5. Susanna Wesley—A Portrait of PerseveranceRelated Media
This article is an edited transcript of Susie Hawkins’ audio message on Passionate Faith. Appreciation for the transcription work goes to Marilyn Fine.
Today we are continuing in our study, Passionate Faith on Display, walking through the metaphoric gallery of “Portraits of Women in Church History.” I have gotten a lot of feedback about how much everybody loved Katie Luther from last week. She is quite the loveable person. I know everybody enjoyed her, with her playfulness, her exuberance, and her personality. I love reading and studying about her.
Well, today we are looking at another pastor’s wife. She really is someone you have to study if you are going to study women who have been important in church history. This woman is Susanna Wesley, mother of John and Charles Wesley. If you could pick one quality in her life to emphasize, I believe it would be perseverance or endurance. Just the fact that I said that, what does that tell you about her life? She needed perseverance; she needed endurance. So, as we look at her life we are going to see how important endurance, perseverance, and patience is and how to depend on God to give you that perseverance to walk through circumstances like this woman, Susanna Wesley.
Now, endurance or perseverance or patience these are often words that are used interchangeably in the New Testament’s interpretation. It simply means to hold up under. It’s the word, “hupomone.” It simply means: “hupo” means “under;” “mone” means “to abide or hold up.” The idea is that there is some resistance. For example, the word picture is somebody who has bent over and carrying something on their back, right? So, it is perseverance. It is endurance to carry this load. But, it also carries with it the idea of resistance. Before we even begin I want to make that clear that when we talk about perseverance and endurance as a believer we are not talking about resignation. There is a difference between endurance/perseverance and resignation. Do you follow me? We are not talking about resignation, or giving up. That would be the “I quit; this is what has happened, and I cannot help it” attitude. No, we are talking about some resistance involved in that we continue to believe, continue to trust, continue to do the right thing despite the difficulties of that particular time we are in. So, I want you to keep that in mind as we talk about Susanna Wesley.
Why was Susanna Wesley so important? She, as I mentioned, is the mother of two of the most important men in church history, John Wesley and Charles Wesley. They were big. They began “Methodist-ism”-- the Methodist movement which came out of the Anglican Church of England. They were the ones who began that denomination. In church history, if you are going to do matching and you are going to match up something with the name “Wesley” you are going to match it up with “revival” because during the times of the first great awakening they were so significant in bringing revival. This was the case not only in England but in the American colonies as well. It is hard to overstate the importance.
Charles Wesley, you may know, is the hymn writer. He wrote over 3,000 hymns. If you read through some of the words of his hymns, they are so theological and rich. Of course, I had a number of the most famous all written down but can I think of one right now? No, of course not. They are so rich and so strong and so aggressive. His hymns are packed with theology.
The interesting thing about these two men is that the primary spiritual influence in their lives up until her death was their mother. She was the one who even toward the end of her life, when she was elderly and in bed, they would go and sit and she would pray with them. She would counsel with them. They would discuss difficult passages of the Bible. They could not say enough about her and her spiritual walk with Christ, about her counsel, and about her example. In a way, it reminds me of Monica, Augustine’s mother, in that Susanna had a profound influence over these young men. They, in turn, had such a profound influence on Christianity.
Now, Susanna lived in the post-Reformation times. So, it is after the Reformation, 17th century. She lived in England. Let’s give a little context of her time. “Protestantism” continued to splinter after the Reformation. You remember what happened. Martin Luther and all these men broke with the Catholic church and then they broke up and then they broke up. It continued to splinter or fragment across the continent and across Europe. Really, you could say that the spirit of the Reformation could not be contained to one place. This was very different than the past because Christianity had been centered in Rome or in Istanbul, right? You have the Eastern Empire and you have the Western empire, Byzantine Empire. So, Christianity was very centralized. Now, you have all these difference movements. Within the mainstream of Christianity, there was some crazy stuff going on. There was the sense that this new understanding and this freedom that they found and this openness of people, that they just could not contain it all. They were just overcome with all this new truth and new application. The new time they lived in was changing so much. It was uncontainable and it was uncontrollable.
So, as the Reformation spread through Europe, eventually it spread to England. Now, just think in your mind of a little map of Europe and think of where central Europe is and then think where England is. It is way up to the northwest. Catholicism and the Pope had had kind of a rough go in England anyway. They were a long way away geographically. The English, I don’t know, they were not so crazy about the Pope having jurisdiction over them anyway. They never were really happy Catholics in that sense. They had never really been very comfortable with the Pope. So, you know the story. Henry the VIII was married to Katharine and she had only produced a female heir and he wanted a male heir, of course, and so he decided he needed to divorce her because little Anne Boleyn had caught his eye. So, he wanted the Pope to annul the marriage. Well, the Pope would not do it so he said fine he would do it himself. The Reformation in England primarily was political so he could break away from the Roman Catholic Church, establish the reigning monarch in England as the head of the Church as opposed to the Pope. The Church practices and theology, basically stay the same except for that one thing. Now, what is interesting, though, that as that changed in England, the spirit of the Reformation, although Henry VIII did not have that, eventually made it to England. There were people who began to question and preach. John Wycliffe was an Englishman who had made a lot of inroads translating the Bible into English in the 14th century. After his death, his body was exhumed and burned. Yet people began to read some of his writings. They began to go into their history and look at their own heritage. Eventually, this Reformation’s spirit came to England.
Just so we know our terms, let’s review. You have the Anglicans-- that is the Church of England. Then you had the Reformers or the Puritans. The Puritans wanted to stay in the Church but purify it. Then, you have the Separatists and those were the ones who said it is hopeless. There is no purpose in trying to stay in the Church. It cannot be changed. We will separate. They were often also called nonconformists. That is where the Pilgrims came from.
Now, let us talk about where Susanna fits in this. After the Reformation came the Enlightenment. This was the Age of Reason which came on the scene. What had really happened by the time Susanna Wesley came along, was that the revival spirit of the Reformation had kind of died down. Many people were off to believing in Deism. Deists believe in the Creator, but they believed He has withdrawn from his creation. He was disinterested. He created and He said, “I’m leaving.” So, He left. There was a very, very weak and cold spiritual climate at the time Susanna Wesley and her husband began their ministry. There was a great need for revival. During John Wesley’s time is when many spiritual giants burst on the scene: George Whitfield, preached in England and in America; Jonathan Edwards, many of you probably have heard of him; Charles and John Wesley and others. There were some great spiritual giants during this time of the first great awakening.
The Methodist movement that developed at this time was born out of Charles and John Wesley. When they were in college, they began to meet with a group of young men. They prayed together. They fasted together. They would minister to the poor together. Basically, what they were was an accountability group. They were a small group. They were a small group Bible study. We all have those and know what that is. That is what they had. Out of that was birthed the Methodist movement and it comes from “method.” They had their methods of doing things. They had their spiritual disciplines. They had their ways of evangelizing. That is where the whole thing came from – having a “method.” They were also very, very big in the social gospel as far as doing things for people and ministering to the poor. In fact, if I may just take one minute, this is why we have some good Methodist women in here today who come from that tradition of lots of social action and it is from the Methodist women. Hillary Clinton is very proud of being a Methodist. She talks about how her faith has impacted her political views. Why? Her social action. It comes straight from the Methodist church. They have a strong tradition of that, a very admirable strong tradition of that, may I say. I have relatives who are very active in the Methodist church and that is how they are, too. So, they come by that tradition naturally. It goes all the way back to the Wesley brothers, even to the English Church.
So, let us look at Susanna. Everybody knows Susanna because we know she had 19 children. Did everybody here know that? Oh, yes, that is why people talk about her. She had nineteen kids. Yes, and you think you feel sorry for her now, but you just wait! There are always stories about how she would in her kitchen put her apron over her head to have her quiet time. Try that next time with your kids. See how that works. She must have had some great concentration skills that she could have her quiet time and do that. She was known for a million different things, with that being one of the most famous things.
Well, let us talk about the real story of Susanna Wesley. She was the 25th child and the youngest child of her parents. Can I just say parenthetically that the females in this family must have had eggs bursting out. I have never heard of so many fertile women. All right, her father was a London pastor and he was in the Church. He was a Puritan. He stayed within the Church and he worked very, very hard. He was a writer. He was very bright. He supported the Book of Common Prayer and he was very, very, very active in the Puritan movement as a pastor within the Anglican Church. So, he gave his children excellent education. She received an excellent education in the classics, especially in reading and writing. She was a very gifted writer. As time progresses with these women, we know more and more about them because they could write and because they could read. There was a lot of correspondence. We have lots and lots of her correspondence which gives us the picture of her. She was very strong. She was very independent. At age 13, she studied the doctrines of the Anglican Church and decided that her parents were wrong. Now is that a classic 13-year-old or what? She broke with her parents who were Puritans and thought the Puritans were wrong and she went back to the established Anglican Church because she thought her parents did not know what they were talking about. That is where she met Samuel, her future husband who was a pastor in the Anglican Church and they were married a short time later (when she was 19).
Susanna was like Katie Luther in the sense that she was strong and independent. She was very bright, but she had a sharp tongue. I am not sure she had the playfulness of Katie Luther. She did not have anything to play with. She had a hard life. Samuel was a very difficult man.
As a pastor he was very rigid. He was very moralistic. I would call him a hard preacher. That is what I call people like that. Do you know what I mean? There is not much grace. Just a hard preacher. He was not popular with his parishioners. They did not like him. They did not like his sermons. So, we are getting a picture here of Susanna and why she needed endurance. He loved to involve himself in controversies. He loved to go to pastors’ convocations and go to the things where they would talk theology for days and days and days on end. He would write about these things which nobody cared about. He just was not a good people person. He was a horrible money manager. We will see that he got them in terrible debt more than once, but he was a nonconformist. Now, the thing is she converted him back to her position. They kind of went back and forth through their lives, but the point is that once she married him, she adapted to his theological view. They were not in the Church, the official Church. There was not an official salary. They had to go to parishes and villages where they would be paid by people who were not in the church. You can imagine that was not a very financially secure position to be in. They first lived in small villages.
She had seven children in seven years and then they moved to an area called Epworth. During that time, she birthed 19 children. Ten of them lived to maturity. Nine died in infancy. Of course, this was a time when many, many, many children died in infancy. It was not uncommon that two-thirds of babies who were birthed would die in a family. It was not unusual at all. Of course, this is way before penicillin, way before modern medicine. So, this was not uncommon. When I was typing my notes I was thinking that nine children died. I stopped and I thought, “do you think just because a lot of them died it was any less painful for her than if it was one?” No. Right there, girls, is that not enough to tell you. There are two sad stories. I am not going to even tell you because it would make you too sad. The stories of many times the way these babies died and the suffering of disease was so horrible. It was a hard time. A very hard time to live. But, she birthed 19 children. Of the ten who lived, they were very bright and articulate. She was a serious mother. She homeschooled these children, of course. She taught them theology, and French. They knew math. She had a very rigid schedule. Would you not have to have if you had them all there at home. They got up at a time. They ate at a certain time. On her child-raising, she said that children were put to bed. Nobody sits by them and holds their hands. They go to sleep. One of her writings says that children are not allowed to cry loudly. They have to cry softly if they cry. Now, I would really like to know how she did that. I do not know if I believe that. I do not know how you do that. But anyway, who knows. She was something else. Maybe one look from her and they shaped up. I do not know. She was very, very invested in her children. She had 10 which lived to maturity.
However, her marriage was where we see Susanna as a woman who had to persevere and endure. In one of the examples and one of the famous stories about them is that they were praying one night together, Susanna and Samuel. Susanna was a strong supporter of the Stuart Line of the Kings. We cannot even go into English history. It is just too complicated and I still do not understand it to this day. They had been usurped – this king. King James had been overthrown and replaced by William from another family line. So, during the family prayers when Samuel prayed for King William, Susanna refused to say “amen” because she thought he was an illegitimate king. She would not say “amen.” It just made him crazy. He got so angry with her and he called her to their room. He said, “We will have to separate for if we have two kings, we have two beds. He said, “You need to apologize.” She said that she would apologize if she was wrong, but she was not. So, to apologize would be a lie and that would be a sin. Do you love her logic, or what! She later wrote about this and said, in her words, “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 for not saying amen to the prayer for the king.” Well, he left. Easy for us to say, but he left her with all the children. Do you think he took them with him? Oh, no. Do they ever? No, of course not. So, he left for five months. He conveniently found some convocation in London to attend. She wrote him several letters during that time saying that he basically abandoned the children. If we cannot resolve the two king thing, would you please come back and help me with the kids. In this letter she said, and here is really a summary, a sad summary of their marriage. She said, “I am more easy in the thoughts of parting because I think we are not likely to be happy together.”
Her daughter, Amelia, later wrote about her growing up in this home. She said that the situation in the home was best described as intolerable, want and affliction. Not only was there animosity between the two of them--andI am sure she was at fault as well as he was-- but there was extreme poverty. There was a saying at that time, and I am not so sure it is not still true. “When poverty comes in the door, love flies out the window.” You know how difficult poverty and want and affliction and no money what it brings to a relationship. It never helped. It always makes things more stressful.
Later, about that whole incident she said, “I have unsuccessfully represented to him the unlawfulness and unreasonableness of his oath, that the man in that case has no more power over his own body than the woman over hers. I am willing to let him enjoy his opinions. He ought not to deprive me of my little liberty of conscience.” Here is what I like about her. She supported him; she stayed faithful to him. I mean in that day and age what are you going to do? Women had no choice. But, she continued to be a wife to him even though clearly he wronged her. Clearly, he did not treat her as he should have treated her. This is what makes her all the more admirable is that while she supported him in his ministry, yet she was still able to express herself here. She was not beaten down, you follow me? You still see some rational thought in her, which is that since God gave me a brain and the freedom to have a liberty of conscience, then I have the right to not like the king. That does not mean I have the right (this is all private) to publicly disagree with my husband or publicly challenge him on things, but God gave me that right. This is the line she walked. This is what I admire about her as I have studied about her is that she somehow was able to keep her own sense of who she was and what she thought God had led her to believe along with honoring her husband as her husband and as the father of her children.
King William suddenly died. Samuel returned home and John Wesley was born nine months later. So, we guess everything worked out. The practical and philosophical differences between Samuel and Susanna continued throughout their married life. One of the times John had written to them after graduating from school he said, “I really feel like I want to go into gospel ministry and begin preaching at churches.” His father said, “No, you need more study. It is too early.” His mother said, and I will not give you the exact quote, but she said, “You have had enough education. How much can a person need to learn? Get out there and get busy.” They totally disagreed on how to advise their children.
Another interesting thing is that she was very popular with the church members. They did not like Samuel which, of course, made him jealous of her. If anybody in here is married to a pastor and you think it is hard when people criticize your husband because they do not like how he preached, oh, go read about Susanna. At that particular time if they did not like the sermon, they maybe would burn your barn down or steal your cow-- the milk for your kids. It is unbelievable what would happen to these people. So, they all disagreed with Samuel. All the parishioners disagreed with his political views. They all did not like his sermons. He was mean and rigid, so they were unhappy all the time which just made things that much more difficult for Susanna. He also got them into debt. He finally gave the money to her. Typical in that time, if one got into debt then what would logic tell you to do? You put the person in prison! Now, how in the world are they ever going to repay? Susanna worked with the constable in the village and found a way to finagle to get him out of prison so they could begin to repay their debt.
Later on, their house burned down which was also not unusual in that day and time. It really makes your heart beat so fast to read this account of this house burning and how they all barely got out. They thought John Wesley was still in the house. He was six years old at the time. They all began to cry and weep and a neighbor told them to look. There in the second story window was a little boy standing, holding his arms out. The neighbors went over and made like a ladder with a man on top of each other. They got him out. Literally, one second later the entire roof collapsed. So, he lived with a sense of his mother and his father saying, “God has delivered you for something. You have something to live for. You have a ministry. You have a calling.”
Another thing which happened to her (gosh our time goes fast with these women!). Samuel’s health had deteriorated and a visiting preacher came to preach. Well, do you think the people liked him? No, they did not like him either. She did not like him either. So, she began to have afternoon services in her house. Well, they all let her. She was famous for her Sunday afternoon services when they would just come into the kitchen. People would stand around the outside of the house and would sing, sing Psalms. She would read scripture and then she would read one of the sermons, one of her father’s sermons or one of Samuel’s sermons. The visiting preacher, do you think he liked that? No, he sent word to stop it and she said, “I don’t have to stop it.” So, he sent word to Samuel and told him he should tell her to stop it. That did not go over too well either. She said, “They are needy. They are spiritually needy. I am not doing anything wrong. I am reading sermons that a man wrote.” Here again, I want to remind you I am not saying right or wrong about any of this. That is what she did. She seemed to have an innate sense of what people needed. They needed encouragement. They needed warm spiritual nurturing. They needed blessing. Those meetings in her kitchen really were what John and Charles Wesley saw as a foundation of the strong work of God. He was very, very big later in the revival movement for having women prayer groups. He was another one who used women. He had no qualms about using women, especially to pray and to support the work of the revival ministry. He had no hesitation. Where did he see that work? In his mother’s kitchen, in his mother’s kitchen.
Now, when she finally died, she had had heartbreak all through her life. All her children married poorly. Are you surprised? Is not that interesting? Her daughters, I am sure, to escape poverty married badly. Some of them died early. John Wesley had a horrible marriage. He had a very, very, very difficult marriage, as did Charles. That’s a sad chapter in that story, but, nevertheless, after Samuel died she lived with John in an area called the Foundry in a revival center in London and there she would minister to people. They would send people with physical needs and spiritual needs to their mother so that she would pray for them. So, if you read her life’s story, you see a woman who endured just about everything. If you just think about what she endured, she endured such tribulation. Being pregnant 19 times, is that enough? Nine children dying. Hunger. Extreme poverty. Losing her house. When she lost her house, she lost all the family records, her father’s sermons. She lost everything. Loss of house and possessions, wayward children, seeing her children suffer in poor marriage. More than that, it is such a contrast with Katie and Luther, Katie and Martin Luther. Susannah did not have a man who was her soul mate, her love. You know, with the Luther’s with all the suffering they also had each other. Susannah did not have that. She had Jesus. She had Jesus.
Now, when I was thinking about perseverance, thinking about her, I really looked for a scripture that I thought would describe her. There are a number of scriptures on perseverance and endurance. You can read it in your Bible. We all need that. The writer of Hebrews said (Heb. 10:36), “For you have needed endurance. You have need of endurance for after you have done the will of God, you will receive the promise.” I think Romans 5:1-5, especially 3-5, says it best: “Knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance.” Tribulation brings about perseverance and perseverance brings about character, proven character. Not just character. You have lived it. You have proven it. Proven character and proven character brings hope and hope does not disappoint because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us. So, this patience, this endurance interestingly enough in Paul’s letters is always associated with hope. I love that. That is why I said at the very beginning, we are not talking about resignation. Persevering, enduring. The writer of Hebrews said, “Once you have endured, you will receive the promise.” (Heb. 10:36) I believe that is what kept women like Susanna Wesley. There are probably thousands of women like her. What kept them going is that they persevered. They endured. They walked with God because their love of Him, knowing that someday they will receive the promise. They will receive their reward. They had been faithful. They had walked with endurance and perseverance. They have carried that load on their back and they resisted it. They have not let it get the best of them.
I think that is the message that we have from Susanna Wesley. I Thessalonians 1:3 says, “I am constantly bearing in mind your work of faith, your labor of love, and the endurance of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. So, what I want to say to you today, for those of you who are enduring, and everybody does at some point or another, everybody has to learn perseverance and endurance, but you do it with hope. I love that about Susanna that she just did not go jump out of the window one day and say I cannot take it any more. She endured. She endured to the end. Someday, as I think I have said before, when she gets her reward at the Judgment Seat of Christ, can we all cheer just a little bit louder for her and give her her reward? What an example she is – in patience, endurance and perseverance, a woman who learned the meaning of that endurance and truly lived it out.