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Van Cott, Margaret (1830–1914)

Van Cott, Margaret (1830–1914)

First female Methodist Episcopal evangelist in America. Name variations: Maggie Van Cott. Born Margaret Ann Newton on March 25, 1830, in New York City; died of cancer on August 29, 1914, in Catskill, New York; daughter of William K. Newton (a real estate broker) and Rachel A. (Primrose) Newton; married Peter P. Van Cott (a store owner and businessman),on January 23, 1848 (died 1866); children: Rachel (died in infancy); Sarah Ellen Conselyea .

Margaret Van Cott, known as Maggie, was born in 1830 in New York City and grew up in an Episcopalian family. In 1857 or 1858, her spiritual convictions deepened after a conversion experience that drew her to prayer meetings at the Duane Street Methodist Episcopal Church in Manhattan. After her husband died in 1866, she joined the church. That same year she began to lead prayer meetings and Bible study classes at the nondenominational mission founded by Phoebe Worrall Palmer in New York's Five Points slum area. Successful in winning converts, Van Cott accepted an invitation from a Methodist minister to hold revival meetings at his church in Durham, New York, in February 1868. Invitations from other pastors to speak to their congregations followed. Although Van Cott was initially reluctant to preach, she was encouraged by the number of people who converted after hearing her sermons. She received an Exhorter's License in 1868 and a Local Preacher's License in 1869, making her the first woman licensed to preach in the Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States.

Although many preachers and congregation members did not approve of women in the pulpit, her skills overcame their objections, and Van Cott preached at revivals for many denominations throughout the United States. She held special meetings for groups of mothers, veterans, and children, and specialized in "Praise Meetings," "Silent Meetings," and "Love Feasts." At the end of each revival, she organized the new converts into prayer bands with church members, so that their new faith could be maintained. For more than 30 years, she traveled up to 7,000 miles a year, converting over 2,000 people. By the time she retired in 1902, she had converted more than 75,000, half of whom joined the Methodist Episcopal Church. She derived her income from the small offerings received at the revivals, and $5,000 was raised from public contributions for her support in her old age. Although Van Cott lacked formal theological training, she was known for her dramatic flair and zeal. She died of cancer in 1914.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971.

Read, Phyllis J., and Bernard L. Witlieb. The Book of Women's Firsts. NY: Random House, 1992.

Kelly Winters , freelance writer

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