Susannah Wesley’s Schoolhouse

Susanna_Wesley

by Tina Olesen

There is much we can learn from the past to inform our educational practice today. An admirable example of a Christian educator from 18th century Britain was Susannah Wesley, née Annesley (1669 – 1742).

Susannah is probably best known as the mother of John and Charles Wesley, who together with George Whitfield are considered to be the founders of Methodism.  Susannah and her husband had a large family and she homeschooled all of their children in a most commendable way.

Susannah herself had received a thorough education at home, at a time when girls were not often educated. Her father, Samuel Annesley, was a Puritan preacher who had a rich library which was not wasted on Susannah: “Reformation and Puritan writings, to be sure, but also the works of Anglican divines, Renaissance humanists, and the classics from the ancient world.”[1] Puritan preachers often held discussions in the Annesley home.

The youngest girl of twenty-five children, Susannah nevertheless distinguished herself as an independent thinker.  At 12 years of age she chose to join the Anglican Church which had so harshly persecuted her father and his dissenting friends.

A year later, Susannah met the man who was to become her husband, Samuel Wesley, at her sister’s wedding. They married when she was 19. Sadly, it turned out that Samuel and Susannah disagreed in some matters of conscience. They also had serious financial troubles. Samuel was not only absent from the family while in debtor’s prison, but also absented himself when he took exception to Susannah’s political opinions. Despite all this, they somehow managed to have 19 children, of whom 9 died in infancy.

Charged with rearing her children, Susannah devoted herself to serving the Lord in raising them for Christ. She wrote, “There is nothing I now desire to live for, but to do some small service to my children; that, as I have brought them into the world, I may, if it please God, be an instrument of doing good to their souls.”[2]

Susannah was grateful to God for many things, including the blessings of her own Christian upbringing: “Born in a Christian country: early initiated and instructed in the first principles of the Christian religion: good examples in parents and several of the family: good books and ingenious conversation…”[3] She now put this to good use in educating her own children.

John Wesley’s biographer wrote of her that,

“…it was almost impossible for the children to have had a better instructor. From several things which appear in her papers, it seems to me that she had acquired some knowledge of the Latin and Greek languages in her youth, though she never makes any pretensions to it. She had studied human nature well, and knew how to adapt her discourse either to youth or age; and without this, no person is properly qualified to instruct others. Her children were very early taught obedience to their parents, and to wait their decision in every thing they were to have or do. As soon as they could speak, they were taught the Lord’s prayer, and made to repeat it at rising and bed-time constantly. As they advanced, they were taught a short prayer for their parents, and some collects; a short catechism; and some portion of scripture, as their memories could bear. They were early made to distinguish the sabbath from other days; and were taught to be still at family-prayers, and to ask a blessing immediately after, which they used to do by signs before they could kneel or speak.”[4]

Susannah’s methods of discipline and education are further described here:

“When the child was one year old, he was taught to fear the rod, and, if he cried at all, to cry in softened tones. The children were limited to three meals a day. Eating and drinking between meals was strictly prohibited. All the children were washed and put to bed by eight o’clock, and on no account was a servant to sit by a child till it fell asleep…  Six hours a day were spent at school, the parents being the teachers. They were not taught to read till five years old, and then only a single day was allowed wherein to learn the alphabet, great and small. Psalms were sung every morning, when school was opened, and also every night, when the duties of the day were ended. In addition to this, at the commencement and close of every day, each of the elder children took one of the younger, and read the psalms appointed for the day, and a chapter in the Bible, after which they severally went to their private devotions…”[5]

It was important to Susannah that both her boys and her girls learn how to read. “Mrs. Wesley had taken great pains with all her children, to furnish their minds with useful knowledge, and to instil into them the principles of religion and virtue. The daughters were by no means neglected; they shared their mother’s care with the sons.”[6] In fact, she insisted that “no girl be taught to work until she can read very well… for the putting of children to learn sewing before they can read perfectly is the very reason why so few women can read fit to be heard, and never well enough to be understood.”[7]

She developed her own method of teaching reading, which she describes here in a letter to her son, John Wesley:

“None of them were taught to read till five years old, except Kezzy, in whose case I was over-ruled; and she was more years in learning, than any of the rest had been months. The way of teaching was this: The day before a child began to learn, the house was set in order, every one’s  work appointed them, and a charge given that none should come into the room from nine till twelve, or from two till five, which were our school- hours. One day was allowed the child wherein to learn its letters; and each of them did in that time know all its letters, great and small, except Molly and Nancy, who were a day and a half before they knew them perfectly; for which I then thought them very dull: But the reason why I thought them so was, because the rest learned them so readily, and your brother Samuel, who was the first child I ever taught, learnt the alphabet in a few hours. He was five years old on the 10th of February; the next day he began to learn, and as soon as he knew the letters, began at the first chapter of Genesis. He was taught to spell the first verse, then to read it over and over till he could read it off hand without any hesitation; so on to the second, & c., till he took ten verses for a lesson, which he quickly did. Easter fell low that year, and by Whitsuntide he could read a chapter very well; for he read continually, and had such a prodigious memory, that I cannot remember ever to have told him the same word twice. What was yet stranger, any word he had learnt in his lesson, he knew wherever he saw it, either in his Bible or any other book, by which means he learnt very soon to read an English author well. The same method was observed with them all. As soon as they knew the letters, they were first put to spell, and read one line, then a verse, never leaving till perfect in their lesson, were it shorter or longer. So one or other continued reading at school-time without any intermission; and before we left school, each child read what he had learnt that morning; and ere we parted in the afternoon, what they had learned that day.”[8]

Reading was not, however, the be all and end all of Susannah’s teaching. She was very concerned about the formation of Christian character. To this end, she took the time necessary to assist each of her children in Christian discipleship. She wrote, “I take such a proportion of time as I can best spare every night, to discourse with each child by itself, on something that relates to its principal concerns. On Monday, I talk with Molly; on Tuesday, with Hetty; Wednesday, with Nancy; Thursday, with Jacky; Friday, with Patty; Saturday, with Charles; and with Emily and Suky together on Sunday.”[9]

This time in discussing their “doubts and difficulties” with their mother was obviously valuable to the children: “Twenty years after John Wesley had left home, it is touching to hear him say−‘In many things you have interceded for me and prevailed. Who knows but in this too−a complete renunciation of the world−you may be successful? …If you can spare me only that little part of Thursday evening which you formerly bestowed upon me in another manner, I doubt not it would be as useful now for correcting my heart, as it was then for forming my judgment.’”[10] The older children were also urged to have these types of conversations with the younger children, thus teaching them how to disciple another.

Susannah shared her wisdom in teaching her children obedience: “In order to form the minds of children, the first thing to be done is to conquer the will. To inform the understanding is a work of time, and must, with children, proceed by slow degrees as they are able to bear it. But the subjecting the will is a thing which must be done at once, and the sooner the better… Then a child is capable of being governed by the reason and piety of its parents, till its own understanding comes to maturity.”[11]

In order to curb the habit of lying in her children, they would not be spanked if they came to her of their own accord and confessed their fault and promised to amend their ways. She was continually watchful for ways she could encourage them. “When the thing crossed the child’s own inclinations, and when any of them performed an act of obedience, or did any thing with an intention to please, though the performance was not well, yet the obedience and intention were kindly accepted, and the child with sweetness directed how to do better for the future.”[12]

Susannah understood well the necessity of moral training. “…The child must grasp early in life that indulgent selfism never spells happiness but rather misery.”[13] She knew that this kind of training takes time and patience, and a willingness to repeat oneself over and over. She explained to her husband, who questioned how she could repeat the same point twenty times over to their child, “If I had satisfied myself by mentioning it only nineteen times I should have lost all my labour. It was the twentieth time that crowned it.”[14]

The education provided to the Wesley children was rigorous, to be sure. Along with the three Rs, the children learned the Bible and church history. Her Puritan roots translated into a Puritan household, with accompanying order and discipline. She eschewed worldliness and the love of money and the praise of men, in favour of pleasing God.

In a letter to her son, Samuel, she encourages him in humility and warns him against pride, “…lest the comparing yourself with others may be an occasion of your falling into too much vanity… If still upon comparison you seem better than others are, then ask yourself who it is that makes you differ: and let God have all the praise….”[15]

To some, Susannah might seem to be a strict authoritarian with no sense of childlike fun. This was not so. “Her educational program always had time for recreation and fun, including a game of cards.”[16] Recreation was characterised by “high glee and frolic” and “outdoor physical amusements” were encouraged.[17] In a letter to John, she wrote this about Thomas à Kempis: “I take à Kempis to have been an honest weak man, with more zeal than knowledge, by his condemning all mirth or pleasure as sinful or useless, in opposition to so many plain and direct texts of Scripture.”[18]

She offered this caution about amusements: “Take this rule − whatever weakens your reason, impairs the tenderness of your conscience, obscures your sense of God, or takes off the relish of spiritual things − in short, whatever increases the strength and authority of your body over your mind − that thing is sin to you, however innocent it may be in itself.”[19]

Wise words from a wise woman.

 

[1] Shepherd, Victor A. “Susannah Annesley.” Mercy Immense and Free. Toronto: Clements Academic, 2010.

[2] Moore, Henry, The life of the Rev. John Wesley, Vol. 1., London: Kershaw, 1824.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Jackson, Samuel M. “Wesley, Susannah.” The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, Vol. XII. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1950.

[6] Moore, Henry, The life of the Rev. John Wesley, Vol. 1., London: Kershaw, 1824.

[7] Shepherd, Victor A. “Susannah Annesley.” Mercy Immense and Free. Toronto: Clements Academic, 2010.

[8] Moore, Henry, The life of the Rev. John Wesley, Vol. 1., London: Kershaw, 1824.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Cunningham, James, et. al. “Susannah Wesley.” Excellent Women. E-book: Project Gutenburg, 2003. Accessed at http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/10129/pg10129.html

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Shepherd, Victor A. “Susannah Annesley.” Mercy Immense and Free. Toronto: Clements Academic, 2010.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Cunningham, James, et. al. “Susannah Wesley.” Excellent Women. E-book: Project Gutenburg, 2003. Accessed at http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/10129/pg10129.html

[16] Shepherd, Victor A. “Susannah Annesley.” Mercy Immense and Free. Toronto: Clements Academic, 2010.

[17] Cunningham, James, et. al. “Susannah Wesley.” Excellent Women. E-book: Project Gutenburg, 2003. Accessed at http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/10129/pg10129.html

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

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