Fearing the unconventional, she sublimated her call to preach, becoming a school teacher, and later marrying a revivalist whom she “assisted.” She yielded to the call only as her husband lay dying of tuberculosis. At 30, she became a widow with a small circle of close friends, a congregation in Milan, Tennessee, and a call.
Mary’s path to ministry was illuminated by mentors and role models. Her husband, Robert Lee Harris, was the first. She crisscrossed the South with him for three years, absorbing the revivalist’s idioms and methods. Then, in the critical summer of 1894, women from St. Louis’ Vanguard Mission came to Milan to help Harris launch a new church movement there. Susie Sherman and Grace George shared the preaching duties with Harris. For the first time, Mary witnessed women preach from the pulpit. Upon Harris’s death in November, Fannie McDowell Hunter, also a widow, showed Mary how single women could navigate the patriarchal world of Southern religion. They travelled as a team, and while preaching in Kentucky, Mary experienced a “full deliverance” from the “man-fearing spirit.”
Her leadership emerged as she undertook aggressive church planting in west Tennessee, using the manual that Harris had written for the Milan congregation. Then, in December 1895, she visited west Texas, organizing three churches near Abilene after a series of revivals. She organized more churches there in ensuing years, and made this her home, shortly after her ordination as an elder at the New Testament Church of Christ’s first denominational meeting in Milan in November 1899. The next August, she married Henry Cagle, a cowhand converted and called to preach under her ministry. He was 10 years younger, had “broad shoulders,” was “a good man with a team” of horses, and “a great asset to her work.” 2
In 1901, Mary summoned delegates from the various holiness churches in west Texas. At the ensuing meeting, she organized the Texas Council of the New Testament Church of Christ—the nucleus of the West Texas District. In east Texas, Charles McConnell, the Pentecostal Advocate’s editor, hailed her as “the Mother of Holiness in the West.” In 1962, historian Timothy Smith highlighted her superintending role over the churches and pastors in west Texas in Called Unto Holiness.
A white-haired Mary Cagle, seated middle front, is holding the hands of the women on her left and right during the 1928 General Assembly.
As an effective leader, Mary Cagle learned to compromise. Initially, she zealously defended R. L. Harris’ view that pouring, as a foreshadowing of Spirit baptism, was the only scriptural mode of water baptism. She argued this in 1904, during merger talks with C. B. Jernigan’s east Texas group, but accepted her place in a wider body, the Holiness Church of Christ, which recognized three modes of baptism. This compromise, and others, paved the way for the 1908 merger with the Pentecostal Nazarenes at Pilot Point. It also led to a remarkable scene. The Cagles entered a New Mexico community where clergy rarely visited. Upon request, they held a baptism service that drew scores of people. “They baptized every way under the sun . . . They dipped, they plunged, they poured, they sprinkled and they baptized babies. It was a time of rejoicing; and the shouts of the redeemed echoed and re-echoed through the hills.” 3
Good leaders become role models, and Mary Cagle inspired others to enter the ministry. Annie Johnson of Swedonia, Texas, and Elliot Sheeks of Memphis were among the first. Many others followed. Women Preachers (1905) featured the call narratives of nine Southern women—seven from Mary’s immediate circle. After Pilot Point, over half of the united church’s women elders were located in the South. A photograph of women preachers attending the Seventh General Assembly (1928) depicts nearly 90 women. A white-haired Mary Cagle, seated middle front, is holding the hands of the women on her left and right. She was a faithful sister to other women in ministry.
The Cagles started new churches in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and Wyoming. They were founding pastors of Lubbock (Texas) First and dedicated a new sanctuary seating over 500, less than two years after the church’s founding. They alternated between being pastors and evangelists. Preaching was Mary’s essential task in each capacity. A Baptist pastor noted her pulpit dignity and the orderliness of her revival meetings.
On three districts (Arizona, New Mexico, and West Texas), Henry Cagle was district superintendent, while Mary Cagle was elected district evangelist. He covered district administration, while she held revivals and planted churches, preaching 175 times one year, and travelling over 10,000 miles by car.4 She was repeatedly the first clergy delegate elected to represent her district at general assembly.
Mary Cagle was blind when she preached on her 90th birthday. An Abilene newspaper noted that she preached “with her usual vim and enthusiasm” for a half-hour. She died in 1955 at her home in Buffalo Gap, Texas.
Mary Lee Cagle was the principled leader who understood that conviction and compromise are not contradictory. After overcoming her timid nature and a fear of social disapproval for assuming a traditionally male role, her leadership style was characterized by grit, fruitfulness, and unshakeable faith that God worked in her life and ministry.
1 Diane Stafford, “A Leader Doesn’t Require a Title,” Kansas City Star (Nov. 21, 2010).
2 Mary Lee Cagle, Life and Work of Mary Lee Cagle (Kansas City: NPH, 1928), 84-85.
3 Ibid., 119.
4 Hamlin District, Proceedings, 1927, pp. 28-29.