Returning from the Upper New York United Methodist Annual Conference in Syracuse, I drove to Auburn, New York to visit the home of William Seward, Lincoln’s secretary of state and himself a courageous abolitionist. Central and western New York were famous in the 19th century for religious enthusiasm and social reform. During the Second Great Awakening early in that century, featuring evangelists such as Charles Finney and Francis Asbury, it became known as the “burned over” district. There had been so much revival that there were supposedly no more souls to save. Later, more esoteric religious enthusiasms arose or thrived there, including Mormonism, Shakerism, free love, and spiritualism.
Auburn is in the Finger Lake area and has stunning scenery with charming villages. Touring Seward’s home, I learned it had been a stop on the Underground Railroad. Mrs. Seward had been a Quaker and was especially fervent about abolishing slavery, even sometimes chastising her politically savvy husband, an Episcopalian, for not being even more aggressive. The Sewards were also close to the former slave and great abolitionist Harriet Tubman, whose home is still just a few miles down the road.
En route to Auburn, I passed many Methodist churches, including one that was honoring America’s veterans with a sea of flags on its front lawn. I also passed a spot where a historic marker noted Bishop Asbury had once preached there on the county court house steps. The lot is now a Catholic church.
The small town of Skanaeteles on the finger lake of the same name (an Iroquois word for long lake) was particularly gorgeous. Lots of old homes, quaint shops, and the lake’s water is very clear if cold. I attended the Skanaeteles United Methodist Church, which was built in the 1860’s. Although old, the building was well kept. About 60 were at worship. The hymns were projected on a screen over the altar. During announcements, there was extensive talk about the church’s annual upcoming antique sale. The woman who typically organizes the pie sale announced she is moving to Uganda for music ministry, prompting applause. She noted that Uganda is 85 percent Christian, so she was anticipating plenty of places to worship. The pastor, a woman, told her there was much to learn from African worship. This pastor also prayed for U.S. military personnel serving their nation and helping to bring the world closer to God’s image. The sermon came from the lay leader, who extolled the primacy of prayer and Bible reading.
It was a friendly and warm church, seemingly focused on good teaching, and typical of thousands of other small United Methodist congregations. Worshipping at such a church was encouraging.
Skanaeteles also has stately old Episcopal, Presbyterian, Baptist, Lutheran and Catholic churches. It seemed reassuringly very middle America. And in some ways, perhaps, it is still reaping the spiritual fruits of early 19th century revivalism in the old “burned over” district of this region. Some like to complain or celebrate that Christendom or old Christian America is over. But not entirely. The vestiges happily persevere.