Tuesday, October 26, 2010

On this day in California religious history...

The Erie Canal opened in 1825, creating a link between the Atlantic Ocean and the Great Lakes, with fundamental effects on the shaping of the country.  New York City and Chicago (founded 1833) became large trading centers connecting the vast inner country with the Atlantic Ocean.  New Orleans, at the base of the Mississippi, saw its fortunes slip as it was replaced as the entry point into the continent.  Along with the economic restructuring came a rise in fortunes along the canal, and western New York state blossomed with prosperity.   With that prosperity came an interesting flowering of religious fervor.

The Burned-Over District was what Presbyterian minister Charles Finney called the area, since there had been so many fervent religious movements there that there was no kindling (potential converts) left.  Two of the most memorable groups that started there were the Mormons and the Millerites (followers of William Miller that eventually disbanded, although some started the Jehovah's Witnesses).   Why the upsurge at that place and at that time?  Besides the prosperity, New York State in the 1830's was both close to civilization while still retaining some of the character of a frontier.  At the time the unknown wilderness was Illinois and Indiana.  While most of the population went about their lives, the area may have attracted, and encouraged, the adventurous and the individualistic.

California in the mid- to late-twentieth century had taken on the burden of the Burned-Over District, perhaps due to the same mixture of prosperity and lingering frontier atmosphere.   The link between California and cults and minor religions of all types is legendary, with many noted in previous entries on this page.  With the rise of the modern information age, however, physical centralization is becoming less important.  People with unique ideas must no longer gather in one locale.  And much of California's rapid growth is in the past.  Like upper and western New York state, California is not the adventure it may have been in the past.

1 comment:

  1. Not only did Millerites eventually morph into Jehovah's Witnesses. Prior to the establishment of that sect, Millerites, under the leadership of Ellen G. White, founded the Seventh-Day Adventists. The local connection? After founding the SDA church, Ellen White also founded Paradise Valley Hospital in National City, as Adventism took root in California.