Susanna Wesley, the Mother of the Wesleys
Transcription of Sketch in the Christian Messenger by Rev. Albert A. Birchenough
Susanna, the accomplished wife of the Rev. Samuel Wesley, Rector of Epworth, and the mother of the Wesley brothers, was the daughter of Dr. Samuel Annesley. Dunton relates that when Dr. Manton was baptizing one of Dr. Annesley’s numerous children he was asked how many more he had, the witty divine characteristicly replied that he was not quite sure whether it was two dozen or a quarter of a hundred! Susanna was Dr. Annesley’s twenty-fourth child; and she also in the course of time was the mother of a large family of nineteen children.
Dr. Samuel Annesley was descended from an old family that had been settled in Nottinghamshire before the Norman Conquest. The grandfather of the distinguished divine was Viscount Valentia, and one of his uncles was the first Earl of Anglesea. His father died when he was but four years of age, and his education devolved upon his godly mother. From his earliest years he determined to be a preacher of the Gospel. When he was only five or six years of age he began to read twenty chapters of the Bible every day – a practise which became habitual, and was continued to the end of his long life. At the early age of fifteen he entered Queens College, Oxford, and was successful in gaining the degree of Doctor of Laws. In July, 1648, he preached before the House of Commons. Four years later he became minister of St. John the Apostle – one of the famous London churches. In 1657 he was appointed lecturer of St. Paul’s Cathedral, and was Vicar, or, as he himself says, “soul-servant” of St. Giles’, Cripplegate. In these City spheres he regularly ministered to two of the largest congregations in London.
At Black Bartholomew, Dr. Annesley was ejected from his London living, which was worth £700 per year; a large sum for those times. He licensed a meeting-house in St. Helen’s Place, where he formed a large and influential congregation, to whom he faithfully ministered the Word of Life until his death. He was widely known as “the St. Paul of the Nonconformists,” for he had the pastoral care of all the London dissenting churches. Richard Baxter declared that Dr. Annesley was “a most sincere, godly, humble man. An Israelite indeed, one that may be said to he sanctified from his birth.”
From girlhood Miss Susanna Annesley was acquainted with the controversy existing between the Anglicans and the Noncomformists. Although her father was the recognised Bishop of the dissenters, yet she at the early age of thirteen joined the Church of England. During that same year Samuel Wesley, who was the son of an ejected clergyman, made her acquaintance at the wedding of her amiable sister to John Dunton, the eccentric London bookseller. Six years later Susanna Annesley became the wife of Samuel Wesley, who was ten years her senior. By ancestry, birth and education, Miss Annesley was a most suitable companion for Samuel Wesley, who on his fathers and mother’s side was the descendant of distinguished clergymen. From childhood, like her father, she was a sincere and devoted Christian. She had received the advantages of a classical education, and was the possessor of a superior intellect, which was highly cultured. In her appearance she was not only graceful, but beautiful. In all respects she was a superior woman. Her numerous writings prove “that for vigorous thought, mental discipline, clearness of apprehension, logical acumen, extensive theological knowledge, purity of style, and force of utterance, Susanna Wesley had few superiors?’
Wesley was deeply attached to his wife. For some forty-six years they battled together with their domestic difficulties, and after seven years separation by death they were re-united in the life beyond the valley of the shadow. Southey says: “No man was ever more suitably mated than Samuel Wesley. The wife whom he chose was, like himself, the child of a man eminent amongst the Nonconformists, and, like himself in early life, she had chosen her own path. She was an admirable woman, an obedient wife, an exemplary mother, and a fervent Christian.” Samuel Wesley spent the first eighteen months of his married life in a London curacy. In August, 1690, he was promoted to the Rectorship of South Ormsby in Lincolnshire. Seven years later he removed to Epworth, in the Isle of Axholme, where he remained as Rector for thirty-nine long years.
Mrs. Wesley was exceptionally methodical in the home-training of her children. During the ?rst three months after birth the children were dressed and undressed at stated times. At a year old they were taught “to fear the rod and to cry softly.” The children were expected to behave when having their meals, and to eat what was set before them. As soon as they were old enough to handle a knife and fork they were allowed to sit at table with their parents. Family worship was conducted at six o’clock, and all the children were in bed by eight. Mrs. Wesley’s ruling principle was to teach her children implicit obedience. This was the secret of government in her large family circle. She says: “I insist upon conquering the will of children betimes, because this is the only strong and rational foundation of a religious education without which both precept and example will be ineffectual. But when this is thoroughly done, then a child is capable of being governed by the reason and piety of its parents till its own understanding comes to maturity and the principles of religion have taken root in the mind.” Then religious training began with their infancy. Before they could talk she trained them to be quiet at family prayers; and at table they asked a blessing by signs. As soon as they were able to articulate she taught them to repeat the Lord’s Prayer, the Collects and suitable portions of Scripture. Neither profane language nor rude talk was allowed in the family circle, and they were expected to treat the servants with respect, and to ask properly for what they wanted. Mrs. Wesley was also the schoolmistress of the Epworth Rectory. She began her work when the child was five years of age. All her children learnt the alphabet in one day, with the exception of two of her girls, who required a day and a half. After the alphabet was mastered, the children were taught to spell and to read. Mrs. Wesley says: “It is almost incredible what a child may be taught in a quarter of a year by a vigorous application if it have but a tolerable capacity and good health.”
In February, 1709, the memorable fire took place at Epworth Rectory. The providential escape of John Wesley from the devouring flames made a profound impression upon the mind of his mother. Some two years after the event she solemnly wrote: I do intend to be more particularly careful of the soul of this child, that Thou hast so mercifully provided for, than even I have been, that I may do my endeavour to instil into his mind the principles of Thy true religion and virtue. Lord give me grace to do it sincerely and prudently, and bless my attempts with good success.” As the result of her special training John Wesley was allowed by his father to partake of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper when he was only eight years of age.
Whilst Samuel Wesley, in the year 1712, was attending a Convocation of clergy in London there was only a morning service held in Epworth Church. It was conducted by Wesley’s curate, who “was a dry, unevangelical preacher, whose religion was summed up in the duty of paying one’s debts, which formed the constant theme of his ministry.” Under the circumstances Mrs. Wesley held a service at the Rectory on Sunday evenings for the special benefit of her children and servants. In the course of her private devotional reading she perused the stirring accounts of the spiritual successes of the energetic Danish Missionaries amongst the heathen population of Malabar. The account of these remarkable conversions in the East Indian Mission Field led Mrs. Wesley to a fuller consecration of herself to the service of God. A youth who was employed in the household of the Wesleys told his parents of the remarkable meetings that were being held at the Rectory, and they sought and obtained permission to attend. They were joined by others, and the numbers rapidly increased to about two hundred worshippers. Many persons went away from the Rectory disappointed because they could not secure admittance. It was the custom of Mrs. Wesley to read to her husband’s parishioners some of the most awakening sermons that were published. She also spent a large portion of time with them in devotional exercises and the exposition of the Scriptures. The Curate pleaded with his Rector to discontinue these irregular assemblies of his parishioners, but Mrs. Wesley’s defence of her meetings was so satisfactory that he dared not prohibit them. By these meetings “Mrs. Wesley had thus, unintentionally, become a sort of female preacher,” and she also had turned the Rectory into a conventicle. These irregular proceedings, instead of scandalising the church services, increased the congregations at the parish church.
Some five years after John Wesley went to Oxford, and in his twenty-second year he experienced “a great increase of spiritual desire.” Under the new inspiration he had serious thoughts of becoming a clergyman, and he sought the advice of his parents. His father was wishful that he should devote himself to a course of “critical learning,” but his mother was delighted with the thought of his earnest desire to take Orders. Shortly afterwards, and possibly through his wife’s influence, Samuel Wesley changed his opinion, and wrote to his son John, urging him to give himself to prayer and study; and he further promised that he would bear a portion of the ordination expenses.
After ten years’ varied employment as a College Tutor and Village Curate, John Wesley was asked in 1735 to go as a Missionary to the recently-established British Colony of Georgia. From Oxford, John Wesley travelled to Epworth to consult his widowed mother, whose husband had only been dead a few months. Her reply was: “Had I twenty sons I should rejoice if they were all so employed.” Without delay Wesley expressed his willingness to undertake the Mission work, and he was sent out as the agent of the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts.
At the beginning of the Great Revival of the eighteenth century Susanna Wesley removed from Epworth to the Foundery, London, where she lodged in her son ]ohn’s apartments. She took the deepest interest in the development of early Methodism. Principally through her agency, lay-preachers and unordained clergyman became Wesley’s regular “helpers.” Thomas Maxfield had been converted under Wesley’s preaching in Bristol. When he was convinced of sin he threw himself to the ground, and it took six men to hold him. After finding peace, he for some time was the travelling companion and servant of Charles Wesley. During John Wesley’s temporary absence from London, Maxfield was left in charge of the Foundery Society. From prayer and exhortation he began to preach, and his warm-hearted ministry was followed with numerous conversions. When the strange news reached Wesley he was somewhat perplexed, and hurried forthwith to London with the intention of putting a stop to Maxfield’s irregularity. His mother having listened to her son’s petulant statement: “I find Thomas Maxfield has turned preacher,” replied thereto by referring to her own personal objections to lay-preaching. She significantly added: “John, take care what you do with respect to that young man, for he is as surely called of God to preach as you are. Examine what have been the fruits of his preaching, and hear him yourself.” When Wesley, like the Samaritans of old, heard for himself, he could only say: “It is the Lord, let him do what seemeth him good.” The recognition of Maxfield as a lay-preacher led to the extension of Methodism throughout the towns and villages of the United Kingdom. Without such an agency Methodism would have been restricted in its operations to a few city centres, and could not have reached the cottage and village population of Great Britain.
Mrs. Susanna Wesley died on July 23rd, 1742. As she approached the river of death, she had neither doubt nor fear of her acceptance in the Beloved. Her one desire was to depart and to be with Jesus, which would be far better. With her latest breath she said to her sons and daughters who stood around her couch: “Children, as soon as I am released, sing a psalm of praise.” At five o’clock on the Sabbath afternoon of August 1st her mortal remains were laid to rest in Bunhill Fields Cemetery, in the presence of a large assemblage. There was a great mourning as John Wesley read “I commit the body of my dear mother to the earth.” One who was present has recorded that “It was one of the most solemn assemblies I ever saw or expect to see on this side eternity.”
Telford says: “The mother lived on in her sons and in the glorious work which they were doing for God and their country. Her name has become one of the household names of the world.” And the authority in bearing testimony to the influence of Susanna Wesley upon her two extraordinary sons, remarks: “The Wesleys’ mother was the mother of Methodism in a religious and moral sense; for her courage, her submissiveness to authority, the high tone of her mind, its independence, and its self-control, the warmth of her devotional feelings, and the practical direction given to them came up, and were visibly repeated in the character and conduct of her sons.”
Christian Messenger 1902/15