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Mrs. Maggie Van Cott

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

By the winter of 1875, the parishioners of Central Methodist Church in Davenport had decided on a new battle plan in the war for sinners’ souls in that wicked city. They had participated in January prayer weeks along with other local Protestant churches, but as one of the sinners suggested, the idea of hell’s burning fires on a cold winter evening was more comforting than distressing.

Central had a better plan. Early in May, they brought in Maggie Van Cott, America’s beautiful widow evangelist, to lead Davenport’s first revival meeting.

There were murmurs at the announcement. Women speakers were common—Susan B. Anthony had been to Davenport, as had other suffragettes, but never a woman preacher. Men were skeptical, and even Davenport women reminded each other that St. Paul had admonished women to keep silent in church.

On the first evening, Central Methodist was packed with the curious and the disapproving. But not for long. Audiences were quickly won over by her ability to seem both beautiful and motherly. One sermon topic was the parable of the prodigal son. The evangelist looked directly at a young man who had lost one leg. “how did it happen?” she asked.

“In the Civil War,” he replied.

“When you returned home crippled,” asked Mrs. Van Cott, “did your father reject you because you were not whole? Of course not.” She stretched out her hand across the sea of faces. “My friends,” she said, “God loves you are notwithstanding all the scars of sin, no matter how far you have wandered.”

Her invitation to come home was answered by hundreds of young people in the audience who came down the sawdust trail, accompanied by her favorite hymn, “from victory unto victory / His army shall He lead…” It was the same all week. By the time the beautiful widow evangelist left town, she had skimmed off the cream of Davenport’s supply of sinners.

Fifty years later, her visit was still so vivid to W. H. Hitchcock, a reporter for the Davenport Democrat and Leader, that he could remember Maggie Van Cott and her sermons in detail in a column. “No one ever brought me so close to surrender,” he wrote—a daring confession for a newspaperman.

Rock Island Lines is underwritten by the Illinois Humanities Council and Illinois Arts Council, a state agency, with additional funding from Humanities Iowa, the Iowa Arts Council, and Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.