Ida Gage: A Pioneering Evangelist

Note: This is an updated entry from 2011 when I was writing my dissertation. I’m in the process of updating and adding archival information on Free Methodist women evangelist for a book contract I have with Fortress Academic. The portion in italics is new information on Ida.

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Ida Gage (Photo Courtesy of the Tingley Family)

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:

Owen notes:

“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.

Family memoirs note that Mr. Gage was in fact Charles Gage, her husband, but by 1900 they were no longer living together. When she was appointed to the Cleveland circuit she moved without him while he was visiting family in Michigan. Her daughter Edith notes that her mother had been a schoolteacher early in life while her father was illiterate and never learned to read or write. In Edith’s family stories there is no indication that he was also a Christian. In fact, according to Edith, one of Ida’s main objections to her beau Eugene Tingley was he wasn’t a Christian. It shows the family dynamics that when Eugene wanted to begin courting Edith it was not Charles he went to for permission; it was Ida. Eugene did convert to Christianity and the couple were married in May 1900.

Eugene actually went into ministry as well in the Ohio Free Methodist Conference and Ida assisted him. Ohio Conference Minutes confirm this and note that in 1906 Eugene asked for a recommendation to the Michigan Conference. He would be attending Spring Arbor Seminary that fall and Ida would follow them.

From 1907-1908 Ida appears in the Michigan Conference Minutes as licensed conference evangelist. This is an important distinction. The Free Methodist Discipline outlines the differences between an “evangelist” and “conference evangelist,” noting that a conference evangelist went through the same training as local pastors (men) and was approved by the annual conference. Evangelists were approved by the quarterly conference, implying that they were under more intensive supervision than those licensed and reviewed on a yearly basis.

The fact that Ida’s conference license was allowed to transfer from Ohio to Michigan shows the level of respect she held within the denomination. That is further illustrated in 1909 when the Michigan Conference appoints her to the Jasper and Seneca Circuit for a year.

While in Michigan, Ida also served as the matron for the dorm at Spring Arbor Seminary. Eugene only attended Spring Arbor for a year and did not graduate but Ida remained at Spring Arbor until she moved to California with Eugene and Edith in 1910. As they prepared to move, Edith recalled the seminary students made the family candy for the road. 

From the period of 1910-1911 Ida is not listed in any Free Methodist Conference. However, this isn’t surprising. Edith’s memoir notes Ida’s ministry changed when she moved to California. Instead of preaching on a circuit she largely worked as a nurse but she did renew her conference evangelist license with the Southern California Conference in 1912 so perhaps she combined the two occupations.

While working as a nurse she met her second husband Jesse Wood. Jesse was a United Methodist minister in Huntington Park, California. The one hitch to their romance was Ida was still technically married to Charles Gage even though the couple had not lived together in over ten years. With the help of Jesse’s son who was the public defender for Los Angeles County she filed for and was granted a divorce. 

Her daughter Edith was not thrilled with this development and her memoir says her mother never preached again. As Edith says “My mothers saw many souls accept the Lord, but after she left my father, she never saw another soul saved and soon quit preaching.” (“Divorce and Remarriage Narrative” in Tingley Memoir)

If that was taken at face value (which unfortunately I did do when I wrote my dissertation) it would seem that there was a judgement on Ida for her divorce. However, nothing indicates that. Her story is extraordinary. The Book of Discipline did not recognize  divorce for any reason except adultery, and Ida’s divorce petition does not indicate that as the reason. So, its a very gray area if the denomination actually approved of her actions. Yet, they did not deny her an evangelists license. 

After her remarriage she is licensed in Southern California under the name Ida Gage Wood from 1912-1914. Ida passed away from cancer in 1915 so for the final years of her life she remained in active ministry, uncensored by her divorce.

Did she just somehow escape censorship because she was so prolific in ministry or perhaps was the Southern California Conference less concerned with that particular portion of The Discipline? It’s unclear. What is clear is like the other women I’m researching she was able to cross gender norms of the time, was independent and knew what she wanted, and passionate about her calling.

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