Susanna Wesley, Sacramental Evangelical

In his journal, John Wesley records a conversation that he had with his mother Susanna in London on September 3, 1739.

I talked largely with my mother, who told me that, till a short time since, she had scarcely heard such a thing mentioned as the having forgiveness of sins now, or God’s Spirit bearing witness with our spirit: much less did she imagine that this was the common privilege of all true believers. “Therefore,” said she, “I never durst ask for it myself. But two or three weeks ago, while my son Hall was pronouncing those words, in delivering the cup to me, the words struck through my heart and I knew God for Christ’s sake had forgiven me all my sins.

The “short time” was about 15 months. In June of 1738, Wesley visited his mother and read to her a paper describing the spiritual journey that brought him to own inward experience of forgiveness the previous month.

Wesley describes that meeting with his mother in a journal entry from a year later, June 13, 1739.

After receiving the holy communion at Islington, I had once more an opportunity of seeing my mother, whom I had not seen since my return from Germany. I cannot but mention an odd circumstance here. I had read her a paper in June last year, containing a short account of what had passed in my own soul, till within a few days of that time. She greatly approved it, and said she heartily blessed God, who had brought me to so just a way of thinking.

The event, just a few days past, to which Wesley’s paper referred was his experience on May 24, 1738:

In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.

The lens through which Wesley viewed this experience was that provided by Moravian missionaries Peter Bohler in London, and before him, August Spangenberg on Tybee Island, outside Savannah. Wesley’s journal entry for February 7, 1736 reads:

Mr. Oglethorpe returned from Savannah with Mr. Spangenberg, one of the pastors of the Germans. I soon found what spirit he was of and asked his advice with regard to my own conduct. He said, “My brother, I must first ask you one or two questions. Have you the witness within yourself? Does the Spirit of God bear witness with your spirit that you are a child of God?” I was surprised, and knew not what to answer. He observed it and asked, “Do you know Jesus Christ?” I paused and said, “I know He is the Saviour of the world.”  “True,” replied he; “but do you know He has saved you?” I answered, “I hope He has died to save me.” He only added, “Do you know yourself?” I said, “I do.” But I fear they were vain words.

I’m not quite sure what to make of Susanna Wesley’s reaction to her son’s new-found religious enthusiasm and the doctrines attached to it. Our reporter is John Wesley himself, and Mr. Wesley has an obvious tendency to see everything that happens within the framework of his newly adopted theology. In the journal entry from June, 1739, John says that his mother “greatly approved it, and said she heartily blessed God, who had brought me to so just a way of thinking” at their meeting in 1738. Part of me just hears a Christian mother being kind and encouraging to her son. “Yes, dear, that’s nice.” I’m sure that she was happy that her son was finally happy.

When Mrs. Wesley heard John’s paper described to her by another family member, John says “the truth so totally disguised that my mother knew not the paper she had heard from end to end, nor I that I had myself written.” Perhaps she didn’t recognize the paper because she had listened with the same attention that those close to me would give when I read them “end to end” papers I had written.

When John pressed his mother in September 1739 on whether she herself had ever had such an experience, again I hear her saying something like this. “You know, John, somehow I was able to live as a Christian, and as the wife of a Christian pastor, for 70 years before you had your heartwarming experience. That’s just not how I understood the gospel’s promise and it’s not what I was looking for in my Christian life. But if you need me to put things in your terms, sure, two weeks ago I was taking communion and when I tasted the wine and heard the words, ‘The blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was given for thee,’ I felt that God had forgiven my sins for Christ’s sake.”

Maybe I’m as guilty of reading my own outlook into Susanna’s responses as I think John might have been.

In any case, John was so impressed with what he took to be his mother’s communion table conversion that he had these words inscribed on her tombstone when she died on July 23, 1742.

The Father then reveal’d His Son,
Him in the broken bread made known;
She knew and felt her sins forgiven,
And found the earnest of her heaven.

Like Susanna, I too have deeply felt the reality of God’s grace at the table of the Lord, in Jesus offering himself to me as I remember that he offered himself for me. The gracious reality of Christ’s table, however, does not depend on my feelings, but on my faith in God’s promise.