Clara Wetherald was a gifted preacher and evangelist conducting revivals from coast to coast and turning thousands to Christ under her ministry. Her brother Frank Miller was led to Christ through her ministry and noted the massive impact of her work in her obituary. Ida Gage was also a gifted evangelist who preached in both Ohio and Michigan and also traveled to Colorado to hold revivals. She was responsible for establishing numerous church plants across Ohio during the early years of the Ohio conference.
Both Gage and Wetherald were exceptional women, and while female evangelists were not uncommon in nineteenth century Free Methodist culture, they both found a way to move beyond the classification of a simple evangelist to nationally (Wetherald) and regionally (Gage) known revivalists.
Women evangelists during this time period were viewed as workers who could blaze new territory for the denomination. They would travel to small towns and hold revivals, after establishing a significant number of converts, an ordained male elder would come and take over the newly established churches. The work of women evangelists was tough. As Gage notes when she moved to Bowling Green, Ohio, to establish a church the work was difficult. In a report she sent in to the Feb. 1, 1893 Free Methodist Gage remarks, “We came to this point from conference, looking for victory and we have had it. Bless God! The work is on the up grade. We held seven weeks of meetings, when I first came, did more sowing than reaping. God has opened our way. We have a large hall on Main Street and our meetings are blessed with the presence of the King.”
The difficulty of itinerant preaching often wore down even the strongest men, so it was important for women evangelists such as Gage and Wetherald to emphasize that they were just as capable of men to endure the physical hardships of traveling constantly. Gage reports in March 6, 1895, Free Methodist that she had been traveling and holding revival meetings for fifteen straight weeks. Skeptics of women evangelists clearly could not use either woman as examples of feminine weakness. Both worked tirelessly to preach the gospel.
However, to gain acceptance for their ministry both Wetherald and Gage had to find a way to gain acknowledgment in the male-dominated field of preaching. They both could argue intelligently and persuasively in support of their ministries, and Wetherald’s invitation to preach two sermons at the 1890 General Conference illustrates the respect she had gained from many of her male counterparts.
Wetherald’s second sermon at the 1890 General Conference was preached on Oct. 14, 1890, and serves as a powerful example of her intellect and ability to craft a persuasive rhetorical argument regarding women’s place in the church. Her sermon topic was on the concept of women’s silence.
The scripture passage was 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, “Let your women keep silence in the churches, for it is not permitted unto them to speak…”
As Wetherald explains we often say we must follow every passage of scripture to the letter, yet some passages are always emphasized more than others. As her message progresses she uses the example Pentecost and how women and men were both anointed by the Holy Spirit and were preaching and speaking in tongues (Acts 1 & 2). As Wetherald points out both men and women were speaking- women weren’t remaining silent in sharing their faith. Additionally, while Paul notes in I Corinthians that women were to remain silent a few verses prior there is a passage that also commands everyone to remain silent if they are speaking in tongues and an interpreter isn’t present (I Corinthians 14:28). Thus, the advice was not restricted to women alone, but to anyone who was disturbing the order of the service and preventing the message to be heard. Wetherald continues her argument by noting that in Philippians Paul entreats believers to help women and other laborers who have followed him (Philippians 4:3).
Wetherald goes on to note every controversial passage that could possibly restrict women from preaching including the passage about women asking their husbands at home and remaining silent in the church (I Corinthians 14:35). She refers to commentary of the popular Methodist theologian Dr. Clarke explaining that the issue of remaining silent referred to the abuse of their liberties and asking improper questions in public meetings. The order for silence was meant to control the crowd, not restrict a specific gender from participation.
Wetherald ends her sermon with an eloquent plea to allow women a voice and a place in ministry:
“The time has been when women did not occupy the position God designed that she should, and only as the light prevails does she arise to her noble and exalted place. I pray that she may never misuse her privileges. God only knows how much opposition is met by a woman in her work for souls. Only those do know who have passed through it. It is required consecration for me to answer to the call God gave me in this direction. I had never heard of a woman who preached, and supposed the only way to work for God was as a preacher’s wife. I therefore gave up marrying a farmer to whom I was engaged and married a minister of the gospel that I might give my life to the work of God. God has showed his approval of my course by giving me hundreds of souls as seals to my ministry.”
There were only two women delegates at the 1890 General Conference – Wetherald of East Michigan and Anna Grant of North Indiana. Only a few individuals were asked to preach sermons in the evenings at General Conference. Usually several different preachers preached at various locations in the area, but Wetherald was asked to preach twice. A rare occurrence for a woman and an indication of the great respect she had in the denomination. Additionally, J.G. Terrill, the editor of the 1890 General Conference Dailies, repeatedly referred readers to the remarks of Wetherald as examples of excellent speeches and responses. Terrill did not always agree with Wetherald, but he respected her enough to point out her speeches several times in the paper. Thus, Wethereald had found a way to pass and gain acceptance in a male dominated field. The men might disagree with her, but they respected her views and her ability to articulate them in an intelligent manner. A few years later at the 1894 General Conference Ida Gage takes up the fight that Wetherald had passed on to her. Granted, this next statement is speculation, but after 1891 Wetherald’s ministry reports disappear in The Free Methodist, and with her husband divorcing and remarrying by 1897 it can be assumed that family issues kept her close to home for a few years and out of ministry. However, Gage takes up where she left off , having gained the respect of leaders in the Ohio Conference and been elected a delegate to the 1894 General Conference where she continued the push for women’s ordination.
Both Gage and Wetherald engaged in a complicated rhetorical battle where since they were in the minority they had to pacify their male collogues that weren’t too radical, while at the same time respectfully challenging their opinions of women in ministry. While their quest for ordination was ultimately lost (until 1974), their efforts illustrate that women could pass in male dominated fields and were capable of engaging in fruitful ministries that lasted several decades. They could not easily be discounted or ignored when they had a voice.