Divine Spark: A Brief History
Guest Blog by Diana Hurlburt
When I made plans to move to New York’s Capital Region in 2018, I somehow forgot that I’d been to New York before--not to the Big Apple that stands in, for the rest of the country, as New York, but to western New York, outside Rochester: to the now-quiet heart of the Burned-over District and a town significant to my religion at that time.
The Hill Cumorah Pageant is both outlier and central, a roadside oddity and an affirmation of belief. It was supposed to conclude in 2020, but the COVID19 pandemic has pushed the projected final showing to this year, so buy your tickets. For members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints raised in the so-called mission field, Palmyra and the Hill Cumorah feature as gems on the map of holy pilgrimage, stars linking the constellation of the Church’s expansion out of New York. There are other sites--the Kirtland Temple, Nauvoo, Winter Quarters, Salt Lake City--and each of them a historic site or reenactment to some degree, but the Hill Cumorah Pageant is the best display of light, color, magic, and ornate ceremony available to the average layperson. A church popularly perceived in contemporary times as staid, buttoned-up, chaste, and kind of boring holds, within its temples and singular scriptures, strange and beautiful architecture, art, stories, and rituals.
When I was eleven or twelve and road-tripping with my family to see the Cumorah play, it seemed important to separate our church’s origins from its surrounding matrix. Joseph Smith’s vision was unlike those of the myriad other prophets, seers, spiritualists, and alchemists cropping up along the Erie Canal, because his came from God. From my post-Mormon adult perspective, the only thing separating the LDS Church from its origins is its continued presence. It’s now unimportant for me to locate the doctrines and practices in divine inspiration in order to give them impact and reality; the frequent challenges to the faith of my raising as a false one, following false prophets and worshiping a false Christ, ultimately spurred my interest in comparative religious studies, new religious movements, the exploration of how gods are born and which beliefs endure.
I tried hard to situate the group depicted by “Divine Spark” in New York’s historic intersection of radical politics, otherworldly visions, and developing technology. The Erie Canal is credited in no small part with spreading the religious revivals of the Second Great Awakening west through New York into Ohio and beyond. Along with the Poughkeepsie Seer and the Era of Manifestations along the Hudson River came innovations in engineering and civic planning, as well as immigration and population booms. At the same time, abolition and suffrage were the topics on everyone’s lips; avid Quaker anti-slavery activists like Isaac and Amy Post were also spiritualists, while Sojourner Truth’s life prior to fame involved a Millerite sect. The Venn diagram of political and religious belief in the Burned-over District is mostly a circle, fluid and mingling.
The Watchmaker’s people in my story mirror this tendency of constant motion, moving from the hills around Syracuse toward Rochester as slivers of metal are drawn to a magnet. Their group politics are abolitionist, pro-women, anti-marriage--as were many of the historic communes I drew on. They have their own set of holy writ, analogous to the golden plates Joseph Smith interpreted for his church. They are in some places welcomed for their craft and goods, as Shaker and Perfectionist sects were, and in others hounded and abused, as the early Mormons were driven from Ohio and Missouri.
As I began turning over Mariah’s story in my head, the leap from the real-life strangeness of the Second Great Awakening to a cult based on mechanical construction and belief in a divine Watchmaker didn’t seem so drastic. Speculative fiction and religious tenets braid together in interesting ways, and what is fabulist fantasy to one is holy creed to another (not to mention, Orson Scott Card revamped the Hill Cumorah Pageant’s script in the 80s). As I began writing the story, my Mormon roots pushed up again and twined through the text in ways I hadn’t planned. The shattered crockery Mariah uses for her mechanical’s face, for instance, echoes the Mormon myth of church families’ glass and fine china ground into the stucco of the Kirtland Temple. Most of all, what rose in Mariah’s story was the lingering conviction that if no religion calls to you, you’re free to build one yourself… and to shape yourself in the image of those things you hold holy.
Diana Hurlburt is a librarian in upstate New York. More of her short work can be explored at Memoir Mixtapes, Luna Station Quarterly, and Phoebe, and in the Sword & Kettle Press mini-chapbook series. When not remixing weird history and old stories, she writes romance, the newest of which is included in the anthology Second Chances. Find her on Twitter for iced coffee, heavy metal, and horses.
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