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. Their early purpose was to help people reshape their own lives for the better and almost before John and Charles knew it, they were shaping a movement that would reform not only individuals, but the church and the society of England. Because they behaved purposefully and methodically in the Holy Club they organized at Oxford, other less disciplined students who had not had Susanna for a mother derisively called them "method-ists". The Wesley brothers accepted the term as a badge of honor for their growing movement.
Susanna was a remarkable woman. She certainly never went to university or had any of what we would term formal education; that simply was not available to women in 17th century England. But her father taught her to read and to think for herself and as the twig is bent, so grows the tree.
Her father was the Rev. Dr. Samuel Annesley, a noted scholar, beloved clergyman, a mentor to young seminarians, renowned and respected preacher, and sometime chaplain to Parliament [noted for chiding the members of Parliament to "forget your greatness and give account of your goodness, if you have it"].
Dr. Annesley was a man of conscience – a Dissenter who could not sign the Act of Uniformity in 1662 which would have meant agreeing to changes in the Church of England Book of Common Prayer. He left St. Giles Cripplegate in London and founded a new parish, thus setting an example of independent thinking both for his daughter (who later chose to rejoin the Church of England) and ultimately for his grandsons who, although they remained priests in the C of E all their lives, applied their own independent thinking to reform of abuses in church and society.
Susanna Annesley was the youngest of 25 children, so it seemed unexceptional to her that she gave birth to 19 children (including two sets of twins). At the age of 19 she married Samuel Wesley, a congenial and bright young clergyman whose father was also a Dissenter, John Westley. After 1662, Westley had chosen to travel from parish to parish preaching, thereby setting another kind of example for the grandsons he never lived to see, for he died young.
After living for a few years in London and in South Ormsby, Samuel and Susanna moved to Epworth near Lincoln, where they remained until his death nearly 40 years later in 1735. Of the children born to them, ten survived to adulthood: three sons and seven daughters. Despite the Wesleys' poor financial condition, all three sons earned M.A.s from Oxford. All three were ordained in the Church of England. The eldest, Samuel Jr, became a teacher at Westminster in London and helped his family generously by sending home money and by taking Charles especially under his wing when the younger brother came as a student to Westminster. Samuel Jr later became head of Blundell School the Free Grammar School in Tiverton, Devon.
Samuel Jr was already in London but John was about five and Charles a babe when in 1709 a fire destroyed the Epworth rectory in fifteen minutes one cold February night. Homeless, the family was forced to split apart: for a while two daughters looked after by an uncle in London, other children staying with friends nearer home. Susanna's 19th child was born a month later and not for the first time in her life was Susanna deeply sad and almost immobilized by shock and grief. Yet she seems to have survived, and with a great determination to unite her family and to save her children's souls. This, she wrote, was indeed her focus for twenty years of the prime of her life.
It was now, after the rebuilding of the rectory, that Susanna more than ever regulated home life in order to reassure her family of stability and to reestablish the necessity for order and priorities by which to live a useful life. The Wesleys arose at 5:00; each hour of the day was assigned to specific activities.
She set aside an hour each day of the week for a particular child – Thursdays, for instance, was Jacky's (John's) day. During this hour she would inquire after the state of their soul on its journey as well as their progress, fears, expectations, and goals in other endeavors. Thus began lifelong habits of regular self examination.
As children left home – the sons to school, the daughters to serve as governesses or to marry – Susanna wrote them letters not only about family news but about manner of living and subjects of belief.
John asked if she might convert the customary hour spent in one-on-one conversation to an hour spent in writing him on various themes... but she had already in effect been doing this, and not only for John. Letters to other children too are meaty and insightful products of a probing and devoted mind.
In addition to letters, 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.
Susanna Annesley Wesley was a remarkable Christian woman. One can only wonder to what she would apply herself were she alive in this 21st century! But she was not of the 21st century; she was of the 17th and 18th centuries and it is in that context that, tucked away in a small town, she planted seeds in her children's minds that engendered the Methodist movement. From her frequent illnesses and no doubt the often poor health of others in the family suffering the wants of poverty grew a lively concern for clinics for the poor. From Susanna's effective home schooling grew a recognition of the importance of education and schools for the indigent; from this grew too schools where the unskilled could learn trades to lift them from poverty and dependence. From her own love of learning and habits of independent thought grew the respect for differences in persons and beliefs. From her determination to provide regularity in a world of disorder grew a method for bringing creative, positive, Christ-centered change. From her example and methods grew Methodism.
To learn more about Susanna Wesley, you can not only read her writings and writings about her; you can also and best of all meet her personally in the first person portrayal O Susanna! presented by Susan Pellowe.
To browse among Wesley family members, learning delightful tidbits and enjoying snatches all from their own writings, drawings, portraits and poetry, don't miss A Wesley Family Book of Days.