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Along the Erie Canal, at the beginning of America’s history, the nation’s culture was being codified. Burned Over is a feature-length documentary about the Oneida Community, a free-love commune, and the Fox sisters, two girls who launched the religion of spiritualism.
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Between the American Revolutionary and Civil Wars, after the bonds of monarchical government had been shattered and the stage was set for a new constitution, so too would the nation’s strict religious perspectives be challenged by the freedom promised by the emergence of the new nation. A massive religious revival known as the Second Great Awakening permeated all of the northeastern United States in the first quarter of the 19th century. Western New York was particularly tuned to these frequencies, serving as an incubator for some of America’s most progressive religious and social ideas. The religions and movements that sprang forward as a result would reflect a new era of American identity.
Western New York was one of the nation’s first frontiers. People flocked to the area to work on the Erie Canal, founding towns along the waterway’s route. It was a time full of possibility. When Charles Grandinson Finney brought his revival tents to this area, he found a people ready to grab control of their spirituality and their identity. Towards the end of his time there, he would give the region its nickname, calling it the “Burned-Over District” as religious fervor had already spread like a wildfire, leaving nothing left to burn. It is in this fertile soil that a new American identity would grow.
The Burned Over District, stretching from New York’s eastern border and following the Erie Canal to Buffalo is the birthplace of two of America’s largest homegrown religions, Mormonism and Seventh-Day Adventists. In addition, it produced a steady stream of also-rans, cults, and communes like the Oneida Community - which sought to rewrite the moral framework of Christianity in America - and the Spiritualist movement - which began with two young girls talking to a ghost and nearly became a major religion itself. Simultaneously, the district became a hotspot for abolitionist activity and the Seneca Falls Convention made it the headquarters of the worldwide struggle for women’s rights. It is not a coincidence that the same communities that were rejecting the dogma of organized religion would also be challenging the equity of our government in practice.
Burned Over is a feature length documentary exploring this rich but frequently overlooked history. Weaving a vast corpus of primary archival materials, interviews, contemporary footage, and artful reenactments, this overdue film will grapple with the earliest days of American history, which have influenced everything that has come since.
- in production
- Joshua Woltermann ... Director/Producer
- Prod. Co.
- East Bend Films
- United States
- Years of Production
- Western New York, Rochester, Syracuse, Oneida, Utica, Niagara Falls, Palmyra
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