When Unsatisfactory Marriages Are Made in Good Families

Susanna and Samuel Wesley

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.”

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A Ghost in the Parsonage

The Epworth parsonage must have been a lively place when 10 children occupied its spaces. There were seven spirited daughters, three sons, a mother and father and a maid to care for the younger children.

But for five months between December 1716 and April 1717 the occupants increased in number by the visitation of a ghost — a poltergeist. Call this a “preternatural” increase. This presence was invisible but, with each visitation, noisy in a number of ways.

Beginning between nine and ten o’clock at night when the girls were about to retire, there would be thumps under the floor, raps on the walls, the rattle of chains, the smashing of glass, and the sound of coins clattering to the floor.

The hardiness and composure of Samuel and Susanna in the face of these baffling phenomena was quite amazing. W. H. Fitchett reports, in his book, Wesley and His Century, that during one of the visitations Mrs. Wesley “walked hand-in-hand with her husband, at midnight downstairs to the room whence the noises came.” Even though hand-in-hand, that was probably not a romantic walk. She later wrote that “a large pot of money seemed to be poured out at my waist and run jingling down my nightgown to my feet.”

The daughters must have used nervous humor to brace one another as they became tolerant of these preternatural demonstrations, because they named the poltergeist, “Old Jeffrey” and the name stuck.

But we can be sure that the manifestations and the family’s responses were more than merely the results of overheated imaginations. When the thumps sounded and doors slammed and in one case a bed was raised, even the children who were already asleep and did not hear the sounds were agitated and trembled in their sleep.

The father, Samuel, appeared uncommonly brave about what was going on. Again, Fitchett reports that he “pursued the noise into almost every room in the house, chased it into the garden; tried to open a conversation with the ghost, even engaged the services of a mastiff (huge dog) to put it down. But when the ghost began to discourse the dog tried ignobly to get under the bed in sheer terror.”

On another occasion, in one particular room the poltergeist was knocking violently. Samuel Wesley tried to address it but without results. Then he said to his daughter, Nancy, “These spirits love darkness. Put out the candle and perhaps it will speak.” She did as he requested but the only response was continued knocking.

Mrs. Wesley, on the other, hand appealed to this annoying, invisible presence not to disturb her between five and six in the morning because that was her quiet hour and she wanted all noise suspended during that time. “Old Jeffrey” respected her wishes. In fact, regardless of whatever else one can say, this ghost did not show signs of hostility and on occasion did show signs of respect.

It may be argued today that the story took on hype and color and became increasingly sensationalized as it is passed from generation to generation. This cannot be true because all members of the family wrote their accounts at the time and John collected them. Each account has an age-related perspective but the story’s core is solid and has to be addressed as the account of a serious but mysterious phenomenon.

Commentators vary in their opinions of what was really going on. Some, of a more skeptical bent, attributed the goings-on to the trickery of one of the girls, probably Hetty. Others thought it the skilful tomfoolery of town enemies. Many chalk it up to the devil. Though the devil is tricky and cunning he is never as nice as this visitant. Whatever we do with it, the word “preternatural” best describes it. That is, the phenomena are not supernatural but do go beyond the natural as we experience it every day. There it rests in mystery.

Although John Wesley was 13 at the time and away to school at Charterhouse, he collected the family’s written reports and listened attentively to other reports of ghostly visitations. In his mature years, Wesley retained a respect for this family experience and from the descriptions his siblings and parents had written he created an article which he published in his magazine, The Arminian.

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Susanna, the Worship Leader

Susanna WesleySusanna 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.

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Susanna Wesley, Educator

You might say that Susanna Wesley was an innovative educator when it came to the homeschooling of the 10 of her 19 children who survived infancy.

And she had the background for the task. She was the youngest of the learned Samuel Annesley’s 25 children. Before she was out of her teens she knew Greek, Latin, and French and was proficient in theology and philosophy.

She was married to Samuel Wesley when she was 20 and he 27. As children began to come along, she designated one room of the parsonage as the school room. In that room there was to be no loud talking, and no coming and going except for good cause. For Susanna and her brood, formal learning was scheduled to last six hours a day during weekdays and it was to be serious business.

“The day before a child’s education was to begin,” Susanna wrote to her son John years later, “the house was set in order, everyone’s work appointed them (sic), and a charge given that none except the child involved should come into the room from nine till twelve and from two till five.” These were the inviolate school hours.

Formal learning was to begin the day after each child’s fifth birthday. Each was then given one day to learn the alphabet. Susanna reports that two children, Molly and Nancy, took a day and a half before they knew the letters perfectly. In this she implies that they were slow, but she later revised this view when she saw how very slowly in comparison other children outside her family learned the alphabet.

She would have followed her start-at-age-five rule with Kezzy also but she complains in her letter to John that her husband overruled her and insisted Kezzy be started earlier. She reports that Kezzy was “more years learning, than any of the rest had been months.”

As soon as the children had learned the letters, they began in the first chapter of Genesis by spelling and reading a line, then a verse, then two verses, and so on. They never left a lesson until they could do it perfectly. Susanna writes: “…it is almost incredible, what a child may be taught in a quarter of a year, by a vigorous application, if (the child) have but a tolerable capacity, and good health.”

This kind of regimentation might make a modern educator groan in protest. And Susanna Wesley’s pedagogy might not work equally with a sampling of 20 or so children today. After all, the Wesley children were extraordinarily bright. As well, it is worth noting that she was teaching them to read one at a time, not as a group as we tend to do in today’s classrooms. In any event, in an age when illiteracy was high among men, and even higher among women, and close to universal in Epworth, Susanna’s method is validated by the fact that her little flock all learned to read well and this gift was given them for a lifetime of usefulness and pleasure.

If this little slice-of-life makes Susanna Wesley seem like a severe parent and a Marine sergeant all rolled into one person, consider one other aspect of her pedagogy. She wrote to her husband, Samuel, during one of his long absences in London, giving the following glimpse into her mentoring practices.

“I take such a proportion of time as I can best spare every night to discuss with each child, by itself, on something that relates to its principal concerns. On Monday I talk with Molly; on Tuesday with Hetty; Wednesday with Nancy; Thursday with Jackie (John); Friday with Patty; Saturday with Charles; and with Emily and Sukey on Sunday.”

Think of the emotional or intellectual enrichment that could be added to many an emotionally impoverished or neglected child today by a one hour face-to-face with a parent genuinely interested in sharing the child’s agenda for that hour. It would be far more enriching than the time so commonly devoted these days to cell phones, the internet, and television.

Who today can deny the wisdom of a Christian mother who, on the one hand, insists that her children master the objective symbols of learning like words and numbers and facts while, on the other hand, encouraging the exploration of personal experiences during visits between parent and child when the child sets the subject agenda?

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The Fire in the Parsonage

At six years of age, John Wesley came precariously near to losing his life in a raging parsonage fire.

Epworth rectory was an old house — how old nobody knows. One record dated 1607 shows that it had already existed nearly a century before the Wesley family occupied it near the beginning of the Eighteenth Century. The 1607 record describes it as a three story house constructed of ancient timbers, lath and plaster, plus a thatched roof. It was dusty and dry and seven years earlier, in 1702 (the year before John Wesley’s birth) that same parsonage had been damaged by a mysterious fire, but had been saved and repaired.

Then came the raging fire of August 24, 1709. It could well have wiped out the whole family. It began near midnight. Susanna was ill and she and Samuel were sleeping in separate rooms. She had two boys with her. Samuel hearing the cry of “fire” in the streets, ran to Susanna’s room but the door was locked and he could not break in. Fortunately all the commotion awakened her and she and the two boys hurriedly walked through the flames on the front stairs. She received only scorched hand and face. Samuel then raced to the nursery where the younger children were in the care of a maid and hurried them out through the back part of the house. But, once he was out he realized that “Jackie” (son John) was missing.

Just then John’s face appeared at the upstairs window of the room where he had been sleeping. He had been awakened by the fire that was already playing along the ceiling of his room. There was no time for the crowd to get a ladder, and Samuel was sure his son would die, so he knelt and commended him to God.

But a strong man in the crowd stood against the wall beneath the window and another man was hoisted onto his shoulders, bringing him near enough to the height of the upstairs window to reach John.

The appearance of the man frightened John and he disappeared from the window to try the door of his room. It was already in flames. He returned to the window and fell into the arms of the man. At that very moment, the roof collapsed and the burning thatch dropped into the room. John was saved — but just in time.

The cause of the fire was never established but there were suspicions. Someone blamed it on Samuel’s carelessness. There were hints of arson. The ruffians of the town of Epworth had often threatened destructive actions against the rector and his family. And these were more than mere threats. Samuel’s cows had been stabbed, his dog lost a leg, and the children, while at play in the yard, had been threatened menacingly by men who came by.

John’s amazing rescue registered deeply with the parents. All the children had been saved, but Susanna was particularly grateful for the mercy shown to son John. Two years later, May 17, 1711, she wrote a prayer saying she intended “to be more particularly careful of the soul of this child that thou hast so mercifully provided for, than ever I have been, that I may do my endeavors to instill into his mind the disciplines of thy true religion and virtue.”

In his adulthood, John Wesley himself saw the great deliverance as an expression of God’s providence — his governance of the affairs of all mankind — and was convinced that he had been spared for a special reason. This event had a profound effect upon
the shaping of his ministry.

In 1737, at 34 years of age, he began to ascribe to the event the biblical expression, “a brand plucked from the burning” (Zech. 3:2). A modern version says: “Is not this man a burning stick snatched from the fire? (NIV) In other words, he was saved from a fiery death by the Divine Hand so that he could carry out a special ministry at God’s behest.

We all have had such providences — perhaps not so dramatic but equally real and lifeshaping. And we should reflect on them as evidences of God’s immeasurable mercies toward us to some purpose!

In the light of these mercies, dare we take lightly the call of Christ to personal salvation and then to lives of committed service?

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The Mother of Methodism

Susanna WesleySusanna 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.

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