Clara Wetherald noted in her testimony at the 1890 Free Methodist General Conference that when she was younger, she thought the only way a woman could preach was if she married a minister. So, that’s precisely what she did when, at seventeen, she married John Wetherald, an ordained elder in the Methodist Protestant Church.
Methodist Protestant Church Years
Between 1866 and 1874, Clara and John Wetherald worked within the Michigan Methodist Protestant Church. John was an ordained elder during their time in the denomination. Clara and John were appointed to churches, with Clara having separate appointments from John. Clara first appeared in the Michigan Methodist Protestant Annual Conference Minutes in 1871. That year John was appointed to Brockway, Michigan, and Clara was appointed to Flint River, Michigan. Clara also appears in the 1872 annual conference minutes, but a specific church is not listed. She is included under local pastors with appointments, so it’s possible she was a traveling evangelist that year.
In Ingham, Macomb, Fremont, St. Clair, and Tuscola Counties in Michigan. However, in 1874 John requested the Michigan Annual Conference of the Methodist Protestant Church not appoint him to a circuit. Around this time, the couple transitioned to the Free Methodist Church[iii]. By 1875, they had formed a friendship with Benjamin Titus Roberts’ cousin, Septer Roberts, who was charged with bringing Free Methodism to Michigan. The Wetherald family, along with Clara’s brother Perry Miller, were among the early pioneers of the denomination in the state.
Free Methodist Years
Clara and John’s switch from the Methodist Protestant Church to Free Methodist Church is significant. Clara was already accepted and appointed as a preacher in the Methodist Protestant Church, so the Free Methodist Church’s acceptance of women evangelists could not have been the primary deciding factor. I believe it was likely a combination of her continuing to have the right to preach, their relationship with Septor Roberts, and the Free Methodist emphasis on egalitarian theology, particularly the vision of Benjamin Titus Roberts, who Clara also was friends with.
Free Methodist Years
The right to preach and, more importantly, to be ordained was incredibly important to Clara. At the 1890 Free Methodist General Conference, it became clear that not all Free Methodist leaders favored women’s ordination. Within two years, Clara had left the denomination and joined the Congregationalist Church. A denomination that DID ordain women.
The period of her life between 1890 and 1892 was tumultuous. John made The Saginaw News in February 1891 for “succumbing to the gay ladies of Saginaw.” The couple ultimately divorced in the summer of 1891, and Clara married her second husband, LeGrande Buell, in 1892.
About a year into their marriage, Clara moved to Gaylord, Michigan. The Detroit Free Press, May 28, 1893, notes that she stops through Holly before moving to Gaylord. She became the ordained minister at the Gaylord Congregationalist Church on July 19, 1893. Her brothers Frank and C.P. Miller, ministers, preached sermons at her ordination.
Gaylord Congregationalist Church (Now First Congregational United Church of Christ)
Clara was ordained in the Congregationalist Church as Clara Buell. Later when she married fellow Congregationalist minister Edward Harbridge (Buell died in 1895), she became known as Clara Buell Harbridge or Clara Harbridge in the Congregational Church Minutes. (Does anyone see why it was so hard to track her down?) She was among the earliest women to be ordained by the Congregationalist Church.
While the Congregationalist had risen to attention in 1852 for ordaining Antoinette Brown as the first female ordained minister in the United States, at the conference level, the denomination did not ordain women until 1889. Before that, individual churches had the right to ordain and choose their pastor, but the ordination was limited. Brown’s ordination did cause controversy within the denomination. However, the number of women ministers soared after ordination was approved at the conference level. By 1901 the Congregationalists ordained 47 women. Clara’s ordination was among the earliest. It was even noted in The Woman’s Column, the American Women’s Suffrage Association newspaper.
After Clara married her third husband, Edward Harbridge, she shared appointments with him in Congregationalists Churches in Michigan. However, while her ministry with Edward was similar to her shared church with her first husband, John, she also independently engaged in numerous social and religious reform efforts. Her Congregationalist obituary notes that she was active in the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), which ties into one of her justifications for wanting to marry Buell and reform him from alcoholism. The Journal of the Michigan House of Representatives also notes that in February of 1913, Clara, the president of the Holly, Michigan WCTU, and a group of seventy-five other members from that chapter filed a petition with the state government favor of prohibition. Her branch of the WTCU wasn’t alone, as numerous other religious organizations, WCTU branches, and women’s groups also filed petitions the same day.
No matter what she was doing, Clara was a fighter. She preached for fifty years and devoted her life to ministry and social reform. She felt called to preach and went to where she could get ordained. I can’t help but feel the Free Methodist Church lost an amazing woman when we denied women ordination in 1890. Because of the denomination’s inability to grant women equal status in ministry and society, we lost individuals capable of leading revivals and furthering the denomination’s growth.
It must be asked- if the Free Methodist Church had ordained women back in the 1890s, would Clara have stayed? The question can’t be answered, but shame on us for losing Clara Wetherald!
[i] “Minutes of the Michigan Annual Conference of the Protestant Methodist Church,” 1866, 9; “Minutes of the Michigan Annual Conference of the Protestant Methodist Church,” (Published by Order of Conference, 1867), 11; “Minutes of the Michigan Annual Conference of the Protestant Methodist Church,” (Published by Order of Conference, 1869), 18; “Minutes of the Michigan Annual Conference of the Protestant Methodist Church,” (St. Clair, Michigan: Published by Order of Conference, 1870), 19; “Minutes of the Michigan Annual Conference of the Protestant Methodist Church,” (Pontiac, Michigan: Gazette Power Press Print, 1871), 21; “Minutes of the Michigan Annual Conference of the Protestant Methodist Church,” (Flint, Michigan: Wolverine