighbors smashed the dining room window and retrieved nurse and infants. Susanna, eight months pregnant, tried three times unsuccessfully to pass through the flames until she recalled “When thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned; neither shall the flame kindle upon thee” (Isaiah 43:2). She and some of the children waited in the garden.
Meanwhile young John, the father of Methodism, was still in the burning rectory. Twice Samuel Sr tried to get him and was twice beaten back by the flames. Certain John was dead, Samuel Sr knelt in prayer for his soul. The child then climbed up to the window and cried to those in the yard. Hands reached him as the roof fell in. A charred page from the Bible blew across the rectory garden. All they could make out was “Give up all you have and take up your cross and follow me” (Luke 9:23). Samuel Sr said, “Let us give thanks to God! He has given me my eight children: let the house go, I am rich enough.” Susanna was convinced that God had especially chosen this child, John, to do God’s work. To her he was “a brand plucked from the burning” (Amos 4:11).
Susanna, an intellectual, was not uneducated—another lamentable accusation made by unlearned web writers. In that day girls may not have been formally educated at Oxford or Cambridge, but they were certainly educated at home, as the opening featured quote suggests. Susanna was widely read and enjoyed the poetry of George Herbert and other known writers of her time and served as a model for women’s ability as preacher, theologian, and writer. Besides her letters and meditations, she wrote commentaries on the Apostles Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments. A student of the empiricist John Locke, she had her own philosophy of child care. She believed a child should “have nothing it cries for, absolutely nothing.” The parent or caregiver should “make him do as he is bid, if you have to whip him ten times running to effect it.” “The first thing to be done is conquer their will … their stubbornness.” “No girl [should] be taught to work until she can read very well” in a day when only about one-quarter of women could even write their name. Her sons, Samuel Jr, John, and Charles, were all Christian scholars, like their dad, but they deferred to their mother’s judgment as long as she lived.
Samuel Sr, who did not hold Susanna in such high intellectual esteem, was constantly surprised by her independence. He learned that during one of his routine absences (1712), she was holding conventicles: acts of worship proscribed by the Established Church (except by registered Dissenters) and therefore illegal. Epsworth villagers (numbering more than a hundred) began to attend her rectory kitchen instead of the parish church, though she was breaking the law of church and state. Further, it was improper for women to preside over meetings. And to compound all this, Susanna was a preacher’s wife! She should stay in her place.
Letters flew back and forth between them. Samuel reasonably asked her to cease and desist, but she was trenchant: “As to its looking particular, I grant it does; and so does almost everything that is serious, or that may anyway advance the glory of God, or the salvation of souls, if it be performed out of a pulpit, or in the way of common conversation; because, in our corrupt age, the utmost care and diligence have been used to banish all discourse of God or spiritual concerns out of society, as if religion were never to appear out of the closet, and we were to be ashamed of nothing so much as of professing ourselves to be Christians.”
She explained to her husband that she had the responsibility for the children’s religious education in their father’s absence, prayer and Bible reading, family devotions. So, a “few neighbors” had joined in. Since they wished to hear the Word of the Lord, dare she refuse them? Let a man read? Who? Not one man among the villagers could read without spelling a good part of the words. How would that edify the body?
“I am a woman, so I am also a mistress of a large family. And though the superior charge of the souls contained in it lies upon you, as head of the family, and as their minister, yet in your absence I cannot but look upon every soul you leave under my care as a talent committed to me, under a trust, by the great Lord of all the families of heaven and earth. And if I am unfaithful to Him, or to you, in neglecting to improve these talents, how shall I answer unto Him when He shall command me to render an account of my stewardship?” …
“I thought it my duty to spend some part of the day in reading to and instructing my family, especially in your absence, when, having no afternoon service, we have so much leisure for such exercises; and such time I esteemed spent in a way more acceptable to God than if I had retired to my own private devotions. This was the beginning of my present practice; other people coming in and joining us was purely accidental” ….
“With those few neighbours who then came to me I discoursed more freely and affectionately than before. I chose the best and most awakening sermons we had, and I spent more time with them in such exercises. Since this our company has increased every night, for I dare deny none that asks admittance. Last Sunday I believe we had over two hundred, and yet many went away for want of room. But I never durst positively presume to hope that God would make use of me as an instrument in doing good; the farthest I ever durst go was, ‘It may be: who can tell? With God all things are possible.”
Samuel’s ego was bruised. She was insubordinate. “Persons of influence” were demanding the conventicles end. Since they were illegal and she could get in trouble, she could at least, to spare the family, keep it on the quiet. He wrote: “I need not tell you the consequences if you determine to put an end to our meeting …. If you do, after all, think fit to dissolve this assembly, do not tell me that you desire me to do it, for that will not satisfy my conscience; but send me your positive command, in such full and express terms as may absolve me from all guilt and punishment for neglecting this opportunity of doing good, when you and I shall appear before the great and awful tribunal of our Lord Jesus Christ.” In the end, she accepted her duty to bow to the wishes of her husband—”no matter how unreasonable.”
No doubt, her stubbornness left an indelible mark upon her sons. Later, when John was away at school, his letters to his dad were questions about scholarship, texts, and authorities; his letters to his mother, about faith, morals, money, and health. When he grew his hair long like a girl’s, Susanna suggested a barber: John wouldn’t waste the money. Susanna wanted him to take orders and become a curate.
As he aged and health declined, Samuel Sr continued to work on his dissertations on the Book of Job. He was hoping to secure a publisher and provide the family financial security; it didn’t happen. He passed away (1735), John settled his debts, and Susanna moved in with one of her married daughters until John found her a place (1740) in a former cannon factory, the Foundery, London, a large renovated building that now housed chapel, school, clinic, and living quarters. She stayed here until her death two years later. She was buried at Bunhill Fields, London; Samuel had been buried at St Andrews Church, Epsworth. She was seven years younger than her husband and outlived him seven years, thus dying at the same age.
“Whatever weakens your reason, impairs the tenderness of your conscience, obscures your sense of God, takes off your relish for spiritual things, whatever increases the authority of the body over the mind, that thing is sin to you, however innocent it may seem in itself.” ~Susanna Wesley
Copyright © 2012 Alexandra Lee