Sects on the Highway

Here in the east, it’s not unusual to see Amish buggy road caution signs. Well, not so much in New Jersey, but in my somewhat frequent trips into Pennsylvania and upstate New York. On a recent trip to western Pennsylvania I mentioned to my mother that I’d never seen any Amish along the infamous route 322, where such a sign resides. Driving down 322 on my way home from that trip my wife and I passed three Amish carriages and one baby stroller. Religion has a way of surprising you along the highway. Roadside sects are not uncommon. Apart from the many biblical billboards I’ve been seeing lately, there are any number of indications that once you get out the urban areas of the nation, religion is alive and well. While driving to Ithaca, New York recently my wife and I simultaneously spotted a sign we’d never seen before. We have made this trip to upstate many times, mostly along Interstate 81. The sign was for a tourist attraction called “Historic Priesthood Restoration Site.”

Being hopelessly mainstream, we assumed this meant Catholic priesthood. The problem was, what was either historic about this area north of Scranton, or what might be this restoration? Once we found wifi access again, I learned that the priesthood referenced was that of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. I have to keep reminding myself that Mormonism had its start in parts of upstate New York—an area so prone to religious flare ups that it was called the Burnt Over District back in the day. So Joseph Smith and Emma Hale had lived just over the border in the area of Susquehanna, Pennsylvania while Smith was working on the Book of Mormon.

A great deal of America’s religious history may be found on roadside markers. We are an inventive people when it comes to ways of exploring what we consider the divine world. Mormonism has been one of the more successful brands of American religion and although we tend to associate it with Utah now, it was a faith that grew up here in the green hills of the mid-Atlantic states. Being inveterate seekers, Homo sapiens go after new revelations with surprising aplomb. And we’re willing to change the constitution of old religions to fit new prejudices. Religion is anything but static. To test this theory simply get behind the wheel and drive out into rural America. You’ll be surprised how much you can see even at highway speeds, if you have eyes to see.

Holy Girdles

Religions, it seems, come in belts. Or at least elements of religions do. Although we may not all agree on what constitutes the “Bible Belt” we all have a pretty good idea that it includes several southern states, and parts of the Midwest. It doesn’t really resemble a belt that I can tell, but its convenience and assonance keep the phrase alive. Over this past weekend I was in the “Borscht Belt.” I’d heard the term before, but had no idea where this supposed belt was, or, indeed, why it was called this. Historically, three counties in the southern Catskills, so I learned, were attractive locations for summer homes for Jewish families from New York City. All within a easy day’s drive of Gotham, they provided the low mountain, resort feel of much of New York State and Pennsylvania. According to Wikipedia (surprisingly, I had no books on the Borscht Belt in my library) this designation is less descriptive now than it had been, back in the day.


One of the immediately obvious features of the region, at least as recently as last weekend, were the number of orthodox Jews walking beside the roadways throughout these counties. I’m using “orthodox” here not as a technical term since I have difficulty identifying the different brands of conservative Jewish belief (there I go again!). Another obvious indicator was the number of billboards written in Hebrew. Just a hundred miles down the road west and these markers tend to disappear. By the time you reach the central part of “the southern tier” you come back to what was once called “the Burnt Over District” from the “Second Great Awakening.” Distinctively Christian in orientation. Religion is endemic in these hills.

The internet tells me that the Borscht Belt began to unbuckle with the relative ease of air travel. I have many Jewish colleagues who pop over to Israel on a fairly frequent basis. I suppose the Catskills just don’t compare with the Holy Land. Further south, along this same rocky spine, you come to the Poconos. I grew up hearing about this vacation paradise in my own state, but, like the Catskills, the region has been largely abandoned for higher mountains, bigger thrills. Having grown up in the foothills to the Appalachians, I learned in school that these are ancient mountains. Old ways are naturally preserved here. The religion I grew up in was old-time, for sure. There’s an agelessness to these weathered hills that seems to invite those with old religions to form enclaves and imagine that little has changed, despite what Wikipedia might say. And maybe it’s time to get a bigger belt, since conservative religion seems to be growing rather than shrinking.

A Hollow Man

HollowEarthQuirky ideas stimulate the intellect. I’ve always had a fondness for the outré, those ideas slightly beyond the pale of normalcy. Sometimes taken dead seriously by intelligent people, these ideas have cultural staying power. David Standish’s Hollow Earth is a cheeky tribute to those who’ve taken the idea of the underworld to literal and literary depths. Ideas that the world might be hollow have been around for some time. Not everyone, it seems, was convinced by Copernicus and Galileo. Standish traces the more modern exemplars of those who have, with stone-faced sincerity, declared that the earth is hollow. Of course, some, such as Edgar Allan Poe, were hoaxers, but they were building on those who appear to have seriously believed it. The character after whom the mythical polar entrances to the world inside is named is John Cleves Symmes. An otherwise rational fellow, it seems, Symmes decided that the earth was like a globe and that a world much like the outside awaited those intrepid enough to get to the inside. There would be light, plants, oceans—a veritable paradise found within the earth. This strange idea survived Symmes and even the exploration of the poles could not dissuade those who believed large caverns, fed by warm, arctic oceans, awaited those who would patiently explore.

Standish notes the womb-like ideals of many of these thinkers, twisting fictional accounts together with the more deluded factual kind. In popular, and not so popular, fiction the hollow earth had a particular resonance. Jules Verne and Edgar Rice Burroughs were among its most ardent fans, using the literal underworld as a setting of strange realms. Others used the hollow planet as the location of a kind of utopia, unspoiled by humanity. Unspoiled, that is, until people arrive on the scene and do what they inevitably do to paradises. It’s in the news every day. Even Alice in Wonderland gets a nod here, as she does fall an awfully long way down that rabbit hole. Fiction writers have made a boon of this bogus idea.

The most interesting, to me, character in this story is Cyrus Reed Teed. A denizen of the Burnt Over District in New York, Teed restyled himself Koresh (yes, there were others) and made the hollow earth one of the doctrines of his new religion. Distantly related to Joseph Smith, his new faith was not as successful as that of his cousin, but nevertheless, Koresh did manage to gain a following of a few hundred and establish a compound to himself where he influenced local politics to his wishes. The story has a sad ending, however, as local ruffians (including the sheriff, like in a bad western) roughed him up so badly that as an older gentleman he died perhaps as a result of his injuries. His movement fell apart and the world grew solid once again. The world really has no place for dreamers, and yes, at such times it seems to be made of very unyielding stuff indeed.

Who’s Wright?

BirdmenUpstate New York used to be known as the “Burnt Over District.” In the days of the “Second Great Awakening,” many new religions cropped up in this region—some to die out shortly, and others eventually to produce presidential contenders. It was also the region that would be the home base of Glenn Curtiss, one of the true innovators in aviation. My wife and I just finished reading Birdmen by Lawrence Goldstone. The Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtiss, and the Battle to Control the Skies accurately sums up the contents. This is the story of how we learned to fly. From as long ago as people could abstract from the fact that birds fly, and we can’t, people have yearned for the skies. We are heavy, earth-bound creatures with the wrong musculature to support wings. Goldstone takes us through the early days—just last century—when heavier than air flight began to look promising. We all know that the Wright brothers, Wilbur and Orville, invented the first workable airplane. The story, however, is much more complex than that.

No doubt the Wrights hit upon the keys to flight first. They knew and met with Glenn Curtiss, who quickly took off ahead of them in innovation. What Birdmen reveals is that the Wrights were PKs. You know, preacher’s kids. Their father was a strict and dour clergyman of the ironically named United Brethren in Christ. Feeling his outlook had been wronged, Milton Wright employed his sons in a lengthy legal battle to gain control of his church. Indeed, Wilbur Wright would sometimes put his experimentations or business pursuits on hold to go and help his father wrangle with the righteous. Theirs was a religion that took no prisoners.

My ancestors grew up around the Hammondsport area and some of them knew Glenn Curtiss (according to family lore). I had always wondered why there was so much fighting among fliers when the real enemy was the steadfast grip the earth has on us all. We were Curtiss people. Sensing that Curtiss had infringed their copyright, the Wright brothers, after making history, spent the rest of their professional lives dogging Curtiss with legal battles that, Goldstone makes clear, were personal vendettas. Their religion convincing them that they were the righteous being beset by the wicked gave them the fuel to snap at Curtiss’s heels as he went on to innovate many of the technologies still used in flight today. At the epilogue, Goldstone states what had become clear to me from chapter one: the unforgiving religion of the Wrights’ upbringing led to their disappearance from the world of flight innovation. Its is a lesson that all who would soar today should read, mark, and inwardly digest.

Burnt Over

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.

Moses starts a new religion

Moses starts a new religion