The Burned-Over District
This part of western New York became famous after the Erie Canal for its history of revivalism, radicalism, communitarian experiments. It was fertile ground for new ideas to take root and spread to other parts of the country. It became a "psychic highway" for New Englanders who left the East and headed West in search of new ways of life.

Charles Grandison Finney
Charles Grandison Finney gave the region its name, referring to it as a "burnt district" because so many revivals had taken place there during America's Second Great Awakening. Finney himself was born in Connecticut but migrated with his parents to western New York. He was starting a career as a lawyer when on Oct. 10, 1821, he saw a brilliant light in his law office and underwent an immediate conversion at the age of 29: " I have a retainer from the Lord Jesus." He became a missionary to Jefferson County for the Female Missionary Society of the Western District of New York. He rejected traditional Calvinist theology and Unitarianism and became a founder of New School Presbyterianism that emphasized an evangelistic style of religion, pioneering new techniques of revivalism called the "New Measures" used by a growing number of disciples called the "Holy Band." He was a charismatic speaker, tall, handsome, with striking blue eyes and a dramatic voice. When he spoke, his body writhed and he seemed possessed by the Holy Spirit. From his ordination in 1824 until his death in 1875, he was the most popular preacher in America. Thousands came to his tent meetings in Utica, Rome, Auburn and Troy. In October 1825 he began preaching every night in the town of Western, continued throughout the winter, beginning the first of what he called the "great Western revivals." He pioneered revival meetings in large cities after 1827.
tent revival meeting
His Rochester revival in 1830 was described as intense, lasting weeks with hundreds of "inquiry meetings" and praying for individuals by name and putting them on the "anxious seat" for public prayer and granting them immediate admission into church membership upon public demonstration of conversion. He promoted temperance and women's rights, allowing women to pray in public during his revivals. He founded a newspaper, the New York Evangelist, with financial support from Lewis and Arthur Tappan. In 1835, Finney became president of Oberlin College in Ohio and wrote a handbook for revival ministers. He blazed the trail that would later be followed by Dwight L. Moody, Billy Sunday, and Billy Graham.

John Humphrey Noyes
John Humphrey Noyes formed a utopian community in Oneida in 1848 after being driven out of Putney Vermont by neighbors hostile to his perfectionist philosophy and rejection of the traditional institutions of marriage and private property. The 87 original members of the Oneida community would prosper and grow into several hundred, becoming one of the most successful and long-lasting of the utopian communities founded in the early 19th century. The members were not poor or social outcasts, but had money to invest and skills and literacy. Sewell Newhouse invented an animal trap that was manufactured in a large modern factory, beginning a tradition of industry and labor that would carry over into the famous silverware business that survives today. Everyone shared work, food, possessions and all lived in common dormotories in the large Mansion at Oneida. Like Ann Lee and Robert Owen and Joseph Smith, Noyes developed an alternative to monogamy. He abolished "exclusive love" and called his system of communal sex "complex marriage" governed by the priciple of "ascending fellowship" and "mutual criticism." Noyes read Darwin and developed a eugenics program that he called "stirpiculture" resulting in the birth of 58 children raised communally in the Children's House.

William Miller
William Miller was a farmer in rural Vermont when he went to a revival and joined the Baptist church in 1818. He spent 14 years studying the Bible, accepted literally all its prophecies, especially those on the Second Coming. He became an advocate of millenialism, the time when Christ would reign on earth for 1000 years of peace. He went on tour after 1832, spoke at revival meetings and predicted the Second Coming was going to be 1843. After a brilliant comet filled the sky Feb. 28 to Apr. 1, 1843, he changed the date to Oct. 22, 1844, but it turned out to be the "Great Disappointment." Miller died in 1847 but his followers continued to develop the Millenial church. Ellen G. White had visions of an angel who told her that Christ would not return until the elect obeyed the Ten Commandments, especially the Fourth to "remember the sabbath day to keep it holy." In 1863, she founded the Seventh-day Adventist church that mixed the millenialism of Miller with the health evangelism of Sylvester Graham (no flesh foods, drugs, corsets, stimulants or frequent sex). One of her followers would be Dr. John Harvey Kellogg in Battle Creek, Michigan, the inventor of corn flakes.

Joseph Smith
Joseph Smith grew up in western New York and claimed the angel Moroni gave him the golden plates that he translated into the Book of Mormon published in 1830. It told the epic story of migration to America of the light-skinned Nephites and dark-skinned Lamanites and thus provided an explanation for the unique origin of America. Smith continued to have revelations, collected as the Doctrine and Covenants, and became a 19th century prophet for the chosen people who would build the Kingdom of God on earth to prepare for the millennium. The movment attracted small farmers displaced by commercial agriculture and craftsman threatened by the factory system. Mormonism offered security, source of authority, family solidarity, opportunity for the dispossessed. It appealed to Americans who feared the growing chaos of individualism and commercialism and secularism. Due to persecution, Smith and his followers moved to Ohio, then Missouri, then Illinois. From 1839 to 1844, Mormons transformed a swamp along the Mississippi River into a boom town of 10,000, making Nauvoo the largest urban center in the state. Smith planned to create a new form of
Brigham Young
government and secretly introduced the practice of polygamy during the period, but he was murdered in 1844. Brigham Young emerged as the leader of the main group of Mormons, and began the migration to the Great Salt Lake in 1846. The success of the Mormons in separating from the existing states and developing a new state called Deseret caused the new Republican Party in 1856 to declare its oppostion to the "twin relics of barbarism, slavery and polygamy." It also caused the Democratic administration of James Buchanan to suppress Mormon state-building by sending an army of 2500 under Albert Sidney Johnston. Brigham Young ordered the evacuation of Salt Lake City before the arrival of Johnston in 1858. No shots were fired and the troops withdrew. When Lincoln was asked what he was going to do, he said "I propose to let them alone."


revised 11/24/03 by Schoenherr | Maps | Modernization | Civil War Topics