Women and Wesley's
John Wesley received much of his early spiritual and
academic training from his mother Susanna Wesley
(below), who told him that he was "a brand plucked from the burning"
and was to have a special vocation given by God when he grew up. Susannah was
referring to his near death from burning when the parsonage home his family was
living in went up in flames when he was a little boy.
In that Susanna was a strong, intelligent, spiritually
mature woman may also be a reason why Wesley supported such women leaders in the
Methodist movement. While John Wesley, for the most
part, did not technically allow women to preach ("exhort"), he did
recognize and encourage women to be leaders in a variety of ways.
Though we may think of John Wesley as too conservative in
his view of women's leadership, he was attacked from inside and outside of
Methodism for his actions. In London, for example, some of Wesley's followers
tried to exclude women from a number of the society's activities. Their actions
infuriated Wesley, who told them that he did "exceedingly disapprove"
of excluding women when the society met to pray, sing, and read the Scriptures.1 A clergyman accused
Wesley of keeping women in Bristol so busy that they were not giving their
families proper attention. "William Fleetwood dismissed the Methodists, or
'Perfectionists,' as he called them, as a group of 'silly Women.'... Such
attacks were unfounded but the response of women to Wesley's liberating message
was overwhelming indeed.2
In his book John
Wesley: Holiness of Heart and Life, Charles Yrigoyen, Jr., observes:
Methodists flourished under the direction of class and band leaders, persons
of spiritual strength and insight. Most of them were women! Among them were
Sarah Crosby, Dorothy Downes, and Grace Murray, exemplary
Christians whose witness persuaded many to accept God's grace and begin a new
In effect, [Sarah Crosby, Mary Bosanquet (right),
Hannah Harrison, Eliza
Bennis, Jane Cooper, and
others]... were engaged in preaching, and many people experienced conversion as
a result of their testimony and proclamation of the gospel.... In 1787, despite
the objections of some of the male preachers, he officially authorized Sarah
Mallet to preach, as long as she proclaimed the doctrines and adhered to the
disciplines that all Methodist preachers were expected to accept.
Methodist women of Wesley's day truly "offered them
Christ" in a variety of ways.
A Moment With John Wesley,
a skit by J. Ann Craig
Interactive Quiz: John
Wesley and the People of His Day (women and men)
Mary Bosanquet Fletcher
(1739-1814), one of the first deaconesses in Methodism
Jane Cooper: "My Jesus Is All in
All to Me", a Methodist leader in 18th Century England
Grace Murray, Model Leader
and John Wesley's True Love
Wesley on Women Visiting the Sick, a statement in support of this
ministry for women
the Death of George Whitefield by Phillis Wheatley (c. 1753-1784),
includes a reference to Lady Huntington
Sarah Gwynne Wesley,
musician and wife of Charles Wesley
Susanna Wesley and the
Unauthorized Meetings, a story from J. B. Wakeley, Anecdotes of
the Wesleys: Illustrative of Their Character and Personal History (19th
Charles Wesley's Epitaph for Susanna (1670-1742) from J. B.
Wakeley, Anecdotes of the Wesleys: Illustrative of Their Character and
Personal History (19th century)
Bennis. Eliza Bennis was actively involved in the growth and
maintenance of Methodism in Ireland and served as a spiritual adviser to many.
She kept Wesley informed of Irish developments and maintained many dispirited
missionaries by her sound and independent advice.
Cluster of Stars - Pioneer Methodist Women by Revd. I. W. Willey, The
Ladies' Repository, Volume 26, Issue 6, 1860. Stories about a number of the
earliest Methodist women leaders. Part of the Making of America Project,
University of Michigan.
Selina Shirley Huntingdon (1707-1791) Lady Huntingdon (right)
appointed the Rev. George Whitefield as
one of her chaplains, established sixty-four Methodist meeting houses in
England, and provided seminaries for the education of ministers to supply them.
of John Wesley to Mary Bosanquet, June 13 1771
of John Wesley to his wife Mary Vazeille, May 22 1752
Religious Experience of Jarena Lee b. 1783 (Philadelphia 1836) Giving
an account of her call to preach the gospel, revised and corrected from the
original manuscript written by herself. Prepared as part of The Digital
Schomburg, a project providing electronic access to collections on the African
Diaspora and Africa from The New York Public Library.
of Women's History in Methodism
Wesley, George Whitefield and an Early Methodist Controversy, Martha
F. Bowden, Kennesaw State University, December 3, 1999
Mary Bosanquet has been called one of the first
deaconesses in Methodism was born in Leytonstone, in Essex in 1739. She took
seriously Wesley's preaching to "give all you can" using her own
financial resources and her time to provide for persons in need. She became a
class leader and then a preacher. In 1763, she and Sarah Ryan took charge of a
large house in Leytonstone, her birthplace, which became a sanctuary for the
most destitute and friendless people in London. The house became a school,
orphanage, hospital, and half-way house all-in-one.
In 1781, Mary married John Fletcher, who was John Wesley's
designated successor. He died in 1785. For almost 30 years after her husband's
death, Mary continued her ministry. She died on December 9, 1815.
Sources: Study Guide of John Wesley: Holiness of
Heart and Life by Ruth A. Daugherty, pp. 117-118 and The Illustrated
History of Methodism in Great Britain, America, and Australia by W. B.
Daniel (New York: Methodist Book Concern, 1884), pp. 292-295.
Note: If you click on a picture, a larger one will appear.
For Further Study
Wesley and Women, an
introduction and links to background about individual women in early Methodism
of John Wesley to Mary Bosanquet, June 13 1771
"My Jesus Is All in All to Me"
Cooper was a leader in early Methodism in
Wesley praised her as one was a fine example of Christian
discipleship, going as far to say that "she was both a living and a dying
witness of Christian perfection."
A Letter from Jane
to Lon..n on Friday to the Meeting. Mr. M..d desired any to Speak who had not
before declared the goodness of God. I was convinced I ought to Speak but fear'd
I Sh..d bring a reproach upon the Cause of my foolishness. Was tempted to think
I sh..d fall down in a fit if I began & that I knew not how to order my
Speach aright. But the L..d said "take no thou..t how or what you shall
Speak for in that hour it Shall be given you....
I felt an awfull sense of God while Speaking & sat down with emotion that
Spoak to my Heart, well don good & and faithful Servant. My Soul Sh..d
suffer loss. I am content to be vile, let God be glorified & it sufficeth.
letter is in Sara Crosby, manuscript letterbook, 1760-1774, Perkins Library,
Sermon 98 (text from the 1872 edition)
On Visiting the Sick
"I was sick, and ye visited me."
7. "But may not women, as well as men, bear a
part in this honourable service?" Undoubtedly they may; nay, they ought; it
is meet, right, and their bounden duty. Herein there is no difference;
"there is neither male nor female in Christ Jesus."Indeed it has long
passed for a maxim with many, that "women are only to be seen, not
heard." And accordingly many of them are brought up in such a manner as if
they were only designed for agreeable playthings! But is this doing honour to
the sex? Or is it a real kindness to them? No; it is the deepest unkindness; it
is horrid cruelty; it is mere Turkish barbarity. And I know not how any woman of
sense and spirit can submit to it. Let all you that have it in your power assert
the right which the God of nature has given you. Yield not to that vile bondage
any longer. You, as well as men, are rational creatures. You, like them, were
made in the image of God; you are equally candidates for immortality; you too
are called of God, as you have time, to "do good unto all men." Be
"not disobedient to the heavenly calling." Whenever you have
opportunity, do all the good you can, particularly to your poor, sick neighbour.
And every one of you likewise "shall receive your own reward,
according to your own labour."
8. It is well known, that, in the primitive Church,
there were women particularly appointed for this work. Indeed there was one or
more such in every Christian congregation under heaven. They were then termed
Deaconesses, that is, servants; servants of the Church, and of its great Master.
Such was Phebe, (mentioned by St. Paul, Rom. 16:1) "a Deaconess of the
Church of Cenchrea." It is true, most of these were women in years, and
well experienced in the work of God. But were the young wholly excluded from
that service? No: Neither need they be, provided they know in whom they have
believed; and show that they are holy of heart, by being holy in all manner of
conversation. Such a Deaconess, if she answered her picture, was Mr. Law's
Miranda. Would anyone object to her visiting and relieving the sick and poor,
because she was a woman; nay, and a young one too? Do any of you that are young
desire to tread in her steps? Have you a pleasing form, an agreeable address? So
much the better, if you are wholly devoted to God. He will use these, if your
eye be single, to make your words strike the deeper. And while you minister to
others, how many blessings may redound into your own bosom! Hereby your natural
levity may be destroyed; your fondness for trifles cured; your wrong tempers
corrected; your evil habits weakened, until they are rooted out; and you will be
prepared to adorn the doctrine of God our Saviour in every future scene of life.
Only be very wary, if you visit or converse with those of the other sex, lest
your affections be entangled, on one side or the other, and so you find a curse
instead of a blessing.
9. Seeing then this is a duty to which we are
called, rich and poor, young and old, male and female, (and it would be well
parents would train up their children herein, as well as in saying their prayers
and going to church) let the time past suffice that almost all of us have
neglected it, as by general consent. O what need has every one of us to say,
"Lord, forgive me my sins of omission!" Well, in the name of God, let
us now from this day set about it with general consent. And I pray, let it never
go out of your mind that this is a duty which you cannot perform by proxy;
unless in one only case, -- unless you are disabled by your own pain or
weakness. In that only case, it suffices to send the relief which you would
otherwise give. Begin, my dear brethren, begin now; else the impression which
you now feel will wear off; and, possibly, it may never return! What then will
be the consequence? Instead of hearing that word, "Come, ye blessed! -- For
I was sick, and ye visited me;" you must hear that awful sentence,
"Depart, ye cursed! -- For I was sick, and ye visited me not!"
Susanna Wesley and the Unauthorized
J. B. Wakeley, 19th Century Methodist Historian
her husband was absent in
the Curate, was a very stupid and narrow man. He became jealous because her
audience was larger than his, and he wrote to Mr. Wesley, complaining that his
wife, in his absence, had turned the parsonage into a conventicle; that the
Church was likely to be scandalized by such irregular proceedings; and that they
ought to be tolerated no longer. Mr. Wesley wrote to his wife that she should
get some one else to read the sermons. She replied that there was not a man
there who could read a sermon without spoiling it.
the Curate, still complained, and the Rector wrote to Mrs. Wesley that the
meetings should be discontinued. Mrs. Wesley answered him by showing what good
the meetings had done, and that none were opposed to them but Mr. Inman and one
other. She then concludes with these wonderful sentences: "If after all
this you think fit to dissolve this assembly do not tell me you desire me
to do it, for that will not satisfy my conscience; but send your positive
command in such full and express terms as may absolve me from all guilt and
punishment for neglecting this opportunity for doing good when you and I shall
appear before the great and awful tribunal of our Lord Jesus Christ.
not these the first Methodist meetings held by the Wesleys?
we wonder that Isaac Taylor says that "the mother of the Wesleys was the
mother of Methodism;" and that in her characteristic letter, when she said,
"'Do not advise me, but command me to desist,'" she was bringing to
its place a corner-stone of the future of Methodism."
can tell the influence those meetings of their mother in the parsonage had upon
John and Charles in future years, who were then little boys, and always present!
Susanna Wesley's Epitaph