Hello, I'm Wilson Pruitt, and you are listening to the History of Methodism Podcast. Today’s episode: Susanna Wesley Part 1.
After 21 episodes, we finally have a Wesley for a subject, though when Susanna Wesley died, her original epitaph had nothing to do with the Wesleys or Methodism, and everything to do with who her father was. It read: “the youngest and last surviving daughter of Dr. Samuel Annesley.” We met Dr. Annesley in Episode 18 on English Spirituality. Today’s episode is not about him but he provides some of the context for the remarkable woman that Susanna Wesley grew into.
Her brother-in-law, John Dunton, wrote that he had once asked Dr. Annesley how many children he had and the learned man had remarked, “two dozen or a quarter of a hundred.”1 This has been used as authoritative for many years, though recent scholars have questioned it. We know little of Annesley two wives. Mary Hill died in 1646 and Mary White (we think that’s her maiden name), who was Susanna’s mother, died in 1693. Annesley was the pastor of St. Giles Cripplegate, an important parish in London to which he was appointed by Richard Cromwell.
After the Restoration, Annesley was removed from St. Giles because he refused affirm the 1662 Book of Common Prayer brought in with King Charles II, but he soon found a congregation at Spitalfields, close to a mile from St. Giles. He was a nonconformist, a dissenter who was famous for his sermons across the country.2 One of Annesley’s parishioners was Daniel Defoe, who wrote a 16 page elegy poem after Annesley’s passing in 1696. Here is an excerpt
With David's Courage, and Josiah's Youth,
All over Love, Sincerity, and Truth.
The flattering World attack'd him with her Charms,
But he shook the gaudy Trifle from his Arms;
When Fraud assaulted him, or Fame caress'd,
This he with Ease, and that with Scorn suppress'd:3
This is where the family lived when Susanna was born on January 20, 1669.
At 13, on her own, Susanna joins the Church of England. She wrote about her conversion in much detail, but much of it was lost in the Epworth fire (which we shall get to shortly). Thankfully, we have a portion in a later letter to her son, Samuel.
I had designed you should have read what were the particular reasons which prevailed upon me to believe the being of a God and the ground of natural religion, together with the motives that first induced me to embrace the faith of Jesus Christ, under which was comprehended my own private reasons for the truth of revealed religion and upon what convictions I professed myself a Christian. And because I was educated among the Dissenters, and it was somewhat remarkable in my leaving them at so early an age, not being full 13, I had drawn up an account of the whole transaction, under which head I had included the main of the controversy between them and the Established Church as far as it had come to my knowledge; and then followed the reasons that determined my judgment to the preference of the Church of England.4
At the wedding of her sister, Elizabeth, to the aforementioned John Dunton, Susanna probably met another child of dissenters who had chosen to return to the Church of England, Samuel Wesley, about whom we shall dedicate future episodes. They married in 1688 and Samuel was ordained in 1689. Samuel originally worked at a Parish called St. Botolph’s, Aldersgate, but it didn’t give him the funds to raise a family, so the family moved in with Susanna’s parents and Samuel joined the navy as a chaplain. During this time, their first son, Samuel Jr., was born. They tried another parish South of the Thames, and even debated immigrating to Virginia, but it wasn’t until 1691 that Samuel received his first true living as a priest at South Ormsby in Lincolnshire.5
About 152 miles north from the Spitalfields church, South Ormsby was radically different from the city center that Susanna was used to. Unfortunately, their stay did not last long because Samuel, with his moral rigidity, got upset at the wife of his main patron because she was making too many house calls on Susanna. John Wesley later described the situation in the following way.
Coming in one day, and finding this intrusive visitant sitting with my mother, he went up to her, took her by the hand, and fairly handed her out. The nobleman resented the affront so outrageously as to make it necessary for my father to resign the living.6
After getting the boot, Samuel then received a parish in the smaller town of Epworth, through the intervention of Queen Mary. Epworth was some thirty miles northwest of South Ormsby. This is where they stayed until Samuel’s death in 1735, and the rest of the living Wesley children were born here: Mehetabel, Anne, John, Martha, Charles and Kezia. Samuel Jr. having been born in London and Emilia, Mary, and Susanna in South Ormsby. Tradition held that Susanna gave birth to 19 children, and Samuel’s own pen seemed to suggest the number was 20. The eminent scholar, Frank Baker, concluded on this matter: “Because even a mistake-prone family tradition would surely have taken hold of such a round number, it seems clear that we must reject twenty as Susanna's score, but regard nineteen as at least a possibility, eighteen as perhaps more likely, and seventeen as a certain minimum.”7
Their home life in Epworth was not without conflict, but every argument was over serious matters. We spoke of one in Episode 17 when, in 1702, Susanna refused to say ‘Amen’ at the end of a prayer asking for the protection of King William. At 13, she had made a vow to uphold the Stuart King and were she to support William, it would mean going against the vow and against God. She took her words seriously when most around her dropped their vows out of the convenience of William of Orange’s Protestantism and Dutch sensibility.
Later in life, remarking to the young preacher Adam Clarke, John Wesley said “Were I to write my own life, I should begin it before I was born, merely for the purpose of mentioning a disagreement between my father and mother.”8 Said disagreement was the argument over amen after the king. Frank Baker notes that this disagreement had the advantage to give Susanna her longest period of freedom from childbearing, only ended with the birth of John himself in 1703. His brother, Charles, the other famous founder of Methodism, was born in 1707.
The household, at this time, was very orderly. Many scholars have attempted over the years to read into Susanna’s household care glimpses of later Methodist rigor about holy living. What I hope to do more in the next episode is show how Susanna’s thoughts, writings, and life are worthy of admiration and study in their own right, indifferent to the exploits of her children. She didn’t raise her children a certain way so that they could get into a good school or to impress her neighbors, but because she loved God and sought to share God with them and to raise them in a way so that they could live into their gifts as much as possible.
Before we get to her writings and theology, a few more biographical touchstones are necessary.
First, the Epworth fire. On the evening of February 9, 1709, the parsonage at Epworth either caught on fire or was set on fire. Susanna’s account is the clearest we have.
On Wednesday night February 9th between the hours of eleven and twelve o'clock our dwelling house was fired by what accident God only knows, which was discovered by some sparks falling from the roof upon a bed where one of the children lay that burnt her foot. She immediately ran to our chamber and called us, but I believe none heard her, for Mr. Wesley was alarmed by a cry of fire in the street, upon which he arose, not imagining 'twas his own house burning. On opening his door, he found it full of smoke and perceived the roof was already burnt through. He immediately came to my room (for I having been very ill, we were obliged to lie asunder) and bid us rise quickly and shift for our lives, as the house was all on fire. Then he ran and broke open the nursery door and called to the maid to bring out the children; she snatched up the youngest and bid the rest follow, which they did, except Jacky, for he, coming to the entry and seeing the fire, ran back to his bed; nor did we presently miss him. 9
She goes on concerning the rescue of young John, here referred to as Jacky.
While my master was carrying the children into the garden, we heard the child in the nursery cry out miserably for help, which extremely moved him, but his affliction was much increased when he had several times attempted the stairs, then on fire, and found it was impossible to get near him. He then gave him for lost and, kneeling down, commended his soul to God and left him, as he thought, burning. But the boy, seeing none came to his assistance and being frighted by the hanging of the chamber and his bed being on fire, climbed up to the casement, where he was presently spied by the men in the yard, who immediately got up and pulled him out just in that article of time that the roof fell and beat the chamber to the earth. So by the infinite mercy of almighty God our lives were well preserved by little less than a miracle, for there passed but a few moments between the first discovery of the fire and the falling of the house.10
John Wesley later published this letter in an issue of Arminian Magazine in 1778 with the note: "My mother's account of the fire, August 24th, 1709. Not exactly right with regard to me. J. W.”
Wesley referred to himself as a “brand plucked out of fire,” which is a quote of Zechariah 3:2, and felt, at 75, that he remembered exactly what happened, even with the words people said.11 I, for one, trust Susanna.
The children were saved in the fire, but much was lost, including most of the writings of Susanna’s youth, including her conversion account. While the rectory was being repaired, Susanna allowed more flexibility in home life, but her solidity soon returned and it was back to business as usual in the repaired house. The one clear difference was that before the fire, Susanna brought up all her children in the same way. After, she chose to give her many children individual attention. She noted in 1711 that, with John, she intends “to be more particularly careful of the soul of this child that thou hast so mercifully provided for, than ever I have been, that I may do my endeavours to instil into his mind the disciplines of thy true religion and virtue.”12
During this time, Samuel Wesley was often in London on business for the Church of England, leaving Susanna back at Epworth. There was a significant cost to travel in the early 18th century. As well, it left the community absent one priest and Susanna informally began to fill the void. Around 1711, she started organizing prayer services in their home that included readings of missionary correspondence. These were of no consequence to the leaders in the town until some 200 parishioners started to attend, causing the ire of the other priest in town, Rev. Inman, when folks stopped going to morning prayer in order to go to Mrs. Wesley’s prayer meeting.13 Inman accused it of being a conventicle, a word meaning a secret religious meeting which carried a lot of negative weight. Samuel Wesley was none too pleased, but Susanna thought the meetings were holy and helpful and “wonderfully conciliatory,” bringing many more people to worship than who would have otherwise attended regular services.
Susanna’s own response and description of the incident are as follows in another letter to her older son, Samuel.
Soon after you went to London, Emily found in your study the account of the Danish missionaries, which, having never seen, I ordered her to read it to me. I was never, I think, more affected with anything than with the relation of their travels, and was exceeding pleased with the noble design they were engaged in. Their labours refreshed my soul beyond measure; and I could not forbear spending good part of that evening in praising and adoring the Divine goodness for inspiring those good men with such an ardent zeal for his glory, that they were willing to hazard their lives and all that is esteemed dear to men in this world, to advance the honour of their Master Jesus. For several days I could think or speak of little else. At last it came into my mind, though I am not a man nor a minister of the gospel, and so cannot be employed in such a worthy employment as they were; yet if my heart were sincerely devoted to God, and if I were inspired with a true zeal for his glory and did really desire the salvation of souls, I might do somewhat more than I do. I thought I might live in a more exemplary manner in some things; I might pray more for the people and speak with more warmth to those with whom I have an opportunity of conversing. However, I resolved to begin with my own children, and accordingly I proposed and observed the following method: I take such a proportion of time as I can best spare every night to discourse with each child by itself on something that relates to its principal concerns. On Monday I talk with Molly, on Tuesday with Hetty, Wednesday with Nancy, Thursday with Jacky, Friday with Patty, Saturday with Charles, and with Emily and Sukey together on Sunday.
Susanna’s writings reveal a lot about her character and what she earnestly thought was of the utmost importance. What this excerpt shows us is that Susanna loved God more than the structures of society and was willing to push those bounds in order to share good news to people in her life, starting with her children. In a future episode, we will look at the way Susanna managed her household in more detail, as well as more details about the childhood of John and Charles Wesley, but Susanna was more than a mother and a wife. Thankfully, with the letters and notes that survived, we can see the roots and branches of her very own systematic theology, next time on the History of Methodism.
Susanna Wesley, The Complete Writings, ed. by Charles Wallace Jr. (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1997).
Henry Rack, Reasonable Enthusiast: John Wesley and the Rise of Methodism
- John Dunton, The Life and Errors of John Dunton 2 volumes (London: J. Nichols, Son, and Bentley, 1818), 1:166. ↩︎
- Susanna Wesley Intro, 5. ↩︎
- Daniel Defoe, “The character of the late Dr. Samuel Annesley, by way of elegy: with a preface Written by one of his hearers.” https://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/eebo2/A82278.0001.001/1:4?rgn=div1;view=fulltext ↩︎
- SW Works, 71. Letter to Samuel Wesley, Jr., October 11, 1709 ↩︎
- SW Works, 7. ↩︎
- Clarke, 62. ↩︎
- Baker, 162. ↩︎
- quoted in Baker, 156. ↩︎
- Letter of Susanna Wesley Epworth 24th Augst. 1709, works, 66. ↩︎
- Letter of Susanna Wesley Epworth 24th Augst. 1709, works, 67. ↩︎
- Rack, 57. ↩︎
- quoted in Rack, 57. ↩︎
- Rack, 53-54. ↩︎