Saints, Sinners and Reformers
The Burned-Over District Re-Visited
The fires of enthusiasm which flamed in the Burned-Over District of western New York in the early to mid-nineteenth century gradually died down. In the 1850s the question of slavery and the future of the United States became paramount, then the Civil War called many of the young men of the area into military service thereby temporarily lessening the personal involvement in the movement which had been foremost in importance. Next, in the aftermath of the Civil War, the changing nature of the northern economy would have its effect on the lands of the old Mohawk Trail and of the Ontario Plain. Thus the waves of "enthusiasm" which had enlivened life turned to a more quiescent mood.
Western New York had been undergoing a gradual change from the 1820s on. The Erie Canal had caused villages to turn into cities, and then the railroads gradually superceded the Canal as the basic means of transportation and communication for New York State. After the Civil War, industrialism developed even more quickly in the cities which bordered the Erie Canal. While villages and towns continued to grow, the mass of the population hereafter would lie within the major cities whose factories offered the employment needed by young people. The factory system was also a cause for the increase of immigration into the area since a laboring force was necessary to feed the burgeoning industries. That new immigration was different from what had occurred before the Civil War. Now the cities of central and western New York became polyglot entities as immigrants from Ireland fled the potato famine of the 1840s and then immigrants from various European cities came to the New World to escape the continued autocracy of many European nations after the failure of the revolutions of 1848.
The new immigrants differed from the traditional Protestant heritage of New England which had been the basis of society in upstate New York, for now there were Roman Catholics, Orthodox Catholics, and Jewish believers enlarging the growing industrial towns. Some of these new arrivals were not literate in English, some had little education, and they came from different cultural ethos than those who had first come into the old Military District and the Pulteney Estates of New York. In general, the new diversity of religions, the ethnic, and cultural differences were in the long run to enrich and to create a different emotional and intellectual atmosphere than had existed during the earlier settlement of western New York.
There was both change and continuity. Some of the reforms which began in the 1830s continued. Slavery in the United States came to an end, albeit an acceptance of the Negro as respected citizens was still a matter for future generations to solve. The temperance movement was to gather steam, particularly in the twentieth century when it developed into the ill-fated Prohibition era of the 1920s with its related criminal activity before fading from the scene. The campaign for Women's Rights finally came to its successful conclusion by the 1920s when women were granted the right to vote in Federal elections. There were still unresolved questions where women's role in society was concerned, particularly with the concern for birth control which became the next objective for women in the right to decide one of the most personal matters for their own future.
The "Second Great Awakening," as the revivals of Charles Grandison Finney and his followers became known, gradually faded from the scene. The more conservative of Protestant churches still favored periodic "revivals," but this was no longer a primary concern for the mass of the population, many of whom now were not of the Protestant faiths. Mormonism began its trek westward, and its greatest following was not to be in New York State. Spiritualism had its day, and it at present survives, but barely so, at Lily Dale above Lake Chautauqua, no longer a major movement. William Miller's concern for the imminent millennium now remains a major belief of the Adventist churches, but most of the major churches no longer look to an imminent return of Jesus and the end of the world in our time. If the world is to come to an end, it most likely will be through atomic fission rather than religious fervor.
It is interesting that among those who have been the source of new religious faiths in western New York, Jemima Wilkinson, Ann Lee, Joseph Smith, William Miller, and Ellen G. White the spiritual founder of the Seventh Day Adventists, have had religious visions as the source of their beliefs. Studies at the University of California in San Diego (Liz Tucker "God on the Brain" in BBC's 'Horizon' on BBC World News on March 20, 2003) have tied religious visions to individuals who have a brain disorder called temporal lobe epilepsy, causing them to have bizarre religious hallucinations. Professor Ramachandran of that University says that there are certain circuits within the temporal lobes which when activated make them more prone to religious belief. Other scientists see this as the case with other religious figures in the past such as Moses and St. Paul. Most of the religious visionaries of western New York have been prone to a form of epilepsy, and if the San Diego studies are further verified, it may explain the basis of the initial beliefs in each of these religious movements.
This volume began with the plight of the Iroquois Indians who lost most of their lands and their livelihoods after the American Revolution. While some tribes were forced out of New York State, other units did survive on small reservations in western and northern New York. In the twentieth century the Oneida, the Seneca, and the Mohawk have found a financial solution to their economic plight in the fascination with gambling by their white neighbors, Casinos have become a new source for various Iroquois tribes to provide the financial support for better health for the members of the tribe and for the education of their youngsters. Not even the Quakers who did their best to help the Indian to a normal life in white society would have imagined that a white vice could assist the Iroquois to a better life.
Whereas Saints, Sinners, and Reformers has highlighted the efforts of particular individuals in the nineteenth century in the Burned-Over District, there are few individuals who stand out in the later period. One of the noted figures of the post-Civil War era was Robert Ingersoll (1833-1899), a lawyer, popular lecturer, and avowed agnostic. Born in Dresden, New York, on the shores of Lake Seneca, he marks, in a way, the end of the religious cycle which began in 1788 when in Dresden Jemima Wilkinson's followers established their new religious, communal way of life at that small village—the same village which was now to see the birth of one who held no allegiance to religion. Ingersoll's attitude toward religion is perhaps best epitomized by that occasion when, at one of his lectures, an aghast listener stood up and warned the speaker that God would strike him dead for his atheistic views. Ingersoll calmly pulled out his watch and gave the Deity five minutes to consummate that penalty—and then went on unscathed with his lecture.
The other noted resident of the southern part of the region along the Pre-emption Line was Margaret Sanger (1883-1966). Growing up in Corning, New York, a village which had become the center of the glass industry after 1870, she reacted in her youth against the incessant burden of child-bearing by women. Her own mother had died at fifty, worn out by having too many babies, held down by poverty, and tied to a feckless husband. Margaret looked about the small town of Corning , and what she saw was that the wives of the owners and managers of Corning Glass had fewer children than did those of the factory workers, many of the latter being Roman Catholics in a church which encouraged families to have many children. This was to lead Margaret into advocating birth control, a consideration which could not have been possible in the heyday of the Burned-Over District. It was barely possible in Margaret's day, she being arrested for her efforts in New York City to offer birth-control advice to poor women. Nevertheless, she went on dauntlessly in her advocacy to free women of an endless round of giving birth. Her fight in the long run was successful despite the opposition of religious organizations, but her role in society was a far cry from that of the women in the nineteenth century in western New York.
The world had changed, New York had changed. The emotional outlet which the revivals provided for a rural society no longer applied as society grew more urban. Industrialization, the influx of foreign immigrants, and the growth of cities moved western New York from a primarily agricultural society to an industrial society. The reform movements which were to ensue after the 1890s were primarily secular in nature rather than based on the concern for the saving of the individual soul or righting of the sins of society as was the case in the anti-slavery and the temperance movements. Change would occur within society, but much of it would come about through political and legislative action on local, state, and federal levels.
The fires of the Burned-Over District had finally been banked.
© 2005, all rights reserved, John H. Martin