Joseph Smith and the Burned Over District

by VorJack

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.

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All Cycles Come to an End
  • WarbVIII

    Thanks for the history, never really got into the histories of the various revival groups,and from whence they came,at least not deeply. Hey, I learned something new today!

  • Baconsbud

    This sounds like the way all the different denominations have all gotten started. They tend to grab the things people seem to like about the many different beliefs and bring them into one. I can see why they would do this, since in my opinion that is how the whole christian religion started.

  • Jeremy

    Here’s a fun activity: ask your average everyday fundamentalist Christian who considers Mormonism a cult to explain exactly how Joseph Smith’s conversion story is different from Paul’s conversion story. They both saw visions which nobody else witnessed. They both claimed to have a direct revelation from God, despite neither having been one of Jesus’ 12 disciples (if that makes a difference). They both wrote holy, inspired scripture. They both gloried in persecution.

    The double standard I had as a believer still embarrasses me. I had no problem writing off Joseph Smith as a crazy person. But at the same time, I’d consider Paul–the Paul who switched from one fanatical religion to another because of a blinding vision on a road that wasn’t shared by anyone in his company–to be perhaps the greatest Christian who’d ever lived.

    • Rick

      Great comment… on point.

    • Jon H

      Well, it seems to me it’s Joseph Smith’s addition of golden tablets (that disappeared), and magical translating goggles (also unaccounted for), in the 19th century, where such artifacts ought to have been able to survive, that makes his version seem considerably more outré.

      Also, Smith’s doctrinal innovations were pretty significant, compared to Paul. Indians being the lost tribe, getting a planet of your own after you die, etc.

      • Jon H

        Also, for his time, Paul is relatively restrained. I mean, just look at the Roman Galli, who had themselves castrated for their religion.

        Smith, on the other hand, is post-Enlightenment, so people ought to have known better.

    • Jack

      and Paul didn’t claim to read Egyptian Hierogyphics

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Ironically, Robert Green Ingersoll, “The Great Agnostic,” was born in Dresden, NY, near the heart of the Burned Over District, in 1833, but his family moved around and he spent much of his early adulthood in Illinois.

  • DCtouristsANDlocals

    Thanks for the rational explanation for the origin of such an irrational religion. My mother-in-law was talking about this exact thing over Thanksgiving – how there was so much change and hysteria going on in the world at the time that Joseph Smith started preaching, that it might have been easier to convert people to Mormonism then than it would be today.

  • Igor

    I had heard that the western New York plateau where Joseph Smith lived had been inhabited by numerous farm settlers during the early 1800s, mostly Scandinavian, etc. They left around 1820 or so due to Indian threats. Before they left, they buried a lot of their belongings in the hopes of returning someday. Among these artifacts could have been valuable family heirlooms like gold plates with writings in their native tongue. When he dug them up, to an illiterate like Joseph Smith, this must have been a sign from the heavens.

    Hey, it’s as good an explanation as any for that crazy cult.

    • Reginald Selkirk

      I don’t feel a need to come up with an explanation for how Joseph Smith might have dug up some real gold plates, since the plates are nowhere to be found. IIRC, no one but Smith and a few loyal true believers ever claimed to have seen them.

      • Heidi

        I’m with you on this. There were no plates.

        • bob


    • jesavius

      That would totally make sense that Joseph Smith found plates maybe gold or stone that would belong to the Scandinavian settlers of that area! Think about it, JS said the plates were written in reformed Egyptian. Everyone knows that that part of America was heavily settled by people of Nordic descent(Swedes). So what are Nordic people famously known to write in, that’s right RUNES! To a lay American farm boy Runes would have looked like Egyptian heiroglyphics. You have to remember in the time of JS’s life Egyptology was becoming a hot subject. And we all know the story of JS and the Egyptian papyri he claimed to be the story of Abraham in Egypt which became The Book of Abraham in The Pearl of Great Price. Now imagine him looking at the papyri and runes. I would hazard to guess he felt they were the same due to he had no formal education of Nordic culture to decipher that the reformed Egyptian he postulated was actually Rune. Good eye Igor!

      • Custador

        That doesn’t, however, explain the magic translating stones or the angel that took them all away. LSD might explain it…

        • Elemenope

          Except for the LSD-not-having-been-invented-yet part.

          • Siberia

            But mushrooms were :D

            • Elemenope

              Indeed. And these would be more like shroom visions than like an acid trip anyway.

            • Heidi

              As was the species of ergo used to make acid in the first place. Ergotism (long term ergo poisoning) was likely a contributor to the Salem witch hysteria.

          • bob

            Except fo LSD is the main reason for people to turn out like everyone on this page, therefore who comments on this page has been seduced to LSD and is very deranged in there comments.

            • bob


            • bob

              for*, sorry it seems the LSD is affecting me now.

        • jesavius

          This is pure speculation but I think after sacking Harris and switching to Oliver Cowdrey is when JS started using the Urim and Thummim in the hat. It’s pretty much received in LDS history that JS transcribed directly from the plates using the seer stones. They don’t recognize JS putting the seer stones in hat and sticking his head in to translate the BoM. Sooo… I’m guessing that JS had the plates and seer stones when Harris was the scribe and then switched to the stones in the hat when Cowdery took over. Remember, no one could see the Mormon Plates whilst in translation. After the Harris incident I believe JS trashed the plates told his followers God was pissed off about the loss of 116 pages and had, I’m guessing here, the angel Moroni take them away and left JS only the magical stones to use to translate the rest of the book. This is pure speculation but for some odd reason this is making sense to me as far as I’m concerned on how JS handled the translation of BoM. To clarify I’m not nor have I have ever been Mormon but live in Utah county which is the epicentre of Mormonism so I’m exposed to this crock of religion every freakin’ day. Yeah, I’m atheist so you can imagine how much “fun” I’m having here.

          • Brett J

            Maybe it’s just me, but whenever I read this bit about the seer stones in the hat, it seems almost like a lost chapter from Tom Sawyer where Tom fools his naive classmates.

        • Reginald Selkirk

          LSD might explain it…

          Ho ho! You misspelled LDS.

      • Origuy

        The only place that runes were still in use into the 19th century was the Swedish province of Dalarna. Seems unlikely that some farmer immigrated from Darlana with gold plates covered with runes. I doubt there were ever any plates, with runes, hieroglyphics, or Elvish.

  • WarbVIII

    Igor, that has to be the most rational explanation of a possible real world basis for those plates. Yet logically it also doesn’t seem to work, if he had those plates,why would he have had to ‘hustle’ money and believers for cash so that they could eventually leave N.Y. state, I say this mostly because he was never very wealthy and never ‘had’ those plates after discovering and translating them that is. Just a thought.

    • jesavius

      I would say it’s logical due to JS probably recognized that the plates were written in Rune and not “Reformed Egyptian” when he began “transcribing” them to English in creating the Book of Mormon. As far as I know he and Martin Harris spent a lot of time translating so eventually JS probably seen the Runes somewhere in the area and dumped the plates so no one else would figure out that they were just runes. Also, dude was a con man of the highest quality. When Martin Harris lost the 116 or so pages of translation of the Book of Mormon JS beautifully side stepped that issue of re translating them word for word by claiming he was a prophet and translator and the god forbade him to redo the translation of Nephi and to go with the translation of Lehi. I’m now guessing the three witnesses did see the plates. Martin Harris who is one of the three witnesses probably checked out the plates behind JS’s back and purposefully “lost” those pages to test JS. JS most likely found out Harris saw them and dumped those plates. A nice turn of fortune due to that event gave him the angle to claim prophet, seer, and revelator. Also, that would now give reason on why he sacked Martin Harris as scribe and Harris’ temporary apostasy from the LDS church. Side note reviewing the Anthon transcript proposed pic you’ll notice that their are dots by some of the characters. That is very reminiscent of rune writing which a dot totally changes the meaning of the character.

      • wazza

        if the plates were gold, it would have made more sense to recast them into bar or coin and sell them on the sly than to lose them.

  • Rick

    Great stuff…

    Amazing how people buy into this stuff… time-and-again. Doesn’t matter how much debunking is accomplished: there are still those who just have to believe.

  • Brett J

    For those interested in Mormon history, a great read on Joseph Smith and the founding of the Mormon church is One Nation Under Gods by Richard Abanes.

    What is almost unique about Mormonism among large world religions is that its inception occurred at a time of extensive public record-keeping. There are a wealth of primary sources from Joseph Smith’s days which make disentangling historical fact from religious myth a cinch. If only all religions were born in such recent and well-documented times! Sadly, the “great” religions of today had their origins in a more ancient time (most before the Dark Ages deprived us of the majority of recorded human discourse) when Fact was not so easily distinguished from religious Fiction.

    What is fascinating about this, though is that Mormonism proves that even in relatively modern times and with a whole host of countervailing evidence (pre-Colombian horses in the Americas, genetic research, fossil record, etc.), the human penchant for new systems of religious belief is still strong enough for a nascent religion to maintain sustainable growth. Remarkable.