Susanna Wesley's Puritan Roots

Susanna Wesley's Puritan Roots

Susanna Wesley’s Puritan heritage shaped the pattern of her life.

The pattern of Susanna Wesley’s life was in many ways shaped by her Puritan heritage. Both of Susanna Wesley’s parents were Puritans, and the Puritan beliefs and practices from her youth influenced Susanna throughout her life. The seventeenth-century Puritans wanted to “purify” the Church of England of unscriptural practices and bring about spiritual reform to the church. Puritans wanted the Church and the lives of individual Christians to follow the Scriptures over church ceremony, hierarchy, and traditions.

They held that personal conversion came through the preaching of God’s Word, producing an awareness of sin and a faith in Christ’s atoning work on the cross. Born again into a new life in Christ, the Christian experienced a sanctified life in Christ by submitting to the Scriptures and to the Holy Spirit. According to the Puritans, the Christian life was one of regular examination in light of Scriptures and the Holy Spirit.

Susanna’s maternal grandfather, John White (1590-1645), was a Puritan from his youth. He was a graduate of Jesus College, Oxford, and studied law. In 1640, he was elected a Member of Parliament for Southwark, remaining there until his death in 1645. These were the years of the Commonwealth and Long Parliament, when the monarchy was removed and Puritan reforms were implemented in the Church. White was chairman of the Committee for Scandalous Ministers and was involved in ejecting many Anglican ministers for their immorality or neglect of duty. 

Susanna’s father, Samuel Annesley (1620-1696), was a leading Puritan minister. From the age of five or six, Annesley began reading the Bible daily. He vowed to read twenty chapters every day and continued the practice throughout his life. After obtaining degrees from Queen’s College, Oxford, Annesley was ordained a Presbyterian and served as vicar in Kent and London. During the English Civil War, he and other London preachers began holding daily morning services with prayers and spiritual exhortations. Annesley later published these collected sermons in six volumes.

In 1662, after the Restoration of the monarchy, parliament passed the Act of Uniformity, requiring that all church officials follow the forms, prayers, and ceremonies in the Book of Common Prayer. Samuel Annesley was among 2,000 Puritan ministers who refused to submit to the Act of Uniformity, believing that only the Scriptures, not any “works of man,” should guide the Christian life. The Puritan conscience also could not accept the Apocrypha used in the Prayer Book readings along with the Scriptures.

Not successful in purifying or reforming the Church of England, Annesley and other Puritans began to be known as Nonconformists or Dissenters. For a time, Dissenters were not allowed to preach publicly, but in 1672, when Susanna was three years old, the Declaration of Indulgence allowed the Nonconformists to worship publicly. Susanna’s father could then openly pastor a church at Spitalfields, London, where Susanna was born and spent her childhood. 

Surrounded by Nonconformists

Leading Nonconformists frequently visited the Annesley home, and Susanna knew famous Puritans like Richard Baxter and John Owens, among others. Their theological discussions of the events and issues of the day were part of her childhood education. Susanna also read their works in her father’s library, quoting from them in later life. One of the members of Rev. Annesley’s congregation was the young Daniel Defoe, who later authored Robinson Crusoe. Among Defoe’s first published writings was an elegy on the death of Samuel Annesley (Susannah’s father). In it he especially lauded Annesley’s zeal and “the Candor, the Sincerity of his mind; the Largeness of his Charity, the Greatness of his Soul, the Sweetness of his Temper, and the Vastness of his Design to propagate the Kingdom and intent of his Master.”1

Emphasis on Family

For Puritans, the family itself was a little Church.

As Puritan Richard Baxter wrote in A Christian Directory (a work in Samuel Annesley’s library and with which Susanna was familiar):

O happy a state it is, to have God dwell in your Families by his Love and Blessing, and rule them by his Word and Spirit and Protect them by his Power and Delight in them and they in Him; as his churches preparing for the Celestial Delights!  O how much of the Interest of true Religion must be kept up in the work; by the Holiness and Diligence of Christian Families!2

Christian faith and practices were an intimate part of the family life of young Susanna. Family worship was held twice a day, and Susanna began to follow a disciplined life with special times for Bible reading, meditation, self-examination, and prayer. She continued these disciplines in her adult life and with her own family. Susanna later remembered her childhood practices in a 1707 letter to her son Samuel:

I will tell you what rule I observed…when I was young, and too much addicted to childish diversions which was this – never to spend more time in mere recreation in one day than I spent in private religious devotions.3

One of the Puritan practices Susanna also followed was keeping a journal. This encouraged regular meditation on Scripture and self-examination. For the Puritans, all of life was to be lived for the glory of God and in His presence. In one of her meditations, Susanna wrote, “Religion is not to be confined to the church, or closet, nor exercised only in prayer and meditation. Everywhere, we are in the presence of God, and every word and action is capable of morality.”4 In her journal, Susanna reminded herself:

Be careful to…maintain a constant habitual sense of God in your mind. Live and act as in his presence. Think often of his omnipresence, of his power, wisdom, goodness, justice, truth, etc., and above all of his infinite purity, which will be a check upon the mind and be the best preservative against all temptations.5

Disciplined living, moral earnestness, warm piety, and Scriptural reliance—which exemplified Susanna’s adult life—stem from her Puritan roots.

Methodist minister and historian John Newton noted that Susanna’s “careful ordered timetable, her regular time set apart for meditation and self-examination before God, her keeping of a spiritual journal or day-book, her observance of the strict Puritan Sabbath – these were all part of her ‘method’ of life, to use the Puritan key-word.”6 Through Susanna, many of these Puritan traits flowed into the ministries of John and Charles Wesley. 

With her Puritan roots and heritage, it is fitting that Susanna is buried in Bunhill Fields, the Dissenting cemetery in London, where also are buried John Bunyan, John Owen, Daniel Defoe, and hymn writer Isaac Watts.

Diana Severance is Director of the Dunham Bible Museum at Houston Baptist University and author of Feminine Threads: Women in the Tapestry of Christian History and Her-Story.

[1] Daniel Defoe, The Character of the Late Dr. Samuel Annesley (London: 1697), 38.

[2] Richard Baxter, A Christian Directory: or a Body of Practical Divinity and Cases of Conscience (London: Printed for Richard Edwards, 1825), 473.

[3] Eliza Clarke, Susanna Wesley (London: W.H. Allen & Co., 1886), 68.

[4] Charles Wallace, Jr., ed., Susanna Wesley: The Complete Writings (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 341.

[5] Wallace, Susanna Wesley: The Complete Writings, 218.

[6] John A. Newton, Methodism and the Puritans (London: Dr. Williams’s Trust, 1964), 5.