Susanna Wesley: Heroine for Women's History Month

Susanna Wesley would have been noteworthy simply for giving birth to John Wesley and thus being the mother of Methodism. In this Women’s History Month, she is unique, according to Edith Deen, in her 1977 classic, Great Women of the Christian Faith, because “few mothers in history have possessed the spiritual sensitivity, the stamina and the wisdom of Susanna Wesley.” Numerous biographers and historians have praised Susanna Wesley’s intellect, her extraordinary personal discipline, wisdom and clear judgment. In any historical era, she would have been an outstanding woman of accomplishment; for her time and under her unusual circumstances, she is extraordinary.        

Born to a strong-willed father, Susanna was equally opinionated and strong-willed. She was striking in her “independence of mind,” according to Beverly Whitaker, a biographer who also noted her scholarship and force of character. She chose to join the Church of England, even though her father was a leader of the Dissenters. Interestingly, about the same time that Susanna made that decision, Samuel Wesley, her future husband, made the same decision, their paths crossed and they married. Arnold A. Dallimore described Samuel and Susanna as opposites in many ways. Samuel was short; Susanna tall. While both wrote with a remarkable mastery of language, she wrote with precision; he wrote with beautiful poetic skill and, often, with wit and humor. While Susanna rarely revealed her emotions; Samuel wrote, said Dallimore, of their “most passionate love.”

Even though Samuel, by all accounts, was a diligent, highly productive scholar, both brilliant and erudite, and he received numerous honors from the Church and from Royalty, he spent most of his life in debt. Therefore, Susanna, after having grown up in a financially stable home with a comfortable lifestyle, lived in poverty – even in destitute conditions for extended periods of time. Of their nineteen children in nineteen years, only ten survived to adulthood. 

Dallimore reported that Susanna’s independent mind and strong personality were encouraged, valued, and appreciated in her parents’ home, but her husband would not allow her to think or hold an opinion -- much less act or ask for anything -- without his permission. After one especially strong theological and Church disagreement, Samuel left his family without making plans for their livelihood and stayed gone for a year. He returned when a fire destroyed their home, leaving his family homeless as well as destitute. Thereafter he and Susanna were somewhat estranged, however both John and Charles Wesley were born after that incident.

Following Samuel’s return, Dallimore wrote, Susanna withdrew from almost all interaction outside her home, rarely leaving the house, and devoting her full attention to educating and training her children. She set up a formal school with regular hours and a strict, disciplined routine. She held to this six-hour-a-day schedule for twenty years. She also set aside two hours a day for her personal devotion. When that time arrived, according to Deen, nothing interfered with her time of prayer and Bible Study. Some biographers speculated that her routine was a “way to both cope with and escape from the disorder surrounding” her husband. Whatever the reason for her unique dedication to educating her children, she “prepared her daughters to marry Anglican clergymen and her sons to become Anglican bishops.”

Susanna’s children were taught obedience and how to control their emotions. The molding of their character and concern for their souls were Susanna’s priorities. Susanna excelled in both goals. Everything she and Samuel did for their children was designed to further their education or edify their souls. In addition to her regular teaching routine, Susanna spent an hour each week with each child individually. She also wrote long treatises on theological subjects. In a day when not even wealthy women were educated, the Wesley daughters were as well-read as their brothers. One of the daughters knew Latin and Greek by 9 years of age and contemporaries who knew them all thought that the beautiful and vivacious Hetty was more gifted than either John or Charles at poetry and hymn writing. Hetty, too, was strong-willed; all her promise and potential was never realized after she ran afoul her father’s rigidity and he forced her to marry an unknown tramp passing through town.

One of Susanna’s prayers stands out, “Grant me grace, O Lord, to be wholly a Christian; 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.”      

It is difficult from a modern perspective to understand Samuel’s decision to give his three sons, Samuel, Charles, and John, the “best education that England could provide” at the expense of abject poverty for Susanna and their daughters. It is even more difficult to understand his treatment of his brilliant daughter, Hetty. Tragically, their poverty and their father’s rigidity removed all hope the daughters had for a future commensurate with the refinement and education that Susanna instilled in them so assiduously. 

Historians note that Samuel would have been merely another obscure, though brilliant, scholar except for his noteworthy sons. John Wesley is considered to be the “father of Methodism” (the second largest Protestant denomination in America) and his brother, Charles, is author of more than 6,500 hymns. John and Charles’ broad intellectual attainments, organizational skills, discipline, spiritual depth, and accomplishments in poetry and hymnody clearly were enhanced through the nurturing and training of their mother, Susanna Wesley. 

Whether a fair assessment of Samuel or not, one writer was cruelly blunt, “Despite the dreams of Samuel Wesley -- political, poetical, and theological -- that never materialized, despite his bumbling and his overall incompetence, his family survived Epworth rectory. It survived because his wife Susanna Annesley Wesley provided more than enough strength to compensate for her husband’s weakness.”

Janice Shaw Crouse, Ph.D., is Executive Director of the World Congress of Families IX, October 27-30, Salt Lake City.