The “Burned-Over District” refers to the western and central regions of New York State in the early 19th century. It was called that because religious revivals and the formation of new religious movements took place to such an extent that spiritual fervor seemed to set the area on fire. Where religious revival is related to reform movements of the period, such as abolition and women’s rights, the district expands to include areas of Central New York that were important to these movements.
Elmira was on the fringe of the “Burned Over District” and indeed felt the heat. The founding of Elmira College in 1855 linked the community to the women’s rights movement. The creation of new churches reflects the impact of abolition and changing values.
According to Will Frank Steely, in “The Established Churches and Slavery 1850-1860,” “The antebellum era was a period of fundamentalism among religious bodies in America … the fundamentalist emphasis on evangelism made it easy to neglect the social and moral obligations of the churches.” Steely also noted that James Russell Lowell stated that abolitionists had no quarrel with ‘the Church as a Church, but only with the Church as it is.”
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In 1837, the Methodist Conference of Western New York gathered in Elmira. The anti-slavery portion of that body, which comprised pretty much the whole of it, wanted to hold a meeting to express their views. The church and the courthouse were not allowed to be used for fear of “creating a disturbance.” The meeting was held on Clinton Island in the Chemung River. “Fellows of a baser sort took up the task of dispersing the abolitionists and with tin horns and pans and rattles and implements of rowdyism and riot they so deafened the atmosphere that the words of the speakers could not be heard by the audience and the meeting was broke up and left the island.” (Barb Ramsdell, The John W. Jones Story, 2002)
In 1843, in response to the silence on slavery, a new Methodist denomination arose. Led by Orange Scott, the Wesleyan Methodist Church was formed. In 1848, the Women’s Rights Convention was held in the Wesleyan Chapel at Seneca Falls. Elmira’s Wesleyan Church dates to February 1924 when a public prayer meeting was held in a private home in Elmira Heights. On June 21, 1925 a church was organized with 17 charter members. The present building at 1100 S. Main St. was dedicated on July 8, 1928.
Calvin Brewer notes in “Chemung Historical Journal” in September 2008 that “From a meager community of twenty six coloreds living in six households praying together in a house on Benjamin Street in Elmira’s eastside back in 1840, the roots of a mission society aptly named Zion would evolve into the contemporary African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church … In 1841 … the church expanded to a larger building on Dickinson and Fourth Streets. It was in Elmira that the freedom seeker’s dream of liberty, the determination to be free or to die, was within his or her grasp.” Today the church is located at the corner of Madison Avenue and Second Street and was renamed the Frederick Douglas Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church.
The Hand in Hand Free Methodist Church in Elmira can trace its history to the issues of the antebellum period. The ”Free” Methodist Church was organized in 1860. They had been expelled from the Methodist Episcopal Church for advocating for “free” churches. They opposed slavery and wanted free pews and women in ministry. The first Free Methodist Church in Elmira was incorporated in 1912. A former gas station and grocery store on Ivy Street was purchased in 1912 and renovated in 1944. In the mid-1990s the church property was sold to the Arnot Ogden Memorial Hospital. The congregation relocated and became the Hand in Hand Free Methodist Church at 390 Warnick St., opening in 1997.
The Seventh-Day Adventist Church can trace its roots directly to the Burned Over District. In the 1830s and 1840s the followers of a Baptist preacher named William Miller became famous for fervently believing the world was about to end. These “Millerites” embraced his message with anticipation and enthusiasm that a second coming or “advent” of Christ was imminent. In 1863 the church was formed.
The Seventh-Day Adventist Church was organized in Elmira in 1896 with 16 charter members. They met in various locations until on Sept. 17, 1913 a lot was bought at 310 W. Third St. for $800. A brick church was built on the lot. In 1957, because of the growth of the congregation, the Adventists moved to their current location at 813 Maple Ave. The cornerstone for the new building was dedicated in November of 1958. It is interesting to note that their original building was sold to the Mormons (The Church of Latter Day Saints), which was founded in the 1820s in Palmyra, New York, in the heart of the Burned Over District.
A new church was founded by 49 people, most of whom were members of the First Presbyterian Church who revolted against the pro-slavery preaching of their pastor. The new church took a firm stand opposing slavery, drinking intoxicating liquors, and attending theaters, balls and dancing parties. It was incorporated as the First Independent Congregational Church of Elmira on Feb. 4, 1846. The building, today known as The Park Church, was opened Oct. 10, 1876 on the site of the original church.
The Second Presbyterian Church was organized on Feb. 8, 1861 with 120 charter members. Eventually, the name was changed to the Lake Street Presbyterian Church of Elmira. The cornerstone for the new church was laid in September 1861 with the dedication on June 13, 1862. The Rev. Dr. David Murdock, a former pastor of the First Presbyterian Church, is regarded as the founder. According to the One Hundredth Anniversary Program, he had “spoken out strongly against slavery saying that, “The church must certainly stand for freedom, for humanity.”
According to “The Episcopal Church and Slavery: A Historical Narrative,” the Episcopal Church as a body did not question the institution of slavery. In Elmira, however, 47 families left Trinity Episcopal Church, the mother church, “due to intense feeling generated by strife between North and South.” Grace parish was organized in 1864 by members of Trinity Episcopal Church. The separation was not due to theological or practical reasons but because of issues connected with the Civil War. Those families that left represented “intense” northern feeling. (Elmira Star-Gazette, July 2, 1922)
Grace Church was built on the west side of Main Street, about where the Arena Box Office is currently located. The church was consecrated in 1866. The present Grace Episcopal Church opened in 1906 at 375 W. Church St. and was consecrated on Nov. 4, 1908.
John H. Martin noted in his book “Saints, Sinners and Reformers: The Burned-Over District Re-Visited” that “The fires of enthusiasm which flamed in the Burned-Over District of western New York in the early to mid-nineteenth century gradually died down. In the 1850s the question of slavery and the future of the United States became paramount, then the Civil War called many of the young men of the area into military service … temporarily lessoning the personal involvement in the movement which had been foremost in importance …”
Jim Hare is a former history teacher and mayor of the City of Elmira. His column appears monthly in the Star-Gazette.