Clara Wetherald was born Clarissa L. Miller around 1849. While Clarissa Miller was a very popular name during this time period, Her husband John Wetherald was born in New York in 1842 to William Wetherald and Hannah Ferris. John’s father was born in England and immigrated to the U.S. It appears at some point in his family’s history they changed the spelling of their name from “Wetherell” or “Witherall” to “Wetherald.”
Sometime between John’s birth in 1842 and 1860 his family moved to Vienna, Genesee County, Michigan. On Apr. 5 1866, John F. and Clara Miller married in Genesee County, Michigan. John and Clara joining the Free Methodist Denomination around 1875 and prior to that both were serving in ministry within the Methodist Episcopal Denomination. When they joined the Free Methodist Denomination Clara would have only been 26 and had already been active in ministry for at least several years.
They also had their two daughters by this time. Henrietta born in 1868 and Mary born in 1872. So, in 1875 when Clara and John began their long and fruitful ministry as Free Methodist pastors they had a seven-year-old daughter and three-year-old daughter.
Imagine a 26-year-old mother, two young daughters, a husband who is a senior pastor and both of you are appointed as circuit riding preachers. At the 1890 General Conference Clara noted that she was never out of ministry longer than six months. So, throughout her life she balanced ministry, children and family while traveling around to small towns preaching, often without her husband as it would have required both of them to travel separately to meet the needs of all the churches on their circuit, and Clara alludes to this in her 1890 General Conference speech on ordaining women. She was only making at most a $100 year and could not get a free pass to ride the train because she wasn’t a senior pastor. Life was not easy. Yet, despite the struggles she clearly felt a calling to share her faith.
Her daughter Mary’s testimony (published in the April 11, 1888) Free Methodist describes the impact both her parents had on her life. For anyone who does archival research, finding Mary’s testimony was a goldmine. Until this account, Clara was nothing more than an intenerate preacher, but now she also became a wife and mother
Mary describes her parents as both Free Methodist pastors, giving them equal status in ministry. Her conversion at age twelve gives a glimpse of her parents’ roles in ministry and in family life:
“My folks were on the Hudson and Addison circuit, and I was permitted to be with them through a protracted meeting at Hudson. On evening mother had entreated sinners to turn to Christ. I arose and with the Lord’s help asked them too, and the Lord Almighty blessed me. Of course after sunshine the storm had to come, and the devil planned just right how to overthrow me, for it worked so. After church my father stepped up to me and said he was very sorry I had done as I had; I was too forward for one so young, and the Devil said: ‘Well, there’ if a Christian thinks so what does the sinner think?’ I went with it to mother, and she told me it was the enemy trying to overthrow me; that she knew and felt that I had the Spirit with me, but Satan suggested a great many things and I gave up in despair and served the devil faithfully for three years the most of the time.”
Mary goes on to note that her parents sent her to Gerry Seminary in New York to attend classes with her sister Henrietta “Etta.” It was her parents’ hope that Christian education would help her turn back to her faith. Mary was stubborn and didn’t give in to the wishes of the teachers or even her sister. However, she notes she could never refuse her mother. Clara wrote to her daughter regularly urging her to return to her faith and one letter in particular touched Mary’s heart. “On February 7, I received a letter from my dear mother and she felt terribly over the way I was doing; but I stood that. On Thursday, February 9, I received another letter from her that completely overcame me, and I took it to Mrs. Henning, one of the teachers, and told her all about it, and wanted her to be my mother the rest of the term and to tell me when I did not do right.” Mary gave and describes the Lord “pouring a blessing” upon her. In the Methodist and Free Methodist tradition there is a belief in entire sanctification, and Mary’s experience at Gerry Seminary falls into this category. She was saved at twelve but strayed and when she finally gave up her own will she was able to experience the full power of God. If one is sanctified they are not free from sin but are more able to resist it and able to discern the Holy Spirit in a way that other believers might not be able to. Entire sanctification is a tricky process to explain. Perhaps, the easiest way is it was a two-step system. You could be saved and not sanctified but as a good Methodist you wanted that entire sanctification so you could live a holy Christian life. As John Wesley noted “Christian perfection or sanctification as the elimination of all intentional sin, which he believed to be attainable in this life. However, by sin Wesley does not mean any unintentional wrongdoing but a ‘voluntary transgression of a known law’ of God” (Works of John Wesley, 11:396).
Just as important as Mary’s sanctification is the role her parents played in her life. John Wetherald, while a good preacher, appears to be the teacher in the family. Whereas Clara, appears to have a gift of prophesy, continually pushing her daughter to reform and leading successful Spirit-filled revivals. John tells Mary not to tempt the devil, but Clara seems to encourage her daughter to engage in battle with the devil and beat him. She believed her daughter had a strong spiritual calling and even when Mary refused to follow her mother’s advice she never gave up on her. As a couple John and Clara balanced out each other’s spiritual gifts, and as parents they showed great sympathy and care for their children.
Clara Wetherald is no longer just a name in conference minutes or a random speaker at a Free Methodist General Conference. She and John are now multidimensional people who lived challenging, busy lives in fulfillment of what they felt called to do.
I am so thankful I now know a little bit more about who Clara Wetherald really was.