Fenster has a good friend, a doppelganger, really, who is on the board of a non-profit farm in upstate New York. The farm is situated in the heart of what has come to be known as the burned-over district, that section of Western New York roughly in the Rochester area, that burned very hot with religious enthusiasms in the first half of the 19th century.
The burned-over district refers to the western and central regions of New York in the early 19th century, where religious revivals and the formation of new religious movements of the Second Great Awakening took place.
The term was coined by Charles Grandison Finney, who in his 1876 book Autobiography of Charles G. Finney, referred to a “burnt district” to denote an area in central and western New York State during the Second Great Awakening. He felt that the area had been so heavily evangelized as to have no “fuel” (unconverted population) left over to “burn” (convert).
In references where the religious revival is related to reform movements of the period, such as abolition, women’s rights, and utopian social experiments, the region is expanded to include those areas of central New York that were important to these movements.
The burned-over period, being part of the so-called Second Great Awakening, is often understood in religious terms. But it was not only religion itself that burned hot. The passions of the age, while connected deeply to religion given the central role of religion in American life in the early 1800s, were very much social in character as well. The fires that burned upstate were often explicitly about abolition, women’s rights and a host of other progressive social causes.
The farm Fenster’s pal is associated with was scorched not once but twice. It was for a time the setting for a Shaker Community. That group was highly successful business-wise given its natural industriousness. It eventually would have had the problems of all Shaker communities–lucky in work unlucky in love, as it were. The Shakers had a good business model that, while possibly scalable, was not really reproducible. The community, fearing the bad sorts that a proposed canal from Lake Ontario to the Erie Canal might bring to the area, moved further west, and faded there.
Within a few years the property was sold to yet another utopian enterprise–the Fourierists. In some ways the Fourierists were the opposite of the Shakers–lucky in love unlucky at work. While the formal tenets of Fourieriesm as developed in Europe called for order and hierarchy in a planned community the fires burning in America gave Fourierism a different edge, one that emphasized a radical individualism and a permissive attitude towards personal growth via freedom. Unlike the Shakers the Fourierists were open about marriage and sexuality, but they could not manage a farm, run a seed business, or make nice furniture. The community cratered soon after opening, somewhat in the manner of the unstable hippie communes of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Doesn’t it seem odd that as the prim Shakers were leaving by the back door the freewheeling Fourierists were coming in the front? Yes the Shakers were ending their run around this time, having spread from English religious enthusiasms of the late 1700s. But the two quite different groups nearly overlapped. Not to mention the patriarchal but somewhat irregular Mormons, sprung to life by Joseph Smith in the nearby town of Palymyra. And the very permissive Oneida Community some 50 miles away.
Lawrence Foster describes what unites these disparate threads in his book Religion and Sexuality: The Shakers, The Mormons and The Oneida Community.
Several things stand out about this. First, a lot of people seem to have had it with traditional marriage. The answer might be a chaste polygamy, a super-chaste regime of no sex, or a permissive regime of a kind of open marriage. But the status quo won’t do.
Second, a lot of this ferment can be tracked back to those perennial troublmakers and archtypal virtue signalers–the universalist-oriented descendants of the New England Puritans. As Albion’s Seed makes clear when the morally zealous New Englanders headed west their first stop was in upstate New York. Indeed, as a result of various historical and political circumstances New Englanders in search of new horizons skipped over the Mohawk River valley and Syracuse ended up being the main settlers of the Rochester region west.
Third, it is interesting that when you peel back religion, or other high-minded matters, you come so quickly to the carnal, or at least that disputed area where the carnal and high-minded meet. Is that so odd? Consider Michael Tracey’s excellent dissection of the quasi-religious mania on current display. The response to George Floyd’s death went well past the demands of current day abolitionism and slipped quite quickly into a supercharged outburst over, of all things, trans rights. Black trans, to be sure, given the intersectional way of things, but trans nonetheless.
We appear to have another first class mania on our hands, once again fixated on sex. But who are the maniacs? As Tracey points out they appear to be white, educated and privileged. They may not be direct descendants of the Puritans heading west from New England. But I strongly suspect that Yankees comprise some of the holiest of the holy. And even if some of the current maniacs are from sections of the country that were not settled by the Puritans many are likely to have been educated in woke institutions that trace their values and ideas to Puritan origin. Damn Yankees.