Lily Dale Assembly: 19th Century Reform and Revival in Western New York

Lily Dale old stump crop

Inspirational Stump at Lily Dale, NY

Lily Dale Assembly is a Spiritualist community founded at the end of the 19th century in Chautauqua County in Western New York. Residents and visitors to this small community aspire to make connections with those who’ve passed to the afterlife. It’s attracted progressives, reformists, and freethinkers for well over a century. This spiritualist town rose out of the religious reform and revivalism that flourished in New York State in the 19th century.

In the 1800s, a series of religious revivals and social reforms swept across the country, altering the cultural landscape of the United States. Western and Central New York were at the heart of several movements that emerged during this time. Lily Dale Assembly has historical connections to these social movements and continues to embody the ideals of change and spiritual growth.

Burned-over District

Burned over district

The “Burned Over District,” Western and Central New York. Image from olivercowdery.com.

In the first half of the 19th century, Western and Central New York went through a period of religious revival and reform. There were several religious movements that germinated in the area, some of which became significant denominations that continue to this day. This period in American history was known as the Second Great Awakening (1820–1850) and reflected the ideals of the Romantic Era, which placed emphasis on the individual, the imagination, the emotional, the transcendental, and a love of nature.

Western and Central New York was a site of intense religious revivalism during the early 19th century. During this period, numerous religious movements were established. Charles Grandison Finney referred to this area as the “burnt district.” The term refers to the extent to which people in the area adopted emerging faiths, leaving no fuel (unconverted population) to burn (convert). The development of Spiritualism, upon the recognition of spirit rappings heard by the Fox Sisters in their Hydesville, NY home in 1848, was just one of the religious movements that took place in the burned-over district.

  • It was near Palmyra, NY that Joseph Smith was led to the Book of Mormon by the angel Moroni in 1823. Joseph Smith came to found the Latter-Day Saint movement.
  • Wlliam Miller preaches

    William Miller prophesied the Second Coming would occur in the 1840s

    In Low Hampton, NY, William Miller preached that Jesus would return to earth for the Second Coming on or before 1843. Despite the reaction that occurred when Christ didn’t return, known as the Great Disappointment, Miller’s beliefs became very popular. His influence led to the establishment of several churches, including Adventism, Seventh Day Adventism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and International Bible Students.

  • The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, more commonly known as the Shakers, were active in Central New York, where they established their first communal farm.
  • In 1848, John Humphrey Noyes founded the religious commune referred to as the Oneida Community. Oneidians believed in free love, known as complex marriage, and established new roles for women as part of a radical attempt to improve women’s status.

Votes for WomenAs well as being a hub for religious activity, the burned-over district was known for progressive social movements. Elizabeth Cady Stanton organized the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 to discuss women’s rights and suffrage. New York also saw the development of several utopian societies in the early 19th century.

Thus, the burned-over district provided natural tinder for the development of a Spiritualist center such as Lily Dale. Though Lily Dale Assembly in its modern form was founded in 1879, the Spiritualist community that was responsible for creating the camp had been active since the mid-19th century. Lily Dale historians note that the founders of Lily Dale were influenced by a demonstration of spirit communication in 1844, predating the Fox Sisters’ 1848 spirit rappings. This event spurred interest in the spirit world, and in 1850 a society of Spiritualists and Liberals was organized in Leona, NY. Members of this organization were responsible for the eventual founding of Lily Dale Assembly, the world’s largest Spiritualist community, in 1879.

Spiritualism and the Progressive Movement

The Spiritualist movement was spread through revivals, lectures, and other public meetings. During the rise of Spiritualism other social movements were also gaining ground, including the abolitionist and women’s rights movements, social welfare reform, the development of utopian communities, and the temperance movement. Traditional churches were considered part of the existing authoritarian and hierarchical structures that many of these reform movements confronted. Rather than relying on the creation of church congregations, the growth of the Spiritualist movement centered on meeting halls, study groups, summer camps, and conventions.

Forest Temple postcard

Forest Temple, Lily Dale

The National Spiritualist Association of Churches (NSAC), whose headquarters are at Lily Dale Assembly, is an association of congregations, camps, and other Spiritualist organizations from across the US was originally founded in 1893. NSAC established social policy statements to address the social conditions of the United States and the world. They included statements promoting the following:

  • The freedom of religious thought
  • The right to perform life celebrations
  • Non-discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, national origin, disability, age, or sexual orientation
  • Equal rights for women
  • The right to death with dignity
  • Spiritual healing
  • Social justice for the oppressed
  • The abolition of the death penalty
  • The right to family planning
  • The right of informed choice regarding abortion
  • Non-discrimination against children born outside of marriage
  • The elimination of war
  • International student exchanges for world peace

Many of these progressive resolutions were adopted at conventions going as far back as 1900. These policies reflect Spiritualism’s alignment with liberal and reformist attitudes and values.

Fox house 2

The Fox Cottage in Hydesville, NY

Some of the earliest supporters of Spiritualism were Amy and Isaac Post, radical Quakers who believed in the abolition of slavery, equal rights for women, and temperance. In 1849 Kate and Margaret Fox were sent to Rochester, NY to live with their older sister Leah. The Fox family was good friends with the Quaker couple. The Posts helped to introduce the Fox Sisters to their socially progressive circle while in turn introducing their fellow reformists to Spiritualism.

Many prominent mediums were, and still are, women. Well-known mediums from the 19th century include Cora L.V. Scott, Achsa W. Sprague, and, of course, Margaret and Kate Fox, all of whom helped to make Spiritualism popular. Lectures and séances provided rare opportunities for a woman to speak in public during the 19th century. The power held by mediums was not derived from office or position, but through direct spiritual contact or experience, and thus threatened traditional power structures. Male clergy in well-established Christian churches would openly attack Spiritualism as the movement grew.

Spiritualism had strong connections to other reform movements. Many prominent Spiritualists supported causes like women’s suffrage and the abolition of slavery. The 1858 Rutland Reform Convention, though dominated by Spiritualists, also brought together advocates for reproductive rights, women’s suffrage and rights, the abolition of slavery, and land reform. At the convention, Spiritualist Andrew Jackson Davis argued, “belief in Spiritualism is simply the door to … acceptance of the various reforms for which this Convention has assembled.” The popularity of Spiritualist gatherings created a platform for other reformists, who were welcomed whether or not they adhered to Spiritualism.

742px-Charlotte_Perkins_Gilman_c._1900

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, c. 1900, by C.F. Lummis, restored by Adam Cuerden

The first speaker at Lily Dale was Elizabeth Lowe Watson, a liberal and suffragette. Women’s rights advocate Susan B. Anthony made her first public appearance at Lily Dale in 1891, where she addressed 3,000 people. Anthony made additional appearances, and suffrage figures Reverend Anna Howard Shaw, Carrie Chapman Catt, and Isabella Beecher Hooker were also regular speakers at Lily Dale. Many other well-known women’s rights advocates attended the Women’s Day celebrations at Lily Dale, including Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Helen Campbell, Mary Wright Sewell, Emily Howland, Lucy Stone, and Lucy and Mary Anthony. Harriet Beecher Stowe, abolitionist and women’s rights advocate, also attended Lily Dale.

The temperance movement also found a place at Lily Dale Assembly. The first Women’s Christian Temperance Union, which advocated for a number of social reforms, was established in nearby Fredonia, NY. A Temperance Day celebration has held in Lily Dale. Even today, alcoholic beverages are prohibited in Lily Dale.

Lily Dale Assembly embraced the social movements of the Progressive Era, and it provided a space where non-traditional views could be shared and embraced. Figures in progressive moments of the 19th and early 20th century were welcomed at Lily Dale. Some speakers embraced the liberalism of the area and lectured both at Lily Dale and at nearby Chautauqua Institution.

Chautauqua Institution

At the same time that Lily Dale emerged as a center for spiritual growth and freethinking, the nearby Chautauqua Institution opened as a site for educational development. Though Spiritualism emerged out of revivalist meetings, Chautauqua Institution was established within a Protestant worldview that was educational in nature. Chautauqua Institution was founded in 1874 as a summer camp to train Sunday school teachers, but quickly broadened into a forum to discuss public issues, international relations, arts, literature, philosophy, and science. To this day, Chautauqua Institution provides programming about the “four pillars” of art, education, religion, and recreation. Both Chautauqua Institution and Lily Dale Assembly were a result of, and contributors to, the dissemination of progressive ideas in the late 19th century.

Chautauqua Institution and Belle 2

A steamboat departs from Chautauqua Institution

“The summer assemblies of Chautauqua and Lily Dale were a product of 19th-century Industrial Revolution rethinking by those who wished to develop a new meaning to life. Both locations have survived by changing with the time and keeping the basic concept that learning lasts an entire lifetime.” —Brad Owen, Sacred Places, North America

The Progressive Era debates around women’s suffrage, temperance, and other issues of the day were discussed and debated at both of these centers of religion, philosophy, and learning.

The Growth of Ideas

Lily Dale Assembly emerged within an environment where traditional ideas and beliefs were challenged and new ways of thinking and living were embraced. The progressive movement and Spiritualism have historical and philosophical connections that shaped the existing landscape. Though it was founded 137 years ago, Lily Dale remains committed to the concepts of tolerance, growth, and mindfulness. If you’re interested in learning more about the history of Lily Dale, Spiritualism, and the Progressive Movement, visit the Marion H. Skidmore Library and the Lily Dale Museum next time you’re on the grounds.


In this series, we explore different facets of Lily Dale Assembly and Spiritualism:

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7 thoughts on “Lily Dale Assembly: 19th Century Reform and Revival in Western New York

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