The Wesleyan revival in eighteenth century England and the subsequent movement that formed in its wake is one of the most important and inspiring stories in the history of Christianity over the last three hundred years.
From its humble origins among a few students gathered for prayer and Bible study at Oxford University, the Wesleyan movement spread across the Atlantic Ocean and was highly instrumental in the growth of Christianity in America. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Wesleyans were at the forefront of the modern missionary movement, helping to spread the good news of the Gospel to every corner of the world. Today, the Wesleyan movement consists of more than 80 denominations with a combined total of more than 80 million members worldwide. And it all began in a college dorm room! Or did it?
It is quite common to attribute the emergence and spread of specific forms of Christianity to the heroic efforts of well-known preachers, missionaries, or theologians for whom they are named. For example, we instinctively attribute Lutheranism to Martin Luther, Calvinism to John Calvin, and so on. But the spread of Christianity is equally a story about people whose names the majority of us will never know this side of heaven, most notably people who serve behind the scenes, patiently teaching children how to pray, how to read and study the Scriptures, and how to love God and neighbors with all of their hearts. We all have mothers and fathers in the faith, biological and otherwise. Even the most renowned Christian leaders owe their theological and spiritual lives to the work of the Holy Spirit through other people.
Long before John and Charles Wesley became students at Oxford or missionaries to Georgia, much less the leaders of a great revival, the Holy Spirit was at work through their mother’s fervent prayers for her children and through her tireless efforts to foster in them a deep, personal trust in the living God. From the start,
Susanna Wesley immersed her children in the Scriptures, exercising close yet patient oversight of their theological, spiritual, and moral formation.
In this sense, the Wesleyan revival did not begin in a college dorm room; it began in the home.
In hindsight, we can now see that several distinguishing features of the Wesleyan revival and the global movement which it spawned were present in Susanna Wesley’s teachings in the home, as well as in her subsequent letters to her adult children. First and foremost, she impressed upon the young minds and tender hearts of her children a strong belief in divine providence. In direct contrast with Deism, which was growing in popularity at the time, Susanna Wesley believed that God is present and at work throughout His good creation. Most importantly, however, she believed that God’s providence is intensely personal in nature. In other words, God is not simply guiding creation in the broadest of ways. Rather, God pays close attention to and at times intervenes directly in our lives. This aspect of Susanna’s understanding of providence is on display in her reaction to the miraculous rescue of a young John Wesley from the Epworth rectory fire. From her point of view, God had spared her son for a special purpose.
A strong doctrine of personal providence permeates the life and work of John Wesley and the movement that bears his family’s name. Wesley and later Wesleyans clearly believe that God is at work in our lives. We believe that God calls some people to be preachers and missionaries, and we believe that God goes ahead of us all, preparing the way for us to be effective agents of His coming kingdom.
But a Wesleyan understanding of divine providence does not amount to divine determinism. We do not believe that everything that happens is pre-scripted in such a way that it doesn’t matter what we do. On the contrary, we believe that God invites us to play a part in the unfolding drama that is His coming kingdom. When God acts on our behalf, we believe that God expects us to respond. This distinguishing feature of the Wesleyan tradition is also evident in Susanna Wesley’s response to the Epworth rectory fire. For Susanna, it was not enough simply to claim that God had a special purpose for her son. She also pledged to take special care to nurture young “Jacky” (her nickname for her son) in the faith. She clearly believed that she had a role to play in the work that God was already doing.
In her meticulous approach to the spiritual formation and theological education of her own children, Susanna Wesley anticipated and paved the way for the Wesleyan commitment to the same.
Her weekly routine of prayer and Bible study and her insistence on meeting one on one with each of her children is an early example of one of the hallmarks of the Wesleyan revival of the eighteenth century and of thriving Wesleyan faith communities throughout the world today. From the class meetings and bands in early Methodism to the current emphasis on small groups, a rigorous approach to spiritual discipline and accountability has been an essential ingredient of Wesleyanism, just as it was in John and Charles Wesley’s childhood home.
If Susanna Wesley avoided the pitfall of a strict divine determinism by stressing the importance of our faithful response to God’s grace and guidance, she was also careful not to emphasize adherence to discipline in a way that might restrict the freedom and creativity of the Holy Spirit. The best place to see this is in Susanna’s cautionary remarks to John Wesley about his concern that Thomas Maxfield, a layman, had begun preaching. From her perspective, the simple fact that Maxfield lacked proper training or credentials was not sufficient grounds for determining whether God was at work. Rather, Susanna urged her son to hear Maxfield for himself and to judge his preaching by its fruit. Her response anticipated and ultimately helped to solidify two more distinguishing features of Wesleyanism, namely, the commitment to lay preaching and an emphasis on the importance of spiritual fruit.
Another incident related to preaching illustrates an additional way in which Susanna Wesley predicated a distinguishing feature of the Wesleyan movement. In a letter to John Wesley concerning his own preaching, Susanna stressed that the primary purpose of preaching was to mend people’s lives and not to fill their heads with theology or doctrine. Many years later, Francis Asbury would echo her sentiment in his instructions to the Methodist preachers in America, insisting that the purpose of preaching was to bring people to a transforming encounter with the presence of the risen Lord. From the early days of the revival in England and America right down to the present day, few things have been more characteristic of Wesleyanism than an emphasis on preaching that leads to repentance, conversion, and ultimately to our sanctification.
Leading by Example
It may be that Susanna Wesley’s most lasting contribution to the Wesleyan movement is the extent to which she lived her life for the glory of God.
Nowhere is this more evident than in her deeply personal reflections on the possibility that her own children might one day pursue the call of Christ in faraway places. Despite nine of her children dying as infants and later Samuel, Jr., her beloved firstborn, passing away at age forty-nine, Susanna Wesley could write that, with respect to her remaining children, she would be content never to see them again if it served the glory of God. She had put her hand to the plow, and she would not look back (Luke 9:62). In this respect above all others, she set an example worth emulating for her children, then and now.
Dr. Jason Vickers is Professor of Theology at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky, USA.
Holiness Today, Sep/Oct 2018