Susanna Wesley and her husband, Samuel, apparently had a durable marriage in terms of covenant (“Till death us do part”). And she gave full recognition to his authority as her husband by her conscious practice of submission. But they appeared to often see the issues of everyday life differently and her perspective was sometimes wiser than his.
They were both from Puritan stock and held religious views firmly. And since it was an era when truth was so highly valued that it was often deemed worth fighting for and in some cases even dying for, this led to moments of pronounced disagreement between them.
On one occasion, Samuel prayed at family prayers for William III (William of Orange) as the rightful British sovereign. Susanna believed he was a usurper or pretender and that James II was the rightful king. So she did not say “Amen” to her husband’s prayer for William III. He noticed this and asked about it. She explained her reason and held firmly to it.
So he said, “You and I must part; for if we have two Kings, we must have two beds.” This was not a threat of divorce or even legal separation, but rather a threat of physical separation which it appeared would put actual miles between them.
With that, he left for London — a trip that may already have been in the offing — where he was to be a proctor (steward or officer) during Convocation of the Church of England. The care of the Epworth and Wroote parishes was left in the hands of Samuel’s curate (assistant).
It is not clear how long Samuel was away. It could have been anywhere from six months to a year. However, when William of Orange died and the crown passed to Queen Anne, the legitimate ruler, there was no longer an issue and he returned.
During Samuel’s absence, attendance at church had dropped off and Susanna saw the need for a Sunday afternoon service of worship in the parsonage for the family and a few associates. To provide this for her children she chose portions from the Book of Common Prayer and each week selected an Anglican sermon which she read.
Community people came in increasing numbers until attendance exceeded the number in church for regular services. It is estimated that more than 200 packed the parsonage and many more were turned away for lack of space.
Because this was her husband’s assigned parish and she should not be holding services there without his permission she felt duty bound to report to him in detail by letter concerning what she was doing. His response was that it was not appropriate for a woman to read the sermon and she should choose a man for this assignment. To this she replied that there was no man in the parish who could read without spelling out most of what he attempted and she asked, “How would that edify the rest?”
She closed with these words: “If you do, after all, think fit to dissolve this assembly, do not tell me 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, when you and I shall appear before the great and awful tribunal of our Lord Jesus Christ.” With that, she heard no more of it and the meetings continued until his return.
Susanna Wesley was obviously a woman of strong conviction who attended to her conscience meticulously, so she did what she knew to be right for the children and parishioners: they must be provided ample opportunity to worship the Lord. At the same time, she did what she also knew to be right regarding church law and her marriage: it is clear that they both were commitments she intended to respect and keep. All this is careful insight for today’s sometimes muddled thinking on personal religious and ethical issues.