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Radicalism and religion spawned on Route 20

By the mid-19th century, Americans believed that ordinary people could contact the spiritual realm, speaking directly with the deceased through seances.

SALISBURY — The idea of a psychic highway drawing all sorts of radical thinkers to a nearby region was enough to draw an audience of nearly 90 members arranged in Zoom squares to hear the latest Scoville Library remote lecture. 

The highway in question exists today as Route 20 across the country to Oregon. It was a more rugged journey in the 19th century.

The talk had a promising title: “American Sinai: How the Burned-Over District Remade our Nation.” The prospect of hearing author, historian of spirituality and the occult, lecturer and PEN award winner Mitch Horowitz expand on that title heightened the enthusiasm.

The northern reaches of the Hudson Valley, a stretch of magnificent hills, valleys and lakes between Albany and Buffalo, provided the setting for radical ideas and new religious movements, some of which grew to worldwide proportions, Horowitz said.

Why was it considered a “burned over” district?  Horowitz explained that the Iroquois nation who largely sided with the British during the American, had been pushed from their land there. New settlers flowed in from New England, lured by bargain land prices. They also sought freedom from the Congregational restraints of their home states, again mostly in New England.

Philosophical movements came with them in the form of new spiritual ideas and devotees eager to find a following.  It was said that there were so many itinerant preachers and wild ideas flying from town to town that the area was “burned over” by the sheer number and fury of the preachers and their spiritual fire, Horowitz explained.

A well-known preacher in western Connecticut and eastern New York, George Whitfield was among them in 1776, drawing large crowds to hear his extraordinarily large voice espousing salvation and warning of damnation.

New spiritual groups could find space, Horowitz said, describing the rise of Mother Ann’s Shakerism (the shaking Quakers) and the discovery of the golden plates giving birth to Joseph Smith’s Mormonism. Seventh-Day Adventists got their start among those hills.

Utopian communities sprang up, as described by Horowitz. 

Women were finding their voices and being heard publicly for the first time.

Jemima Wilkinson, the Public Universal Friend, spoke in public and preached as a genderless prophet, with a Quaker bent, in the late 18th century. Her followers centered around Jerusalem, N.Y.

Mesmerists, or people experimenting with hypnotism, were numerous. Illnesses were a sign of the misalignment of animal magnetisms, the followers believed.

Social change and spiritual change became part of society, Horowitz said.

By the mid-19th century, Americans believed that ordinary people could contact the spiritual realm, speaking directly with the deceased through seances. Such ideas went viral, spreading through word of mouth or written about in the press.

The Fox family outside of Rochester had two teenage daughters who drew large crowds of visitors after declaring and then demonstrating that they could communicate with spirits.

Because women were finding credible voices through this spiritualism, Horowitz said that the suffragists were intertwined with that movement; it was no accident that the Seneca Falls women’s rights conference took place when and where it did. 

“There was a unique and remarkable marriage between the two movements,” Horowitz noted.

The burned-out district had pretty much faded from being the epicenter by the 1850s, not because the interest had died out, more because some of the ideas had spread to influence more of the world.

Books authored by Horowitz include “Occult America.”  More information can be found at his website. Go to www.mitchhorowitz.com.

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