Commentary: Mother of faith is an example of strength and encouragement

By Bishop Peggy A. Johnson

Growing up I would hear these words: “Listen to your mother.” Listen usually meant “obey,” and if things were going to go well for me that was usually the best plan of action. 

For this Mother’s Day I would say that the “Mother of Methodism” Susanna Wesley has a few words to say to us during our journey right now. May we listen to that mother as well.

Bishop Peggy A. Johnson

Born in 1669 in London, England, Susanna was the youngest child of the Rev. and Mrs. Samuel Annesley, a devout Puritan couple who had no less than 25 children.  She grew up in a very religious family, but they also had the kind of religion that was open-minded.  They taught their girls how to read Greek, Latin and French, and allowed them to decide what to believe about things.

Susanna compared the Puritan religion to the Church of England and decided to convert to the Church of England.  Religious freedom and equality for women!  Listen to your mother!  How we could benefit from a plurality of thought that allows people to follow their heart around matters of faith.

Susanna married a priest in the Church of England, Samuel Wesley, and they had a tumultuous life, to say the least.  They had 19 children in 20 years of marriage, but only 10 survived to adulthood.  At one point all of them had smallpox. Their parsonage home at Epworth was destroyed in a fire that some believe was intentionally set by a disgruntled church member. The founder of Methodism, their son John Wesley, was almost killed in that blaze but was miraculously delivered by a group of brave men who created a human ladder. Samuel Wesley spent a good bit of time in debtors’ prison because he was a poor financial manager.  The family also claimed to have had a ghost in the house that was constantly banging things around.  The Wesleys lived through unimaginable hardship and trials.

Through it all Susanna had a strong faith that sustained her.  She wrote in her journal “Help me, Lord, to make a true use of all disappointments and calamities in this life, in such wise that they may unite my heart more closely with Thee.” 

Listen to your mother! The times we are living through now can use a bit of her outlook. Offer our trials to God to be used of God and to strengthen our faith.

Susanna was a diligent teacher of her children.  She invented “home schooling,” and like her parents before her, she educated all her children, both girls and boys.  She taught them reading, writing, history, and various languages, and her greatest passion was teaching them about faith in God.

Susanna had a private “spiritual direction” meeting with each child every week.  They read scripture, prayed, fasted, observed the Sabbath, and took communion every day.  She taught her children the practice of tithing and helping the poor.  She even led worship in her kitchen when her husband was away to continue her Christian witness to family and congregants.

Susanna aged graciously. After Samuel died, she would visit with her children, but not staying too long in any one place. She helped John and Charles Wesley in the Methodist revival that was springing up in London.  Often John would come to her for advice and even words of challenge. 

She died at age 73 and requested that at the moment of her death, a psalm would be sung.  She died as she lived, in service and praise to God in all the seasons of her life.  May we who are seasoned follow her example of encouragement for our younger leaders in the church.  Listen to your mother!  Experienced voices can assist greatly in the work.

Happy Mother’s Day!  I celebrate this “mother of our faith,” and also the many mothers of my faith who led me, taught me, and journeyed with me on the way.  The best gift we can give them is to “pay it forward” in our witness and support.

Bishop Peggy A. Johnson has served as the episcopal leader of the Philadelphia Area of the United Methodist Church since 2008. Her service as pastor has included a 4-point rural circuit in Frederick, MD, a suburban Baltimore congregation, a campus ministry at Gallaudet University, and for 20 years she was the pastor of the Christ UMC of the Deaf. She is married to the Rev. Michael C. Johnson, a United Methodist pastor, and they have two adult sons, Peter and Gabriel.