In 1779, more than two hundred years ago, a girl named Maria Cook was born in New York State. When she was born, the Americans were fighting the British in the War for Independence. The Americans wanted to have their own country where they could be independent and free to make their own decisions and say what they thought.
When Maria was four, the Americans won the war. They had their own independent country, and they were free to make their own decisions. When Maria was eight years old, Americans decided to have a constitution that promised freedom of religion and freedom of speech. The Constitution promised that, in America, people had the right to choose what to believe in and the right to speak out for what they believed.
Maria chose to believe in a religion called Universalism. People called it Universalism because that religion said God loved all people, everyone in the universe, no matter what. And since God loved everyone, eventually, everyone would be with God in heaven.
Other religions said only a few people went to heaven. The rest went to hell. And not just people who did bad things. In those religions, it didn't matter if people did good things or bad things. In those religions, people who did bad things went to hell, and some people who did good things went to hell, too. God chose only a few to come to heaven.
Maria didn't believe that. She believed that God chose everyone. She believed God loved everyone in the universe, even if they did bad things. After all, sometimes she did bad things, and her mother and father still loved her. God was her parent, too. That's what Maria believed, and so she chose to be a Universalist.
When Maria was grown up, she decided to speak out for what she believed. She started talking to people about how God loved everyone and everyone would go to heaven. She talked to everyone about Universalism. She talked to people in their houses; she talked to people on the streets; she talked to people in the stores.
And then she started talking to people in church. Not just after church or before church, but during church. She actually went up to the pulpit, where preachers go, and started talking about Universalism.
Then people started talking about her. Because, back then, even though the Constitution promised all people would have freedom of speech, it didn't really work that way. Women weren't supposed to talk in public. Women weren't allowed to vote, which is a very important way of speaking out for what you believe in. Women were not allowed to give speeches and run for office, so no one could vote for them, either. And they certainly weren't supposed to be preachers. Some people thought it said so in the Bible.
But Maria preached anyway. She spoke out for what she believed in. She traveled from town to town, preaching about Universalism. Lots of people came to listen, even though she was a woman. She spoke so well that many people started believing in Universalism, too. In 1811, a Universalist church gave Maria Cook a letter of fellowship, and today we remember her as the first woman to be a Universalist preacher.
Not everyone liked having a woman preaching in their town. They didn't want her there. In 1813, she was arrested. The police said it was because she was a vagrant and didn't have a house to live in, even though she did, because she was staying with friends at their house. When the police came, Maria didn't argue. She didn't resist.
But she didn't help either. Maria refused to walk. The police had to pick her up and carry her to a wagon. They drove the wagon to Cooperstown. Then they had to carry her out of the wagon to go see the judge. Maria knew she hadn't done anything wrong. In the courtroom, she spoke out and told the judge that. She told him she didn't recognize his authority. She did not think he had a right to be the judge of her. She refused to answer his questions.
For that, the judge sentenced her to jail. Maria wouldn't walk there, either. The police had to pick her up and carry her to jail. And once she was there, guess what she started to do? She talked to the people in jail. She talked to the police; she talked to the prisoners; she talked to everyone she met about Universalism. She just kept right on preaching.
After a few weeks, the judge let her go. Maria continued traveling to different towns and preaching about Universalism. All her life, Maria Cook spoke out for what she believed in and did what she thought was right. She didn’t yell. She didn’t push or hit. She spoke out.
The Universalist religion Maria Cook talked about is part of our own heritage and part of our religion’s name: Unitarian Universalist. Like Maria Cook, we believe every person should stand up and speak out for what they think is right and true. We believe everyone should have a say about matters that concern them. And no one should be put in jail for speaking out.