Susanna Wesley - Mother of Methodism
By Anne Adams
As a wife and mother in a small 18th century English parish Susanna
Wesley herself received little recognition for how she managed
her household, raised and educated more than a dozen children
and coped with a sometimes impecunious, idealistic and occasionally
difficult clergyman husband. Yet from her personal influence and
loving home came a son who would experience a spiritual awakening
and use that inspiration to begin a ministry that would fill a
void in the national spiritual life and also develop into a world
wide church. Indeed, it might be said that the movement called
Methodism had its foundations in the home of Susanna Wesley.
Born on January 20, 1669, as the daughter of a London pastor
and the youngest of 25 children, Susanna Annesley was quite familiar
with both a clergymans household and large families.
Seven years before Susanna was born the Church of England asserted
its supremacy over the other English Protestant Non-Conformist
or Dissenting churches. With the 1662 Act of Uniformity,
all Church of England ministers were required to support the Book
of Common Prayer or be forced out of their parishes and banned
from preaching in an Anglican pulpit. When some 2000 refused they
were forced from their parishes, homes and university positions
leaving many to make a living by teaching, writing or preaching
where they could.
Susanna was educated at home, with her lessons supplemented by
the intellectual atmosphere of her fathers many scholarly
visitors. One of these was the son of a Dissenting minister, Samuel
Wesley, then a student.
Born in 1662, Samuel had come from a background of poverty since
his Dissenting father had been deprived of his parish. However,
after much thought Samuel decided to affiliated with the Church
of England and because of that decision he was able to attend
Oxford University where he lived on an extremely limited budget
with little luxury.
Samuel Wesley was ordained in 1689 and he and Susanna, who had
also decided to affiliate with the Anglican Church, were married
soon after when she was 20 and he was 28.
As a new clergyman Samuel would encounter a national spiritual
apathy for English religious devotion was at an all time low.
Many had developed a belief in Deism, seeing God as a withdrawn
and disinterested Creator and devotion to God had been replaced
by cold logic and church services had become dull and dry. Following
his ordination and marriage, Samuel served other parishes before
1696 when he came to Epworth in the North Lincolnshire area, the
church he would serve most of his life. Also during this time
Susanna had had seven children in those seven years, three of
The Epworth area was primarily rural in economy and in mindset,
and for Samuel as a city minded scholar it proved difficult. He
was a rigid and moralistic pastor and some parishioners responded
with occasional hostility. Samuel also lacked business sense so
it was left up to Susanna to manage the household and business
expenses and all with no word of criticism for Samuel.
More children were born in the next few years, but many did not
survive. For Susanna, churching the Prayer
Books Service of Thanksgiving Following Childbirth
was an annual occasion. Ten of Susannas eventual
nineteen children lived to maturity, making for a large family
to raise and educate while she carried out all her other household
responsibilities. Yet Susanna accomplished it well and often with
only just servant.
One scholar described the Wesley children as a cluster
of bright, vehement, argumentative boys and girls, living by a
clean and high code, and on the plainest fare; but drilled to
soft tones, to pretty formal courtesies; with learning as an ideal,
duty as an atmosphere and fear of God as law.
However, Samuel and Susanna were both strong characters each
with definite opinions and while they were devoted to each other
there were occasions when they had marital difficulties. For example,
one time royal politics entered their home life and caused a separation.
Susanna was a strong supporter of the Stuart King James who had
been overthrown in 1688 and replaced by William, his Dutch son-in-law.
In 1702 when in family prayers Samuel prayed for King William
Susanna refused to say Amen. She was, as her son John
described it later, inflexible, and Samuel was equally
Sukey, he told her as he left home. We must
part for if we have two kings we must have two beds. Susanna
asserted that she would apologize if she was wrong but she felt
to do so for expediency only would be a lie and thus a sin. Eventually
after five months and the death of King William Samuel returned
home and from their reconciliation was born John in 1703.
The Wesleys had many challenges over the years, again occasionally
caused by some parishioners opposition to Samuel as pastor.
At times some locals would demonstrate their displeasure by mocking
the children, burning the family crops, damaging the rectory and
abusing the family cows and dog. Then in 1705 when they disagreed
with Samuels political choices a group of villagers harangued
the parsonage all night in Samuels absence shouting,
drumming and firing guns and with Susanna just recovering from
the birth of her sixteenth child. Unfortunately, the babys
nurse was so exhausted after all the commotion she lapsed into
a deep sleep and rolled over on the baby smothering it.
Another time a parishioner demanded immediate payment of a debt
that Samuel could not pay so he had the pastor imprisoned. At
home Susanna struggled to manage on a reduced budget while Samuel
became self-appointed pastor to his fellow prisoners. The church
eventually paid the debt and Samuel returned home.
Then in 1709 there occurred another tragedy that affected the
family but also endangered John then a small boy. On February
9, 1709 the Epworth rectory caught on fire and though John later
considered it set by vindictive neighbors it could well have been
accidental. With their home in flames the family scrambled to
safety including Susanna who was expecting what would be her last
child. However, when the family assembled they were missing one
six year old John. Then after they spotted him standing
in a window, a neighbor lifted another man to his shoulders so
the second man could snatch little John to safety just seconds
before the roof fell in. John saw his deliverance as Gods
work and for many years referred to himself as a literal brand
snatched from the burning.
Yet though the family was safe they realized the fire had destroyed
not just the house but also all the contents including family
papers and Samuels library. The rectory was rebuilt but
while it was under construction the family was separated by staying
with various relatives.
To manage such a large household and properly educate her children
Susanna established a definite routine for her household and family,
aiming to help each child learn, mature and develop Christian
character. At a time when severe physical punishment was a standard
part of education Susannas policy was strength guided
by kindness. She gave each child individual attention by
purposely setting aside a regular time for each of them. Later
John wrote his mother fondly remembering his special time with
In 1711 Samuels absence and Susannas attempts to
meet the spiritual needs of her family caused another family difficulty.
Samuel was attending a long church conference leaving his pulpit
in charge of another minister, a Mr. Inman. However, the man proved
a poor choice since his almost constant sermon topic was paying
ones debts when he owed many. Some saw this as a slap at
Since there were no afternoon church services, Susanna began
an evening family gathering where they sang psalms, prayed and
Susanna read a short sermon from her husbands library. It
began with the family and the servants but soon word spread and
others neighbors appeared, and soon there were too many for the
parsonage. Susanna had written her husband of what she was doing,
but then in his own letter when he perhaps saw the services as
competition, Mr. Inman complained to Samuel. His claim to Samuel
was that such irregular services could cause criticism or even
scandal for the church. For while women have been ordained in
many Methodist churches for more than 50 years at that time the
idea of a woman having any part in a worship service even
in her own home was unheard of. Samuel suggested to Susanna
that she have someone else read the sermons, but still Mr. Inman
complained and finally Samuel told Susanna to discontinue the
meetings. However, she declined as she described how the meetings
were a genuine and effective ministry to those who attended and
that Mr. Inman was about the only one whod objected. The
As his health slowly failed, Samuel continued to work on his
life long project a book called Dissertations on
the Book of Job. Though Samuel hoped its publication would
assure his familys financial security it did not prove so.
Written in Latin, the ponderous and scholarly account did not
appeal to the average reader. Samuel could possibly have been
more successful by writing shorter and more popular pieces, but
he preferred to devote his talents to what he considered a high
level of scholarship.
After Samuel passed away on April 5, 1735 when John had paid
his debts Susanna had very little. For the rest of her life she
would depend on her children.
Soon after with Susanna settled in a daughters home, John
and Charles Wesley joined a group of colonists settling in Georgia.
For some time they had been searching for spiritual fulfillment
and through various experiences in America and after their return
to England they finally found the peace and assurance they sought.
Their conversion not only fulfilled them spiritually but also
inspired them to begin the preaching and outreach that would be
a part of their new ministry, dubbed Methodism after a methodical
religious routine John had developed while at Oxford. In 1740
John moved Susanna into the center of this new ministry in London,
a former cannon factory known as the Foundery. The large building
held chapels, a school, a clinic, and living quarters for John
and other workers. Susanna would spend her final days among loving
people involved in a new ministry and with her other children
nearby. Then as the end neared and with her family around her,
she instructed them: Children, as soon as I am released
sing a psalm of praise to God. She passed away July 23,
Susannas place in Christian history is indeed based on
what her sons accomplished but it could be said to have been her
example and influence that helped them to do what they did. Susannas
best legacy was indeed her children, particularly John. For it
was in the Epworth parsonage that he acquired the focused leadership
that would empower and inspire the man who represents the
force which has most profoundly affected English history,
as one scholar put it, referring to the 18th century.
Indeed, a great legacy from a woman who expressed a simple desire:
I am content to fill a little space if God be glorified.
Currently on the staff of St. Lukes United Methodist Church
in Houston, Anne is a freelance writer/teacher. She has published
devotionals, fiction and non-fiction, and her book Brittany,
Child of Joy was issued from Broadman Press in 1985. She
holds two degrees in history and has taught on the junior college