WOMEN OF SPIRITUAL INFLUENCE
By LORETTA FULTON
During March, which is Women’s History Month, Spirit of Abilene will feature posts from contributors about women of spiritual influence in the Bible, in their personal lives, and from history.
Below is a story I wrote for the Abilene Reporter-News for Women’s History Month in 2016. It is about a woman who was a giant in the Holiness tradition, Mary Lee Cagle. If you’ve ever been to the Nazarene Church in the Taylor County History Center, formerly known as the Buffalo Gap Historic village, you have stepped into a monument to Cagle’s legacy. Cagle arrived in Buffalo Gap in 1895 and was the preacher at that church until the end of her life.
Also on Spirit of Abilene you will find a post from Leslie Strader of Tyler, who grew up in Abilene. She is a frequent contributor to Spirit of Abilene. Her first post is on Rahab from the Old Testament. Later this month, her piece on Ruth will be posted.
And, on Spirit of Abilene is a post from another regular contributor, Nancy Patrick, about Alice Paul, a vocal leader of the 20th century women’s suffrage movement. Paul was a Quaker who did not sanction violence but who treated violently in prison when she went on a hunger strike.
More posts on women of spiritual influence will be added throughout March.
A special thanks to Hardin-Simmons University student Kirsten Patterson for designing the Women of Influence graphic. A very talented young lady!
MARY LEE CAGLE
To see the video, “Rebels in the Pulpit: Early Alabama Women Clergy,” about Mary Lee Cagle, go to https://vimeo.com/15436883.
By Loretta Fulton
Special to the Reporter-News
April 2, 2016
Today, just about the only time Mary Lee Cagle’s name gets mentioned is when someone visits the Nazarene chapel in the Buffalo Gap Historic Village and reads an information placard about her.
But it wasn’t always that way. Cagle was quite a sensation in her day. And she made her name right here in our own backyard. Cagle founded the Nazarene congregation at Buffalo Gap when she came west from her native Alabama in 1895. Cagle defied her family and society by becoming a preacher at a time when women weren’t accepted in the pulpit.
She was a trailblazer and deserving of mention along with other women honored during Women’s History Month, which is observed each March. Stan Ingersol, archivist for the Church of the Nazarene Global Ministry Center in Kansas, would be the first to put her on that same pedestal.
“In my opinion, she was the most significant of the early women preachers in the Nazarene Church,” Ingersol said. “She was really the pioneer.”
Ingersol first heard of Cagle when he attended Southern Nazarene University in Bethany, Okla. He was so fascinated with Cagle’s story that he wrote his dissertation about her when he earned a doctorate from Duke University Divinity School in 1989. Title of the dissertation was “Burden of Dissent: Mary Lee Cagle and the Southern Holiness Movement.”
To this day, Ingersol still gets an occasional inquiry about the woman who he called a role model for women of later generations who followed her path into ministry.
“I don’t get a lot,” he said in a telephone interview, “but they do pop up from time to time.”
And he is more than happy to talk about the woman and her remarkable story. In addition to writing his doctoral dissertation about Cagle, Ingersol also was featured in a video about her that was made by the Center for Public Television and Radio at the University of Alabama.
Cagle was born Mary Lee Wasson on Sept. 21, 1864, in Lawrence County, Ala. She was the daughter of John and Nancy Wasson. According to Ingersol’s research, Cagle was raised as a Methodist and wanted to become a missionary. She was discouraged in that calling and instead became a school teacher.
In 1891, she married Robert Lee Harris, a Texas revivalist who had lived in Alabama as a child. Harris was a preacher in the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. In 1894, Harris broke with the Methodist Church and launched a new holiness denomination known as the New Testament Church of Christ.
When he died a few months later, Mary Lee and two other women were responsible for expanding the new denomination. Mary Lee made it all the way to Buffalo Gap in 1895 and three years later organized a congregation that would become affiliated with the Church of the Nazarene.
Mary Lee also met a cowhand named H.C. Cagle when she moved to Buffalo Gap. First she converted him, and then she married him. According to Ingersol’s research, an estimated 1,000 people gathered at the reunion grounds in Buffalo Gap to witness their marriage on Aug. 8, 1900. H.C., under Mary Lee’s guidance, gave up being a cowhand and became a preacher.
According to Ingersol, Mary Lee Cagle convened the first annual meeting of the Texas Council of the New Testament Church of Christ in 1902. In 1904, she helped create the Holiness Church of Christ by leading her organization into union with the Independent Holiness Church. In 1908, the holiness denominations merged to form the present day Church of the Nazarene.
In 1908, Cagle’s congregations in West Texas formed the Hamlin District, which later became the Abilene District, and then the West Texas District of the Church of the Nazarene.
“No other woman is really responsible for creating a whole district,” Ingersol said.
Ingersol said a newspaper story he came across in his research referred to Cagle as “The Mother of Holiness in West Texas.”
Ingersol said he learned from researching Cagle’s life that she gained acceptance as a preacher because she kept her emotions intact.
“When there were tears,” he said, “it was out of compassion,” not emotion.
Long before Cagle earned the title of “The Mother of Holiness in West Texas,” she had struggled to gain acceptance, even among family members. The video about her life tells of her parents’ bitterness about her desire to become a preacher. A relative threatened to stop Cagle’s nephews from calling her “Aunt Mary” if she continued her path toward preaching.
A scene in the video tells of Mary Lee bargaining with God to spare her husband, H.C. Cagle, when he was stricken with consumption.
“Lord,” she prayed, “If you will heal my husband, I will preach.”
According to the video, God responded, “Whether I heal your husband or not, won’t you do what I ask?”
Her husband died a few days later, and Mary Lee took up preaching.
“From that day,” the video says, “she never wavered again about her call.”
Cagle died in 1955 and is buried in the Buffalo Gap Cemetery. According to an article in the Reporter-News, Cagle had been bedfast for two years. She made one of her last pulpit appearances on her 89th birthday in Rotan. She was carried to the front of the church, according to the article, where her career was summarized.
“After the eulogies,” the article stated, “she was assisted to the pulpit where, supported by friends, she delivered a 30-minute sermon.”