Susanna Wesley's Method of Motherhood

Susanna Wesley's Method of Motherhood

Susanna Wesley served as a spiritual guide to her family, adhering to a daily method of Bible reading, prayer, sacrament, fasting, and sabbath meditation.

Susanna Wesley (1669-1742) understood her home as a small community of believers called to live together in covenant grace. Consequently, she considered it her primary vocation to instill a clear pattern of Christian devotion in her children. As God allowed, she would also extend her ministry in more public ways to the people of Epworth parish through works of mercy and public speaking. When her husband was away and the substitute priest proved ineffective, Susanna exhorted from her open kitchen windows, and dozens gathered to hear her teach the Scriptures.

Susanna Wesley was not given an easy life.

She gave birth to 19 children, and 10 survived. Many of her letters are consumed with great worry about basic provision. She worked tirelessly and without much assistance from her husband, who was often absent. She was given a remarkable mind, the ability to write and reason, bright children, teaching gifts, a pious upbringing, a challenging marriage, and ultimately a fulfilling death.

Her three sons rose to prominence in the church. The younger two launched a Christian renewal movement. Her daughters didn’t fare as well. Only Anne had a marriage that lasted. The lives of the others tell stories of heartbreak, abuse, and early death in childbirth. Preserved letters from his adult sisters to John are filled with pleas for money and depictions of hardship. Little is known of the daughters’ adult faith or lives. After the death of her husband and eldest son, Susanna moved among a couple of her adult children, living her final years with John at the Foundry in London. John wrote at her death in 1742 of “that holy and heavenly wisdom” she gave them.1  

Susanna’s biggest priority was her children. She wrote to her oldest son (Sammy) in 1709, when he was away at university, “Sammy, there is nothing I now desire to live for, but to do some small service to my children, that as I have brought ‘em into the world, so that it might please God to make me (though unworthy) an instrument of doing good to their souls.”2

A Regular Method of Living

In early 1732, John Wesley wrote to his mother requesting that she detail how she had raised him and his eight siblings. On July 24, 1732, she replied,

I have collected the principal rules I observed in educating my family . . . . The children were always put into a regular method of living, in such things as they were capable of, from their birth; as in dressing and undressing, changing their linen, and so on. The first quarter commonly passes in sleep. After that, they were, if possible, laid into their cradle awake, and rocked to sleep; and so they were kept rocking till it was time for them to awake. This was done to bring them to a regular course of sleeping, . . . When turned a year old (and some before) 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; and that most odious noise of the crying of children was rarely heard in the house, but the family usually lived in as much quietness as if there had not been a child among them.3

Susanna continued, “In order to form the minds of children, the first thing to be done is to conquer their wills, and bring them to an obedient temper. To inform the understanding is a work of time and must [with children] proceed by slow degrees.”4

Following the educational influence of John Locke, Susanna taught a first principle of obedience as a corrective to “self-will.” When obedience was instilled, she sought to build a rational foundation of the facts of “practical divinity,” which included devotional acts, Bible reading, theological discourse, and philosophical reasoning. She believed learning was best achieved through following a strict daily and weekly routine.

According to Martha Bowden, “Given the importance of Lockean thought in eighteenth century educational theories, we can assume an intended train of association from the Rectory at Epworth, to the Holy Club at Oxford, to the ministry of the Wesley’s throughout England and eventually to the colonies.”5 

Cultivating holy habits through small covenanted groups that met regularly and followed a prescribed form with pre-set questions became a hallmark of the early Methodist movement that mirrored Susanna’s strictly scheduled home.

Susanna’s routine was undergirded by “by-laws,” which she understood to be “rules of action.”6 She carefully listed her precepts in reply to John’s request to share her wise method with the emerging Wesleyan movement. Susanna’s list shows she sought to mold a willing inner motive for right action, while also giving her children enough positive affirmation to encourage learning from mistakes without being crippled by them.

Curriculum: Content and Care

Susanna Wesley created a robust curriculum for her family school that could be taught to toddlers by rote and expanded by reason to adolescents. Hers, like most Reformation-era plans, required knowledge of The Apostle’s Creed, the Ten Commandments, and Scriptural support for doctrines of the faith. Susanna wrote expositions on theological texts for her children and, when they were away, engaged in regular letter writing that mainly focused on theological discourse. Susanna raised her children on regular question and answer sessions. Either Susanna or one of the older children would pose a question, and the younger child would respond in age-appropriate ways until the answer mirrored accepted doctrine.

Susanna was a strict Puritan Sabbatarian who saw Sunday observance as key to faith. She quibbled with those who claimed the “Sabbath is meant for diversion as well as devotion,”7 and suggested to her children that they should not wear new clothes on the Sabbath since “novelty affects the mind.” The Sabbath was a time to focus on cultivating “a habitual sense of God in the mind”8 which is the key purpose of turning away from other activities. In other letters to Sammy, her firstborn son, she speaks of the importance of meditation [on God’s character] on the Sabbath. In her exposition on the commandment to keep the Sabbath holy, written for her daughter, Suky, Susanna wrote that after attending worship, she might be “refreshed by the contemplation of Himself in the wondrous works of His creation and providence.”9

All the Wesley children were trained by this group catechesis. Yet, each child was treated as an individual. Each one had a regular evening in the week to spend time alone with Susanna. John’s was Thursday. The family suffered a fire in the rectory in 1708/9, and young John (a boy of 7) was “plucked like a brand from the burning.” After the fire, Susanna resolved to take special care of him, as he had been so providentially rescued from the blaze.

On May 17, 1711, as part of her evening meditation and under the heading of “S.J.” (Son John), Susanna vowed to God, “I would, if I durst, humbly offer Thee myself and all that Thou hast given me and I would resolve (Oh give me grace to do it) that the residue of my life shall all be devoted to thy service; and I do intend to be more particularly careful of the soul of this child that Thou so mercifully provided for, than ever I have been, that I may do my endeavour to instill in 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.”10

A Spiritual Guide

Susanna Wesley was also a spiritual guide and theological mentor to her children. She instructed them in the basics of the faith, taught them to read and reason, and to live out a “practical divinity.” She encouraged them in self-examination, prayer, and charity. She also served as a type of a soul friend to whom some of her adult children turned even as adults.

After his Aldersgate experience in 1738, John made a quick trip home to offer what one biographer calls “self-analysis, a life-review.” In John’s own words, it was “a short account of what had passed in my own soul till within a few days of that time.” The short account he read to his mother was a comprehensive attempt, in small scope, at a life review in true Puritan fashion. This was natural for John, since his mother had been the sovereign influence in his early spiritual development and his constant mentor in his mature religious life.11

Claire Wolfteich summarizes, “Susanna Wesley considered maternal love to be a heavy and all-consuming responsibility. Love was difficult work. Susanna Wesley did this work under trying circumstances, enduring grief, poverty, her husband’s imprisonment for debt, the devastating rectory fire, her own physical ailments, and the ceaseless methodical routines of domestic life:

Were I permitted to choose a state of life…I would humbly choose, and beg that I might be placed in such a station wherein I might have daily bread with moderate care, without so much hurry, and distraction: and that I might have more leisure to retire from the world, without injuring [my] children.”12

A Persistent Faith

Susanna Wesley lived and died believing that forming the family as a local faith community and extending care beyond it to the surrounding community could lead to reformation of the nation. The Wesleyan movement and its methodical way of living can be traced directly back to her firm hand, sound mind, and persistent faith.

Rebecca Laird is professor of Christian Ministry and Practice at Point Loma Nazarene University, and author of Ordained Women in the Church of the Nazarene: The First Generation.

[1] W. Reginald Ward and Richard P. Heitzenrater, eds., The Works of John Wesley (Vol. 20): Journal and Diaries III (1743-1754) (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1991), 30.

[2] Charles Wallace, Jr., ed., Susanna Wesley: The Complete Writings (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 71.

[3] Ibid., 369.

[4] Ibid., 370.

[5] Martha Bowden, “Susanna Wesley’s Educational Method,” Journal of the Canadian Church Historical Society 44, no. 1 (2002), 539.

[6] Wallace, Susanna Wesley: The Complete Writings, 410.

[7]  Ibid., 417.

[8] Wallace, Susanna Wesley: The Complete Writings, 418-419.

[9] Ibid., 416.

[10] John A. Newton, Susanna Wesley and the Puritan Tradition in Methodism, 2nd Ed. (London: Epworth Press, 2003), 111.

[11] Newton, Susanna Wesley and the Puritan Tradition in Methodism, 163.

[12] Claire Wofteich, “A Difficult Love: Mother as Spiritual Guide in the Writing of Susanna Wesley,” Methodist History 38, no. 1 (1999), 59.

 

Holiness Today, Sept/Oct 2018.