Susanna Wesley, Parental Catechist

William Beveridge in his Private Thoughts on Religion, and Church Catechism Explained wrote, “This, therefore, being the great cause of that shameful decay of the Christian religion that is so visible among us, we can never expect to see it repaired, unless the great duty of catechising be revived….”[1] He adds that parents play the primary role in revitalizing catechesis by instructing their children in it. “I do not see how parents can bring up their children in the “nurture and admonition of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4) better than by instructing them in [the catechism]. I do not say by teaching them only to say it by rote, but by understanding…the true sense and meaning of all the words and phrases in every part of it….”[2]

Susannah Wesley was the parental catechist par excellence who demonstrated how to catechize her children in accordance with Beveridge’s instructions and who lived to see the revitalization of the Christian religion that Beveridge was hoping to accomplish. How far she was influenced by Beveridge is not known. In her writings, however, it is revealed that she read Beveridge. “If you will but read Bishop Beveridge on faith and repentance, Vol. 7th, you’ll find him a better divine than Fiddes.”[3]

One of Beveridge’s concerns was that parents would not be able to catechize properly because they themselves were deficient in their understanding of the catechism. When considering catechesis, many parents would feel that they fall short in their catechetical ability. This apparent deficiency becomes more exaggerated when these parents read a document such as Susannah Wesley’s letter to “Suky” (her daughter Susanna). Because of a tragic fire that destroyed their home, Susanna had to place her children in the homes of friends and family while their home was being rebuilt. Not able to maintain her catechesis in person, she resorts to writing letters to her children.

Susanna displays a level of theological prowess that many seminary students would be thrilled to obtain. How then can she be an example and guide to parents today who are much less theologically astute? While parents today will probably not be able to reach Susanna’s theological heights, they can match her in her love for her children and her care for their eternal destinies. She writes to Suky, “You know very well how I love you. I love your body and do earnestly beseech Almighty God to bless it with health….But my tenderest regard is for your immortal soul and for its eternal happiness….”[4] The letter that follows takes a line-by-line and sometimes a word-by-word commentary on the Apostles’ Creed. It makes one pause, as Susanna Wesley could not have expected her daughter (then aged 15) to comprehend and act upon such weighty theological matters unless she had been previously accustomed to this type of discourse on a daily basis from her mother.

One suggestion for parents unaccustomed to considering theological matters or catechism would be to take Beveridge’s advice and do as Susanna did for Suky. Go through the Apostles’ Creed and note impressions and beliefs about each line. Get your thoughts about the Creed clear. Then have the document checked over by a trusted clergyperson (not for nitpicking but for heresy proofing). The result will probably not be a piece of theological exposition that is cited for centuries as Susanna’s was, but it will serve as a jumping-off point from which one can begin to catechize your own children. Who knows, perhaps in your catechetical faithfulness you will influence the church as Susanna did, through your children.

Notes

  1. William Beveridge, The Theological Works of William Beveridge. (Classroom Notes), 298
  2. Ibid., 303
  3. Charles Wallace Jr. Susanna Wesley: The Complete Writings. (New York : Oxford University Press, 1997), 118
  4. Ibid., 379.

 


The Rev Zac Neubauer

The Rev. Zac Neubauer is the President of the U.S. branch of the Evangelical Fellowship in the Anglican Communion (EFAC-USA) and currently serves as Priest-in-Charge at St. Clement's Episcopal Church in Rancho Cordova, CA.


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