Women’s defense of their ministry in the 1890 Free Methodist

The debate continued in The Free Methodist over the next four years, in the May 1890 issue Clara Wetherald wrote a two page defense of her ministry and a woman’s right to be part of the denomination’s governing body. Wetherald, who would go on to become one of the denomination’s first seated female delegates at the 1890 General Conference, noted in her article “Shall Women be Ordained?” that at prior conferences women were not allowed to speak until the delegates voted her approval and that men who were not members of the denomination were allowed to be seated while women were not. Wetherald points out “I think the great difficulty is that man is not satisfied to be the head as God has designed him, but he seems to aspire to be being neck and arms, and in fact the whole body, and monopolize the whole seat of authority.” (p.2) She goes on to compare the plight of women and their pursuit of gender equality with the plight of the slave who was oppressed because of the color his or her skin. Wetherald concludes her article with a quote from African-American suffragist Sojourner Truth whom Wetherald refers to as “a colored lady and a preacher” (p.2). She notes, “In speaking on women’s rights she [Truth] said, ‘Men need not make such a fuss about women having anything to do in the church, for it was God and a woman that produced for the world a Savior and man had nothing to do with it’.” (p. 2). Wetherald’s defense of women in ministry was published at a crucial time as delegates were preparing to attend conference later that fall. Her piece was published at the request of her local conference in eastern Michigan after she had presented it in April at a Flint District Ministerial Association meeting.

The October 1, 8, and 22, 1890 editions of The Free Methodist also included pleas from women ministers to vote in favor of their ordination. A W.B.M. Colt published a historical defense of women in Christian leadership positions from the first century church in the October 1 and 8 editions entitled “Why Not?”. Roberts’ daughter in law, Emma Sellew Roberts followed up Colt’s article in the October 22 edition with an article entitled “Help it On!.” Sellew Roberts was a well respected woman leader in the denomination who served as co-principal with her husband Benson Roberts at Chesbrough Seminary in New York.  She was also a college educated woman who had both a bachelor and masters degree from Cornell University (Snyder, 2006). Sellew Robert’s article draws attention to the fact that the Methodists, Congregationalists and other denominations had already voted to ordain women by this time. However, she notes that within the Free Methodist denomination prejudices still ran high:

Many women among us are filling the pulpits with acceptability, but many more living in less favorable quarters have a message on their soul, to proclaim which no opportunity is given. They still cling to the church whose principles they espouse. Every Sunday they are found at church listening, perhaps to an attempt at preaching, made by one not especially gifted or blessed. They attend camp meetings, speak words of power in exhortation and testimony, but their call to ministry and preaching ability are entirely ignored. (p.2)

The push by prominent Free Methodist leaders prior to and during the 1890 conference (held during October when Sellew Roberts’ and Colt’s articles were published) illustrates the desire of many of its founding members for complete gender equality. In spite of this desire by key leaders, the denomination was a democracy not an autocracy. Thus, the decision to ordain women had to be made by the denomination as a whole and not its founders.

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