ONE day in 1701, the year before the death of William Third of England, Samuel Wesley, rector of Epworth parish, in his domestic worship, voiced his customary prayer for the king. For thirteen years this had been his daily habit, and he had never noticed until this morning that Susannah, his wife, did not supply the dutiful “Amen!” which responded to every other petition. When he remonstrated with her somewhat tartly for this breach of churchly decorum, he learned to his surprise that she had never said “Amen!” to that prayer and that she never would. Church-woman as she was, defender of Protestantism as was William of Orange, she had never regarded him as the rightful monarch and she would never recognize him as king.
The complacent rector could hardly believe his ears. He remembered the year of the silent revolution which had placed William and Mary upon the throne. He remembered that day in the same year which had marked his marriage with the beautiful Susannah Annesley. All his married life until now had run parallel with the reign of the king. To be told that all these years the wife of his heart had been denying the very foundations of his political faith, even of the State itself, was indeed almost beyond belief.
Yet this attitude was signiﬁcant of Susannah. For all this time, in the daily intimacy of the home, she had pursued her even way. If she could not yield technical allegiance to King William, the point was unimportant, let it pass! If she could not subscribe to all the details of her husband’s political belief, she could still glorify the ofﬁce of wife and mother. Careless of non-essentials, she knew the eternal realities. For thirteen years she had been indifferent to the determination of the point of doctrine involved in William’s crowning; all these years she had been enacting the role of wife and mother-the maker of a home.
For over forty years longer she continued the chief actor in this drama-of Epworth Parish it might well be called-and without her character, the play would never have been enacted. Here there is a touch of comedy, there a bit of melodrama, occasionally a hint of farce; but always dominant and overwhelming, the tragedy of the smothering commonplace. And out of this drama, of which Susanna Wesley was the dominating ﬁgure, grew a new religious faith that in all the Anglo-Saxon world revitalized religion.
Early Years & Family Background
January 20, 1669, in Spital Yard, a narrow court in London, was born Susannah Annesley, the youngest of twenty-ﬁve children. July 23, 1742, in an abandoned London gun foundry, converted into a combination dwelling and meeting house for her preacher son John, Susanna Wesley died. The span of her life witnessed a new quickening of religious thought, the culmination of the renaissance and the reformation which had gone before. It was possibly greater than either, for it was a renaissance of the reformation; it was a new birth of the spiritual life of England. In this movement two names stand conspicuous, the two Wesleys-John, the organizer and founder, and Charles, the pious minstrel of the new life. What these two teachers of the new ideas of spiritual equality were, they owed directly and speciﬁcally to the counsels and training of their mother. She was not only the mother of the Wesleys but the mother of Methodism.
In her girlhood, Susannah witnessed the dying embers of a ﬁre of persecution of the nonconformists which had burned as steadily if not so ﬁercely as any which had gone before. The “Act of Uniformity,” of 1662, required every clergyman to declare his “unfeigned assent to all and everything contained and prescribed in the Book of Common Prayer.’’ On St. Bartholomew’s day, when the act went into effect, over two thousand ministers bade farewell to their weeping congregations. Exemplary in their lives, educated and eloquent, they were “guilty of no crime, save that they did not dare to worship God according to other men’s consciences!” They were forbidden to live within ﬁve miles of any place where they had preached; they were forbidden to teach any school, public or private. Nor were they the only sufferers. Worshipers who attended any other than the established form or even received the dissenting ministers in their homes were heavily ﬁned or imprisoned or transported. The enforcement of the acts was committed to the king’s soldiery; the prisons and even the gallows were crowded with those who took counsel alone with their conscience. Over ﬁve thousand, it is said, died in prison. The other St. Bartholomew’s day exacted scarcely a heavier toll.
In such an England, was Susannah Annesley born. To such steadfastness and courage was she as well as her future husband, Samuel Wesley, an heir. For not only was Samuel Annesley, her father, driven by the Act from the wealthy living of St. Giles in London, but Samuel Wesley’s father, John Westley-Samuel was the ﬁrst to spell his name without the t-was forced to leave the parish of Whitchurch, a little village of Dorsetshire. The digniﬁed London rector only his friends among the nobility saved from physical violence. Not more resolute in his convictions but more militant in his faith, John Westley, however, knew no peace after the fateful twenty-third of August. He was driven from his lowly pulpit at Whitchurch; successive orders forced him from village to village. His body was too frail long to withstand this grim religious warfare, and when he was but a young man he died. His father, Bartholomew, much more violent in speech and action than his son, easily withstood the ﬁerce struggle brought about by persecution, but was crushed by John’s death and survived him only a short time.
Such was the heritage which met and blended in the lives of Susannah Annesley and Samuel Wesley. Yet strangely enough the two lines of descent were apparently reversed. Samuel Annesley seems to have been reproduced in Samuel Wesley, while all the grim steadfastness of the Westleys-father and son-seems to have been transmuted into a still ﬁner metal in the resolute soul of Susannah.
Early Years of Samuel Wesley
In November, 1662, a few months after his father John Westley had been ejected from Whitchurch, Samuel Wesley was born. Because of the death of his father before the lad was ready for the university, dissenting friends cared for his education. For ﬁve years, he met in daily intimacy the best men of the new creed. Always ready of wit and agile in mind, he had a trick for rhyme and lampoon; his varied talents he utilized, not always too delicately, in the controversial literature of the day. His counselors regarded him as one of the most hopeful of the future ministers of their faith although he had no particularly deep experiences of his own and was content passively to take his theology with his instruction from his father’s friends.
After ﬁve years or so, however, there was a silent revolution in Samuel Wesley’s life as vital to him as was the revolution of 1688 to the English nation. The causes of this complete overturn of his religious beliefs are somewhat obscure, but it is certain that the young girl, afterwards his wife, profoundly inﬂuenced him. After the penalties of the Act of Uniformity had been suspended in 1672, Dr. Annesley took the ministry of a dissenting church in London. His hospitable door welcomed all who knocked, and they were many; for not only was the good doctor genial and hearty but his ﬂock numbered a full score of attractive daughters. Young Samuel was a favorite guest. He came and came again, perhaps because he found the clergyman’s conversation edifying or perhaps because the beautiful Susannah was a delightful companion. One constant topic of conversation was the all-absorbing question of religious conformity. Together they came to doubt the righteousness of the dissension, and together they abandoned the creed of their fathers and returned to the church of authority.
When the young dissenter came to his new beliefs, he allowed no time for his courage to ooze away. To avoid the reproaches of his relatives and friends, he arose early one August morning, and trudged afoot to Oxford there to prepare for the regular ministry. His leaving was not dishonorable, however; from a legacy he repaid the loans of his father’s friends and of necessity entered Exeter College as a servitor with but a few shillings in his pocket. Formerly his life had been comfortable but now to his lot fell the blacking of boots, the serving of meals and the menial services of a valet. With such work he earned his keep and, aided by his literary labors, he managed to exist, so well, in fact, that ﬁve years later when he took his ﬁnal degree he was eight pounds richer than when he entered. He hastened at once to London, was ordained a deacon and, later, priest. The year 1688 or possibly 1689, saw him settled as a curate, and married to his young girl friend Susannah, now just turned eighteen.
Growing Up Among Cultured Companions
While her lover was doing the work of a servant in Oxford, Susannah was growing up among cultured companions. In all minds, ecclesiastical discussions held ﬁrst place. “Before I was full thirteen,” Susannah says, “I had drawn up an account of the whole transaction, under which I had included the main of the controversy between them [the dissenters] and the Established Church, as far as it had come to my knowledge.” She was “early initiated and instructed in the ﬁrst principles of the Christian religion,” and had a “good example in parents, and in several of the family.” In girlhood she “received from the heart the form of doctrine” from her father’s lips. When asked by one of her children for a rule as to diversions she replied that her own rule as a girl was never to spend more time per day in worldly pleasures than she was willing to spend in private devotions.
With all her interest in religious dogma, however, Susannah was a normal, hearty English girl. All twenty of the Annesley girls were fun-loving and comely. Her sister Judith was painted by Sir Peter Lely, and Elizabeth’s charm of face and ﬁgure have been minutely told. Yet one who knew them well says: “Beautiful as Miss Elizabeth Annesley appears, she was far from being as beautiful as Mrs. Wesley.” Moreover, Susannah early showed that all-embracing motherliness that later enabled her to sustain her husband and family under the most trying circumstances and to build all three of her clergyman-sons into greatness. In a letter she says: “What then is love? or how shall we describe its strange mysterious essence? It is-I do not know what! A powerful something! Source of our joy and grief! Felt and experienced by every one, and yet unknown to all! Nor shall we ever comprehend what it is, till we are united to our First Principle, and there read its wondrous nature in the clear mirror of uncreated Love; till which time it is best to rest satisﬁed with such apprehensions of its essence as we can collect from our observations of its effects and properties; for other knowledge of it in our present state is too high and too wonderful for us; neither can we attain unto it.” Her own wife-love and mother-love accomplished the wonder of reawakening the religious life of the English speaking people because, built upon the foundation of a trained mind and inﬁnite patience, it was all-embracing and united to the great “First Principle.”
The Early Years of in London
For two years after the marriage, the young curate and his bride lived in lodgings in London. Here the ﬁrst child, Samuel, was born. Mrs. Wesley managed the small income so well that the family kept out of debt. As an author the young husband more than fulﬁlled the promise of his earlier years; he was long the chief contributor to the Athenian Gazette which numbered among its writers many of the ﬁrst men of the nation-DeFoe and Swift among others. Because he added both to his reputation and his income, he ﬁxed upon himself the writing habit from which he never recovered! More unfortunately still, he never overcame his passion for versifying; upon the slightest occasion he fell into ﬂuent rhyme.
His preliminary service as a curate in London lasted until 1690 when he received the rectory of South Ormsby, a little village in Lincolnshire. This ﬁrst preferment began a life-long struggle for advancement. A rector had no way of bettering his condition except to make friends with the members of the nobility who had the rectorates as absolute gifts. Samuel Wesley’s was no mean spirit but he joined with the rest in soliciting the favor of his superiors in rank. For forty years he was hoping against hope that My Lord This or My Lady That would help him to a more lucrative parish. Poems were his chief method of approach, and as regularly as a new poem appeared he hopefully dedicated it to some new patron. Still he stayed on in his modest rectory, in his own words “wasting in sighs the uncomfortable day.” His meter, however, is no more accurate than the fact, for he wasted no time in sighs or otherwise. He did his daily task of admonition and counsel. Indeed his sense of duty was so rigid that it mattered little to him upon whom the earned reproof fell. This thorough-going honesty always stood in the way of his material progress. The rectorate of South Ormsby he lost because he would not wink at the vices of the man who had the gift of the living. At another time, he condemned a wealthy offender to stand for three successive Sabbaths on the damp mud ﬂoor in the center of the church, without shoes or stockings, bareheaded, wrapped in a white sheet, doing penance. A poorer parishioner who had been guilty of the same offense he let off with a ﬁne and then paid the ﬁne himself.
Thrift & Seven Years in South Ormsby
For seven years the family lived in South Ormsby. The church itself was attractive enough but the rectory “a mean hut composed of reeds and clay.” Here there were ﬁfty pounds a year to live upon “and one child additional per annum.” Yet no one complained. Each newcomer was welcomed, the thrifty wife made a little food ﬁll many mouths, and the rector wrote poems and pamphlets more busily than ever. His “Life of Christ,” a metrical work of some nine thousand lines, a mingled work of genius and dullness, helped keep the wolf from the door.
In all these years, as well as the years that were to follow, his wife had need of all her thrift. Her life from marriage to death is a constant struggle against weakness and poverty. One disaster followed another so drearily that a less thoroughly equipped woman would soon have despaired. The hourly tragedy of the lack of food and clothing, the burden of an ever increasing family of children-her nineteen were all born within a period of twenty years-wrecked neither her courage nor her resourcefulness. Her meager income rivals the widow’s cruse of oil. Possibly a later inspired historian will see the daily food afforded Susannah as clearly given from God as was the oil of the widow of Zarephath.
Calm Serenity Under Adverse Circumstances
This courage is dominant throughout her life. She never gave up; she never yielded even to actual disease. She did the work to be done, no matter what her condition of body or mind. Her son John wrote long afterward of the calm serenity with which his mother “transacted business, wrote letters, and conversed, surrounded by her thirteen children.” She was a quietly practical woman who, having much to do, found time to do everything by dint of methodical industry. Yet while she was ordering her kitchen, she was training her children. Their times of going to rest, rising in the morning, dressing, eating, learning, and exercising, she managed by rule, which was never suffered to be broken, unless in case of sickness. From the ﬁfth year of Samuel’s life to the completion of the home education of Kezia, her nineteenth and last child, she enforced a daily routine which made the home an actual school. Six hours a day for twenty years, she taught her children and taught them so well that they were all really educated. They were brought to a “regular course of sleeping” by laying them in their cradle awake, rocking them to sleep, and constantly rocking them until they awakened. ‘’ When turned a year old, they were taught to fear the rod, and to cry softly, by which means they escaped abundance of correction which they might otherwise have had.” “As soon as they were grown pretty strong, they were conﬁned to three meals a day.” They were allowed to eat and drink as much as they would, but not to call for anything. “If they wanted aught they whispered to the maid who attended them who came and spoke to me.’’ “If they asked aught of the servants in the kitchen they were certainly beat, and the servants severely reprimanded.”
Moral & Intellectual Education of her Children
Her system of moral instruction was equally deﬁnite. “I take such a proportion of time,” she writes, “as I can best spare every night to discourse with each child by itself, on something that relates to its principal concerns. On Monday, I talk with Molly; on Tuesday, with Hetty; Wednesday, with Nancy; Thursday, with Jacky; Friday, with Patty; Saturday, with Charles; and with Emilia and Sukey together on Sunday.”
To form their minds aright, she considered her ﬁrst task to be to “conquer their will and bring them to an obedient temper. To inform the understanding is a work of time, and must with children proceed by slow degrees as they are able to bear it; but the subjecting the will is a thing that must be done at once and the sooner the better.”
In the success of her home school, patience was the chief ingredient. When the rector once visited the schoolroom, he observed his school-mistress wife repeat one statement to one of her children twenty times.
“I wonder at your patience; you have told that child twenty times the same thing.”
“If I had satisﬁed myself by mentioning it only nineteen times, I should have lost all my labor,” she replied. “It was the twentieth time that crowned it.”
Notwithstanding both system and patience, there were difﬁculties in the ordering of the school-household. Jacky in particular was stubborn. Before assenting to anything, he would insist that it be reasoned out to his satisfaction. Charles, less than ﬁve years younger, was frail from his birth; but once fairly started into boyhood, his lively daring caused his mother endless anxiety for both his physical and spiritual well-being. The thought of today does not agree to all of her pedagogic precepts but it does credit her thoroughness, her conscientiousness, and above all, her devotion to her ideals of duty. Although many of her theories were harsh they were softened in practice. Each child from Samuel to Kezia accorded her a devotion that could not have been given her had she not been essentially gentle in soul. A rivalry existed among the daughters as to who was the mother’s favorite, and to Martha was generally given that honor. She replied: “What my sisters call partiality was what they might all have enjoyed if they had wished it; which was permission to sit in my mother’s chamber when discouraged, to listen to her conversation with others and to hear her remarks on things and books out of school hours.”
Mrs. Wesley’s education of her children was not a purely juvenile task, undertaken preparatory to the work of the schoolmaster who might later succeed her. She conceived her duty toward each child as stretching from birth until death. With constant counsel, she followed her sons’ courses through college and into the ministry. Her advice was not simply on questions of personal conduct but on questions arising out of their studies and work. To John she wrote while he was at Oxford: “Dear Jacky:-I was glad to hear you got safe to Oxford, and would have told you so sooner had I been at liberty from pain of body, and other severer trials not convenient to mention. . . . Our nature is frail; our passions strong; our wills biased; and our security, generally speaking, consists much more certainly in avoiding great temptations than in conquering them. . . . Our Lord directed his disciples when they were persecuted in one city to ﬂee into another; and they who refuse to do it when it is in their power, lead themselves into temptation and tempt God.” Her devotion took not the form alone of endearments-although those intimate touches abound -but a brooding watchfulness that never relaxed. In a letter to Susannah her daughter she starts thus: “Dear Sukey,-Since our misfortunes have separated us from each other, and we can no longer enjoy the opportunities we once had of conversing together, I can no other way discharge the duty of a parent, or comply with my inclination of doing you all the good I can, but by writing. You know very well how I love you. I love your body; and do earnestly beseech almighty God to bless it with health and all things necessary for its comfort and support in this world.”
She had, indeed, a passion for motherhood! The motherhood which held the world’s ﬁrst born babe in its arms and voiced the cry which has sung in every other mother’s heart, “I have gotten me a man child from the Lord!” was hers. The motherhood which keeps all these things and ponders them in her heart, was hers. The universal motherhood which runs from age to age, was hers. To Eve and Mary and in like degree to every mother everywhere came the divinest thing ever revealed-motherhood. And in Susanna Wesley it shone bright. It dedicated to the service of God her ﬁrstborn before he had seen the light. It took her life and offered it a daily recurring sacriﬁce to the prosaic duties of the home.
While the Wesleys lived at South Ormsby, Dr. Annesley, the father of Mrs. Wesley, died. Her feeling toward him was one of peculiar devotion and there was an intimacy in their relationship which not even her change of belief had affected. Her intense affection survived his death with scarcely diminished ardor. As long as she lived, he had to her mind but changed his outward form, and she was fully persuaded that he was constantly near her and conversing with her. This deep sense of an almost literal “communion of saints” she transmitted to her Sons, and John and Charles both repeatedly asserted their belief in the nearness of the departed.
This feeling was perhaps strengthened by certain peculiar happenings in the rectory at Epworth, the Wesleys’ later home. For years they heard mysterious noises and weird rappings which became so frequent that the ghostly visitant assumed in the household a place secure if not welcome and answered to the name Old Jeffrey given him by the children. He seemed to be attached to certain of the household rather than to others and was particularly devoted to Mrs. Wesley. The four girls, Emilia, Susannah, Mehetabel, and Anne, were the ﬁrst in the family who observed Jeffrey’s attentions, and when they reported them to their parents, the father smiled, thinking it all a trick, and the practical mother at once thought of rats. A little later both parents were convinced of the genuineness of the manifestations. None of the rector’s incantations worried the ghost but he paid instant obedience to Mrs. Wesley’s request not to disturb her from ﬁve to six in the morning. To the children Old Jeffrey was a great joke. They enjoyed each new experience and eagerly awaited each new prank of their thoroughly disreputable guest. To the rector Old Jeffrey was a puzzling problem; he was decidedly a Jacobite in politics and expressed a violent antipathy to prayers for the reigning monarch.
Whatever may have been the explanation of Old Jeffrey, the whole family was convinced of his reality. Believing strongly in buried treasure, practical Samuel wrote from school advising digging in the garden at the point where Jeffrey had appeared. John and Charles joined their mother in thinking him to be a comfortable messenger from the dead. In connection with Old Jeffrey, Mrs. Wesley said, “I am rather inclined to think there would be frequent intercourse between good spirits and us, did not our deep lapse into sensuality prevent it.’’ This mysticism colored much of her thought, and in varying forms and degrees gave to John and Charles new points of view which in turn affected their thought and largely inﬂuenced the doctrines of the sect they founded.
It was in 1697 that the rectory of Epworth was conferred upon Samuel Wesley, directly from the Crown. It was probably given him at the request of Queen Mary, to whom he had dedicated his metrical Life of Christ. The parsonage itself consisted of “ﬁve baies, built all of timber and plaister, and covered all with straw thache, the whole building being contrived into three stories, and disposed into seven chief rooms; namely, a kitchinge, a hall, a parlor, a butterie, and three large upper rooms; besydes some others of common use; and also a little garden impailed, between the stone wall and the south.” The “home-stall or scite of the parsonage …” contained “by estimation, three acres.” There “was one barn of six baies, built all of timber and clay walls, and covered with straw thache; and outshotts about it, and free house therebye.” Then came “one dovecoate of timber and plaister,” covered with the usual “straw thache” and ﬁnally one “hempkiln, that hath been useaelie occupied for the parsonage ground, adjoyning upon the south.” The living, nominally worth some two hundred pounds a year, would probably have supported the Wesleys in comfort had not the poetical rector tried to farm.
Dr. Wesley’s poetry occasionally produced revenue; but the qualities necessary to poetry stood in the way of agricultural success. Other rectors had always rented the clerical lands at Epworth but Dr. Wesley insisted upon cultivating his ﬁelds himself. He borrowed the capital necessary for stock and equipment and bravely set out as a gentleman farmer. With a ﬁne ﬂush of poetical enthusiasm he saw a vision of rural peace and comfort, of his spiritual and literary labors set off against a serene background of pleasant ﬁelds and bounteous harvests, the fruits of his own honest industry. Though uncomplaining as always, Mrs. Wesley shrank from the prospect. “He is not ﬁt for worldly business,” wrote her brother on one occasion. “That I assent to,” she replied, “and must own I was mistaken when I did think him ﬁt for it. My own experience hath since convinced me that he is one of those who, our Savior saith, ‘are not so wise in their generation as the children of this world.’”
With these rosy hopes but with such sad lack of needed training-he had no knowledge of farming other than the verse-loving student would gain in a London lodging-did Samuel Wesley enter upon his new life at Epworth. The annual interest charge he incurred proved a heavy tax and from his burden of debt he never escaped. The house, in comparison with the one at South Ormsby, was a palace, and life would have been comfortable indeed had the ﬁnancial stress been a little lighter. Yet the one upon whom the burden fell the heaviest- Susanna Wesley-did her day’s work without complaint. In the many privations she endured she saw but the disciplines which made for her spiritual development. Once in her diary she records: ‘’Though man is born to trouble, yet I believe there is scarce a man to be found upon earth but, take the whole course of his life, hath more mercies than afﬂictions, and much more pleasure than pain. I am sure it has been so in my case. . . . And these very sufferings have, by the blessing of God, been of excellent use, and proved the most proper means of reclaiming me from a vain conversation; insomuch that I cannot say I had better have been without this afﬂiction, this disease, this loss, want, contempt or reproach. All my sufferings, by the admirable management of Omnipotent Goodness, have concurred to promote my spiritual and eternal good. . . . Glory be to Thee, O Lord!”
For over forty years the rectory at Epworth was her home. It would be a veritable catalogue of ships to recount the regular, almost daily hardships through which she passed.
“Tell me, Mrs. Wesley,” Archbishop Sharp once asked, “whether you ever really wanted bread?” “My Lord,” she replied, “I will freely own to your Grace that, strictly speaking, I never did want bread; but I had so much care to get it before it was eat, and to pay for it after, as has often made it very unpleasant to me; and I think to have bread on such terms is the next degree of wretchedness to having none at all.” In 1701 when Susannah and the rector pooled their funds to send for coals, all they could muster was ﬁve shillings. Twenty-ﬁve years later they had but ﬁve pounds for the family support from Mayday until after harvest. Emilia, the oldest daughter, her great comfort, knew better than anyone else what pains her mother had to bear. She many times declared her mother’s weakness and poor health came not only from her ever recurring maternity but as much from the simple lack of proper food and clothing. Yet the courage of the mother never faltered.
The continual charities of the open-hearted rector were another reason why Mrs. Wesley needed her abounding patience. Whether the Wesleys themselves had enough to eat or not the rector always gave freely of his time and means to the service of others. For seven successive winters he journeyed to the convocations of his church in London as the representative of the clergy of his diocese. He was expected in return for this honor, if honor it was, to pay his own expenses.
Unhappy Parishioners and Debt
Nor was poverty alone all the family had to bear. Samuel Wesley was a pronounced Tory. His uncompromising morality had already alienated some of his most inﬂuential parishioners; he had visited severe punishment upon offenses too often condoned by a softer virtue. He was none too popular at the best. When the Whigs came into control of the government they speedily cut off several of his few perquisites, and all the accumulated rancor of his enemies seized this occasion for attack. He was insulted; he was robbed of his due in tithes and revenues; twice he suffered from the incendiary; mobs surrounded his house and with drums and guns made night hideous, and at last he was arrested for a debt of thirty pounds and thrown into the debtors’ prison of Lincoln castle. Here he was held for over three months until his friends could arrange his debts and effect his release. In all the attacks upon him, he never forgot his personal dignity nor his dignity as an ambassador of heaven, but no sooner was he within the walls of the debtors’ prison-a debtors’ jail of the England of the eighteenth century, be it remembered!-than he exclaimed: ‘’ Now I am at rest, for I am come to the haven where I’ve long expected to be! . . . A jail is a paradise in comparison of the life I led before I came hither.” He realized the seriousness of his predicament but like many another man who has long struggled under an impending calamity, he welcomed the actual blow as more endurable than the suspense. “I hope to rise again, as I have always done when at the lowest,” he writes; “and I think I can not be much lower now.” His ﬁrst thought after he entered his cell, was for his wife and children; his next for the unfortunate poor about him. He saw in his imprisonment an opportunity for usefulness. Only two days after his arrival he writes: “I don’t despair of doing some good here-and so long I sha’n’t quite lose the end of living-and it may be do more in this new parish than in my old one; for I have leave to read prayers every morning and evening here in the prison and to preach once a Sunday. I am getting acquainted with my brother jail birds as fast as I can.”
The rector had good reason to worry about his family at home. Life in the parsonage was one continual struggle. Susannah’s dairy was the sole support, and one night an enemy of the vicar’s stabbed her cows. Her chief solicitude, however, was lest her husband might be in greater straits for food than were she and the children. All she could do was to send him her wedding ring, the only jewelry she had, but he promptly returned it.
After his release, his friends advised him to leave Epworth. He refused. These are his reasons, as he gave them to the Archbishop of York: “I confess I am not of that mind, because I may yet do some good there, and ‘tis like a coward to desert my post because the enemy ﬁre thick upon me. They have only wounded me yet, and, I believe, can’t kill me.” Upon his return the enemy ﬁred upon him more thickly than ever. The climax came when his house was burned to the ground and the family but barely escaped with their lives.
A Brand Plucked from the Burning
Fire at Epworth Rectory
This last ﬁre at Epworth-this was the second attempt-is to every Methodist the pillar of ﬁre which speaks a special providence for his church. For John Wesley, then a young child, was left for lost in the building after his agonized father had been repeatedly beaten back by the ﬂames. As the rector, kneeling in prayer in an outer passage, commended to God the soul of the lad, whom he thought surely doomed, kindly neighbors formed a human pyramid which was the means of the lad’s rescue. To John, the mystic, that prayer always seemed to be the divine seal on a peculiar and exalted mission for which he had been miraculously preserved. His tombstone he ordered to be inscribed, “A brand plucked out of the burning.” In the rescue his mother saw an equal miracle. She encouraged John’s belief in his great destiny and fostered his high hope. “What shall I render unto the Lord for his mercies? The little unworthy praise that I can offer is so mean and contemptible an offering, that I am even ashamed to tender it. But, Lord, accept it for the sake of Christ, and pardon the deﬁciency of the sacriﬁce. I would offer thee myself, and all that thou hast given me; and I would resolve -O give me grace to do it!-that the residue of my life shall be all devoted to thy service. And I do intend to be more particularly careful of the soul of this child, that thou hast so mercifully provided for, than ever I have been; that I may endeavor to instill 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.” The answer to this prayer was Methodism.
On the night of the ﬁre, when the agonized rector ﬁnally realized that wife and children were all safe, he gathered them about him in the garden. He was told that all his property was lost. “What care I,” he said. “I have my children and dear wife. These are riches enough. Come, neighbors, let us give thanks to God for his blessings.”
Possibly the hardest blow to the rector was the loss of his library. His were scholarly tastes, and his library for that day was by no means poor. With what pains and sacriﬁce it had been gathered, he alone knew. Only two bits of charred paper escaped the ﬂames. One was a copy of the only hymn written by Samuel Wesley now found in the Methodist hymnal, “Behold the Saviour of Mankind,” and the other a fragment of his beloved Polyglot Bible with only a sentence legible: “Sell all thou hast. Take up thy cross, and follow me.”
From this ﬁre, the family fortunes never recovered. The rebuilding of the house plunged Dr. Wesley deeper into debt. And the new rectory was never decently furnished. The rector, generously impractical as ever, that he “might do what became him, and leave the living better than he found it” undertook to plant mulberry trees, cherry trees, and pear trees in the garden, and walnut trees “in the adjoining croft.” Within doors, Susannah once more gathered her children together. She rigidly enforced the reforms made necessary by their separation during the rebuilding of the house, restored domestic discipline, and vigorously resumed the painstaking processes of education.
The aggressiveness of the rector’s enemies seemed to have spent itself with the last ﬁre. A revulsion of feeling set in, and for the remainder of his life at Epworth he took comfort in the friendship and loyalty of his parishioners. Susannah’s routine was unchanged. Although Samuel had gone away to the university long before the last ﬁre at Epworth-all events in the Wesley history date from that memorable ﬁre-Kezia, the nineteenth and youngest, was born thirteen months after. With children always in the nursery and in the schoolroom, Susannah’s hands were always full. However it was the spiritual welfare of her children present and absent-that concerned her most.
Susanna Wesley as a Spiritual Advisor
“I have a great and just desire that all your sisters and brothers should be saved as well as you,” she once wrote to Samuel, “but I must own I think my concern for you is much the greatest. What, you, my son, you, who was once the son of my extremest sorrow, in your birth and in your infancy, who is now the son of my tenderest love, my friend, in whom is my inexpressible delight, my future hope of happiness in this world, for whom I weep and pray in my retirements from the world, when no mortal knows the agonies of my soul on your account, no eye sees my tears, which are only beheld by that Father of Spirits of whom I so importunately beg grace for you that I hope I may at least be heard-is it possible that you should be damned? O that it were impossible! Indeed I think I could almost wish myself accursed, so I were sure of your salvation. But still I hope, still I would fain persuade myself that a child for whom so many prayers have been offered to Heaven will not at last miscarry.” To the severe religious thought of her day, salvation was the aim and end of existence. It was a matter for agonized striving. This very striving, however, made men, real men. Considering the Wesleys she made great, what must have been the strength of her striving?
How this essential salvation was to be obtained, was a matter that she insisted upon settling for herself. During the winter of 1712, when the rector was absent in London upon one of his regular “convocation” visitations, she was dissatisﬁed with the teachings of his curate. Accordingly early one Sunday evening she gathered her children and her servants in her ample kitchen, read the best sermon she could ﬁnd in print, read prayers, and gave general religious instruction. Another night, the father of one of the servants came, and then a neighbor, and then another until some ﬁfty were listening to her. Overﬂowing the house, they adjourned to the large barn. Soon the outraged curate, tired of empty benches, was complaining to his absent rector that Mrs. Wesley was conducting that thing horrid to ecclesiastical ears, a “conventicle.”’ Many scores were week by week gathering with her, he said, to the great scandal of the church and surrounding clergy. The equally outraged rector wrote hastily reproving her not only for the damage she would do his reputation, set as he was in high position, but also for the unseemliness of a woman’s speaking in public. She replied in very vigorous words: ‘’ And where is the harm of this? If I and my children went a visiting on Sunday nights, or if we admitted of impertinent visits, as too many do who think themselves good Christians, perhaps it would be thought no scandalous practice, though in truth it would be so. Therefore, why any should reﬂect upon you, let your station be what it will, because your wife endeavors to draw people to the church, and to restrain them by reading and other persuasions from their profanation of God’s most holy day, I cannot conceive. But if any should be so mad as to do it, I wish you would not regard it. For my part, I value no censure on this account. I have long since shook hands with the world, and I heartily wish I had never given them more reason to speak against me.”
She concluded her letter with the wifely rejoinder that if as rector he should order her to discontinue the service, she would obey the constituted authority of the church. Nothing less than a command, she said, would sufﬁce; for her reason would never be satisﬁed with his arguments. Needless to say neither her husband nor her rector carried the discussion further.
Twenty-Three Additional Years at Epworth
For twenty-three years longer, their life at Epworth continued unbroken; then the rector died. Thought of his wife and daughters to be left unprovided for embittered the months of his illness. He asked Samuel and John and Charles in turn to take the rectory so that the family would have at least a home. “When one after the other they declined, he saw no further way in which he himself could shape their future and was at last content to leave their care where it had always been, in the hands of Providence. As his death approached, his simple trust and faith grew even stronger. Again and again he exclaimed: “The inward witness, son, the inward witness; that is the proof, the strongest proof of Christianity!” To his youngest son he said: “Be steady! The Christian faith will surely revive in this kingdom. You shall see it, though I shall not.” As the ﬂame of the rector’s life ﬂickered and then burned out, his son John read the last prayers for the dying. So Samuel Wesley left Epworth rectory, where for thirty-nine years he had suffered and toiled. Seven years later the son-even then the wonder of England-who had committed to Heaven the soul of his dying father was denied the use of his father’s church. From the tomb of his father he preached, night after night under the open sky, to the men and women of Epworth, to a congregation which covered all the hillside. As hundreds responded to his preaching-preaching which brought religion out of the closet and made it vital for all men -he remembered his mother’s “conventicle” when as a lad of eight he had heard her preach to these same neighbors; he remembered also the last words of his father, “The inward witness, son, the inward witness!” These two ideas, the simple congregation of worshipers and the witness of the spirit, were the cardinal doctrines of John Wesley’s new faith; these two cardinal doctrines found their birth in the rectory at Epworth.
Seven More Years with her Children
In these seven years after her husband’s death, Susannah lived in the homes of her children. John and Charles envied Samuel his greater ability to do for her; Charles wrote him: “Let the Society give her what they please, she must be still, in some degree, burdensome to you, as she calls it. How do I envy you that glorious burden, and wish I could share it with you! You must put me in some way of getting a little money, that I may do something in this shipwreck of the family, though it be no more than furnishing a plank.’’
Hardly had she lost her husband when she was called upon to part with her two youngest sons who sailed for America in the full ﬂush of youthful missionary zeal. Feeble as she was when she parted with them, she never expected to see them again. Yet she sent them away with her blessing: “Had I twenty sons I should rejoice that they were all so employed, though I should never see them more.”
Months later when broken in health and spirits, they returned from their unsuccessful journey, as naturally as when they had been lads, they returned for comfort to their mother.
The next parting was for all time. In 1739 she had returned to London, an aged widow; ﬁfty years before she had left it in the happy fullness of early married life. All her twenty-ﬁve brothers and sisters were dead; of her own children but nine survived. Then Samuel died, Samuel her ﬁrstborn and always best beloved, with whom she had expected to spend what life remained to her. He had amply repaid his mother’s affection; to the lads John and Charles he had been a second father. Bitter as was her loss, she wrote to Charles with characteristic courage: ‘’Your brother was exceeding dear to me in his life; and perhaps I have erred in loving him too well. I once thought it impossible for me to bear his loss; but none know what they can bear till they are tried. He is now at rest, and would not now return to earth to gain the world. Why then should I mourn?”
Although always in sympathy personally with his brothers, Samuel, long before his death, had been startled by these lads adventuring into a new faith and a new creed. At last he had pled with them in a very agony of concern for their spiritual life. But to their mother, their progress was as natural as the unfolding of a ﬂower. As her years grew shorter, her mind harked back to the earlier faith of her girlhood, of her own father’s comfortable faith and genial hope. She remembered her own “conventicle” in the kitchen at Epworth and so was not frightened at the thousands who gathered in the ﬁelds and lanes to listen to her eloquent sons. When John became the acknowledged head of Oxford Methodists he sent her an account of their work and the sneering opposition to it. She replied: “I heartily join with your small Society in all their pious and charitable actions, which are intended for God’s glory. . . . May you still, in such good works, go on and prosper! Though absent in body, I am present with you in spirit; and daily recommend and commit you all to Divine Providence.”
She did not content herself, however, with mere sympathy. Her constructive advice played no small part in shaping the new doctrines as one by one they were developed in John’s mind. Always practical-minded she aided materially in keeping the new creed “with feet on the earth” while its “head was in the clouds.” For instance, when John returned from an evangelistic tour and found that a layman had been preaching, although in no fashion ordained, it was her gentle remonstrance which held his indignation in check and saved to the new church one of its most distinctive features-the lay preacher.
“Thomas Maxﬁeld has turned preacher, I ﬁnd,” said John.
“John,” said his mother, “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.”
Concerning her son’s own preaching, her inﬂuence was in the right direction. ‘’Suffer now a word of advice,” she wrote him. “However curious you may be in searching into the nature or in distinguishing the properties of the passions or the virtues of human kind, for your own private satisfaction, be very cautious in giving nice distinctions in public assemblies; for it does not answer the true end of preaching, which is to mend men’s lives, and not to ﬁll their heads with unproﬁtable speculations. And after all is said, every affection of the soul is better known by experience than any description that can be given of it. An honest man will more easily apprehend what is meant by being zealous for God and against sin when he hears what are the proper ties and effects of true zeal, than the most accurate deﬁnition of its essence.”
This excellent advice, she reinforced with the statement:
“I have often wondered that men should be so vain as to amuse themselves by searching into the decrees of God, which no human wit can fathom; and do not rather employ their time and their prowess in working out their salvation and making their own calling and election sure. Such studies tend more to confound than inform the understanding, and young people had best let them alone.”
As she had helped the rector at Epworth she now helped her two sons in London. In literal fact as well as in the maternity that enfolded her sons, she was the mother of Methodism.
The new faith grew. As she saw the disciples of her sons number into the thousands, she quietly watched the sands in her own glass run lower and lower. As she saw all England quickened into a new spiritual life, her own religious life softened and deepened. As she saw John and Charles and their followers awaken dead consciences, she now centered in them all the hopes and longings of the long line of pious forebears. In the souls of her young preacher sons she saw caught all the greatness of spirit of the Wesleys and the Annesleys who had gone before.
Susanna Wesley's Final Days
An old foundry at Moorﬁelds had been ﬁtted up as a church and dwelling for John and his helpers. Here Mrs. Wesley came on the last short stage of her journey. Here she died in July 1742. The same son who had read the prayer for the dying as her husband breathed his last read for her the same comforting words of victory.
Her last request was: “Children as soon as I am released, sing a psalm of praise to God!” As they had honored her in life, so they obeyed her in death. Gathered about her bedside they forced back their grief as the anthem of her release and of their love swelled to triumphant notes. And well might the anthem be triumphant, for Susanna Wesley had so played her mother-part in the drama of Epworth Parish that she gave to the world-not to Methodists alone-a new freedom of large faith, a new democracy of vital religion, and a new intimacy with God.
William Horton Foster, “Susanna Wesley,” Heroines of Modern Religion, ed. Warren Dunham Foster, (New York: Sturgis & Walton, 1913)