Rev Elizabeth Rundle relates the story of Susannah Wesley, 350 years after her birth.
The brothers John and Charles Wesley dominated the religious revival across England in the later part of the 18th century. However, they owed the foundation of their education and their faith to their mother, Susanna. This year celebrates the 350th Anniversary of Susanna’s birth and, throughout the world-wide Methodist Connexion ‘The Mother of Methodism’ has been remembered.
Susanna was the last but one child of her father’s second marriage. Just imagine having 24 siblings! The house where she was born can still be seen today, tucked away in a cul-de-sac in London’s Bishopsgate. Her father, Rev Dr Samuel Annesley opened his house to many of the progressive and intellectual minds of the day. Susanna’s lively mind, vivacious personality and beauty attracted Samuel Wesley, some 7 years her senior. They married as soon as Samuel had secured a curacy. But life as a vicar’s wife brought radical change.
Instead of London’s social scene, the entertaining and the company of family, Susanna faced loneliness, lack of culture and unfamiliar, uncomfortable surroundings. Moving to the area of Lincolnshire, known as the Isle of Axholme, was like moving continents. Poverty, bitter cold weather and nearly annual pregnancies awaited. Huge drainage schemes were underway and half the rural population were Dutch labourers, disinterested in the new little vicar. In 1697 they moved to the Rectory at Epworth where Rev Samuel Wesley was again unpopular. It was at Epworth that most of their 19 children were born, though only 10 lived into adulthood.
John Wesley’s dramatic rescue as a little boy from the vicarage fire is one of the better known stories, but on that night, Susanna, heavily pregnant, was trapped in the house and was forced to escape through flames engulfing the front door. Once outside she collapsed.
Susanna was a truly remarkable woman with ideas way beyond her time. Sometimes the family could not afford good clothes and often there was only one servant to help in the house. Into her restricted circumstances Susanna forged a disciplined timetable to each day and for each child. Her home-schooling was not confined to sewing and genteel pursuits for the girls while the three surviving boys studied reading and mathematics. Susanna believed every girl should be able to read before she could sew and she taught the boys French, Latin, Greek and Hebrew. So proficient was her teaching that Samuel Jnr, John and Charles were accepted at Oxford University and all three entered into Holy Orders. This was a mother who instilled the need for discipline and method into each of her children. If life overwhelmed her, she would seek some moments respite by throwing her apron over her head. This signalled to the children that Mama was praying!
Susanna laid down three household rules for all her children:
The babes must cry softly.
Each child must eat everything put in front of them.
There must be no raised voices.
Susanna’s day began at 5.00am. She milked the cow, saw to the hens, attended to household needs, taught the children, allotted each child an hour to themselves each week and above all she maintained her habit of prayer, Bible reading and writing to the end of her life.
Her husband, Rev Samuel Wesley, was frequently away for months at a time. During one of his long absences, Susanna was less than impressed by the lack of teaching given by his curate. So, she took it upon herself to give religious instruction to her children around the kitchen table. The servants listened intently and asked if some of their family could come to the kitchen. These gatherings around Susanna’s kitchen table soon attracted more people than attended Sunday service. Her husband was furious and forbade the continuation of what he called “kitchen conventicles”. But Susanna would not be ordered to stop, she continued her regular religious teaching.
One of her written prayers shows the influence she had on John, the beginning of class meetings, house groups and his own outdoor preaching: “Help me, Lord, to remember that religion is not to be confined to the church or closet, nor exercised only in prayer and meditation, but that everywhere I am in thy presence”.
Life at the Epworth Vicarage was severely shadowed by lack of money. Or, to be precise, the Rev Samuel Wesley’s ability to get into debt! They often had to be bailed out by Susanna’s uncles, their eldest son, Samuel and even once, the Archbishop of York. Despite these efforts to remain solvent, Rev Samuel was twice incarcerated in Lincoln jail for non-payment of debt. Humiliation added to daily grind and rural isolation.
Rev Samuel died in debt which was paid off by John Wesley. But not before a woman from down the road had marched to the Vicarage, taken the bedspread from Susanna’s bed and left taking the cow with her to cover her debts. With her husband dead and John and Charles in the New Colonies (America) Susanna spent the next few years living with two of her married daughters.
John and Charles returned to England, and in May 1738 first Charles and then John experienced such an experience of God’s presence that history was in the making. The conversion of these two Church of England priests was the spark to ignite a protestant revival which some scholars credit saved England from a similar revolution to France. John bought a former canon factory, known as the Foundry, in City Road, London. The building was large enough for John to organise a school, a chapel, a basic clinic and living quarters within its walls. Susanna, together with her widowed daughter, Hetty, lived her last years at the Foundry. While John was on his regular, and extensive, travels the two women did their best to tend to the physical, educational and spiritual needs of the poor.
John wrote many letters to his mother. In one he mentioned his shock that a certain Thomas Maxfield was preaching without being ordained. John meant to stop any such preaching but Susanna wrote to John that she would go and hear Thomas herself. After listening to Thomas Maxwell preach, she wrote to John, “That young man is as surely called by God to preach as you are!” This made a fundamental step forward within the embryonic congregations called Methodists. Lay ministry did, and has, held the Methodist church together through all the divisions and upheavals of two and a half centuries. In 1739 her first-born son, Samuel, headmaster at Blundell’s School in Devon, took ill and died within hours. This was the worst sorrow to his mother. Fortunately, Susanna’s final years were free from debt, free from hunger and warmed with the company of family living close by in London.
In July 1742, this daughter of a clergyman, wife to a clergyman and mother of three Church of England clergymen, reached the borders of eternity. But this indomitable woman told her children that as soon as her end had come, they were to sing a Psalm of praise. Susanna was buried opposite the Foundry – now the site of Wesley’s Chapel – in Bunhill Fields Cemetery.
She wrote,“We bless you, Lord, that you steer our souls innocently through this tempestuous world. You calm and support us under all the calamities of human life. Peace was the legacy of our dying Lord, and, as the world cannot give it, so neither can it take it away.”
Rest in Peace, Susanna Wesley.