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Mother of Charles Wesley---The Calamities of Life

    

All the passages below are taken from Richard Foster’s book “Streams of Living Water,” published in 1999.

 

At Susanna's baptism her father, Dr Samuel Annesley, was asked how many children he had. He replied, "Two dozen, I believe, or a quarter of a hundred."1 The last guess was the correct one: Susanna was the twenty-fifth child of the renowned Puritan divine. Born 20 January 1669 in London, England, Susanna is my choice for a historical model of the Incarnational Tradition.

I chose Susanna because of her complete immersion in the details of daily life: finding God in the details and serving God through these same details. Susanna represents the millions of people who have learned to do ordinary things with a perception of their enormous value. Later in her life Susanna prayed, "Help me, Lord, to remember that religion is not to be confined to the church, or closet, nor exercised only in prayer and meditation, but that everywhere I am in Thy presence. So may my every word and action have a moral content. . . . May all the happenings of my life prove useful and beneficial to me. May all things instruct me and afford me an opportunity of exercising some virtue and daily learning and growing toward Thy likeness. . .. Amen."2 This prayer, by the by, is one of the finest expressions of the Incarnational Tradition you will ever find.

Susanna was a precocious child. Even though, as a female, she could not attend college, she received a substantial education at home. Her father, known for his intellectual acumen (M.A. and LL.D. from Queen's College, Oxford), took an active part in her education. Under his tutelage she studied logic, metaphysics, anatomy, French, and possibly Greek and Latin.3 She has been called "a theologian in short dresses",4 and for good reason. By the time she was thirteen she had carefully weighed the doctrinal debates between the Nonconformist groups (her father was known as "the St Paul of the Nonconformists") and Established Anglicanism and had decided in favour of the Church of England.

Whatever Samuel Annesley's inward anguish over his daughter's decision, he gave Susanna his blessing, and she remained a favourite daughter, receiving all his letters and papers upon his death.5

The next major event in Susanna's life was marriage, and the moment I tell you who she married, you will recognize the Susanna I am talking about. Not that her husband ever became well known---he did not---but two of their children were among the most famous figures in all of England. The two children I speak of were John and Charles Wesley, the founders of Methodism; their father was Samuel Wesley; and their mother---the Susanna of this story---was Susanna Wesley.

The diminutive Reverend Samuel Wesley had also left the Nonconformist cause in favour of the staid and stately Church of England, so their interest in one another is not surprising. They married at St Marylebone Parish Church, London, on 12 November 1688. Samuel became curate of two small parishes, rector at another, and chaplain on a man-o'-war ship for a brief time, but the bulk of his ministerial life was spent as rector of Epworth Parish Church in Lincolnshire. It was at Epworth that Susanna lived and worked and showed the world how sacred are the duties of living and working.

 

MOTHER AND EDUCATOR

Susanna was first and foremost a mother. For her, motherhood was a calling---a vocation---and she took up this work with a seriousness that is hard for people to comprehend today. The fact that she had nineteen children in a span of twenty years is, by itself, difficult for us moderns to wrap our minds around. To be sure, nine of these children did not survive infancy, but the remaining ten received a loving care that was special even in that day. And training---did they ever receive training! Susanna has received universal acclaim for the way she undertook to educate all of her children in a kind of "home schooling" environment.

This commitment to teaching her children was no small undertaking. She, in essence, set up a small private boarding school. All the children ---there were seven girls and three boys---on their fifth birthday were taught the alphabet, and then they started immediately on the first chapter of Genesis. From there the homemade syllabus included grammar, history, mathematics, geography, and theology. Samuel, the father, occasionally helped Susanna with lessons in the classics.

The teaching schedule went from nine in the morning until noon and from two in the afternoon until five. Despite all the ups and downs of their eventful life Susanna kept up this six-hour-a-day schedule for twenty years. Each day she would watch over her children doing their lessons, all the while nursing the newest baby, keeping the household accounts, writing her letters, doing her sewing. In addition, she met individually with each child once a week. John's tutorial was on Thursday nights, and all through his influential ministry he expressed his indebtedness for those Thursday night sessions. Susanna maintained this regimen, as I said, for twenty years, instilling into her children something of her rare personality in the process.

One aspect of that personality was an exceptional patience. Observing his wife teaching on one particular day, Samuel counted twenty times that she repeated a single piece of information. "I wonder at your patience," he commented; "you have told that child twenty times that same thing." Susanna, looking up, smiled and said, "If I had satisfied myself by mentioning it only nineteen times I should have lost all my labour. It was the twentieth time that crowned it."6

Another of her personality traits was an exceptional love of learning. That Susanna passed this trait on to her children is apparent in the zeal with which they pursued learning when they went out into the wider world after the "home schooling" years. The three brothers all went on to advanced degrees, John becoming a fellow of Lincoln College, Oxford. In that day, of course, formal college training was not an option for the girls. But even so, John said of his sister Emily that she was the best reader of Milton that he had ever heard. Another sister, Martha, became a respected member of the great Samuel Johnson's literary circle.

A third sister, Hetty, excelled even more. Samuel, recognizing this daughter's extraordinary qualities, gave her special training in the classics, and by the time she was nine, she was able to read Greek and Latin. She also possessed "an exquisite poetic genius", a gift that both she and her brother Charles inherited from their father. A contemporary described her as "Hetty of the high spirits, the clear eye, the springing gait; Hetty, the wittiest, cleverest, mirthfullest of them all".7

 

"THE CALAMITIES OF LIFE"

But everything, as I am sure you can imagine, was not all sweetness and light, and the mention of Hetty causes me to comment on the sadness, even tragedy, that struck Susanna and her household more than once.

Hetty was said to be the most attractive of the seven sisters. But Epworth was far from the most favourable environment for finding suitable young men. Hetty, in fact, once wrote these words to her sister Emilia:

 

Fortune has fixed thee in a place

Debarred of wisdom, wit and grace:

High births and virtue equally they scorn,

As asses dull on dunghills born ...8

 

There was one man, John Romley by name, who was interested in Hetty. Oxford educated, he was a schoolteacher in a nearby village. Unfortunately, he offended Samuel Wesley by ridiculing the way Samuel changed his Tory and Whig loyalties to fit the prevailing political wind. Samuel ordered Romley out of the house and forbade Hetty from ever associating with him. She obeyed. Soon after, however, a young lawyer came courting Hetty, and when Samuel forbade that relationship too, she ran off with the young man. Her lover had given her every assurance that they were running away to be married; but the next morning he was gone, and she soon found that she was pregnant. Hetty was devastated, and Samuel was scandalized. If not for Susanna's pleas, Samuel would have ordered Hetty out of the house immediately. With his only thought to avoid the disgrace of a fatherless child, Samuel arranged a marriage for Hetty with the first man they could find---an illiterate plumber who happened to be travelling through the countryside.9 The marriage was a complete disaster, of course, and Hetty suffered a lifetime for her one night of indiscretion. Compounding her sorrow, Hetty, the daughter who had showed such literary promise, was disowned by her father. They were never reconciled. 10

This incident shows the rigid, self-righteous side of Samuel Wesley. It was a dark character flaw in an otherwise faithful and diligent husband, father, and minister. It did not surface often, but whenever it did, it caused misery in the Wesley family.

Susanna was herself the recipient of Samuel's rigidity on one occasion. It seems that once during evening prayers she did not say Amen to her husband's petition for William of Orange, then King of England. (Susanna had sympathies towards the minority who believed that the deposed James II still remained king by divine right.) Susanna recorded what happened next: "He retired to his study, and calling me to him asked me the reason of my not saying Amen to the Prayer. I was a little surprised at the question and don't well know what I answered, but too too well I remember what followed: He immediately kneeled down and imprecated the divine Vengeance upon himself and all his posterity if ever he touched me more or came into a bed with me before I had begged God's pardon and his, for not saying Amen to the prayer for the King." 11

Susanna, refusing to be intimidated, stood her ground. Samuel left in a huff for London and did not return for six months---and then only because a tragic fire had destroyed two-thirds of the Wesley home. The fire brought them back together again, and the most visible result of their reconciliation arrived the next June, a baby boy named John.

If one fire gave them their son John, another fire nearly took him from them. That is the well-known fire of Methodist lore in which John is said to have been "a brand plucked from the burning". The night was Wednesday, 9 February 1709. Near midnight a fire, perhaps the latest mischief of the rector's enemies, engulfed the house. In the frantic moments that followed, everyone was able to make his or her way out---everyone, that is, except five-year-old John (or Jacky, as he was known then). Susanna wrote that her husband heard Jacky "miserably crying out in the nursery and attempted several times to get upstairs, but was beat back by the flame; then he thought him lost and commended his soul to God and went to look after the rest."12 But unknown to the father, young Jacky had climbed to the edge of the nursery window, where he again called for help. "Fetch a ladder!" shouted one man---but there was no time. One large man braced himself against the wall while a slender man climbed onto his shoulders. At the first try the slender man tumbled to the ground. But the second try was successful: he pulled little Jacky out of the window just as the flaming roof caved in---truly “a brand plucked from the burning". Overjoyed, Samuel gathered his shivering family together beside the charred ruins of their home: "Come neighbours, let us kneel down! Let us give thanks to God! He has given me all my eight children: let the house go, I am rich enough!"13

Rich in family perhaps, but totally destitute in possessions. Everything had been lost: their home, their furnishings, Samuel's library, all Susanna's early letters, Dr Annesley's precious papers---everything.

This was not the only occasion when they had to go without, however. Samuel, while a diligent minister, was an extremely poor manager of his worldly affairs. He was constantly in debt and at one point was even thrown into debtors' prison. On that particular occasion Susanna brought her wedding ring to him in the hope that it could be used to release him. Samuel---here we see his tender side---could not take it, preferring to stay in prison rather than have his Susanna deprived of her wedding ring. The bishop finally came to the rescue, clearing Samuel's debts.

These incidents give you a sampling of "the calamities of life" that Susanna endured.14 And endure she did. The secret of her endurance was a faith that could see everything in light of God's overriding governance for good, a hope that could carry her through the most difficult of circumstances, and a love that could overcome evil with good.

Listen to how Susanna sought to make tragedy a cause for spiritual formation: "Help me, 0 Lord, to make a true use of all disappointments and calamities in this life, in such wise that they may unite my heart more closely with Thee. Cause them to separate my affections from worldly things and inspire my soul with more vigour in the pursuit of true happiness."15 Listen to her tough realism in these words: "Since I must expect to meet with many difficulties, much opposition, many disappointments and daily trials of faith and patience in my passage through this world, may it be my highest wisdom to disengage my affections as much as I lawfully may from all transitory, temporal enjoyments, and to fix them on those more rational and spiritual pleasures which we are to enjoy when we enter upon our state of immortality."16 Listen to her wisdom (won, no doubt, by many years of difficulty) in these words: "The best preparation I know of for suffering is a regular and exact performance of present duty."17

 

“A PREACHER OF RIGHTEOUSNESS"

John Wesley declared that his mother "had been in her measure and degree a preacher of righteousness".18 Susanna was never ordained or appointed to a parish. Why would John say this of her?

The most obvious reference is to Susanna's famous kitchen services. When Samuel was away in London on church matters for an extended period one time, his assistant did a poor job of nurturing the congregation. Consequently, Susanna decided to have Sunday evening services at home for the family, in order to bring some added spiritual influence. They gathered in the kitchen to sing psalms, pray, and read a short sermon selected from Mr Wesley's library shelves. Soon friends and neighbours asked to join in, and before anyone knew it, two hundred souls were crowding into Susanna's home.

Mr Inman, the church assistant, was insulted and scandalized, mainly because the Sunday night gatherings were outdrawing Sunday mornings. He contacted Samuel Wesley in London and protested these irregular worship services. Mr Wesley, in turn, wrote his wife, asking her to desist. Her response was a masterful balance of deference and defiance.

Susanna began by responding to his three major objections to the meetings: these were "first, that it will look particular; secondly, my sex; and lastly, your being at present in a public station and character". She took up each objection with the most careful deference, providing an extended and definitive answer. She then concluded, "If you do after all think fit to dissolve this assembly, do not tell me any more 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 to souls, when you and I shall appear before the great and awful tribunal of our Lord Jesus Christ."19

Need I say that the meetings continued unabated? Interestingly, Susanna referred to her kitchen congregation as "our Society". John was nine years old at this time, and scholars generally feel that these meetings had a pronounced influence upon his eventual development of the Methodist Societies. Certainly the meetings offer the most obvious explanation for his designation of Susanna as "a preacher of righteousness".

But there is another reason for that designation, and I think it is equally significant. It is the rich legacy Susanna left in her letters, journals, and catechetical writings. In Susanna Wesley's letters, she continued her preaching role with family members who had left home. Throughout John's tenure at Oxford his mother continued as his tutor in "practical divinity". In one letter she carried on an extended discussion with him about zeal, prudence, and charity. In another she commented on William Sherlock's book A Discourse Concerning the Divine Providence. In others she functioned as a de facto adviser to the Oxford "Holy Club".20 And more.

Some of her writings were intended for an even wider audience. She wrote an essay---at her son John's request---on her method of educating her family, and John published it. She wrote a commentary on the Apostles' Creed and an exposition on the Ten Commandments. She wrote a dialogue called "A Religious Conference" (obviously intended for publication) that sought to reconcile Christian faith with the emerging new science represented by Isaac Newton. Finally, toward the end of her life, Susanna entered the arena of public disputation in "Some Remarks on a Letter from Mr Whitfield".

In this essay she waded into the complicated Calvinist-Arminian debate over predestination and showed that she could hold her own against a formidable public figure. All of this indicates that in Susanna Wesley we do indeed find "a preacher of righteousness" who knew how to articulate and defend her faith. The assessment of Adam Clarke---while in language that is antiquated for us today---remains telling: "If it were not unusual to apply such an epithet to a woman, I would not hesitate to say she was an able divine!"21

 

"HOLY LIVING AND HOLY DYING"

Susanna Wesley lived sacramentally in the most common ventures of life. The details of her living were the arena for her interaction with God and the place where she built a history with God. And what was true of her living was also true of her dying.

Susanna brought from her Puritan heritage the conviction that dying as much as living was holy work---an opportunity to give glory to God and build up others in the faith. Her father, Dr Annesley, great Puritan divine that he was, died with these words on his lips: "I will die praising thee, and rejoice that others can praise thee better. I shall be satisfied with thy likeness. Satisfied! Satisfied! Oh my dearest Jesus! I come!"22

Susanna had to leave her home at Epworth after Samuel's death, for the new rector and his family were on their way. She was, therefore, dependent upon her own children in the declining years of her life. They cared for her graciously, and her final years were spent with her son John at "the Foundery", a London centre for Methodist activity.

It was there at the Foundery that Susanna performed one of her finest services for the burgeoning Methodist movement. Whenever John and Charles were out on their evangelistic missions, a layman, Thomas Maxfield, was left in charge of the gatherings of the Bands and the Societies at the Foundery. Not being an ordained clergyman, Maxfield was not allowed to preach, but on one occasion zeal ran away with him and he did indeed preach the congregation at the Foundery. Catching wind of this, John rushed back to London. When he arrived at the Foundery, Susanna was the first to meet him. "Thomas Maxfield has turned preacher, I find," John said curtly. Susanna (perhaps remembering her own experience with her kitchen congregation) replied, "John, you know what my sentiments have been. You cannot suspect me of favouring readily anything of this kind. But take care what you do with respect to that young man; for he is as surely called of God to preach as you are. Examine what have been the fruits of his preaching, and hear him yourself."

John followed his mother's counsel, and after hearing Maxfield preach, declared, "It is the Lord! ... What am I that I should withstand God!"23 This decisio changed the whole course of Methodism. One of the great marks of that movement was in the multiplied thousands of itinerant lay evangelists who fanned the flames of renewal worldwide.

On 30 July 1742 Susanna's children gathered around her, for she was "on borders of eternity". John chronicled the event in his Journal: "I sat down the bed-side. She was in her last conflict; unable to speak, but, I believe, quite sensible. Her look was calm and serene, and her eyes fixed upward, while we commended her soul to God. From three to four [in the afternoon] the silver cord was loosing and the wheel breaking at the cistern; and then, without any struggle, or sigh, or groan, the soul was set at liberty. We stood round her bed, and fulfilled her last request, uttered a little before she lost her speech: `Children, as soon as I am released, sing a psalm of praise to God."' Holy living, holy dying---that was Susanna Wesley.

Perhaps now, after learning something of Susanna's story, we are in a better position to appreciate Adam Clarke's moving tribute: "I have traced her life with much pleasure, and received from it much instruction; and when I have seen her repeatedly grappling with gigantic adversities, I have adored the grace of God that was in her, and have not been able to repress my tears."24 (197-209)

 

Notes

1. John Pudney. John Wesley and His World (Norwich, UK: Thames and Hudson, 1978), p. 7.

2. Donald L. Kline, Susanna Wesley: God's Catalyst for Revival (Lima, OH: C.S.S. Publishing, 1980), p. 42.

3. Rita F. Snowden, Such a Woman: The Story of Susanna Wesley (London: Epworth, 19(i3), p. 7. We cannot be certain about the Greek and Latin. Some scholars state that Susanna was well versed in these languages, but I have found no evidence of this in her letters. Also, her husband once wrote to their oldest son, who was away at Westminster School, urging him to share freely with him his inmost thoughts, adding, "I will promise you so much secrecy that even your mother shall know nothing but what you have a mind she should; for which reason it may be convenient you should write to me still in Latin" (Rebecca Lamar Harmon, Susanna: Mother of the Wesleys [New York: Abingdon, 19681, p. 19).

4. Harmon, Susanna, p. 20.

5. Susanna Wesley: The Complete Writings, ed. Charles Wallace, Jr. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 5.

6. Snowden, Such a Woman, p. 21.

7. Arnold A. Dallimore, Susanna Wesley: The Mother of John and Charles Wesley (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1993), p. 111.

8. George J. Stevenson, Memorials of the Wesley Family (Partridge, UK: n.p., 1876), p. 158, as cited in Dallimore, Susanna Wesley, p. 110.

9. The plumber was William Wright, and the marriage occurred in 1725. Before the wedding Hetty, realizing that they were completely unsuited for each other, tried to back out, but her father compelled her to go through with it. The child that had been conceived on that unfortunate night died soon after birth. Mr Wright, completely unable to appreciate Hetty's intellect and sensibilities, spent more time in taverns than he did at home. Hetty tried desperately all her life to win him over, but in vain. She once wrote these tragic lines:

Unkind, ungrateful, as thou art,

Say, must I ne'er regain thy heart?

Must all attempts to please thee prove

Unable to regain thy love?

It is entirely possible that Susanna's grief and inner conflict over Hetty were responsible for her near-fatal illness during this period---a period that she called her "sad defection when I was almost without hope" (Adam Clarke, Memoirs of the Wesley Family [New York: Carlton & Porter, n.d.], pp. 535-36. 539).

10. John Wesley tried repeatedly to bring about a reconciliation between father and daughter. On 28 August 1726 he preached a sermon entitled "Universal Charity". He noted, "One great reason for my writing the above-mentioned sermon was to endeavour as far as in me lay, to convince them that even on the supposition that she [Hetty] was impenitent, some tenderness was due to her still which my mother, when I read it to her, was so well aware of that she told me as soon as I had read it, `You writ this sermon for Hetty. ...'” His efforts were to no avail, however; Samuel Wesley went to his grave estranged from his most gifted daughter (Harmon, Susanna, pp. 124-25).

11. Susanna Wesley, ed. Charles Wallace, p. 35.

12. Susanna Wesley, ed. Charles Wallace, p. 65.

13. Pudney, John Wesley and His World, p. 53, and Harmon, Susanna, p. l3

14. The phrase "the calamities of life" actually comes from a letter Hetty wrote to her father in a futile bid for reconciliation (Stevenson, Memorials of the Wesley Family, p. 306, as cited in Harmon, Susanna, p. 133). Susanna knew more "calamities" than I have mentioned here. For example, one child died accidentally when a nurse fell asleep on top of her, suffocating her. Another child, Kezia, died at thirty-two after a lingering illness.

15. Kline, Susanna Wesley, p. 51.

16. Kline, Susanna Wesley, p. 49.

17. Harmon, Susanna, p. 766.

18. Harmon, Susanna, p. 80.

19. Susanna Wesley, ed. Charles Wallace, pp. 79-83.

20. Susanna Wesley, ed. Charles Wallace, pp. 118-22, 133-41, 144-54.

21. Clarke, Memoirs, p. 420.

22. Clarke, Memoirs, pp. 297-98, originally published as "The Excellency of A Publick Spirit: Set forth in a Sermon preach'd ... at the Funeral of that late Reverend Divine Dr. Samuel Annesley, 1697", by Daniel Williams, p. 146, republished by John Wesley in the Arminian Magazine, vol. XV, p. 248.

23. Harmon, Susanna, pp. 160-61.

24. John Kirk, The Mother of the Wesleys, 4th ed. (London: Jarrold & Sons, 1866), p. x.

 

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