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  • Peter McGuire

Mormons, Adventists and Ghosts, Oh My! The Burned Over District Part 2 of 4

Updated: Oct 3, 2021

Table of Contents:

The Universal Friend - The Public Universal Friend, a nonbinary preacher

Revelation Wars - Anne Lee and the Shakers, a celibate communist group

Close Reading - William Miller, Millerites, the Great Disappointment, and Adventism

Part 1 covers initial European settlement in North America; the origin of puritans, Pennsylvania, and quakers; the Longhouse religion of Handsome Lake; and the socio-economic conditions that allowed the burned-over district to flourish.

This section covers the first crop of eccentric New York spiritualists: The first trans American, the Public Universal Friend; celibate communists known as Shakers; and William Miller's apocalyptic visions that created Adventism.

Knowing The Divine

At the time of the American revolution, multiple spiritualist movements mimicked the ongoing political upheaval and also set about democratizing God. Most mainstream Protestant denominations at the time held that God was inherently unknowable and that only scripture could reveal God’s will.

Over the 19th Century, Americans increasingly came to believe that God spoke with them directly, dispensing new instructions for creating a perfect Christian world. In my opinion, the fact that this belief became central to American Christianity speaks volumes about American hubris. This first generation of divinely inspired New Yorkers developed techniques that lent legitimacy to later movements.

Direct revelation is a pandora’s box idea. As we saw with Handsome Lake’s case and will see in many more stories, conversations with God can quickly become a trump card for winning any political argument. When multiple members of a community can speak with the divine, it can set off an arms race of revelation.

Divine inspiration also provides a powerful tool for upending the status quo. Appealing to the highest possible power allowed preachers to radically remake their communities and oftentimes, themselves.

The Universal Friend

Portrait of the Public Universal Friend, recently made

available to the public (Yates County History Center)

Born in 1752, Jemima Wilkinson lived in Rhode Island during heady times. Along with the revolution and the other movements we’ve discussed, Great Awakening preachers began performing ecstatic sermons filled with fire and brimstone, emphasizing the need to be born again in Christ as a cataclysmic change in one’s life accompanied by a complete rejection of sin. Jemima Wilkinson took this idea a bit further than most.

One by one, she and her siblings were kicked out of their local Quaker meetings. Her sister had been dismissed for having an illegitimate child and her brothers for taking up arms in the American Revolution. Jemima was dismissed for giving ecstatic testimony that strayed too close to the bombastic talk of newer preachers called “New Lights.”

Then, in October of 1776, in Wilkinson’s words, “taking her leave of the family between the hour of nine & ten in the morning[, she] dropt the dying flesh & yielded up the Ghost. And according to the declaration of the Angels,—the Spirit took full possession of the Body it now animates.”

When Jemima died, “The Spirit of Life from God, had descended to earth, to warn a lost and guilty, perishing dying World, to flee from the wrath which is to come; and to give an Invitation to the lost Sheep of the house of Israel to come home.”

The spirit that now inhabited Jemima Wilkinson’s body went by the name Publick Universal Friend. Recall that the Quakers call each other “friend”. This Friend ministered not just to a certain congregation, she was a Friend to all. Unfortunately, this openness was not returned by society.

The spirit that now inhabited Jemima Wilkinson’s body went by the name Publick Universal Friend.

The Public Universal Friend (PUF) adopted the black clerical robes of a preacher and a broad-brimmed Quaker hat while retaining their long, curled hair. They spoke with a “masculine-feminine tone of voice, or kind of croak.” It’s hard to know what pronouns to use because the Universal Friend avoided them altogether. I’m going to take an ahistorical stance and use “they” to denote nonbinary gender. In sources from the time, the pronoun “she” is used, often with the insistence that they were denying their true gender.

The PUF and me

The PUF wasted no time starting their new ministry. They began speaking at Quaker meetings in (where else?) Rhode Island. “After she had uttered a few words, a Friend stood up and desired her to sit down. But she not submitting, the same request was repeated by another - and then by another and another until no less than five Friends required her to desist. But she said, as it was the Lord who spoke by her, she could not be silent unless they applied their hands to her mouth.”

Despite resistance from more conservative members of society, the Public Universal Friend found themself in regular demand at churches of all kinds for the next few years. Their revelation was straightforward and relatable. The end was nigh and denial of pleasure and sin, especially sex, was imperative. The eccentric claim of not simply having spoken to God but of actually being a spirit sent from God gave the PUF authority and attention far beyond that which a preaching woman like Jemima Wilkinson could command. In that sense, we could group the PUF with women who adopted male bodies to free themselves from womanhood discussed in an earlier episode of this podcast. The Universal Friend took this a step further and disowned their humanity as well.

We could group the PUF with women who adopted male bodies to free themselves from womanhood discussed in an earlier episode of this podcast.

Six years after the possession, in 1780, the nature of the Universal Friend’s teaching shifted, apparently caused by the death of a prominent follower’s daughter that affected the PUF deeply. The vision of imminent end times faded into the background and emphasis shifted to living in pure ways. By 1785, members of the congregation were buying and developing land on the western shore of Seneca Lake. By 1790, the Friends’ Settlement comprised two hundred people in sixty families and was the largest settlement in western New York. All of this went on while America fought a revolution, wrote a constitution, had a rebellion, and wrote another constitution. For their earlier years, the Society of Friends wasn’t sure what country it would eventually be in, the land shifting from British to American to Indian to American hands as treaties were signed and broken.

True to their Quaker roots, the Friends’ Settlement had no strict theology beyond a strong belief in scripture as God’s word. They did not practice baptism or communion, sing, dance, drink alcohol, or own slaves, and they apparently dealt with neighboring American Indians fairly. Although celibacy was a major focus, the Friend adored the children that inevitably appeared in the community. Unlike most of the religious leaders in this series, The Friend continued to work in the fields and did not need to intimidate or demean their followers to maintain loyalty. Their ability as a speaker was enough. The more eccentric tales such as the Friend trying to raise the dead and walk on water appear to be slander from outside the community.

The Public Universal Friend carriage and insignia

credit: me

The Seneca Lake community fell apart in 1794 due to bad land deals and unsound contracts. In this time much land was bought and sold by unscrupulous speculators and overlapping claims proliferated. The Friend had little control over the legal disputes regarding the community because federal courts did not recognize the Publick Universal Friend as a person and the community insisted that Jemima Wilkinson was long dead. The powerful men of the community played out petty disputes at the expense of the community’s security and lost the land.

The congregation then moved to the next finger lake over, to the banks of the Keuka. For twenty years the community flourished until the Friend’s death in 1819 at age 66. Many fully expected that a new angel would inhabit the body upon the Friend’s passing but, after a few weeks, the body was interred. Without an heir, the community quickly dissipated. The trust that held the communal property supported members until 1874, but spent much of the century in legal limbo because all parties contesting ownership died before the suits were resolved.

In the two centuries since the Friend’s death, much scholarship remained rooted in transphobia and suspicion of their character.

In the two centuries since the Friend’s death, much scholarship remained rooted in transphobia and suspicion of their character. Recently, local historical societies have collected documentation and corrected many myths about the Friend. A new discourse around transness has allowed scholars to see the Friend as a radical feminist or proto-trans activist. By renouncing their old identity and gender and creating a separatist community, the Public Universal Friend rejected the patriarchal constraints of the Quaker community and American society.

In the criticism of the Public Universal Friend, we find a sadly familiar theme. Virtually all trans folks and allies have experienced or witnessed this at least once: A peevish journalist visiting the Friends’ community complained, “it should be noted that her followers do not admit she is a woman, and they therefore, of consequence, deny her name and appear to resent it as an affront when she is called Jemima Wilkinson and declare in the most solemn manner that they know no such person.”

The Society of Universal Friends flatly rejected dead-naming. If you are trans, I invite you to use The Friend’s response: “There is nothing indecent or improper in my dress or appearance. I am not accountable to mortals. I am that I am.”

The board the PUF laid on after death

credit: me

Revelation Wars

The Shakers were another Quaker offshoot during the American Revolution that had interesting ideas about gender. Their initial revelation is rooted in a woman’s pain. Ann Lee, an English Quaker, labored for around nine years with “inexpressible sufferings” while praying to be freed from sin. Not just her sins, but sin itself—the nature of sin.

“Sometimes, for whole nights together, her cries, screeches and groans were such as to fill every soul around her with fear and trembling, and could be compared to nothing but horrors and agonies of the damned in hell, whose awful states were laid upon her.”

In 1770, she received her full revelation from God: all sin was rooted in Adam and Eve’s temptation of the flesh and all lustful gratifications must stop completely for humanity to be saved. This is almost certainly related to her own experience. She was pregnant eight times. Four were stillbirths and four children died in infancy. Now aged 34, she turned against sex altogether.

Through these experiences, she had become a nuisance to her Manchester Quaker community. She fasted for unusually long periods and performed eccentric “labors” at meetings where she cried and screamed as she experienced the divine. This physical mode of experience, crying, screaming, and trembling, earned her followers the name “Shakers.”

Shakerism is rooted in a woman's pain

The Shakers fled England in 1774, settled outside of Albany, and found themselves equally if not more persecuted in New York. It’s unclear what made Shakers more hateful to Americans than other eccentric religious sects. But whereas the Public Universal Friend was subject to constant slander, Ann Lee and her followers were repeatedly attacked in the streets and chased out of towns. Shakers, like Quakers, were pacifists and found themselves repeatedly jailed for the crimes of being recently English and refusing to fight. One of the worst attacks happened in New Lebanon, which would later become a Shaker stronghold. Men and women were dragged into the street and beaten and their property was destroyed. When Ann Lee’s body was moved to construct the Albany Airport in the mid 20th Century (the airport was built directly beside the Shaker community, which had now been converted into a large government-run old-folks home) her bones showed repeated breaks which had healed from a lifetime of physical abuse.

By 1780, Ann Lee was preaching that celibacy ensured freedom from sin, that God was both male and female, and that the second coming was imminent. Upstate Cauldron points out that many religions have female gods, dual gendered gods, or a female god surrogate. Catholicism elevated Jesus’ mother Mary to immaculate and semi-divine status. She could be called on as an intercessor, one step removed from the godhood of her son, to save sinners. Reformed Protestant theology, with its banishing of Mary and discomfiting doctrine of predestination, left a noticeable gap where femininity and divine grace had been. Ann Lee insisted that God had equal male and female natures. Her followers soon took this idea to its obvious conclusion and created a dual leadership structure with a female counterpart for every male position of power.

Ann Lee's grave in Colonie

credit: me

In 1784, both Lee and her brother died. Leadership passed to James Whittaker, a weaver who had fled England, and Joseph Meacham, a Connecticut ex-baptist. Under their leadership, the ideas of the Shakers were rigidly codified. To be a Shaker now meant to be a signer of a Shaker covenant. By signing, you swore off sin, sex (even the procreative kind), and private property. Married couples could no longer cohabitate as men and women lived on opposite sides of their group dwellings. Shaker architecture reflects this in that all public rooms have separate entrances for men and women.

The violent seizuring of Ann Lee was codified into sets of specific movements, something like tai chi.

Public evangelism ceased but permanent Shaker settlements started. The public was invited to watch the religious experiences of the Shakers which grew increasingly strange. The violent seizuring of Ann Lee was codified into sets of specific movements, something like tai chi. Shakers were accused by more conservative churches of the sin of dancing, and in time, these movements did resemble a group dance.

Like other nearby eccentric Christian utopians, the Mennonites and Amish, Shakers lived in self-sufficient communities and limited their interactions with the outside world. Unlike Mennonites and Amish communities, Shakers embraced technology. Their communities became successful economic enterprises as numerous mechanical innovations made them highly productive. Shakers invented chairs that tipped back safely and the flat broom, which rapidly replaced homemade brooms across America. Shaker villages became important community resources because they produced their own herbal medicines and kept large surpluses of food. In time, villages became accustomed to “winter Shakers,” people from nearby towns who took Shaker vows through the hungry season and renounced them in spring.

Shaker communities improved as they became important industrial centers across western New York. Shaker furniture, one of their most prized cultural innovations, were said to have come directly from the archetypal world of Ideas, conveyed by Plato to Shakers in a vision. This makes Shaker furniture some of the only surviving artifacts from the burned-over district said to have been designed by the supernatural directly. In New Lebanon, Shakerism took on the quality of a corporation. They developed their own branding for selling their numerous medicines and goods to the outside world. Shakers became an important part of the booming New York economy as the Erie canal slowly connected the various waterways of Upstate. In their later days, Shakers became so associated with their furniture brands that a Shaker of Hancock Village declared, “I don’t want to be remembered as a chair.”

Shaker robes at Hancock Villiage

credit: me

After Ann Lee’s death, she no longer held the monopoly on divine revelation. Unlike her more egotistical peers, Lee was exalted more in death than in life. In 1808, the Shakers learned that Ann Lee was the female manifestation of Jesus and that the Second Coming had already occurred in her life. In 1837, Ann Mariah Goff learned from Lee directly that the Day of Judgement was, in fact, close at hand along with specific, personal criticism of other Shaker leaders. Later that year, girls at the original Shaker community of Watervliet received many supernatural accusations of individuals that led to expulsions and investigations. Shakers spoke to Lafayette, Washington, Napoleon, and Indian chiefs. Some would “speak in tongues” and act in a “savage and boisterous” way when they channeled Indians. This laid the groundwork for Spiritualists to speak to the dead, often channeling the voices and physicality of so-called savage or primitive Indians.

In 1808, the Shakers learned that Ann Lee was the female manifestation of Jesus and that the Second Coming had already occurred in her life.

This period, called the Era of Manifestations, destabilized Shaker communities but also led to a swelling in membership and deepening of Shaker culture. At its height in 1840, over 5,000 Americans were active members of a Shaker covenant. Shakers produced songs and art, supposedly divinely inspired, that are woven into America’s folk traditions. One song in particular, Simple Gifts, shows up again and again when we celebrate American folk music. Here is a version that is sung similar to the Shaker original. Yo-Yo Ma provides sparse harmony but Shakers did not use harmony or percussion, only melody. This is Copland’s interpolation Simple Gifts for his score to the ballet Appalachian Spring. As recently as 2008, Simple Gifts made two notable appearances. John Williams incorporated it into his composition for Obama’s inauguration and Weezer released this song. Shakers would go on vacations but only to other Shaker villages, and customarily would compose a song to thank their hosts. So many new songs were composed that a general moratorium was called on songwriting at various times.

In this time, Shaker dances became codified group rituals and outsiders were no longer invited to watch. You’ve probably seen images of these dances online because they look very much like the Thriller dance. Songs such as “Come Life, Shaker Life” show the tension between Shaker views of their “laboring” and the disapproval from the outside world of their eccentric forms of dance. When they sing “I’ll take nimble steps, I’ll be a David/ I’ll show Michael how he behaved,” they are arguing that wild dancing has strong biblical precedent and is not the unholy, carnal act denounced by puritans.

Although strict abolitionists, Shakers did not participate in the Civil War and became America’s first recognized conscientious objectors. They lost much of their clout as industrial factories eclipsed their craftsmen-oriented workshops. As conversions slowed, Shaker numbers rapidly dwindled because they did not have children and exiled those who did. As a result, a major source of Shaker recruitment was adopting illegitimate and orphaned children. In the 20th century, government agencies pushed religious organizations out of fostering and adoption services, sending Shaker membership plummeting. In 1992, only one Shaker covenant remained open. As of a 2019 newsletter, there are three Shakers remaining, all over 60 years old.

Shakers laid the groundwork, sometimes literally, for the movements that followed

In terms of staying power, we can place Shakers somewhere in the middle of a scale from the Universal Friends to Mormons. If anything, it’s amazing they’ve lasted as long as they have given the prohibition on reproduction. The organization of the community into a closed commune provided the economic and doctrinal support for the movement to flourish after the death of its leader. As Shaker fortunes rose and fell throughout the 19th century, they laid the groundwork, sometimes literally, for the movements that followed. Shaker ideas and settlements form the background for many of the stories that follow. The game of one-upmanship that comes from delivering personal messages from the divine would soon consume the entire state.

Close Reading

The other Protestant method for knowing the divine focused on closely reading scripture and interpreting its meaning for yourself (as guided by the holy spirit). William Miller took this idea further than most and calculated an exact date for the Second Coming using a much simpler system than existing occult and kabbalistic approaches to the same problem. In fact, Miller was notably less mystical than his surroundings. He had no interest in mystical get-rich-quick schemes like his contemporary Joseph Smith.

Miller was a deist in his younger days and would poke fun at his uncle’s and grandfather’s preaching as baptist ministers. He dreamed of glory in war and was more than happy to enlist in the War of 1812. Losing close friends and coming so close to death himself changed Miller, and at age 33, he began a new search for meaning.

William Miller calculated the exact timing of the second coming and last judgment

Inspired by the various strains of Protestantism around him, Miller set out to understand the bible as a single, coherent piece of divine work. He poured through the King James Bible with Cruden’s Concordance, a text that attempted to link all of the prophecies of the Old Testament to events in the New Testament to prove that Jesus was indeed the Messiah awaited by the Jews. Miller told his friends “Give me time and I will harmonize all those apparent contradictions to my own satisfaction, or I will be a deist still.”

What followed closely resembles the research process of conspiracy theorists. Miller ignored all historical context and virtually all biblical scholarship and used as his only source the 1611 English translation of the bible which was drawn from a wide variety of sources and translations and not, notably, from the early Greek, Latin, and Aramaic sources that biblical scholars prize today. The King James translation is noted for its ingenuity of language and poetic phrases but not for its accuracy. Miller used this translation and a handful of English-language concordance guides to reconstruct the mind of God from his only known written work.

From this unlikely beginning, he achieved something that theologians had been failing to do for over a millennium: he calculated the timing of the second coming and last judgment. Miller was a literalist in the sense that he thought the bible was directly written by God through man but not in the sense that every word should be taken literally. Therefore he came to the conclusion that Daniel 8:14, which reads "Unto two thousand and three hundred days; then shall the sanctuary be cleansed," meant that the second coming and final judgment would happen 2,300 years after the time of Daniel. He took the prophecy of Daniel as happening in 457 BC, therefore the world would end in 1844 AD, or about 25 years from the date of Miller’s discovery.

Christians, especially Baptists, flocked to this idea. Miller began a new life as an itinerant preacher, warning that all sin would need to be expunged by 1844 if parishioners wanted to avoid damnation. The simplicity of Miller’s logic attracted widespread support that the more eccentric competing doctrines could command.

Miller began a new life as an itinerant preacher, warning that all sin would need to be expunged by 1844 if parishioners wanted to avoid damnation.

In 1833, nature seemed to confirm his insight. The Leonid meteor shower lit up the night sky and convinced both William Miller and Joseph Smith that they were correct in believing that the second coming was close at hand. It remains a key event in the historiography of Seventh-Day Adventists and Mormons.

Miller stands out as starkly less egotistical than other religious leaders. Between 1834 and 1839 he gave 800 lectures, unpaid, only upon invitation, and paid his own expenses as he traveled relentlessly around New England. Over this time, Miller gained rich and powerful supporters who broadcast his message to a much wider audience. By 1840, he was lecturing across the midwest in multi-thousand-seat city halls.

With this growing popularity came growing backlash. Newspapers printed satirical articles, creating the myth that believers wore special ascension robes and sold all their property in anticipation of a physical rapture. Millerite assemblies faced mob hostility from egg-throwing to violent assault. Biblical scholars and preachers largely mocked Miller’s interpretations of the bible (while still leaving open the possibility that he was right).

Finally, it was 1843. The Jewish calendar begins on the spring equinox, which left a year from March 21, 1843 to 1844 for the end times to arrive. Beginning in February of that year and peaking in March, a bright comet with one of the longest tails in recorded history could be seen overhead. Cultures the world over wondered about its meaning. Millerites knew for certain. Astronomers estimate that the Earth will see this comet again in 500 to 700 years from now. A newspaper article in 1843 suggested that Miller’s second coming was being preached by a wide range of mainstream churches including Episcopal, Methodist, Baptist, Calvinist, and Lutheran.

And yet, astute students of history will already know that the world did not end on March 21st, 1844. When the date came and went without fanfare, Miller admitted that he may have had some error in his calculations and convinced himself and his followers that the true date would be October 22nd. He wrote to his closest friend and supporter, “I cannot refrain from congratulating you daily on the glorious prospect we have of soon entering the gates of the beloved city, and of soon harping on the golden harps the everlasting song of hallelujah to the Lamb.” Unfortunately for Miller, October 22nd proved as uneventful as March 21st.

Unfortunately for Miller, October 22nd proved as uneventful as March 21st.

Believers had a wide range of responses to this event, called the Great Disappointment. The overwhelming majority became disillusioned with their churches and became recruits for other eccentric movements. Some believed that Miller had simply miscalculated the date but was correct about everything else. Some believe that God had “shut the door” on that date and no more sinners would be allowed into heaven after that point, which was comforting for members who were certain they’d purged their sin but less so for their descendants born after that date who now could never find salvation. And finally, a group believed in a vision that a follower had had on the day of the Great Disappointment. He saw the “High Priest… entered… the second apartment of that sanctuary; and that He had a work to perform in the Most Holy Place before coming to the earth.”

After some soul searching, Millerites held a conference in Albany the following year. Since Millerites came from a wide variety of Protestant churches, they could agree on very little shared theology. The only broad agreement was that they were now living in the end times and the world would continue to be perfected until such a point when Jesus would return. William Miller staunchly opposed this view and argued that nothing had happened on October 22nd. He insisted that the world would continue to sink into worse depravity until his prophecy of the second coming came true. Ignoring Miller, this group of followers named themselves Adventists because they believed the second advent of Christ had already occurred.

A group of Miller's followers named themselves Adventists because they believed the second advent of Christ had already occurred

This loose collection of Christians quickly split and split again over questions of doctrine and more recent revelations. Unlike Miller, Adventists reported direct visions from God to guide them. The most lasting denomination came to believe from bible study that the sabbath actually falls on Saturday rather than Sunday, earning them the name Seventh-Day Adventists. As of 2016, around 20 million Americans are baptized Seventh-day Adventists. They still preach an imminent judgment day.

Perhaps the most famous Adventists were a group were led by Victor Houteff, who had been disfellowshiped by his congregation in 1929. Disfellowshipping is a formal process by which the Adventist community shuns a member who is considered too far outside the orthodoxy. Houteff’s response was to publish a 172-page manuscript criticizing several parts of Adventist theology. His ideas proved so popular that in 1934 he bought land near Waco, Texas and built a small community called the Mount Carmel Center. In 1942 they named themselves the Davidian Seventh-day Adventists. After Houteff’s death in 1955, the community dissipated and fractured. The Mount Carmel Center lay vacant for decades until a descendant of the Davidian church, calling themselves the Branch Davidians, moved back in during the 1990s. This group abandoned the beliefs of Houteff in favor of their new prophet, the charismatic and egotistical Vernon Howell, who legally changed his name to David Koresh in 1990. The name references the Persian ruler Cyrus (Koresh in Hebrew) who is credited with returning the Jews from exile in Babylon. In 1993, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives attempted to search the compound for illegal weapons which quickly escalated into a siege. After a 51-day standoff, the Mount Carmel Center caught fire and killed 76 Branch Davidians including 2 children, 2 pregnant women and David Koresh.

Adventist preachers also inspired the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Adventist pastor George Stetson influenced Charles Taze Russell to begin his own close readings of the bible. The resulting Bible Study Movement predicted the end of the world in 1914. Unlike Adventists, Russell believed that a small number of the Elect become sleeping saints when they appear to die. He laid out a fairly specific chronology for the following years which Jehovah’s Witnesses still believe to a greater or lesser extent. Russell lived to see one of his predictions fail: no living saints were raptured in 1878. He also lived past 1914, which believers still claim was the year when Satan came to rule on earth. We are currently living in end times under Satan’s yoke. Russell died in 1916, leading to various schisms and scandals. The Watch Tower Society, as they called themselves, stopped making quite so specific predictions of end-time events. Their most recent disappointment happened in 1975 when the end of the world yet again failed to differ from the day before. There are around 9 million active Jehovah’s Witnesses in the world today.

Part 3 will be published in October, or hear it now on Patreon

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