19th century Free Methodist women lay leaders and pastors have become more than a rhetorical history project for me. They have become my friends. I want to sit down with Eliza Suggs and Emma Ray and over a cup of tea discuss temperance issues and entire sanctification. I want to talk to Ellen Roberts and Emma Sellew Roberts about what it was like to edit religious periodicals in the 19th century, and I want to talk to Clara Wetherald about what it was like to be a wife, mother, and circuit riding preacher in the mid 1800s. Out of all these women Clara Wetherald holds me most captivate. She is the most elusive of the group, having been left out of many of denominational histories. Yet, both she and her husband John Wetherald were founders of the Northern Michigan Free Methodist conference with Benjamin Titus Roberts’ (the denomination’s founder) cousin Septer Roberts.
I was first drawn to Clara after reading a portion of her defense on ordaining women at the 1890 Free Methodist General Conference, by this time Clara had been a senior pastor without the official recongition for 24 years. First she was a licensed evangelist in the Methodist Episcopal Denomination and her husband, John, a senior pastor in the Methodist Church. The 1875 Michigan Free Methodist Annual Conference granted them the same status in the Free Methodist Church, which was common at that time. She was only 26 when she joined the Free Methodist denomination as a licensed evangelist (born approximately 1849).
Clara’s prophetic nature and frustration at serving so long in ministry all over Michigan, and being one of only two women delegates to the 1890 conference, is evident in a speech she gave October 16, 1890 to the other delegates about women’s ordination:
“Let women be considered in the matter. They say woman is not adapted to the regular ministry. I think she peculiarly fitted to care for souls. I remember reading of a man out in the Rocky Mountains who, when a part of his flock of sheep were missing at night, chose from his shepherd dogs, the one that must leave her puppies. The night was dark and the sheep were astray in the mountains, but the master said, ‘She will never come back till she finds them.’ She came back in the morning, weary and foot-sore, but she brought the lambs. As she dropped down beside her little ones and almost instantly feel asleep while they were nursing, every eye moistened with tears. I know we have responsibilities that others do not have; and I think of all others we should have the support of the church. I do not see why the heavens should fall and everything be turned bottom side up if five elders should lay their hands on my head and say ‘Take them authority to preach the word and to administer the holy sacrament in the congregation.’ (1890 General Conference Daily, p. 171).
By 1890 Clara had two daughters – Henrietta (Etta) and Mary. Her daughter Mary was married in 1889, and Clara was about 41 at the time of this speech. She knew better than anyone what it meant to travel a circuit and leave her daughters to serve in ministry.
Her speech gains significance as I uncover more about her ministry and family life. She had been balancing home life, ministry and children for years and knew first hand what it mean to sacrifice for the gospel. Yet, her ministry has largely been forgotten and only through piecing together the small fragments of her life that remain can her ministry and her family be put into the large context of women’s involvement within the early Free Methodist Church. What is most exciting about Clara’s ministry is that it had been assumed that women were in traveling circuits where men were not available to minister –relegated to the frontiers of Free Methodism. Clara’s ministry shows otherwise. Both her and her husband served in the Michigan Conference for years. Michigan was one of the most vibrant and fast growing conferences (the 1884 Michigan Annual Conference minutes estimate membership at about 1,000).
So, who was Clara Wetherald? What sort of ministry did she have and how do her sermons, editorials in The Free Methodist magazine and ministry reports help shed light on the larger (and largely overlooked) rhetorical influence of women in Free Methodist culture? Over the next few posts we will go on a journey to find Clara Wetherald.
Clara and John F. Wetherald’s Ministry in FM Church up to 1890 (all locations are in Michigan)
1875 – Prior to 1875 they had been in Methodist Episcopal Church John F. Wetherald came in as an ordained elder because he was an ordained elder in the Methodist Episcopal Church, appointed to Hadley Free Methodist Circuit. Clara L. Wetherald “for several years a preacher in the Methodist Church, was licensed as an evangelist”– Minutes of 1875 Michigan Annual Conference (soon to be Northern Michigan Conference)
1876 John F. Wetherald to be appointed by Superintendent to began working in and around Lapeer in Hadley circuit and Pleasant View (Woods. p. 214)
1877 Both John and Clara co-appointed to Farrandville and Forrest/church planting in Clio, Michigan (Woods,p.84)
1878 Co-appointed to the Linden and Holly Circuit (74).
1879-1880 John F. Wetherald appointed to Holly in Pontiac District, North Michigan Conference
1881 John F. Wetherald located at his own request in the North Michigan Conference(they are lost from 1881-1883) (possibly stayed home with young children, illness or engaged in some other form of ministry during those years)
1884 John and Clara L. Wetherald appointed Michigan Conference, Spring Arbor District to Napoleon, Jefferson and Hudson. Clara preached at the Michigan Conference that year.
(They are lost again 1885-1886)
1887-1888 John and Wife (Clara) appointed to the South Lyon and Milford Circuit
1888-1891 J.F. Wetherald and Clara Traveling Evangelists for Eastern Michigan in 1889
1890 Annual Conference for East Michigan – Clara Wetherald and Abby Porterfield (traveling evangelists, ministers on trial) ( the women where invited to honorary seats at the conference). This move was possibly in hopes that the 1890 conference would ordain women and East Michigan was taken a stance prior to General Conference on the issue.
Woods, Dale. (Ed.).Eastern Michigan’s Great Adventure: A History of the East Michigan Conference and of the Free Methodist Church 1884-1984. Indianapolis, IN: Light and Life Press, 1984.