Ever since John Winthrop’s famous “city upon a hill” sermon aboard the Arbella in 1630, it’s been tough to separate religion from the spirit of America’s founding. Indeed, some say the evangelical movement of the mid-eighteenth century known as The First Great Awakening played a key role in America’s strive for independence.1 And don’t think the whole “separation of Church and State” thing in the Constitution came about because the Founding Fathers felt the First Great Awakening was a tad too much. I’ll remind you the whole purpose of the First Great Awakening was to rebel against the Church of England and to recognize broader religious freedom. This is the very philosophy embodied by our constitution.
Our focus in this chapter, though, isn’t the First Great Awakening, but the Second Great Awakening. The Second Great Awakening began in 1790 and lasted for about 50 years. It featured traveling preachers leading revival camps where “hundreds and sometimes thousands of people would gather for miles around in wilderness encampment for four days to a week.”2 One such preacher was Charles Finney, who, from September 1830, through June 1831, led various revival campaigns3 in Rochester, Buffalo and “the intermediate towns between there.”4 And what facilitated this travel? Why, none other than our old friend the Erie Canal. Indeed, Finney and his family arrived via canal boat with much fanfare in Rochester on the morning of September 10, 1830.5
The Canal proved a convenient mode of transportation for revivalists. For Greater Western New York as well as other parts west of Albany, it quickly became an information superhighway for the Second Great Awakening. Attracting all types of evangelicals, the region was so saturated with spiritual awakening Finney referred to it as the “Burned-Over District” in his 1876 autobiography.6 Finney’s legacy to our region, though, goes far beyond coining a term for it. The Second Great Awakening incited social activism, and Finney himself was a well-known abolitionist and advocate for women’s suffrage,7 two issues Greater Western New York has become noted for.
The fiery sermons of the Burned-Over District forged two hidden gems that continue to shine to this day.
The first and most famous is the birth of the Mormon Church, a.k.a., the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints or “LDS.” Around 1818, the Smith family moved to Manchester, New York, in Ontario County. Each morning, young Joseph would go to his special spot deep in the woods to pray. On “a beautiful, clear day, early in the spring of 1820,” fourteen year-old Joseph Smith, Jr. saw a vision of God and Jesus Christ.8 The teenager kept what’s now called his “First Vision” to himself for three- and-a-half years until, while praying to God, the angel Moroni appeared before him to reveal divine truth.9 Moroni told Smith to find the Golden Plates that contained the Book of Mormon on a nearby hill, and the young man went to this hill each year for four years until he was allowed to retrieve the plates.10 The Book of Mormon itself was first published in the Grandin Building in the Village of Palmyra in Wayne County.
It is this hill, unnamed at the time, where we find our hidden gem. While the locals soon began calling it “Mormon Hill,” the LDS eventually christened it “Hill Cumorah.” Each July, thousands of LDS volunteers come to the hallowed site and stage the annual Hill Cumorah Pageant, an extravagant production with a “cast of 700, 1,300 costumes, 10-level stage and thrill-a-minute special effects” that, according to a New York Times review, evokes Cecil B. DeMille.11 While Mormons initially starting coming to the site in the 1920s, the first show was held in 1937 and carried the title “America’s Witness to Christ.”12
I’m told the Hill Cumorah Pageant is an event everyone should experience. At least that’s what my parents told me after they went. The spectacle attracts Mormons and non-Mormons alike. Its cast has even included well-known celebrities. In 1997, Donny Osmond appeared in the show as a Mormon prophet.13 Osmond would return with his family in 2010, this time as spectators.14 Who’d a thought Greater Western New York would have been the Jerusalem of the New World?
Just to the east of the Town of Palmyra, and still in Wayne County, lies the Town of Arcadia. But towards the end of the Burned-Over days, a small hamlet called Hydesville existed. In it was a small house. In that small house lived two teenage girls, Maggie and Katy Fox. Maggie and Katy one day in the winter of 1848 decided to scare their mother by making ghostly noises.15 But the prank backfired as the mother panicked and brought in the neighbors to confirm the eerie origin of the strange sounds. The girls hid the truth to avoid getting into trouble and, as news spread, their older sister Leah, who was living in Rochester, saw a money-making opportunity.16
It’s not clear from the records when the girls concocted the story that the sounds came from the ghost of a murdered peddler buried in the cellar of their home, but the neighbors searched the foundation and came up with no real hard evidence, apparently torrential rains thwarted their efforts.17 With Leah as their manager, the girls soon gained international notoriety for their ability to speak to the dead. Alas, in their old age and perhaps due to acute alcoholism, the sisters had a falling out, and Maggie spilled the beans of their hoax in 1888.18 She tried recanting the following year to no avail. The sisters died in 1892.
Now, here’s the real strange thing about the story. In 1904 that same water problem that stymied curious neighbors in 1848 undermined a false foundation wall in the Fox sisters’ former home. The fallen wall revealed a hidden chamber containing human remains.19 Amazing, right? Too bad skeptics have since refuted this claim.20
Nonetheless, that Maggie and Kate Fox started the modern Spiritualism movement cannot be denied. Spiritualism believes, after the body dies, the personality of that person lives on as a spirit. Spiritualism grew quickly once the Fox sisters hit the stage. Within a decade of their initial claim, the nation could count more than a million practicing Spiritualists.21 Like their predecessors in the Second Great Awakening, they would often meet in camps for weeks at a time. In 1871, one such group began meeting on the shores of Cassadaga Lake22 in the town of Pomfret in Chautauqua County. A few years later this group would formally organize themselves as the Cassadaga Lake Free Association, although in 1906 their gated community would become known as The Lily Dale Assembly in honor of the great many lilies flourishing in the nearby lake.23
In 1916 the childhood home of the Fox sisters was taken from its Hydesville foundation and moved to Lily Dale where the spiritualist village used it as a museum (it burned to the ground in 1955, taking Finney’s Burned-Over District metaphor to a new level).24 Hydesville has since built a shell of the original house above the still intact foundation of Maggie and Kate’s childhood home. Still, Lily Dale, remains the center of the Spiritualism movement.
The ashes of the Burned-Over District may have been quite cold, but they must have provided fertile nourishment for the blossoming of our next hidden gem. The very same year of the first meeting of spiritualists in Chautauqua County, another religious assembly would meet for the first time. It would take a vastly different direction that reverberates to this day.
If you like this story, you’ll love Chris Carosa’s new book 50 Hidden Gems of Greater Western New York. You can order it right now by clicking this link that takes you to the publisher’s Amazon.com CreateSpace store.
1 Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, (1992) pp. 249,273-4, 299-300
2 Scott, Donald, “Evangelicalism, Revivalism, and the Second Great Awakening,” National Humanities Center, October, 2000, http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/tserve/nineteen/nkeyinfo/nevanrev.htm |
3 Hambrick-Stowe, Charles E., Charles G. Finney and the Spirit of American Evangelicalism, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996, p.101, http://books.google.com/books?id=oRNQamJnDuUC&pg=PA159&dq=Albert+Baldwin+Dod+#v=snippet&q=erie%20canal&f=false |
4 Ibid., p.116
5 Ibid., p.104
6 Hansen, Colin and John D. Woodbridge, A God-Sized Vision: Revival Stories That Stretch and Stir, Zondervan, 2010, p.60, http://books.google.com/books?id=479ru8ULVskC&pg=PA60&dq=Charles+Finney+autobiography+%22Burned-Over+District%22&hl=en&sa=X&ei=oPa2UK6JD6m20QHCmoDADA&ved=0CEsQ6AEwCQ#v=onepage&q=Charles%20Finney%20autobiography%20%22Burned-Over%20District%22&f=false |
7 Macdonald, Pastor Marty, “The Second Great Awakening,” United States History, http://www.u-s-history.com/pages/h1091.html |
8 “Sacred Grove, Manchester (near Palmyra),” Joseph Smith Historic Sites, Intellectual Reserve, Inc., 2010, http://www.josephsmith.net/josephsmith/v/index.jsp?vgnextoid=ac6968f0374f1010VgnVCM1000001f5e340aRCRD |
9 “Smith Family Log Home, Palmyra,” Joseph Smith Historic Sites, Intellectual Reserve, Inc., 2010, http://www.josephsmith.net/josephsmith/v/index.jsp?vgnextoid=889968f0374f1010VgnVCM1000001f5e340aRCRD |
10 “Hill Cumorah, Manchester (near Palmyra),” Joseph Smith Historic Sites, Intellectual Reserve, Inc., 2010, http://www.josephsmith.net/josephsmith/v/index.jsp?vgnextoid=014968f0374f1010VgnVCM1000001f5e340aRCRD |
11 Applebome, Peter, “A Mormon Spectacle, Way Off Broadway,” The New York Times, July 13, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/14/nyregion/hill-cumorah-pageant-offers-mormon-spectacle-way-off-broadway.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0 |
13 “Donny Osmond Sheds Dreamcoat To Star in Mormon Pageant July 11-19,” Playbill.com, Playbill, Inc., July 12, 1997, http://www.playbill.com/news/article/34552-Donny-Osmond-Sheds-Dreamcoat-To-Star-in-Mormon-Pageant-July-11-19 |
14 Higgins, Sue, “Donny Osmond sightings reported around Palmyra,” Wayne Post, Gatehouse Media, Inc., July 21, 2010, http://www.waynepost.com/feature/x700420060/Donny-Osmond-sightings-reported-around-Palmyra |
15 Stuart, Nancy Rubin, “The Fox Sisters: Spiritualism’s Unlikely Founders,” American History Magazine, August, 2005, http://www.historynet.com/the-fox-sisters-spiritualisms-unlikely-founders.htm |
19 “Bones in ‘Old Spook House’,” The Boston Journal, November 23, 1904, http://www.geohanover.com/images/spook.jpg |
20 Nickell, Joe, “A Skeleton’s Tale: The Origins of Modern Spiritualism,” Skeptical Inquirer, Volume 32.4, July/August 2008, http://www.csicop.org/si/show/skeletons_tale_the_origins_of_modern_spiritualism/ |
21 Gilbert, Bil, “In Good Spirits,” Smithsonian Magazine, June 1, 2001, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/interest_jun01.html |
23 Nagy, Ron, “History of Lily Dale – 1st Handout,” Ron Nagy’s Blog, February 1, 2010, http://ronnagy.net/ronsblog/2010/02/history-of-lily-dale-1st-handout/ |
24 “Fox Sisters,” Gale Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology, http://www.answers.com/topic/the-fox-sisters |