Susanna Wesley is sometimes referred to as the Mother of Methodism. She played no active part in the movement but raised the sons, John and Charles, who led it. She was an unusually intelligent, gifted, and attractive woman. There is ample historical evidence to bear this out. While still in her teens she knew Latin, Greek and French. As a youth she had steeped herself in theology. She was also a deeply involved mother. She stands high among the women of the Eighteenth Century.
She gave birth to 19 children in 21 years, although only ten of them lived to adulthood, seven girls and three boys. Along with her husband, she raised this family in an impoverished parish in the county of Lincolnshire, on the eastern side of the England north of London. It was the Fen Country, an area that had to be repeatedly drained because it was surrounded on three sides by rivers that periodically flooded. Most people of the area were rude and illiterate and did not take well to “intruders.” Some of them were vicious in their attacks on the Wesley household, both verbally and physically. This was the environment in which the Wesley children were raised.
Susanna’s husband, Samuel, was brilliant, a serious scholar and a faithful vicar, but a man who was not skilled in avoiding conflict. Nor did he handle the family’s sparse income well. And he did not seem to have strong child rearing instincts. She herself confessed to son John that, “’tis an unhappiness peculiar to our family that your father and I seldom think alike.”
So what were Susanna’s rules for raising the ten children who lived? John asked her for them and she complied in a long letter. Years later, July 24, 1732, he incorporated the letter into his journal. Her rules are detailed and fascinating.
For example, in raising children she notes that “the first thing to be done is to conquer their will, and bring them to an obedient temper.” (Two centuries later James Dobson qualified the idea by saying children’s wills must be conquered without wounding their spirits.) Her rationale for this first principle? She writes, “religion is nothing else than doing the will of God, and not our own” and explains that “As self-will is the root of all sin and misery, so whatever cherishes this in children insures their after-wretchedness and irreligion.” That is why she was determined at the outset to insist on obedience as a first principle.
She also explains that she taught the children to be courteous in speech, to cry softly, and, at the same time, she enforced the rule that they would never get anything they cried for. She taught them to pray, and to distinguish the Sabbath from other days. (Remember that she came from devout Puritan stock). She explains that she created her own schoolroom in which the children were taught to read. She insisted that “no girl be taught to work (sewing, scrubbing, etc.) till she can read very well.” Illiteracy was widespread in the community but not in the rectory. Later the girls were taught to work with the same application and thoroughness.
Some students of the Eighteenth Century complain that children were treated as though they were no more than little adults. There may be some truth to that. Thus, they argue that Susanna’s rules are unacceptable for us today. But that is not always the response of those in our day who become acquainted with them.
Some years ago I was invited to be the speaker at a Baptist Parent-Teacher meeting. I decided I would introduce the audience to Susanna Wesley’s rules for child rearing, so I made copies as handouts. Even so, I was apprehensive that modern parents might react negatively because present ideas and practices for child-rearing are much more permissive. So I decided that I would distribute the Wesley rules, use them as the basis for my talk, and then gather them up afterwards.
The parents, mostly mothers, were fascinated and would not hear of it. They were avid about keeping their copies. My apprehension dissolved. It was as though Susanna’s words spoke to a felt need in the midst of today’s uncertainties about child-rearing.
Good child rearing practices are not a guarantee that children will make the wisest of decisions when they reach adulthood. And environment does have a bearing on how children come to their maturity. There were disappointments in the Wesley family especially among the girls. But these cannot diminish the mark Susanna Wesley left on the world through her devout and careful child-rearing practices. Her three clergymen sons, Samuel, John, and Charles, bear witness.