Sunday, July 23 is Parents’ Day – the perfect time for us to step back in time for a virtual visit to early 18th century England. There, we will meet an amazing mother of 10 who successfully guided her children’s lives in Christ and helped shape modern-day Christianity. How did Susanna do it? Let’s meet her and see.
Our visit takes us to the rectory in a small rural town called Epworth, which is located in northeast Lincolnshire. Being inquisitive, we peek through one of the windows and see a bewildering scene. A woman, surrounded by 10 or so children, sits on a chair with her large kitchen apron pulled over her head like a tent.
If you’re a mother, you may think you know why she’s hiding under her apron, but you are probably wrong.
What on Earth?
As we watch, the woman remains quietly seated for nearly two hours as her children play, read or study. We later learn that it’s something she does nearly every day, and the children know not to disturb her.
The woman is Susannah Wesley, mother of two boys who eventually become world-renowned religious leaders: John, who founded Methodism, and Charles, who was an early Methodist leader and writer of some 6,500-6,600 hymns.
An Absentee Father
Susannah’s husband is nowhere to be found. As we meet the family, we learn that the Rev. Samuel Wesley is away from home. He’s the rector of the local Anglican church and an absentee father, according to FaithGateway, an online provider of Christian resources.
Part of Samuel’s problem is that he’s an intellectual academic who isn’t interested in his parishioners nor can he identify with them. And the community doesn’t seem to care for him, either. On two occasions, members of his congregation have even been suspected of burning down the parsonage.
Samuel also has no interest in managing his family’s small farm. He’s the 18th century version of an absentee dad who leaves everything to his wife and spends a good deal time away from his home, his problems and his family.
His main interest appears to be working on a treatise about the biblical Job. Unfortunately, he has used most of his family’s meager “wealth” to fund the paper. He has even landed in debtor’s prison for several months.
“The sad irony,” according to FathGateway, “is that while he was away for long periods of time studying and writing about Job’s intense sufferings, his living, breathing wife was enduring real pain and hardship, largely on her own.”
Many women in our time can identify with Susannah’s life as an “almost-single” mother. She not only takes care of her children’s daily needs without her husband’s help, but also homeschools all of them including the girls and manages the family’s small farm.
Her ability to organize is phenomenal and should earn the respect of today’s moms. We don’t face the same challenges that Susanna faces, but we do have problems that include supporting our children on a minimum wage job, homeschooling children while our husbands are away for work, or juggling family and work.
Susanna, who was born into a family of 25 children in 1669, knows that each of her 10 children needs alone time with her despite the fact that “quality one-on-one time with a parent is hard to come by in a family with many children, yet (it’s) powerfully important,” FaithGateway says. “So she set a rotating schedule through which each of her children spent an hour with her alone before bedtime on a designated night each week.”
FaithGateway adds, “She somehow found a way to manage the household and give her large brood of children a world-class education that included both classical and biblical learning. Her girls got the same rigorous education as did her boys, something virtually unheard of in that day.”
Time for Prayer
Let’s get back to Susanna as she sits in her home with a large apron on her head. What is she doing?
She is spending time alone with God, which is very important to her. “Even amid the most complex and busy years of her life as a mother, she still scheduled two hours each day for fellowship with God and time in His Word, and she adhered to that schedule faithfully.”
To find the privacy she needs, Susanna brings “her Bible to her favorite chair and throws her long apron up over her hear, forming a sort of tent. This became something akin to the ‘tent of meeting,’ the tabernacle in the days of Moses in the Old Testament.”
It’s been said that where there’s a will, there’s a way.
Everyone in her household – from the youngest child to the oldest – knows better than to disturb her unless there was a dire emergency.
“There in the privacy of her little tent, she interceded for her husband and children and plumbed the deep mysteries of God in the Scriptures. This holy discipline equipped her with a thorough and profound knowledge of the Bible.”
The Word Spreads
With Rev. Wesley away from home much of the time, guest ministers often preach the Sunday morning sermon in Epworth. Susanna finds many of the messages “lacking in spiritual meat” and begins teaching her children the Bible on Sunday afternoons.
Soon, her neighbors begin asking whether they may attend, and word about Susanna’s informal services spreads.
“So thorough was Susanna’s knowledge of the Bible, and so gifted was she at communicating its truths, that on any given Sunday after church, Susanna would have as many as two hundred people in attendance at her informal family Bible study, which started in her home but soon moved to a larger venue.”
Susanna Wesley died in 1742 at age 73. She lived long enough to see two of her sons – John and Charles – “become world-renowned leaders of the global Christian movement. This is her legacy, forged in large part in those diligent hours of intercession under that makeshift apron tent.”
John Wesley preached to tens of thousands of people during his ministry, FaithGateway says. “Traveling on horseback, he regularly preached three or more times a day, often beginning before daybreak.
“Even at the age of seventy, he preached, without the assistance of modern amplification, to an estimated throng of thirty-two thousand people.”
According to FaithGateway, it’s hard to overstate John Wesley’s theological impact. “He remains the dominant theological influence on Methodists and Methodist-heritage groups the world over, including the United Methodist Church, the Methodist Church of Great Britain, and the African Methodist Episcopal Church….” His theology also was the foundation for the holiness movement in the U.S.
Wesley’s younger brother Charles has been called a “vital contributor” to his accomplishments. He also wrote between 6,500 and 6,600 hymns, many of which people around the world still sing today.
An Amazing Mother
While many of the Wesley brothers’ contemporaries saw them as religious fanatics, history has been kinder to them. “It views them as world changers,” according to FaithGateway.
And it began with their mother, as it often does with successful people. (My apologies to fathers. I will recognize your contributions to your children’s lives in another post.)
“For Susanna Wesley, there was no amount of distraction that could keep her from prayer and the Bible. That kind of life, deeply rooted, produced great fruit, as evidenced not only by the people who came to hear her teach but also by the children she influenced.
She was an amazing mother.
“The great truth in her story is how prayer does not occupy the stage of activity. Its power is in the quiet trust of gentle souls who are willing to pull away from the everyday to commune with God,” FaithGateway concludes.
Parents’ Day 2023
As we commemorate Parents’ Day on Sunday, July 23, I think about my own amazing mother and father. They gave me love, a secure family life and a strong foundation in faith that sustains me when times are tough. And I also think of Susanna Wesley, whose love for God introduced a new faith tradition into the world.
Methodists are facing significant challenges as church members go their separate ways in 2023. But Methodism and Christianity can survive and grow stronger if we remember that our differences don’t make us enemies. Whether we are Protestant, Catholic or Orthodox, we are Christians. If only we can rein in the anger divides us and come together for Christ.
Susanna Wesley’s story is a fascinating one. You may read more about this amazing mother on the FaithGateway website by clicking here. To learn more on the Patheos Religion Library website, click here, and the C.S. Lewis Institute’s “Profiles in Faith” website has information here.