Susanna Wesley was the mother of John and Charles Wesley and the wife of Samuel Wesley, a priest in the Church of England. Her life challenged the structures of the church in a way that made room for both her voice and the voice of others.
London - January 1, 1781
As I sit here in my house this morning, I can see the grave of my beloved mother. Her amazing love for God and the Church impacted the way I approached my ministry. She helped me to understand how important it is to stretch the rules to include those called by God into ministry. Her ministry impacted not only our lives, but also the lives of our community. Her life gave Charles and I an example of what it means to care for the people of God, an example that shaped the way we worked to reform the Church of England.
As you know, one of the first lay people to assist me was Thomas Maxfield. Of course I gave him strict instructions not to preach since he was only a lay person. But he ignored my instructions and began to preach and eventually word of his preaching got back to me. Needless to say, I was ready to remind him that what he was a doing was wrong. On my way to confront him I stopped by to visit with my mother and we talked about Thomas Maxfield’s preaching. She said, “John, take care, he is as surely called to preach as you are.” This changed my whole approach to the situation. Instead of going to confront, I went to listen and I learned he was a powerful preacher. Her timely words opened the door not only for Thomas Maxfield, but for many other lay preachers, including Mary Bousenquet-Fletcher and Sarah Taft. Her advice shouldn’t have surprised me. I had seen her challenge the rules before.
When I was about 8 years old my mother started a Sunday evening prayer meeting in the parsonage. What started as a time for us as a family to read our prayers and hear a sermon from my mother, soon included about two hundred people from the church. My mother was so popular that more people were attending the evening meeting in the parsonage than were attending the church in the morning. The curate my father hired to take his place when he was out of town wrote to my father and asked him to have my mother stop the Sunday evening meetings. My father took the curate’s advice and asked my mother to stop preaching on Sunday evening. I still have the letters my mother wrote to my father when he asked her to stop the Sunday evening meetings. My father was concerned with order, with doing things the right way, and these meetings were outside the normal structure of the church. Among his complaints he challenged my mother’s right to speak at such a meeting because she was a woman. Here is how she responded to my father.
To your second, I reply that as I am a woman, so I am also mistress of a large family. And though the superior charge of the souls contained in it lies upon you as head of the family and as their minister, yet in your absence I cannot but look upon every soul you leave under my care as a talent committed to me under a trust by the great Lord of all the families of heaven and earth. And if I am unfaithful to him or to you in neglecting to improve these talents, how shall I answer unto him, when he shall command me to render an account of my stewardship?
You probably will not believe it, but after receiving this letter from my mother, he asked her to stop leading the Sunday evening meetings again, but this time with more force. But my mother was convinced that what she was doing was a good thing, even if it was against the rules of the church. My mother could have a focus that was so clear. Her response to my father asked for a clear command to dissolve the meeting. Let me share her words with you so you can hear her passion for people’s spiritual health.
If you do after all think fit to dissolve this assembly, do not tell me any more that you desire me to do it, for that will not satisfy my conscience; but send me your positive command in such full and express terms as may absolve me from all guilt and punishment for neglecting this opportunity of doing good to souls, when you and I shall appear before the great and awful tribunal of our Lord Jesus Christ.
I do not know how my father replied, but my mother continued to lead the Sunday evening meetings when my Father was out of town.
As I think about my mother’s life I realize that nobody gave her a voice -- she even had to fight with my father for her place -- but she lived her life in a way that did give others a voice. She taught me to listen, and to value the people God put in my life. She did this with her life and with her timely words. If it wasn’t for her, I might have spoken to Thomas Maxfield like my father spoke to my mother. I might have tried to silence the work of God. I am thankful for my mother’s courage and example.
Your Affectionate Brother,
Wesley, Susanna. Susanna Wesley : The Complete Writings, edited by Charles, Jr. Wallace, Oxford University Press, Incorporated, 1997.
About the Author: Patrick Eby is an Associate Professor of Church History at Wesley Seminary in Marion, IN. His book, The Heart of Charles Wesley’s Theology, explores Charles Wesley description of Sanctification as being restored in the image of God.