No one can ever accuse Clara Wetherald of living a boring life. From start to finish, her family narrative is filled with fascinating accounts – some true and some exaggerated. She was born Clara Miller June 20, 1849, in Erie County, Pennsylvania. Her parents, Esther and Harvey Miller, moved to Michigan when she was three.
Clara had three other siblings, older brother and sister Sarah Miller and Commodore Perry Miller and a younger brother Frank Miller. Her parents’ marriage was rocky, and both Frank and Clara in later writings call their father “a wicked man.” This was probably due to the fact that Harvey Miller was far from a faithful father. In 1862 Esther and Harvey Miller divorced. The cause listed in the court filing was Harvey Miller’s adultery. Clara was about thirteen.
After the divorce Harvey left Michigan and moved to Missouri . Prior to moving to Missouri he married Margaret Lloyd and over the course of their marriage they had three children. According to Clara’s brother Frank, her father’s wickedness was what led Clara into ministry. She begged God to save him and then she would devote her life to saving others. According to Frank, Harvey was saved before his death, and Clara started preaching at the age of sixteen.
Harvey was no saint. He was killed in Missouri about 1865. All the Miller children have their own version of Harvey’s death, but one thing they all agree on is that the Jesse James gang killed their father. The facts vary a bit from story to story.
In her mother’s obituary in 1903 Clara retells the story:
“She [Esther] was married when sixteen years of age to Harvey P. Miller, who was killed by the ‘James boys’ in Missouri about 1865. The cause of the shooting of one who had harmed no one there, or who the assassins where, remained a mystery until the confession of Frank James, several years ago, gave the name as among the victims of their strange hate of all ‘Union’ men, and the mystery of twenty-five or more years was explained.” Harvey took three months to die from his gun shot wounds and was buried in Missouri.
In contrast to their father, Esther Miller is portrayed as a saint. She was a strong, Christian who raised all four of her children to follow her example. Every single one of the Miller children – Sarah, Perry, Clara and Frank engaged in ministry. Sarah, Perry and Clara were preachers and Frank worked with the Children’s Evangelistic Union in California and also preached. At the time of her death, Esther Miller was a Free Methodist and Clara’s sister Sarah (Miller) Smith was an evangelist in the Free Methodist Church.
As I’ve read through the family papers Clara’s dramatic style of writing continues to come through. She often underlined things for emphasis and does not shy away from leaning towards the dramatic. Even in her mother’s obituary it wasn’t enough to say she was a good, Christian woman. Clara had to elaborate a bit:
“In Marbletown, N.Y., when eighteen, and although her eldest son was less than six months old, was baptized by immersion through the ice, which was broken for the purpose. For fifty years she lived a devoted Christian life. Four different time she went into ‘wilderness’ parts of the country to live, and each time succeeded in having ministers come to the place and hold services and organize a church and Sunday school, all of which remain to this day.”
Family records haven’t substantiated Esther’s ministry. However, she did remarry an William Smith in July of 1862 (the divorce from Harvey was finalized in March). So, it is possible that with her second husband she did venture out and do mission work on the American frontier.
Clara’s life is filled with one dramatic story after another. As pieces of her narrative fall into place it is easy to see how her theatrical style of speaking and writing could draw large crowds to hear the gospel message. She came from a powerhouse Christian family and through her mother’s example never shied away from engaging in ministry. As the Genesee Congregational Association noted after her death, “Her addresses before the Association were always helpful and inspiring.” Her necrology report in the Congregational Yearbook also noted, “She was an active worker in the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and entered into every movement in her communities for moral and social betterment. She has well merited the approving word of the Master of all, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant’.”