BURNED-OVER DISTRICTS

You can learn a lot about a society by what it remembers, but even more by what it forgets.

If you have the slightest interest in American religious history, then it’s difficult to find a more evocative landscape than the burned-over district of western New York state. In the early and mid-nineteenth century, this was the seedbed of many explosive movements, of Mormonism, Adventism, Spiritualism, Utopianism, of new forms of Revivalism. Older Shaker communities now counted Fourier Socialists among their neighbors. Underlying these very disparate phenomena were common questions about how to live in a radical new secular and spiritual order – fundamental questions about gender and family life, about the bases of just political power, even about diet and dress.

Most amazing  is the geographic concentration of key sites in a very short space. An easy day allows you to take in Palmyra (Mormon beginnings), Hydesville (Spiritualism and the Fox sisters) and Seneca Falls (the Women’s Rights convention). But the sites do not speak to each other in any meaningful way. Seneca Falls is the setting for a beautifully organized Women’s Rights National Historical Park, centered on the Wesleyan Chapel that hosted the first convention in 1848. By any measure, this movement grew from religious roots, and many of the participants were deeply involved in other spiritual movements of the day. The Park exhibits do acknowledge that context, particularly the Quaker role. Badly underplayed, though, is the radical religious upsurge still in progress in the immediate vicinity at that time and for many years previously.

The Park does its best to interpret the events of 1848, and time-charts highlight momentous events happening around the nation and the world in this era, with a strong emphasis on themes of race and slavery. The time-chart prominently includes Nat Turner’s 1831 revolt in Virginia – five hundred miles away – but has not a word about Palmyra, just thirty miles up the road, or why recent events there might be vaguely relevant to the world of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Revolutions in gender and family were not that rare in Western New York in the Antebellum years.

Nor would you get much sense that, in terms of its worldwide influence at the time, the Hydesville spiritualist rappings in March 1848 probably attracted more attention than the Seneca Falls Convention in July.

Palmyra, meanwhile, is a treasure trove of Mormon history, with so many sites linked to Joseph Smith and the movement’s earliest years c.1830. It also marks the reputed location of the great battle of Cumorah many centuries before. But look long and hard, and you will find nothing at these places pointing you to Seneca Falls, which might as well be a thousand miles away, or a thousand years. One American history ignores the other.

Nobody is involved here in a conscious suppression of history. Rather, well-intentioned scholars are trying to represent the historical context as they understand it, and they are inevitably influenced by the subsequent history of the movements. Spiritualism faded, while Women’s Rights, broadly defined, went on to global triumph. There is also a sense that, despite its religious trappings,  early feminism was, surely, a political movement: let’s leave Mormonism to the religious historians! Seneca Falls, it seems, is part of serious political history, in which religious and cultural manifestations are optional add-ons.

I exaggerate only slightly.

Please take this as a plea to visit all these wonderful sites if you possibly can – but be prepared to bring your historical context along with you.

 

 

  • Janine

    I went to college in the burned over district of western NY (SUNY Geneseo)– in one history class, we took a class trip along Alexis DeTocqueville’s key observation spots, the Erie Canal locks, the Harriet Tubman house, and Seneca Falls. In retrospect, it only might have been improved upon if we had visited one of the modern huge evangelical revivals in Rochester. (The class was on Tocqueville, but as we know, he talks about this “equality of conditions” and religion a bit.)

  • Philip Jenkins

    I had the good fortune to speak at Geneseo last year. The area drips with history!

  • Bob Wiley

    You point to the dangers of specialization and partisanship in scholarship.

  • John T.

    Great post, Philip. Being from Rochester (Webster, just to the northeast), I’m ashamed I haven’t even visited everywhere discussed above (no Hydesville).

    It is strange that it is so difficult to connect these events. I can’t remember whether Whitney Cross even discusses Seneca Falls in his book. I think he might — I know he works in all of the other “isms.”

    On the other hand, my very vague recollection of high school local history is that it included ONLY Seneca Falls out of all of these developments. Maybe there was a mention of someone like Finney.

  • Philip Jenkins

    I should add that I mentioned just a smattering of the places in the area, and there are lots more – Oneida for instance:
    http://www.oneidacommunity.org/
    See my next post on Monday!

  • vorjack

    The Adventists maintain the William Miller Farm and Ascension Rock. I keep meaning to get up there.

    I know that Jemima Wilkinson’s house is still standing in Jerusalem, NY. It’s on the historic register, but I don’t know if there are any signs or anything else to help interpret the site. She’s a bit early for the District, but still interesting as the first native born American religion.

    I’ve argued in the past that we need a general “Burned Over District” museum and visitor’s center to showcase the role that the district has played in American religious history. I used to bring it up in my Public History classes and get blank looks; no one outside of the field of American religious history seems to know that much about it.

  • Philip Jenkins

    Your suggestions are excellent!


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