Old Wives’ Tales


I confess that I picked this book up from the display because I liked its cover, heh.

Upon reading the blurb and a sampling of the contents, I decided it was worth buying. Written by Vaughan Roberts’ twin sister (I never knew he had a twin!), it’s been the best book of the lot so far.

Although overtly a book with “21st century lessons from the lives of 18th century women”, it spoke most distinctly to me about marriage. There is so much wisdom on marriage that can be gleaned from these women’s lives.

The author has degrees in history and theology from Cambridge University, where she also won the Lightfoot prize for church history. She now serves as a vicar’s wife and mother of two teenagers.

Her sound grounding in theology shines through every word, and she relates the stories of these women’s lives in such an easy-to-read and gripping way.

Here’s what leapt out most at me, from the stories of each woman (excerpts from the book, paraphrased at times by me).

1. Susanna Wesley (mother of Charles and John)

Born as the youngest of twenty-five children to her father who was a poor church minister, Susanna herself had nineteen children, out of which only 10 survived infancy. As such, she was often simultaneously pregnant, in pain from the rheumatism she suffered, caring for small children and grieving for the loss of a child. In the midst of all this, she would spend time daily in prayer, sometimes in the midst of all the hustle and bustle, with her apron momentarily covering her head.

She held unwaveringly to her strong beliefs, and constantly wrote to her children who were away from her, to cling to the Lord. The author writes that “so often today, the ambitions of Christian parents are startlingly similar to those of their non-Christian friends – a good education, successful career and happy relationship. We may say that we value the spiritual education of our children, but often our true priorities are exposed by the hours of time and money we spend on ‘fulfilling our child’s potential’ compared to ‘doing good to their souls’.”

Not so Susanna Wesley. She readily agreed for Charles and John Wesley to travel across the Atlantic to witness to Native American Indians in Georgia, even though she was a widow and would need their financial support then. Her life was one, poured out for her Lord, in nurturing those he had blessed her with.

2. Sally Wesley (wife of Charles)

She was brought up in the family of a wealthy landowner with twenty servants, and enough spare rooms for fifteen guests. Her husband was abjectly poor in comparison. In the early years, she travelled with him (as he was an itinerant preacher), but soon the dangers and trials of travel and her young family meant that she stayed home instead.

They had a loving marriage, but she had to cope alone with the death of five of her eight children from smallpox, one of them when he was only four months old. Yet through these trials, she clung steadfastly to the hope of heaven, and her trust in God’s sovereignty.

However, she had a tendency to indulge her surviving three children, and encouraged the development of their potential in music, instead of their faith in the Lord. She got them to be apprenticed to the best music teachers, at considerable cost in London. She focused on their gifts, and not so much the Giver.

Her lifestyle subsequently brought disrepute to Charles’ ministry, and hindered his work with the poor. However, she could not see the problem since she was brought up surrounded by relative luxury. In a sense, she “allowed herself to be moulded by the world as much as by the Word, as much by her culture as by Christ.”

3. Molly Wesley (wife of John)

She married John when he was 48 and she was 40, after being widowed and left with four children. Their marriage started out well, but soon cooled. John was a difficult husband who constantly travelled, never considered her needs or interests, criticised her children, and was unapologetic about writing letters to women that could be misconstrued. He always believed he was right, and felt that the demands of gospel ministry trumped all other responsibilities.

As the years went by and her troubles increased, instead of trusting in Christ and growing in godliness like Susanna, she grew increasingly bitter and vengeful. She tried to sow discord between her husband and his brother by accusing her husband of having an affair with Sally Wesley. When she died, John only found out a few days after her funeral.

4. Elizabeth Whitefield (wife of George)

George preached to some ten million people in his lifetime, but he was not a particularly caring husband. Both were devastated when their first baby died at four months old, and Elizabeth had to live through the pain of several miscarriages, and the fact that her final pregnancy resulted in a stillbirth.

Nonetheless, she was a woman with great courage, urging her husband to keeping going, though stones were being hurled at him as he preached. She accompanied him on a treacherous eleven-week voyage from Plymouth to New Hampshire, and was left for long periods alone to run an orphanage that was always in desperate need of funds.

She could have become resentful, but she supported her husband and made herself as useful as she could. She became seriously ill in her later years, but still wrote that she was “highly favoured to be called a child of God”, and that she had the Great Jehovah “be afflicted in her afflictions, and to support me in and under all my trials”. What amazing faith.

5. Sarah Edwards (wife of Jonathan)

Sarah had an impressive lineage. Her grandfather was a preacher who founded the colony of Connecticut. Her father was a church minister that not only founded the town of New Haven, but also Yale University. Attractive and intelligent, she was always full of joyful faith, even as she managed eleven children, ran the household admirably and visited parishoners, without much help from her husband, who spent thirteen hours in his study daily.

Her priority was to bring her children up to love the Lord, and in this at least, she had the full support of her husband in this. Despite his many hours of study, Jonathan made the effort to spend time, once in a while, on long walks with each of his children individually.

When Jonathan was ousted by his congregation at age 47, Sarah ensured that their large family did not starve by selling handiwork. Soon after, they moved to serve with Native American Indians in harsh weather conditions. Although it could not have been easy being married to such an intense and sometimes absent man, Sarah did so with grace, and adapted to each challenge in her life with an unerring trust in God.

6. Selina, Countess of Huntington (wife of Theophilus)

Selina used every advantage of her high position in society to bring glory to God and further His kingdom. She shared the gospel with the aristocracy who were very resistent to true Christianity, held services for the servants, spoke of Christ when sending food to the needy in her estate, and had frequent evangelistic conversations with her gardeners and workmen.

Selina was no stranger to grief. Three of her seven children died before age 15, and she was widowed at the age of 39. Nonetheless, she had a strong personality. Her complaint to parliament about magistrates exhorting money from preachers resulted in the shamed magistrates having to return the money. Her complaint to the King George III about the Archbishop’s disreputable parties resulted in a public censure.

What impressed me most was that towards the end of some 40 years of tireless work for the gospel, she had used almost all her largesse for the ministry, even selling her jewels to build a chapel. She only kept 300 pounds for her funeral, and even gave that up when the need arose.

7. Mary Newton (wife of John)

Mary and John had the most beautiful marriage of all. And although they were never blessed with children, they were devoted to each other, and John counted Mary as the key motivation to keep his faith in trying times, especially during his seafaring days. In his youth, John seemed incapable of keeping himself out of trouble. But Mary was a gentle, steadfast support for her volatile husband. Her care enabled him to flourish and to serve. Without Mary’s support, one of the world’s best loved hymns, Amazing Grace, might never have been written by John.

Mary’s last two years were spent in great pain as she suffered from inoperable breast cancer. But her faith remained strong. What’s most touching is probably John’s tribute, that Mary was his “chief temporal blessing and the providential hinge upon which all the temporal events of my life have turned” and that she was “sent into the world to be my companion and to soften the rugged path of life”. Oh may that all of us have such loving marriages, till the very end!

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Ooh that got really long! But I really wanted to jot it down for my own record too, for easy future reference. ^_^

I think this book is really worth reading in its entirety. It also contains bible study questions with verse references at the end of every chapter, which makes it a good book to read in a woman’s group too.

Once again, the offer stands – happy to loan this book to those I get to meet.

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