During much of the 1800s, wave after wave of new religious movements spread across Central and Western New York, earning it the title The Burned Over District.
“The physical features of the Burned Over District, combined with many transformations engineered by man—roads, canals, villages, waterpowered mills—made it the perfect geographical petrie dish in which to start and grow new religious movements at a fantastic pace,” said Mike McKenzie, associate professor of philosophy and religion. “It was almost like the Haight-Asbury District in San Francisco in the 1960s. Young people moved in to a new area where anything was possible and a bunch of ideas caught hold. The ideas for new religions just came barreling in.”
For example, the region became the birthplace of what is now the world’s fastest-growing religion—Mormonism—in 1820 when 14-year-old Joseph Smith claimed God appeared to him in what is now the Sacred Grove about 5 miles from Palmyra.
Jemima Wilkinson, an evangelist and one of the first American-born women to found a religious movement, eventually settled in what is now the Town of Jerusalem, not far from the present day Keuka College campus, in Yates County.
And while Methodism wasn’t founded in Western New York, it certainly thrived.
“At one time there were an incredible 19 Methodist churches in Yates County,” said McKenzie.
The Burned Over District is a terrific topic for McKenzie to explore in his religion classes and now he has a teaching tool to do just that. McKenzie combined his writing and research skills with the videography and editing talents of Troy Cusson, instructional design manager in the Wertman Office of Distance Education (WODE), to create a 60-minute DVD that takes viewers “on a tour of many of the exact spots where these religions either got their start or caught fire.”
The DVD, three years in the making, was narrated by McKenzie who called on three other members of the College community to help with the production: President Jorge L. Díaz-Herrera (harp music), Professor of Theatre Mark Wenderlich (voice of Native American Chief Red Jacket), and Director of Instructional Design and Multidisciplinary Studies (WODE) John Locke (creative director).
“We did a lot of homework to put this together,” said McKenzie, who praised Cusson for his willingness to devote many hours—including weekends—to the project.
The DVD doesn’t cover the entire Burned Over District—McKenzie and Cusson traveled throughout Yates County and into Wayne and Seneca counties—but uncovered plenty of material nonetheless.
“It’s hard to believe, because Yates County seems so quiet these days, but once it was a hotbed of religious and spiritual activity,” said McKenzie. “It was fertile ground, and not just for potatoes and carrots. And that’s the reason for the DVD. We want students and others to understand that what it is isn’t what it used to be. This county had its day, and it had a story to tell.”
In fact, said McKenzie, Yates County is the site of “one of the most intriguing stories of frontier religion in the entire country.”
He is referring to Wilkinson, who was once accused of blasphemy but acquitted, according to McKenzie, who credits the ex-Quaker for “championing women’s rights 150 years before Gloria Steinem.”
However, The Society of Universal Friends did not long survive its charismatic leader, who died in 1819.
“There seems to be a shelf life to religion,” said McKenzie. “In terms of the Burned Over District, it almost seems like religions were made to come here but not made to stay here.”
Methodism experienced significant growth in the 1800s and Yates County was “ground zero in this Methodist earthquake,” explained McKenzie.” But of those 19 churches that existed in the heyday, today only a few are operating as regular churches, many are down to a dozen or so attendees for Sunday services, and six do not even exist anymore.”
And, while Mormonism is flourishing worldwide, that isn’t the case in Central and Western New York since the Mormon migration went west. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is headquartered in Salt Lake City, Utah.
“What seems clear,” said McKenzie, “is that the canals and railroads that brought jobs and ideas to the region could just as easily take them out of the region. If you live by the rapid influx of ideas, you often die by them.”
The exception to the rule would be the Mennonites, who are also featured in the DVD. They came to Yates County in 1974 and today number about 1,000, one-half of New York state’s entire Mennonite population.
“That proves that Yates County can be a good fit for religious traditions,” said McKenzie. “The Mennonites are welcomed not only for their emphasis on agriculture, but because of their involvement in the local community.