shameless self-promotion, 381 in a series + enthusiastic religion
July 22, 2013
* Eight simple goals, from the local almost daily.
* Also - I had the priviledge of giving the sermon at our UU church yesterday. I'll put the first reading here, then the rest of the sermon will be behind the cut, should you care to read it:
"Again, the folk of this region identified themselves with West more than East in their persistent superstition and credulity. Cosmopolitan influences spreading along commercial routes would gradually undermine the more extreme gullibility of the countryside, but even the sophisticated among the area’s citizens remained amazingly uncritical. President Eliphalet Nott of Union College voiced the classic statement of a prominent temperance doctrine that alcohol in the stomach might be ignited by spontaneous combustion and blow up the inebriate...Even a Universalist preacher had 'engaged the services of one of those impostors who, by looking into a mysterious glass, or rather stone, pretended to be able to discover hidden treasures.'”
"For whatever reason, the New York descendants of the Puritans were a more quarrelsome, argumentative, experimenting brood than their parents and stay-at-home cousins. As compared with non-Yankees they were credulous in a particular way: they believed only upon evidence. Their observation, to be sure, was often inaccurate and usually incomplete, but when they arrived at a conclusion by presumably foolproof processes their adherence to it was positively fanatic."
From The Burned-Over District: Social and Intellectual History of Enthusiastic Religion in Western New York, 1800-1850 by Whitney R. Cross.
I am not native of New York State. My husband is.
Eight or nine years ago, shortly after we moved here, we were on a road trip to visit his folks in Rochester. I happened to be reading Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven at the time. On its surface, the book is about a murder that took place in a Fundamentalist Mormon community out west. What Krakauer is really writing about, however, is the nature of belief and of unquestioned faith.
I recommend it - but that’s another story.
I bring it up simply because Mormons were on my mind. When we passed Palmyra on the Thruway, I must have said something about not knowing how close we lived to where the Latter-Day Saints got their start, that these were the woods where Joseph Smith found the golden tablets that would become the foundation of an international and still growing religion.
He gave me the same look that he gave me when I asked him to explain what “Beef on Weck” was. Something along the lines of “everyone knows that” conveyed with one eyebrow.
There were signs advertising the Hill Cumorah Pageant, which is an annual summer event that retells the story of the Latter-Day Saints. Each year, there is a costumed cast of over 650 actors. There are special effects and a multi-level stage. It’s a piece of grand spectacle, I’m told.
(If you want to see it, you’ve missed it this year. The last show of 2013 happened last night.)
But the birth of Mormonism is only one sliver of what happened in the 1800s in that part of our state. By the start of the Civil War, western New York was known as the Burned-Over District, so called because new pockets of religious fervor ignited on what seemed like a daily basis. It burned hot and fast throughout the region until there was no fuel left.
It’s hard to point to the true beginning of this eruption of faith. The tinder is easy to see, though. In the early 1800s, this area was the frontier. Folks from New England were pushing west and folks from Pennsylvania were pushing north. Pushing out, of course, the native peoples who were already here. Unlike the towns these migrants came from, there was no dominant religion in this new region. Puritans were rubbing elbows with Quakers and Anglicans.
This new population was mostly poor, young, and rootless. The region was growing, thanks to the Erie Canal, and new ideas were flooding in, again thanks to the Erie Canal. Evangelists flooded the area, first preaching to the canal workers, then to those whom the canal brought. Tent revivals were as common as daylight.
One war was just winding down as another was winding up. The ideas that drove the Civil War were growing here, too, as were the seeds of the movements that marked the latter half of the century. The Burned-Over District was a hotbed of abolitionists, temperance advocates, and suffragettes.
One of the first faith leaders was a woman, Jemima Wilkinson. In 1776 she nearly died of typhus in her home state of Rhode Island. When she regained consciousness, she claimed to be carrying within her the “Publik Universal Friend,” who would bring about the second coming. Eventually, she and her followers wound up in what’s now Penn Yan.
Wilkinson preached universal friendship, that God makes his will known via an inner light in each person, and abstinence, which ultimately lead to her movement dying out because her followers weren’t replacing themselves. According to historian Whitney Cross, “Her Quaker-like avoidance of ceremony, ritual, and concepts such as baptism, the sacraments, among other traditional doctrines, were to be taken up by various liberal Protestant groups such as the Universalists and the Unitarian groups as the nineteenth century progressed.”
William Miller, a farmer near Low Hampton, also was convinced that the Second Coming was nigh. In 1822, he became convinced that we were within 21 years of that great date and started preaching and publishing his views. By 1840, his movement had swept across the country and gone international. He preached in Canada and Great Britain. The Millerites packed up all of their belongings and hunkered down for the end days, which were predicted to come on October 22, 1844.
You know how that part of the story ended, given that you’re here today. But Miller’s teachings didn’t die when the world failed to. His followers ended up spearheading a couple of movements that still exist, most notably, Seventh Day Adventism.
The Fox sisters - Margaret, Kate and Leah - touched off the wildfire of Spiritualism in the 1840 and 1850s in Wayne county. Their public seances drew in notables like James Fenimore Cooper and Sojourner Truth. In 1888, Margaret came clean in front of an audience in New York City and showed how all of the special effects of the seances were created, including showing how she could crack her toes to produce “otherworldly” snaps. By then, however, the movement had its own momentum and continues on to this day.
The district also saw the rise of utopian and communal societies, which were largely faith-based. The Shakers moved here from England and set up groups in Niskayuna and New Lebanon. John Humphrey Noyes’ Oneida Community believed in free love and mutual criticism in order to prepare themselves for Christ’s return. Neither movement held on, really. The Shakers are better remembered for their furniture than their faith. The Oneida Community exploded in rancor, because it turns out that brutal honesty isn’t really the best way to keep a group of people motivated.
Philadelphia-born playwright Mordecai Manuel Noah’s quest fizzled, too. In 1825, he bought part of an island in the Buffalo River to found Ararat, a city of Jewish refuge. He skipped town a few days later and the whole project fell apart. Afterwards, he developed the idea of settling the Jews in Palestine and is hailed as one of the fathers of the Zionist movement.
According to Cross, bits and pieces of all of these beliefs -- from Noah’s belief that Native Americans were part of the lost tribe of Israel to the Oneida Community’s practice of group marriage -- show up in The Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith’s found text. Historians take glee in pointing out how this founding document is a hodge-podge of all of the ideas and faiths that were swirling around in the district at the time.
Which is fun, I guess, if you’re into that sort of thing. But, for me and Krakauer, that’s not what is most interesting about this pocket of time. What I want to know is how belief happens.
While the details of each of these -isms differ, the grand picture is the same. Each group has faith that their version of reality is the true version -- and they came to this conclusion via unreliable evidence, like the toe snaps of the Fox sisters or the mutterings of a feverish girl.
We can pick apart any of these movements fairly easily, based on our 21st century vision of how the world must work. But so could those 19th century fronteirsmen and women on the beliefs held by their 17th century ancestors. They no longer thought that kings were descended from God, for example.
Life in the Burned-Over district must have been exhilarating and terrifying. So much change swirled through so many rooms, then, and it must have been heady with possibility because the old rules about what is “true” no longer applied. Without that giddiness, who knows how long it would have taken to abolish slavery and let women vote?
But that openness led them down less productive paths, too. Prohibition turned out to be good only for organized crime. The Fox sisters grew rich off of their love of theatrics and lack of conscience.
As a species, it seems, we ache to have something to cling to when we feel change bearing down. -- and change is always happening somewhere. But now our wired world delivers news of change happening all over the globe almost as quickly as it’s happening. No matter if it’s as far away as Egypt or as close as the Texas Capitol Building, turmoil is in our living rooms whenever the box is on.
All of this turmoil is exhilarating and terrifying - and like our Burned-Over neighbors, it’s tempting to believe in anything or anyone who looks like they might have even a whisper of an answer, no matter how misguided that whisper later turns out to be. It’s why, I think, so many want to go backwards right now, to retreat into what feels comfortable and safe and known.
What’s known is a world where mom stays home, dad goes to work, and the two-point-five kids never question the wisdom of the elders. It’s where women can’t have control over their own bodies. Where men feel trapped by cultural expectations. Where any person who is the slightest bit skewed from this perceived norm is unworthy of a voice. And where your flavor of Christian church defined who you were.
In the face of so much change -- from the seismic Roe v. Wade to same-sex marriage to the slight like women wearing pants -- the whispers threaten to take us back to a place that feels safe for a certain slice of the population. Even in those “good old days,” life was in turmoil, it’s just that the passage of time erases our memory of it.
But what the Burned-Over District can remind us is how humans tend to respond when in the grips of social and spiritual growth. I’d like to think that the legacy of the Burned-Over District was skepticism, not in a dismissive, belittling sense but in an intellectual sense. That all of those brushfires left behind a people who realized that faith in their own ability to remain resilient during times of great change was much more useful than their faith in charismatic men and women who make bold promises.
There is a difference between being fired up about social change and just being burned.