I’m always surprised by the books that grip my attention — mostly because I tend to read several books at once (mood-reading) and it can often take me months to complete one. This biography of Susanna Wesley, however, I finished in a matter of days. Granted, the back of the cover talks about how she birthed 19 children, only ten of which survived — and here I am waiting for my first child to make her debut, and I’m thinking “she did this 19 times?! Who IS this woman?” What I learned is that her strength was much deeper than just physical endurance.
What struck me the most about Susanna is her intelligence. In a historical context where many women were raised to be a housewife, and education was under-emphasized, she was intentional about learning. She desired her life to be built upon truth — and God provided her parents who encouraged and provided the means for this to be possible.
Her commitment to the truth led her to depart from her parent’s identification with the Dissenters — she re-joined the Church of England because she believed that was the way of truth. This surprised me. I was raised to think the Puritans were always right and the Church of England was wrong. That is classic American history — the very foundation of the United States. The Puritans branched out on the May Flower, only to help create one of the super-powers of our world today.
Even more ironic, Susanna has been credited with planting the seeds of the Methodist movement her two sons begun. So out of a commitment to the very-much established, very-often politically driven Church of England, an entirely new denomination of Christianity begun. What this tells me is that a commitment to truth does not necessarily look the same for each person — for Susanna, it was a loyalty to the Church of England, and for her sons, it was branching out in unconventional ways and launching a new movement of Christianity. How do we understand this apparent contradiction?
The author, Kathy McReynolds, analyzes this strange outcome well. She affirms that Susanna’s sons questioned her conversion to Christ. Susanna herself experienced a unique affirmation from the Spirit for her salvation through her sons’ ministries. Yet the fruit of her life seems to suggest her love for the Lord was real, her faith very much alive. McReynolds concludes that this “conversion experience” of Susanna’s was a further maturation of her faith, rather than a conversion.
So often we Christians judge one another on the basis of church associations. Oh, you’re Pentecostal– you should become Baptist like me because we understand the Bible more accurately than you. Susanna’s life reminds me not to take these differences too seriously. True faith in Jesus isn’t ultimately revealed by pure doctrine and pure application of said doctrine. As important as sound doctrine is, the truth is, we are all growing in our understanding of Jesus and what it means to walk with Him, and it may look a little different, depending on where we are at in our understanding. Jesus receives the faith of a child who knows nothing more than “Jesus loves me and saved me from my sins” just as much as He receives the faith of the theologian who sees the deeper realities of justification, propitiation, and glorification.
Yet, lest we diminish the significance of a right understanding of Christian doctrine, we see still Susanna’s steadfast dedication to sound doctrine — that is what led her to the Church of England from the Dissenters in the first place. Her life is a beautiful picture of balance in this arena and I am challenged to consider whether I am appreciating a deeper understanding of my faith in Christ. Susanna wrote up three manuals on the Christian faith to instruct her children. Her teachings included an understanding of natural and divine revelation, proof for the existence of God, an understanding of demons and angels, and our natural condition of depravity, among other things. She knew her theology. I have been taught these things, but do I believe in their importance as much as she did? I have much to learn from her in this regard.
Susanna’s dedication to truth is what I believe gave her the strength and courage to persevere in the midst of trials that you and I today know very little of: she lost several of her children over the course of her life, her house burned to the ground because some neighbors disagreed with her husband’s preaching and teaching at their local parish, her husband actually left her alone with her five children for a year over what seemed a minor disagreement, she lived in financial instability and poverty for most of her life, and she ended her life in dependence on her children to financially provide for her. She experienced a lot of grief and rejection by others — reminds me a lot of the life of Christ. But she firmly trusted in God’s sovereignty in her life, as well as understanding her own unworthiness of Christ apart from grace, and no matter how much her husband or her parents or her community or her sons disagreed with her, she remained firmly committed to her understanding of Christ.
Susanna’s perseverance in these trials reminds me of the truth that “in this world, you will have trouble,” as Jesus says in John 16:33. In our American lifestyle of entitlement, it is an important reminder. Oh how I wish I knew better to expect difficulty so that when it comes my way, I don’t immediately question God’s favor and goodness in my life!
We have much to learn from those who have gone before us, even if their lives were vastly different than ours. Susanna is one of those in the “great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) — whose life we have preserved for us. I would encourage to pick up this book for yourself and discover what encouragement lies in it for you!