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Cook, Maria (1779-1835)

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The first woman to preach in Universalist pulpits, Cook was a novelty, and an inspiration to many in the early nineteenth century. Little is known of Cook’s early life, but she apparently had a mother and siblings living around Geneva, New York, had income from what her deceased father left to her, and was single. Nathaniel Stacy, the Universalist missionary, reported in his autobiography that she first appeared in Sheshequin, Pennsylvania in 1810, where she held a number of religious gatherings. Then she asked to preach before the Western Association in Bainbridge, New York in 1811. This caused a great controversy, but there was enough curiosity that she was finally allowed to address the meeting. Cook was given a letter of fellowship which allowed her to preach, but later she destroyed it, doubting its sincerity. Stacy said she exhibited sound faith, enthusiasm, was well educated, and had more than ordinary speaking talents.

Cook received many invitations to preach in five different counties in New York over the course of the next year. She continued to preach until intolerance led to her being jailed in Cooperstown, New York on a charge of vagrancy. She stayed in prison for a few weeks imparting her Universalist message to other prisoners, but retired from preaching after that. She experimented with the idea of starting a utopian community after she lived with the Shakers for a few months in 1811-1812. Although she endured much harassment and abuse, Cook was courageous in her willingness to confront a prejudiced society. She died in Geneva, New York on December 21, 1835.

The five page reading below should not be missed!  It is Nathaniel Stacy’s description of Cook’s preaching in 1811, followed by an account of her arrest, that details Cook’s humorous, brilliant, and downright defiant way of dealing with conventional authority.

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