Temperance Music and Religion through the Example of the Miller Family

It’s been awhile since I’ve written on my dissertation topic – Clara Wetherald, Ida Gage and their work as nineteenth century Free Methodist evangelists, but it’s time to get back to work. I’ve missed these women.

Clara (Miller) Wetherald came from a musically gifted family. As more fragments from her life emerge it’s clear that music was something that was an important part of both who she was and her ministry. Her second husband Legrand Buell was a musician and songwriter. Even the NY Times article about Legrand’s death in 1895 noted his musical accomplishments. Clara’s brother Frank Miller was also musically gifted and seems to have influenced Clara to begin writing music, too. The only surviving song Clara composed is from the hymnbook Beautiful Hymns of the Children’s Evangelistic Union that was edited by Frank Miller and includes many of his original compositions.

Clara’s song “The Hut on a Vacant Lot” was composed in 1899. Her brother Frank set it to music for her. The song addresses some of the issues Clara was most passionate about in her life –temperance, poverty and salvation. The Michigan Woman Christian Temperance Union lists Clara as the president of the Holly, Michigan, chapter in the 1920s; and as a long-time Free Methodist poverty and equal access to the gospel was something all good Free Methodists were concerned about. It was an issue close to the heart of Free Methodist’s found Benjamin Titus Roberts and stressed often in The Free Methodist, the denominational magazine.

All these concerns play into Clara’s song (full lyrics at the end of the post).

The song is about a child who lives in a hut with a father who steals and a mother who drinks. The child is beaten and encouraged to follow her parents’ poor examples. Yet, she hears the gospel message from a traveling minister and believes in Jesus. As the song goes in verse six:

They may beat me and curse me as much as they like,

I know what they don’t know-

I know that all things in the end will come right

For me, though I suffer below.

No matter how ragged and hungry I am,

With no one but Jesus to love,

I know there’s a vacant lot for me

In that beautiful land above.

The song is very somber, melodramatic and frankly depressing for a hymnbook written for children, but it clearly shows Clara’s passion for sharing the gospel message. By 1899 she had been widowed by Legrand Buell, and its possible that between the influence of her brother Frank and having been married to a musician Clara began to try her own hand at writing songs.

Clara’s musical contributions weren’t limited to composing. She and her siblings were also gifted singers. In Frank Miller’s testimony, printed in a special tribute issue of the Children’s Evangelistic Union Magazine in 1938, Frank tells of Clara preaching at a church he was pastoring in Chicago.

Frank was hit and severely injured by a “wild engine” at the Chicago train station. While he was in bed recovering he wrote the song “The Path to Heaven.” Clara stops in Chicago to preach in Frank’s place one Sunday. The article notes she was on her way to hold an evangelistic campaign in Topeka, Kansas.  Clara surprises Frank’s congregation by singing the song he has just written. Clara’s singing and the song Frank wrote were so moving that a “Man whose life had been wrecked by drink and sin, arose in the rear of the audience, and walked up the aisle to the pulpit and feel on his knees and sobbed like a child, and was saved from a life of sin.”

While the story embellishes the facts for the sake of drama, once again the theme of temperance appears in the story. Music for the Miller family was not only a means to share one’s faith and hopefully convert people to Christianity; it was also a means to promote social reform through song.

The theme of music and poetry to promote temperance causes is not unique to Clara. Both Eliza Suggs and Emma Ray, who I have poetry published under the FM Women’s Poetry section of the blog, both refer to temperance themes in their writing. Therefore, if one point can be taken away from Clara’s singing and song writing it is the fact that temperance and salvation were incredibly intertwined in the decades preceding Prohibition. The songs might have been a bit melodramatic, and Clara’s song certainly didn’t become a classic hymn, but its important to remember the intentions and the motivations behind why this form of music was popular during the late nineteenth/early twentieth century.

Lyrics for “The Path to Heaven” by Frank Miller

Verse One:

They tell me the path to heaven is filled with many a thorn;

That the feet that will follow Jesus, Will be weary oft and torn;

But they do not hear the whisper of His voice so sweet and calm,

And they do not feel the rapture, As I press the wounded palm.

Chorus:

O let me walk with Jesus, He has been a friend to me

Verse Two:

They say there are heavy crosses, And burdens many to bear;

That the way is too straight and narrow, And the sun shines seldom there;

But a-round the cross there’s glory, and His strong arm bears my load,

And his loving smile is sunshine, And He gives me naught but good.

Chorus:

O let me walk with Jesus, He has been a friend to me

Verse Three:

They tell me the way is threatened With clouds and many a storm;

But I hide in the “Rock of Ages,” Until all without is calm,

If my cup is sometimes bitter, ‘Tis because ‘He knows’ it’s best;

He but lets my feet grow weary, That I may have sweeter rest.

Chorus:

O let me walk with Jesus, He has been a friend to me

Verse Four:

O hearts that are crushed with sorrow, Whose eyes with weeping are dim;

Weep not, for the Master calleth; Bring your load of grief to Him;

For he soothes the brow of sorrow, And he calms the heaving breast,

And He heals the broken hearted, And He gives the weary rest.

Chorus:

O let me walk with Jesus, He has been a friend to me

Lyrics for “The Hut on a Vacant Lot” by Clara Buell (formerly Wetherald)

Verse One:

We live in a hut on a vacant lot, My father and mother and I,

Away up town in a dreary spot

With old stone quarries hard by, Father is lazy, and

Mother she drinks, And I am ragged and thin; And I

Look like a thief, for it’s hard to be pure when circle around with sin.

Verse Two:

‘Tis a desperate place, this vacant lot, A region of feminine and woe;

The laborers found a strangled child in the quarry not long a-go,

And father is sometimes up town all day,

And comes staggering home at night With money and things that he hides away

For he never comes by them right.

Verse Three:

My mother is always at me to steal, And urges her plea with a curse;

She tells me to sneak thro’ the city crowd,

And pocket a watch or a purse, And father he beats me because I say

I’d rather any day die;

For I never did rob, and I never will rob, And I’ll tell you the reason why.-

Verse Four:

There came to our home three years ago A man with a sweet mild face;

He held in his hand a little book, He wanted to read at our place;

But mother she swore at the mild-faced man, And drove him out of our den;

And she told him never as long as he lived to darken our door a-gain.

Verse Five:

But something made me follow that man, –

I think he beckoned to me,-

And he led me down the quarry cliff,

Where none of our people could see;

And he read to me out of that holy Book

What I never had heard before;

And somehow a peace came over my heart,

And it didn’t feel half so sore.

 Verse Six:
They may beat me and curse me as much as they like,

I know what they don’t know-

 I know that all things in the end will come right

For me, though I suffer below.

No matter how ragged and hungry I am,

With no one but Jesus to love,

I know there’s a vacant lot for me

In that beautiful land above.

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