Susanna Wesley Raises Children to Change the World

Susanna Wesley was born Susanna Annesley, the youngest of 25 children, to a nonconformist minister in London, in January 1669. At age 13 she forsook her father’s nonconformist views because she did not believe in dissent, and became part of the Church of England. At about the same time Susanna met the man who would become her husband. Samuel Wesley changed his surname from Westley when he too left the nonconformist ranks and returned to the Church of England. The couple met at the wedding of Susanna’s older sister, Elizabeth.

After Samuel graduated from Oxford in 1688 he was ordained as a Church of England minister and he promptly married Susanna, then 19 years old (he was 26).

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Samuel had a problem with money and spent his life in debt, even when he moved to Epworth and received a good salary. There he turned his hand at farming and proved so ineffective that he increased his debts rather than reduce them. In later years Samuel was even thrown into debtor’s prison, but was rescued by Susanna’s appeals to the Archbishop of York.

For the first nineteen years of married life Susanna averaged one baby per year, totalling 19 with the birth of baby Kezia. Eight of her children died in infancy and a daughter was permanently crippled due to a maid’s accident.

To add to Susanna’s challenges, apart from the children, the debts, a fire that destroyed their home, and her strained health, her husband abandoned her for six months over her refusal to say “Amen” when he prayed a blessing on King William III, William of Orange, who Susanna thought to be an illegitimate pretender to the throne.

Her last two sons, John – born in 1703, and Charles – born four years later, became the two of the most famous preachers of English history.

In 1709 the family endured its second inferno when the rectory in which the family lived caught fire. Susanna heroically saved the lives of her two infant sons, John and Charles. John later referred to himself as “a brand picked out of the fire”.

Susanna’s educational methods were clearly defined, strict and effective. She was also a devoted mother, intent on giving personal time to each of her children, each day. She was particularly intent on teaching her children spiritual truths, for which John and Charles Wesley’s later ministries owe a great debt.

Among the strictures imposed by this disciplinarian mother, the children were taught to cry softly, to eat what they were given, and never to raise their voices or be noisy at play. Susanna used physical punishment, but her children could avoid it if they confessed their faults.

Her children valued her care as a mother and it is said that when John was only seven years old he advised that he would never marry “because I could never find such a woman as my father had”.

When Samuel hired a curate to preach while he was away, Susanna found the sermons so unsatisfactory that she began the practice of reading sermons to her family on a Sunday afternoon. In time she had up to 200 people coming to hear her read, with Samuel’s disapproval.

Susanna spent her life with ministers. She was first a minister’s daughter. Then she married a preacher. And she then raised children who became outstanding preachers.

Susanna’s husband, Samuel, died in Epworth, where he had pastored for 38 years, on April 25, 1735 at the age of 72. Susanna lived with various of her children and survived Samuel by seven years, dying on July 23, 1742.

It is interesting to note Susanna’s strength of personal resolve. Her father had stood for his right to believe a dissenting principle, in the face of the organised church. His daughter caught that right to hold personal conviction in the face of opposition.

She chose her own religious direction at age 13, contrary to her father. She resisted her husband’s demand that she honour a King who she could not respect. She persisted in her personal piety and faith despite all challenges. And she raised sons who resisted the taunts of fellow students when they set up their own religious club on campus.

Susanna’s life was hard, with the burden of a large family and her husband’s debts. Yet her faith in God and faithfulness to God, especially in her vocation as mother, educator and spiritual instructor to her children, paid dividends for which the world is thankful. None of the failings of those around her caused her to fail in her own life purpose.

Oh that there were many more like her!

For more information on Susanna Wesley see the post: http://chrisfieldblog.com/ministry/church-history/susanna-wesley-ministrysusanna-wesley-ministry

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This post is based on notes by my late friend Donald Prout. I have updated these historical posts with information gleaned from other sources. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History. Don’s notes can be found at: www.donaldprout.com

Charles Wesley the Sweet Singer of Methodism

Charles Wesley was born the 18th child of Rev. Samuel and Susanna Wesley on December 18, 1707. He was premature – “several weeks before his time, he appeared more dead than alive. He did not cry, nor open his eyes, and was kept wrapped up in soft wool until the time when he should have been born … and then he opened his eyes and cried” (A Heart Set Free, by A. Dallimore, page 23).

England at the time of Wesley’s birth was in a state of stale religion and social decay. Immorality, violence and drunkenness prevailed, along with illiteracy and hopelessness. The death penalty was applied to crimes great and small in effort to tame unruly behaviour.

Susanna was a devoted and productive mother or strict disciplines and Samuel hoped that his children would help restore the church to spiritual health. Charles and his brother John, four years his senior, both attended Oxford at young age and were distressed by the careless lives of the other students (all males at that time). Not yet being born again, the young brothers maintained their commitment to the pious values taught them by their parents and formed a society of committed chaps who were determined to read the Bible, fast, pray, live pure, attend Holy Communion regularly and visit the sick and needy. Their disciplines earned them the derisive labels of “The Holy Club” and “Methodists” (in view of their disciplined method). When deeper spiritual awakening impacted them in later years they were able to use the methodological disciplines to raise up generations of effective ministers.

Charles returned home from Oxford to visit his dying father, who laid his hand upon his son’s head and said: “Be steady. The Christian faith will surely revive in this kingdom. You shall see it, though I shall not”.

That same year the two brothers sailed for the colony of Georgia, in the New World (America) planning to be missionaries to the Indians. When a great storm struck their vessel the Wesleys were fearful, but the Moravian Christians with them were untroubled. This deeply impacted the brothers and prompted them to seek out the Moravians when they returned to England, and learned the way of God more perfectly from them.

Charles was 31 when his spiritual eyes were opened, on 21 May, 1738, just three days before his brother, John, also came into the assurance of sins forgiven … and together these two “sons of Susanna” (along with George Whitefield) launched the Methodist Revival.

Charles and John initially worked together, preaching and ministering with great effect, but when Charles married in 1749 he stayed at home more and resided in Bristol for many years. However, he was always the sweet singer of Methodism. As a hymn writer he was unique.

Charles left his mark by writing about 6,500 hymns – “on every conceivable phase of Christian experience and Methodist theology”. In his study, in his garden, on horseback, hardly a day passed for the next 50 years that he did not write a hymn. He even dictated a hymn to his wife from his deathbed! (C. Wesley, by V. Clark, page 28).

When Whitefield died – despite theological differences – Charles Wesley wrote a ‘biographical’ poem – 536 lines in length (Dallimore, pages 238-9).

Among his great contributions to the hymnology of the church are: “Jesus, Lover of my soul”, “And can it be”, “Oh, for a thousand tongues to sing”, “Love Divine, all loves excelling”, “Soldiers of Christ arise”, “Hark the herald angels sing”, “Christ the Lord is risen today”… and many, many more.

Charles Wesley died on 29 March, 1788.

This post is based on notes by my late friend Donald Prout. I have updated these historical posts with information gleaned from other sources. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History. Don’s notes can be found at: www.donaldprout.com

George Whitefield Preaches in the Open Air

George Whitefield was born in Gloucester, England on December 16, 1714, the illegitimate son of an English barmaid.

Whitefield was converted through a Bishop who directed him to John 7:37 “Let the thirsty come to me”. To which Whitefield exclaimed aloud, “I thirst!” This admission of his own hopelessness led to an assurance of God’s grace for him.

His ordination message, at age 22, touched the hungry souls and irritated those hardened by religion. Two years later he was attracting huge crowds to his church in Bermondsey, during that time of Evangelical Awakening (1738) , but noted that more than a thousand people stood outside and the combined stink of the crowd was appalling.

Whitefield decided to begin “field preaching”, but his friend John Wesley thought it insane. It was also illegal to preach outdoor except at public hangings.

A hanging was to take place at the coalmining town of Kingswood, Bristol, where the population was totally illiterate and uncouth. When the accused committed suicide the miners dug up the corpse and partied.

Whitefield’s heart was broken for these people and he walked into their gathering and preached about the blessing on the poor in spirit. The people responded to his love for them. Whitefield wrote that as he preached he saw “the white gutters made by their tears down their black cheeks” (covered by coal dust).

Though Anglican pulpits were immediately shut to him, 10,000 people gathered at Kingswood the following Sunday. Whitefield was internationally famous from that day on.

Historians tell us that this man of God preached between 40 and 60 hours a week, a total of more than 18,000 sermons during 34 years of ministry. He crossed the Atlantic 13 times and ministered extensively in the New World American colonies.

Coupled to these amazing statistics are the sizes of the crowds which flocked to hear him. Preaching in the open air to crowds of 10,000–20,000 was not uncommon. “It has been estimated,” writes K. Hardman, in The Spiritual Awakeners, page 90, “to more than 100 million persons…”

Benjamin Franklin, who heard him preach many times in Pennsylvania, declared that he had a “voice like an organ”.

Whitefield and the Wesleys parted company in a controversy over predestination, but they were reunited in fellowship before Whitefield died. John Wesley preached at Whitefield’s memorial service in England.

George Whitefield, that prince among evangelists, died in Newburyport, Massachusetts, on 30 September, 1770, at the age of 56, and is buried beneath the pulpit of the Newburyport Presbyterian Church.

This post is based on notes by my late friend Donald Prout. I have updated these historical posts with information gleaned from other sources. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History. Don’s notes can be found at: www.donaldprout.com

John Cennick Endures Heckling to Win Souls

John Cennick (pronounced ‘Kennick’) was born on December 12, 1718 to Quaker parents who brought him up in the Church of England. At age nine he was impacted by the words of his dying aunt, “Last night the Lord stood by me and invited me to drink of the fountain of life freely and I shall stand before the Lord as bold as a lion”. John knew that he did not have such a confidence. In his autobiography he tells of the burden of sin that had come upon him, and how he sought to find peace of mind by “fasting, running, eating acorns, leaves of trees and grass”.

From the age of 13 he made eight unsuccessful trips to London looking for work. He gambled and idled away his small income. At age 16 he came to the point of desperation.

He tells us that he went alone to a church to pray, and there … “I believed there was mercy for me … I heard the voice of Jesus say: ‘I am thy salvation’.”

When he refused to play cards he was told about another “stupid religious fellow” like himself. That other man introduced Cennick to John Wesley. Cennick also read George Whitefield’s Journal and sought out the famous preacher. Thus he joined the Wesleyan Methodists.

For a while Cennick assisted John Wesley in teaching the children of coal miners at Kingswood, and he engaged in open-air preaching alongside Howell Harris.

At Swindon, “a mob gathered … they brought horns, guns and a fire engine, besides the usual clubs, stones, eggs, dung, rotten fruit and dead animals. They fired the guns over the preachers’ heads so close that the faces of both were ‘as black as tinkers.’ They covered them with dust from the highway and then the fire engine sprayed them with filthy water from the ditches. While they were deluging Harris, Cennick preached, and when they changed to Cennick, Harris took up the talking …” (Gospel in Hymns, page 112).

Such was Cennick’s passion for souls that he endured outrageous opposition in his open air preaching, including five years in Wiltshire, where hecklers tried to drown his voice by beating drums and pans and setting dogs barking by swinging a cat in a cage. They even hurled dead dogs at him.

After the famous split between Wesley and Whitefield, Cennick sided with Whitefield’s Calvinist Methodists, becoming overseer of Whitefieldian Methodism during Whitefield’s tours of America.

But in 1745, during a visit to Germany, he joined the Moravian Brethren and was ordained to their ministry. He then preached with great success in Dublin, Ireland, but when he decried the adoration of the Virgin Mary he was mobbed by outraged Catholics. Yet in other Irish cities people welcomed him eagerly, seeking his blessing on their homes.

Clergymen complained that their churches were empty because everyone had gone to hear John Cennick. In response Bishop Rider replied, “Preach Christ crucified and then the people will not have to go to Cennick to hear the Gospel.”

John then pastored one of the Moravian churches in London. Of the 500 hymns he wrote, few are found in today’s hymnbooks.

Charles Welsley’s “Lo, He comes with clouds descending”, seems to be a revision of Cennick’s earlier effort, and Cennick’s delightful children’s hymn, “Children of the Heavenly King”, is still sung today.

But there are two choruses, sung at countless church suppers and camps, which both came from Cennick’s pen:
Be present at our table, Lord;
Be here, and everywhere adored;
Thy creatures bless, and grant that we
May feast in Paradise with Thee.

Also:
We thank Thee, Lord, for Jesus Christ,
And for the blood He shed.
We thank Thee for His risen life,
And for our daily bread.

He took ill with a fever while riding to London, arriving exhausted and delirious. The Moravians nursed him for a week as his mind wandered. He died on July 4, 1755, only 36 years old, leaving a wife and two children.

This post is based on notes by my late friend Donald Prout. I have updated these historical posts with information gleaned from other sources. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History. Don’s notes can be found at: www.donaldprout.com

John Gill the Baptist Theologian

John Gill was born on November 23 in 1697. The place was Kettering, Northamptonshire, England.

Gill grew up in a good Christian home, where his parents, Edward and Elizabeth Gill, were God-fearing Calvinistic Baptists who had been ministered to by William Wallis; his father serving as a deacon in the Baptist work in Kettering.

Gill’s early years were spent studying in the local grammar school where he was an outstanding student and excelled in languages. At the age of 11 his school master insisted that all students attend church with him each day, as a deliberate challenge to the dissenters in the community. This was the end of Gill’s formal education but he spent his time wisely teaching himself and not only excelled in Greek and Latin but was quite adept at Hebrew by the age of nineteen, for which he was completely self taught.

John’s love for Hebrew became a life-long theme, amplified in later life by immersion in the rabbinic writings as a source of insight into the scriptures. He later wrote a worthy treatise on “The Antiquity of the Hebrew Language”. Latin and Greek likewise were mastered by this profound scholar.

John was so diligent in attending the bookseller’s shop when it was open on market days that it became a local proverb, “as sure as that John Gill is in the bookseller’s shop”. In later life Gill’s studious life prompted a revised proverb, “as sure as Dr Gill is in his study”.

Gill came to faith at the age of 12 but declined baptism (a key focus on the Baptist tradition to which he had been raised) out of respect for its seriousness, but also to protect himself from being called into Christian ministry too early. The eyes of the Kettering church were upon him as a prime candidate to assist the minister who was falling behind in his duties.

“Gill’s thirst for knowledge was insatiable”, writes one biographer – and it was no surprise that after his baptism, at the age of 19 (1716), he began to preach.

He married Elizabeth Negus in 1718 and they raised three children beyond infancy: Elizabeth, John, and Mary. In 1719 he became pastor of London’s famous Horselydown. Benjamin Keach had preceded him as pastor and in time C. H. Spurgeon would pastor this church.

For over 50 years he pastored the same congregation, and wrote voluminously. Of his Commentary on the whole Bible, Spurgeon writes: “For good, sound, massive, sober sense in commenting, who can excel Gill?” (Commenting on Commentaries, page 9). His portrait hung in Spurgeon’s vestry.

But it needs to be added that Gill was a hyper-Calvinist, so zealous to emphasise the sovereignty of God that “he denied preachers the right to offer Christ to unregenerate sinners” (Dictionary of the Christian Church, page 413).

As a Particular Baptist Gill elevated the role of predestination and so did not consider preaching to the doomed un-regenerates as a worthy exercise. General Baptists, on the other hand, appeal to the free will of all. Those who decline to celebrate Gill mostly do so over this Hyper-Calvinism emphasis.

Some see Gill as the first systematizer of a Baptist Hyper-Calvinist theology while others argue that he is not of that persuasion. Particular Baptist Churches began their decline into Hyper-Calvinism at that time as so Gill is seen as a likely influence to that trend.

Gill was keen to systematise theology even though creeds and systematic doctrines were in disrepute at that time. His stands as the first major Baptist theologian and his works retain their influence even to this day. Ed Reese comments that Dr Gill “may be the greatest scholar the Baptists ever produced” … but that would probably depend upon one’s theological leaning!

Gill wrote pamphlets in challenge of John Wesley’s publications, contending topics related to predestination, grace and free will. Gill respected Wesley’s piety and impact but saw him as shallow in theological insights, thus able to present his poorly defined arguments in good faith.

Another matter of grave importance to Gill is that of the Trinity and the true nature of the persons of the godhead. His final word on that matter was published after his death.

Gill recognised his impending death and declared his enduring trust in the Lord, with absolutely no reliance on his own efforts or achievements for merit in his salvation. Thus he gloriously terminated his mortal career, without a sigh or groan, on the 14th day of October 1771, at about eleven o’clock in the forenoon, at his house in Camberwell, Surrey, aged seventy-three years, ten months, and ten days.

This post is based on the work of my late friend Donald Prout whose love for books and Christian history led him to collate a daily Christian calendar. I continue to work with Don’s wife, Barbara, to share his life work with the world. I have updated some of these historical posts and will hopefully draw from Don’s huge files of clippings to continue this series beyond Don’s original work. More of Don’s work can be found at www.donaldprout.com. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History, which I previously considered to be a little stuffy and of little practical value. I find in the process of updating Don’s Christian Diary that I am being constantly refreshed, illuminated or challenged by the lives of those who have gone before.