Susanna Wesley is known as the mother to two sons who left their mark on church history – John founded the Methodist movement while Charles wrote many beloved hymns. She prayed, trained, and disciplined her children which produced much fruit in their lives. However, she was no stranger to difficulties, even in her home life. After her marriage to Samuel Wesley, a minister, in 1688, she found that poverty and debt were much a part of parish life. Her husband wrote poetry and had to ask others for help to get by financially. Susanna’s first daughter died at the end of her first year; she also buried two infant boys. Altogether Susanna had between 17 and 19 children; only ten survived to adulthood.
Samuel loved his wife, Susanna. In one of his poems he wrote of her, “She graced my humble roof, and blest my life, Blest me by a far greater name than wife.” However, the marriage wasn’t completely without complication. Samuel was a poor manager of money, which led their family to constantly face financial trouble – no matter what his living from the church afforded. He even faced imprisonment for his debt in 1705, which brought shame to his family. This difficult time for Susanna was humbling. With a family to care for and a husband in prison, she wrote to the archbishop appealing for help. She also sent her rings to her husband in prison so that he might get better food and treatment. Samuel immediately returned them. He was released from prison three months later when his friends and family put together enough money.
These actions of Susanna reveal her heart of reconciliation. She could have chosen bitterness or judgment, instead she sacrificially reached out to her husband with generosity. This communicated not only her concern for her husband’s well-being, but also her love in the midst of his bad choices. I put myself in her shoes and wonder if I would be so generous?
Susanna’s track record with reconciliation toward her husband is not one of perfection. Their volatile relationship was no secret to their children, who wrote much (when they became adults) about the fights they witnessed. Susanna’s strong mind and the freedom of expression and nonconformity she grew up under caused much friction in her marriage. One example of their arguments was when she failed to say “Amen” at the end of one of her husband’s family prayers for King William. When asked about her silence, Susanna replied that she didn’t believe he was the legal king. Instead, she believed James II to be the rightful ruler. At this Samuel flew into a rage and said, “If we have two kings than we must have two beds.” He then set out for London and didn’t return home for six months. Later in their marriage he traveled away for a conference and heard that Susanna, instead of the temporary curate, was conducting services in his absence. Whether he disagreed with women in leadership or felt jealousy at her well-attended and popular services has been a subject of debate.
Susanna trained her children not only in academics but also in the area of behavior. She would be considered very strict by today’s standards in her parenting – teaching her children to both cry and play quietly. She did not allow snacking between meals and never gave in to whining, making her children ask politely for what they wanted. They learned the Lord’s Prayer as soon as they could speak, and the Sabbath was strictly enforced as a day set aside for rest and worship.
While this discipline drawn from Puritanism strengthened her son John’s life, and he carried many of these principles learned from his mother into Methodism, some of his siblings were hindered by the fierce structure. His sisters, especially, struggled later in life from their harsh upbringing. However, Susanna did have a soft side and was not only structured in her training but also in her care. She set aside one hour every week to spend alone with each child to talk about their spiritual life and academic progress, as well as to listen to their fears and emotions. After each child left home, she wrote letters to them, connecting on these same levels in order to keep a close relationship with them.
Susanna studied God’s Word for her own spiritual growth, writing commentaries and meditations for her own use. Much of her life was spent raising and homeschooling children, serving other in the church, and praying and studying to develop an even greater intimacy with God. While she spent the majority of her life in the small town of Epworth in England, her impact on the world cannot be measured. The gospel went out across the globe through the influence of her sons.
I think if Susanna Wesley lived in our times, we wouldn’t often find her sitting in front of a television or with a gossip magazine in her hand. When she had some freedom from her household and church responsibilities she read, wrote, prayed, and invested in people. This took self-discipline and intentionality. Though she had many flaws, as we all do, Susanna stood as a strong woman in a time when women were less valued by society than they are today. Her commitment to spiritual disciplines alongside personal relationship set an example for us to follow. So, the next time you have a small break from your many responsibilities, remember Susanna Wesley and consider what will feed your spirit and your soul.
This is the first in a new series – Faithful and Flawed – Women in Church History! I hope you are as inspired as I am by the women who followed Jesus with passion and purpose in the past.