John and Clara Wetherald’s Last Years of Life and Ministry

“But now you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life” (Romans 6:22 ESV).  The Rev. F.J. Calkins from the East Michigan Free Methodist Conference stands in front of a crowd of mourners reciting the verse from Romans. He is conducting for John Wetherald’s funeral service. It’s 1902. John passed away on October 12.  His final years were filled with heartbreak, financial difficulties, health issues and divorce.  Calkins wrote John Wetherald’s obit and notes “On account of financial embarrassment and throat troubles Brother Wetherald dropped out of regular work and finally apostatized and was dropped from church and conference.”

John Wetherald's Grave Stone in Pine Run Cemetery in Clio, Michigan

For those not familiar with the term apostatized it means to turn from one’s faith. John abandoned Christianity and his call to ministry in the Free Methodist Church. He married a Sarah Buell in 1897. Eventually he did repent and returned to the church as a member, but never a pastor.

John Wetherald spent much of his life married to Clara Wetherald. First the two served in the Methodist Episcopal Church and then joined the Free Methodist Church in 1875. They had a successful ministry across Michigan, planting churches and hosting numerous revivals. In Wetherald’s obit Calkin gives him credit for leading many young men into ministry. Yet, about seven years after Clara Wetherald spoke passionately about women’s ordination at the 1890 Free Methodist General Conference something fell apart in the marriage. It’s clear that they divorced. John’s obit reads like a sinner who returns to fold right before he dies, and Clara’s obit reads like a saint who was a prophetic preacher and gifted evangelist, it’s fairly clear that most of the fault or at least the initiation of the divorce was by John who remarried in 1897. It will be difficult to ever find official divorce records for the Wetheralds since their divorce was so early, and in Michigan, where the divorce most likely occurred, divorce records are spotty before 1898.

So, now I’m researching two Free Methodist female evangelists who both ended up divorced. I don’t think this is a coincidence. In fact, this is a remarkable breakthrough. More research is emerging on the incredible lives of women itinerant ministers who emerged for a variety of denominational backgrounds. These women were living in a time period where women’s roles were clearly defined to the domestic sphere, and if they wanted to serve God they were expected to engage in charitable endeavors.

Yet, Clara, Ida, and countless other women like them broke this mold. They were called by God to be preachers and this required them to spend long periods of time traveling, separated from spouses and children. It was not an easy life and it isn’t difficult to see why divorce and family issues would arise from such situations. Ida had an unbelieving husband who didn’t understand her call. Clara and John were split traveling a circuit that had usually several churches. They were working together, yet apart in ministry. In terms of celebrity Clara also clearly out shined John. She was asked to preach at revivals from coast to coast. In an era where this was highly unusual, you can begin to see the problems that could arise in their marriage. However, we shouldn’t look at Ida and Clara’s divorces as discrediting their ministry and impact. We all make mistakes; we all are fallen human beings. If anything, their struggles make their triumphs in ministry and their devotion to their calling even more remarkable. They were fighting against cultural roles and stereotypes that opposed them at every turn.

Lakeside Cemetery in Holly, Michigan (Resting place of Clara Wetherald)

It is also interesting to note how both Ida and Clara’s children sided with their mothers in the domestic issues. Ida’s daughters followed her as she moved to Michigan to work at Spring Arbor Seminary and then to California. Her daughters were both married by that time, but clearly their husbands also wanted to say close to Ida and the rest of the family. Clara’s daughters were with her when she died and are buried with her in Holly, Michigan. There was a deep connection to their children, which is another illustration of the spiritual impact and love they had for their families. Ida and Clara traveled and were away from home quite a bit, but as Mary Wetherald’s testimony in the 1888 Free Methodist illustrates her mother always wrote her letters and encouraged her to follow Christ. Perhaps the greatest testimony to Clara’s faith is her obit, written by her brother Rev. Frank A Miller.

Miller explains that Clara was called at a young age to ministry. “Her life was crowded with two-fold work from her girlhood, when at sixteen years she began preaching the gospel, and most of her life doing her housework as wife and mother.” Note that even though Clara was a dynamic preacher, even her brother begins her obit illustrating her domestic virtues. Even in death Clara couldn’t escape the two worlds she had been caught between her entire life –ministry and domesticity.  Yet, her brother doesn’t continue along this line and moves on to a story of Clara pleading with God to save her father. As her brother notes she told God “If he would save her wicked father she would do the work of two people as long as she lived.” God answered and her prayer and she lived up to her promise, preaching revivals coast to coast. Her brother and most of her family was living in California when Clara died August 8, 1921. Her brother credits his conversion and call to ministry to Clara’s testimony and remarks that, “thousands turned to Christ under her ministry.” She was a woman, who despite marital problems, yet still had a vibrant ministry.

As an archival researcher, I’ve experienced many “serendipity” moments over the past two months related to Clara and Ida. However, finding out that Clara and John divorced was something I didn’t want to find. Yet, I will not hide what is historic fact. We often paint church leaders as saints who lived a life without problems. If they did have problems, they overcame them. Acknowledging that we all struggle and we all sometimes fail, paints an honest portrait of who these women were and the struggles they faced as they tried to fulfill their duty as mother, spouse, and preacher.  I want to just briefly thank all the amazing Free Methodist conference historians, and FM archivists who have helped me uncover these women’s stories. Without their help I don’t know if I would have found the information about Clara and John’s divorce. I didn’t want to find it, but that’ the struggle with scholarship. I have to put aside my own hopes and vision of what these women were and discover who they actually were. There still is much to discover and blog about, but the information I have found on these two women in just two months time astounds me.

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6 thoughts on “John and Clara Wetherald’s Last Years of Life and Ministry

  1. Christy,

    I appreciate your recognition that it is in our weakness that God does his work. Over the years I’ve found that as I am vulnerable in my own spiritual journey, that others can be honest about theirs. Then, out of our weakness, we can find the strength and grace of God to help us be whole and healthy.

    Your work is valuable in helping us understand the pressures that, as you’ve said in the past, continue to be on the women God has called to be ministers. It is a pressure that has unique components we as a church must identify and mitigate in so far as we are able.

    Denny

    1. Denny,
      Thank you for the lovely comments. I agree that it is through our weakness that God does his work. In much of my research on current gender issues in Christian culture I see this fear to admit we are wrong or have problems and this prevents us from seeking help and realizing that it isn’t shameful to have issues. I, too, hope the church can continue to improve and find ways to help people dealing with brokenness.

  2. Do you think the divorces would have been less likely if these women had been busy at home as the New Testament apostles require? I think you’ve drawn some interesting conclusions from the divorces and wonder if there could be a connection more along the lines of what I’m saying. An honest question…

    1. Matthew,
      A good question. Although, this comes back to Biblical interpretation on divorce. I do plan over the next month to write another article about early Free Methodist debates in the denominational publication on divorce. However, I think an interesting question to ask is how do you tell someone they can’t be called to ministry because of their gender? Both Clara and Ida led many people to Christ. Ida even influenced both her grandson and one of her son-in-laws to go into ministry. I think an underlying issue to this article that I didn’t really get into is “Do we, as human beings, truly understand the call of God.” I would never want to question or restrict someone from responding to God’s command based on class, gender or race.

      I do appreciate diverse opinions on the blog; glad someone of a different theological background enjoys reading about these women and topics, too.

      1. I’m not sure my question hinges at all on a certain interpretation of divorce. Interpretations on divorce have a major effect on remarriage, status in the church after the fact, etc. Those are issues after the divorce. My question, however, has to do with what led up to the divorce.

        No doubt, the situations were complex and it would be impossible to pin down one cause but one has to wonder if God would have blessed the marriages if they had better followed the biblical model for husbands and wives. This doesn’t have anything to do with any doctrinal position on divorce unless someone is prepared to defend divorce as positive or neutral. I can tell from your post that you aren’t doing that. Clearly the divorces have grieved you. So… I still suspect that embracing God’s creation order for the sexes would have resulted in greater happiness and less tension in these marriages. It would have been particularly difficult in Ida’s case because of her unbelieving husband but it did her no good to rebel herself just because her husband lacked faith.

        Lastly, I’d say of course some good things came from these women. I don’t know anyone from any theological persuasion who would deny that. God is gracious. We should not continue to sin that grace may abound, though.

  3. Matthew- I wanted to respond to your comment from a purely secular stance. I did my Thesis/Capstone Project for my Undergraduate Degree on the topic of divorce, more specially the direct effects divorce has on the adult parties involved.

    Throughout my research I encountered numerous theories as to what led up to the true root cause of the divorce, and I must agree they are to many differing views to even pin to one gender or the other. It seems that neither gender is more at cause than the other, and with all the varying situations and scenarios it is limitless as to what can be definitively cited as a root cause of divorce.

    Your question as to whether women fulfilling their “new testament” duties would limit or lower the divorce rate, I would address as such:

    Of course we will all lived according to God’s plan for us life would in theory be simpler and more enjoyable. (I only say in theory because of the world we live in, and the fact that it is only becoming harder and harder to be a Christian in today’s world.) At the same point I must ask, what if God’s plan for women is to be in ministry? I do not see any reasoning as to why a woman could not effectively share God’s word just as a man. Couldn’t a man fulfilling his duties to his wife, suffer the same issues that could lead to divorce?

    I found the most common cited causes of divorce were economically, socially, or another reason (not religious based). From my personal point of view(take it as you please), I would say that while the religious factor might play an issue there are larger issues at play that are more commonly referred to as the reason behind the divorce.

    I know we all have gifts that God calls us to use, and I wouldn’t discourage any woman who feels the call to ministry to be discouraged simply due to her gender. (Obviously God has a plan in mind)

    God Bless-Kellye

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