LESSONS FROM THE LIFE OF SUSANNA WESLEY
Proverbs 22:6 (KJV), “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.”
Though Susanna Wesley lived 300 years ago, her memory lives on through the lives of her children and the many lives that they have affected for the good because of her. She is most noted for being the mother of John Wesley who is considered, by many, to be one of the greatest men of God in modern history, and Charles Wesley the prolific hymn writer.
There has been much written on Susanna She was a prolific writer. She was never published mind you, but she wrote meaty devotions for her children, letters, and other intellectual treatises on God, the Bible and the life of a Christian. She desired more than perhaps anything to live a godly life, pleasing to God and was passionate to train her children up in the way that they should go.
Susanna Wesley lived in the early 1700s in rural England. She was the 25th of 25 children born to a noted scholar and clergyman who, when pressed, would not agree with the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer and so started his own parish setting an example of independent thinking that was sure to influence Susanna in her youth. She is quoted as saying something that she learned during her childhood, “Never to spend more time in any matter of mere recreation in one day than I spend in private religious duties.”
She was not yet 13 when she not only decided to align herself with the Church of England [against the beliefs of her parents] but wrote the whole story of both sides of the issue and her reasons for choosing the Church of England.
Susanna, who was wise, educated [at home] and beautiful, married a minister of the Church of England, Samuel Wesley when she was just 19 years old. Her life was filled with struggles, yet her resilience and dedication to both God and her family are an incredible inspiration.
Susanna gave birth to 19 children in 19 years. Nine of those children died while they were still babies. This physical burden and the stresses of her daily life resulted in Susanna suffering from poor health most of her days.
Susanna’s family was plagued by financial troubles her entire life. This was not due to any frivolous spending or extravagance on the part of the Wesleys. The life of a clergyman was a meager living at best and with 10 children to feed and clothe, the Wesleys seemed always to be in want. In response to a benefactor’s question of whether she had ever really gone without bread, Susanna replied, “I will freely own to your grace that, strictly speaking, I never did want for bread. But then I had so much care to get it before it was eat, and to pay for it after it as has made it very unpleasant to me. And I think to have bread on such terms is the next degree of wretchedness to having none at all.” And in all of this, according to her husband, it “does not in the least sink my wife’s spirits. She bears it will courage which becomes her.” Susanna Wesley is characterized by peaceful contentment.
Samuel was made the rector at Epworth, a small bog-like town far from the culture and educated people closer to the cities. Not only that, but the townspeople greatly disliked the Wesley family. Their service there was not appreciated nor were they welcomed into the community. Their children were insulted and mocked in the streets. Susanna’s isolation from community and, as we will see, her husband at times would have been a great loss to so vibrant and engaging a person.
She and her husband disagreed violently on certain religious and political subjects. Samuel once left her and all of their children for nearly a year because of a minor disagreement.
In all this the Wesley home burned down – twice! The fires were likely to have been set by the townspeople who were also suspected of mutilating their cows. After the fires, her family was separated and the children were sent to live with other families in the town while the rectory was rebuilt. There was no insurance, no one obligated to help in any way. They paid to rebuild their home – one rebuild taking over two years.
Susanna homeschooled her 10 children. She had strict guidelines for her home that may seem harsh on the surface. However, in her son John Wesley’s writings of his early years at Oxford, the disciplines that he learned while at home under his mother’s teaching resulted not only in him being well prepared for life in higher education, but equipped him as a Christian swimming against the tide of mainstream university life.
Susanna’s patience was noted by her husband during one particularly trying school session. He is noted as saying, “I wonder at your patience: you have told that child 20 times the same thing.” To which Susanna replied, “Had I satisfied myself by mentioning the matter only 19 times, I should have lost all my labour; you see, it was the twentieth time that crowned the whole.”
Susanna raised her children with plenty of washing, even scrubbing, with the Word of God. Godliness was a way of life in the Wesley home. Before they could kneel or speak, the little ones were taught to ask a blessing on their food by appropriate signs and to repeat, as soon as they were able to articulate, the Lord’s Prayer both morning and evening and to add their own prayers as well.
This is perhaps one area of Susanna’s life that most inspiring, especially as a homeschool parent. Susanna had an uncanny sensitivity to the things of God especially as it related to raising godly children. As the children grew a little older, days of the week were allotted to each of them, “for special opportunity of conversation with their mother”. This was for the purpose of dealing with “doubts and difficulties”. These days came to be some of the fondest memories for all of her children and no doubt was in large part responsible for the close attachment her children had with her their entire lives.
Susanna had a way of taking the many things that were less than ideal in her own life and not allowing them victory but turning them for good. For example, during one of her husband’s many sojourns away from the family home, a substitute minister was sent to Epworth to preach on Sundays. His sermons were less than inspiring and so Mrs. Wesley, out of concern for the spiritual health of her children, began to gather them each Sunday afternoon, after church, and read to them from either her father or her husband’s sermons. The news of this spread in Epworth and an absolutely amazing thing happened! There in that uncultured, base town, a hunger for the Word sprang up. The parents, brothers and sisters of the servants dropped in until the audience was about 30-40, and by some counts nearly 200 people attended this time of praise, prayer and reading of a short sermon.
Susanna continued to speak into the lives of her children until her dying day on all matters of faith, theology and personal relationships.
GODLINESS WITH CONTENTMENT
She knew well how to rejoice in the midst of deep affliction. In a very dark hour she writes, “But even in this low ebb of fortune, I am not without some kind interval…I adore and praise the unsearchable wisdom and boundless goodness of Almighty God for this dispensation of His providence towards me. For I clearly discern there is more of mercy in this disappointment of my hopes than there would have been in permitting me to enjoy all that I desired, because it hath given me a sight and sense of some sins which I had not before. I would not have imagined I was in the least inclined to idolatry, and covetousness, and want of practical subjection to the will of God…again the furnace of affliction which now seems so hot and terrible to nature, had nothing more than a lambent flame, which was not designed to consume us, but only to purge away our dross, to purify and prepare the mind for its abode among those blessed ones that passed through the same trials before us into the celestial paradise…How shall we then adore and praise what we cannot here apprehend aright! How will love and joy work in the soul! But I cannot express it; I cannot conceive it.”
Susanna’s example to Christian women today is a gift. A study of her life will cause you to feel a connection to her even though she lived nearly 300 years ago. Her dedication to her family and to God is awe-inspiring. She had no way of knowing the impact that her life would have on future generations. She had no way of knowing that her sons, John and Charles, would be responsible for fanning the flames of revival in England and subsequently in the newly formed American colonies. Her story speaks of hope for those who struggle in raising children, nurturing a marriage and remaining faithful to God.
Help me, Lord, to remember that religion (Christianity) is not to be confined to the church …
nor exercised only in prayer and meditation, but that everywhere I am in Thy Presence.
– Susanna Wesley