On a Sunday morning in the year 1878, a diminutive woman stepped into a pulpit to preach. The minister in charge of the camp meeting at Salisbury, Missouri, had just announced to the crowd gathered there that the Lord had not given him a message.
Just the same, that preacher knew that someone in the crowd had a sermon for the morning worship. Being a camp meeting, the service did not suffer a shortage of ministers and gospel workers who might bring forth the anticipated word. But on that Sunday morning no veteran preacher delivered the sermon. Instead, Mary Cole gave her first gospel message and thereby launched a lifetime of dedicated labor.
These events occurred about two years before D. S. Warner severed all connections with denominational Christianity. Mary and her brother, Jeremiah, had taken up the cause of holiness before they became part of the Church of God movement. Jeremiah met Warner at the Western Union Holiness Association meeting at Jacksonville, Illinois, and the meeting began the Cole family’s connection with the movement. Jeremiah, Mary, and their younger brother, George, were real pioneer preachers.
Mary Cole, the seventh of twelve children, was born on a farm near Decatur, Iowa, in 1863. When she was three years old her family moved to Pettis County, Missouri, and it was there that Mary grew to young womanhood.
The young girl suffered physical affliction almost continually. Seizures racked her body with convulsions relieved only by lapses into unconsciousness. Physicians told her that “there was nothing healthy about me but my lungs.”1 Pain and suffering were her constant companions. As might be expected, Mary often slipped into periods of deep melancholy. She wondered why she might not be allowed to die.
Mary’s mother, Rebecca, countered her daughter’s depression with a deep faith in God. Over time the mother’s faith witnessed to the daughter in a manner that was instrumental in Mary’s coming to faith in Christ for salvation. Within a short while, Mary Cole received the call to preach the gospel.
Seven years elapsed between Mary’s calling and her first sermon at Salisbury. During these years Jeremiah once returned home from a preaching tour and testified to receiving divine healing in his body. He was convinced that the Lord stood ready to help Mary, too. But Mary thought that God might be leaving her in her afflictions to foster humility in her soul.
Finally, after days of discussion and reflection, Mary trusted God for her healing. Later on she said, “This was the beginning of a new epoch in my life. . . . It was the first time in my recollection that I could say I was well.”2
During those same years Mary had to choose between marriage and the ministry. Prior to her calling she had met a man whom she really liked. They began talking of love and of building a life together. But God’s call to ministry changed that. Mary’s understanding of the ministry meant that she would not be able to divide her time between the Lord’s work and a family. God would get her whole life.
Women preachers were a rare phenomenon in Missouri before the turn of the century. Mary met more than a little opposition to her gospel labors. Plenty of men and women stood ready to offer their opinions, mostly negative, about women in the ministry.
Mary answered their objections with references to New Testament passages such as 1 Corinthians 11:5; Acts 1:14 and 2:4, 16, 17; and Romans 16:1. Was her use of these verses effective? According to Mary, “The Lord helped me to successfully drive these opposers out of their false positions and to show them that they were misusing the Scriptures.”3
From the meeting at Salisbury, Mary and Jeremiah journeyed on to the next, at Sturgeon. There she learned that women were not allowed to preach. Apparently not all the ministers in the meeting shared that mind-set. To be sure, some men present told her that she had better not preach. But others said, “Go ahead, Sister Cole; God will see you through.”4
1 Mary cole, Trials and Triumphs of Faith (Anderson, Ind.: Gospel Trumpet company, 1914), 14.
2 Cole, 75.
3 Cole, 85–86.
4 Cole, 88.
Merle Strege is Church of God historian.
Strege, M. D. (May, 1989). Foundations; Go ahead, Sister Cole: Where only men had gone before. Vital Christianity, 8–9.