4 June 2016


Joscelyn Godwin. Upstate Cauldron: Eccentric Spiritual Movements in Early New York State. Excelsior Editions, University of New York Press. 2015.

In the early 19th century, western and central New York State became known as the burned-over district. The evangelist Charles Finney coined the phrase, saying that so many fires of religious revivalism had swept across the district in such a short time, there was no fuel (unconverted people) left to burn (convert). 
The area gave birth to the Mormons, the Millerites (who led to the Seventh-day Adventists amongst others), the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Fox sisters (the beginning of the Spiritualist movement), the Shakers and several socially experimental movements such as the Oneida Society.

Joscelyn Godwin’s fascinating study shows that these were just the headliners; there was a multiplicity of support acts, large and small. Some were offshoots of Christianity; others were more diverse; some celebrated sex in one way or another; others preached strict abstention; some were in the forefront of racial rights and women’s rights – which, he says, “worked hand in hand”, at least until the Civil War. And then there were the sleeping preachers…

Some New England groups in the late 18th century had intriguing names. Annihilationists and Nothingarians believed that non-believers didn’t suffer eternal punishment but were simply snuffed out at death – a belief of Jehovah’s Witnesses, amongst many other sects. Merry Dancers and Come-Outers were antinomian, believing “that the elect must sin before grace can be obtained”. And so the Merry Dancers “engaged in drunkenness and promiscuous sex, meanwhile “hooting the Devil” and scaring their neighbours by screaming ‘Woe! Woe! Woe!’ into the stillness of the night” – a fun-sounding religion!

Considering the period, a surprising number of the preachers and prophets were women. Brought up a Quaker, in 1776 Jemima Wilkinson had a vision and reinvented herself as the Publick Universal Friend, “a pure vessel for the Divine Spirit”; she travelled around New England preaching before setting up a community of about 300 people in 60 families. “They abstained from alcohol and, as far as they could, from sex,” Godwin writes.

Rachel Baker started talking in her sleep in 1812 – and not just talking but preaching sermons, “the standard mixture of platitudes, emotional outbursts and exhortations to repent and be saved”. A stenographer wrote down some of her sermons and published them; medical men examined her and wrote a 300-page treatise on her. One doctor summed up the different opinions on sleeping preachers: they were frauds deceiving people; they were divinely inspired; or (his own view) they were suffering from a disease – an advanced view for the time.

Sleeping preachers were, in some ways, an early version of spiritualism, channelling (or claiming to channel) messages from elsewhere. But where do channelled messages come from? “True believers take at face value whatever their chosen revelation says of its source. Skeptics attribute it to the medium’s unconscious mind, probably dissociated through some form of multiple personality disorder. Intermediate hypotheses may include telepathic or clairvoyant input,” Godwin writes.

A lot of movements preached abstention. Cyrus Reed Teed began having visions of the Divine Motherhood, and told his followers they must give up alcohol, tobacco and sex. Godwin writes that Teed believed “most children are born ‘illegitimate’, by which he meant not engendered deliberately, but the accidents of lustful intercourse. The vileness of the average male, soaked in nicotine and alcohol, passes through the sperm cells to infect the next generation, and woman has every right to protect herself against him.” It’s a new variant on Original Sin. Teed also taught an extremely complex hollow Earth theory of which Godwin says “I may be projecting more sense into [his expositions] than they deserve” – but his community survived till 1961.

The book is full of fascinating little details, often glossed by Godwin’s comments. Quakers had a gentle way of witnessing to Indians, he says. Respecting the “inner light” within everyone, they did not “thrust the Gospel down heathen throats” but instead taught by example: they lived amongst the Indians, “built neat houses, planted tidy fields... led a quiet, sober, hard-working life”. “But however kindly meant, it was a programme of cultural genocide, and it failed,” he writes.

Of course, every religion sees itself as having the ultimate Truth. “Almost all the movements chronicled in this book took an evolutionary view of sacred history, with themselves as its inevitable and God-willed outcome.” And after noting that the Rosicrucian order AMORC claimed a particular mystical writer as one of their own, he comments: “Esoteric orders – the Priory of Sion comes to mind – have a way of enrolling the great ones of the past when they are not around to object.”

It’s odd to read a chapter on Madame Blavatsky that focuses only on the short time she spent in upstate New York, smoking 200 cigarettes a day while writing Isis Unveiled in bed – yet another quirk to add to the extremely quirky founder of Theosophy.

Every chapter of this book has a wealth of intriguing details. Godwin excels at telling the personal stories of preachers and prophets; each chapter begins with a long quotation by or about the main character of the chapter, giving a real flavour in contemporary language of what made them stand out as special.

But the very wealth of material can cause the reader to be overwhelmed. Godwin tells such a huge number of fascinating stories, it’s easy to lose the overall narrative, or where any one preacher or movement fit into it.

It’s inevitable in a work of this extent that there are a few glitches. Godwin gives a pretty good summary of the life of P. B. Randolph [right], effectively the creator of sex magick – “one of the most readable, original and entertaining of all writers on occultism” – but there’s almost nothing on his influence on later esoteric movements, from Rosicrucians to the OTO and Aleister Crowley, beyond saying that he’s important. So he missed the point that Randolph’s opposition to contraception, masturbation and homosexuality– “the male and female fluids must be mingled, or ‘ruin’ would ensue” – was still being proclaimed well over a century later by the Supreme Grand Master of Fraternitas Rosae Crucis. [1]

Going back to the “burned-over district”, Godwin says “someone christened the region” with this name, missing the fact that it was Charles Finney, even though he’d just been talking about Finney on the same page!

But these are trivial criticisms of a work which is thoroughly researched, very nicely written and endlessly fascinating.
  • David V Barrett


[1] Poesnecker, Gerald E, One Flesh, Quakertown PA: Humanitarian Publishing Company 1996: 88, 89, 91, 104.

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