I find myself in Syracuse. Skirting the very edge of the Burnt Over District, Syracuse is only a short distant from Oneida, birthplace of one of the uniquely American religions to have been conceived in this area. Moving further west, several of the religions following the “Second Great Awakening” roared through the state, including the one that was to become the Mormon Church. Looking out over the rugged hills, I wonder what might be in this land that inspires such religiosity. Americans are known world-wide for their religious predilections, and back before the South took the privilege of doling out religious mandates, upstate New York was busy churning out new religions. Of course, this was in the days before the extreme urbanization of culture took hold. Individuals, often isolated from others and struggling to survive in a sometimes harsh climate (they are calling for snow this weekend, still), they turned to God in new and innovative ways.
There must be a point at which religion reaches satiety. How many religions does one nation need? Thus, revivalists found a tired population here in the Burnt Over District. How much energy does it take to build a new faith from scratch? Some flared brightly and burned out (like the Oneida Community), while others flourished to the point of putting forth presidential candidates (I need not say which new religion has offered us a candidate too wealthy to countenance). Something in the soil, perhaps. Something in the mountain air.
Scholars opine that the Second Great Awakening occurred in part, at least, in reaction to the skepticism that was surging through intellectual circles at the time. America has always been good for a backlash or two. While many thinkers were praising the accomplishments of intellect, Smiths and Noyeses were at home brewing up that new-time religion for which Americans thirst. We are great consumers of religion. In the early 1800s revival after revival spread through New York, as well as through the southern states. The south reacted by boosting the Methodist and Baptist populations. New York gave us new religions. Americans aren’t that choosey. In a pinch, just about any religion will do. I stand here in Syracuse, the mid-April snow drifting down about me and wonder what is about to awake in this skeptical age.