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‘Some Stated Employment of Your Mind’: Reading, Writing, and Religion in the Life of Susanna Wesley

  • Charles Wallace (a1)


Susanna Wesley (1669–1742) was raised a Dissenter, converted to Anglicanism as an adolescent, and arguably spent the last three years of her life as a Methodist. Moreover, these three modes of English Protestantism were neatly embodied respectively in three generations of clergymen to whom she was closely related: her father, the Presbyterian divine Samuel Annesley; her husband, Samuel Wesley, rector of Epworth; and her sons John and Charles, leaders of the Methodist revival. Yet she was not dominated either by the men closest to her or the patriarchically inclined religious traditions they served.



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1. It is not beside the point that the best recent biographical study highlights her Dissenting background: Newton, John, Susanna Wesley and the Puritan Tradition in Methodism (London, 1968).

2. Devotional Journal, Headingley MS, p. 74, Wesley College, Bristol, England (hereafter cited as Journal).

3. Despite late seventeenth-century calls for educational improvement from the likes of Mary Astell (see Perry, Ruth, The Celebrated Mary Astell: An Early English Feminist [Chicago, 1986], pp. 101106 and passim) and Defoe, Daniel (Essay upon Projects in Daniel Defoe, ed. Boulton, James T. [New York, 1965], p. 32), women as different as Mary Wollstonecraft and Hannah More were still decrying the situation late in the eighteenth century, fifty years after Susanna Wesley's death (see Rogers, Katharine M., Feminism in Eighteenth-Century England [Urbana, 1982], pp. 2829, 209210).Wesley, John published his mother's own observations in his Journal, ed. Curnock, Nehemiah, 8 vols. (London, 19091916), 3:39. Female literacy in the early eighteenth century has been estimated at 30 percent (as against a male rate of 45 percent); see Cressy, David, Literacy and the Social Order (Cambridge, 1980), p. 176, quoted in Crawford, Patricia, “Women's published writings 1600–1700,” in Women in English Society 1500–1800, ed. Prior, Mary (London, 1985), p. 216. Crawford's own data (pp. 265–274) show that women's writings accounted for only 1.2 percent of all publications during the seventeenth century, though it is interesting to note that religious topics were popular subjects for women to address. See also Rogers's appendix of some 100 women writers in Britain, from 1660 to 1800, Feminism, pp. 249–284.

4. For example, in Clarke, Adam, Memoirs of the Wesley Family (New York, 1824), and Stevenson, George J., Memorials of the Wesley Family… (London, 1876). All of her letters to her son John have recently been carefully handled (though even here not every one is complete): Wesley, John, Letters, I, 1721-1739, ed. Baker, Frank, vol. 25 (Oxford, 1980).

5. Some Remarks on a Letter from the Reverend Mr. Whitefield to the Reverend Mr. Wesley, in a Letter from a Gentlewoman to her Friend (London, np., 1741).

6. See British Library, Millington, Edward, Bibliotheca Annesleiana: Or a Catalogue of Choice Greek, Latin and English Books … Being the Library of the Reverend Samuel Annesley, L.L.D. (London, 16961697).

7. In Jackson, Thomas, The Life of the Rev. Charles Wesley, 2 vols. (London, 1841), 2:500534. See also the reviews and condensations, possibly Wesley's, Samuel, found in The Young Student's Library (London, 1692) and The Compleat Library: or, News for the Ingenious, 3 vols. (London, 16921694).

8. See Barker, John, Strange Contrarieties: Pascal in England during the Age of Reason (Montreal, 1975), and Brantley, Richard E., Locke, Wesley, and the Method of English Romanticism (Gainseville, Fla., 1984).

9. Journal, MSA, p. 67 and A (reverse pagination) p. 18. See my article “Susanna Wesley's Spirituality: The Freedom of a Christian Woman,” Methodist History 22 (1984): 166167, and Baker, Frank, “Susanna Wesley: Puritan, Parent, Pastor, Protagonist, Pattern,” in Women in New Worlds: Historical Perspectives on the Wesleyan Tradition, ed. Keller, Rosemary Skinner, Queen, Louise L., and Thomas, Hilah F., vol. 2 (Nashville, 1982), pp. 117119.

10. 11 October 1709, Headingley MS C.

11. Samuel Wesley to the Duke of Buckingham, in Stevenson, , Memorials, p. 109.

12. Susanna Wesley to Joseph Hoole, 24 August 1709, Methodist Archives, John Rylands University Library, Manchester, England (hereafter cited as Methodist Archives).

13. Newton, , Susanna Wesley, pp. 6566.

14. McEwen, Gilbert D., The Oracle of the Coffee House: John Dunton's Athenian Mercury (San Marino, Calif., 1972), pp. 103111.

15. The Athenian Gazette, or Casuistical Mercury, Resolving all the most Nice and Curious Questions proposed by the Ingenious, May 1691, 1.18.6, quoted in McEwen, , Oracle of the Coffee House, p. 104.

16. Journal, MSA, p. 74 (compare p. 69).

17. Journal, MSA, pp. 76–77.

18. Susanna Wesley to Joseph Hook, 12 October 1716, Methodist Archives.

19. Susanna Wesley to John Wesley, 23 February 1724/5 (Wesley, John, Letters, pp. 159160). For a more famous example of marital-cum-theological dissent, see Walmsley, Robert, “John Wesley's Parents: Quarrel and Reconciliation,” Proceedings of the Wesley Historical Society 29 (1953): 5057.

20. Susanna Wesley to Samuel Wesley, 6 February 1712, transcribed in Clarke, , Memoirs, pp. 267268. The Danish mission to India was publicized in England by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, of which Samuel Wesley was an ardent supporter and for which his son John would later work in Georgia. See Pascoe, C. F., Two Hundred Years of the S. P. G.: An Historical Account of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, 1701–1900, 2 vols. (London, 1901), 1:471472.

21. Susanna Wesley to Samuel Wesley, 25 February 1711/1712, Methodist Archives. Compare Clarke's, faulty edition, Memoirs, pp. 270271.

22. All the originals are at Wesley College, Bristol. Her letter to Suky (her daughter Susanna) explaining the Apostles Creed appears in two manuscript forms: a draft in Headingley MS C and a fairer copy in the Autograph Letters/Illustrated Wesley Papers collection. It has been edited rather heavy-handedly by Clarke, , Memoirs, pp. 232255. A draft of a second letter to Suky, expounding the Ten Commandments, is in Headingley MS C. A third manuscript, “A Religious Conference Between M[other] & E[milia]… Written for the Use of my Children. 1711/12,” has been published as Mrs. Wesley's Conference with her Daughter, ed. G. Stringer Rowe, Publications of the Wesley Historical Society (London, 1898). For a good summary of her educational work with her children, see Newton, , Susanna Wesley, pp. 97129. Susanna Wesley's fame heretofore has been primarily as the methodical educator of her young children. Portions of an often-reprinted letter of 24 July 1732 to her son John detail the “principle rules” observed in nurturing as well as educating her family; see Wesley, John, Journal, 3:3439, and Letters, pp. 330–331. For that letter's wider influence, see Philip, Greven, The Protestant Temperament: Patterns of Child-Rearing, Religious Experience, and the Self in Early America (New York, 1977), pp. 3638, 44, 48.

23. 11 March 1704, Wesley, Samuel Jr, Letterbook, pp. 934, Methodist Archives.

24. 11 October 1709 (Headingley MSC, pp. 1–10), 27 November 1707 (Wesley, Samuel Jr, Lesterbook, pp. 7996). See “The Church-Porch,” stanza 7, line 41, from The Temple in The Works of George Herbert, ed. F. E. Hutchinson (1941; reprint, Oxford, 1978), p. 8.

25. For a detailed account of these years, see Green, V. H. H., The Young Mr. Wesley: A Study of John Wesley and Oxford (New York, 1961), esp. pp. 305319. The correspondence both ways is conveniently available in John Wesley, Letters, passim.

26. See 8 June 1725 (Wesley, , Letters, pp. 164167), 21 07 1725 (pp. 172173), 18 08 1725 (pp. 178180). Other authors she recommends, quotes, or otherwise discusses are: Bishops Pearson (1613–1686), Beveridge (1637–1708), and Sprat (1635–1713); Richard Fiddes (1671–1725); William Sherlock (1641–1707); John Norris (1657–1711); Henry Scougal (the then-anonymous author of The Life of God in the Soul of Man); and John Locke. In addition, she also quotes some lines from George Herbert and refers to the Articles of Religion in the Book of Common Prayer.

27. Taylor, , The Rule and Exercises of Holy Living… and The Rule and Exercises of Holy Dying…, 15th ed. (London, 1690). John Wesley's letter to his mother, 18 June 1725 (Wesley, , Letters, pp. 168169), raises the issue of whether Taylor's rules are not too legalistic and impracticable, quoting several passages.

28. For example, the question of humility discussed in Taylor, Rule, chap. 2, sect. 4.

29. In one sentence she touches an issue that was later to become John's distinctive theological emphasis: Christian perfection; Wesley, , Letters, p. 172.

30. She is responding to John's paraphrase of Taylor: “Please not thyself when disgraced by supposing thou didst deserve praise, though they understood thee not, or enviously detracted from thee”; Wesley, , Letters, p. 169 (compare, Taylor, , Rule, 2.4.11, pp. 8687.

31. Wesley, , Letters, p. 178.

32. Ibid., p. 179. Pearson, John, An Exposition of the Creed, 6th rev. ed. (London, 1692).

33. 6 December 1738, Methodist Archives.

34. She is quoting from Peter [Pierre] Moulin, Du, A Treatise of Peace and Contentment, 3d ed., book 4 (London, 1678), pp. 464465. Another book by Du Moulin, a controversial piece on popery, is listed in Samuel Annesley's library, but it may be by Du Moulin's father, of the same name (1568–1658) and also a theologian. See Bibliotheca Annesleiana, p. 11.

35. Underlined in manuscript but not necessarily by Susanna Wesley.

36. Charles needn't have pushed the point, but he couldn't resist getting in the last word by composing verse for her epitaph. Confident that she had finally had a bona fide evangelical experience at a communion service in 1739, he wrote: “True daughter of affliction, she,/Inured to pain and misery,/Mourned a long night of grief and fears,/A legal night of seventy years./ The Father then revealed His Son,/Him in the broken bread made known;/She knew and felt her sins forgiven/And found the earnest of her heaven” (quoted in Stevenson, , Memorials, p. 227). Despite her ultimate approval of her sons' evangelical vocations, she still had not fallen completely into line even after her “conversion.” See, for example, her letter to Charles, 2 October 1740, after her move to the Foundery: “I cannot conceive why you affirm yourself to be not Christian; which is, in effect, to tell Christ to his face that you have nothing to thank him for, since you are not the better for anything he hath yet done or suffered for you” (quoted in Stevenson, , Memorials, pp. 220221).

37. Some Remarks. It answered Whitefield's, A Letter to the Reverend Mr. John Wesley: In Answer to his Sermon, entitled, Free-Grace (London, 1741). The detective work proving her authorship has been recounted by Baker, Frank, “Susanna Wesley, Apologist for Methodism,” Proceedings of the Wesley Historical Society 25 (19651966): 6871.

38. “I shall take no farther Notice of what Mr. Whitefield says concerning the final Perseverance of his Saints, than to quote a Passage I lately met with in a Dissenter's Letter to his Friend”; Some Remarks, p. 19, (referring to a pamphlet I have been unable to trace). “Mr. Whitefield's ranking Mr. Wesley with Infidels, Deists, Arians, etc. puts me in mind of what Hugh Peters advised his Brethren to do; Let us, said he, cast Dirt enough upon him (King Charles I) if some should fall off, more will stick” (ibid., p. 24). Peters (1598–1660) was a Cambridge-educated Independent minister, executed as a regicide, and notorious in Royalist circles. See Yonge, William, M.D., England's Shame, or the unmasking of a political Atheist, being a full and faithful relation of the life and death of that grand imposter Hugh Peters (1663).

39. Some Remarks, p. 13. She probably had in mind treatises by Thomas Ridgely (1667–1734), possibly his A Body of Divirnity…, 2 vols (1731);Edwards, John (1637–1716), Veritas Redux: Evangelical Trnths Restored, 3 vols. (London, 17071708, 17251726); and Henry, Matthew (1662–1714), Exposition of the Old and New Testament, 5 vols. (London, 17041710). Whitefield marshals these authorities, two Dissenters and an Anglican, all Calvinists, against Wesley's assertion that “Christ not only died for those that are saved, but also for those that perish”; Whitefield, , Letter, p. 25.

40. Some Remarks, p. 16. The passage she Cites argues for “Universal Pardon and Redemption to all Mankind” (Law, , A Demonstration…, 3d ed. [London, 1752], p. 165). Originally published in 1737, Law's tract was mainly pointed against the rationalistic interpretation of the eucharist offered by Bishop Benjamin Hoadley (1676–1761) of Winchester. There are other hints of her reading of Law in the remainder of Some Remarks.

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Church History
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