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!
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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