Hello, I'm Wilson Pruitt, and you are listening to the History of Methodism Podcast. Today’s episode: Susanna Wesley: Part 2
Certain Christian traditions are more inclined to develop systematic theologies. The Methodist tradition is not one of them. The Reformed tradition, as discussed in Episode 10 on the Synod of Dort, was filled with prolific dogmatists from the time of Calvin up to today.
Systematic accounts of the faith were not the primary concern for the Methodist movement. It wasn’t until the 1820s that the first attempt at a Wesleyan Systematic Theology was made by Richard Watson. The current United Methodist Book of Discipline describes the distinctive Wesleyan heritage in the following way: “The underlying energy of the Wesleyan theological heritage stems from an emphasis upon practical divinity, the implementation of genuine Christianity in the lives of believers.”1
The modern genre or field of systematic theology exists as a conversation among experts or in the training of experts. They are not written for laity or non-Christians or non-experts. And yet, being able to give an account of the faith is vitally important within the Wesleyan tradition. In this task, Susanna Wesley was extremely adept. Her prose is clear and direct and honestly refreshing compared to the writing of many of her contemporaries (including her husband and father). Susanna didn’t write to earn a pulpit or a place in the academy but to help, to teach, and, if possible, to save people for Jesus Christ.
Susanna Wesley was not able to publish in her lifetime. Many of the longer works that she produced in her youth were lost in the Epworth fire. Her works that do survive are mostly letters that have been masterly collected by Oxford Press and edited by Charles Wallace Jr. in an edition that is way too expensive for most people to buy, but definitely worth the price as a resource for churches and schools.
For today’s episode, I am focussing on one long letter written after the fire, in January of 1709, to her second oldest daughter, also named Susanna, who went by the diminutive Suky. Suky was about 15 at the time of this letter.
Despite the age of her audience, there is no watering down of theology here. As well, there is nothing novel. The point was not to create something new but to convey something old in a direct way that could be understood truly by someone she loved. Systematic theologians that seek new things seek to separate themselves from the past. Susanna Wesley sought to draw her daughter into the loving embrace of God, and she wished to do so in a systematic manner with an account of God, revelation, Christ, salvation, and the church.
She does that by beginning with a good foundation.
“The main thing which is now to be done is to lay a good foundation, that you may act upon principles and be always able to satisfy yourself and give a reason to others of the faith that is in you. For any one which makes a profession of religion only because 'tis the custom of the country in which they live or because their parents do so or their worldly interest is thereby secured or advanced will never be able to stand in the day of temptation, nor shall they ever enter into the kingdom of heaven. And though perhaps you cannot at present fully comprehend all I shall say, yet keep this Letter by you, and as you grow in years, your reason and judgment will improve, and you will obtain a more clear understanding in all things.”2
Susanna then lays out some basics:
“You have already been instructed in some of the first principles of religion—that there is one, and but one, God; that in the unity of the Godhead there are three distinct persons, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; that this God ought to be worshiped.”3
And then we have a personal direct account to Suky herself about what she has learned and what she hasn’t earned and why her mother is writing her that day.
And you have learnt some prayers, your Creed and Catechism, in which is briefly comprehended your duty to God, yourself, and your neighbour. But, Suky, 'tis not learning these things by rote, nor the saying a few prayers morning and evening, that will bring you to heaven; you must understand what you say, and you must practice what you know. And since knowledge is requisite in order to practice, I shall endeavour, after as plain a manner as I can, to instruct you in some of those fundamental points which are most necessary to be known and most easy to be understood. And I earnestly beseech the great Father of spirits' to guide your mind into the way of truth.4
But there is an issue, a reason why Suky and all of humanity doesn’t naturally understand these things. Our own capacities cannot reach God alone. Life is not just about finding ourselves and living our best life now. We need something more.
“yet considering the present state of mankind, it was absolutely necessary that we should have some revelation from God to make known to us those truths upon the knowledge of which our salvation depends and which unassisted reason could never have discovered. For all the duties of natural religion and all the hopes of happiness which result from the performance of them are all concluded within the present life. Nor could we have had any certainty of the future state, of the being of spirits, of the immortality of the soul or of a judgment to come.”5
By why couldn’t we perceive God? What is keeping us from understanding the good on our own? What follows is Susanna Wesley’s account of human depravity
And though we may perceive that all men have by nature a strong bent or bias towards evil and a great averseness from God and goodness, that our understandings, wills, and affections, etc. are extremely corrupted and depraved, yet how could we have known by what means "we became so or how sin and death entered into the world? Since we are assured that whatever is absolutely perfect, as God is, could never be the author of evil. And we are as sure that whatever is corrupt or impure must necessarily be offensive and displeasing to the most holy God, there being nothing more opposite than good and evil. Nay further, sin is not only displeasing to God, as it is contrary to the purity of his divine nature, but 'tis the highest affront and indignity to his sacred Majesty imaginable6
From this position, Susanna offers a doctrine of atonement, falling in line with Anselm of Canterbury’s position.
Now I would fain know which way his justice could be satisfied, since 'tis impossible for a finite being as man is to do it; or how the nature of man should be renewed and he again be admitted into favour with God; or how reason could suggest that our weak endeavours or penitences' should be accepted instead of perfect obedience, unless some other were substituted in our stead that would undergo the punishment we have deserved and thereby satisfy divine justice and purchase pardon and favour from God, the merit of whose perfect obedience should atone for the imperfection of ours, and so obtain for us a title to those glorious rewards, to that eternal happiness, which we must acknowledge ourselves utterly unworthy of, and of which we must have despaired without such a Saviour?7
This was followed then by an account of angels, the devil, and the fall, after which she writes a clear account of the reality of original sin.
Loving, hating, desiring, fearing, etc. what we should not love, hate, desire, etc. at all in the least degree, or, when the object of such passions are lawful, to love, hate, desire, etc. more than reason requires, or else not loving, hating, desiring, etc. what we ought to love, hate, etc, in short any error either in defect or excess, either too much or too little, is the vice or sin of the passions or affections of the soul.8
She then offers praise to God and an account of what other systematicians call the divine attributes (omniscience, omnipotence, omnibenevolence). Which leads to a recapitulation of atonement and to a clear definition and understanding of faith.
By faith in Christ is to be understood an assent to whatever is recorded of him in holy Scripture or is said to be delivered by him, either immediately by himself or mediately by his prophets and apostles or whatsoever may by just inferences or natural consequences be collected from their writings. But because the greater part of mankind either want leisure or capacity to collect the several articles of faith, which lie scattered up and down throughout the sacred writ, the wisdom of the church hath thought fit to sum them up in a short form of words, commonly called the Apostles Creed. Which, because it comprehends the main of what a Christian ought to believe, I shall briefly expound unto you. And though I have not time at present to bring all the arguments I could78 to prove the being of God, his divine attributes, and the truth of revealed religion, yet this short paraphrase may inform you what you should intend when you make the solemn confession of our most holy faith; and may withal teach you that it is not to be said after a formal customary manner, but seriously as in the presence of the all-seeing God, who observes whether the heart join with the tongue, and whether your mind do truly assent to •what you profess when you say, I believe in God.”9
What follows this is a commentary on the Apostles Creed that is not exhaustive but is exceedingly clear.
She concludes by writing,
I shall earnestly beseech Almighty God to enlighten your mind, to renew and sanctify you by his Holy Spirit that you may be his child by adoption here and an heir of his blessed kingdom hereafter.10
Here is the full letter, if you have a chance to spend some time with it.
Like I said earlier, Susanna Wesley was not a wholly original thinker, but that is not a virtue in talking about God. What she offered in her letters to her family was a clarity and faithfulness that is inspiring. She was not the trumpet-piece for her husband or anyone else in her life. She came to her beliefs on her own and offered accounts of those beliefs to the people she loved. You can also feel a sense of what drew the neighbors to her small groups while her husband was in London.
Samuel assuredly influenced her thinking in certain ways. The editor of her works, Charles Wallace, notes the influence, in Susanna’s letter to Suky, of Bishop John Pearson’s Exposition of the Creed, a text that Samuel had recommended in Advice to a Young Clergyman.11
But who was Samuel Wesley? We have been able to spend a while with Susanna and her father throughout this podcast. Samuel did not come from a famous family, so where did he come from? Next time on the History of Methodism.
Susanna Wesley, The Complete Writings, ed. by Charles Wallace Jr.