Gates was born in New York in 1853 and grew up neither poor nor rich. The son of a Baptist minister, he followed in his father's footsteps, completing seminary at Rochester University in 1880. From the ages of 27 to 34, he served as a pastor in Minneapolis, Minnesota, to a small congregation of “those made to feel unwelcome” at the larger churches of the city.
He was a hard-working and earnest man - known for his work ethic as much as for his devoted adherence to Baptist teachings. Innately, he was also an uncommonly curious individual, spending his free time reading about education, economics, finance, political science, and medicine through self-directed study. Thus, his small Baptist congregation was fortunate to have a well-educated, good-natured head of the church.
People noticed and would seek his advice from time to time. George Pillsbury - the patriarch of a wealthy local family - came to him with a rather large problem. Pillsbury was dying, and it had always been his intention to set up a Baptist institution of higher learning. He had just written into his will a gift of $200,000 (late-1800’s dollars) for such purposes, but he feared that the endowment would be misused and wasted. Could Gates think of a way to structure the gift to ensure success?