Susanna Wesley The Strong-willed Woman and Her Trials
Susanna Wesley The Strong-willed Woman and Her Trials
I’m sure you’ve heard of Susanna Wesley. She was the mother of John Wesley, the evangelist, and Charles Wesley, the evangelist and hymn writer. Perhaps I’m perverse, but I’m often tempted to avoid Susanna. Does she seem too good to be true? All the usual biographies portray her as some kind of frighteningly efficient home schooler with a huge family; or a super-mother in time management overdrive. This kind of portrait seems one-dimensional, and unattractive. But then one day, I overheard a woman student (mother of four) in my church history class at Bible College recommending a biography of Susanna1 to a man who was planning to give it to his wife as a gift. Said she: “I’m certainly glad Susanna wasn’t my mother!” That’s it, I thought maybe, at last, a biography that makes Susanna into a real woman! I was not disappointed.
Our Greatest Strength is often Our Greatest Weakness⤒🔗
The truth is, Susanna had a very difficult life. Marriage to the erratic and headstrong Samuel Wesley was only one of her difficulties. By nature Susanna herself was more than a little headstrong; and the strength of her own will doubtless contributed to her many troubles in life. Of course such strength of character can be a quality the Lord uses in His service; and there is plenty of evidence that this was so with Susanna. But as someone has once said, our greatest strength is often also our greatest weakness.
Susanna was the youngest in a family of 25 children. From both her parents she inherited strength and decisiveness of character. Her father, Samuel Annesley, was one of those ejected from the Anglican ministry for his refusal to adhere to the new Anglican Prayer book issued in 1662, after Charles II came to the throne of England. He became in time the beloved pastor of a large dissenting congregation in London, well-known as a preacher who fed them the meat as well as the milk of God’s Word. Her mother was a serious Christian, and was studiously energetic in instilling the Christian faith in all her large family. Susanna grew up to have an excellent command of language; and it is well known that she possessed a theological knowledge superior to many ministers of her day.
It is difficult to know when Susanna actually came to believe savingly in Christ. At times in her life she talked of the need for faith and a belief in the heart; but at others she seemed to rely on the testimony of her own good works. Her sons, John and Charles, spoke of an experience two years before her death as her conversion – an experience that “ended her long legal night”. More likely, she was a Christian who spent most of her life somewhat confused about the complementary role of faith and the works of obedience; and it is delightful to know that before her life ended, she was given a firmer assurance of faith.
Contact with the Puritans←⤒🔗
During her childhood, Susanna’s household enjoyed frequent visits from some of the leading dissenting ministers of the day: Thomas Manton, Richard Baxter and John Owen were some of the best-known. She would have heard all the arguments against the Church of England and in favour of dissent thoughtfully and persuasively argued. Yet, astonishingly, before she was even thirteen years old, she walked out of her father’s home announcing she was going to join the Church of England. Despite the consternation of her parents, she remained there until her death at the age of 74.
Shortly afterwards she met the 19-year old Samuel Wesley, at the time a student in one of London’s dissenting academies. Samuel was about to begin studies at Oxford University, in the hope that dissenters would soon be allowed to graduate from there. However, Samuel ended up joining the Anglican communion – perhaps at Susanna’s encouragement. After a difficult four years at Oxford, funding his way through his studies by acting as a servant to wealthy students, and by writing poetry (a talent which Charles inherited), Samuel graduated and received his first parish in 1688. On the strength of his £28 per annum stipend, he and Susanna married (she was then 19).
Two Dominant Personalities←⤒🔗
They married for love; but there were difficulties from the outset. Samuel was a man desirous of advancing in life; but prone to offend by strong statements and impulsive actions. As a husband, he was more than a little imperious. Though shorter than Susanna, his appearance was somewhat overbearing at times. He was one of those unwise men who tend to insist on their authority as a husband, speaking often about the duty of wives to submit to their husbands. Of Susanna in the early years of their marriage he wrote in a poem:
She graced my humble roof, and blest my life
Yet still I bore an undisputed sway,
Nor was’t her task, but pleasure to obey:
Scarce thought, much less could act, what I denied.
Susanna’s life was not easy. Samuel’s roof was indeed humble. Their first year was spent in a boarding house – to give birth to their first child she went back to her parents’ gracious home for cleanliness, privacy and comfort. And babies arrived frequently – like her mother, Susanna was to have a very large family – 19 in all, though 9 died in their childhood. Samuel found the frequent pregnancies and the cost of the extra children a trial. In short, it was hard to make ends meet; and he was sore-pressed and in debt his entire married life. It was only due to the kindness of bishops and the patience of his creditors that he managed to keep the family fed and sheltered at all.
Their stressful circumstances put a huge strain on their married life; and we can see the difficulty two strong-willed people can have in managing their life together. Several incidents illustrate this. In 1702 Samuel took an extraordinary step. It seems that Susanna, by no means convinced of the legitimacy of William of Orange’s right to the throne of England, refused to say “Amen” at the end of Samuel’s prayer for the King. (She had been doing this for some twelve years). But in 1702 Samuel summoned her to his study and told her that unless she repented of this before God and him, he would no longer live with her as her husband. However, Susanna believed she should have liberty of conscience in this matter. Samuel then took an oath not to sleep with her in the same bed, shunned her, and eventually left his home and family for some five months. Susanna’s biographer puts this action down to Samuel’s desperation at his poverty-stricken circumstances, and the pressure of life at home. He wanted to escape. He finally returned when the family house burned down, but things were never the same again. Susanna never trusted him as she had before; and the incident was probably the cause of Samuel’s failure ever to achieve a higher appointment in the church. His disappointments and difficulties continued.
A Strict Man←⤒🔗
Samuel was a hard-working parish clergyman, but tended to be severe. Though he possessed considerable literary abilities, his preaching was not valued by his parishioners, and few attended worship. He believed it was his duty to discipline his parishioners, and any known to be guilty of adultery he ordered to be present during the Sunday morning service, clad in a white sheet, bareheaded and barefooted. They had to shiver through the service and stand on the damp mud of the church floor, “doing penance” as a warning to others. He apparently made many enemies, and opponents were inclined to attack his livestock, burn his crops – and even, on two occasions, his house. In 1705 one of his creditors had him imprisoned for debt. For some months he remained in prison, and Susanna struggled to feed the family. He was released when some people kindly paid his debt; but he was full of a scheme to go and preach the gospel to those in India. His zeal for foreign missions in a day when few thought of evangelising beyond the shores of Europe is commendable. But more than likely, Samuel was still dreaming of escaping his troubles and the pressures of family life.
On another memorable occasion, Susanna inflamed matters by acting rather wilfully. Samuel had employed a curate in 1712 to help him in the parish. This man normally only preached when Samuel was away, and he generally managed to weave strong statements against the sin of indebtedness into his sermons. Once, when Samuel was away in London, Susanna decided the people should have something better than this man’s fatuous preaching. Being a woman, she could not preach herself, and so she invited anyone who wanted to come and hear her read sermons in her kitchen. She was apparently quite good at it, and soon the hearers overflowed beyond the kitchen – even reaching 200 at a time! When Samuel heard of this, he urged her to stop. Susanna was almost defiant in reply:
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, and 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.
This was a formidable woman!
But Samuel and Susanna were good parents. Both, despite their weaknesses, loved their children, and seem to have enjoyed good friendships with them. It has to be admitted, however, that their own characters and their difficult circumstances meant an unusual upbringing for the 10 children who grew up to adulthood. Susanna managed to survive these difficulties by setting firm, organised patterns for the household. The children were taught manners and were expected to obey instructions immediately. She wrote that children’s wills should be “conquered,” and this has earned her criticism. But it seems that she did not use undue severity, especially when the harshness of her day is considered. She taught the children at home herself – and certainly, the educated home from which she came would have provided her with the skills necessary for this task.
Not a Completely Positive Influence←⤒🔗
But not everything Susanna taught the children was helpful. She put a great deal of care and time into the religious instruction of all the children, as did her own mother; but what she taught was, of course, no more than she knew herself. I’ve already mentioned her confusion over the question of how we are saved. For most of her life, she was of the view that our good works are a necessary contribution to our salvation. She certainly didn’t believe that salvation is entirely God’s work, as stated in the 39 Articles of the Church of England. When John, who had finished his degree at Oxford, was preparing for ordination, wrote to her that he could not accept the idea of predestination (Article 17), she replied that we must choose ourselves, and that God’s “predestination” is foreknowledge of what we will choose. John continued to hold to these views, and teach them to others, for the rest of his days.
Susanna’s methods also had an important effect on the children. By insisting, as she did, on such a rigorous programme of time management and such fastidious effort in holy living through personal effort, she gave them a distorted view of the Christian life. It is not surprising that both John and Charles, when at Oxford, should have been so confused about the way of salvation. They founded, with some friends, what they called the “Holy Club”, a society for the mutual encouragement of the members in an extremely self-disciplined, methodical life of good works (echoing Susanna’s approach). This was good as far as it went, but it was based on the mistaken idea that we can please God through our efforts; and both sons were ordained, and went to the mission field even, before they discovered that their view of salvation was wrong. It was only through the help of missionaries from Moravia that they learned salvation is a gracious gift of God to the sinner, who receives it through faith.
Yes, Susanna was one of those Christians with strong characters whose many qualities God uses for His good purposes. There is no doubt that, despite terribly difficult circumstances, she maintained a well-ordered household where her children learned good habits of self-discipline and perseverance. This must have been very helpful to both John and Charles during their long itinerant preaching ministries in England and Wales. They had learned from both their parents the fortitude necessary to endure all kinds of hardship, opposition and abuse.
And yet, if we have such a character, capable of such good service, we also have to be wary of our potential weaknesses. For one thing, we need to make sure we are well-instructed, and that we are capable of being corrected from the truth if we’re found to be wrong. Susanna was so sure of her views – she made firm, decisive, and sometimes rather extreme judgements about important matters. And she taught them to others. If we are strong in our views, then we must make sure they are indeed the right views! Strong views, impressed upon others, have major – and lasting – effects on their lives. And it never hurts to be willing to listen to someone else – they may be more right than we are currently!
Marriage was for Life←⤒🔗
And then, what about their marriage – a difficult one, by all accounts? Surely, many today would be tempted to put such a marriage in the “too hard” category! It seems to me that we should honour both Samuel and Susanna for their stickability, even though they did both fail alarmingly at times. They kept at it together, until they were parted by Samuel’s death; and together they brought up a large and extremely talented family. It seems that they loved all their children dearly – and all their children loved and honoured them, despite the mistakes and the harshness. Certainly, when one looks at the remarkable ministries of John and Charles, it would be hard to call Susanna anything but a fine mother. But when all is said and done, who was really responsible for keeping this family together, for maintaining both Samuel and Susanna, and all their children, in the bonds of faith? Of course it is God Himself – He did in all this family, both parents and children alike, something that would seem to many of our contemporaries impossible. He kept them faithful – in His service – until the end of their days. Take heart – He is the same today!
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