Historians interested in innovative social organizations and offbeat religious movements would have difficulty finding places more interesting than western and central New York state in the first half of the 19th century. The great Protestant evangelist Charles Finney called it the “burnt district” because it was so hard to find converts there after years of revival meetings, and the region got its current designation from historian Whitney Rogers Cross, who published “The Burned-Over District: The Societal and Intellectual History of Enthusiastic Religion in Western New York, 1800-1850” in 1950.
According to historical accounts, the region was one where local Protestant churches competed feverishly for converts, and revival meetings were very common. At the same time, various communal groups, many of them of a religious nature, found the area hospitable to their social experimentation.
The group most well-known today that had its origins in the Burned-Over District traces its history to the visions of Joseph Smith, who as a teenager living in Palmyra, N.Y., reported that an angel named Moroni led him to a nearby hill, Cumorah, where he dug up some plates of metal with unusual writing on them. Through a supernatural experience, he said, he translated those writings, which told a complex tale of two groups of people who left Israel well before the Christian era and settled in the New World, where eventually they were visited by Jesus Christ after his Resurrection. The writings became known as the Book of Mormon, and Joseph Smith went on in 1830 to found the Church of Christ, which eventually became known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also known as the Mormon church, a religious movement that today has millions of adherents throughout the world.
As strange as Smith’s story may sound today, that sort of experience was no more unusual than many of the other happenings in that region. Among them:
- Jemima Wilkinson established a communal living center in Jerusalem, N.Y., in 1794 and made herself known as the Public Universal Friend, based on her visions. Like the Shakers, a Quaker offshoot that had a significant presence in the Burned-Over District, she taught the virtues of celibacy and opposition to slavery until her death in 1819.
- William Miller, a Baptist in the region, gained a national following with his teachings, based largely on the Old Testament book of Daniel, that the Second Coming of Jesus Christ would happen around 1844. Although the movement fragmented when the Second Coming didn’t happen, Ellen G. White, the daughter of some “Millerites” in Maine went on to found the Seventh-day Adventist Church, which continues today.
- John Humphrey Noyes founded a utopian commune in Oneida, N.Y., in 1848. Members believed that it was their role to usher in the Kingdom of Christ. They practiced a form of complex marriage involving multiple sexual partners.
- Kate and Margaret Fox of Hydesville, N.Y., reported in 1848 that they had made contact with the spirit of a murder victim who communicated with them through rapping sounds. The sisters gained a following of many people who sought to communicate with the dead, especially among radical Quakers in the region. Today, Lily Dale, at Pomfret, N.Y., where the Fox sisters eventually moved, is the world’s largest Spiritualist community.
- The early women’s movement in the United States gained initial strength in this region. The first national women’s rights convention was held in Seneca Falls, N.Y., in 1848.
Today, few signs of the religious fervor of nearly 200 years ago can be seen. However, especially during the summer, the Lily Dale Assembly invites visitors throughout the world to participate in healing and meditation services as well as workshops. The Mormon church has a visitor center at Palmyra and holds the outdoor Hill Cumorah Pageant in July.
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