Cook, Maria

Maria Cook (1779-December 21, 1835) was the first Universalist woman preacher in America. A traveling evangelist during the early 1810s, she preached before many audiences in New York State and Pennsylvania and was well received for a few years.

Little is known of her early life. The Cook family lived in Geneva, in western New York State. Her father died before Cook was thirty and left his children some modest wealth.

Unlike some other passionate Universalists converts, Cook was not a close student of the Bible; nor was she introduced to Universalist theology by others. Nevertheless, she felt herself called by God to go out from her family to preach universal salvation. Her family did not approve. They treated her kindly and did not restrain her, but thought her behavior eccentric and feared that she was mentally unstable. With independent means, in early 1811 she traveled south to nearby Bradford County, Pennsylvania where she held religious meetings.

In June 1811 Cook attended the meeting of the Western Association, the organization of Universalists in Central New York State. Her companions from Pennsylvania introduced her as a respectable person and an effective evangelist. Some in attendance objected on scriptural grounds to allowing a woman to preach, but perhaps even these were curious to hear how she would perform. One who was present, Stephen R. Smith, described Cook as “of genteel and commanding appearance.” A powerful speaker, she so impressed the gathered Universalists that they presented her with a letter of fellowship. This letter, which another witness, Nathaniel Stacy, described as “informal,” was probably not a license to preach, but a statement of Association approbation.

For nearly a year Cook toured Universalist pulpits throughout central New York State. For a while she gathered larger crowds than other evangelists wherever she went. Many went to hear her who would not otherwise have gone to hear a Universalist, and apparently her eloquence persuaded a significant number to convert. Offerings received at these meetings made her briefly the highest paid itinerant preacher in the state.

A few local Universalist clergymen remained less than enthusiastic about the celebrated female preacher, among them Paul Dean, an ambitious young minister then making his name as a leading apologist for Universalism in New York State. Dean treated her with such disrespect that Cook felt her letter of fellowship had not been granted in a unanimous and sincere spirit and destroyed it. But the opposition of other women posed a more serious threat to the success of Cook’s itinerant ministry. She began to devote most of her sermons to a defense of her right to preach. Churches who had valued her evangelical appeal lost interest. After a year of preaching she was in far less demand than when she had started.

In 1812 Cook visited a Shaker community and then spent some time at home in Geneva with her family. In 1813 she made a comeback as an itinerant Universalist evangelist in central New York, but with less success than on her previous tour. She moved in with some friends who made her welcome in Otsego, New York. Not long afterward, someone issued a complaint against her for vagrancy. Although she had an inherited income, her family pledged their support and friends guaranteed that the town would not have to support her, she was arrested and taken forcibly to a magistrate in nearby Cooperstown. Cook did not resist the constable, but neither did she cooperate in any way. She had to be carried to and from the officer’s wagon. In Cooperstown she denied the authority of the magistrate and refused to answer any questions. She was jailed for contempt of court. In jail, where she was treated well and had freedom of movement throughout the facility, she preached to the prisoners. Although she continued uncooperative with the magistrate, after a few weeks her detention became an embarrassment and she was quietly released.

In the spring of 1814 Cook retired from preaching and returned to her family. She later decided preaching was no longer any use for any Universalist preacher. Perhaps influenced by her experience with the Shakers, she made several unsuccessful attempts to implement a new strategy, the creation of “apostolic” and socialist communities. In 1829 she tried to interest Universalist evangelist Nathaniel Stacy in leading such a utopian project. She threatened Stacy with curses from God should he neglect his duty and not found a Universalist community. Stacy described her reproach as “the most severe castigation that I ever received from any mortal, male or female.”

In the 1830s Cook again began preaching, but again retired after a short time because of illness. She died on December 21, 1835.

Cook has been adopted by some Unitarian Universalists as a kind of religious martyr. In fact she was probably no more persecuted for her religion than were many other Universalists of her time. The motive of the unidentified person who charged her with vagrancy is not known. It seems likely that her perceived transgression had more to do with gender than religion. Her ministry came to an end because people, even Universalists, were not yet prepared to accept the ministry of a woman, except briefly as a novelty. She was not so much martyred as frustrated, as were many women of her time and earlier who sought a public role. Judging from others’ response to her abilities and the fact that she was a decade ahead of her time on the subject of utopian communities, early 19th century American Universalists, in stifling her short career, missed an opportunity to support a woman who might have been a fine leader.

According to the brief obituary in the Evangelical Magazine and Gospel Advocate (Jan. 1836), Cook wrote a number of unpublished theological works. None are known to be extant. Nearly all the information we have about Maria Cook comes from an account in Nathaniel Stacy, Memoirs of the Life of Nathaniel Stacy (1850). Stephen R. Smith, Historical Sketches and Incidents, Illustrative of the Establishment and Progress of Universalism in the State of New York (1843) contains Smith’s own brief firsthand impression of Cook. Richard Eddy, Universalism in America, vol. 2 (1886) simply quotes the entire passage from Stacy. The story is retold in Russell Miller, The Larger Hope, vol. 1 (1979) and David Robinson, The Unitarians and the Universalists (1985). These accounts, like this one, are based entirely on the information in Stacy, Smith, and the Evangelical Magazine and Gospel Advocate.

Article by Peter Hughes
Posted March 6, 2002