Were it not for the fame of her evangelist sons, she would be unknown today. But history has made her a paragon, second only to the Proverbs 31 woman as the ideal to which American Christian mothers aspire.
I cannot remember a Mother's Day sermon that failed to mention Susanna Wesley. And yet, the men who hail the mother of John and Charles Wesley from their pulpits never mention Susanna's daughters. If those seven women were to hear their dysfunctional home held up as a model for others, I wonder what would they say?
The Susanna Wesley of legend was a minister's daughter, the youngest of her father's twenty-five children, a pastor's wife, the mother of 19 children-- including John (founder of the Methodists) and Charles (poet and author of nearly 9,000 hymns), a pastor's wife, and homeschooling mom extraordinaire. Almost the Protestant equivalent of Mary, Susanna's piety is for tossing her apron over her head to find privacy for prayer. What would she say if she knew she had inspired an Internet prayer apron giveaway three hundred years later?
Prayer did not shield the real Susanna from life's heartaches. Her marriage was difficult, her daughter crippled, her neighbors cruel. Twice her home burned to the ground. She pushed nineteen babies out of her body and buried nine (including all three sets of twins). She always struggled to afford necessities for her family--let alone furniture, was once abandoned by her husband, lost him to debtor's prison another time, and watched in agony as most of her daughters were abused by their husbands or died in childbirth. Her husband antagonized many of his parishioners and spent out his health laboring over his poetry, or his magnum opus, Dissertations on the Book of Job, a Bible commentary no one wanted to read.
Samuel and Susanna's children:
- Samuel, b. 1690
- Emilia, b. 1692
- Annesley, b. 1694 (died)
- Jedediah, b. 1694 (died)
- Susanna, b. 1695
- Mary, b. 1696
- Mehetabel, b. 1697
- Infant 1, b. 1698 (stillborn)
- Infant 2, b. 1698 (stillborn)
- John, b. 1699 (died)
- Benjamin, b. 1700 (died)
- Infant 3, b. 1701 (died)
- Infant 4, b. 1701 (died)
- Anne, b. 1702
- John Benjamin, b. 1703
- Infant 5 (male), b. 1705 (accidentally smothered)
- Martha, b. 1706
- Charles, b. 1707
- Kezzia, b. 1709
Discipline in the Wesley Household
"When they turned a year old (and some before) they were taught to fear the rod, and to cry softly. By this means they escaped abundance of correction they might otherwise have had. That most odious noise of the crying of children, was rarely heard in the house. The family usually lived in as much quietness, as if there had not been a child among them.
"As soon as they were grown pretty strong, they were confined to three meals a day. At dinner their little table, and chairs were placed by ours, where they could be viewed. They were allowed to eat and drink as much as they wanted, but not to ask for any thing. If they wanted something, they used to whisper to the maid which attended them, who came and spoke to me. As soon as they could handle a knife and fork, they were seated at our table. They were never allowed to choose their food, but always made to eat such things as were provided for the family.
"Mornings they had always spoon food and sometimes at nights. But whatever they had, they were never permitted to eat at those meals, of more than one thing, and of that very sparingly. Drinking or eating between meals was never allowed, unless in case of sickness, which seldom happened. Nor were they allowed to go into the kitchen to ask anything of the servants when they were eating. If it was known they did, they were certainly punished with the rod and the servants severely reprimanded.
"They were so constantly used to eat and drink what was given them, that when any of them was ill, there was no difficulty in making them take the most unpleasant medicine, for they dared not refuse it. However some of them would presently throw it up. This I mention to show that a person may be taught to take anything, though it is ever so unpleasant in his stomach.
"In order to shape the minds of children, the first thing to be done is to conquer their will and bring them to an obedient spirit. To inform the understanding is a work of time, and must with children, proceed by slow degrees, as they are able to bear it. But the subjecting the will, is a thing which must be done at once and the sooner the better. For by neglecting timely correction they will be overcome with stubbornness, and obstinacy. This is hardly ever conquered later and never without using such severity as would be as painful to me as to the child. In the esteem of the world they pass for kind and indulgent, whom I call cruel parents, who permit their children to get habits, which they know must be later broken. Indeed, some are so stupidly fond, as in fun to teach their children to do things, which a while later they have severely beaten them for doing. When a child is corrected it must be conquered. This will not be hard to do if he is not grown headstrong by too much indulgence.
"When the will of a child is totally subdued, and it is brought to revere and stand in awe of the parents, then a great many childish follies, and faults may be past over. Some should be overlooked and taken no notice of, and others mildly reproved.
"I insist upon conquering the will of children early because this is the only strong and rational foundation of a religious education. Without this both precept and example will be ineffectual. But when this is thoroughly done, then a child is capable of being governed by the reason and piety of its parents until his own understanding comes to maturity and the principles of religion have taken root in the mind.
"They were quickly made to understand, they might have nothing they cried for, and instructed to speak handsomely for what they wanted. They were not allowed to ask, even the lowest servant for anything, without saying "Please give me such a thing;" and the servant was chided, if she ever let them omit that word. Taking God’s name in vain, cursing and swearing, profaneness, obscenity, rude, ill-bred names, were never heard among them. Nor were they ever permitted to call each other by their proper names without the addition of brother or sister.
"For some years we went on very well. Never were children in better disposed to piety, or in more subjection to their parents until that scattering of them after the fire into several families. In those families, they were left at full liberty to converse with the servants, which before they had always been restrained from, and to run abroad and play with any children, good or bad."
"When the house was rebuilt [after the fire in 1709] and the children all brought home, we entered upon a strict reform. It was then begun the custom of singing psalms at beginning and leaving school, morning and evening. Then also that of a general retirement at five o’clock was entered upon, when the oldest took the youngest that could speak, and the second the next, to whom they read the psalms for the day, and a chapter in the New Testament. In the morning they were directed to read the psalms and a chapter in the Old Testament, after which they went to their private prayers, before they got their breakfast, or came into the family. I thank God, the custom is still preserved among us."
Samuel had moved back in by July of 1702. He was visiting a sick parishioner when the parsonage caught fire, destroying two-thirds of it. One of the girls got left behind in the burning house, but a sister began calling for her and neighbors were able to rescue her. Someone even thought to save Samuel's books from his study.
In 1705, when little Anne was three and Jack was two, the older Wesley sisters welcomed a new baby brother. Susanna being too exhausted to nurse the child, the newborn was sent next door to be cared for by a neighbor. The baby never came home. He was about three weeks old when the weary woman overlaid him one night, accidentally suffocating him.
Just weeks later, Samuel was hauled off to debtor's prison. Susanna, desperate to settle the debt, sent him her rings to sell, but Samuel sent them back, preferring to trust that God would provide. "A jail is a paradise in comparison of the life I led before I came hither," he wrote.
Neighbors Samuel had antagonized with his politics had no sympathy for the rector's family. They burned the Wesley's flax fields, viciously stabbed their milk cows and called the Wesley children "little devils". The family struggled for three miserable months before Samuel's friends came up with the money to pay his debts. Susanna later confided, "Strictly speaking, I never did want bread. But then I had so much care to get it before it was eat, and to pay for it after, as has often made it very unpleasant to me; and, I think, to have bread on such terms is the next degree of wretchedness to having none at all."
Baby Charles was born premature and did not open his eyes or cry for weeks. He was still the youngest when the Rectory Fire broke out in 1709. Little Jacky (John), his sisters' pet, barely escaped; the family could see him crying, "Help me!" from an upstairs window, standing on a chair, framed by flames against the midnight. Samuel wrote that he gathered some of the children in a circle in the garden to pray for their brother's soul; thankfully, other men were more interested in saving the boy's flesh. Molly and Hetty had been tossed to safety through a broken window. They lost everything but what they were wearing. Their mother was burned as she waded through flames to escape the house. Her first impulse had been to grab what gold and silver coin they had at the time, but her husband pushed her out the door toward safety.
After the fire, the children were dispersed to friends and relatives until the rectory could be rebuilt. Samuel's brother Matthew, a surgeon in London with no children of his own, took in Sukey and Hetty. Matthew was not particularly religious, but he took an interest in improving the prospects of his nieces. Samuel could not afford furniture for the new rectory. Visiting Epworth thirteen years later, Uncle Matthew observed that the house was only half-furnished, Susanna and the girls only "half-clothed". Matthew wondered what his brother had done with his income.
Samuel's daughters struggled to have presentable clothes to get jobs. Dresses that would grant them entrance to the world of literary culture were out of the question, though those circles would have allowed them to engage with men and women of their intellectual caliber. Meanwhile, Samuel spent large sums on books or travel not strictly necessary for his ministry and dreamed of going abroad as a missionary to China or the East Indies. The sisters complained about the "scandalous want of necessaries" and blamed poverty for Susanna's many health problems.
Like other large families, there were inside alliances. Sukey and Hetty were very close. Emilia was fond of her mother and quite attached to her baby brother John. Hetty adored Molly. John and Patty were the most alike; the others believed Patty was Susanna's favorite. (Charles wondered that his mother, for all her wisdom, did not better conceal her favoritism.) But Susanna did try to schedule equal time for the many individuals who made up her brood, and kept in touch by correspondence when they left her nest.
Not surprisingly, the Wesley kids all developed "a strong method of expressing themselves, especially in Poetry". Literature ruled in their home and for the rest of their lives they were always writing and sending poems to one another, for every occasion: comfort, congratulation, grief, encouragement, advice, or rebuke. Their upbringing taught them to fight with their wits, and, with the exception of gentler Patty, the siblings shared a taste for sarcasm and rapier-sharp satire.
All three Wesley brothers followed in their father's footsteps and were ordained. But alas, though Susanna educated her daughters on a level equal to their brothers and far beyond what was expected of their peers, she could not equip them to survive in a culture and family controlled, by divine order, by men. As successful as she was in developing their minds and teaching them the value of language and of learning, she never could offer them the kind of autonomy she had once claimed for herself. Nor could she prepare them to demand respect, to protect and provide for themselves, or to choose healthy relationships.
In many ways, motherhood was a sorrow and a burden to Susanna. To her brother-in-law, she wrote:"
[H]appy, thrice happy are you, happy is my sister, that buried your children in infancy, secure from temptation, secure from guilt, secure from want or shame, or loss of friends! They are safe beyond the reach of pain or sense of misery; being gone hence, nothing can touch them further. Believe me, Sir, it is better to mourn ten children dead than one living, and I have buried many."
Read what happened to the seven Wesley daughters in Voiceless Women: Lives of the Wesley Sisters (Part 2)