A Sermon Illustration Understood Two Different Ways

At the 1890 Free Methodist General Conference Clara Wetherald delivered an address on women’s ordination. Clara was a powerful public speaker. A woman who heard her preach in Montrose, Michigan, at the beginning of the twentieth century noted that Clara “Usually preached with tears running down her cheeks, although she was smiling all the time. She was a very attractive woman, and the tears did not interfere with her attractiveness.”

Clara stood in front of the 1890 General Conference delegates and admitted that she knew the adversity facing women in ministry but felt they were particularly gifted to care for souls. She launched into a story about a sheep herding dog whose duties were split between caring for her puppies and caring for the sheep.

The story is as follows:

“I remember reading of a man out in the Rocky mountains, who, when a part of his flock of sheep were missed at night, chose from his shepherd dogs, the one that must leave her puppies. The night was dark and the sheep were astray in the mountains, but the master said, “She will never come back till she finds them.” She came back in the morning, weary and foot-sore, but she brought the lambs. As she dropped down beside her little ones and almost instantly fell asleep while they were nursing, every eye was moistened with tears.”

Clara’s example was so powerful that it is again brought up at the 1894 General Conference. This time D.J. Santiner from the New York conference uses it. He is adamantly opposed to women’s ordination and speaks at length about why ordination is both against the Bible and against the natural order. As he states, “God’s word declares, ‘I will therefore that the young women marry, bear children, guide the house, give non occasion to the adversary to speak reproachfully.’ These to be ordained it declares, should be men. If this be not so our opposers must show that women have wives and are commanded to rule over their households.” (Does this sound like any rhetoric we hear today? – I keep hearing Christian patriarchy movement screaming through my head every time I read this quote.)

At one point in his address Santinier uses the story from Clara’s speech at the 1890 Conference. However, she is not given credit, even though he must have gotten the speech from the 1890 General Conference Dailies, which published it and he would have been aware of who originally told the story. Instead he refers to the speaker as “a woman at the last general conference,” essentially putting her into the context of “the other” or the not worthy of being named. Ironically, by using a story that Clara told as an illustration he is essentially recognizing that fact that women can be good public speakers.

However, while Clara uses the story of the dog and pups to illustrate that while she has cares and responsibilities others do not have because she is both a mother and a pastor, she is able to balance both jobs. For the dog in the story the sheep (the church, the searching, the lost) came first, but her heart was still with her puppies (her children and family). In the end, the sheep dog is able to maintain both roles. She is a strong, capable dog who can balance life.

This is not the conclusion that Santinier draws from Clara’s illustration. As he notes after sharing the story, “In this illustration the dog represents the woman and the puppies her children. Now I want to say if that dog is to represent my wife and the puppies my children she shall stay at home and take care of the puppies.”

I don’t think that was the intended moral of the story. However, by this time Clara has left the Free Methodist Church and is an ordained Congregationalist minister. She clearly saw the tide was turning away from support of women in ministry and went where her passion for Christ would be respected. She leaves behind Ida Gage, an evangelist from Ohio, to defend women’s right to preach at the 1894 General Conference.  Only two women ever speak up during these debates in support of women’s right to preach  – Clara in 1890 and Ida in 1894. This is partly due to the fact that so few women were appointed delegates at this time, and also that the General Conference Dailies might not have recorded the entire conference debates. (There is some evidence of this in the editor’s notes –not intentionally forgetting information, just running out of time to get it done).

No matter, the two meanings of the sheep dog illustration draw attention to the fact that information can be twisted, taken out of context, and used for the very opposite purpose it was intended to.  What is more disturbing is the impact of othering in Santinier’s address. He makes it very clear that women belong in the home and only in support roles in the church and in charity work. Women who are preachers or were preachers in the denomination are not worthy to be named. By othering Clara he is essentially discounting the work and desire of all Free Methodist women who seek ordination. He is not alone in this sentiment. By 1894, Benjamin Titus Roberts has passed away and the comments and negativity towards women’s ordination is incredibly strong at the 1894 General Conference.

I am transcribing the 1894 General Conference debates on women’s ordination right now. I hope to have it available on the blog in a couple weeks. It will be under the FM debates on Women in Ministry. 

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2 thoughts on “A Sermon Illustration Understood Two Different Ways

    1. Yes, I’m sure you can 🙂 The editor of the 1890 General Conference Dailies actually apologized for their coverage and each year I find grammar and spelling inconsistencies when I transcribe these papers. I always put a disclaimer that the spelling errors are original to the text 🙂

      It was not easy to record those debates and I’m amazed that we even have as comprehensive a record as we do.

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