Clara Wetherald A Methodist, Then a Free Methodist and Finally a Congregationalist

Gaylord Congregationalist Church (Now First Congregational United Church of Christ)

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 exactly 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 and during their time in the denomination. Both Clara and John were appointed to churches, with Clara having separate appointments from John.  Clara first appears 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 appointment him to a circuit. It was 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.

Clara and John’s switch from the Methodist Protestant Church to Free Methodist Church is significant. Clara already was 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 major 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, the right to be ordained was incredibly important to Clara. At the 1890 Free Methodist General Conference, it became clear that not all Free Methodist leaders were in favor of 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 a tumultuous tim,e as John made The Saginaw News in February 1891 for “succumbing to the gay ladies of Saginaw.” The couple ultimately divorced in the summer 1891, and Clara married her second husband, LeGrande Buell in 1892.

Congregationalist Years

 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, who were also ministers, preached sermons at her ordination.

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Gaylord Congregationalist Church (Now First Congregational United Church of Christ)

Clara was ordained in the Congregationalist Church as Clara Buell and 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. (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. Prior to that individual churches had the right to ordain and choose their pastor, but the ordination was limited and Brown’s ordination did cause controversy within the denomination. However, after ordination was approved at the conference level the number of women ministers soared. By 1901 the Congregationalists ordained 47 women. Clara’s ordination was among the earliest. It was even noted in The Woman’s Column, the newspaper of the American Women’s Suffrage Association.

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 ministry with her first husband John, she also engaged in numerous social and religious reform efforts on her own. 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 in 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. I can’t help but feel the Free Methodist Church lost an amazing woman when we denied women ordination in 1890. She clearly felt called to preach and went to where she able to get ordained. 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 growth of the denomination.

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 Citizen Steam Power Press Print, 1872), 24; Minutes of the Michigan Annual Conference of the Protestant Methodist Church,” (Port Huron, Michigan: Times Printing and Publishing Company,1873), 30; “Minutes of the Michigan Annual Conference of the Protestant Methodist Church,” (Hudson, Michigan: Jas. M. Scarritt Printing, 1874), 29; Rebecca McNitt, Email to Author, January 7, 2023.

3 thoughts on “Clara Wetherald A Methodist, Then a Free Methodist and Finally a Congregationalist

  1. All the nuances of this story are lost with the passing of these people, I realize. But I find I have an issue with the ‘divorced and remarried in the same week’; and my understanding of the Congregational Church is that it’s extremely liberal, anything goes regardless of its digression from spiritual teaching. I’ve visited several for different reasons; the last, I got up and quietly left the service because of what was being taught.

    Not to cast a pallor over her contributions. I just wish we could know the heart of the person. I’m sure she was frustrated at being held back. But were there valid concerns about her character and witness? We will probably never know.

    So….that being said, congrats on piecing her life together. You must be thrilled!

    1. Lori, I am still looking for one major piece – Clara wrote an article defending her divorce. Once I find that I think it will help use (hopefully) understand her reasons for divorce. John’s obit notes that he had backslidden and was not allowed to continue in ministry in the Free Methodist Church. He eventually came back and repented and became a member again before his death, but there were some family issues that I have yet to really identify between the two that I do believe played a role in the divorce, but I need to confirm that. Divorce was not common or widely accepted during the time period Clara divorced in and even in the Congregational Church she must have been able to paint good reasons behind why she remarried and divorced. What she choose to do in the 1890s what not what was considered “proper” back then. Here’s to hoping I can find her justification article, it will fill in another big hole…

  2. Shame on us, yes. And shame on us that we continue to lose gifted ministers over 100 years later for the same reason.

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