Clara Leffingwell was born in 1862 in New York. The youngest of ten children, her mother died when she was very young, and she was raised by two of her older sisters. In her biography Clara Leffingwell: A Missionary, written by Walter Sellew, she is described as a very devote, spiritually sensitive child. Sellew, who is the bishop who wrote “Why Not?” in favor of ordaining women, is attempting to create a picture of Clara as a woman of faith. While there is some literary license in the biography, Clara’s story is remarkable and humbling. As a single woman, by around age twenty (1886), she had an evangelist license in the Free Methodist Church she was preaching everywhere she could. As Sellew notes, women who were granted an evangelist license were not guaranteed a salary or a church.
However, eventually she was stationed at the Davis Free Methodist church in West Virginia and she threw herself whole-heartedly into her ministry. By the time her appointment was ending in West Virginia she had preached so much she was loosing her voice. Yet, Clara’s goal wasn’t to be a female itinerant preacher forever. Her mission had always been to go to China and share the gospel. When the Free Methodist Church told her they had no money to establish a mission in China she joined Hudson Taylor’s China Inland Mission in 1895 and served with the mission until her furlough in 1903. When she returned she spoke at the 1903 General Conference and raised enough support to establish a Free Methodist mission in China with eight other missionaries. Clara traveled around the United States for two years raising funds for the new mission before returning to China in early 1905. She worked herself into a state of exhaustion establishing the new mission and died July of 1905 from dysentery. She is the forgotten founder of Free Methodist missions in China. During her life she crossed paths with other notable women such as Emma Sellew-Roberts at Chili Seminary. Chili Seminary was known for training young men and women who would pursue careers in missions, and Sellew-Roberts was also active in the early Free Methodist Women’s Mission Society. One of the most remarkable elements of Clara’s story is her time as an itinerant preacher in the United States. While most of her adult life was spent in China, I’m attracted to this part of her narrative because this is where my research is currently focused. Studying women’s impact on Free Methodist missions would be another five years or more of research just to begin to document their influence on the denomination’s outreach efforts.
Sellew’s inclusion of Clara’s early ministry ties directly into his push for the denomination to realize the hardships women itinerant ministers endured and to grant them ordination as deacons and then hopefully as elders. As he notes, Clara was extremely sensitive to criticism and being a female pastor she encountered rude comments and resistance from people as she tried to share her faith. Sellew recounts Clara’s writings on the issue of women preachers:
“Consider the difficulties they must encounter, prejudice (being judged and usually condemned before they are heard), lack of faith in their calling, lack of confidence in their ability and other things; till they can hardly keep afloat. How can they successfully contend with strong opposition, though it may not be expressed in word? Even Jesus, in some places, was hindered from doing many mighty works because of their unbelief in Him. God is calling young women to home and to foreign fields. May none of them be lost to the work through needless opposition! There are enough unavoidable difficulties. It is for us to make straight paths lest that which is lame be turned out of service,” (56-57).
These prophetic words foreshadow the difficulties Free Methodist women and other evangelical women would face in the coming decades and still face today to gain acceptance for their ministry. While Clara was clearly called to China and had a successful ministry there, I can’t help but wonder if the strains and resistance of American Christians to women pastors encouraged her to leave for China sooner rather than later. Too often the only ministerial role open to women in the nineteenth century was the mission field. While the Free Methodists did grant women evangelist licenses, this did not guarantee them an income or a church. As Clara’s story illustrates she had to find other employment, teaching and preaching in the evenings and weekends, to subsidize her time of ministry in the United States. Sellew’s chapter on the life of Free Methodist female itinerant preachers is one of the most honest accounts I’ve found about the hardships these women endured. While China wasn’t an easy job, Clara seemed to enjoy it, forming deep connections with the Chinese people and quickly picking up Chinese (which is no easy task). Clara Leffingwell was a woman of action and vision. Like Emma Ray, Ida Gage, Clara Wetherald and Emma Sellew-Roberts she should not be forgotten.
PDF File of Sellew’s Book on Clara Leffingwell (Well Worth the Read):Clara_Leffingwell_a_missionary