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Mormons, Adventists and Ghosts, Oh My! The Burned Over District Part 1 of 4

Updated: Oct 3, 2021

Table of Contents:

The Quest for Perfection - Initial English immigration and Anne Hutchinson

Quakers and Outcasts - The settlers of Pennsylvania and upstate New York

God's Country - The original inhabitants of upstate, the Iroquois, HandSome Lake, and the Longhouse religion

Upstate - A tour of the geographical and historical highlights of the region

What do Mormons, Seventh-day Adventists, ghost hunters, abolitionists, and feminists have in common? They all emerged from the spiritual capital of the United States: upstate New York, in the 19th century. I’m Peter McGuire and this is my Unlikely Explanation.

In 1863, two years into the Civil War, the abolitionist and feminist Frances Dana Barker Gage published her account of a speech she’d heard many years earlier given by the black woman abolitionist Sojourner Truth. This speech stoked sympathy for southern slaves and support for the brutal and inconclusive war. “Ain’t I a Woman” became an instant classic of abolition literature and many of us read it in high school when learning about the civil war. It discusses intersectionality, which is a major focus of feminist discourse today. Truth uses the contradiction between her race and her sex to challenge how she is treated by white society. Frances Gage presents this speech in what she called Truth’s original dialect:

“Dat man ober dar say dat womin needs to be helped into carriages, and lifted ober ditches, and to hab de best place everywhar. Nobody eber helps me into carriages, or ober mud-puddles, or gibs me any best place!”

I have found no record of how Truth responded to this publication but we can assume it was with at least some surprise and annoyance. She prided herself on her English because English was not her first language. Until she was nine, Truth spoke Jersey Dutch, the Dutch dialect spoken by Dutch American settlers. She possibly the black variety of the dialect called neger-dauts (black Dutch). She was born into slavery in 1797 in New York on a Dutch-American farm. This family sold her at auction at age nine to an English-speaking New York family along with a flock of sheep for $100. She gained her freedom at age 29 when New York freed all remaining slaves in the state in 1826, at which point, she joined up with end-time preachers, Mormons, and eventually, abolitionists. We’ll return to these years later.

Sojurner Truth joined up with end-time preachers, Mormons, and eventually, abolitionists.

For now, let’s focus on the fact that in 1851, when Sojourner Truth gave her famous speech, she’d lived most of her life in New York and all of it north of the Mason-Dixon line. In that year, an account of her speech was published in the Anti-Slavery Bugle that sounds much closer to how Truth spoke.

“I want to say a few words about this matter. I am a woman's rights. I have as much muscle as any man, and can do as much work as any man. I have plowed and reaped and husked and chopped and mowed, and can any man do more than that?”

Comparing this version with the version published by Gage twelve years later in 1863, it becomes painfully clear that Gage rewrote the speech into a southern black dialect and radically altered the text throughout. It appears that Gage either worked from the transcription of the speech as she altered it or she remembered Truth as a sassy Southern woman. Neither option is great. Gage appropriated Truth’s identity and credibility to publish a rousing speech mostly of her own creation.

New York in the early to mid 19th century spawned many of the movements that shape the contours of American life. Sojourner Truth was one of many Americans for whom direct, intense, often eccentric spiritual experience went hand in hand with radical visions of social justice. Her words and even her identity were appropriated far beyond her control or intention. In this case, the appropriation at least matched her intention. Many of the figures we will soon meet as ghosts or spirits weren’t given that respect. In this episode, we will explore the conditions and legacy of a place and time where radical ideas of feminism, atheism, and abolition intertwined with ideas of direct revelation, prehistoric Native American Jews, and ghosts. So, so many ghosts. From Quakers landing in America to Dorothy landing in Oz, let’s explore how the American imagination has been shaped by the burned-over district of upstate New York.

The Quest for Perfection

Anne Hutchinson illustration by Edwin Austin Abbey (1852–1911) from 1901

New England’s intellectual life was shaped by religious toleration. This means that religious groups were free to practice Christianity as they saw fit without being actively persecuted by the state. Tolerance did not mean that religious groups in New England tolerated each other. In fact, most of these communities unified political and spiritual rule, they were small theocracies, and therefore most communities were distinctly intolerant of each other. Massachusetts expelled so many people from their ranks that Rhode Island became necessary. More on that in a moment.

To understand the religious climate of 19th century New York, we must rewind the clock a bit to 16th century England. In 1527, the devoutly Catholic Henry VIII petitioned the pope for an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, the daughter of newly-unified Spain. The pope, under the control of the Spanish monarchy, declined, setting in motion a process that culminated in Henry declaring himself the ultimate head of the church in England. Just ten years earlier, a massive challenge to the authority of Catholicism erupted in Germany with the ministry of Martin Luther. This new Christian sect seized on centuries of criticism against both the church and the pope in Rome and set off widespread religious revolt against Catholic authorities. This movement is broadly called Protestantism.

Henry aligned himself with Protestantism but believed strongly in Catholicism and attempted to contain his reformation to the secular realm. He sacked and looted monasteries, executed powerful clergy, and made himself head of the church. In uniting the church and state, Henry invited centuries of religious persecution and counter-persecution as the crown passed from Catholic to Protestant and radical to moderate.

A major English Protestant faction came to be called Puritan because they sought to purify the church of Catholic influence and bring it more in line with Protestant ideals. This group also considered virtually all activity done for its own enjoyment to be sinful. They believed their souls could be purified by living in meticulously holy ways and believed that all people must live in similar ways for the world to be appropriately pure and therefore ready for Christ’s return. They focused on outlawing all recreational activities outside of attending church, praying, and reading gospel to bring about this perfect worldly state. Sinful activities included drinking, using tobacco, playing games, making music, and, most of all, dancing.

A Puritan Republic

A little over a century later, the ruling order experienced a major upheaval when the long-ignored parliament took the extraordinary step of executing the man who was both head of state and head of the church, Charles I. Oliver Cromwell, a Puritan, assumed political control via a military dictatorship, declaring himself the Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland, and Ireland. This dictatorship only outlived Cromwell by a year as parliament rapidly lost faith in his son, Richard Cromwell, and offered the throne to Charles’ son, Charles. The remaining parliamentarians who had signed the execution warrant for Charles I were rounded up and executed. This included the extraordinary step of exhuming Oliver Cromwell’s body, parading it through London, hacking his head off, and displaying it on a spike. Remaining puritans fled for their lives.

Immigration to puritan colonies in America all but stopped for the decade of Commonwealth rule, but now the floodgates opened and expelled Puritans came across the ocean en masse. They tried to create an idealized, Puritan England in this land without established nobility. This proposed nation would consist of northern European protestants with strictly enforced codes of behavior. They attempted to unite society with Protestant ideals. And now, recent experiences convinced them that monarchy posed a grave threat to their vision of society and therefore their salvation. Only a republic could allow them the kind of control over their fate (both on Earth and in the hereafter) that they desired.

Quakers and Outcasts

George Fox, founder of Quakerism

Even in the new world, puritans couldn’t maintain a strict orthodoxy. From 1636-8 a crisis erupted in the Massachusetts Bay Colony when Anne Hutchinson accused the leading ministers of preaching a doctrine of salvation of works rather than salvation through grace alone. This is an early example of the process that gave American Christianity the particular beliefs it holds today, one that only became more intense in the 19th century. Puritans, like most protestants of their time, rejected the Catholic idea that salvation could be earned by doing good and observing religious rituals. They believed that only God can save or condemn a soul and cannot be swayed by human actions.

Mainstream American Puritans held to the Calvinist position that because God is all-knowing, the ultimate fate of one’s soul is decided from the moment of your birth. You can only know whether you are saved by how you live and how you experience God. Only a combination of living a Christian life and personally experiencing God could assure you of your salvation. Anne Hutchinson, following the teachings of John Cotton, felt that puritans were putting too much emphasis on community behavior and not enough on personal experience.

Anne Hutchinson claimed that God had directly instructed her to challenge the clergy

This challenge to the ministers was eventually decided in court, both secular and ecclesiastical. Anne Hutchinson defended her accusations in court and doubled down on the importance of personal experience when, on the second day, she claimed that God had directly instructed her to challenge the clergy. The idea of direct revelation was too much for John Winthrop and his allies to allow and Hutchinson was banished. She and her followers made a deal with the nearby town of Providence to colonize the adjacent island, then called Rhode Island. Providence and Rhode Island received threats of invasion from Boston and Plymouth for the next few decades until they secured their own charter from the British crown. Hutchinson was pushed out of Rhode Island and started a new settlement in the Dutch-claimed territory of New Netherland. Her settlement was massacred by local American Indians in escalating tension with the Dutch settlements and she died in the forest north of New Amsterdam, a place we now call the Bronx.

New England in the 18th Century saw increasing immigration from other persecuted English religious groups. Prominent among them were Quakers. In England, Republican rule had left behind a fear of religious extremists and the response was a new orthodoxy of intolerance. Anglicanism re-centered itself around a largely Catholic theology with some Protestant influences and laws were passed to ensure that political figures toed this orthodox Anglican line. These acts also excluded Irish Catholics from governing Ireland in any way, creating an early English experiment in dispossessing native land using their legal system.

Although not as restrictive as puritan behavior codes, Quaker religion made it difficult for adherents to participate in English civil society. Formally known as the Religious Society of Friends, Quakers don’t believe in any particular theology. They are united in the belief that every person, regardless of personal belief, can access a godly light within themselves. Quakers made for difficult citizens in the 18th Century because they refused to participate in war or swear oaths, including oaths of office. A prominent Quaker, William Penn, found himself regularly held in contempt of court for refusing to remove his hat. Quakers believe that rank and class have no meaning to God, so no person should act subservient to any other, including courtesies like bowing or removing one’s hat.

William Penn found himself regularly held in contempt of court for refusing to remove his hat.

Quakers placed great emphasis on having personal experiences of God. The name comes from how the soul is affected by experiencing God, it quakes. They rejected religious clothing, symbols, and rituals as man-made. Typical Quaker gatherings involve silent, private prayer, and testimony where anyone with a personal experience of God can declare it to the group. They refer to each other as Friends.

William Penn was the son of a prominent naval administrator and lived in Cork, Ireland in his 20s, where he began to attend Quaker meetings. Before long he was testifying to his vision of God in public squares and was consequently brought up on charges of breaking religious gathering laws. He refused to abide by court procedures and usually found himself in jail for contempt, unable to face the initial charges without acknowledging the superiority of the court. After one of these run-ins with the law became a national scandal, Penn’s father, William Penn Sr., felt the need to disinherit his son. One of Penn Jr.’s trials became a landmark in jurisprudence when he convinced a jury that, while he’d broken the law, he’d done no wrong, and they returned a not guilty verdict. The judge said that because he’d obviously broken the law, the jury would be sent to jail until they returned a guilty verdict. The imprisoned jury demanded a warrant of habeas corpus and a higher court ruled that judges cannot hold juries in contempt for their verdicts, a rule the American legal system considered a crucial right.

On his deathbed, the elder William Penn pulled strings to get his son out of jail so he could see him one last time. Impressed by his son’s steadfast devotion to his beliefs, the elder Penn publically re-inherited his son. When his father died, Penn Jr. found himself in possession of an enormous loan to the British government. After much finagling, a deal was struck where Penn would be granted a large parcel of land in North America if he forgave the debt and removed to the Americas as many troublesome Quakers as possible.

English settlers had already given the parcel of land the name “Sylvania” a Latin term meaning woodland or forest. We also see this word in the place name “Transylvania”, meaning the far side of the forest. Penn and his Quakers laid down the initial buildings and roads of Philadelphia, named for a Greek city and meaning the place of brotherly love. The new city was to have wide boulevards filled with green spaces to help citizens feel at one with God’s creation. A charter of liberties guaranteed trial by jury, freedom of religion, freedom from unjust imprisonment, and free elections. It also required all dealings with American Indians to be as fair as any deals between Christians. This was a utopian project designed by a radical dreamer and foreshadows the utopian experiments of the 19th Century.

William Penn was embarrassed and feared that people would think he’d named Pennsylvania after himself

Penn returned to England to secure a proper charter for his colony. Much to his chagrin, the colony was approved as “Pennsylvania” to honor his father. Penn was embarrassed and feared that people would think he’d named the colony after himself but government officials would not budge. Pennsylvania became the center for Quaker emigration and shares a long border with the upstate New York region we’ll be focusing on.

God’s Country

Initial English and French visitors to North America comment on how densely populated it was. French fur traders comment on the campfires they see filling up the forests of Canada. Jamestown suffered such bad health in part because the settlement was downstream of all the human waste of Chesapeake Bay. It was the only place in the Chesapeake available for new settlement. Early colonists often faced stiff resistance from existing American Indian polities.

Then things changed.

Colonists found greater and greater success dispossessing American Indians by force. They moved into unpopulated regions overflowing with food: forests stocked with game and berries, streams so overflowing with fish, you could pluck them out with your hands. Passenger pigeons in such great numbers they blocked out the sky. Given their theology and world theories, English settlers interpreted this bounty as God’s blessing. It fit into their idea that the wickedness and vice of European society that had destroyed its god-given wilderness. They looked at American forests and assumed this was the true natural state of the world.

In fact, none of it was natural. We now know that landscapes that look like this, with prey populations well beyond carrying capacity, result when predator populations suddenly decrease. This was an ecosystem missing its apex predator.

Many English claims to American land rested on the idea that land must be continuously improved. This idea continued from the founding of America well into the 20th Century as Americans were awarded large tracts of land for free as long as they built upon it and converted it to farm or industrial land. Because American Indians lacked European-style farms and permanent structures, English courts often held that they forfeited rights to the land.

Because American Indians lacked European-style farms and permanent structures, English courts often held that they forfeited rights to the land.

We now know that all of this abundance of food was made possible by millennia of careful work by American Indians. As with the Amazon rainforest, the forests of New England were shaped by forest gardening. Pre-Columbian Americans created vast, interconnected terraforming projects by cutting clearings through forests, planting seeds, and co-mingling crops. All up and down rivers, American Indians planted crops together, not in orderly rows like Europeans, but in bundles. These bundles of crops deplete soil slowly and, when planted along rivers, were sustainable. Likewise, forests provided sustainable nutrients for roots, berries, and animals when managed properly. The city of Buffalo, New York is so called because Bison roamed the forests of neighboring Ohio and American Indians of New York wore their hides. This was not a natural landscape, it was a huge network of small-scale land management that made the entire continent hospitable to human life. When neglected, it quickly fell apart.

Disease and invasion weakened and then eradicated American Indian populations in many places throughout the Americas. It’s important to remember that these diseases didn’t strike a single blow. Different diseases moved in pockets across a vast landscape. Smallpox epidemics were still ravaging American Indian populations in the 19th Century, three centuries after first contact. In some communities, nine in ten people succumbed to disease. American Indian military strength diminished rapidly and many settlements had to be abandoned entirely. The English took advantage of the new balance of power and immigrants quickly occupied the conquered and abandoned land.

These traumas left their impact on the American Indian psyche and culture. Zombie stories feature widely in our pop culture today. American Indians watched entire communities die of disease and saw ravenous hordes of European peasants take their place.

American Indians watched entire communities die of disease and saw ravenous hordes of European peasants take their place.

At the same time, Catholics and Protestants launched massive campaigns of Christianization in the Americas. American Indian communities were infiltrated by missionaries intent on replacing Indian culture and religion with their own. Sometimes they succeeded, but more frequently the pre-existing religion incorporated Christian ideas into their own structures. Many of these new hybrid religions took the form of apocalyptic cults. It’s not hard to see why. The end times that Christianity predicted came to be understood in terms of the present apocalypse American Indians were experiencing. In the stories of rejuvenation and resurrection of Christ, American Indians imagined a reset button for the Americas. If Christ could bring justice to the world in the apocalypse, he could bring justice to the land and the peoples of the Americas too.

By the 19th Century, all that remained of many American Indian communities were their names. White Americans occupied places like Manhattan, Oneida, Poughkeepsie, and Seneca. The American Indian communities that called these places home had been Christianized and integrated, moved west to reservations in places like Ohio and Wisconsin, or eradicated entirely. The Indians who remained were broadly termed Iroquois for the powerful confederation that once bound their nations to each other.

In 1799, a warrior and negotiator whose name translates to Shaking Snow became gravely ill while suffering deep depression and alcoholism. He dropped unconscious, and when he awoke, he was spiritually reborn. Like many prophets, he adopted a new name, which translates to Handsome Lake. In his vision, he met a man along the road who said he came from across the great waters and had been slain by his own people. He showed Handsome Lake his scarred hands and feet and said:

“They slew me because of their independence and unbelief. So I have gone home to shut the doors of heaven that they may not see me again until the earth passes away.[...] Now let me ask how your people receive your teachings.”

Handsome Lake responds, “It is my opinion that half my people are inclined to believe in me.”

The man says, “You are more successful than I for some believe in you but none in me.[...] Now tell your people that they will become lost when they follow the ways of the white man.”

So, here we have Jesus Christ declaring that all white men are damned until the apocalypse. Handsome Lake also received instruction from dead American luminaries such as George Washington that his people should return to their ancestral homes on the east coast. These teachings made Handsome Lake a moral and political leader who brought newfound unity to the Iroquois. He preached against four cardinal sins, heavily influenced by puritan Christianity. They were: drinking alcohol, practicing witchcraft, using love charms, and performing abortion.

Handsome Lake met Jesus Christ and the road. Christ declared that all white men are damned until the apocalypse.

Handsome Lake prefigures many of the charismatic preachers of the burned-over district in both the sense of purpose he gave his followers and his eccentric uses of power. When challenged for growing despotism by the orator Red Jacket, Handsome Lake received a vision of his challenger burning in hell. When another epidemic hit in 1807, Handsome Lake divined that the cause was a great underground beast that they needed to unearth. When the beast could not be found, witches were blamed, and women were persecuted. At least some women were burned to death.

After Handsome Lake’s death, a new generation of prophets emerged in his tradition and formed the last bulwark resisting white colonization of upstate New York. By 1838, much diminished, the largest Seneca reservation was displaced in the interests of expanding the Erie Canal. This transaction is considered one of the greatest frauds of American Indian history. Prophets saw visions of hell for anyone supporting their resettlement to Kansas but, in the end, the communities were displaced. For New Yorkers, American Indians slipped into the romantic past where they could be viewed as noble savages, as in “The Last of the Mohicans”. In Cooperstown, New York, there remains a single marker to their memory. On a mound beside the highway a plaque reads:








This story is sculpted by geography so let’s take a quick tour of New York. New York City lies at the extreme south end of the state. Directly west from New York City is New Jersey and then Pennsylvania. Our story takes place north of here, north even of Boston, which lies up the East Coast.

For most of history, it was much faster to travel and ship cargo over water than over land, and consequently, the significant economic development of upstate New York follows waterways both natural and man-made.

To access the upstate region, we travel north, up the Hudson River. Upstate is a nebulous term. My main source for this podcast, Upstate Cauldron by Joscelyn Godwin, defines Upstate as beginning “where the magnetism of New York City no longer affects the mental compass.” For our purposes, it starts around Poughkeepsie. We will meet Andrew Jackson Davis, the “Poughkeepsie Seer,” who became a leading medium and channeler of spirits starting in the 1840s.

Continuing north on the Hudson, we reach Albany. Originally a Dutch fort and trading post, it is one of the oldest settlements in the United States. Albany is where the disappointed converts of William Miller met after their end times failed to occur and created Adventism. Albany was a major commercial hub. North of this point, the Hudson narrows and becomes difficult to navigate. From Albany, ships can access New York harbor, the East Coast, the Atlantic, and the rest of the rest of the world’s oceans beyond. As a result, it was the terminus for the Erie Canal and various early railroads.

Starting in 1817, New York State embarked on a massive project of linking the waterways from the Hudson River to Lake Erie. The Erie Canal allowed New York social movements to expand rapidly because now people could travel across the state twice as fast. It’s estimated that the canal cut shipping costs by 90%, creating an economic boom and inviting mass immigration. This created a thriving marketplace for new ideas and an ample supply of potential converts unmoored from their historical cultures and religions.

The economic boom created a thriving marketplace for new ideas and an ample supply of potential converts unmoored from their historical cultures and religions.

By 1831 the first railroads started to knit the rest of the state together. They were much faster than the canal boats but the uneven terrain of upstate New York limited feasible routes. Trains were initially unreliable, dangerous, and expensive but by mid-century, they began to replace canal travel and further increased the travel speed and reach of upstate prophets.

As we travel west by canal boat we come to Utica, a major site for evangelicalism, abolition, and Spiritualism. The Erie Canal, by providing access to the great lakes, became the last leg of the underground railroad, a network by which northern allies smuggled enslaved people to Canada. In quick succession, we then hit Rome, Oneida (an intentional and particularly strange utopian community), and Syracuse, where L. Frank Baum, the author of The Wizard of Oz, grew up. We are now due south of Lake Ontario. From here you can reach the lake by natural waterway and connect to Rochester and Toronto, however, to reach the other great lakes you need to travel up 167 feet of sheer cliff face known as Niagara Falls.

Continuing West, we pass by Seneca, first a Shaker settlement and then the intentional Community of True Inspiration, and Seneca Falls, the site of the first woman's rights convention and the home of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. We pass by Palmyra, where Joseph Smith first spoke directly to God. We then hit Rochester, the home of the Fox sisters and epicenter of ghost communication. It was also the home of Susan B. Anthony who could not have cared less about ghosts. Rochester also became a center for the American Theosophical Society, the First Universalist Church, and in the 1960s, New Age belief. A final stretch of canal gets us to Buffalo, on the American and Lake Erie side of Niagara Falls, home to the revivalist apocalyptic American Indian movements of Handsome Lake. From here, ships can travel the great lakes and reach Cleveland and Detroit, then Green Bay, Milwaukee, and Chicago on Lake Michigan, and Duluth on Lake Superior.

At the time of the revolution in 1776, much of Upstate was sparsely-populated forest slowly returning to its natural state. The various nations of the Iroquois Confederacy had fought on both sides of colonial disputes between England and France. In the American Revolution, four of the six nations sided with their long-standing allies: the British crown. After various skirmishes and guerilla warfare, including the massacre of an American settlement by Iroquois and British troops, Washington sent his generals John Sullivan and James Clinton to destroy as many Iroquois settlements as possible. This action eventually led to the dissolution of the Iroquois Confederacy. Even so, American founders including Franklin and Jefferson championed the American Indian confederation as the ideal model for federal government.

Washington sent his generals John Sullivan and James Clinton to destroy as many Iroquois settlements as possible.

Much of the conquered Iroquois land was given to American soldiers as payment for service or sold to speculators and pioneers, often with the caveat that they remove any remaining American Indians from the land and build a mill. Federal surveyors divided the state into a regular grid of townships with names of classical cities and heroes of Rome and England. These include Hector, Scipio, Cincinnatus, Locke, and Dryden.

The first major cash crop of upstate New York was the forests themselves. In this age of early mechanization, water powered the world. New York was a land of lakes, rivers, and, most importantly, waterfalls. Sawmills and gristmills sprang up in townships across the state, slowly transforming the landscape into European-style farmland. This outpouring of natural resources made the transportation networks described earlier possible and very lucrative. General James Clinton’s son, Dewitt, inherited his land in the Military Tract and became the governor who championed the Erie canal. Detractors sneeringly called the canal Clinton’s Ditch.

In understanding how easily people could traverse New York, it’s worth noting that oftentimes it would be quicker in winter because of the abundance of frozen water. In winter, the same sled could carry you over snowy roads and across frozen rivers.

Stay tuned for part 2.

Kaitlin and me on the Schroon River

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