Women and Wesley’s Times
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 life….
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.
Used with Permission John Wesley: Holiness of Heart and Life