For readers desiring an in-depth portrait of the “Mother of Methodism,” look no further than John A. Newton’s Susanna Wesley and the Puritan Tradition in Methodism, 2nd ed. (London: Epworth, 2002). An update of the 1968 original, Newton brings to life the mother of John and Charles Wesley, Methodism’s co-founders. From her days as the daughter (and one of 25 children!) of nonconformist London minister, Dr. Samuel Annesley, to her decision at 13 to leave nonconformity and join the Church of England, to her rocky marriage to Samuel Wesley and difficult life in Epworth, Newton paints a detailed portrait of the triumphs and travails of a remarkable woman.
John Newton adds texture to a well-known story. When Samuel and Susanna split over different views on who was the rightful king of England, Samuel announced: “If we have two kings, we must have two beds” (p. 87). Most other treatments of the Wesleys include this detail, then jump to the reconciliation a year later, after which John Wesley was born. Yet Newton digs deeper, adding another six pages of context. In the end, Samuel ends up looking impetuous for having stormed off to London, a conclusion that seems well-supported by the additional detail he provides surrounding the incident.
Of particular interest is chapter 4, “A Mother in Israel.” Here, Newton opens the doors to the Epworth rectory, bringing us into the daily life of the burgeoning Wesley family. For a woman who had grown up in the relative luxury of Dr. Annesley’s London home, the near penury of the Epworth parish must have been a bitter pill. In a rare moment of candor, when asked by the Archbishop of York whether she and her family had ever lacked bread, she replied (p. 98):
My Lord, I will freely own to your grace that, strictly speaking, I never did want bread. But then, I had so much care to get it before it was eat, and to pay for it after, as has often made it very unpleasant to me. And I think to have bread on such terms is the next degree of wretchedness to having none at all!
There is no question that Susanna’s Wesley life was difficult. Despite the hardships, she successfully raised 7 children into adulthood, out of 19 born to her and her husband. (Infant mortality claimed many lives in 18th century England). Newton’s biography illuminates the character of one with an abiding faith in God, intellectual curiosity, and strong pastoral gifts (though squelched by the prejudices of the day).
If there is a weakness in Newton’s book, it is that it borders on making Susanna Wesley a saint. Unlike recent research on John Wesley that has revealed some of his warts, thus humanizing him, there is no such counterbalancing material in Susanna Wesley and the Puritan Tradition in Methodism unless one reckons her strong will as pigheadedness. Perhaps new light will one day emerge from the many neglected boxes of archives in the Methodist collection at the John Rylands library in Manchester. A fuller account that includes foibles would do nothing to detract from the respect given to Mrs. Wesley but help give a more realistic (and endearing) accounting.
This consideration aside, I enjoyed Newton’s biography of Susanna Wesley. She was unquestionably a strong woman who contributed to the birth of a movement that changed the world. For those looking for a solid (though imperfect) biography, I recommend it.