Samuel and Susanna Wesley attempted to shape their children in deep Christian learning and devotion. You would think that each would grow up to marry well and establish their own devout Christian families. It didn’t work out that way.
Of the three boys, Samuel, the first-born, had a warm, nurturing marriage, and so did Charles, one of the youngest of the 10 Wesley children who lived. John was not so blessed. Later in life he married a widow named Mary Vazeille. She was 41 and he 48. He writes that until then he did not think marriage was advisable, given the work he was called to do. But his views changed and when he married, his early notes to Mary are warm and tender.
However these notes began to reveal an unforeseen state of affairs.
Historian Henry Rack reports that “For over twenty years Wesley’s letters to his wife show (in her) a depressing, at times touching, picture of pathological jealousy, suspicion and uncontrollable rage, and (in him) patient attempts at reasoning, expostulation, claims of husbandly authority, answers to slanders, and various ultimatums as the price of reconciliation….” Perhaps his many travels were hard for her to deal with, and there is evidence that she did not fit well into the Methodist connection. But these do not explain her often raging and physically abusive conduct.
Of the seven spirited and brilliant daughters of Samuel and Susanna, five had marriages that were unsatisfactory, and at least two were disastrous.
History reports that Hetty, in a rash moment, ran off with a man and after being away for some time returned home pregnant. When her father found out her condition, he was enraged and unreconcilable. Hetty, half contrite and half desperate, volunteered to marry any man her parents chose. This was to cover or in some way redeem her indiscretion.
Her father unwisely approved her union with a drunken and illiterate plumber, a Mr. Wright, though her father would not marry them. Four months later the child was born but did not survive. Her other children also did not live. Her life was an ever-deepening tragedy.
Rack covers the family details quite fully but notes that in spite of family troubles, in the children’s early years “Epworth Rectory was not a scene of unrelieved gloom. The children carried on a lively correspondence and shared the affairs of the heart.” And when son John was at home his diary reveals a thriving social life.
There were moderating circumstances contributing to the disappointing outcomes: grinding poverty for the family, a deprived social environment, a scarcity of eligible mates for refined young women, and a father who was rated a serious and competent rector of the church but one who lacked judgment for the regulation of home and family.
In spite of Mother Susanna’s remarkable homeschooling and deep Christian piety, it was less than a model home or community environment. But then, as now, children are to be held responsible themselves for matrimonial decisions they make.
In spite of all this, from this home came John Wesley, in essence the founder of Methodism, and Charles Wesley, the incomparable hymn writer whose hymns still brighten congregational singing around the world more than two centuries after his death.
In amazement and perplexity, we can only say, “God moves in a mysterious way, his wonders to perform.”