Ida Gage is one of many forgotten Free Methodist women evangelists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. However, while Ida might have been overlooked in the larger denominational histories, her legacy lives on through her speech at the 1890 General Conference and the debate on ordaining women. In 1890 Ida wasn’t a licensed evangelist. She was just a member of the denomination who had previous experience preaching in Michigan, and was responding to a call to serve within the Free Methodist denomination. By 1892 she was “on supply,” meaning she was traveling and preaching for the Ohio Free Methodist Conference. By 1893 she was a licensed evangelist who traveled around the northern part of Ohio. She spent several years in Bowling Green, Ohio, preaching and also preached as far south as Mansfield, Ohio. While the denomination refused to grant her the status of ordained elder, she was not deterred. She didn’t give up hope in her faith or her denomination and she continued to pursue her call to ministry. Like B.T. Roberts Gage believed that the Free Methodist Church could not support racial equality and ignore gender equality. Her debate at the 1890 Conference shows her spirit and fire as she defends her right to ministry after Olin Owen, a delegate from the Susquehanna Conference, speaks up in opposition of women in leadership. As Owen explains:
“My contention is that God designed that man should be the leader and ruler, and just as the word says, ‘Woman shall be a helpmeet unto him.’ We have a President in the United States and a vice-president, and no one would content that the vice-president was equal in authority to the President. He is simply a helper in official matters”
Ida responds with such passion that when I first read her speech a year ago I knew I had to find out more about this women. As Ida retorts:
“Referring to what my brother from the Susquehanna Conference said with regard to the president and vice president of the United States, if I have a proper understanding the vice president has the authority to perform all the duties of the president in his absence. I come to you as a vice president, and I wish this question could be settled. I am not an enthusiast on this subject. I am in sympathy with the brother who is in the canoe with the sisters, because, of course, their situation seems to be perilous at times. My brother who spoke on my left favorable referred to a certain illustration, which, to my mind, was out of place, and yet, looking at it in the light that when our sisters leave their children with their neighbors to go berrying, or help their husbands dig potatoes, no one criticizes it at all. But when they go out to rescue the lost and unsaved, there is a great deal of comment made. I feel very much like the colored man when he thanked God for the ‘sperience.’ My brother says that this is not a testimony meeting, but I want to say a few words. I have ‘sperience’ on this line. Some years ago, when bound by infidelity and atheism, God sent some blessed salvation planks floating down my way. I experienced religion and enjoyed it for fifteen days. God say fit to lay His hands upon me. I lost my strength, and there he saw fit to make me go forth and preach His gospel. When I arose from under the influence of the Spirit and left the room, I settled in for time and eternity. I do not think the brethren intend to say things that hurt, but really my heart has been hurt to the core.
My relatives all opposed me. I waded through my mother’s opposition. I reached the place where it was this way or the Kalamazoo. I was living in Michigan at this time. You take this privilege from me (preaching) and you make me an infidel.”
Ida goes on to note that she feels called to preach and the opposition to ordaining women is very much like the opposition to free the slaves. As she says, “The same argument was offered against the abolition of slavery. It was said Abraham Lincoln regarding the emancipation of the colored people. Their ‘massas’ are better to them than anyone else would be. God bless our dear ‘massas.’ I do not want them as sure as I live”
Like Clara Wetherald noted in her address at the 1890 conference, Ida notes that while she has preached in the Free Methodist church she has gone to areas where no pastor was within twenty miles. People would beg her to baptize their children, but she didn’t have the authority. As she said, “I supposed they thought I was either lazy or indifferent in the matter.” She couldn’t articulate a good reason why she couldn’t perform the service because there was no good reason except the bureaucracy of the demonization.
Ida concludes her speech with one final passionate plea, “Another argument that is brought up against the ordination of woman is that the woman is not capable of enduring. I had always been slender and weakly, and was at one time a total invalid. I was given up to die a number of times, but since I have been in the work of the Lord I have come to use this expression, ‘I can stand as much as an iron woman.’ I think the nearest we will ever get to heaven is in the home. If a man is the head of the woman in every sense of the world, what then is the situation of the widow?”
Several things emerge about Ida through this speech. First, she clearly has the gift of oratory and is an eloquent, passionate public speaker. Second, her past seems troubled she speaks of “infidelity and atheism.” While much of Ida’s personal history is still missing, two tidbits of information have come up. By the 1880 U.S. Census she has moved to Michigan, which she also notes that she preached and lived with relatives in Michigan for a time later in her speech. For the 1880 Census she notes that she is married, but her husband isn’t listed at her residence. True, Ida L. Gage is a common name. Yet, I find, out of all the historical records I’ve been digging through, that these are the most promising leads in connection with what she talks about her family and life in her speech. She had a rough time, but faith sustained her through personal trials.
As she embarks on her ministry in the Free Methodist Church she appears in numerous local newspapers from 1897 through 1906. In all those social notices of her preaching engagements she is listed as Rev. Ida Gage, but no spouse is ever referred to. At one point in December 1901 the Elyria Reporter notes a Mr. Gage came to visit her. We can assume this was her husband visiting or another family member. Another fascinating aspect of Ida is her health. She alludes to falling ill in her 1890 address and in the Elyria Weekly Chronicle in December 1903 the paper says that Rev. Ida Gage had been seriously ill, but was now recovering. Her date of death is estimated to be around 1916, which would put her in her mid fifties or early sixties. However, much of who she was still remains unclear. Yet one thing is clear. Ida Gage was breaking gender norms left and right. She was a successful evangelist, preacher and leader of the local Sunday School Union in Ridgeville Township Ohio (1902-1904). She appears to have suffered from a complicated marriage the life of a circuit-riding preacher was not an easy career, especially for a married woman.
As I do more archival research on who Ida Gage really was, I will continue to provide updates. Ida Gage was a woman who was not bound by traditional nineteenth century norms. She had a calling and she was going to follow it no matter what.