We’ve had a couple of posts about the Church of Latter Day Saints, and conversation has naturally turned to the founder, Joseph Smith. He’s a fascinating character, by turns a con man and a sincere prophet. But to understand Joesph Smith requires understanding the world he was born into. That means understanding one of the oddest and most influential regions in American religious history: the Burned Over District.
The Burned Over District is a nickname given by 20th Century historians to western and central New York. It comes from a quote by Charles Finney, the father of American revivalism, who explained in the 1870’s that the region had seen so many revivals in the previous decades that it no longer had any more “fuel” (the unconverted) to “burn” (convert).
Combining the Ingredients
Pullquote: Shakers and Quakers and Swedenborgians, oh my!
From around 1800 until the Civil War the area did see a steady stream of religious revivals, but that’s only a small part of the story. Understand that parts of central and western New York were still the frontier. The Catskills and Adirondacks had kept most colonists pinned to the Hudson for generations, and raids by the French and their Mohawk allies discouraged pioneers. The people who settled in land after the French & Indian war were clearing new ground.
These people were frequently coming from or through the Hudson valley, where Dutch religious tolerance had created an odd blend of religions: Shakers and Quakers and Swedenborgians, oh my! Many of these pioneers were still in an in-between state amid the medieval world and the Enlightenment. As one historian put it, they were “literate but not learned,” and they possessed many superstitions and beliefs in what we would now label as “occult.”
One of the first arrival in the District was Jemima Wilkinson. A Quaker from Rhode Island, Wilkinson had suffered a severe illness as a young woman, but she revived and declared herself a new being — the “Publick Universal Friend.” She became a prophetess and preached a version of Christianity, leading her followers to the Finger Lakes region of New York during the 1790s. Wilkinson was one of the first female religious leaders in the country, and her “Church of the Publick Universal Friend” may have been the first American born religion.
Wilkinson’s church was not the only communal religious group in the area. The Shakers and the Campbellites also planted outposts in the region, as well as several more obscure groups. This unusual blend of religions, sects and superstitions would be create an “anything goes” approach to religion. People would embrace different pieces of different religions without regard to tradition. Looking back, it seems like every major religious trend in American history had some representative in the district.
Stirring the Pot
Pullquote: Nearly everything that was going on in the District shows up somewhere in Smith’s new religion.
There was apocalypticism: William Miller, now the classic example of the millenarian prophet. He predicted that the world would end in 1844. Hundreds, maybe thousands, gathered at his farm to await the second coming. The collapse of this prophesy is now called the “Great Disappointment.” Both the Seven Day Adventist church and, to a lesser degree, the Jehovah’s Witnesses can be traced back to the attempts to recover from this collapse.
Zionism? There’s Mordecai Noah, a Jewish man who dreamed of founding the new Jewish holy land in the Upstate. He purchased an island in the Niagara River and dubbed it “Ararat.” Some of his followers attempted to float a steamboat full of animals down the newly opened Erie canal —”Noah’s Ark,” of course.
Spiritualism? The Fox sisters in Rochester caused a national sensation with their spirit rappings. Their legacy lives on in the spiritualist community of Lily Dale, NY.
When the Second Great Awakening began, the Burned Over District convulsed. Evangelists swept through the area, holding tent revivals among the farming communites. They were aided by the new Erie Canal, which could bring them from NYC to Buffalo in a few days. Actually, many preachers first came to preach to the canal workers, who tended to be young men from the underclass who needed “guidance” lest they give in to temptation. But they established churches and stayed in the area, adding their fervor to the mix.
Joseph Smith is a true son of the Burned Over District. His family moved to Palmyra, north of the Finger Lakes, when Smith was around 12. It was in this region that Smith had his first vision, found the golden plates and first began his church. Nearly everything that was going on in the District shows up somewhere in Smith’s new religion, from the odd notion that was the natives were the lost tribes of Israel, to the multi-tiered Heaven of the Swedenborgians.
Smith found moderate success in Fayetteville, NY, but was eventually forced to move when a economic downturn destroyed the church finances. Thus begins a long trek, which will eventually cost Smith his life in an Illinois jail. But the Church of Latter-Day Saints would continue, bringing a little bit of the Burned Over District crazy to the rest of the world.