The Other Female Delegates at the 1890 & 1894 Free Methodist General Conferences

The delegates and family members at the 1894 Free Methodist General Conference. The female delegates are the in the left hand side of the front row along with several other women who were in attendance.


A little over a year ago, I published a post “Who was S. Annie Grant?” Since that time, I’ve been trying to track down information on the other women delegates at the 1890 and 1894 Free Methodist General Conferences. I’ve written extensively about the two delegates who spoke on the floor in defense of women’s ministries, but who were the other women?

At the 1890 General Conference there was Clara Wetherald from Eastern Michigan and Anna Grant from Northern Indiana. In 1894 there was Ida Gage from Ohio, Mrs. Coleman from Wisconsin, Mrs. Barnhart from Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, and Clara Sage from Wabash, Indiana. Only Clara Wetherald and Ida Gage spoke on the record about women’s ordination (or at least their speeches are the only ones that were recorded), but the other women all cast historic votes either for or against women’s ordination. A couple years ago I began to wonder who these other women were and what motivated them to vote the way they did. Where did they fit within the narrative of women’s ordination and ministry? We know Mrs. Coleman was Free Methodist Superintendent Coleman’s wife, and he was vocally opposed to women’s ordination. He went so far as to publish a series of articles in the 1890 The Free Methodist debating B.T. Roberts on the topic and denouncing the arguments in Roberts book Ordaining Women. Mrs. Barnhart was married to a Rev. Barnhart in the Pittsburg Free Methodist Conference and also voted against ordination. I’ve yet to find anything on her views or her husband’s views on ordination, but I’m still digging through The Free Methodist archives and annual conference minutes.

Clara Sage voted for women’s ordination in 1894. She was a lay delegate in the Wabash Indiana Conference. Her Free Methodist obituary notes she was influential in founding a local Free Methodist Church, but Clara Sage never was active in ministry as an evangelist like Clara Wetherald, Ida Gage or Sarah Anne Grant.

It should be noted that the two women who voted against ordination in 1894 were required to cast votes that were identical to what their annual conference had decided on the question of women’s ordination. Like delegates to the electoral college for Presidential elections, they weren’t supposed to change their vote. After the 1890 General Conference the question of women’s ordination was sent back to the annual conferences for a vote prior to further discussion and voting at the 1890 General Conference. Both the Pittsburg Conference (Barnhart) and Wisconsin (Coleman) voted against women’s ordination while Ohio (Gage) and Wabash (Sage) voted for it. So, while we know Mrs. Coleman was personally opposed to ordination we really need to find out more about Mrs. Barnhart. I don’t want to assume her views just because she voted against ordination.

While the 1894 delegates are fascinating and I still have more to uncover about their lives, it’s the 1890 General Conferences delegates who continue to astound me. Clara Wetherald was a regionally known evangelist and after leaving the Free Methodist denomination for the Congregationalist Church became one of the first women in the United States to be ordained.

Sarah Anne Grant of Northern Indiana was the only other female delegate present at 1890 and while there is no speech recorded from here, she voted in favor of women’s ordination. Sarah Anne Grant is listed as “Anna Grant” in the general conference minutes which isn’t accurate and, at first, made finding information on her difficult. She signed her ministry reports S. Annie Grant which also didn’t help me narrow down who she was.

Sarah Anne Grant was an active Free Methodist evangelist in Northern Indiana and Iowa. After 1890 she and her family move to Iowa and then Oklahoma and finally San Diego, California where she stayed active in ministry until a few months before her death in 1916. Not only was Sarah Anne an evangelist she was also a mother of ten children and a doctor. That’s right, she held down two of the most out of reach jobs for nineteenth century women. In the late nineteenth century, any professional career for women was controversial. Women were seen as a threat to traditional occupations held by men such as law, medicine and ministry. Sarah Anne was a force to be reckoned with. I’ll share more in future posts as she deserves her own stories but she became a doctor after having two children and according to family history her husband John let her leave the two children with him while she left to train as a doctor.

These women delegates and their stories are important not only for Free Methodist history, but also for understanding the larger social narratives of nineteenth century women’s history. Their stories represent struggles women faced as they fought for social acceptance of their professions. I often feel this part of Free Methodist history is overlooked and undervalued for its historical significance. I hope I can continue to find out more about these remarkable women and eventually in the next two years finally get a book published about their contributions.

If you’re interested in finding out more about women’s roles in nineteenth century America check out my dissertation. All the facts I cite are included there.

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