New feature: The 1890 Debate on Ordaining Women is now posted under the Debates on Women in Ministry Page. It can be downloaded in PDF, Kindle or epub formats.
When I began my blog in May 2010 I began it as research tool. I really didn’t expect to get many readers. I was writing for myself and to help process my thoughts and ideas as I worked. Perhaps, my family would read it out of pity for me and say “Good job, great post,” but getting anyone outside of immediate family and a few close friends as readers wasn’t something I envisioned. Yet, this blog has evolved beyond simply a place to post my thoughts and new research finds. I actually have readers (scary), and I have to be accountable to them and share corrections to my research as I go along.
What I am doing for my dissertation is intensive, original archival research on two early Free Methodist women evangelists – Clara Wetherald and Ida Gage. When I began researching these women a year ago I knew next to nothing on them. The only thing I knew was that Clara Wetherald was one of the first women delegates ever appointed in the Free Methodist Church to the 1890 General Conference, and that Ida Gage had a very sassy and moving defense of her ministry at the 1894 General Conference. What I have found out in a year about these two women is mind blowing. Thanks to help from descendants of both women I have been able to construct their narratives and better understand how their personal lives affected, helped, and at times hindered their ministries. I suppose I could go back through and update all my past posts on these two women. However, I’m working on my dissertation proposal right now, and I don’t have the time. So, I’m going to just list below the new pieces of information I’ve uncovered in the last month on these two remarkable women.
Ida and Charles Gage separated around 1900 before Ida went to the Cleveland area to work for the Free Methodist Church. I had speculated that Ida and Charles were not a good match, and that Charles was most likely not a Christian and not supportive of his wife’s ministry. I now know that Charles was illiterate and Ida a former school teacher. So, intellectually they were not equal, and I do feel that probably put some strain on their marriage.
Additionally, Free Methodist preachers were never stationed more than two to three years at the same location during this time period. So, Charles constantly was looking for new work as a manual laborer every time Ida received a new appointment. However, two things I have found that I was wrong about. First, Ida left Charles and was the one that filed for divorce approximately 10 years after they separated. She had met her soon to be second husband Rev. Jesse Wood, who was about the age of Ida’s mother and was blind. She wanted to marry Jesse and with the help of Jesse’s son who was a lawyer secured the divorce. Second, Charles, according to family history, did drive Ida around to her various ministry appointments and was helpful in keeping the church in good order wherever Ida was stationed. So, Charles deserves a bit more leniency than I first gave him.
I am still uncovering information about Clara Wetherald, but the more I find out about her the more I realize she was a force to reckoned with and was a nationally known evangelist. Clara divorced John Wetherald around 1892 to marry a Le Grand Buell. According to a New York Times article from 1895 Clara wrote an article in the regional newspaper (still trying to find that article right now) justifying her divorce from John. She wanted to marry Le Grand to help him overcome alcoholism. She didn’t succeed and he died in 1895. The New York Times noted that she was preaching her second husband’s funeral sermon in the Methodist Episcopal Church in Holly, Michigan. She created quite a sensation for the time period. To have her divorce and the death of her second husband noted in The New York Times is testimony of how well known she was and how controversial some of her personal decisions were. It also explains why I can’t find her in The Free Methodist magazine after 1891.
Clara married again in 1900 to a Rev. Edward Harbridge and remained married to him until her death in 1921.
As I uncovered this information I could hear the male-headship supporters screaming in my head, “See what happens when women leave the home and try to do a job they aren’t called to do!” I know I’m never going to convince that crowd that these women were amazing, Spirit-filled women who had dynamic and successful ministries. Frankly, I’m not even going to try to convince them.
As I’ve noted before people make mistakes. We are all human beings, but our ministry and our lives should not be overlooked because of a few mistakes we made. These women were foundational in establishing the Free Methodist Church in Michigan and Ohio, and were famous evangelists for their time period. Clara traveled coast to coast to preach, and Ida noted that she would travel for fifteen weeks at a time to hold revival meetings. As a rhetorical historian, both women’s narratives illustrate that they did not fit the mold for the era they lived in. They frankly weren’t cut out for marriage. Yet, marriage was what was expected of them, and it only brought them heartache and trouble to their ministry.
They were ahead of their time, and in a different age where women working outside the home and in ministry was more the norm I think they wouldn’t have faced quite as many hurdles. Don’t get me wrong; I think they would still have had personal problems, but perhaps not as many. I also think they were the forbearer to Aimee Semple McPherson whom also had troubled marriages and a successful ministry. McPherson was the founder of the Foursquare Church and an early pioneer in using the media as an evangelistic tool.
We remember Aimee because her ministry was during the age of the radio. Both Clara and Ida preached in an era of newspapers. Thus, their impact is easier to overlook and forget and much harder to piece together. They didn’t have the flash and widespread media documentation that McPherson had, but I firmly believe that their ministries were just as vibrant, which is why I’m devoting my dissertation to them and their fight for recognition of their ministries.