This dissertation topic has taught me to believe that you can find that “needle in the haystack” or in the case of Clara Wetherald and Ida Gage’s lives “multiple needles in the haystack.” Once again, I have to thank the wonderful people who have helped me find so many of these tidbits that connect the dots.
An 1895 New York Times article notes that the Reverend Clara Buell caused quite a sensation when she divorced her husband, John Wetherald, and married Legrand Buell in 1892. Supposedly her main motivation for wanting to marry Legrand was to convert him from alcoholism. Clara is painted as the instigator of the divorce in this article, and this has proven to be a correct assumption. However, we should never be quick to judge a person’s motives. A Saginaw News article from Feb. 25, 1891, adds additional insight into the Wetheralds’ divorce. Titled “Fell from Grace” the article outlines how on a trip to Saginaw John Wetherald was “taken in by the gay maidens who frequent that town.” Upon returning to Clio, where he was serving as a Free Methodist pastor, he confessed his sins at a prayer meeting. The confession caused Clara to file for divorce, and led to John being removed from his pastorate and membership in the Free Methodist Church.
Because Clara initiated the divorce it caused an uproar in late nineteenth century culture. Assertive women were not the norm, and Clara’s personality was one that wouldn’t allow her to be a victim. She had seen her mother suffer as a result of her father’s indiscretions and had lived through her parents’ divorce. Yet, her decision to divorce John not only caused a stir, but it prohibited her from continuing to serve in the Free Methodist Church. Divorce was a gray area and after the 1890 Free Methodist General Conference voted against ordaining women, Clara saw the writing on the wall. After the divorce she became an ordained Congregationalist minister. She could Biblically justify her divorce, and that allowed her to pursue ordination in a denomination that was willing to embrace women called to serve as pastors. After all, in Matthew 5:32 Jesus notes that sexual immorality is cause for divorce. Although, scripture does not promote divorce, in certain cases, such as Clara’s, it can be Biblically justified.
Yet, let’s not forget John in this story. John’s expulsion from the denomination and his indiscretions were his undoing. He did move on and married Sarah Buell in 1897, but he died in 1902. His obituary in The Free Methodist magazine reads like the obit of a fallen man. It’s not the obit of a caring preacher who nurtured countless young people into ministry in Michigan, and together with his wife founded numerous Free Methodist church plants. It was not the obit of a man who was also a conference evangelist. While Clara was the fierier preacher, it is clear from his daughter Mary’s testimony in the April 11, 1888, Free Methodist that her father was a caring, nurturing pastor. He wasn’t as dynamic as Clara, but he clearly had a gift for discipleship.
Instead of celebrating his ministry, his obituary celebrates his failures. His financial embarrassment, health problems, and removal from ministry dominate the story. It is noted that wherever he and Clara went extensive revivals accompanied their labors. Yet, his obituary ends with John’s return to the Free Methodist Church and repentance. His last words were “Praise the Lord.” Nonetheless instead of rejoicing in a man who had a vibrant ministry, repented and returned to his faith, the preacher for his funeral sermon chose to focus on Romans 6:22 for his sermon text. “But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life.” (NIV) John’s sin is still the emphasis, granted a man that is freed from sin, but still the sin and faults of the man are illustrated more than his strengths.
Looking at the shift in Free Methodist culture during this time period, it is hard not to notice the emphasis on legalism and rule following. By the 1894 General Conference evangelists, such as what John was, were having their role in the denomination debated. They were seen as selfish and out to promote their own glory, with too much emphasis placed on the “sinner and not the saint.” There was an inward shift within the denomination. Struggling people who were fallen and who made mistakes (and who doesn’t fit this category) were shunned instead of embraced and encouraged to overcome their temptations.
I don’t want to end this post in defeat, but to tell a family legend recorded in a genealogy collection of the Miller (Clara’s side of the family) history. According to the family, John and Clara eventually made up. While both remarried there is a chance, even if it is just family lore, that they were able to become friends. They were hopefully able to forgive and move on with their lives. No matter how their marriage ended I always will view John and Clara Wetherald’s marriage as a successful partnership in ministry. It might not have been an ideal marriage or a love match, but for years they made it work and used each other’s strengths to build a dynamic ministry that spread the gospel and spurred on revival everywhere they went.