Hearing Voices: Listening for Virtues in Her Letters
by Kitty Cooper Holtzclaw (DMin '07)
In the social climate of eighteenth-century England, the Methodist movement grew spiritually and numerically because the founders of the movement addressed the concerns of the bodies and souls of those alienated from the church. The movement provided religious education based on the understanding that spiritual health depends on intentional practices of virtuous living. Early Methodist leaders studied scripture and theological classics to determine practices and attitudes that were life-giving and those which brought spiritual death. Their studies provided virtue language that gave a framework for personal reflection and communal conversation on how to live a better life. Within this framework, they examined their own souls and lives in an attempt to strengthen virtues while diminishing vices. The Methodist leaders offered their experiences, knowledge, and method with those under their spiritual care. In short, one of the most powerful practices of early Methodism was naming virtues, examining them, and identifying ways to make virtues incarnation. They believed intentional virtue development was the way of embodying the gospel.
While different virtues may be called upon in various times and places, the lives and writings of early Methodist women communicate intentional virtue development for people in any era. Yet, the moral guidance of these women is a mere whisper of what it can be. Only in recent decades have their works began to be proclaimed. Paul Chilcote has made major contributions in recovering the history of early Methodist women but his dissertation was not published until 1991. The complete writings of Susanna Wesley edited by Charles Wallace, Jr. were not published until 1997. The model of early Methodist women has been hushed, but it does not have to be silent. Susanna Wesley and other women of the movement are ready to speak. In this work, we will listen.
These early Methodist women are trustworthy mentors in teaching us how to stay true to our own values. They serve as a corrective to moral listlessness and as collaborators in our spiritual journeys. We can learn from them because these leaders needed strong virtues to stand against the resistance within and outside the movement. Some were rejected by their own families for their involvement. At least one woman died defending the Methodist movement. Despite their struggles, they continued to demonstrate fortitude and courage as they lived and taught how to become more fully human – and more like Jesus.
Perhaps the most influential woman in all of Methodism was Susanna Wesley. Susanna Wesley is known as “The Mother of Methodism” because she intentionally nurtured her children in the ways of virtue that would equip them for the responsibilities of leading the Methodist movement. As her children left home, her letters articulated reminders of how to live holy lives. Many of her letters to her adult sons built upon the solid foundation she had laid through their upbringing. Her discourses on virtue held them accountable to their moral instruction and served as reference tools of Christian living. Susanna Wesley’s letters guided them in how to adapt their virtues to new situations and temptations. Her letteres also reveal that when she found herself in a state of moral ambiguity, she sought guidance from those she trusted.
The purpose of this research in the life of early Methodism’s women is both informative and transformative. The works of these women need to be taught in academic settings, within the life of the church, and as a means of reaching out to contemporary society. Their methods are easily translated to empower all individuals to live more virtuous lives in contemporary contexts.
It is not too late for Susanna Wesley and the women of the early Methodist women to speak again. If we open our hearts and allow their voices to resound there, we will be strengthened in our own struggles and we reclaim the joys of virtuous living. If we listen, these women will lead us in the ways of Christ.
A HISTORY OF EARLY METHODIST WOMEN
Susanna Wesley shaped her son John’s views toward women in ways that enabled him to have positive relationships with women and let him to respect the rightful place of women in ministry. While John was at Oxford, he became “spiritual friends” with Sally Kirkham who introduced him to the devotional writings of Jeremy Taylor and Thomas a?? Kempis (Chilcote, 1991:22). John Wesley was also inspired by female Moravian leadership on a missionary trip to Georgia in 1735. Moravians practiced strict separation of the sexes to prevent “disorder.” A positive result of this segregation was the empowerment of female pastoral leadership to meet the needs of the women. Moravian women led hymns, served as lay leaders, led extemporaneous prayers, and preached (Chilcote, 1991:22). John Wesley’s incorporation of Moravian practices became a favorite weapon of those who attacked him for his unconventional attitude toward women. Despite the disapproval of many, he insisted that a woman has the right to seek her own spiritual growth as a person (Hayes:39). He contended that even after marriage, a woman’s first order of obedience was to God rather than to her husband. Quite possibly, he had heard of a political disagreement and reconciliation between his parents before his birth and it convinced him that such an understanding was both biblical and possible to practice.
While it is difficult to determine the date of the beginning of Methodism, Wesley recorded that on April 4, 1739, three women began meeting together weekly to confess their faults and pray for one another. Five days later, two more women joined the group, at which time one of them was chosen as their leader (Chilcote, 1991:46). These meager beginnings led to the great movement which ended up being largely a movement of women. On Sunday, November 11, 1729, Wesley preached his first sermon in the ruins of an old foundry in London. In April 1742, Wesley listed the sixty-six leaders of the Foundery Society. Of these leaders, forty-seven were women. Nineteen were men. The Foundery Society remained representative of early Methodism as a whole with a two to one ratio of women to men (48-49).
Women were responsible for many aspects of the expansion of Methodism. They invited and orchestrated the visitation of preachers and founded prayer groups that would later became hubs for Methodism. Other women opened their homes to itinerant preachers as the preachers rode through their communities. Several wealthy women made substantial financial contributions for building chapels. Eliza Bennis, who became the first Methodist in Limerick (50), took such an important role there that Wesley appointed her to organize the ministries of itinerant preachers.
During this time, education became more common in the middle class. Wesley took advantage of women’s increased learning and required all leaders in Methodism to record their experiences in journals and letters. While these writings were personal, they were not private. The instructional and cautionary writings of the most spiritually mature were sent to other societies for use in their devotional studies (Erickson,1999:93). Many were published in the Arminian Magazine for general use among Methodists.
As the movement continued to grow, Wesley devised a structure. In the 1740’s, Wesley’s organized groups, called societies, which were sub-grouped into classes and bands. Tiers of leadership developed. At the upper tier of the hierarchy was a small group of Anglican ministers. The next level consisted of a large group of itinerant lay preachers. The third group of leaders was local (non-itinerating) ministers who were conveners of small groups, visitors of the sick, stewards, and housekeepers. This third tier was the level where women found the widest range of participation.
Women also frequently led class meetings. These meetings were larger than bands, and attendance was required of all society members. Classes were like a fellowship or family gathering of twelve or more and were not segregated by gender. After an opening hymn and prayer, the class leader gave a statement about his or her spiritual state and how he or she had fared that week. The class leader then asked each member to share experiences, hopes, dreams, struggles, and doubts (Ruth:258). When Dorothy Downes expressed concern over leading men in a class meeting, John Wesley encouraged her to take every opportunity to do good and to care for others. In 1776 Wesley wrote to her, “This is not properly assuming or exercising any authority over [men].. You do not act as a superior, but an equal; [leading class meetings] is an act of friendship and brotherly love” (Chilcote, 2001:37).
The smallest of the groupings within Methodism were called bands. Bands were groups of four or five persons of the same sex and marital status. Therefore, women were band leaders of women’s groups. Membership was optional for the general Methodist population because of the intensive nature of the meetings (Ruth:259). In every meeting, members were asked to confess specific temptations they experienced and sins they had committed since the last meeting (Chilcote, 1991:84-84). The leaders of the bands had to be persons of spiritual depth and maturity. Wesley personally oversaw the leaders and demanded they meet the following requirements: a clear understanding of grace, a clear understanding of the way of salvation, and the ability to communicate their own experience and knowledge, trustworthiness, and personal integrity.
Another office where women’s service excelled was that of visitor to the sick. In London during the year 1741, eight to ten women had full time employment in this vocation. They went to visit each sick person three times a week, inquired about the state of his or her soul, and provided advice and financial relief when needed (Chilcote, 2001:38-39).
While women were essentially the developers of Methodism and working equals to men, Wesley’s terminology of their leadership was less than clear. Even though he had called his mother “a preacher of righteousness” a few months before, in 1743 Wesley forbade women from assuming the title. In 1748 he maintained that female preaching usurped male authority based on 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 and 1 Timothy 2:11-12 (Chilcote, 1991:56-57).
Despite Wesley’s ambivalence with the title of “preacher,” women found means of communicating the faith. Public prayer in class and band meetings was often a first step. In another form of prayer ministry, Sarah Peters took prayer into the prisons of London. Her prayer soon turned to testimony and exhortation. She bravely went through the prison alone and influenced the salvation of many souls in her ministry. Her concern for the souls of the prisoners went so far as to stand with a man named John Lancaster as he was executed. She died two weeks later from prison fever (Chilcote, 2001:50).
Women in the early Methodist movement also engaged in other acts of proclaiming the gospel that are difficult to distinguish from preaching. One of these acts was testimony. John Wesley believed nothing could be more important to the nurturing of souls than testimony, as the ultimate purpose of testimony was to change lives. The fine line between testimony and preaching is evidenced by Wesley’s comment regarding one woman’s testimony:
[She] could not refrain from declaring before them all what God had done for her soul. And the words which came from the heart went to the heart. I scarce ever heard such a preacher before. All were in tears round about her, high and low; for there was no resisting the Spirit by which she spoke. (51)
Women also participated in exhortation by speaking against sin and pleading with sinners to repent and be saved. While John Wesley still did not sanction women as preachers until later, he was willing to apply the term “exhorter” to both men and women.
In the third decade of Methodism (1760’s), Wesley’s prejudices against women preachers gradually began to fade. Following his basic rule of dealing with each particular person or situation as was expeditious and appropriate, he authorized Sarah Crosby to preach. She was reluctant to do so, writing to John Wesley seeking his advice and counsel when she was concerned that she had gotten too close to the actual act of preaching. Wesley took his time in responding even though she had written him with urgency. He told her:
I think you have not gone too far. You could not well do less . . . I do not see that you have broken any law. Go on calmly and steadily. If you have time, you may read to them the Notes on any chapter before you, speak a few words, or one of the awakening sermons, as other women have done long ago. (65)
Wesley’s vacillation seems to exhibit an internal struggle. He gave Sarah Crosby authority to preach. He supported Sarah Crosby spiritually and financially as she continued in her ministry. A letter on 28 January 1763 shows that she was fully employed through the latter half of 1762 (66). During that time, it was not unusual for her to hold four meetings a day and address as many as five hundred people. Her itinerant ministry continued for twenty years, yet he never allowed her the title of “preacher” (90).
Mary Bosanquet (later Mary Bosanquet Fletcher) was another important female developer of Methodism. She grew up in a wealthy home but went against her parents’ wishes to be involved in Methodist activities. When the familial conflict became more than she could bear, she rented two unfurnished rooms and committed herself to a life of ministry. With a band of women who included Sarah Crosby and Sarah Ryan, Mary Bosanquet’s work among the poor and indigent of London became famous (Chilcote, 1991: 119). Later, Mary Bosanquet and Sarah Ryan continued their ministry in Bristol and established an orphanage at Leytonstone. They began to be criticized because they extended their services to the people of the area and continued to have Thursday evening public services after the orphanage’s preacher was appointed elsewhere (127). A sermon by Mary Bosanquet Fletcher (see appendix) is the only extant sermon from the first generation of Methodist women preachers (321).
In response to the work of Sarah Crosby, Mary Bosanquet, and Sarah Ryan, the subject of women preachers became a much debated topic when the annual conference of itinerant preachers convened on 20 August 1765 (Chilcote, 2001:70). Even though Wesley had nurtured and supported the ministry of these women in many ways, he said very little in defense of women, and they were prohibited from preaching.
However, the women were determined to serve God courageously and patiently despite the challenges and lack of support. In 1767 Sarah Crosby also made Leytonstone her home, and shortly after, the “little family” had the opportunity to move to the country and resettle the orphanage in Yorkshire. It became a thriving center of Methodism under their leadership. By 1770, the area around Yorkshire contained one third of all Methodist chapels (72).
Despite the continued success of these women leaders, Wesley was still reluctant about their preaching and gave them some specific guidelines to distinguish their exhortations from preaching. In addition to instructing them to pray in private or public as much as they could, Wesley gave them these directions:
Intermix short exhortations with prayer; but keep as far from what is called preaching as you can; therefore never take a text; never speak in a continued discourse without some break, about four or five minutes. Tell the people, “We shall have another prayer-meeting at such a time and place.” If Hannah Harrison had followed these few directions, she might have been as useful now as ever. (2001:73)
In June 1771, Mary Bosanquet called John Wesley’s hand on his reluctance to accept women’s role as preacher. She wrote a very formal letter to her dear friend in defense (Chilcote, 1991:301-304). She describes the success of the “little prayer meetings” held in their home. She outlines objections posted by others and defenses against the objections. In one clever move, she says, “Then why is it said, ‘Let the woman prophesy with her head covered,’ or can she prophesy without speaking (301)?” From that point, she conjectures that a woman may feel compelled by the Holy Spirit to speak two or three times in her life, two or three times in a day or week, perhaps even for forty years. Wesley responded to her letter by saying he was convinced that she did, indeed, have an extraordinary call like every other lay preacher.
While Wesley was a progressive thinker for his day, he never came to view the preaching by women as an ordinary practice in the life of the church, and he maintained strict control over their activities. He could never allow the exceptional rule to be the general rule. In March 1780, Wesley sent a letter to John Peacock to put an end to the use of women as preachers in his circuit. Wesley said, “It would grow, and we know not where it would end” (Heitzenrater:276).
Even with such ambivalence, the circle of women preachers grew. Ann Gilbert began preaching in Cornwall. Eliza Bennis continued to advise Wesley about the development of Methodism in Ireland. Margaret Davidson, blind and disfigured, preached throughout Ireland. Elizabeth Hurrell began preaching in Yorkshire sometime in the early 1770’s. While the number of women leaders was expanding, they remained under constant criticism and threat from clergy and laity (Chilcote, 1991:159-161).
At Wesley’s death on 2 March 1791, Methodism was thrown into turmoil and a number of schisms broke the connection apart (Heitzenrater:308). The English culture began to revert to conservatism. The issue of women preachers became bitterly contested (Chilcote, 2001:111). At the Dublin Conference of Irish Methodists in July 1802, preaching and public exhortation by women were opposed at the cost of expulsion from the Methodist society. In Manchester in 1803, the question was posed as to whether women should be engaged in preaching. The resolution against the preaching women passed. Women preachers were given formal censure by Methodist leaders. Since bands and classes were also beginning to dissolve at this time, the voice of women was silenced throughout much of Methodism (117-122).
THE LETTERS OF SUSANNA WESLEY
Susanna Wesley was the primary influence on John Wesley’s attitude toward women in the movement that would follow under his leadership. She was born Susanna Annesley on 20 January1669 in London. Her parents were Puritans, and Susanna was often allowed to sit in on the theological discussions of her well-known father, the Reverend Samuel Annesley. She inherited all of his books, writings, and letters at the time of his death. Because of her childhood environment, Susanna Wesley became an independent thinker on many matters.
Susanna had few peers in her devotion to spiritual classics and the sensitive understanding of the theological issues of her day (Chilcote, 2001:18). Her letters and journals reveal that Susanna was extremely well read. For example, she was fascinated with the writings of Pascal (Wallace:4). Although Susanna Wesley’s first writings were lost in a rectory fire, all those written afterward have been compiled and are presumed to be complete.
Because of her husband’s frequent absence from their home on church-related matters, Susanna Wesley had the responsibility and opportunity of providing for the educational, spiritual, and moral nurture of her ten surviving children. Susanna Wesley wanted acumen for her daughters as well as her sons so she refused to allow the girls to assist in household cleaning until they could read well. She said, “Putting 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 to be well understood” (Heitzenrater:26). Susannah was so serious about her vocation as parent that she withdrew from the community surrounding Epworth almost entirely to concentrate her efforts on the education of her children. She described her child-rearing years:
I have lived such a retired life for so many years . . . No one can, without renouncing the world in the most literal sense, observe my method: and there are few, if any, that would entirely devote above twenty years of the prime of life in hopes to save the souls of their children. (Stevenson:168)
Intermingling basic and theological education, she took her children aside on their fifth birthday to teach them the alphabet and started them reading the first chapter of Genesis. Each session began and concluded with prayer and a scripture. The children were trained in manners, morality, and virtues. As important as academic instruction was in her home school, Susanna Wesley valued religious education above all. Her primary goal in educating her children was to instill holiness of heart and life. As seen from Susanna Wesley’s words above, she assumed great responsibility for her children’s salvation. She believed their salvation was manifest through practices of piety.
When Samuel Jr. enrolled in Westminster School in London, he was the first of her children to pursue education beyond Susanna Wesley’s kitchen table school. She was confident of the academic education he was receiving, but her letters to him reveal the anxiety of a parent sending a child away from home for the first time. She was determined her influence on his theological and moral education should continue. Some of her letters summarize her teachings at home. Except for her briefest letters, Susanna Wesley offers advice on virtuous living. She continued to give advice throughout her letters to John and Charles and in the educational materials prepared for her daughters.
Her first letter to fourteen-year-old Samuel Jr. (11 March 1704) was Susanna Wesley’s definitive work on virtues. In it, she described virtue as “the main and proper intention of Christianity” (Wallace:45). Although well-schooled in Aquinas and other virtue theologians, Susanna Wesley designed her own schema of the virtuous life. This first letter to Samuel, Jr. reads like a virtue primer that would influence the character ideals of Methodism.
In these thirty-four handwritten pages of moral and religious education, Susanna Wesley defined virtues as duties to God, self, and others. She posited that the virtuous life is the only way to Christian happiness and the only way to please God. She concluded that the Christian life is composed of knowledge and obedience to both moral (natural) and revealed law. She contended that moral law is reasoned from the nature of things while certain virtues and practices can only be understood by revelation from God. Then, Susanna Wesley proposed the first of three major dictates of the virtuous life.
The first dictate was self-preservation. She defended the importance of self-preservation by saying the seemingly obvious: glorification of God and increase of the reign of God on earth is impossible without life. Since God has deemed life as good, Susanna advised faithfulness in caring for life, spiritually, physically, and morally.
Her second dictate was that glorification of God requires worship. Worship is of two kinds: internal and external. Internal worship results from having a high opinion of God’s power, justice, and truth. Virtuous internal worship enables one to acquiesce to God’s will and supplies hope that depends on God’s trueness. Thus, worship provides the foundation for loving God rightly. The second kind of worship, external worship, is the product of true internal worship. External worship is manifest by giving thanks and expressing wants to God in prayer and is offered as the Christian speaks publicly to others about devotional life (42).
The third dictate of this letter was that the Christian has the duty to perfect human nature through the practice of moral virtues. She held this duty to an extremely high standard because she believed that one cannot be completely virtuous, and therefore achieve Christian happiness, without practicing all of the moral virtues. She began her list with what she calls the four principal virtues. Her four principal virtues were Thomas Aquinas’ four moral virtues of prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude. She then provided her own accumulated list which she describes only as “others.” They are magnanimity, magnificence, liberality, modesty, gentleness, courtesy, truth, and urbanity. (42) While it would have been helpful to contemporary readers for Susanna Wesley to define her understanding of each of these individual virtues, she did not.
Instead of defining the other virtues, Susanna Wesley began describing the twp obligations of the Christian to the virtues: faith and obedience. At this point in the manuscript of the letter, two sides of a sheet are missing (46), but enough of the manuscript remains to understand that she equated faith with belief in creedal affirmations. At some point in the missing pages, she shifted from the first obligation toward creedal affirmations to the second duty of the Christian: obedience. In this extended section she provided practical application for growth in virtues. She proposed that the first particular of obedience is repentance. Repentance requires both sorrow for and forsaking of sin. Avoiding vice is insufficient to be considered obedience; the Christian must also exemplify good works. Susanna Wesley told Samuel Jr. that for every act prohibited by Jesus, a virtue is commanded. She gave Samuel Jr. some examples:
Thus by forbidding murder, causeless anger and words of contempt, he commands that we contribute all we reasonably may toward the preservation of our neighbor’s life, good, and fame. To be compassionate and liberal, patient, meek, courteous and friendly to all [people]. By forbidding impure desires, looks, etc., he commands unspotted chastity in heart and life. By prohibiting customary or unnecessary oaths, he enjoins a useful innocent conversation, free from pride or passion which usually leads [people] into that unreasonable practice. (46)
Susanna Wesley’s next move in this letter has to do with what she considered the highest and noblest part of Christian life: loving God. In later years, Susanna Wesley hesitated to define love for her son John, saying that she had never heard a definition that satisfied her and she was at a quandary to come up with one herself. However, in this earlier letter to Samuel Jr., Susanna Wesley described it as a simple act or motion of the soul that carries the soul toward a beloved object. If it is appropriately expressed, love is in right proportion to the goodness of the beloved. While the Christian is not able to love God in proportion to divine goodness, love is still the principal duty of a Christian. She understood loving God to be the force that guides the Christian to perfection and happiness. Susanna Wesley quoted Jesus:
“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, with all thy mind, and with all thy strength, and thy neighbor as thyself.” Jesus said, “This do and thou shalt live,” that is shalt be eternally happy, for happiness in scriptures is usually called life. (46-47)
Such love demands “the full power and energy of the soul” (47). In a 10 November 1725 letter to Samuel Jr., Susanna Wesley speculated that the more intense our love of God is, the greater our desire to avoid any practice repugnant to God. Her son John later built upon her explanation of right love for God in defining Christian perfection. He said Christian perfection means loving God with all the heart, soul, mind, and strength. The concept of the possibility of Christian perfection is one that separates Methodism from other theological systems.
Just as Susanna Wesley believed worship of God was expressed by two means, she also believed the virtue of loving God was expressed internally and externally. First, the virtue is expressed internally by adoration, praise, and a desire to please. Love of God is expressed externally “by being friendly and beneficent to all that bear his image and are ever ready to do good offices where we perceive the smallest ray of his divinity” (47).
In her closing thoughts on love, she maintained that there are two effects of love: the desire to please and the desire to enjoy. She considered these two effects to be the source of all virtuous actions and religious duties. She concluded her letter saying that placing God at the center of our lives is the only way to rest and lasting happiness. She was adamant that virtuous life is attainable only by dual action of the Christian with the power of the Holy Spirit:
That you may more perfectly know and obey the law of God, be sure you constantly pray for the assistance of the Holy Spirit. Observe that assistance implies a joint concurrence of the person assisted; nor can you possible (sic) be assisted if you do nothing. Therefore, use your utmost care and diligence to do your duty and rely upon the veracity of God, who will not fail to perform what he has promised. (48)
As she closed this first letter to Samuel Jr, she instructed him to study scripture constantly, for it was “the perfect rule of faith and manners” (48) and could be used in all cases where he wanted direction. Because she realized she had given her young son stringent instructions, she encouraged him to seek wise counsel about his questions regarding scripture, faith, and morality (48).
Susanna Wesley’s first letter to her eldest son reads like a theological tome; however, she easily shifted to a maternal tone at appropriate times. She expressed gladness at her children’s successes. She also never hesitated to scold her children when she decided they needed correction. She was not averse to using guilt as a means of motivation. In a second letter to Samuel Jr., also dated 11 March 1704, an impassioned Susanna Wesley questioned Samuel Jr.’s prudence and temperance. She told him if he were to display these virtues, he needed to stay focused on his school work and right living. Susanna Wesley listed some of the many blessings he had: health, strength, comfortable subsistence, good understanding, and a good memory. She also told him if he did not use these gifts prudently, others would rise up in judgment against him.
In a letter dated 20 August 1707, Susanna Wesley reprimanded Samuel Jr. asking him if he had been receiving Holy Communion. Her letter reads as if she already knew that the answer to her question was “no,” and she interpreted his neglect as a lack of faithfulness to the vows he made personally to God. In her eyes, this neglect would show a weakening in his loving God. A little less than two months later, she pulled no punches in cautioning Samuel Jr. that his rheumatic fever might be God’s punishment for his neglect of the sacrament. Although physicians had said the sickness was not fatal, she persisted, saying God might make any disease chronic or even fatal. She said, “Nor are you too young to think of dying or to prepare for that eternal duration which succeeds this transitory uncertain life (57)!” While this may seem overly dramatic or overly controlling to the contemporary reader, Susanna Wesley frequently referred to being sick herself, and during her lifetime lost nine, or according to some sources, ten children to death. She experienced the transitory uncertainty of life first hand and did not want any of her children to face God unprepared.
Susanna Wesley also gave her children advice regarding temptation. On 28 December 1710, Susanna Wesley first advised Samuel Jr. that continually keeping the presence of God in his mind would prevent him from wandering into vice. Secondly, she reminded him that the eternal glory for persevering in the paths of virtue far outweighed any trifle that would interfere with everlasting tranquility. Lastly, she told him to meditate often and seriously on the shortness and vanity of the present world. She said she knew of few who, lying on their death beds, regretted a life of piety and virtue.
In another carefully composed letter to Samuel Jr., dated 27 November 1707, Susanna Wesley divided temptations into two kinds. The first is the pleasure of indulging the mind in “irregular motions” or gratification of sensual appetites. The second kind of temptation is of a spiritual nature. This second type is the pain or difficulty we suppose we will find when we engage in a course of virtue. If the temptation is of the second kind, the remedy is to acknowledge this weakness before God, implore divine assistance, and then commit to being courageous and vigorous in our efforts against sadness. She reminded him that the virtuous habits already implanted in him would renew him until joy in the virtuous habit was attained.
Susanna Wesley contended that the greatest temptations to the young are not of a spiritual nature. Rather, their greatest temptations are irregular motions of the sensual appetites, specifically the desire for impurity. Like contemporary parents who are reluctant to talk to their children about sex, she dropped the subject immediately and moved to the vice of intemperance.
Encouraging temperance is the virtue to which Susanna Wesley devoted the greatest energy. Her first piece of advice when faced with temptation of irregular motions was to avoid it:
[You should] immediately fly from it, not so much as suffer yourself to think upon it, till the first motions of the passions are over and the mind is reduced to such a composure as renders it capable of receiving the influences of the Holy Spirit, which you must earnestly implore, for that pure and Holy Spirit moves not in storms and tempests, nor can his small still voice be heard amidst the uproar of tumultuous passions. Therefore you must take special care to resist the first motions to any impurity with the utmost vigour. If they are indulged, the second will be harder to overcome, and the third more difficult than the second, and so on. (60)
After the initial response of flight, Susanna Wesley told Samuel Jr. to pray for God’s assistance in both spontaneous and retired prayer. She admonished Samuel Jr. to say to himself that he was in the presence of the God who knew him perfectly and regarded how he behaved in that circumstance. As God was watchful, so must Samuel Jr. be. Her son’s watchfulness would regulate the company he kept, and the situations in which he found himself, and reduce temptation. While she believed that drinking for one’s own pleasure carried some show of reason, drinking for the sake of company was ridiculous and drinking to avoid being laughed at was even worse. Susanna told him to be watchful of intemperate drinking because it is especially harmful to the practice of any of the virtues, especially the sin of impurity. Too much alcohol causes one to lose authority over the body and makes it nearly impossible to resist temptations and therefore one is eternally lost. On 11 October 1709, Susanna Wesley wrote, “Though I love you perhaps as much as ever parent love a child, I had much rather see you die than have you commit [intemperance] which I abhor above anything whatever” (71).
Perhaps her personal struggle with intemperance caused her great concern for her sons. In a journal entry from the spring of 1711, Susanna Wesley admitted she had been in danger of intemperate drinking, so she decided that more than two drinks of any strong liquor at one time was injurious to her health. A journal entry in 1718 reflected on her faithfulness to the vow she made seven years earlier to the two-drink limit. While Susanna Wesley may sound excessive at times, her advice was, after all, toward temperance, not abstinence, of meat, drink, and recreation. Her 22 May 1706 letter to Samuel Jr. said that two glasses of drink were not hurtful but that their warmth and cheerfulness refreshed and increased the spirits. She reckoned God would never be displeased with the innocent satisfaction of our regular appetites.
Her other advice regarding the body was slim. Her only comment on recreation was that when she was young she allowed no more time for recreation than she allowed for private religious duties (60). On 14 May 1727, she recommended eight to nine hours of sleep and moderate exercise to keep the body healthy. In that letter, her instruction for temperance in eating, drinking, and recreation was to consider what its true purpose was – to strengthen and refresh the body so that it might be serviceable to the glory of God.
In another important virtue letter of 10 November 1725, Susanna Wesley wrote to her son John about the nature of zeal. As definitive as the love of God is to the Christian, she cautioned that it must always be guarded by prudence and Christian charity. She encouraged John to use prudent zeal in the practice of any virtue from correcting others to expressing charity. Her recommendation for prudent zeal included considerations of the time when one was most likely to do service to God, the most private place possible, the personality of the individual, and the manner of speech and actions. She speculated that prudent acts of charity occurred when the individual was most in need. Probably because of her ongoing scourge from poverty, she recommended that any gift given should in no way harm the giver’s dependents or creditors. Susanna Wesley concluded that prudence and charity would correct irregularities of zeal without extinguishing it.
Susanna Wesley knew that being virtuous required maintenance. In a letter of 11 October 1709, she stressed the importance of private devotions because a lax devotional life would lead to spiritual decline. In turn, this decline would lead to spiritual coldness, which in turn would allow “impurity, anger, hatred, malice, and any kind of danger of intemperance” (79). She was insistent that such a decline of virtues brought about the danger of being eternally lost. She also encouraged John to maintain a strict observance of the Lord’s Day by assembling with other Christians in worship and attending to his behavior on that day. She believed that God is particularly attentive to Christians that day, more ready to grant their petitions and more pleased with their devotions on that day.
Susanna Wesley cited the benefits of the method or spiritual practice called examen for improving Samuel Jr.’s efforts at prudence. She told her son to ask himself:
Why do I do this or that? Why do I pray, study, eat, sleep, use diversions, etc.? And so as much as possible, moralize all your thoughts, words, and actions, which will bring you to such a steadiness and consistency as becomes a reasonable being and a good Christian. (70)
In a previous letter to him dated 4 August 1704, Susanna advised Samuel Jr. to adhere to a method of Sabbath examen to determine the state of his spirit. In this form of morning prayer and praise, he was to acknowledge his accountability to God, then admit the transitory nature of this life to put his circumstances and afflictions in view of eternity. This consideration should also reveal to him whether he had a temperate mind with no extremes of delight or sadness. Once he was in this frame of mind, he could be available to the still, small voice of God in guiding his conscience. In a short, hurried letter to Samuel Jr. dated 7 May 1707, Susanna Wesley advised him to adopt a special time of prayer on the Sabbath from 4:00 to 6:00 in the evening “to acknowledge and bewail all the errors of [his] past life (55),” to praise God for all the mercies he had received, beg God’s favor in his life, and then commit himself to God. She recommended a similar version of this method to John in her 8 June 1725 letter to him while he was at Oxford.
While the methods Susanna Wesley used for her different children were similar, she adapted them to meet each child’s particular needs. When Susanna began writing to John in 1724, her letters carried a different tone and oftentimes a different concern. In John’s case, she was more concerned with his financial situation. The family had always struggled because of Samuel Sr.’s poor stewardship with money, but two rectory fires had depleted the family’s resources even further and school expenses mounted the debt even higher. So when John was at Oxford, Susanna wrote to him about being thrifty and prudent in his spending while at the same time being courageous and hoping in God regarding his financial situation. In her letter of 12 October 1726, she expressed such excitement about the possibility of John’s being out of debt that she said, “Would almighty God now permit me the satisfaction of being so myself and see my children (clear) in the world, with what pleasure I could leave it” (125).
Susanna Wesley’s theological confidence continued in later years. A letter dated 21 July 1725 replied to John’s query on the virtue of humility as found in Jeremy Taylor’s Holy Living. Since she had not read the book in twenty years, she provided her own thoughts on humility, saying that it is not a virtue in itself but the product of other virtues. She defined humility as the mean between pride or overvaluing oneself and a base abject temper against oneself. It is also the product of true knowledge of dependence on the supreme nature of God.
Susanna was not faint-hearted in challenging Thomas a?? Kempis on his theology of salvation in his book now known as The Imitation of Christ. When John asked her to respond to portions of the book, she strongly objected to the premise that God has decreed anyone to be miserable in this world. Susanna described her view of humanity as “a strange mixture of spirit and matter” (107-108) and said that humans are in some ways responsible for many of their own sufferings because of sin. In a letter dated 8 June 1725, she proscribed a rule for defining sin as whatever weakens reason, impairs tenderness of conscience, obscures the sense of God, takes relish off spiritual things, or increases the strength of the body over the mind (107-108). In this letter, she develops her definition of Christian perfection as “sincerely endeavoring to plant each virtue in our minds that may through Christ render us pleasing to God” (108). She also equated virtue and wisdom as equivalents and paraphrases Proverbs 3:17 as “The ways of virtue are ways of pleasantness and all her paths are peace.”
Events in the life of her family give insight into how Susanna Wesley demonstrated virtue in her own life. In an almost uncanny display of faith, she relied on the providence and compassion of God. She had hope and confidence that she would be given strength in adversity, no matter how severe the trial. In a letter to Samuel Jr. on 14 February 1709, she described a fire at the Epworth rectory five days earlier in which the family lost all of their possessions, including their clothing. Despite the great loss, she expressed thanks for God’s great mercy that all the family members present had escaped. She concluded that letter by telling Samuel Jr. to keep his courage because God would provide for him.
Susanna Wesley was not naïve. She frequently referred to health issues that left her bedridden and unable to write. She gave birth to nineteen or, according to some sources, twenty children in a nineteen-year span, but half of them did not survive to adulthood. Susanna understood what it was like to be overcome with hopelessness, but even in her hopelessness she carried a flicker of fortitude. Nine months after the Epworth rectory fire, she told Samuel Jr. that she had suffered from depression so severe that she was as “one dead to the world” (69) and unable to enjoy any of the comforts of God. Even as she described her depression, she was able to thank God for the glimmers of hope she was receiving.
Susanna Wesley’s letters exhibit rare and extraordinary models of justice in working for peace, reconciliation, and resolution of conflict. In 1702, Susanna Wesley had been married for thirteen years and was the mother of six children. England was divided politically and religiously over the legitimacy of the reign of King William III. Samuel supported King William and pledged allegiance to him. Susanna, on the other hand, believed that James II remained king by divine right. One particular evening, Samuel Sr. prayed for God’s blessing on William III and Susanna did not say, “Amen,” to his prayer. He called her into his study and confronted her. She would not relent. Infuriated, Samuel made a vow never to touch her again as long as he lived, and he left for London with the intention of permanent separation. Susanna Wesley then wrote two letters to Lady Yarborough and two to Reverend George Hookes asking them to advise her and Samuel Sr. on settling their domestic dispute.
For any woman of that day to be so assertive took great courage. In Susanna Wesley’s letter to Lady Yarborough dated 7 March 1702, she not only defended her conscience, but she also challenged the sexual standards of her day by saying that wives should be allowed to have opinions apart and different from their husbands. Referring to Samuel Sr.’s oath against her, she said, “I’ve unsuccessfully represented to him the unlawfulness and unreasonableness of his oath . . . that since I’m willing to let him quietly enjoy his opinions, he ought not to deprive me of my little liberty of conscience” (35). In that same letter, Susanna Wesley told Lady Yarborough that she wanted desperately to reconcile to her husband but ultimately she wanted to preserve her conscience free of offense to God or others.
In February 1712, Susanna Wesley found herself in conflict again, this time over her leadership in evening prayers. Samuel Sr. was attending the Church of England’s governing convocation in London. In his absence, Susanna Wesley led her family in Sunday evening prayers. After hearing her lead her family in worship, a servant’s family asked to join them. As word spread, the number in attendance grew so large that the crowd would no longer fit in the Wesley home and had to be turned away. Inman, the curate Samuel had hired to cover his responsibilities while away, became jealous and wrote to Samuel complaining about the improper services. Susanna did not buckle under the pressure but defended herself, saying that even though she was leading the people in Sunday evening prayers, she had not done so at the neglect of their children. In fact, she had set aside a night to discourse with each one of them individually about his or her personal concerns. She was also bold in acknowledging her abilities in ministry. In a letter dated 6 February 1712, Susanna Wesley said no one in their community could read as well as she could. She also gave a scathing indictment of the assistant Inman saying he was incompetent. She did not hesitate to tell Samuel in an indirect way that she was doing a better job with attendance, nurture, and parish relations than he had done. She was so confident in herself and her conviction to the ministry that in her second letter to Samuel concerning the evening prayers controversy (22 March 1712), Susanna Wesley says
If you do after all think fit to dissolve this assembly, do not tell me any more that you desire me to do it, for that will not satisfy my conscience; but send me your positive command in such full and express terms as may absolve me from all guilt and punishment for neglecting this opportunity of doing good to souls, when you and I shall stand before the great and awful tribunal of our Lord Jesus Christ. (82-83)
Even though Susanna Wesley spoke boldly and strongly, civility stood side by side with her passion. In her letter to Lady Yarborough about the Wesley’s marital dispute, Susanna Wesley said she felt no resentment against Samuel and attended Holy Communion with Samuel the very next morning after his angry oath. In her letter dated 15 March 1702, Susanna Wesley tried to protect her husband by asking Lady Yarborough to be discrete because she did not want to harm or embarrass him. Even in the second, very passionate letter over the evening prayers controversy quoted above, Susanna addressed her husband as “Dearest.”
One virtue in her letters that Susanna Wesley practiced without ever giving it a name was intentionality. The virtue of intentionality is considering a process or attitude and applying it rightly. Susanna Wesley often refers to “method” and, of course, the Methodist movement’s name reflected this quality she passed on to her children. Susanna Wesley practiced the virtue as she intentionally kept her methods and perspectives under the microscope of prayer and reason. She then took this growth of intentionality to continue perfecting her life. She believed strongly in this unnamed virtue because she believed it improved every moment of the day and facilitated performance of duties, no matter their nature (69). In her letter of 22 April 1727, she told John there is “nothing like a clear method to save both time and labour in anything” (134). She believed so strongly in the power of intentionality that she stated, “the inward peace that results from a well-ordered life is ample recompense for all its difficulties” (134).
When analyzing the full scope of her letters, the virtue of intentionality operates in a cyclical nature. It begins when an individual encounters a need, desire, or conviction. This encounter may come about by study, observation, or experience. The virtue of intentionally is then nurtured as the individual scrutinizes his or her own life (examen). Based on this examen, the individual adopts practices that will nurture a desired quality. Vice may require repentance. Existing virtues may need bolstering. Either way, the life of the person is impacted by action or attitude. If the individual perseveres, the potential for growth in virtue continues and the cycle becomes an ever-increasing spiral. This virtue of intentionality may be the greatest contribution of Susanna Wesley to persons seeking clarity of spiritual ambiguity and searching for sanctification.
THE POWER OF INTENTIONALITY:
TRANSFORMING THE WORLD WHILE WE ARE CHANGED
Susanna Wesley’s letters reveal the way she influenced her family to lead virtuous lives, and her family, in turn, sponsored a movement that influenced much of England and America. I have not found a resource that interprets Susanna Wesley’s letters or the lives of early Methodist women with an eye toward virtue. This needs to be corrected. Their wisdom needs to be heard. Along with a group of women religious leaders, I came to the following applications and implications about Susanna Wesley and early Methodist women.
1. Women’s Contributions. The letters of John Wesley are often cited and analyzed as representative of the revival of the 1700’s. However, his work in Methodism depended heavily upon the work and wisdom of women. Understanding the influence of Susanna Wesley and the predominance of women in the movement changes the complexion of our interpretation of the movement. In follow-up projects to this work I will develop this material into book and journal article formats and include material in a Women’s Studies curriculum. By strengthening the understanding of the role of women in the revival of the 1700’s, girls and women of today can be empowered to trust their personal integrity and realize their capability in affecting communal reform.
2. Realizing the Potential of Laity. Local congregations can be encouraged and empowered when they become aware of the effects of a movement led almost entirely by laity. Group studies of the stories of the Methodist movement and its achievements in Europe and America would give confidence to parishioners that they can impact their local communities and influence all arenas of culture. Connecting the gifts of individuals with needs of the community would give adults, youth, confirmands, and children the power to make a positive difference in the world.
3. Virtue Enhancement. The word “values” is common in today’s society, but many times little substance is given to the word. On the other hand, a study of the virtues gives definition to concepts and a framework for building a virtuous life. A study of virtues in Greek and Chinese culture, Paul’s letters, Jesus’ Beatitudes, and the writings of Thomas Aquinas, and Susann Wesley could be life-transforming. Virtue studies would be beneficial in college and graduate curricula as well as small groups in non-academic settings. A retreat format would provide participants the opportunity to have focused attention to the topic over the course of a weekend. Any of these could be designed for individuals or groups inside or beyond the context of the church. Within the church setting, a sermon series would be especially appropriate during the Lenten season.
4. The Practice of Examen. This practice of examen can be life changing for anyone who desires a fuller life, not just Susanna Wesley or early Methodist women. Asking ourselves why we engage in certain behaviors could eliminate unnecessary, inefficient, or even sinful activities. The spiritual checkup of examen would allow much needed changes of pace to allow us to hear the voice of God. Even if we disagree with Susanna’s definition of sin, meditating on whatever weakens reason, impairs our conscience, obscures our sense of God, takes our relish off spiritual things, or increases the strength of our bodies over our minds would be beneficial to our spiritual state.
5. Prioritizing. A common concern of Susanna Wesley’s day and ours is the demands on our time and energy. Opportunities and concerns vie for our attention, and we are tempted to address too many. Adequate sleep, proper nutrition, and temperate drinking are as necessary for self-preservation today as ever. Despite the hectic nature of contemporary life, it is difficult to imagine our lives being more demanding than Susanna Wesley’s must have been. Studying her life serves as a model for remembering to make our choices carefully.
6. Advice. Early Methodists relied on the spiritual maturity of band and class leaders. Susanna Wesley consulted church authorities for marital advice. The letters of Susanna Wesley gave clear and specific recommendations to nurture the virtue of her children. Rather than attempting to rely on our own resources alone, we, too, can profit by consulting trusted advisors, particularly in times of spiritual ambiguity or conflict. Younger generations would benefit from wisdom of time by engaging in activities with older family and community members.
7. Influence of Small Groups. Susanna Wesley’s letters and the work of early Methodist women model how powerful small groups are in the learning of virtues. Because of her unique life situation, Susanna Wesley was restricted to being in a small group with her children, but the absence of her husband did not prevent her from creating a spiritual support, Bible study, and worship group with them. Our participation in small study groups and accountability groups can support our perseverance in remaining loyal to our Christian commitments. Alcoholics Anonymous and similar support groups should be encouraged within congregations so individuals can address vices that prevent them from healthier living. Children and youth have opportunities to participate in structured small groups under the leadership of capable adults in organizations such as boys and girls scouting programs.
8. Strength in Adversity. Another benefit of Susanna Wesley’s letters and the work of early Methodist women is that they remind us how to respond to injustice with courage. Sometimes this response means we have to go against society’s expectations, even when we are told we are not qualified. Also, in order to have the strength to work toward justice and reconciliation, we need to rely on intentional devotional time and study of scripture so our consciences can be rightly informed.
9. The Power of Letters. In a time when many people are lamenting the decline of the extended family, Susanna Wesley’s letters show us that relationships can be maintained and we can still be quite influential in the lives of others if we are intentionally connected in meaningful ways. Letters can be especially precious to someone away from home, whether a college student, military service personnel, or families in a job-related move. Intergenerational letters or contacts and contacts may bring comfort or serve to reinforce of the virtues and practices of home. Spiritual letters back and forth between friends can add depth to casual conversations.
10. Real Family Values. Susanna Wesley models for us how we can concretely live the elusive term “family values.” We can adopt her practices by speaking specifically about our belief system to children. We can respect our children as capable of understanding some of the reasons for our decisions and moral attitudes. If we followed in Susanna Wesley’s footsteps, we would set aside time for each child to meet the special needs of that child at his or her own different life stages. Providing this kind safe space for children to risk, succeed, and grow allows the child to mature gradually and teaches them skills for successfully adapting to adult roles.
11. Spiritual Anniversaries. While our culture frequently celebrates birthdays and anniversaries, other important days might be noted. Noting anniversaries of special events honors the value of another person’s accomplishments. Celebrating anniversaries of personal oaths or commitments may give an individual strength or joy in continuing what might be a difficult commitment. The possibilities for such opportunities are limitless.
The persistence, integrity, and faith of early Methodist women broke down gender and social barriers that inhibited the influence of the gospel in their culture. Our engagement with these women opens many fascinating opportunities to inform moral ambiguity and transform spiritual listlessness individually and throughout the church and society. The legacy of their model invites us to join their chorus of God’s redemption of the world through intentional virtuous living. Their benediction to us could well be these words of Susanna Wesley:
Persevere, and against hope believe in hope, since I know after all there is an inseparable connection betwixt virtue and Happiness . . . though Virtue may be here oppressed and despised, yet as sure as God himself has said it the end of Virtue is peace and endless Felicity. (Wallace:38)
And to this benediction, we reply, “Amen and amen.”
APPENDIX: TEXT OF A SERMON BY MARY FLETCHER
The following text has been copied from Chilcote, Paul Wesley, John Wesley and the Women Preachers of Early Methodism, (Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 1991), 321-327.
They cast four anchors out of the stern, and wished for the day.
The situation of the ship wherein Paul and his companions were, seems to me to illustrate the state and situation of many of us here.—We are told,—“There arose a tempestuous wind called, in that country, Euroclydon;”—a kind of hurricane, not carrying the ship any one way, but driving her backwards and forward with great violence. So it is in general with those who enter on the voyage of life. Satan, who is cal “the Prince of the power of the air, and who ruleth in the hearts of the children of disobedience,” keeps the mind in a continual agitation. Sometimes they are sunk, and almost crushed, under a weight of car; and again raised high in the waves of some expected pleasure. One while they are filled with resentment, or account of some slight from a neighbour, or an unjust accusation from an enemy; while the mind is harassed with the imagination, how it shall be cleared. Sometimes the most idle and extravagant fancies so deeply involve it, that no message from heaven could find any more entertainment than the Saviour could find in the Inn at Bethlehem. By all this, the soul becomes restless, and knows not where it is, not which way it is going. It does not feel that it is in a state of probation, and that this trial is to fix its eternal lot. Dear souls, is not this the case with some of you? You do not know where you are, --you do not consider this may be your last night, perhaps your last hour. Your eternal state will then be fixed for ever. If the Lord should call you this hour, are you ready? O remember it is the word of Jehovah himself, -- “The ox knoweth his owner and the ass his master’s crib, but Israel doth not know, --my people do not consider.” Again, do you know where you are going? Why, you are going “the broad road,” you are going to hell as fast as you can. It is a “narrow way” that leads to heaven, and you do not know one step of it. You have not begun to walk therein, not perhaps to thing about it. “O that you were wise, that you understood this, that you would consider your latter end!” It may be you find a great many things to divert and take up your mind; it is employed by Satan from hour to hour. You are like the disobedient Prophet, “asleep in the ship when a great storm lay upon them. You neither see nor know your danger. Are you the safer for this? Would not those who are awake cry out to such, “Awake, thou sleeper, and call upon thy God. Thou art on the very brink of destruction. Well, then, permit me to call up you, lest when we meet at eh great day, you should upbraid me, that I had once an opportunity of warning you, and that I did it but by halves; and so the blood of your souls shall be found in my skirts. I fear for many in this Parish. My soul oft weeps in secret for them, lest the word which to others proves “the savour of life,” should to them become the “savour fo death,: and rise up in judgment against the.
But I hope you who are this night within the reach of my voice, are in a degree awakened, and most of you earnestly longing to be brought out of the storm into the quiet harbour of Jesu’s breast. To these I chiefly feel my message to be, though I was not willing to leave the sleepers wholly disregarded. Well, let us see what they did in this great danger that we may do likewise. Paul says,--“As we were exceedingly tossed with a tempest, the next day we lightened the ship, and the third day we cast out with our hands the tackling of the ship. And as neither sun not stars appeared for many days,* and no small tempest lay on us, all hope of our being saved was taken away.” Observe, first, they lightened the ship;--lighten your hearts! There is too much of the world in them.—They cast out their merchandise,--cast away from idols! You will say, perhaps, “I cannot.” True, I know you cannot yourselves, but if you will “call on the Lord in the time of trouble,” He hath said, “I will hear thee, and thou shalt glorify me.” If you will begin to pray in good earnest, and persevere therein, as the Lord is true, you shall know the liberty of his children,” and have power to “ cast all your idols to the moles and to the bats.” Well, but “on the third day they cast out the tackling of the ship;”—the very thing which we might thing they would have kept, in order to manage the vessel.—No, all must go! Cast away your false confidence in any thing of your own; despair of any help but from the Lord Jesus. Yet obey his word; “Look,” remember He says, “Look unto me, and be saved,” yea, “look unto him as the author and finisher of your faith,” “Wait upon on him;” and remember the mind is the mouth of the soul,--therefore, according as you feed your mind with thoughts, so will the state of your soul be discovered, “Look,” I say, “unto him,” and our soul shall ride out the storm.
And now a glimmer of hope appears. Paul stood and said, “Be of good courage,--for there shall be no loss of any life among you. The Angel of that God, whose I am, and whom I serve, stood by me this night, and said, Fear not, Paul, thou must be presented before Caesar, and lo, I have given thee all them that sail with thee,”—So may hope spring up to thee this present moment, whether thou are a poor backslider, or one of the ship’s company, who till this very hour hast been fast asleep; but if now awake, if now in earnest, and willing to be saved, --come a step further yet, and observe what they did next.—They cast four anchors out of the stern, and wished for day,” There is no day to the soul till Christ manifests his cheering presence. In order to wait for that, follow their example –“they cast out four anchors.” Let us do so this night. Remember it is your part to “believe,” and it is the Lord’s to give the “peace and joy” consequent on believing. Let us then make repeated acts of faith, so “casting our anchor” further and further within the veil, and we shall draw up our souls nearer and nearer to God.
Well, let us try to cast out one anchor now. I am sensible your cable is short; therefore we must seek for some ground as near you as we can. We will try, if we can, to find it in the “Creating love of God,” surrounding us on every side. Look through the creation;--observe the tender love of the birds toward their young, yea, even the most savage beasts! From whence does this spring? It is from God. It is a shadow of that infinite compassion which reigns in His heart. Rise a little higher. Fox your eye on man. How does he love a stubborn son who will neither serve Go not him? True, he frowns on him and corrects him, lest it should be sad to him as to Eli, “Thou preferrest thy son before me.”—But if that son shed but a tear of sorrow,--raise but a sigh of repentance,--if he but come a few steps, how do the father’s bowels year towards him! How doth he run to meet him! Now carry the idea a little higher;--are you not the offspring of God? Has he not said “I have created thee for my glory, I have formed thee for my praise?” Is not “his mercy over all his works?” Believe, then, that “this Author of all love is more ready to give the Holy Spirit to you than you are to give good gifts to your children.” Will not this anchor take? Does it sill come home? Well, the ground is good, but your cable is too short. Let us try another anchor;--and we will drop it on “Redeeming love.”
Lift up your eyes of faith,--behold your bleeding Saviour! See all your sins laid on his sacred head! Behold him as your surety before the Throne, and hear him please, --“I have tasted death for every an, Thou, Father, wast in me, reconciling the world to thyself, not imputing their trespasses to the, “I stood before thee charged with them all. If this poor soul, who cries for mercy, is deeply in debt to thee, “Place it to my account; I will repay.” Now venture on him! Venture freely. He hath drunk all the bitter cup for you, and he offers this night to take you into fellowship and communion with himself. “He was delivered for your offences!” He hath cancelled all the charge against you; yea, “He was raised again for your justification.” Your Surety is exalted, in proof that your debt is paid. Come, let me hear some voice among you giving praise, and saying with the Christian Poet,--
Now I have found the ground, wherein
Sure my soul’s anchor may remain;
The wounds of Jesus, for my sin,
Before the world’s foundation slain.
Methinks this anchor will hold.—Is there not an increase of hope? Hearken! You shall hear his voice. Himself hath said, “Hear, O my people, and I will speak!” Heaven is never dumb, but when man hardens his heart.
But, perhaps, there are some poor trembling souls still left behind. For the sake of such we will try to find firm ground a little nearer yet. We will drop our third anchor on the Promises. Here are some quite within your reach: “He that cometh unto me, I will in no wise cast out. Whosoever will let him take of the water of life freely. I came not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance,:--Yes,--“He came to seek and to save that which is lost.” Are you lost? Lost in your own estimation? The he came to save you. Yes, and to seek you too;--and he seeks you this night as diligently as ever shepherd sought his lost sheep. Will you be found of him? Yes, if will believe in his love. Remember he “willeth not the death of a sinner; but had rather he would turn from his wickedness and live.” And though it should appear to thee as if a mountain stood int eh way, yet this is the word of truth,--“If thou cast believe, all things are possible to him that believeth. Thou shalt say to this mountain, Depart; and it shall be done.” There is no getting one step forward in the heavenly road without courage, or , in other words, faith; and I trust there are here many whose anchor has held in the first grounds, “Creating love;” more in the second, “Redeeming love;” and surely trembling sinners shave found some hold in the Promises. The “Word of God” is full of the, and they are all for you. All belong to a wounded conscience,--to sinners seeking the power of faith, to conquer their sins, and bring them to God. But yet I fear there may be a feeble-minded one who is still left behind, and I am unwilling any should remain in darkness, when Christ offers them light. But, perhaps, such will say,--“O, I am an ungrateful sinner. I have turned away my eyes from Jesus. The world, and the wild imaginations of my polluted affections have stolen between me and the Savior. Once ‘the candle of the Lord did shine upon my head.’ But now he is gone; ‘my beloved hath withdrawn himself; and I am again ‘shorn of my strength,’ and feeble as another man.” Well, do not despair. Thy soul shall yet ride the storm. There is yet one anchor more, but it is possible you will not all admire it. Some will cry out, Is that all! O, it is too low. But let me tell, you, low as you esteem it, because it seems within your reach, it will rise to the highest mansion in Heaven. It is, I own, a little dark at the first view, but the more you lookup it, the brighter it will grow. Remember it was the “sound of a ram’s horn, and the sound of human voice,” that shook the “mighty wall of Jericho.” God delights to do great things by little means.
The name then of my fourth anchor is Resignation, and there is a motto engraved thereon: “In quietness and confidence shall thy strength be.” You that are asleep have nothing to do with this; but you who are awake, and groaning for the salvation you have forfeited,--you are invited, nay commanded to cast it out. You have fallen by a worldly spirit, and by indulging a busy and idolatrous imagination. Come, them, let this be the moment! Now cast your whole soul,--your everlasting concern, n the free unmerited love of the Saviour, and live upon,--“Thy will be done!” Let your soul cry out, “I will bear the indignation of the Lord, because I have sinned against him: Abandon yourself, as a victim, into his hand, and there lie as “clay before the potter. If you are tempted because you cannot pray, let this be your prayer,--let the constant cry of your heart be,--“Thy will be done on earth, as it is done in heaven.: And take knowledge, whole you are so doing, your prayer is echoed by the highest Archangel in heave, for the glory of that bright abode is a perfect resignation, fully consistent with the most faithful activity. You are permitted to pray,--“Father, let this cup pass from me;”—Yet, while you add, “Not my will, but They will be done,” you join in the spirit with the Savior and Captain of your salvation.” I have often found, in an hour of temptation when no other anchor seemed to hold, that thought, “The Lord reigneth,”—his will and glory shall be accomplished, and in that I will rejoice,--has brought peace, and laid the storm. Let down at his dear feet, and remember, “Whom he loveth, he chasteneth, ad correcteth every son whom he reeiveth.” He brings your sins to your remembrance, that your soul may be brought to know its misery and wants, and in order that he may burn them up with the purifying fire ofhis love. Take courage then, and, with one voice, let us all untie in the cry,--“Thy will be done!” And our song shall be echoed through all the courts above. Here then drop your anchor. It is sound ground, and it will not come home. With this patient faith, therefore, be found in all means of grace, walking humbly while you do his will, “And pleading the promises, which are yea and amen in Christ. Blessed are all they who wait for him.”
We read of Paul’s company,--That “they cast out four anchors, and wished for the day.” Do you the same, for that is a wish very pleasing to the Lord. I observed before,--That it is not day-light with the soul till that promise is accomplished: “I will manifest myself unto him: Here is the great design of the wonderful plan of salvation,--to restore man to his original communion with God; and he who hath said, “I will give unto him that is athirst of the water of life freely,”—now waits to make your soul his loved abode, the temple of indwelling God. There is a rest which remains for the people of God; and you who love the Lord, remember, “He came not only that you might have life,” but that “you may have it more abundantly.” Cry, my beloved friend, day and night, that you may “enter into the land of uprightness, on which the eyes of the Lord are continually” from the beginning of the year to the end. But when the people of Israel slighted the rest of Canaan, and had lost that courage by which alone they could enter,--how greatly did it offend the Lord! And will he approve lazy, dull seekers of that spiritual Canaan, that “Baptism of the Spirit” to which every believer is expressly called? We often talk of the time when “righteousness is to overspread the earth,” but this millennium must overspread our own heart, if we would see the face of God with joy. For the very end of our creation is, that we may become “the habituation of God through the Spirit.”
* Which was all the more terrible, the use of the compass not being then discovered.
1982 “Susanna Wesley.” In Women in New Worlds Volume II, pp.112-131. Ed. by Rosemary Skinner Keller, Louise L. Queen and Hilah F. Thomas. Nashville: Abingdon.
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