Susanna Wesley – Mother Extraordinaire (1669-1742)
Luke 1:46-55, Romans 16:1-6
John Wesley was the remarkable leader of the Great Evangelical Awakening of 250 years ago. He was one of the most dominant figure of his century, and his influence was equal to that of any figure whether military or political of his age. His exploits are stunning. He and those who joined with him created a revolution in the spiritual life of the world. Like a Colossus he straddled Europe and the Americas and helped in the renewal of Christianity and helped changed the social policy of the Western world.
He had a brother named Charles Wesley. What a poet! He wrote over 9,000 poems, 27,000 stanzas, and 180,000 lines of poetry. He was one of England’s best and most prolific poets. His poems turned into hymns carried the great awakening throughout the singing world. Slip into any church of any kind, and scan the hymnbook. 200 years after his death, the sweet songs of Charles Wesley still undergird the worship of the church of Jesus Christ. He took the truths of Scripture and the Christian life, and put to music the things that matter most in life.
John and Charles had an older brother, of whom we hear less. His name was Samuel Wesley. He was a strong leader within the Church of England. He never joined the Methodist movement, but he blessed the wider church with his skill as a hymn writer and poet and teacher.
And then there were the girls. Emily was an expert in the writings of John Milton. Martha was a part of the greatest literary society of her age led by Samuel Johnson, and Hetty was a poet speaking three languages by the time she was 9.
Three remarkable men! Three remarkable women! And whenever the question arises, what was the driving force behind this unusual family, there are two answers. The first one is the pious one. God was the driving force behind these six siblings. Those less pious are quick to assert: “They may have had God as their father, but they also had Susanna Wesley as their mother!” And they quote the maxim “Behind every successful man there is a pushy woman” and they may not be far wrong. Because if the three sons and three daughters are remarkable, it is due in great part to the fact that their mother was one of the most remarkable mothers the world has ever seen.
Susanna Wesley, Mother Extraordinaire!
Susanna was the 25th child born to her parents. Her father was the well-known Rev. Samuel Annesley – the brilliant leader of the Dissenters in London. The Dissenters were the Puritans of the day. They were the Protestants who resisted the authority of the Anglican Church. They argued for the ideas of John Calvin to have more sway in the church.
Susanna spent her early years in an unusual home where ideas were debated vigorously at meal times. Their home was filled not only with children, but also with the leaders of the great debates of the day, and Susanna was free to jump in at will. As a teenager, she sharpened her skills in debate and widened out her understanding in that enriched home. She became adept at logic, philosophy, anatomy, French, Greek and Latin!
Then as a young teen of 13 years of age, she did the unthinkable! She had listened to the best Puritans argue against the Anglicans, and she decided to switch side. She became an Anglican. She had a mind of her own even this early in her journey.
In 1689, when she was 19 she married Samuel Wesley. It was romance of the first order. Samuel was a dreamer. A poet. A renegade. He too had been raised as a Dissenter like Susanna. He too had turned to Anglicanism against the wishes of his parents and was preparing to be ordained an Anglican Priest. No one was ever sure why each of them had made that shift. Maybe they liked the poetic beauty of the Church of England, more than the depressive ugliness of Oliver Cromwell’s Puritanism. Maybe Samuel loved Susanna and would rather switch than fight. Maybe it was teenage rebellion on the part of each. We do not know. But they became as committed to Anglicanism as their parents had been outspoken for the other side.
Samuel was intelligent. But Samuel was a fool. A very bright fool. A very romantic fool. A poetic fool. But a foolish man nonetheless. He became a minister of the Church of England, and loved the glamour of the life of a village priest with its close connections to the nobility of the age. He wrote poetry and dedicated it to royalty. He curried favour with those who could advance his career. Outside his village and outside his home, Samuel Wesley made quite an impression.
But back to Susanna. They were married to each other for 46 years. They stayed for 39 of those years in the parsonage of Epworth and raised their family. But I can’t say that they raised their family together. Samuel was a rather minor player in raising his children.
In 20 years Susanna had 19 children. Samuel stayed home long enough to conceive the children, then he was off doing his thing in important places like London, attending conferences, meeting with fellow writers, or secluded himself to do his writing. Sometimes he landed in debtor’s prison for non-payment of his obligations.
On one occasion he walked out of the house in rage at his wife, praying down curses on her head. Samuel was an Orangeman and supported King William of Orange, as the rightful King of England. Susanna was a Jacobite and supported King James II as the rightful King. One day, after Samuel had prayed in family worship for Good king William, Susanna refrained from saying “amen!” to his prayer. Samuel became aware of the deafening silence. He left the house shouting “If we must have 2 kings, we must have 2 beds!” He stayed away from home for several months. But upon his return they were reconciled, and 9 months later John Wesley was born.
As I have said, Samuel was not a family man. The children were a bit of a nuisance to Samuel. He loved being romantic. He hated being responsible. His salary at Epworth was fairly modest. But his life style was rather costly. He spent grocery money on travel and fine clothes and paper for the printer. Susanna had to make the best of a bad situation. Susanna was, for all intents and purposes, a single mother.
Of her nineteen children, only 10 survived infancy. 3 sons and 7 daughters. (John was her 15th child and Charles was her 18th child.) That meant that there were sad times in that family as accident and illness took its toll. There were sad times as that family faced poverty and hunger due to the irresponsibility of an absentee father. There were fearful times as more than once fire swept through the parsonage. There were terrifying times as mobs surrounded their house hurling insults and stones at the home of their absentee pastor, who could too easily rile them up and then run for cover.
But here is the amazing story of Susanna Wesley. She raised 7 daughters and 3 sons. And every one of them was uncommonly gifted. They were intelligent, they were godly, they were leaders in the Church of England and in the early Methodist movement. Every one of them had a profound and deep faith in God. But there is a sad note that pervaded the lives of her 10 children. Half of the children lived with very unhappy marriages.
The girls had been built on too high a scale to be able to live easily with the men they married. They had lived their whole lives in the liberating atmosphere of their home, where men and women, brothers and sisters were equal. Susanna treated all of her children as equally significant. Samuel did not. He knew his sons were capable young men. He just wanted to get rid of his daughters as fast as he could, and he thwarted their desires, and married them off to ill-fitted husbands.
In the light of such a divided home, what accounted for such gifted children? There is no debate in any one’s mind. Of course, some of their giftedness came from good genetics. Both Susanna and Samuel had come from smart families. But the universal opinion is that their usefulness was due to Susanna Wesley and her unusual method of raising children. She may rightly be called the Mother of the Public School and the Sunday School. (80 years before Robert Raikes started the Sunday School movement.)
This mother carried out an educational program for each of her children that gave them an ability to shape their world as few families ever had.
- Six hours a day of home school.
- One evening for each child in turn. (John was Thursday; Charles was Saturday)
- The older children were taught to teach the younger
- On the fifth birthday, each child was taught to read.
- She made sure her girls could read, before they could sew
- Read out loud the best books of the day.
- Because of the love of dialogue in the home, the children were treated as though they were thinking creatures.
When Samuel was away from home it fell to Susanna to lead Family devotions in the parsonage kitchen. The neighbours started dropping in to share in the event. Pretty soon she has up to 200 people turning up for family devotions. She notices that most of them were not going to church regularly, so she began reading her husband’s sermons to them and leading them in prayer. When Samuel who was away in London hears of this, he is furious. She had to defend the practice.
But to this mother, she was not engaged simply in education that lead to a vocation. She was intent upon making her children disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ. This mother wanted her children to be spiritually alive all their lives. She wanted them to be thorough Christians in every way. She wrote short commentaries on the Apostles Creed and the Ten Commandments, all to mentor her own children.
Even when her children were grown up and had left home, she wrote letters, that continued to educate and disciple them for God. Here is one letter to her son John who was away at University.
“My dear John, If you would judge the lawfulness or unlawfulness of pleasure, take this rule: Whatever weakens your reason, impairs your conscience, obscures your sense of God, or takes off the relish of spiritual things; in short, whatever increases the strength and authority of your body over your mind, that thing is sin to you, however innocent it may be in itself.”
This maverick mother was able to mentor 10 children who could swim against the tide of that age, and who could give leadership to the great renewal of the Christian Church.
After the death of Samuel her husband, Susanna moved to London and became central to the early evangelical awakening. She continued to advise her famous sons, like Jethro did to Moses. Some of the best features of the evangelical renewal of England and subsequent Methodism were due to her influence of her strong-minded sons.
One day John Wesley was away and there was no one on tap to bring the sermon to the gathered congregation. They waited and waited for John to arrive. Finally, one of Wesley’s helpers, Thomas Mawell, stepped to the pulpit and decided to share what was on his heart. It was a sermon! He preached with skill and passion. When John Wesley arrived the service was over and all had gone home. But he heard that a layman had taken liberties to preach behind the pulpit! That was for ordained ministers only! But Susanna is there. She warns John that he just might be thwarting something God was behind. She gave a glowing report of Thomas Mawell’s sermon, and John Wesley relented. This began the practice of sending out lay ministers across the length and breadth of England.
She lived until she was 72. But she died leaving her fingerprints on that entire century and beyond.
She was not only the mother of some remarkable children, but served as a midwife for the birthing of evangelical churches around the world. Thanks be to God for such a life.
So what can we learn from Susanna Wesley’s life?
The task of parenting is life’s most important task for any mother or father. Very few of us can change the world as the Wesley family did, but we are given opportunity to influence the lives closest to us. Every parent and every grandparent should take seriously the mentoring of their own children and grandchildren for God. Every family should plan to give spiritual guidance to their children, along with all the other things children need.
Let me also say a word about children and the church. Social agencies in our nation are telling us that children are more at risk than at any time in the recent past. Dysfunctional parents create dysfunctional homes, and our dysfunctional culture propels children on to an early adulthood without adult wisdom.
Helping children find God and find their way through life is one of the primary functions of God’s Church. Every time we baptize or dedicate a child to God, every time we establish a children’s Sunday School, every time we give attention to children’s moments in a worship service, operate a nursery or junior church or run a Vacation Bible School, we are doing the thing that Jesus commanded us to do: “Allow the little children to come to me, and do not hinder them, for of such is the Kingdom of God.”
Susanna Wesley worked with her children and helped change her world and ours. It would be wonderful if we did it for our generation of children and teens.