‘Mother of Holiness in West Texas’ Gets New Exhibit
By LORETTA FULTON
Kenna Hogan was on a tour of the Buffalo Gap Historic Village as a college intern when she first learned about the Rev. Mary Lee Cagle, “The Mother of Holiness in West Texas.”
It would take a few more years, but Hogan finally got the opportunity to make Cagle’s story more accessible for visitors to the village, which now is known as the Taylor County History Center. Today, Hogan is curator and director of development for the history center. Thanks to Hogan’s interest and hard work, Cagle is getting the attention she deserves as one of the premiere “holiness” ministers of her day.
Cagle left her native Alabama and headed west in the late 1800’s, looking for places more receptive to women preachers. She settled in Buffalo Gap in 1885 and three years later established what would become a Nazarene church.
Visitors to the new exhibit in that church, which is located on the grounds of the history center, will understand why Hogan was so attracted to Cagle’s story when she learned about her as a student at McMurry University.
“That’s kind of what brought about this exhibit” Hogan said. “I wanted to be able to really tell her story and share it with visitors.”
Aided by a grant from the Community Foundation of Abilene, Hogan developed a full-scale exhibit about Cagle. Photos and documents, plus informational cards–all displayed in clear acrylic panels–hang on the walls in the back of the chapel.
Taylor County History Center
(Buffalo Gap Historic Village)
Mary Lee Cagle exhibit in the chapel
Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday – Saturday
To see a video about Mary Lee Cagle, “Rebels in the Pulpit: Early Alabama Women Clergy,” go to https://vimeo.com/15436883.
One of the informational plaques is titled, “A Woman’s Right to Preach.” It is an excerpt taken from a sermon of that name that Cagle wrote in 1896 and preached many times during her years as a minister.
The “right to preach” sermon excerpt ends with a verse from the Old Testament, Joel 2:28: “Your sons and daughters shall prophesy.” And to that, Cagle added her own prophecy:
“No matter what men have to say about women preaching, God said, ‘She shall.’ And when God says, ‘She shall,’ by the grace of God ‘She will.’”
Cagle found such a receptive audience for her sermons in Buffalo Gap that a new chapel to house the growing congregation was needed by 1902. It was built a few blocks from its present location and later moved onto the grounds of the historic village.
Hogan’s research for the Cagle exhibit led her to Stan Ingersol, archives manager for the Church of the Nazarene Global Ministry Center in in Lenexa, Kansas, southwest of Kansas City. Ingersol wrote his dissertation on Cagle while earning a doctorate at Duke University. A newspaper article Ingersol came across in his research referred to Cagle as “The Mother of Holiness in West Texas.”
Ingersol has never been to Buffalo Gap to see the chapel that Cagle founded, but his interest and fascination with her have deep roots. He first learned about Cagle when he was a student at Southern Nazarene University in Bethany, Oklahoma.
“In my opinion, she was the most significant of the early women preachers in the Nazarene Church,” Ingersol said. “She was really the pioneer.”
An informational plaque in the exhibit outlines the chapel’s history, along with Cagle’s. The chapel was built under the New Testament Church of Christ denomination. The plaque notes that Cagle “was an influential member of a group of female preachers who began traveling and organizing evangelical meetings throughout the South in the 1890s. She oversaw a growing network of congregations and became a co-founder of the Nazarene faith after the Holiness New Testament Church of Christ merged with the Pentecostal Church of the Nazarene during a conference in Pilot Point, Texas, in 1908.”
Cagle’s story is fascinating from a historical point of view and also from a faith perspective. Cagle met resistance from her own family when she announced that she felt called to preach. She was born Mary Lee Wasson on Sept. 21, 1864, in Lawrence County, Alabama, to John and Nancy Wasson. 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, he broke with the Methodist Church and launched a new holiness denomination known as the New Testament Church of Christ.
When Harris died a few months later, Mary Lee and two other women expanded 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.
She also met a cowhand in Buffalo Gap named H.C. Cagle. First she converted him, the she married him.
According to Ingersol’s research, an estimated 1,000 people gathered in 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.
Another historical tidbit–Dr. Virginia Boyd Connally, Abilene’s first female physician, was one of Cagle’s doctors. Connally specialized in diseases of the eye, ear, nose, and throat.
Cagle died in 1955 and was buried in the Buffalo Gap Cemetery. According to an article in the Abilene 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, 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.
Loretta Fulton is creator and editor of Spirit of Abilene