Susanna Wesley, whose name has been adopted for the house which supports this new expression of church in Derby, was a pioneering woman who had considerable influence on the formation of the Methodist movement.
She was born in 1669 to Rev Samuel Annesley and his second wife, the 24th child in his family. She lived with her family in Spital Yard Bishopsgate London.
Susanna met Samuel Wesley when he visited her father and they married in 1688. They had much in common, not least their strong religious upbringing. It is said that they were opposite in temperament. Samuel, quick tempered, emotional and affectionate, whilst Susanna was methodical and disciplined in all that she undertook.
Samuel was installed in 1697 as Rector of Epworth in Lincolnshire. Susanna had 19 children, although some died in early childhood and she raised 10 of her children to adulthood. The three boys Samuel Jnr, John and Charles all gained Oxford M.A.s and became Anglican clergymen. Samuel Jnr was a gifted teacher and poet, and John and Charles became the founders of the Methodism.
Samuel Snr spent long periods away from Epworth, usually preaching. He also spent some time in prison for his debts. Susanna found herself holding services in her kitchen where the numbers grew in attendance as the local Anglican curate did not inspire their thinking.
Whilst he was on his missional tours Samuel’s curate wrote to him expressing his concern and fury at the activities of Susanna, telling him he must ‘forbid this illegal conventicle’. The curate felt insulted by this interference in his domain …. and by a woman!
Samuel wrote to his wife asking her to stop her meetings immediately.
People had stopped going to church and this troubled Susanna. These were some of her words of reply to her husband’s letter.
‘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 punichement, for neglecting this opportunity of doing good, when you and I shall appear before the great and awful tribunal of our Lord Jesus Christ’
Wisely Samuel let the matter drop and his wife carried on her good work.
It is no surprise to read that Susanna was strict on the religious upbringing and education of her children.
They were taught the Lord’s prayer as soon as they could speak. They were made to say this when they woke and at bedtime just before sleep. As they grew older there was a short prayer for their parents that was added, along with a short catechism and some words from the Bible.
They were taught to read at 5 years old when they began their learning and formal education in the kitchen of the rectory at Epworth. School hours were 9-12 and 2-5.
Listening to her children on a-one-to one basis was also a weekly occurrence in the life of the Wesley Household.
Susanna trained the older children to look after the younger ones and this involved regular bible reading, while Susanna retired to her bedchamber, there to spend a full hour in prayer, reading and writing. This was a habit she kept until the end of her life.
Out of this quiet daily hour came the written meditations which she was known for and which reveal much of her character:
‘Help me, Lord, to remember that religion is not to be confined to the Church or the Closet, nor exercised only in prayer and meditation, but that everywhere I am in thy Presence. So may my every word and action have a moral content’.
Susanna was a woman greater than she knew. It has been said that she is the Mother of Methodism, for it was her methodical and disciplined ways and her concern in body, mind and spirit for those around her which, through John and Charles, stamped on Methodism its unique characteristics as an organised, disciplined and caring movement.
It was Sunday evenings that Susanna Wesley opened her home. She gathered her family and servants and they were joined by the villagers for prayers and instruction in the kitchen.
These are picturesof the Epworth Rectory Kitchen today
This Fresh Expression of church in the 17th was a different way of being church, but it did upset the local curate and some of his parishioners. Sometimes today people from across the Christian traditions are upset and fearful of different or unknown expressions of church. But where traditional approaches fail to communicate the gospel, radical new ways can be effective, as Susanna Wesley found.