Voice of the People: Daily Life in the Antebellum Rural Delaware County New York Area


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Introduction | Letters, Diaries, etc.

Religion: Introduction

by Nancy S. Cannon

"...The men who became eminent as preachers in the Delaware County circuits in the early days, were only to be called unlearned in the bookish sense. In all other respects they far outranked the clergy of cities and pavements, of books and libraries. From the fresh woods through which they traveled, from the silence and solemnity of nature they learned lessons more profound than books can teach. From the unspoiled children of the pioneer settlements they imbibed experiences far more instructive than can be found amid the centres of culture." (Murray, 136)

illustation of family devotion

By the late eighteenth century, traditional Christian religion had slipped from the lives of many educated Americans. Religious revival in the first half of the nineteenth century was a reaction to this secularism and led to the Second Great Awakening.   Religious fever swept the land and reached such heights in western New York State that it became known as the "burned-over district". Charles G.  Finney, a noted evangelist, proclaimed, "All sin consists in selfishness."

New York State gave birth to several new religions during this era: the most enduring is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) founded by their prophet Joseph Smith (Joseph Smith worked as a farmhand in the Delaware County Town of Bovina in the mid-1830's). In the Delaware County area, religious revival took the form of camp meetings: families traveled by horse and wagon and met with congregations of hundreds of enthusiastic people singing, dancing, praying, eating, drinking, and seeking the spirit.

Christianity (more specifically Protestantism in diverse denominational forms) dominated the religious landscape despite the presence of a few Catholics, Jews, and the anti-church free-love Fugine Society members briefly mentioned in Munsell's History of Delaware County. By 1856, Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist, Congregational, Christian, Dutch Reformed, Episcopal, and Union churches enrolled sufficient numbers to support a preacher.  Religion often arrived with the immigrant settlers. Scottish, English, and Northern Irish settlers brought Presbyterianism; migrants from New England often were Congregational.  The Methodist Church had the most members, probably due to the early circuit riding preachers.  The Methodist Church divided Delaware County into twelve circuits with each circuit assigned one or two preachers for a term not to exceed two years. Circuit riders received very little monetary reward for their services. Local parishioners provided the circuit riders food and lodging. This system well suited the sparsely populated Delaware County area. A few circuit riders could cover a large territory and were thus able to visit each congregation every month or so. Rather than college-educated men from an urban background, the Methodists enlisted energetic young preachers from the same background as the people they were serving, thus helping them develop rapport with their parishioners.

As evidenced by letters and diaries on this website, religion played an important role in the daily lives of many people. Read a sermon originally preached by Ebenezer Maxwell of the First Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church in Delhi, NY on November 29, 1818. In 1837, Pastor Maxwell oversaw a Case of discipline for premarital sex. Samuel Law, of Meredith, NY, gives an indication of his faith in his diary as he recounts the sickness and death of his wife Sally in 1840. In 1841, an anonymous member of the Beers family kept a Journal of religious experience, including participation in a camp meeting.  In 1857, George Jayne, a student at Fergusonville Academy in Fergusonville, NY, received a letter from his mother reminding him to first please his father in heaven.

For further examples, proceed to Letters, Diaries, etc.

For Further Reading

American Memory: Library of Congress: Nineteenth Century in Print: Religion
Encyclopedia of New York State, ed. by Peter Eisenstadt.  Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press. 2005.
Gould, Jay.  History of Delaware County, and the Border Wars of New York. Roxbury: Keeny & Gould, Publishers.  1856.
Available online from the Delaware County Genealogy and History Site.
History of Delaware County, N. Y.  New York: W. W. Munsell & Co. 1880.
Each town has a section with church histories. Available online from the Delaware County Genealogy and History Site.
Murray, David, LL.D., ed. Delaware County New York: History of the Century, 1797 - 1897.  Delhi, NY: William Clark, Publisher. 1898.
Includes a chapter on church histories. Available online from the Delaware County Genealogy and History Site.


Illustration adapted from Godey's Lady's Book, March 1842, frontispiece

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