The spirituality of Susanna Wesley

January 20, 2019 marks the 350th anniversary of the birth of Susanna Wesley, often termed the ‘Mother of Methodism’. In this short piece – a revised extract from a longer article* – Rev Dr Tim Macquiban highlights aspects of Susanna Wesley’s life and spirituality. Tim is a Methodist Church Mission Partner serving in Rome.

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Susanna Annesley was born on 20th January 1669, at Spital Yard, Bishopsgate, London, the youngest daughter of a prominent Presbyterian pastor, Samuel Annesley, who died in 1696. Susanna’s formation in Puritan [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Puritans]piety and pastoral care remained an abiding influence. In 1688, she married a young curate, Samuel Wesley (also of nonconformist antecedents). They were both converts from Nonconformity to high church Caroline Anglicanism (i). Samuel’s parochial ministry took him from London into Surrey, then on to Lincolnshire, where he was Rector of Epworth from 1697 until his death in 1735. Here, Susanna raised a large family, saved Samuel from ignominy on a number of occasions, provided a stable home and education for their children, led groups of local people in instruction when Samuel was away, and found the time to read widely and write.

Of course, today she is remembered primarily as the mother of John and Charles Wesley. However, she was, for many later Methodists at least, an archetype of evangelical womanhood whose intellectual and spiritual contribution is only now being fully evaluated since the publication of the complete edition of her writings (ii). Also recently acknowledged has been her influence on Charles Wesley’s formation through the inculcation of her catechetical writings (such as those on the Apostles’ Creed and Ten Commandments written in 1710-11) and spirited daily conversations with each of her children (iii). In widowhood, she wrote some important works in defence of reformed Anglicanism. She was buried in 1742 in Bunhill Fields, London, not far from the Foundery Chapel where a society was established by her son John as a centre for the Methodist work in London.

Several key events informed her spirituality. The first was her dispute with Samuel over saying ‘Amen’ at the end of the prayer for King William in 1701, demonstrating here defence of the liberty of conscience as a High Church Anglican and supporter of the Stuarts born of her fierce dissenting spirit. Secondly, son John’s miraculous preservation (along with the other children) in the fire which destroyed Epworth Rectory in 1709 gave her a special sense of God’s providence and grace which marked her and ‘Jacky’ out as divine instruments. And thirdly, her holding of ‘irregular’ services in the Epworth Rectory kitchen while Samuel was away demonstrated how her methodical approach to her own personal life spilled over into an imperative to educate others, family and parishioners. She explained it in terms of a holy stewardship entrusted to her:

I cannot but look upon every soul you leave under my care as a talent committed to me under trust by the great Lord. (iv)

Method and Rules – Holy Time and Holy Living

Susanna was a daughter of the Puritans with their emphasis on an ordered timetable for the spiritual life, with regular exercises in Christian obedience as they strove towards perfection. She shared with most earlier Puritans a sense that journaling was important. This was one of the few means of expression of revolt against a patriarchal society where women, as Susanna noted in a marginal note (for her eyes only?), were allowed to ‘think much and speak little’ (v).

The means of grace employed by God for building up holy living were, for Susanna, prayer, self-examination, meditation upon and reading the scriptures, and regular holy communion. Susanna’s ‘ways and means of religion’ listed in her 1718 journal are very close to her son John’s means of grace informing the life of the Holy Club in Oxford in the 1730s, as was her theology of the real presence in communion set out in a letter to John in 1732 (vi). Susanna regarded prayer as the chief weapon against temptation, while meditation was ‘incomparably the best means to spiritualise our affections, confirm our judgement, and add strength to our pious resolutions’ (vii).

One way of holding to this method of devotion was through rules and a disciplined life. Self-examination was, of course, crucial to the method, each day regularly, and particularly before taking holy communion in order ‘to rely only on Jesus the mediator of the new covenant’, confessing sins in order to underline one’s reliance on the mercy of God (viii). Susanna Wesley urged all to ‘make an examination of your conscience at least three times a day and omit no opportunity of retirement from the world’ (ix). Her insistence on regular self-examination was, ‘to preserve a devout and serious temper of mind in the midst of much worldly business’, especially when one had, as she did, ‘a numerous family and a narrow fortune’ (x).

The systematic regularity of preparing for and receiving communion flowed out of the emphasis on self-examination after meditation as a hallmark of serious piety (xi). For Susanna, the sacrament was a seal of the covenant of Christ with his Church, esteeming the Lord’s Supper as a sovereign means of grace that required rigorous preparation. By 1732, she confirms her belief in the real presence of Christ in the sacrament which so affected or mirrored the eucharistic spirituality of her sons (xii).

An aspect of Susanna’s reverence for Holy Time was the centrality and importance of the Lord’s Day. She has several meditations on the ‘most happy day’ which served to remind people that ‘these sacred moments may ever be employed in Thy service’, a day for devotion rather than diversions, with all things ‘devoutly performed’ in praise and thanksgiving (xiii). She reminded Samuel ‘never to spend more time on any matter of mere recreation in one day than you spend on private religious duties’ (xiv).

Within the Puritan tradition, Holy Living stressed the centrality of the concept of Church as the household of God, the gathered congregation, modelling its life on the pattern of Jesus Christ for its moral behaviour. Susanna modelled the Epworth household on models adapted from Thomas à Kempis, Richard Baxter, Richard Lucas and others (xv). She devoted specific time to each of her children each day of the week, taking two children on Sundays. She shared in family prayers, bible reading and taught them in a rigorous educational scheme. A carefully ordered timetable in which even household tasks became religious acts was essential for a disciplined life.

Susanna wrote that spiritual indisposition should not result in inactivity. Even if she could not pray, she would meditate.  If she could not meditate, then read. If she could not read, then she got on with doing good. Such pragmatic spirituality challenged the quietist approach of the Moravians and others, while preserving the priority of prayer and contemplation at the heart of the spiritual life.

Holy Living was part of a quest for Christian Perfection, with a “reasonable enthusiasm” thus borne out in an active life based on contemplation. Susanna stressed the person of Christ as the model and pattern for moral behaviour. She brought together reason and conscience so that ‘we make the light of Scripture and reason shine so bright’ (xvi). Such reasonable enthusiasm, bringing together natural and revealed religion, ‘by the direction and assistance of (God’s) Holy Spirit’, resulted in a more affective response to the reading of Scripture (xvii).

Conclusion

Susanna’s father, Samuel, described Susanna as displaying ‘serious godliness’. Susanna’s piety was thoroughly Christo-centric and doxological, informed by her wide reading of scripture and contemporary works including John Locke and Blaise Pascal, as well as Puritan and Caroline Divines like Jeremy Taylor. She displayed a warmth and enthusiasm which expressed itself in spontaneous utterances of praise to God and obedience to God’s will. She upheld the ideal of the redemption of time for God’s holy service as the central feature of her methodistical approach to the spiritual life. While the motive for the writings of Susanna Wesley was undoubtedly focused on her own household, her influence, through the evangelical ministry of the Wesleys ensured that the method and spiritual exercises she put into practice for her and those around her had a far wider effect in the life and development of English religion and spirituality.

 

References

i Wallace, Charles, (2007), ‘Charles and Susanna’, in Newport, Kenneth C.G. and Campbell, Ted A., (eds) Charles Wesley: Life, Literature and Legacy Epworth Press.

ii Wallace, Charles, (1997). Susanna Wesley: The complete writings. Oxford University Press, p. 3.

iii Wallace, (2007), pp. 70-72.

iv Quoted in Wallace, (1997), p. 13.

v Wallace, (1997), p. 202.

vi Wallace, (1997), p. 79.

vii Wallace, (1997), p. 201.

viii Wallace, (1997), p.224.

vix Wallace, (1997), p. 197.

x Wallace, (1997), 208.

xi Newton, John, (1968), Susanna Wesley and the Puritan Tradition in Methodism. Epworth Press, p. 139.

xii Newton, (1968), pp. 147-48.

xiii Wallace, (1997), p. 303.

xiv Newton, (1968), p. 55.

xv See Newton,  Chapter 2 on Family.

xvi Wallace, (1997), p. 338.

xvii Newton, (1968), p. 149.

*Full article is:

Tim Macquiban, ‘Proto-Methodist models of Spirituality, discipline and devotion : Susanna Annesley and Elizabeth Burnet’ in A Thankful Heart and a Discerning Mind: essays in honour of John Newton, edited by Mervyn Davies, Lonely Scribe, 2010.

Photo by Wendy van Zyl from Pexels