Like a phone call home: John Wesley’s letters to his mom
Years ago, many of us made a phone call to mom as part of our weekly routines. Soon after moving into our first apartment or college dormitory, we dialed one of the few phone numbers we never had to look up.
Today, for those blessed to still have their mothers in their lives, the tradition continues. We may choose to make a video call so mom can see her grandchildren, but the thought is the same.
In the days of John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, the technology available was vastly different. Because it was the 1700s, he wrote letters when he wanted to chat with his mother Susanna.
While written correspondence has its limitations, one of its benefits is that some of the letters survived more than 275 years. Reading John and Susanna’s conversations gives us a glimpse into their lives.
His mother’s son
John Wesley enjoyed a close relationship with his mom throughout his life. In the early days, Susanna not only cared for her ten children’s physical needs, she also homeschooled them, teaching each of them to read.
Susanna viewed motherhood as a role from God. This led her to take time for each child individually. “On Monday I talk with Molly;” Susanna wrote to her husband when he was away, “on Tuesday with Hetty; Wednesday with Nancy; Thursday with Jacky [that’s what the family called John]; Friday with Patty; Saturday with Charles [the hymn writer to be]; and with Emily and Suky together on Sunday” (Wesley 285).
During this one-on-one time, Susanna mentored each child in what it means to live as a follower of Jesus. John's time with his mom seemed to stay with him throughout his life.
For example, when John was just five years old, he was dramatically saved from the family’s home as it burned. From that time on, Susanna sometimes called her Jacky, “a brand plucked from the burning,” a reference to Zechariah 3:2. Wesley came to understand that God had saved him for a purpose.
In adulthood, John wrote letters asking Susanna for advice. He consulted her in many areas of his life, including his ministry.
As a student at Oxford, he corresponded with Susanna about books he was reading.
As a newly ordained pastor trying to decide if God was calling him to serve as a missionary in Georgia in what is now the United States, Wesley sought advice from many people. Historians believe his mother’s counsel was the deciding factor in his decision to accept the invitation.
“Had I twenty sons,” she reportedly told John, “I should rejoice that they were all so employed, though I should never see them more.”
When wondering if it was okay to have a layperson (non-clergy) preach to a Methodist society, it was his mom who helped him see something he hadn’t before. “Take care what you do with respect to that young man,” Susanna advised her son upon his request, “for he is as surely called of God to preach, as you are.” Wesley, who was normally a stickler for rules and roles, then began to allow and encourage lay preachers.
Though no specific advice from his mother is known, many believe Wesley’s willingness to have women in leadership positions within the Methodist movement was influenced by Susanna’s example.
Pray for me
While traveling on horseback around England and the surrounding areas, John Wesley regularly took time to keep in touch with his mother. He would find a quiet place in whatever town his travels had taken him, and write a letter to Susanna.
While many of the letters contain important correspondence, sometimes he simply shared what was happening in his life.
From Savannah, Georgia, he wrote, “We are likely to stay here some months. The place is pleasant beyond imagination; and, by all I can learn, exceeding healthful” (March 18, 1736).
From Holland he shared his surprise at how nice the people were. He had heard they were not kind to people from out of town, but that did not match his experience. “All you meet on the road salute you. Every one is ready to show the way, or to answer any questions.” Then he adds what may have been a bit of an inside joke, “without anything of the English surliness” (June 19, 1738).
Upon arriving in Germany, he wrote her about the beautiful countryside, “rocks and mountains, diversified with more variety than ever painter could imagine: some were smooth, as if polished by art; some rough, abrupt, and ragged, as if torn by a fresh earthquake; some, again, were quite bare, others clothed with grass, others with trees, corn, or vines” (July 6, 1738).
In many of the letters, he asked her to pray for him. For example, toward the conclusion of the letter from Holland he wrote, “Dear mother, pray earnestly for me, that all things may work together for my good, and that by all God would build me in the faith which is in Christ Jesus!”
Then, before his signature, he penned a version of his typical closing to his mom, “Your affectionate and dutiful Son.”
Susanna Wesley was a remarkable mom who made a conscious decision to pass her faith on to her children in ways that influenced John throughout his life.
Technologies change, but children still check in with their mothers who have shaped the faith of their children. It is one way we express gratitude for the gift of a loving parent.
Wesley, John. Journal and Diaries II, (1738-1743). Edited by W. Reginald Ward and Richard P. Heitzenrater, The Works of John Wesley, vol. 19, Abingdon Press, 1990.
This story was published on April 30, 2018.