Mary Lee Cagle: a study in women’s history, religion

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Women’s history programs were established firmly in American universities in the 1980s, marking their evolution from an incipient movement of reformist scholarship to a part of the academic mainstream. Today there are scholarly journals devoted solely to publishing the findings of women’s history research. General publishers have joined university presses in marketing primary and secondary women’s history sources.


The climate for studying women’s history is vastly changed from the situation prevailing in the late 1960s when historian Gerda Lerner’s professors at Columbia University urged her not to jeopardize a promising career by specializing at the outset on women—-a subject they considered outre. (1)


As women’s history moved into the mainstream of historical investigation, it found a niche in the expanding area of social history that includes the study of labor, ethnic Americans, and religious culture. History faculties now routinely include one or more specialists in women’s history.


Intersecting the Holiness Tradition


The themes of women’s history have found a natural rapport with many historians of the American holiness movement. These interests converge because the holiness movement was among the progressive forces on behalf of women in 19th-century religion, giving them public leadership roles and skills, and extending to women in the emerging Wesleyan-holiness churches full laity and clergy rights earlier and more readily than was the case in the older denominations. This intersection of interest was present in the early work of Timothy Smith, whose Revivalism and Social Reform (1957) took special note of Phoebe Palmer’s impact on mid-19th-century religion. Smiths Called Unto Holiness (1962) gave attention to Mary Lee Cagle (referred to primarily as Mary Lee Harris) and the expanding circle of female ministers associated with her in the New Testament Church of Christ, a holiness-restorationist body.


Subsequent histories of the holiness movement by Charles Edwin Jones (Perfectionist Persuasion, 1974) and Melvin Dieter (The Holiness Revival of the Nineteenth Century, 1980) portrayed Phoebe Palmer as the founder of the Wesleyan wing of the ante-bellum holiness movement and included numerous references to women’s roles in the genesis and development of the holiness tradition. Both works set these influences within the context of a holiness movement that embodied strong democratizing tendencies. Donald Dayton’s Discovering an Evangelical Heritage (1976) drew considerable data from the holiness movement, while being simultaneously shaped by contemporary feminism and other currents of social change. Dayton likewise dealt with Mrs. Palmer and assembled other data showing how Wesleyans, Free Methodists, and Nazarenes were ahead of the social curve in ordaining women and recognizing their pastoral authority.


The impact on holiness studies from this focus on women’s history became clearer in the 1980s. Scholars of the holiness tradition found that the emerging popularity of women’s studies now made aspects of their tradition marketable to a larger audience. Among the studies published in the decade was Nancy Hardesty’s Women Called to Witness: Evangelical Feminism in the 19th Century (1984), a work detailing women’s lives and contributions to the Oberlin and Wesleyan holiness traditions. Phoebe Palmer is highlighted in Hardesty’s work and in two full-scale biographies written by Harold Raser and Charles White. Equally important, a new edition of Palmer’s writings appeared, edited by Thomas Oden and published by a Roman Catholic press in a series on “Sources of American Spirituality.” While systematic theologians in the Wesleyan-holiness churches are dismissive of Palmer because of the problem of grace as posed by her “altar theology,” Oden and the Paulist Press recognized that her primary value as theologian lies in that realm that Roman Catholics call spiritual theology. Here she can be critically but positively appraised as a theological resource for a broader audience than the holiness tradition alone. (2)


Alongside these, there appeared a number of doctoral dissertations in the 1980s that treat significant female holiness leaders, including Jennie Fowler Willing, Anna Howard Shaw, Frances Willard, Alma White, and Mary Lee Cagle.


The new focus on women in the holiness movement can be explained only in part by the market value of such research. History always moves forward by tapping previously unused sources and by asking new questions of familiar data, probing for new meanings from the past. Women’s history raises new sets of questions that historians can bring to their investigations. Moreover, younger scholars in the Wesleyan tradition often are well attuned to the contemporary women’s movement and may be on personal quests as they reach the point of scholarly research. Such agendas can be valid reasons for choosing research topics so long as biases do not distort the investigation and its report. Also, and most importantly, the data of the holiness movement and churches have relevance for research on a wide variety of subjects of general interest. For decades, historians have drawn data freely from Oberlin, Wesleyan Methodist, and Free Methodist sources to understand abolitionism. The same could be done (but generally is not) by those researching the modern missionary movement, fundamentalism, post-war evangelicalism, and other areas where Wesleyan-holiness churches participate in the general ethos of American Christianity. The study of women in the holiness movement helps to overcome the isolation of Wesleyan-holiness history from the broader history of Protestantism and the general society.


The intersection of women’s history and the American holiness movement is full of promise in both directions. Women in the holiness tradition experienced the general struggle of women to be free from patriarchy, and their stories illuminate facets of that struggle and cast new light on the ways in which the oppression of women is being overcome. At the same time, both the struggles and the liberating experiences of women in the holiness movement can help illuminate the very soul of the religious tradition, not simply out of academic interests, but equally well for those who regard the tradition as valid.


The study of Mary Cagle’s life, for instance, shows this dual character. It yields significant data on the place, role, and frustrations of the Southern woman. The story of her rise above oppression simultaneously illuminates certain dimensions of the question of what kind of church the founders of the Church of the Nazarene intended it to be.


Mary Lee Cagle became a part of what historian Carl Degler describes as “the Other South.” (3)


In a book by that title, Degler wrote primarily about 19th century dissenters form Southern racial orthodoxy. “The Other South” can be understood more broadly, though, as that area of 19th century Southern mind and soul that was freed from the culture’s sterile social orthodoxies, of which racial orthodoxy was the cornerstone. Although Mary Cagle deviated somewhat from her region’s racial orthodoxy, she grounded her dissent elsewhere in the rejection of the South’s rigid orthodoxy about women’s place in the social order. Born in rural Alabama in 1864, she transcended the conservatism of her native region and church to embrace what she believed was a clear call to preach the Christian gospel. Mary Cagle’s choice of sectarian dissent became the logical means of resolving an intense inner conflict between her sense of divine call and Southern Methodism’s uncompromising attitude against women’s laity and clergy rights—-a dilemma that can be understood as her particular embodiment of the universal conflict between conscience and obedience.


Conscience and Obedience


Mary Cagle’s maiden name was Mary Lee Wasson. Her parents farmed near Moulton, Alabama. Though she later had continuing contact with urban society, the agrarian way of life was the primary context of her childhood and, indeed, of her entire life. Her early sense of place was shaped especially by that ethos. Two other general ideas also shaped the boundaries of her life. The first was the doctrine of separate spheres—-a social doctrine that permeated 19th century American life.


The concept of separate spheres assigned women a certain area of influence and men another . The domestic sphere assigned to women was an ambivalent heritage. Historian Nancy F. Cott argues that the separate sphere, as it developed in early America, was an advance over earlier forms of patriarchy in which males dominated all aspects of life, including the home. By contrast, the place of women had evolved so that 19th century women largely were able to enjoy a protected domestic sphere in which their authority over the home was accepted. The negative consequence was that women were not allowed to intrude upon the male sphere. Indeed, if they wanted to protect their own sphere and its degree of independence, the majority of American women believed that their interest was vested in insuring that they and their sisters did not infringe upon the other sphere. Consequently, when American women became active in reform movements, such as temperance and suffrage, they did so by defining their involvement as an extension of domestic concerns, arguing in effect, as Carl Degler puts it, that “the world is just a large home.” (4)


A second idea restricted the world of the Southern woman. Standing Jeffersonian doctrine on its head, the ante-bellum South had poured considerable intellectual effort into an impassioned and reasoned defense of the idea of human inequality as a necessary component of its argument on behalf of African slavery. Upon this idea a new nation was proposed in 1861 and a bloody civil war was being fought at the very moment of Mary Cagle’s birth. The doctrine of inequality shaped the dominant attitude toward women just as it did toward African-Americans. In his studies of Southern evangelicalism, Donald Mathews found that the submission of children to parents and women to men was regarded as essential for maintaining the subjection of slaves to masters. Southern churchmen played conspicuous roles in developing hierarchical rationales and defending them on Biblical bases. Through instruction on the nature of social and family organization, churchmen reinforced the idea of human in equality, arguing that social good and the Almighty’s will were best carried out when each element in the hierarchy of being yielded due obedience to its superior authority. The period after Reconstruction saw new efforts made at codifying hierarchical modes of thought and behavior, symbolized by the wave of Jim Crow laws that spread in the 1890s. The inequality of race and gender was intertwined in Mary Cagle’s Southern society. (5)


It is ironic, then, that a church that defended social stability at the price of human inequality was also capable of breeding liberating spirits. And yet the genesis of Mary Cagle’s ministry lay in the rhythm of North Alabama revivalism, in which religion was part of the warp and woof of everyday life. Cagle’s parents were affiliated with different revivalistic churches. Her father was a Cumberland Presbyterian, while her mother was a Methodist. Her brother Frank was a seeker alongside her in the same Methodist revival in which she was converted at age fifteen. From the time she was a child, she had believed herself called to the “Lord’s work,” a broad term embracing everything a woman could do for God and the church, and in specific cases might include missionary service or marriage to a minister.


The conversion of Mary Wasson (Cagle) instilled a strong evangelistic impulse in her. She sought to awaken her classmates religiously and saw the entire class brought into the Christian faith over the course of the following year. Through this process, she became convinced that God was calling her to missionary work. Once this was announced, however, her mother reacted firmly against it. Mrs. Wasson used strong language, stating that she would rather see her daughter dead than have her be a foreign missionary. The girl’s determination wavered in the face of this bitter opposition. Mary resumed a conventional line of religious development that in hindsight she would criticize as “backslidden” since, as she later wrote, “my outward life was consistent and I kept up the form of religion but without power.” (6)


A pivotal event occurred in Mary lee Wasson’s spiritual development about five years later. She heard for the first time the doctrines of the holiness revival cast in the idiom of the holiness evangelist. The preacher was revivalist Robert Lee Harris, a member of the Texas Conference of the Free Methodist Church. Harris was a Mississippi native whose early years were spent in Alabama in the county adjacent to Mary Wasson’s. His message was deeply tinged by the Free Methodist emphasis on externals, strongly denouncing jewelry and fashion. Mary Wasson found the message compelling nonetheless. She was “reclaimed” in this revival and made a lifelong commitment to the holiness movement and its understanding of the gospel. She also came to a new and radical conviction about the nature of her call to Lord’s work. She now claimed that God had called her to preach, not as a foreign missionary but in her own country and to her own people. (7)


Mary Cagle subsequently published two personal call narratives, including this one:


With the restoration came the old-time call to preach; but God by His Holy Spirit revealed to me that my work was not across the waters, but here in my homeland. What a struggle I had. I pled with God to release me from the call. It seemed it would have been so easy for me to say “Good-bye” to loved ones and native land and pour out my life among the heathen. The thought of remaining at home to preach the Gospel brought trouble to my heart. I knew there was not so much reproach attached to going as a missionary.


On my face before God, with tears, I would plead to be released. I knew to go out in this country as a woman preacher would mean to face bitter opposition, prejudice, slanderous tongues, my name cast out as evil, my motives misconstrued and to be looked upon with suspicion.


Besides this, I was so conscious of my inability. My educational advantages had been very limited. I was reared a timid, country girl and had never been out in the world—-in fact until twenty-seven years of age, had never been outside my native county in the State of Alabama. It seemed very strange God would call me when all these things were considered.


So often as I would plead my inability, the following verses of Scripture would be presented to my mind: “Then said I, Ah Lord God! behold I cannot speak: for I am a child. But the Lord said unto me, Say not I am a child: for thou shalt go to all that I shall send thee, and whatsoever I command thee thou shalt speak. Be not afraid of their faces: for I am with thee to deliver thee, saith the Lord. Then the Lord put forth His hand, and touched my mouth. And the Lord said unto me, Behold, I have put My words in they mouth.”—-Jer. 1:6-9. Many times, as I would take my Bible to read it, it seemed it would open where this passage is. I wished in my heart it was torn out of my Bible.” (8)


Mary Wasson’s new understanding of her call became an immediate source of family strife. A brother-in-law declared firmly that, if she preached, his children would never again be allowed to call her their “Aunt.” In the face of such pressure, she equivocated as she had done five years earlier in the face of similar hostility. She yielded to conventional expectations as she entered adulthood, becoming a teacher in area schools. An autobiography published in 1928 leaves little doubt that during these years she suffered anguish from the conviction that she was leaving her highest calling in life unfulfilled. (9)


Literary critic Lewis Simpson argues: “The most significant heritage of the Southerner is not, as popular myth would have it, an assigned social character—-a stable role defined by family and social status. On the contrary, the real inheritance of the Southerner, the Alabamian, is the subtle imperative to define his or her identity.” (10) It is not Simpson’s point to deny that there once was an assigned social character in Southern life, but rather to affirm that within such a social arena the need to differentiate oneself is the significant and redemptive aspect of the Southern heritage. Through childhood and early adulthood Mary Lee Wasson struggled with the “subtle imperative to define . . . her identity,” but struggled under the weight of social prejudice against women preachers. Were she alive today, she might read with genuine familiarity the words of Carol Christ: “When the stories a woman reads or hears do not validate what she feels or thinks, she is confused. She may wonder if her feelings are wrong. She may even deny to herself that she feels what she feels.” (11)


Southern Methodism had nourished Mary Lee Wasson’s religious experience, but would not affirm the call to preach that to her seemed to spring from the very heart of faith. To act on her sense of call would cut her off from family, church, and the universe of woman’s experience as affirmed by her culture. Mary Wasson was caught between the rock of conscience and the hard place of obedience.


Sisterhood and Redemption


Mary Lee Wasson married revivalist Robert Lee Harris in 1891. Harris had held periodic revivals in North Alabama for several years. She married for love, if not outright adoration, but she also expected that through supporting Harris’s ministry she would fulfill her destiny and find peace. She had never before left Lawrence County, Alabama, but she now traveled widely with her husband through the South. Her new role was a socially accepted form of the Lord’s work. Even so, in time Mary Harris discovered painfully that her inner struggle over the call to preach persisted. Her path to liberation was to be nevertheless through the instrumentality of Robert Lee Harris. (12)


Harris’s Free Methodist background was the key. Admitted into the Texas Conference of that church in 1885, he headed an independent missionary venture in Liberia from 1886-1888. Though outside the formal mission structure of Free Methodism, Harris received the reluctant approval of Free Methodist founder B. T. Roberts, who ordained him deacon and elder at the General Conference of 1886. Harris’s independent work was highly controversial, and during these years he was allied with a broader group of Free Methodist radicals that included: C. W. Sherman of the Vanguard Mission in St. Louis, a major sponsor of the Liberian mission; S. B. Shaw of Michigan, and advocate of interdenominational work who in 1901 was instrumental in calling the General Holiness Assembly in Chicago; and the Pentecost Bands led by Vivian Dake, a friend and protege of Roberts.


The faultline between the radicals and the Free Methodist mainstream lay in the independent character of various ministries supported by the radicals. Shaw’s interdenominational holiness work in Michigan put him at odds with his district superintendent, who wanted energies focused on denominational goals. Harris and Sherman promoted independent foreign missions in competition with a new denominational missionary board. Dake promoted independent home missions, and later added foreign work as well. The radicals were strong advocates of Free Methodist legalism, but were equally strong advocates of the ministry of women. Dake’s Pentecost Bands, modeled somewhat after the Salvation Army, eventually included at least seventeen bands composed exclusively of women, each containing two or three women preachers. The links within the alliance were tight. At Harris’s urging, Sherman established a missionary training home in St. Louis that was training Dake’s workers for foreign service by the time Harris’s Liberian mission collapsed in 1888. The Pentecost Bands reopened the field, and Dake died shortly after visiting it in 1892. After his Liberian effort failed, Harris was conference evangelist in Texas for a year before withdrawing from the denomination. He united with a Southern Methodist congregation in Memphis and conducted revivals on the authority of a local preacher’s license. His years in Free Methodism continued to mark the man and his message, however. (13)


Mary Wasson’s marriage to Robert Lee Harris united her with a companion who combined a legalistic interpretation of Christian holiness with a progressive attitude toward the ministry of women. As they itinerated, she absorbed the idiom and methodology of holiness revivalism. By their third year of marriage, Harris was deeply involved in “the evangelist controversy” in Southern Methodism, and in May, 1894 he severed his links to all forms of institutional Methodism. In July, he launched a new movement in Milan, Tennessee, called variously “The New Testament Church” and the “Church of Christ.” In essence, it was a form of Free Methodism indigenized and fitted to the Southern context. Its restorationist ecclesiology was similar to that of the numerous Campbellites and Landmark Baptists of the area, striking at the roots of any hierarchy that might impede the free work of an evangelist. Nevertheless, the movement’s heart was the proclamation of the Wesleyan-holiness message. The new church order explicitly recognized the right of women to join men in preaching the gospel. (14)


Women preachers played an essential role in the origin of the new religious movement. Harris was in the grip of advanced tuberculosis as the movement began, and he relied on Susie Sherman and Emma Woodcock, preachers from the Vanguard Mission in St. Louis, to help preach and assist his work. Miss Sherman had begun preaching to the poor on the streets of St. Louis while still a girl, and both women had preached for the Pentecost Bands. In Milan, Tennessee, they preached at nearly half the services during a crucial three-month long revival that launched the New Testament Church of Christ. Both women were charter members of the new church. (15)


A distinctive sisterhood originated in that revival. Mary Lee Harris had direct and daily contact with the Vanguard preachers, who modeled the type of ministry to which she felt called. Her struggle with the call intensified, especially after Susie Sherman and Emma Woodcock moved to other labors in August. As her husband moved slowly but inexorably toward death, Mary reached a point of crisis in which she finally decided to bargain with God over her call. She locked herself in an upstairs room of the Mitchum house and told God she would preach if her husband only lived. As she struggled in prayer, however, the absurdity of trying to coerce the divine will sank in upon her, and she gave an unconditional assent to the call. When she told her husband she had been divinely called to preach, he received the news without surprise. Robert Lee Harris died in November, leaving a widow, a congregation, a statement of beliefs, and a group of committed lay people willing to carry forward the movement he had begun. (16)


The New Testament Church of Christ developed its early connectional system under the leadership of three women and a man. In addition to Mary Lee Harris, the trio of women included Donie Adams Mitchum of Milan and a young woman from Memphis named Elliot J. Sheeks. The fourth member of the leadership circle was Donie Mitchum’s husband, Milan businessman Robert Balie Mitchum. E. J. Sheeks’ husband, Edwin, was a reluctant member of the new movement and did not become active in its work until several years later. Robert Lee Harris had formed holiness bands in several nearby towns. Wherever possible, the women began organizing the bands into churches. At Cottage Grove, Tennessee, Mary Harris and Donie Mitchum met with the holiness band, preached and taught the doctrines of the new church’s faith and order, and organized the sect’s second congregation with about twenty charter members. (17)


Mary Harris traveled widely during the first year of her ministry. In Memphis, she conducted cottage meetings with E. J. Sheeks, visited the city jail, and held services in a home for unwed mothers. On the Kentucky-Tennessee border, she preached in a camp meeting revival at which she overcame the timidity that had hindered her earlier preaching


and developed a more dynamic and confident style. In the early summer of 1895, she conducted an evangelistic tour in Arkansas with Fannie McDowell Hunter of Fulton, Kentucky. Hunter had become acquainted with the Harrises earlier, possibly through a revival that Robert Lee Harris had conducted in Fulton at the behest of Mrs. Hunter’s father, John McDowell.


Born in about 1860 in Missouri, Fannie Hunter was the granddaughter of a circuit-riding Methodist missionary to the Indians. She was converted at twelve in Fulton, her childhood home, and at nineteen married Professor W. W. Hunter of Lebanon College. Three years later she was widowed and plunged into a deep religious crisis. Her spiritual renewal, dearly puchased, brought a greater seriousness about religion. Her involvement in holiness revivalism began as a music evangelist and broadened to include lay preaching.


In the summer of 1895, Fannie Hunter took Mary Lee Harris in hand and mentored her in the perils and challenges of an unmarried woman in gospel ministry. The two women traveled for several weeks in Arkansas, assisting a revival in Little Rock and preaching to inmates in the penitentiary. At the holiness camp meeting at Beebe, Mrs. Harris preached for several nights after W. A. Dodge of Georgia, the featured revivalist, canceled his appearance. From there, the two women went to Searcy, where they conducted a revival in the Southern Methodist church.


Upon her return to Milan, Mary Lee Harris assisted in revivals there and at Humboldt, Tennessee. That autumn she and Donie Mitchum conducted a revival in Gadsden, Tennessee. Public interest was so great that they moved to the larger sanctuary of the Methodist Church for several days before opposition to their ministry forced them back to the public hall. When the revival closed, Donie Mitchum wrote in her journal that it was because “we didn’t have room for the people.” (18)


In November, William B. Godbey visited Milan and presented a series of lectures on millenial themes. Three years earlier Godbey had published Victory, a booklet linking Christ’s return to the preaching ministry of women. Seizing upon Psalm 68:11 (which he took from the Revised Version, “God giveth the word, and the women who published it are a great host”), Godbey affirmed: “Glory to God for this prophetic vision of hosts and armies of women going forth preaching the gospel to all nations. The fulfillment of this vision is to bring the Millenium.” Along the same line, Godbey published the pamphlet Woman Preacher in 1891, setting forth arguments for allowing women to preach. The specific substance of


Godbey’s Milan lectures is unknown, but his affirmation of ministry by women no doubt encouraged the female ministers of the New Testament Church of Christ. (19)


A few weeks later, Mary Lee Harris went to Texas for Christmas and was invited to conduct a revival in Swedonia, a Scandinavian settlement near Abilene. In January 1896, she organized at Swedonia the first congregation of the New Testament Church of Christ in Texas. Before returning to Tennessee, Mrs. Harris conducted three more revivals and organized two other congregations in Texas. (20)


The level of activity in her first year of ministry was sustained for nearly forty more years, except for periods of recuperation from exhaustion. She developed a rhythm of ministry that gravitated between summertime revivals and wintertime pastorates. After 1896 her attention focused primarily on the churches in Texas. In 1899 she settled permanently in Buffalo Gap, twenty miles southeast of Abilene. She conducted revivals where she could, at camp meetings, in brush arbors, in canyons, and in church houses. Wherever possible she organized new congregations.


The New Testament Church of Christ continued in Tennessee under the leadership of the Mitchums. Until she moved to Nashville in 1905, Donie Mitchum was an active lay preacher, serving several churches as pastor and holding revivals in West Tennessee and North Alabama. In Arkansas, the sect expanded initially from the efforts of E. J. Sheeks. A continual supply of new ministers, male and female, entered the church. Mary Lee Harris, E. J. Sheeks, and George Hammond were ordained in 1899 after the “mother church” at Milan, Tennessee, elected them to elder’s orders.


That year an Eastern Council of churches began to take form, and by 1900 it included twelve congregations and twice that many preaching points in Tennessee and Arkansas. (21)


The work in Texas was nearly equal to that in the Eastern Council. Among the western preachers was Henry C. Cagle, a young cowboy that Mary Harris married in August 1900. Converted, sanctified, and called to preach under his new wife’s ministry, Cagle’s experience illustrated the positive impact that the preaching of liberated women could enjoy, even in the muscular world of the cowboy. In 1902, Mary Lee Cagle issued a call for a convening of representatives from the various churches in Texas, and in November they established the Texas Council of the denomination. That council was the basis for the later Abilene District of the Church of the Nazarene, which today embraces the West Texas, San Antonio, and New Mexico Districts. (22)


A pattern of sisterhood that emerged in the New Testament church of Christ had roots in a closeknit pietist circle that originally included Mary Cagle, E. J. Sheeks, and Donie Mitchum. Outside this circle were larger, concentric circles that embraced Fannie McDowell Hunter and others. In her early ministry, for instance, Mrs. Sheeks traveled with Mrs. A. E. Masterman of St. Louis as her companion. Mary Cagle was accompanied often in her early ministry by Annie May Johnson, a young preacher, and Trena Platt, a musician. Platt’s entry into itinerant ministry is instructive. It illustrates that hearing a woman preach could be a powerful and awakening experience for other women. Raised to be a proper Presbyterian, Miss Platt agreed to play the organ at a revival conducted in 1897 at Hillville, Tennessee, by Donie Mitchum and E. J. Sheeks. Two years later, Platt wrote that at Hillville “it was not only my pleasure but my first privilege of hearing the Gospel preached by women only.” As her comment attests, women-led revivals generated a sense of sisterhood and female worth within the context of religious experience.


Miss Platt joined the other women in itinerant ministry and from 1897 to 1901 accompanied Mary Lee Cagle, providing companionship, music, and assisting in general revival work. Annie May Johnson of Swedonia, Texas heard Mary Cagle preach in 1895 and was sanctified in that meeting and called to preach soon afterward. Miss Johnson participated with Mrs. Cagle in subsequent revivals in Texas and Tennessee. She became an ordained elder, married Rev. William E. Fisher, and played a prominent role with her husband in the West Texas holiness revival.


Mrs. E. J. Sheeks’ ministry was also inspired, in part, by Mary Cagle’s. Though a charter member of the Milan, Tennessee church, E. J. Sheeks did not profess a call to preach until nearly two years later. When she did so, it was while assisting Mrs. Cagle in a revival in Arkansas. As a young girl, Mrs. Sheeks had heard the preaching of Rev. Louisa Woosley, a famous evangelist in the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. Mrs. Woosley had impressed the girl favorably, but Sheeks’ actual entry into the ministry was encouraged and sustained more directly by her immediate friends, Mary Lee Cagle and Donie Mitchum. The strong sense of sisterhood among women of the denomination heightened the sense of ecclesial community typical of the believers’ church mentality and helped women identify more definitely with their sense of divine call. (23)


Apologetic for Women Preachers


The apologetic literature produced by the women in Mary Cagle’s circle symbolized their unique sisterhood. There was constant need for a reasoned defense of female ministry. In their revivals Mary Cagle and Donie Mitchum regularly preached a stock sermon defending the basis for a woman’s public ministry. In 1903, Annie Johnson Fisher published Woman’s Right to Preach, a pamphlet based on a sermon delivered at Chilton, Texas. But it fell to Fannie McDowell Hunter to frame the issue in a way unique in the apologetics of female ministry. Hunter moved to Texas in 1901, spending the summer in revivals with Mary Lee Cagle and Trena Platt in West Texas. In the fall, she joined the staff of Texas Holiness University, then under president A. M. Hills, serving as matron of women students. In 1903 she became pastor of the New Testament Church of Christ at Rising Star, Texas. There, in 1904, she was host pastor of a union council at which the New Testament Church of Christ united with the Independent Holiness Church under C. B. Jernigan and J. B. Chapman, creating a new entity, the Holiness Church of Christ. (24)


Two books appeared the following year testifying to the nature of this new denomination. One was its official church Manual and the other was Women Preachers, a work edited and more than half written by Mrs. Hunter. Women Preachers differed from other works of its genre by its collective nature. Exactly half the book summarized standard arguments for the ministry of women, developed in the previous half century and published in apologies by Phoebe Palmer, B. T. Roberts, Catherine Booth, and others. (25)


But Women Preachers was distinguished from others of its kind by the narrative structure that comprised the second half of the book. Nine call narratives were published. Seven were written by women of the former New Testament Church of Christ, including Fannie Hunter, Mary Cagle, Donie Mitchum, E. J. Sheeks, Annie Johnson Fisher, Fannie Suddarth, and Miss Lillian Poole.


Another contributer was Rev. Johnny Hill Jernigan , a fearless preacher and advocate of women from the Independent Holiness Church wing of the Holiness Church of Christ. The inclusion of Johnny Jernigan’s call narrative underscored the similarity in democratic ethos that characterized both parent bodies of the Holiness Church of Christ. Mrs. Jernigan had been ordained at the same time as her husband, in a service conducted in 1902 by Seth C. Rees under the auspices of the Apostolic Holiness Union. The last contributer was Rev. Eliza J. Rutherford, a Methodist Protestant evangelist who united with the Church of the Nazarene in the 1920s. “Who gave thee this authority?” was the provocative question printed on the book’s front cover.


The call narratives affirmed the conviction of the women that their authority to preach was divinely given and stood above all human prejudice to the contrary. Fannie McDowell Hunter dedicated the book “To my beloved sisters, who are anointed by the Holy Spirit and commissioned, like Mary of old, to tell the sorrowing of their risen Lord, and who, as they go on their blessed mission for the Master, often meet the opposition and scorn of their opponents.” Whether scorned or not, ordained women had an unmeasurable impact on the Holiness Church of Christ. Twenty-three of the denomination’s 156 ordained clergy in December of 1906 were women. Thirteen of these were married to a clergyman, so that nearly one in four elders was either a female minister or her spouse. By 1908, the year the Holiness Church of Christ merged with the Pentecostal Church of the Nazarene, women composed 17% of the Southern church’s ordained ministry and nearly 21% of its licensed ministers. Their influence had been exerted on virtually every aspect of denominational life, including pastoral ministry, evangelism, home missions, foreign missions, and rescue ministries. (26)


Before and after the merger with the Nazarenes, Mary Lee Cagle’s contribution was impressive. In the Nazarene period, she continued to carve an enviable role as a founder of new congregations, taking a leading role in establishing churches in Abilene, Lubbock, and many smaller places. At least eighteen congregations were founded directly by her and dozens of others with her assistance. In Lubbock, she and Henry Cagle were founding copastors in 1909. With her oversight, this congregation erected a building seating over 500 people, praised as the finest Nazarene facility in the Southwest at the time. (27)


Over the next forty years, the Cagles held revivals from Tennessee to Arizona and from El Paso north to Cheyenne, Wyoming. When H. C. Cagle was uperintendent of the New Mexico District from 1918-1920, Mary Lee Cagle served as the elected district evangelist. While he was superintendent of the Arizona District from 1920-1922, she pastored the church at Peoria, the largest on the district. And when he was superintendent of the Hamlin District (later Abilene, now West Texas District) from 1926-1931, she served part of that time as the appointed assistant district superintendent and later as district evangelist. She reported to the Hamlin District assembly in 1927:


Our work has not been with the larger churches, but with the weak struggling ones. I have held 13 revival meetings, preached 175 times, saw 216 converted and 118 sanctified, and . . . have travelled about 10,000 miles in a car and have made a few trips on the train. I have visited practically all of the churches in the district and some of them more than once.


The following year, she apologized to the district assembly for a physical breakdown that had slowed her work, adding that God “showed me that it would please Him for me to come apart and rest awhile, so I took three weeks off and only preached twice.” From 1908 to 1928 she was a delegate to every General Assembly of the Church of the Nazarene and served each on the critical Manual Revision Committee. Her influence in district affairs can be gauged by the ballot of the Hamlin District that elected her to the 1923 General Assembly. Out of sixty ordained elders eligible for election, she received the highest number of votes, outpolling by nineteen votes Rev. Emma Irick, popular wife of the current district superintendent, and by forty votes her own husband Henry, who had just terminated his superintendency of the Arizona District. (28)


Mary Cagle’s personal struggle to overcome prejudice against her ministry solely on the basis of gender gave her empathy with a broad range of marginalized and dispossessed people. She wrote with a deep sense of compassion about those to whom she ministered in jails and prisons, stating that her first experience in prison ministry “gave her a greater degree of sympathy for the suffering” that remained throughout life. In Alabama in the 1890s, as new Jim Crow laws were legalizing racial segregation throughout the South, she accepted invitations to preach in black churches, contrary to the express wishes of members of her family. She supported rescue ministries aimed at prostitutes and unwed mothers. In 1904, for instance, she conducted a revival in the Dallas slums on behalf of Rev. J. T. Upchurch, founder of the Berachah Rescue Society. The meeting helped initiate the work of the society in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and greatly assisted the ministry in relocating from Waco to Arlington. People converted or called to preach under Mary Cagle’s ministry filled staff positions in the Berachah Home and at Rest Cottage for unwed mothers.


Mrs. Cagle’s own ministry of revivalism was directed primarily toward those who struggled in life. When she settled in Texas, her call was particularly to minister to those in small and out-of-the-way places. She defied today’s conventional church growth orthodoxy by choosing to minister in transitional communities. Her identification with cowboys was an expression of this mindset, for the cowboy was typically, in the apt words of a recent journalist, “young, single, dirt poor and Southern,” and, like Mary Cagle, “a fugitive from his father’s farm.” In her autobiography she repeatedly referred to holding meetings in “the little neglected places.” Even the legalistic emphasis of her preaching was shaped partly by her identification with the dispossessed. Though her sermons against the worldliness of rings and jewelry strike later generations as narrow, her practice was to sell jewelry and use the money to support food and orphanage ministries in India. (29)


Mary Lee Cagle preached regularly until 1948, and occasionally thereafter. She preached her last sermon on her birthday in 1954. Blind and supported by strong friends on either side, she preached for a half-hour with what the Abilene Reporter News described as “her usual vim and vigor.” (30)


She died the following year. Her life demonstrates the complexity of female ministry in a society that expected her to maintain the integrity of woman’s sphere. Her willingness to step outside that sphere and wear the badge of a religious dissenter demonstrated her choice of conscience over sheer obedience to established religious structures that would not affirm her call. The early struggle with her call was frustrated by the lack of a sympathetic sisterhood. Her ability later to accept the call was enabled by the presence of such a sisterhood, and she became a faithful sister to others in her turn.


When the Church of the Nazarene took shape through mergers in 1907 and 1908, thirteen percent of its ordained ministry was female, and over half were in Mary Cagle’s section of the country. (31)


As co-creators of nineteenth century holiness sects and a twentieth century holiness denomination, Mary Cagle and her female associates created a place to preach, expecting their work to secure permanently an inclusive ministry in the Church of the Nazarene, so that future generations of women could build new ministries on their shoulders and not have to refight the old battle for a place to serve. That dream seemed secure until the 1940s, when female ministry began to wane in the Church of the Nazarene. The bright hope of Mary Cagle and her sisters in ministry is greatly diminished among Nazarene women today. (32) As the denomination she cofounded now struggles with its identity, there is no predictable answer to the question of whether it will renew its covenant with its founding principles. One thing is predictable, however. If Mary Lee Cagle were a Nazarene today, she would fight the good fight again.


Ingersol, Stan. The Ministry of Mary Lee Cagle: A Study in Women’s History and Religion, Wesleyan Theological Journal 28, no. 1 and 2 (Spring-Fall,1993): 176-198.


No comments yet.

Leave a Reply