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My lecture today is on the life and work of Susanna Wesley. She is known to history as the mother of John and Charles Wesley, co-founders of Methodism. But she is more than this; a woman of rare gifts, she displayed an unlimited patience and an iron self-discipline that deserve the respect and imitation of God's people in every age. Every woman here should sit at her feet and learn of her. And no man would be the worse-off for doing so, either.
I will begin with a brief sketch of her life and then view her in her element, as a mother. Susanna was born, 1669, in London, to Dr. and Mrs. Samuel Annesley. She was the twenty-fifth child born to that long and happy union. Her father was a Puritan preacher and a man of God supreme. In the age of John Owen, Richard Baxter, and Thomas Manton, nobody was more admired than Samuel Annesley. From him, Susanna inherited her good looks, charming manners, excellent mind, and strong personality. At the age of 13, she asserted the latter, quitting her father's church for the Church of England.
Six years later, she married the Rev. Samuel Wesley, a fellow dissenter who had turned Episcopalian. In some ways, Mr. Wesley was admirable: a fine scholar and poet, he preached well and maintained church discipline with great rigor.
But in other ways, he was less commendable. His was a domineering personalty. He often boasted of being "a king in the home". And so he was; absolute and arbitrary in his rule. One daughter appealed to him: "O Sir, you are a good man! But you are seldom kind and rarely just...You are a tyrant to those you love..."
He was also arrogant. As far as we know, he never admitted his faults or apologized to any member of his family. And, when you consider some of the things he did, this omission is positively scandalous. Once, his wife did not say "Amen" to one of his prayers, which she thought mistaken. For this "insubordination", he left her for a year, swore he would never return, and tried to get a naval commission. When this fell through, he moved home, without so much as saying, "I'm sorry".
Such a man--as you'd expect--was also easily offended and not anxious to forgive. There was once a fine young man in his parish who wanted to court his daughter, Hetty. She was then twenty-eight, wanting to get married, and strongly attracted to her suitor. But, because he had once sung a song that Wesley thought disrespectful, he forbade any contact between the young lovers. Later, when the same daughter became pregnant-out-of-wedlock (by another man), the good preacher forced her into an unwanted marriage, refused to attend the wedding, and vowed to never see her again.
But if these character flaws were not enough, Samuel Wesley was also irresponsible with money. As the Rector of Epworth, he received a fine salary (L200/year). This was, roughly, four times that paid to a dissenting minister. It wouldn't make him a rich man, but it would provide a comfortable living...
...If Wesley would only take care of his money. But he would not. Some of his fault was excusable. He tried to supplement his income with farming and animal husbandry, but lacking experience in this kind of work, he lost money. He also hoped to make a fortune by writing. But here, too, his impracticality would undo him. Wesley thought that he could make money by writing a commentary (and that is possible). But he chose to write on one of the Bible's most obscure books, Job; to write a multi-volume set (too expensive); and to author the great work in Latin! Needless to say, it was not a runaway bestseller.
But other defects are less easily excused. Wesley would spend several weeks per year in London, lodging in its finest hotels, drinking its best spirits, and faring sumptuously every day. And this he did, without thought for his wife and children, who were often on the verge of starvation. It is true that he had church business to attend; that Churchmen were expected to live well; and that he might gain promotion by associating with London's upper crust--but still, his behavior cannot be justified. His poverty was self-induced and eminently deserved!
Now, what kind of wife would you expect such a man to have? An ex-wife, maybe? No; Susanna remained loyal to her heartless mate. But more than loyal (in the sense of not divorcing him), Mrs. Wesley was positively devoted to him.
She served him with contentment and joy. In one of his rare, tender moments, Wesley wrote a poem describing his wife:
"She graced my humble roof, and blest my life,
Blest me by a far greater name than wife;
Yet still I bore an undisputed sway,
Nor was it her task, but pleasure to obey".
She respected him. When Wesley abandoned his wife, she and her children were penniless. And so, to avoid starvation, she wrote to a friend, asking for money, and explaining why she needed it. But, although her letter is a model of understatement, she worried that her friend would expose her husband's evil deed. And so, she wrote a second time,
"I humbly beg that the gentleman would be careful
that the world may know nothing which may reflect
on my master, but that the business may be concealed".
In other words, she was worried about her husband's reputation! The man who had ruined her life, must not suffer in public opinion. What a stinging rebuke she is to the wife who takes pleasure in describing her man's misdeeds.
She loved him. The man's folly once landed him in debtor's prison. A stay, incidentally, he preferred to home life. But, rather than letting the rascal suffer for his sins, Susanna offered to obtain his release by selling her wedding rings.
But more than obeying, respecting, and loving her husband, Susanna Wesley suffered him without complaint. Oh, what she might have called him: "A cruel tyrant...an incurable deadbeat...a thoughtless husband...an ugly father...an unsaved pastor...and more. But you'll look in vain for such things. And this is how it should be, for "love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things".
This gift of suffering quietly with grace has been all but lost in the modern world. It is thought to be wrong and harmful. I know a woman who blames her divorce on not fighting her husband enough. Susanna Wesley, though, bore her husband's evil ways with the dignity and grace that become a Christian woman.
And, she was not the loser for it. She had her reward in life; a clear conscience and the respect of all good people. She has her reward in death. Many books have been written on the Wesley family. And all of them recognize her spiritual greatness. This is how it must be: "Favor is deceitful and beauty is vain; but a woman who fears the LORD, she shall be praised". And, she has her reward in the resurrection. "She continued in faith, love, sobriety, and holiness...and so "will be saved".
And so, this is the sort of wife Susanna Wesley was. A wife, worthy of your imitation, dear ladies.
But Mrs. Wesley was an even better mother. She bore 19 children in the same number of years, nine of whom survived. Her son, John, was one of the leading preachers of his day, perhaps second only to his friend, George Whitefield. Another son, Charles, was also an excellent preacher, and composed about 9,000 poems and hymn, including the immortal:
"And can it be that I should gain
An interest in the Savior's blood?
Died He for me, who caused His pain?
For me, who Him to death pursued?
Amazing love! How can it be
That Thou my God shouldst die for me?"
And her other children, though less known, grew up to be fine and useful men and women. Hetty, the fallen daughter, was redeemed, and later became one of the Methodists' most prized "female workers". An older son, Samuel, also went into the ministry. And good things could be said of the others, too. Thus, Susanna Wesley was an excellent mother, and under less than easy conditions.
Happily for us, she committed her ways to paper. Thus, more than 200 years after the good mother's death, "she being dead, yet speaks". From this point on, the titles are mine, but the advice comes from Susanna Wesley.
1.Start with the attitude. "In order to form the minds of children, the first thing to be done is to conquer their will and bring them to an obedient temper". ["Obedient temper" is an old-fashioned word that means "attitude". What Mrs. Wesley is saying is something like this: If you can control the child's attitude, you won't have to worry so much about his conduct. Many parents fail here. They correct every misdeed, and never have a moment's rest. Why? Because the bad behavior is a result of an underlying bad attitude. Correct that, and the behavior will take care of itself. Or, in the words of Christ: "Make the tree good and the fruit will be good"].
2.Start your discipline early. "Whenever the child is corrected, it must be conquered, and this will be no hard matter to do if it be not grown headstrong by too much indulgence...I call cruel parents who permit their children to get habits which they know must afterward be broken. Nay, some are so stupidly fond as in sport to teach their children to do things, which in a while after, they have severely beaten them for doing".
3.Attack selfishness in the child. "Self-will is the root of all sin and misery. So whatever cherishes this in children insures their afterwretchedness and irreligion. Whatever promotes and mortifies it, promotes their future happiness and piety. This is still more evident if we consider that religion is nothing more than doing the will of God and not our own. That the one grand impediment to our eternal happiness being this self-will, no indulgences of it can be trivial and no denial unprofitable. Heaven or hell depends on this alone. The parent who studies to subdue it in his child works together with God in the renewing and saving a soul. The parent who indulges it does the devil's work, makes religion impracticable, salvation unattainable; and does all that in him lies to damn his child, soul and body, forever".
4.Do not reward sin. "They were quickly made to understand they might have nothing they cried for".
5.Reward the truth. "It has been observed that fear of punishment often led children into lying, till they get a custom of it which they cannot leave. To prevent this, a law was made that whoever was charged with a fault of which they were guilty, if they would honestly confess it and promise to amend, should not be beaten".
6.Be consistent. "No sinful action, as lying, pilfering, playing at church, or on the Lord's day, disobedience, quarreling, and so forth should ever pass unpunished".
7.Forgive your child. "No child should ever be chided or beaten twice for the same fault; and if they have amended, they should never be upbraided with it afterwards".
8.Notice your child's good deeds. "Every act of obedience, especially when it crossed their own inclinations, should be always commended and frequently rewarded, according to the merits of the cause."
9.Compliment good intentions. "If any child performed an act of obedience or did anything with an intention to please, though the performance was not well, yet the obedience and intention should be kindly accepted; and the child, with sweetness, should be directed how to do better for the future".
10.Demand integrity. "Let promises be strictly observed".
11.Stress academic achievement. "That no girl be taught to work
till she can read very well; and that she be kept to her work with the same application, and for the same time, that she was held to in reading".
These are the kind of rules that Mrs. Wesley followed--and under the blessing of God--produced her remarkable children. And from them, we find much to condemn in ourselves, don't we. And much to aspire to, as well.
But the key to Susanna's success was not in any one of these rules--or all of them. But in her state of mind. Here is how she described it: "No one can, without renouncing the world in the most literal sense, observe my method; and there are few, if any, that would entirely devote above twenty years of the prime of life in hopes to save the souls of their children".
From this remarkable confession, we find two thoughts which gave direction to Susanna Wesley:
1.Her appreciation for the issues at stake. Child-rearing is--quite literally--a matter of life and death; heaven and hell. Eternal souls hang in the balance.
2.Her willingness to surrender her own life for the welfare of her children. Would you die for your own children? Most parents say, "yes". But few would. Yes, you might jump into an icy lake to pull in a drowning baby. But that is not what is usually needed. What they need is you, wholly devoted to their highest good. This means being a good example; practicing a consistent and enlightened discipline; praying for them "without ceasing". In other words, it means "losing your life to save (theirs)". Most parents are not willing to really die for their children. Most kill their children that they, the parents, might live. But this can never be justified. "Parents ought to lay up for the children and not children for the parents".
Susanna Wesley survived her husband by several years. But in the summer of 1742, the "silver cord was loosened". Surrounded by her children, her last words were: "Children, as soon as I am released, sing a psalm of praise to God".
She died at the age of seventy-four and buried in the Bunhill Fields Cemetery, alongside her spiritual companions: John Bunyan, John Owen, Isaac Watts, and other great Christians of the past.
John Wesley conducted the service and preached with a heavenly utterance. He wrote, "It was one of the most solemn assemblies I ever saw, or expect to see, on this side of eternity".
On that day, this dear woman received a fitting tribute. Though she labored in utter obscurity for so many years, she was laid to rest among, as John Wesley put it in his journal: "an almost innumerable company of people". And remember, this was the man who had preached to tens of thousands at a time. What a tribute to female godliness. On that day, the world rose to its feet, and "called her blessed". But better than that, the King of Glory stood, and welcomed her:
"Well done, you good and faithful servant;
You have been faithful over a few things,
I will make you ruler over many things;
Enter into the joy of your Lord".
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