Thursday, May 8, 2014

Portrait of an Ailing Marriage

I finished a biography on Susanna Wesley (1669 - 1742) , mother of John and Charles Wesley, the two brothers who started the Methodist Church in eighteenth century England.

Susanna Wesley was so influential in John's and Charles's life that she is commonly called the Mother of Methodism.

The Methodism that John and Charles began was evangelical, but such is not the case in typical Methodist churches today. However, in 1946 an evangelical group of Methodists broke from the more liberal, increasing humanistic United Methodist Church. This evangelical group is known as the Evangelical Methodist Church (EMC), which claims a total of 16,150 members worldwide, with 8,600 in the United States.

But my purpose here is not to discuss the Methodists, but Susanna Wesley herself, who claimed allegiance to the Church of England. Through her life story I would like to study and ponder Christian marriage, thereby helping our marriages avoid similar wrong turns.

Susanna and her husband were in love when they married and held on to parts of that love until the end, but there were many things wrong, in a Christian sense, with the marriage. One of the wonderful things about reading biographies is that they give us an intimate picture of a person's triumphs and failures, in hindsight, after the messy pain of life has passed away and all that's left is the story itself, and the legacy. As we read, we can't help but ponder deeply and learn from their mistakes, and try to cultivate their strengths and avoid their errors in our own lives, while there's still opportunity for improvement.

For who is responsible for our stories? Is it God, or ourselves, who write the beginnings, middles, and endings? I submit to you that while God writes the beginning, we ourselves take the pen when we're old enough to make our own decisons--when our parents no longer order our lives. Non-Christians have the hardest time with storyline, because without the Wonderful Counselor, they have only flawed human wisdom from which to draw.

If God has called us to himself, from that point on we have a responsibility to author a God-centered story, a story that brings glory to God and leaves a legacy of godly hope and love and discipline to our children and grandchildren.

I have only touched the surface of the many Christian biographies out there, and I encourage you to start your own reading in this genre, for the picture provided is one of 20/20 hindsight vision and admonishes us to take control of our story and get busy honoring God with our lives and legacies.


Susanna Wesley (1669 - 1742)

The youngest of 25 children, headstrong Susanna loved books, philosophy and religion, and at age 13 she left her beloved father's dissenter's church, which he pastored, and went back to the Church of England. Her father was not happy, but remained devoted to his daughter, and vice versa. He educated all his daughters with classic books and languages, which was uncommon in eighteenth century England, where prospects for women were few, other than marriage or teaching.

At age 13 Susanna met Samuel Wesley, age 19, at her sister's wedding. Susanna's beauty and intellect captivated him, and he kept in touch throughout his Oxford-education years, finally marrying her when she was 19 and he was 26. They began their married life in London on an ordained minister's curate's living of 30 pounds a year, which later rose to 50 pounds, and finally to 200 pounds, in their third move, farther from London.

Life was hard on the little money they had, and unfortunately Samuel did not handle money prudently; it wasn't that he wasted it in self-indulgence, but on ill-conceived schemes to improve their situation--schemes he began with borrowed money. Consequently, throughout their married life they were saddled with debt, and Susanna at times had to handle village creditors coming to her home, demanding money.

This flaw in her husband was the first source of disillusionment for Susanna, who was highly practical and disciplined by nature. My heart went out to her as I read, thinking of her birthing 19 children, 10 of whom lived past infancy, amid constant money pressure and embarrassment as she did her necessary shopping in the village. What a horrible burden to bear, by any one's standard.

A similar situation arises in all marriages. The honeymoon is over and flaws, sometimes serious ones, emerge that erode a wife's respect for her husband.

What do we do at this point in our marriage, when disillusionment begins to erode that honored place in our heart our husband used to enjoy? We women feel things deeply and when our husband disappoints us, whether morally or spiritually or otherwise, we have a choice to make.

One option, and the most natural, human one, is to change our behavior to match the change in our hearts and heads. While we may keep the peace somewhat, our speech and manner shift and eventually we no longer model respect for our husband. We challenge him a bit more, argue a bit more, justifying it as something he caused by being less than admirable. What does he expect from us, anyway? If he wants respect, shouldn't he behave in a manner worthy of it?

I regret to say that headstrong Susanna changed for the worse after her husband's flaws emerged. In her defense I'll add that she was nearly constantly pregnant and suffered difficult recoveries (was bedridden often). Also, there was heartache surrounding many of the births (only 10 of 19 children survived; two sets of twins died).

One of her babies early on was maimed by the carelessness of a village maid, and another was accidentally suffocated by a nervous, overtired maid much later in Susanna's life, when political zealots terrorized her family, who were the only Tories in Whig territory. Susanna could barely afford household help but needed it because she was bedridden so often. She had to take who she could get--probably young, poor village girls.

Given her circumstances Susanna probably did the best she could with her husband, but her strict allegiance to God's Word, and her depth of knowledge about it, lead me to believe that if she had examined herself, she would have seen her error in regards to withholding respect from her husband.

The First Major Argument

One time Susanna developed a friendship with a flawed but nice woman who shared the bed of a Duke in the area, during times the Duke's wife was away in London. Susanna at this time lived amongst petty gossips who rarely gave anyone any peace--especially not the village curate and his growing, stressed family.

Susanna let this marked woman into her cottage, as was her custom. They had developed a trust of one another and shared each other's burdens, despite Susanna not approving of the woman's lifestyle.

Susanna's husband come into the cottage suddenly, and noticing this woman and knowing who she was, he took her by the shoulders and threw her out, telling her never to come back. Next, he told his wife never to have anything more to do with the woman.

Susanna was heartbroken, as well as appalled, given that Samuel enjoyed the company of the Duke and had no plans to curb his dealings with the man. Susanna fought with her husband in front of the children, reminding him that the Duke is the one who had a responsibility to his wife and was breaking his marriage vows. Did that not matter to her Samuel? Was it only the mistress who deserved his scorn, and not the Duke as well?

This cruelty and double standard in her husband further eroded her respect for him. She couldn't reconcile this flaw in his reasoning, and although the rift itself--which someone outside had overheard--eventually subsided, it changed the married couple's hearts toward each other. There remained a righteous disappointment in each other, buried inside their consciousness.

After they moved from this tiny, gossipy village to a nearby larger parish for 200 pounds a year--a sharp contrast to the 50 pounds a year Samuel had earned as a curate--Samuel continued to borrow money and bring trouble on the family. As well, Susanna bore and lost five children in five years at this new rectory home (one set of twins included). It was a low period in Susanna's life, to say the least.

Another Rift in Their Marriage

One night after dinner her husband prayed for King William, and Susanna failed to say Amen afterwards--something she usually said after prayers. After the children were in bed, Samuel called his wife into his study to discuss the matter, asking her why she withheld an amen after the prayer. She, like many others in this period in England's history, didn't believe King William was the rightful heir to the throne, since he wasn't part of the royal blood line. She told her husband as much and they argued some, ending with her husband telling her she must beg his pardon for this disrespect toward her husband.

Headstrong Susanna refused.

What followed was one of the most tragic times in their marriage, and certainly a defining moment in the legacy Susanna would leave for her children, in regard to marriage.

Her husband knelt down then and there, telling God he would never again lie with his wife unless she begged his pardon for her behavior. Susanna was shocked, but her position didn't change. Her stubbornness persisted, and she went to bed without her husband, who in the morning left home for ministerial work in London, while still retaining his position as rector.

Susanna was pregnant at this time and spent six months without her husband, trying to handle everything herself.

The two wrote letters to each other, and a little money was sent to Susanna, but no reconciliation emerged, with Susanna feeling strongly that in withholding his marital physical duty, he was acting sinfully, against God's commands for the marriage bed.

Instead of apologizing to him and restoring him to a place of respect in her heart and home, she wrote to church officials, asking for arbitration over their marriage rift. An official letter arrived, upholding her position as correct (that her husband had no right to move out and withhold affection from her). Her husband refused to accept any outside interference, maintaining that the matter was between the two of them.

When her husband walked into their yard six months later, things were not better immediately, with both remaining stubborn, though Susanna felt horribly lonely without her husband, for whom, despite his shortcomings, she did still feel a spark of love, after twelve years of marriage.

God intervened by bringing a household fire just days before Susanna gave birth, which destroyed everything they had. It was thought to have been started by the Whigs, who hated this family for their political views.

However, I view the fire as God's judgement on the state of their hearts toward one another, and as God's way of bringing them together again and reminding them of what was important.

Things were never quite the same between them, despite their marriage bed returning to normal. Samuel continued to travel to London for additional work every winter for seven years. He could rationalize it as needed money because of their debt, but it was also to punish Susanna, I believe, for her superior attitude at times, for her ongoing disrespect, and lastly, because of boredom with his job as rector to a community full of villagers who were illiterate and had no interest in education.

For years Samuel had written mediocre poetry and was working on a book on Job, written in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. More money was spent on these endeavors than they ever brought in, though he viewed them as his most important life's work. Being away from the bustle of a busy home allowed Samuel to work on these endeavors, but of course, during this time he neglected his duty as husband and father--a neglect that would forever change his legacy for the worst.

Another Marriage Conflict

Samuel appointed a curate to take over his preaching duties while he was gone, but the curate was a poor preacher (Samuel was a good preacher, in contrast) whose sermons lacked any variety. As a result, Susanna, always watchful over her children's souls, began a Sunday night service for her own children in her home, which a few neighbors came to as well. She still went to the regular Sunday service with her brood; this home service was additional.

Eventually, the curate wrote to Susanna's husband, complaining about Susanna's unseemly conduct. The curate was jealous and felt threatened because nearly 200 people eventually began attending Susanna's service, and far fewer of them attended his. Susanna reasoned that because she was only reading sermons from books--old ones of her father's, or her husband's, and some from books--and wasn't actually teaching anyone herself, that her conduct was okay, since it was important for her children and the people to have sound spiritual food. They sang hymns as well and then all went home.

Her husband wrote to her complaining about her conduct and asked for more information about it. She wrote defending her services, twice trying to win her husband over. He never actually forbade it in the end, but he wasn't happy.

Her husband being gone naturally gave Susanna a feeling of control over her own life in many respects, which was unusual for a woman of her day. She became more independent, not less, in her husband's absence, which was to his shame, more than her own. Her way going forward those 7 years he spent the winters away, were as you can imagine, incredibly difficult for her, as a woman still bearing children and at times bedridden. (And they suffered a second devastating house fire, too.)

God used the situation in regards to Susanna's home services, though I don't know that the Lord fully condoned what Susanna did (only God knows). The community very slowly grew fonder of this rectory family due to these weekly intimate services, and going forward the community didn't have the same anger toward them, though the ratio of Tory to Whig didn't change. And when her husband returned in the spring to resume his preaching duties, he returned to a full church and good will toward him and his family, for the most part.

Some enemies still sent him to debtor's prison for a time, but that is not a vein I will spend time on here.

The Aftermath

I wish I could tell you, dear reader, that God's grace covered all, but unfortunately, when Susanna's 10 living children grew up, only one or two enjoyed decent-quality marriages. One daughter ran off with a lawyer who got her pregnant and then refused to marry her, leading to her father disowning her after marrying her off at five months pregnant to a journeymen plumber. Susanna felt horribly betrayed by this daughter, because Susanna tried very hard to instill good Christian values in her children. She made her children her life's work and their souls were always on her mind.

Another daughter, to escape poverty, married someone they all strongly disapproved of, who later cheated on her multiple times and abandoned her at times to go off with various women. This daughter bore ten children, only one of whom survived, and she also cared for two of her husband's illegitimate children.

The choices of these two daughters devastated Susanna and led to years of depression and discouragement, aided by the ever-worsening debt problems.

A couple daughters never married and others suffered in their marriages. John Wesley, one of their three sons, was disappointed in love a couple times and eventually married a widow (an unhappy marriage with no children). The woman abandoned him not far into the marriage, as she saw her fortune disappearing due to John Wesley's debts. Though John had the best of both parents' qualities, he also had some of his father's flaws, despite being painted as a near-Saint in some Methodist literature.

Only Charles Wesley, a son, had a decent marriage, and Mary, the daughter who had been maimed by the careless maid. Sadly, Mary died in childbirth in the second year of her marriage.

My Thoughts

After I finished this book I was depressed for a couple days by the tragedy of it all, despite John and Charles, two of Susanna's sons, changing the face of Christianity for the better, forever, both in England and abroad.

Susanna left a legacy of hard work, strict discipline, and incredible devotion to her children. But her failure to obey Scripture and respect her husband brought a dark cloud and much unhappiness to her children as they grew to adulthood. Susanna's and Samuel's errors in marriage stained their legacy, tragically, despite both of them being very well versed in Scripture.

In fact, Susanna spent hours writing devotionals and religious handbooks for her children, to be used in their homeschooling day. She was certainly very dedicated and resourceful and had high standards for her family.

All that goodness and effort, and yet still, she had a stained legacy. Tragic.

The Lesson For Us

I contemplated the Scriptural mandates and our response to them as women. Susanna's serious error was in thinking that we as women are to respect our husbands, but only if they deserve such respect. The husband is head of his wife as Christ is head of the church, and this not because of the husband's merit, but because God commands it.

Even if we despise the neighborhood police man, we still must abide by the law, and so it is with marriage. Even if we despise something about our husband, we still must respect and obey. God knew men would have trouble loving, and women would have trouble respecting, and He commanded us accordingly.

As I mentioned, we women feel things deeply and when we are disappointed, our righteous indignation can be formidable, but that doesn't excuse disrespect of our husbands. At whatever point in our marriages our husbands disappoint us, we must persevere and still go through the motions of respect, to honor God and to leave a sound legacy to our children in regard to marriage. The Holy Spirit will be faithful in counseling us and aiding us to make our respect genuine, but we must confess our stubbornness and our failure to respect. It is sin, and runaway, unconfessed sin is poisonous for the family.

Often, our error is in not keeping quiet. A respectful attitude can involve what we don't say, as much as what we do say.

I encourage all of us women to search our hearts. Is there resentment there? Is there disappointment? Is it eroding our respect for our husband? While we were sinners, Christ died for us. He didn't wait for us to deserve his grace, but gave it freely. We owe the same grace to our husband, regardless of how well he is loving us. Indeed, the Lord says our good conduct will win our husbands over.

I believe it. God is faithful and his Word is Truth. His ways are not our ways. What he asks is not impossible if we pray and confess and ask for our Counselor's guidance. The work of Grace within us that will lead to a godly marriage legacy starts with our acknowledging our sin. I don't sense that Susanna ever realized that or did that.

Let's take control of our own marriage story right now, and write a middle and ending that brings glory to God, and peace and happiness, God willing, to our children's marriages.

What are your own thoughts as you read Susanna's story?


Anonymous said...

First, please don't feel like you have to allow/enable this comment. I just wanted to add my thoughts, but if you don't agree or you take issue with the following, please don't allow it to be published.

My first thought was that this comes across as almost the exact opposite view of Susannah Wesley than the one in the book 'Streams of Living Water' by Richard Foster. How interesting to get two antithetical opinions about the same person. I suppose it's not too unusual in the Christian realm.

I spent a decade honouring my husband and being as good and kind and obedient a wife as anyone could possibly be. He, on the other hand, got worse and worse and what had begun as coercion and manipulation morphed into emotional, physical and sexual abuse. Those words cannot contain the implications of what he did, it just can't do justice to the daily trauma and torment he subjected me to. Here's my main point - this happened in large part because I thought the same as you have just written. I believed that if I only loved him enough, if I respected him enough, if I prayed for him enough, if I kept the house clean enough(!), etc., etc., then he would change. But he didn't. He grew worse, and he blamed me. After the marriage ended, I was left severely damaged and feeling utterly, utterly worthless. It is only by grace that I am here today. Believe me I know what 'only by grace' means!
I also realise now that the marriage was a sham from the outset. A relationship based on coercion and manipulation is not a relationship, let alone a marriage. It takes two to make a marriage. If it ends up that the woman is seen as responsible for the man's behaviour, that's wrong. That's not marriage. The bible doesn't just say women should respect their husbands, it says husbands should love their wives as Christ loves. Believe me this is something I've had an awful lot of time to think about! A godly marriage is about serving one another, each being sacrificial for the sake of the other. I believe it goes beyond rules, beyond 'respect'. Sacrificial love that mirrors Christ and the church goes much deeper.
Also I don't want to pass judgement on Susannah Wesley or anyone else. If I have not walked in her shoes how can I tell that she should have behaved differently? Life with Christ is about so much more than 'should' or 'ought'; it's about grace. Grace begins with humility - and humility offers compassion, not condemnation.
Forgive me - I don't wish to offend. I know I may be overreacting because of my past. I just don't want anyone else to make the same mistakes I did and to go through all that I went through. Praise God for His infinite mercy because I'm very genuinely a different person now. Only by grace.

Anonymous said...

Also, and I know this might sound like a contradiction (me? contrary?), but actually I have consciously chosen to respect and honour my husband more and to defer to him more and I chose this after reading your thoughts from previous blog posts. My past had made me need to be in control, but I'm more relaxed now. I am so thankful for a wonderful husband who loved me even when I was broken and saw my potential. I really was messed up after the first marriage and Frank came along and he just loved me. Words cannot express how much of a miracle this is. What a wonderful man. I can't thank God enough!

Christine said...

Sandy, I agree completely that with an abusive man, following Scripture to obey and respect is not going to work in the short run (and possibly never, depending on whether the man is a Christian or not). I try to always include in any post about marriage that a women should take her children and go somewhere safe to get away from abuse, whether physical abuse or emotional abuse that will scar her and the children for good. That is a situation that gets into codependent territory, and staying is only going to make it worse in most circumstances. I forgot to include that here, so thank you.

I am so sorry to read of the pain your first husband inflicted, and praise God that Frank is so wonderful.

I agree completely also that the Christian life is more than about the rules, and that it's mostly about grace. I think too that Susanna probably did the best she could under the circumstances. I have read other accounts that claim all of her children turned out well because of her sacrifice and hard work with them, but the majority of accounts I read include the circumstances of the marriages, which as I said were mostly sad accounts.

There are no accounts at all that Samuel abused Susanna or the children. He acted wrongly on many fronts--with money, pride, anger, stubbornness--but I think he could have been won over if she had not been so stubborn and independent. She broke the wills of her children and wrote about the importance of the rod at an early age to break their wills, and accounts also state that they were only allowed to cry softly after being hit, or they would be hit again (from her own writings). Even though she knew the importance of a broken will so that we can submit our will to Christ, it never occurred to her that her will against her husband needed to be broken too. It is our humanity that makes us blind to our own shortcomings, and I see biographies as a reminder to self-examine because once the story is finished, it's too late. Men don't know what to do with strongwilled women, so they usually "check out" and ignore them as much as possible, and I think that's what Samuel did, not knowing what else he could do. Maybe he could have worked harder and with more patience to admonish her about her will against him, before "checking out" as he did--we can never know for sure how hard either of them worked at their difficult marriage.

I just think it's important to examine our own marriages for the sake of our children and God's glory, to see whether we can do better.

God's grace is vast, but it doesn't always cover the consequences of sin, just the sins themselves. We don't try hard to labor for heaven, but to bring Him glory. That starts will self-examination and self-examination only comes with humility.

Christine said...

I should add that even when we are dealing with the consequences of past sin--either ours or our parents', we still have the presence of God to comfort us, and that is a grace in itself.

Christine said...

The biography I read did not condemn Susanna in any way. It was not characterizied at all that she failed to respect her husband. I saw that as I read; this is my opinion only. The book mostly painted Samuel as acting ridiculously, but not Susanna, when in fact they both acted ridiculously in their arguments. In most writings Susanna is made out to be a saint with a difficult husband, as though she were a martyr at the hands of Samuel's stupidity. I saw something deeper there, and I am always suspect when someone is portrayed as a saint because who among us is without stain?

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your thoughtful response. I hope you understand why I felt the need to say what I said. I have a friend who asked me once why I hadn't married a Christian. Unfortunately the truth is that I thought he was. He was much older than me. I was a naive little 21 year old and he was my first boyfriend. Unfortunately he knew and could quote the bible better than anyone I'd known previously (which makes him even worse because he was a wolf in sheep's clothing, though the clothing fell off over the years).

I agree we should examine ourselves - there are plenty of scriptures to back that up, aren't there?! I can more readily understand why you wrote what you did if the book was rather partisan. That makes sense, and yes, self-examination can't begin except from a place of humility.
I hope I didn't cause upset.

Christine said...

No, you never upset me. The pain you've been through since childhood is such that most people couldn't survive it. I praise God, like you said, that you are still here praising God and loving him. It is a miracle of his grace that you can still claim him as Lord, and a testament to your loving, forgiving heart. Love to you and feel free to write anything you want in this space,anytime,Sandi.

Christine said...

I was sweeping another floor and thought about the fact that what we know of Believers from the past is mainly what they write in their journals, which later get published, whether that was the intention or not. Is it a coincidence that these people are the type to keep journals, or does God want the story told and it's Him that instills in them the bug for writing? Missionaries, in particularly, keep good journals.

It is painful to think of someone reading our life story and finding fault with us, but it is also a gift to leave behind a testament of God's faithfulness and goodness. And an act of bravery to leave behind personal notes, for God to use as He will.

Tesha Papik said...

Very interesting post and comments. I read every word:) I have never read anything personally about Susanna, although I have wanted to and have wondered if she ever talked of the death of her babies. I do think it is very smart to look with discerning eyes and find life applications because like you said no one is without sin. Very interesting I really want to do a study of her life now.... And most if all respect my husband! Well written and thoughtful post!

Christine said...

Hi Tesha, I don't know how women handled all the baby loss in prior centuries. I wonder if they sometimes had trouble bonding with babies knowing the risk of death was high. I didn't hear of any miscarriages, only loss after the babies were born. Some lived seven months and some a few weeks and probably in between. I just can't imagine the depth of the grief over and over. The book didn't really cover her reactions to the deaths, except that there was periods of serious depression, mostly as she got older.