Susanna Wesley: Mother on Fire
by Rev. Dr. Ed & Janice Hird
Never underestimate the power of a praying mom. Has your life been impacted by a sacrificial mother who would never give up?
Born in 1669, Susanna Wesley raised up two of Christianity’s most gifted leaders, John and Charles Wesley. Susanna, was the twenty-fifth of twenty-five siblings. Her father, Samuel Annesley had a Doctor of Divinity from Oxford and in 1648 was chosen to preach at the British House of Commons. His eight hundred-strong congregation of St Giles Cripplegate was one of the largest in London. Susanna’s father did a remarkable thing, encouraging his daughter to read and study theology. When he died, he left Susanna his most valued possessions, which were his manuscripts and family papers.
Daily, as a mother, Susanna prayed, “Dear God, guide me. Make my life count.” She loved to read biographies about other Christians, especially missionaries. While reading an account of Danish missionaries, she concluded, “At last it came to my mind, though I were not a man, nor a minister of the gospel,…I might do somewhat more than I do…I might pray more for the people, and speak with more warmth to those with whom I have an opportunity of conversing. However, I resolve to begin with my children.” She believed that by discipling her own children, she could change the world.
As a young woman, she once said, “I hope the fire (of revival) I start will not only burn all of London, but all of the United Kingdom as well. I hope it will burn all over the world.”
As the mother of the Methodist revival, she methodically instilled in her children a passion for discipleship and learning. While only ten of her nineteen children survived to adulthood, she poured her life into them, raising up three sons, Samuel, John and Charles to become pastors. Susanna believed each child was equally valuable; and had an uncanny way of making each know they were important.
Eric Metaxas has described Susanna as the mother of the homeschooling movement. In an age when many parents only educated their sons, Susanna taught all of her children how to read, write and reason, regardless of gender, including all of her seven surviving daughters. She instructed all of her children three hours in the morning and three hours in the afternoon. Her children began and ended each school day by singing a Psalm and reading from the Bible. Remarkably, she spent one hour a week with each of her children in personal instruction.
Her educational goal was that on her last day, she would be able to say, “Lord, here are the children which Thou hast given me, of which I have lost none by my ill example, not by neglecting to install in their minds, in their early years, the principles of Thy true religion and virtue.”
When Susanna failed to find Christ-centered textbooks, she decided to write her own. Her first book, A Manual of Natural Theory looked at how the natural universe revealed God as creator. Her second book was an exposition of the Apostles’ Creed, looking at the essentials of the Christian faith. Her third book opened up the practical implications of the Ten Commandments for daily living. In her crowded house, Susanna would pull her apron over her head, taking an hour a day for her personal devotions, all her children knew she was not to be disturbed.
As both the daughter and wife of clergy, Susanna understood the challenges of pastoral ministry. There was never enough money to feed and clothe the children properly. Her husband, Rev Samuel Wesley, as the underpaid Rector of Epworth and Wroot, was always in debt, and even ended up twice in debtors’ prison.
Susanna offered to pawn her own wedding ring, but her husband refused her sacrifice.
Being very outspoken, her husband had many enemies during his thirty-nine years in Epworth, some of whom destroyed the Wesley’s crops, stabbed their cows, attacked their dog, and set their house on fire in 1702.
During a contentious 1705 election, a political mob surrounded their house at night with loud drumming, firing of pistols, and shouting that they would kill Samuel. When their house was burnt down for a second time in 1709, six-year-old John was miraculously plucked as a brand from the fire.
While her husband was away in 1711, she started Sunday evening devotions for her children, which ended up attracting many neighbours: “Last Sunday I believe we had above two hundred. And yet many went away, for want of room to stand.” The replacement Epworth priest was deeply offended that far more people went to Susanna’s devotional prayers than his Sunday morning service.
Responding to her concerned husband, she said, “As to its looking peculiar, I grant that it does. And so does almost anything that is serious, or that may in any way advance the glory of God, or the salvation of souls.” When her son, John Wesley, later preached to tens of thousands, he fondly recalled the revival that earlier happened with his mother’s Sunday evening devotions.
John, the 15th child and Charles, the 18th child of 19 were almost not born, because of Susanna’s refusal to say amen to her husband’s 1701 prayer for the new King William of Orange. Because Susanna saw the new King as a usurper, her husband left home, refusing to return: “We must part for if we have two kings, we must have two beds.” Samuel only returned and reconciled after their house burnt down.
When John Wesley felt called to ordination, his father discouraged him but Susanna encouraged him.
Susanna coached John and Charles in the spiritual disciplines while at Oxford, encouraging him to read the Imitation of Christ by Thomas A Kempis and Rule for Holy Living by Jeremy Taylor. After reading these books, John told his mother, “I have resolved to dedicate all my life to God – all my thoughts and words and actions.”
When John and Charles felt called as missionaries to Savannah, Georgia, Susanna said, “If I had twenty sons, I would send them all.”
When John returned to England and began preaching in the fields, Susanna approved, sometimes standing by his side before tens of thousands. She encouraged John to allow nonordained people to preach. After her debt-ridden husband died, leaving her homeless, she lived her final three years with John Wesley in the famous Foundry Methodist Chapel.
On her deathbed, she said “Children, as soon as I am released, sing a Psalm of Praise to God.” May we, like Susanna, end our lives on fire, giving glory to God.
Rev. Dr. Ed and Janice Hird are the Co-authors of For Better, For Worse: discovering the keys to a lasting relationship.