Saturday, January 18, 2014

The Burned-Over District

Location:   Western New York
Year:   c. 1800s-1860s

Following the deaths of the Founders' generation most of whom were Deists, around the beginning of the 19th Century a Christian Revival movement known as The Second Great Awakening swept the country, converting many Americans to one or another faith based on the teachings of Christ.  

At the time of the beginning of the Second Great Awakening, the western half of New York State was frontier territory occupied primarily by the Iroquois tribes. As whites began moving into the region, a good many utopians and religious revivalists were among them. 

Most of these Messianists are forgotten to history, but many established Protestant faiths that are still active today. The area, in fact, was such a hotbed for adherents of the Second Great Awakening that it got the name "The Burned-Over District" because, according to popular opinion, the people there had been swept up so often in the fires of excited Christian religiosity that there was "nothing left to burn"---in other words, no one left to convert. 

Among the most famous and popular of the itinerant preachers of the early 19th Century was Lorenzo Dow (1777-1834), who preached in New York State in 1802, "against Atheism, Deism, Calvinism and Universalism" (he was also virulently anti-Catholic),  a man whose whoop-and-holler style has influenced televangelists down to the present day. Dow often preached before crowds of 10,000 and more. Dow's autobiography was for a time the most popular bestseller in the U.S., excepting only the Bible. "Lorenzo" became the most popular name for boys at the height of his fame.  

The beginning of the Civil War saw the end of the Second Great Awakening in the North, but as the war progressed more and more Southerners were caught up in its religious fervor. It was not until the war ended that the Second Great Awakening petered out.

 Among the modern-day churches that trace their roots back to the Burned-Over  District are:
The Latter Day Saints (Mormons):  Joseph Smith, Jr., who became an itinerant preacher at fourteen years old, claimed he had been led by the angel Moroni to his source for the text of  the Book of Mormon, a pair of golden plates buried in the earth near the town of Palmyra. The first editions of the Book of Mormon date back to 1830, and give "Palmyra" as their place of publication.

The Seventh Day Adventists: William Miller, the founder of Adventism, lived in the town of Low Hampton. He preached that the literal Second Coming of Christ would occur on October 22, 1844.  Although Miller's calculations were apparently wrong, his teachings, focused on a very literal interpretation of Scripture (including holding the Sabbath on Saturdays) became extremely popular, and spread far beyond western New York State.

The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing (Shakers): Founded by Ann Lee in the 1780s, the Shakers established their first communal farm in the Burned-Over District. Strict believers in celibacy (apparently and amazingly, no one ever violated this tenet of the faith), Shaker communities grew through conversion and adoption of orphans. At one time there were more than 20,000 Shakers. Currently, in the United States, there are less than 10. Shaker culture faded away as people moved from farms to cities and as mass-produced goods replaced craftsmanship and artisanship. During its heyday however, the Shaker movement produced thousands of household items, most of which are still prized for a unique and simple elegance of design. The Shakers also created unique art and music that are considered historical artifacts as well.  

The Oneida Society: A large and successful Christian utopian group established in 1844, Oneidans practiced Communalism and "Complex," or group,  marriage; mates were chosen by committee, and any resultant children were raised in common. In the later 19th Century, the Society moved away from Complex Marriage and it's other more radical beliefs. At one time, the Oneida Society owned several different very successful manufactories. They were furriers, and controlled a silk factory, a canning factory, and a cutlery factory. The cutlery business, "Oneida Limited" is still in business under Society auspices. 

The Society for Universal Inquiry and Reform  (the Skaneateles Community) was another utopian community in the region. Strict abolitionists, social reformers, and religious rationalists, the group was also communalist. Their farms and dairies were financially successful, but internal disagreements ended the Community in 1848.

The Burned-Over District was a main source of converts to the Fourierist Movement, which believed that mutual concern and cooperation were the secrets of social success. The Movement's founder, Charles Fourier (1772-1837), was a Frenchman who believed that a society based upon ideas of cooperation would see an immense improvement in productivity levels. Fourier, who was a strict agrarianist, hated manufacturing and mercantilism, which he saw as non-cooperative and which he irrationally associated with Jews; he thus advocated that Jews be forced to work in Fourierist communities as slaves. These beliefs reinforced anti-Jewish feelings in his followers. In his biography, one chapter is entitled "My Lack of Talent For Commerce"; thus, Fourier's Judeophobia may be the worst case of sour grapes of the 19th Century.

The Burned-Over District was famed for its Spiritualists. The Fox sisters, of Hydesville, conducted séances in which they communicated with the Devil ("Mr. Split-Foot"), assorted demons and with the dead. Spiritualism became increasingly popular throughout America, reaching a peak during the Civil War.  The town of Lily Dale and the Plymouth Spiritualist Church, in Rochester, are still Spiritualist centers. 

Not unsurprisingly, social reform also came out of the melange that was The Burned-Over District. Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902), an early feminist, was a resident of Seneca Falls. She organized the Seneca Falls Convention devoted to women's suffrage and equal rights for women.

Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918) of Rochester, a Baptist clergyman, was a primary mover in the Social Gospel Movement which strongly influenced both Dr. Martin Luther King and Mohandas K. Gandhi.  

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