The Rochester (New York) Democrat and Chronicle posted an interesting article about the Rochester area during the religious fervor that earned it the title, “Burned-over District.” Though not the focus, the article puts the birth of Mormonism within its cultural context. To foster some conversation and whet your whistle, here’s a short excerpt:
”Strange cults, psychic currents and extraordinary religious fervor rippled and roiled all across central and western New York during the first half of the 19th century. It became known as the “Burned-over District,” and within it ran a ‘psychic highway’ — a roughly 25-mile-wide belt along the Erie Canal, from east of Albany to west of Buffalo.
“Within these boundaries, writes Whitney R. Cross, congregated a people ‘extraordinarily given to unusual religious beliefs, peculiarly devoted to crusades aimed at the perfection of mankind and the attainment of millennial happiness.’
“At least seven new religions, sects and communes were established in the ‘Burned-over District.’ They included the Shakers near Albany, John Humphrey Noyes’ religious commune at Oneida and the Society of Universal Friends at Dresden and Jerusalem.
“They included the Millerites, who had a strong following in the Rochester area. They were convinced that the world would end on April 23, 1843, and then on Oct. 22, 1844 and, despite the obvious miscalculation, strongly influenced later Adventist religions.
“They included Joseph Smith, who established a new religion near Palmyra. Mormonism, eventually transplanted west, became the most successful of American-born religions.”
Though late LDS President Gordon B. Hinckley said the beginning of Mormonism was unique (Church News, 11/7/98 2), Joseph Smith’s claims of visions and angelic visits were not at all unusual. He was but one of many making such claims, gathering followers, and beginning new religions.
For more information see A Familiar Spirit.