Life is too difficult for us to do it on our own. We are too weak, too unwise, too full of sin. Thankfully, God does not intend for us to carry out the Christian life independently. Instead, he gives us the strength, the wisdom, and the godliness of other Christians so they can bear our burdens, address our folly, and model what it means to be holy. Some of us depend upon friends, pastors, or spouses to be our dearest spiritual instructors, to help guide and ground us. Some are blessed with a godly mother who can play that role for a lifetime.
Today in our series on “Christian Men and Their Godly Moms,” we turn to a mother who played a crucial role in the lives of her famous sons. Though her place in the history books will always be associated with her children, on her own she provides a stirring example of Christian maturity. She was theologically astute, bold to teach what she knew, and eager to be a blessing to others. Her boys changed the world only because she had first changed them. In Susanna Wesley we see the blessing of a mother who brings stability and strength to her children, even when they are grown.
True Daughter of Affliction
Susanna was born in London on January 20, 1669, the youngest of 25 children born to Samuel and Mary Annesley. Samuel was a nonconformist Puritan pastor who faithfully taught the Bible and modeled Christian piety. He valued education and ensured that all of his children were well-trained. Under his care, Susanna put her faith in Christ at an early age. A plucky child, she resolved she would always spend more time in private devotions than in worldly pleasures. This commitment fostered her spiritual development, and she soon developed strong theological convictions. While she loved and honored her parents, she became convinced that they had erred in leaving the official church and at age 13 left her father’s congregation in favor of the Church of England. She soon met Samuel Wesley, a young pastor who had experienced a similar journey and had developed similar convictions. They married in 1688 when she was 19 and he 26. Together they would have 19 children.
Susanna’s husband was far from an easy man to live with. He was strict and at times moralistic. He was pugnacious and unpopular with his parishioners. He thrived on controversy and was careless with money. Twice he accumulated significant debt and was jailed for his failure to repay his creditors. His family would be forced into austerity and often lacked the means to live at more than a subsistence level. Samuel once sparked a petty dispute with Susanna and, in retaliation, abandoned her and the children for five months. She recalled, “Samuel immediately kneeled down and prayed and implicated the divine vengeance upon himself and all his posterity if ever he touched me one more time or came into a bed with me before I had begged God’s pardon and his.”
Added to the difficulty of her marriage was the grief of losing nine infant children and the sorrow of twice losing their home to fire. Because of her husband’s sinfulness and these tragic circumstances, Susanna’s life was one of intense and constant suffering. An early biographer puts it plainly: “Her life from marriage to death is a constant struggle against weakness and poverty. One disaster followed another so drearily that a less thoroughly equipped woman would soon have despaired.” But she was well-equipped with godliness and no matter the circumstances remained confident in the goodness and the character of God. She never wavered.
Among Susanna’s responsibilities was the teaching and training of her children. She approached their intellectual and spiritual formation with resolve and according to strict rules: “Children will be taught to pray as soon as they can speak; children will not receive what they cry for, and only what they ask for politely; to prevent lying, children will not be punished for what they confess and repent of; children will not be punished twice for a single offense; good behavior will be commended and rewarded; any attempt to please, no matter how poorly performed, will be commended; property rights will be preserved, even in minute matters; children will be taught to fear the Lord.” Though she disciplined the children severely at times, they responded to their mother with love and respect.
At times her instruction would go beyond her family. When her husband traveled, he left his curate to teach the church. Susanna found his teaching inadequate, so gathered her children in the kitchen on Sunday evenings to read aloud sermons she found in print. Soon others had gathered—first 50, then 100, then so many that they needed to adjourn to a nearby barn. Fearing for his reputation, Samuel asked her to stop. She replied that she would dutifully stop if he, as her pastor, told her to. But she also said asked, “Where is the harm of this? If I and my children went a visiting on Sunday nights, or if we admitted of impertinent visits, as too many do who think themselves good Christians, perhaps it would be thought no scandalous practice, though in truth it would be so. Therefore, why any should reﬂect upon you, let your station be what it will, because your wife endeavors to draw people to the church, and to restrain them by reading and other persuasions from their profanation of God’s most holy day, I cannot conceive. But if any should be so mad as to do it, I wish you would not regard it.”
The Mother of Methodism
John and Charles were born four-and-a-half years apart, in 1703 and 1707. John was the 15th child and Charles was the 18th. When they were young, both were close to their mother, though their older brother Samuel was always her favorite. Both thrived under her teaching, and especially in the one-on-one times she deliberately set aside for each of her children. While she gave lessons to the whole family at once and maintained the strictest discipline, she balanced that formality with these informal discussions. It was in this context that she and her children developed relationships that blossomed into friendships.
After attending boarding school, John and Charles enrolled in Christ Church, Oxford, where they prepared for the ministry. Susanna wrote to them regularly with spiritual counsel and news from home. A letter to one of her daughters displays the responsibility she felt to each of her children, even as they aged and gained greater independence: “Since our misfortunes have separated us from each other, and we can no longer enjoy the opportunities we once had of conversing together, I can no other way discharge the duty of a parent, or comply with my inclination of doing you all the good I can, but by writing. You know very well how I love you. I love your body; and do earnestly beseech almighty God to bless it with health and all things necessary for its comfort and support in this world.” She regarded motherhood as a sacred, lifelong calling and always felt a deep responsibility to each of her children.
It was during their time in Oxford that John and Charles formed what became known as their “Holy Club” to focus on knowing Scripture and living a godly life. It was in this club that they began an auspicious friendship with George Whitefield. Yet, for all their efforts and desires, neither one had experienced true conversion.
After they graduated, Susanna gave them her blessing as they set sail for America, and she welcomed them home after they fled in failure. It was only in 1738 that they each had an experience of coming to Christ in repentance and faith. Immediately they began to preach to all who would hear, and their earnest efforts soon sparked a movement that became known as Methodism. They would travel and preach constantly and see countless thousands come to faith. Charles would discover his skill as a songwriter and become one of the most prolific composer of hymns the church has ever known. The hymn that has become his best-known was penned just days after his conversion: “And can it be that I should gain / An interest in the Saviour’s blood? / Died he for me? who caused his pain! / For me—who him to death pursued? / Amazing love! How can it be / That thou, my God, shouldst die for me?” Together John and Charles Wesley became some of the most famous men in the world.
Yet even at the height of their influence, they did not forget or neglect their mother. To the contrary, they continued to seek her counsel and to depend upon her prayers. When people mocked their fervor and piety, she provided encouragement: “I heartily join with your small Society in all their pious and charitable actions, which are intended for God’s glory. May you still, in such good works, go on and prosper! Though absent in body, I am present with you in spirit; and daily recommend and commit you all to Divine Providence.” When they grappled with theology, she provided wisdom: “Whatever weakens your reason, impairs the tenderness of your conscience, obscures your sense of God, or takes off your relish of spiritual things … that thing is sin to you, however innocent it may be in itself.” When John’s preaching became too scholarly or technical she reminded him, “However curious you may be in searching into the nature or in distinguishing the properties of the passions or the virtues of human kind, for your own private satisfaction, be very cautious in giving nice distinctions in public assemblies; for it does not answer the true end of preaching, which is to mend men’s lives, and not to ﬁll their heads with unproﬁtable speculations.” To her death, she would remain their most important spiritual instructor, guiding them in matters both practical and theological. Her strong faith and godly wisdom grounded them and helped them. It is for good reason that she became known as “The Mother of Methodism.”
Despite all of her strengths, she struggled her entire life to find assurance of her salvation. It was only near the end that she finally found it. She told John of her experience, and he recorded it in a letter. “Said she, ‘Two or three weeks ago, while my son Hall was pronouncing those words, in delivering the cup to me, ‘The blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was given for thee,’ the words struck through my heart and I knew God for Christ’s sake had forgiven me all my sins.’” At last she knew that her sins were forgiven and that she would enjoy the presence of the Lord forever.
In 1742, living then with John, Susanna fell ill and knew that she would soon die. Her final request was to her children: “Children as soon as I am released, sing a psalm of praise to God!” On July 23, they sang her into glory. Her life and impact was beautifully described in the epitaph Charles composed in her honor:
In sure and steadfast hope to rise,
And claim her mansion in the skies,
A Christian here her flesh laid down,
The cross exchanging for a crown.
True daughter of affliction, she,
Inured to pain and misery,
Mourn’d a long night of griefs and fears,
A legal night of seventy years.
The Father then revealed his Son;
Him in the broken bread made known;
She knew and felt her sins forgiven,
And found the earnest of her heaven.
Meet for the fellowship above,
She heard the call, “Arise, my love!”
“I come!” her dying looks replied,
And, lamb-like as her Lord, she died.