Saturday, May 10, 2014

Susannah Wesley's Mothering

We've covered Susannah Wesley, the wife, but not Susannah the mother.

From the writings Susannah and her son John left behind, we have a solid picture of a very disciplined, dedicated mother, who made her children her life's work. I think the best format for our discussion is for me to list all the known characteristics, and then comment some at the end.

First, let me put in a word about Susannah's salvation, which may have occurred later in life, surprisingly. Her sons John and Charles Wesley both had a spiritual awakening near their thirties, following some exposure to the Morovians, who seemed to display a more intimate, personal relationship with God, compared to the Wesley brothers.

The brothers sometimes had spiritual doubts, wondering about their eternal security, though they were strongly churched--strongly rooted in morality and religious teaching and discipline. Both describe a warm, miraculous awakening that unmistakably changed them forever, and gave them personal assurance of their salvation, and more peace in their daily walks.

They wrote to their mother about this awakening, which they had heard their father preach about for years, but had never personally experienced. Of course Susannah was surprised and even a bit alarmed, but in the last couple years of her life she experienced the same unmistakable thing and died in great peace.

I spoke with my Bible-college husband about this, and he believes the brothers were referring to "a second work of grace", which is a popular doctrine in some Protestant denominations.

Wikipedia describes it thus: According to some Christian traditions, a second work of grace is a transforming interaction with God which may occur in the life of a Christian. The defining characteristics of this event are that it is separate from and subsequent to salvation (the first work of grace), and that it brings about significant changes in the life of the believer.

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, taught that there were two distinct phases in the Christian experience. During the first phase, conversion, the believer received forgiveness and became a Christian. During the second phase, sanctification, the believer was purified and made holy. Wesley taught both that sanctification could be an instantaneous experience, and that it could be a gradual process.

John's personal writings confer with brother Charles's, that this experience gave them greater assurance of their salvation and a more personal peace. To me it sounds as though their previous religious experiences were on an intellectual plane primarily, while finally, after this awakening, they had heart knowledge of Jesus' work on the cross and what it meant for them personally. I'll leave it up to you to interpret this awakening as you will, but I know that millions of people attend church while never experiencing conversion, because not all churches are evangelical, Gospel-teaching, Bible-believing. Attending an evangelical church doesn't assure a conversion experience, either.

The Church of England, the religious tradition the brothers came from, was not considered evangelical, but their father, Samuel, once attended a Dissenter's seminary before returning to the Church of England and going to Oxford. He could have been exposed to more evangelical doctrines, which he brought into his Anglican parish (his preaching style earned him more enemies than converts, so I presume it wasn't usual Church-of-England stuff).

Now on to Susannah's mothering...

 Susannah is famous for the 16 rules she laid down in her home.

Eating between meals not allowed.

2. As children they are to be in bed by 8 p.m.

3. They are required to take medicine without complaining.

4. Subdue self-will in a child, and those working together with God to save
the child's soul.

5. To teach a child to pray as soon as he can speak.

6. Require all to be still during Family Worship.

7. Give them nothing that they cry for, and only that when asked for politely.

8. To prevent lying, punish no fault which is first confessed and repented of.

9. Never allow a sinful act to go unpunished.

10. Never punish a child twice for a single offense.

11. Comment and reward good behavior.

12. Any attempt to please, even if poorly performed, should be commended.

13. Preserve property rights, even in smallest matters.

14. Strictly observe all promises.

15. Require no daughter to work before she can read well.

16. Teach children to fear the rod.

Other Notes:

After the second devastating house fire, her children were farmed out to relatives for a period of up to two years. When the rectory was rebuilt and they all came back together, Susannah was appalled at the bad habits of mind and manner the children had acquired while away from her. She began a strict daily regimen to reform them, some of which wasn't new but had been started with the older ones in prior years.

~ They all rose before the sun, and there were strictly prescribed times for school, for private devotions, for study, for meals, for chores, for bedtime prep, and for bedtime.

~ She schooled the children for 3 hours in the morning, and 3 more hours in the afternoon, in classical languages, classical literature, in the Bible, and using religious material she wrote herself.

~ Susannah began homeschooling her children the day they turned five, starting with the alphabet, which they were expected to memorize in a couple days. (Mom and Dad were very bright, and all the children were, too, presumably.) Once they knew the alphabet, she began them in the first chapter of Genesis. They had to copy each line, and then read it and spell it without error, before moving on to another line. Sound a little unconventional? Well, it worked, and they all read fairly quickly and many were avid readers.

~ Susannah modeled a solid devotional time of two hours per day. As a young girl she told herself she would give the Lord as much time in devotions as she had in leisure (or was it double the time?) As a mother she saw the need to return to this promise, due to the discouragement and depression she sometimes battled. She organized her children to facilitate this by having them take care of one another. 

"This was the root of Methodism. In the beginning, what distinguished Methodists was their system. John and Charles, as little boys, just watched their mom. If she couldn’t find a room to retreat to, they watched her flip her apron up over her head and pray." (quote here)

~ Susannah developed another method to reform her children after that second fire: She conferenced for an hour a week individually with each child still at home, with the two older girls meeting with her as a pair on Sunday. She questioned them about their soul, about what was going on in their minds, and taught them Christian doctrine individually, as it related to their personalities and circumstances.

~ Susannah felt her responsibility to her children didn't end with they left home. She continued a regular correspondence with them, to encourage them in Christian principles and to act as their spiritual advisor.

An example of Susannah's mother style, found here 

One day one of her daughters wished to do something which was not altogether bad, but which was not right. When she was told not to do it, she was not convinced. It was late and she and her mother were sitting beside a dead fire. Her mother said to her: "Pick up that bit of coal." "I don't want to," said the girl. "Go on," said her mother. "The fire is out, it won't burn you." "I know that," said the girl. "I know it won't burn me but it will blacken my hands." "Exactly," said Susannah Wesley. "That thing which you wish to do won't burn, but it will blacken. Leave it alone."
Concluding Comments:  
First of all, who among us knows a woman as organized and disciplined as Susannah Wesley? Maybe another mother of many? Large families require more organization, to be sure. Mothering is a very sanctifying experience, and the bigger the brood, the more true this is. It's also more true when there are children with special needs.

Susannah used her time selflessly, and modeled for her children a disciplined Christian lifestyle. Her children were her jewels, obviously.

When her one daughter got pregnant out of wedlock, one can understand how devastating that was and how betrayed Susannah felt, after all her self-sacrifice in instilling morality and religion in her children. Though Susannah was estranged from that daughter for a number of years (I'm not sure how long), she did eventually forgive her daughter and they enjoyed a good relationship in the years before Susannah's death.

Homeschooling was definitely a pioneering experience in Susannah's day, although Susannah and her own sisters were also taught at home, while their brothers went off to formal school--something Susannah's sons did as well. In fact, her last son went off to boarding school at age 8, which Susannah didn't approve of because of his tender age (it was arranged by his father and his older adult brothers).

What about the strict scheduling? Is it really necessary?

While I used to balk at strict schedules, I notice that when I stick to a solid routine around here my children behave better and get more accomplished, as do I. I'm a more spontaneous person by nature, but I've learned to push myself out of sheer motherly duty. I'd say my habits have improved in the last two years, and prior to that I'd characterize my discipline as hit and miss. I have a legacy vision now, rather than a day-to-day vision.

Four mornings a week after breakfast I listen to a chapter of the Bible on audio with the children, followed by my reading the commentary on the chapter, and us discussing how it relates to our lives. We follow this with round-robin prayer, and there are specific things we have listed to pray about each day of the week. This morning practice is sometimes gruelling for me as we begin; I'm simply not a morning person, and I often have at least a slight headache upon waking. But once again, I've learned to push myself deliberately, out of sheer will, whereas before I skipped days without even remembering.

The Holy Spirit has worked with me on discipline. I have felt this keenly. Anything I am able to accomplish as a mother is by his grace, with my nature being slowly plucked, and His nature being slowly substituted.

Wherever you are in this process, trust the Holy Spirit to move you along.

I want to add that not having a newborn, infant, or toddler to care for helped this discipline process along (devotional time isn't as chaotic now). My five year old doesn't sit still for the Bible reading and discussing, but is allowed to quietly dress dolls while we proceed. But during prayer she must remain still, without occupation. This took some slapping of her hand to accomplish, but after a couple days she could do it. At night with Daddy 3x a week, we do it at the kitchen table, and she's allowed to color while we read and discuss.

Your Turn:

What jumps out at you about Susannah's commitment, discipline, and style? Does it turn you off, or inspire you?

Do you feel the Holy Spirit remaking you as a mother? In what areas have you seen progress? Do you feel a divine push as you go through your day?

We must face that children still have free wills, and that no matter how committed we are, they may disappoint us with their adult choices. How do you think we can prepare ourselves so that no rift occurs between us and our wayward children?

Have you pinpointed yet what is most important to you as a mothering priority? What aspect of mothering do you spend the most time on? What aspects are lowest priorities for you?

How can we give love an honored place in our mothering, as opposed to rules and teaching? Do you like the idea of one-on-one time with each child? Is it feasible for you? What other ways can we make love rule in our homes?

What do you think makes the most difference in their lives as they grow up and make their own decisions--love, discipline, modeling, or prayer? Or are they equally important?

Thank you for your time in reading and responding. Bless you.


Tesha Papik said...

Interesting ending question... I do think it is all of the above! As my teens grow up I think having a loving relashionship with them is Sooo important!! But in the little years discipline is important. I am at many stages of mothering all at once:) Love this series, thank you for taking the time to write and inspire us! said...

I have a church friend who has six children, all now grown-up. She is an inspiration to me. I think Susannah was quite remarkable. The only reason I cope with my three is grace. I have little strength of my own so it's all grace. There are always ways to improve. Christ is such a gentle shepherd. I don't know how anyone manages without God, I really don't. So many times I stumble and he picks me up.
I feel so inadequate today. I'm going to sign off and just pray. God bless x

Christine said...

I agree that so much is accomplished through relationship, Tesha. And Sandy I think we all feel inadequate fairly regularly because being a mother is so hard, but I truly feel our part is just to let the Holy Spirit mold us. I so agree that he is a gentle shepherd. Having a chronic illness makes it all so much harder, and God knows that. If he chooses not to heal I know he gives us an extra measure of grace. Love to you both!