Saturday, July 27, 2013

Susanna Wesley - Forgotten Woman in Church History?

Susanna Wesley, the mother of John Wesley (the founder of Methodism) and of his hymn-writing brother Charles, isn't exactly a forgotten woman in church history.  In the evangelical circles in which I spent my formative Christian years, she was one of the only historical Christian women who was mentioned in teachings and sermons -- usually by women leaders of other Christian women, who held up Susanna Wesley as the superlative example of what it meant to be a good Christian woman: wife of a church leader, mother of many, and devoted to God.

Susanna Wesley, I was taught, was a gracious and submissive minister's wife who had 19 children and raised 10 of them to pious adulthood through her strict but loving parenting.  Susanna devoted one hour a week per child to one-on-one spiritual counseling, but when she sat in her kitchen and pulled her apron over her head, all her children knew she was in prayer and that punishment for interrupting her unless in dire emergency would be severe.  Susanna was the Christian woman we all should take as our example and strive to emulate.  Susanna was proof that it was possible to be a good mother to so many children, and we all should desire to have as many children as we felt in our hearts God wanted us to have. (Maranatha Campus Ministries, where I was taught these things, was pre-Quiverfull and officially rejected the anti-birth control message just beginning to be spread by Mary Pride-- but Maranatha women still learned that the highest honor they could attain was to be a pastor or missionary's wife -- and thus automatically a leader of women's ministry-- and a mother of many).

What my Maranatha teachers apparently didn't know was that in Susanna Wesley's time, being a minister's wife did not put you in charge of women's ministry.  Women were forbidden to minister at all-- not even to other women.  But even so, what was most emphasized in their teachings about Mrs. Wesley was that motherhood itself was the most important thing for a woman.  And if you were as good and godly a mother as she was, you might even raise a John Wesley!

The biographies of Susanna Wesley I have found online also tend to emphasize her motherhood of the famous Wesley brothers, almost to the exclusion of everything else.  Susan Pellowe's blog, for instance, opens with this:

Susanna Wesley (1669-1742), although she never preached a sermon or published a book or founded a church, is known as the Mother of Methodism. Why? Because two of her sons, John Wesley and Charles Wesley, as children consciously or unconsciously will, applied the example and teachings and circumstances of their home life.

I would be the last to say this isn't an amazing accomplishment.  Raising children who contribute to the good of the world is a very meaningful thing-- whether we're mothers or fathers.  But the above blog is incorrect about Susanna Wesley having never preached a sermon; she actually preached hundreds of sermons, to men, women and children alike, during the absences of her husband, Samuel Wesley, from his Anglican parish.  According to Daughters of the Church: Women in Ministry from New Testament Times to the Present by Ruth Tucker and Walter Liefeld, John Wesley himself is quoted as calling his mother a "preacher of righteousness."  (p. 237)

The way it came about was this.  Samuel Wesley was apparently an autocratic and intolerant minister and a strict disciplinarian of his flock, resulting in his widespread unpopularity in his own parish.  In fact, he was often harassed by his parishioners, and there were many times when he was away from the parish (Ibid, p. 236).  During the winter of 1711-12, Samuel was away for an extended period, and Susanna began holding meetings in her home.  The History's Women website details the situation:

Samuel was attending a long church conference leaving his pulpit in charge of another minister, a Mr. Inman. . . .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 husband’s 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. . . [because] 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 who‘d objected. The services continued.

Daughters of the Church, describing these meetings, says that "Susanna could not prevent the spontaneous growth. . . to the point where she could say: 'Last Sunday I believe we had above two hundred.  And yet many went away, for want of room to stand.'" (p. 238)

The people of the Wesley parish strongly preferred Susanna's sermons to those of either Samuel Wesley or his chosen replacement.  They could have simply attended morning services and considered their spiritual duty done-- but what Mrs. Wesley was offering was clearly something that spoke to their hearts and met their spiritual needs.  They came because they wanted to come.  As this series on women in church history has already frequently illustrated, the Holy Spirit has often found cracks in the systemic repression of women's ministry, through which to speak through God's daughters-- despite the best efforts of their brothers in the faith.  

And despite the emphasis of my teachers on Mrs. Wesley as a submissive wife, Susanna was not particularly submissive-- even despite the fact that the law of the time required women to be obedient to their husbands.  History's Women explains:

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 so.

“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.

In her own writings (quoted in Daughter of the Church, p. 237), Susanna Wesley said that after calling her into his study, her husband "imprecated the divine vengeance on himself and all his posterity if ever he touched me more or came into a bed with me before I had begged God's pardon and his, for not saying amen to the prayer for the King. . . I have unsuccessfully represented to him the unlawfulness and unreasonableness of his Oath [referring to 1 Cor. 7:5's admonition that husbands and wives should not "deprive one another" except for short periods of prayer] . . . that since I am willing to let him quietly enjoy his opinions, he ought not to deprive me of my little liberty of conscience."  

More than a year later, after the death of the king whose rule had caused the conflict, Samuel returned to Susanna and to her bed, and it was shortly after this that John Wesley was conceived.  Susanna had proved herself right about her husband's foolish oath.  Nor did she afterwards refrain from expressing her differences of opinion from her husband, but had no difficulties telling John when she thought her advice for his future was better than the advice of his father. (Ibid)

Mrs. Wesley was not, however, unmindful of the English laws requiring her obedience.  The United Methodist Women website notes that when Samuel Wesley asked Susanna to discontinue her unauthorized meetings, this was how she worded her dissent:

"If after all this you think fit to dissolve this assembly do not tell me you desire me to do it, for that will not satisfy my conscience; but send your positive command in such full and express terms as may absolve me from all guilt and punishment for neglecting this opportunity for doing good when you and I shall appear before the great and awful tribunal of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The wisdom and intelligence of this answer is admirable.  In effect, Mrs. Wesley placed on her husband the responsibility before God of stopping what she believed, and desired Samuel to believe, was God's own work.  Her words had the effect she apparently intended, because Samuel never issued that command. 

Susan Pellowe (see above) also notes:

Susanna Wesley wrote meditations and scriptural commentaries for her own use. She wrote extended commentaries for instance on the Apostles Creed, the Lord's Prayer, the Ten Commandments. Alas many of these were lost in the rectory fire, but many survive. The most accessible means to her writings is Charles Wallace's excellent and important Susanna Wesley, Her Collected Writings.

Those surviving writings reveal her as "a practical theologian in her own right. . . in conversation with contemporary theological, philosophical, and literary works," according to Google Books.

With such a mother as this, John Wesley could hardly help being open to God calling women in his own movement into full public ministry, even though he was initially against it.  As Daughters of the Church puts it (p. 242), "Wesley eventually became so convinced of the rightness of women's ministry that he openly encouraged women to preach, despite the opposition he knew they would face.  [Methodist preacher] Sarah Mallet recalled that he had advised her 'to let the voice of the people be to me the voice of God; -- and where I was sent for, to go, for the Lord had called me thither.'"

Susanna Wesley had influence on her son John, all right-- but in evangelicalism, this particular result of her influence is somehow never brought up.

In light of all this, the cherry-picking of Susanna Wesley's life story, such that she is only known as a minister's wife and mother of the founders of Methodism, seems profoundly unfair.  Why are women so often defined only in terms of the men in their lives?  The website thoroughly illustrates this in its entry about her, which is entitled "Susanna Wesley, Christian Mother" and mentions none of her other accomplishments.

Susanna Wesley may not be a forgotten woman in church history-- but the whole Susanna Wesley-- the complete person and all her accomplishments-- certainly is.  If evangelical Christianity is going to hold a woman up to us as a historical example for Christian women everywhere, we Christian women should be given the whole picture, not just what Christian leaders want us to hear in order to keep us compliantly in our place.  Susanna Wesley is not just an example of a godly mother-- though of course she is that.  But she is also an inspiration to women everywhere to do the utmost with what they are given with their whole selves, remembering that:

". . . religion is not to be confined to the church... nor exercised only in prayer and meditation, but that every where I am in Thy Presence." 

Amen, Susanna Wesley. Amen. 


Azlepianist said...

I've found it interesting that the children of Susanna's who made waves in the world were those who left her as young children to go to boarding school.

Not all her children turned out so well- look at her daughters for instance, one of whom was pregnant out of wedlock and then hurried into marriage with another guy, two of whom shared the same guy... and this is not to blame these things on Susanna, by any means! I think she was a strong, courageous, well-educated and articulate woman, and a loving and kind mother. But I, too, grew up hearing her management of her large family extolled, without any references to her dysfunctional husband, her other children, or the effect losing 9 babies must have had. I think that her life was complicated, and while I think that she frankly rocked, she is a very poor example for those who would simplify a woman's role into motherhood and declare that a good mother can make up for any deficiency in other things. There is only so much a mother can do.

Azlepianist said...

(I think Charles was 8 when he left for school, but John was 10-11.)

Kristen said...

Azlepianist, thank you for those cogent comments! Really, the way things were for girls in that era (who were given fairly minimal educations and no opportunities outside marriage), it isn't surprising that the girls didn't do as well as the boys. A girl whose father was in debt wouldn't have been considered a very good catch, in an age when marriage was largely an economic transaction.

But you're right, Susanna Wesley wasn't perfect, and shouldn't be presented as such. I disagree with some of the things she wrote about child discipline, for instance. But I can't imagine what it would be like to have 19 children and lose almost half of them, all the while shouldering your husband's excessive debts and trying to manage the household on limited resources while expected to have no life outside your home and children. She wasn't perfect, but she was amazing.

Azlepianist said...

Amen! And I loved this post in general, btw. :)

kbonikowsky said...

I've read a few biographies on Susanna, and I love her too. The books I read focused on her tenacity of will, especially in her political views and in her dealings her (IMO) dead-beat husband. I loved her for her preaching ability, not her mother skills, and often think of her when I'm overwhelmed with mothering without much help, and just want to preach!

I thought it was interesting that Charles claims she had the salvation "experience" after John and Charles went into ministry, because she didn't understand justification by faith until then. John records she said that "until a short time ago, she had scarce heard such a thing mentioned as having forgiveness of sins now, or God's Spirit bearing witness with our spirit: much less did she believe that this was the common privilege of all believers. 'Therefore,' said she, 'I never dared to ask it for myself.'" She believes she was saved before then, but her sons disagreed! haha

I find that a fascinating commentary on the Anglican church, the Methodist revival and the grace of God.

Kristen said...

That is fascinating; thanks! I tend to agree with Susanna - salvation is about your trust in God, not ultimately about your understanding of doctrine.