“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.”
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.
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.