Wednesday, February 08, 2012

The Erie Canal, American Exceptionalism, and the Second Great Awakening's Burned-Over District

When studying religions and their politics one must realize the difference between traditional conservatism found in such faiths like Orthodoxy and the many varieties of rural Sunni Islam and Protestant Christianity and the revolutionary-rightism found in religions like Pentecostalism or Islamism.  Traditional conservative faith likes "the old ways" while accepting the world as an imperfect place with imperfect system created by man and not God.  Revolutionary-rightist faiths seek to create their god's "kingdom" on Earth, renew the old ways so that while the morals stay the same they are tweaked for the contemporary generation, and usually are aggressive in seeking expansion.  Sometimes these revolutionary movements which initially seek only to retweak old ways advance so far that they end up looking nothing like the original traditionalism. 

Traditional religious conservatives usually will become revolutionary-rightists when conditions are right.  These conditions require a relatively sudden integration into the greater, usually more secular, culture and the exposure of benefits and risks associated with becoming upperly mobile through greater connectivity and economic advancement.

With this knowledge in mind it is now possible how the backwater western portion of New York state became the hot bed for the Second Great Awakening in the 1820s and 1830s.  This hot bed led to the rise of many short lived faiths but also two major global religious streams of thought.

Background:  Western New York, A Dumping Ground

Early settlement in New York between the Hudson River near Albany and Lake Erie near Buffalo was hardly an example of industrialization or development.  The overwhelmingly agricultural region was not as cutoff as Appalachia but the region was distant enough to discourage development.  Besides those farms near Buffalo or Albany the infrastructure was too poor to support exporting crops and there was no desire to develop industry because there was no means to transport it elsewhere.

The American settlers focused on their own needs and then the needs of the immediate, if sparse, community.  The established religions in Protestant America such as the Episcopalians overlooked this "unchurched" population.  These "unchurched" considered themselves Christian though they had little formal religious instruction.  Methodist circuit riders would pass through this area but even there numbers were low in the late 1700s and early 1800s.

The Start of the Second Great Awakening and the Opening of the Erie Canal

The Second Great Awakening began in the early 1800s but did not truly gain energy until the 1820s.  At the same time in 1817 construction on the 363 mile (584 kilometer) Erie Canal began between Albany and Buffalo.  The canal opened in 1825 just as Western New York was getting its first wave of the Second Great Awakening.

The Erie Canal changed everything.  The canal, its support roads, and roads specifically designed to connect nearby areas to the canal made Western New York's economy take off.  All the sudden any point along the canal became a port for trade anywhere along the Great Lakes, Hudson River, and even Atlantic Ocean.  Western New York society, long traditional conservative, became connected and upperly mobile.  The stage was set for change.

The Erie Canal and water ways connected to the canal.  From Wikipedia
Burned-Over District

The primary means of religious education and experience in the Second Great Awakening was the revival.  These mass events combined showmanship, social networking, and fed the longstanding need for religion the "unchurched" wanted.  Various forms of Baptists and Methodists came and preached to newly connected and socially mobile Western New York.  The evangelization was so thorough that the region would later be called the Burned-Over, or Burt-Over, District because there was no fuel, unconverted population, left to burn (i.e. convert).

Best map I could find of what would become the Burned-Over District.  From Oliver
Religion Infused with American Values

Unlike other areas which experienced the Second Great Awakening, the new revolutionary-rightists proved to be fertile ground not only for Americanized Protestant denominations but even heterodoxical faiths which combined elements of Christianity with extreme American Exceptionalism.

Ideals such as woman's rights and anti-slavery were not rare to the original traditional conservatives of Western New York.  Of course women were equal, they did equal work on the farms.  Meanwhile slavery was seen not only an economic ill keeping the free white farmer down economically but there was no religious justification for keeping Blacks as slaves like the Ancient Egyptians kept the Jews enslaved.  However, traditionalist rarely sought to implement their beliefs.  What the revolutionary rightist taught was that it was time for change.  Woman were allowed to partake in Protestant sermons and have their own equal religious experiences.  Some revivals and denominations in the Burned-Over District were led by women.  Meanwhile slavery was taught as a sin blemishing God's new Israel, America (the view of America as God's new Israel was a Puritan belief that the established churches in the United States had generally abandoned by the early 1800s).

The lessons of women's equality and slavery abolition spread from Western New York down the Erie Canal to New York City and New England where they were formalized and spread.  The Burned-Over would eventually host the 1848 Senaca Falls Convention in which radical Quakers allied with moderates in support of women's rights.  Frederick Douglass and other abolitionists were found throughout the Rochester area.

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Seneca Falls

Religion Infused with American Exceptionalism

Besides the normal spread of Methodists, Baptists, and even Quakers, other groups began to grow in the Burned-Over District.  These groups saw America as the New Eden and/or New Israel where the "true" Christian faith free from Catholic and man-made Protestant "corruptions" could finally be reestablished.  Adventism claiming that the Saturday Sabbath and not the Sunday Lord's Day was the true day of rest was founded in eastern New York but found fertile soil in the Burned-Over District.  Radical, women-led, sex-free groups such as the Shakers and Universal Friends Society centered their efforts in booming Western New York.  On the other end radical, male-led, sex-obsessed, Utopian groups like the Oneida Community were formed in areas around Oneida.

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Two important new trends grew out of the Second Great Awakening in the Burned-Over District which still last today.  The first is modern Spiritualism.  In 1848 in two teenage sisters of the Fox family of Arcadia, New York claimed to have made communication with spirits.  They laid the groundwork for modern Spiritualism which took off two decades later as millions of Americans desperately sought some closure for the loss of their loved ones during the Civil War.  There have been claims by some academics that state without America's Civil War and the spread of occultism from the United States to England that Spiritualism and its descendants in several New Age movements would have never of reach the heights that they did.  Today Spiritualism and its related occult practices thrive in its own counter-culture.

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Arcadia is right outside Newark

The greatest revolutionary movement that came from the economically and socially mobile Erie Canal-affected region was Mormonism.  The whole old Northwest region of the United States was covered by ancient Indian mounds which earlier settlers concluded that American Indians were incapable of creating.  Instead they believed a great people had to had built them because the mounds were great and America was a great country.  No way could backwards American Indians have made the mounds.  Many theories were purposed to explain the origins of the mounds and even American Indians.  Theories ranged from Ancient Egyptians, Romans, Greeks, Trojans, Germanics, and even Israelites.  Books such as the 1823 View of the Hebrews and the 1826 The Wonders of Nature claimed Ancient Hebrews discovered America and made it their new Israel.  This belief helped justify the Puritan/Revolutionary belief that America was indeed the new Israel.  Many elements of in those books turn up in the Book of Mormon (1830) which is one of the main tenants of Mormonism.  Joseph Smith founded Mormonism in Palmyra (which is less than 10 miles away from the Fox Sisters' Arcadia) in 1830.  The movement prospered in the Burned-Over district even after Smith moved to Ohio and beyond in 1831.

Map of religious communities in the Burned-Over Distirct in 1831.  From George Mason University

All elements came together in the Burned-Over District for the vast spread and growth of faiths.  The Erie Canal provided the social mobility and cultural connectivity to make revolutions, American ideals and exceptionalism allowed new ideas to infuse with faith, and the greater Second Great Awakening made people hunger for more religion.  This cultural geographic perfect storm led to many failures and some successes which still impact the world today.


pfly said...

Another reason, I think, for the rather rapid development of upstate/western New York, is that the region was an Iroquois stronghold until the 1790s and therefore off limits to settlers. Certainly the Erie Canal played a huge role, but the lack of development before the first or second decade of the 19th century was largely because land was simply not available for purchase. (I'm from western NY!)

Matt said...

Interesting article, but I wouldn't think of people who supported the rights of women and blacks when it was considered radical to do so to be "rightists."

Catholicgauze said...

Thanks for the comment. The 30 years between 1790 and 1830 was a long time (look at Ohio and Michigan). The Iroquois hold did delay development but there was little reason for others to develop the region for 30 years.

Catholicgauze said...

Revolutionary Rightism is not the same as traditionalism. Very conservative Wyoming was the first state to grant women the right to vote. Also, these movements were not rejecting doctrine but applying the literal terms (all men created equal, all equal in the eyes of God) to the country (a form of strict constructionism American conservatives support in the Supreme Court)

data diplomacy said...

Nice article, people always loose the context of when the origins are in the past. Re religious extremism, fundamentalism and conservatism, I found Joan Armstrong's book the Battle for God, quite good.