The Burned-over District was both a place and a phenomenon. First of all, the district comprised a region of western New York State, which in the nineteenth century experienced a boom in both industry and population as many migrants sought opportunity west of the already populous eastern seaboard. The Burned-over District also describes the effect of a religious revival. Charles Grandison Finney gave the district its name, describing the region as “burned-over,” in which he meant that the fires of the holy spirit had spread rapidly and totally, leaving few unscathed or unaffected, as would have any real forest fire. The sheer scope of the revival in terms of intensity and length of time (1800–1850) reinforced the idea that this region of New York, above any other in the country, had borne particular witness to the saving works of God. The place and the phenomenon were intimately related, for it was the particular geographic and demographic makeup of this region of the country that enabled the growth and maintenance of one of the most fervent and long-lived periods of revival in American history. Further, it was in this part of the country during this time that many of the most radical and innovative religious movements in the United States found root. The Burned-over District was the eye of the storm in a country and a time when revival was rampant and religious experimentation was at a high.
Beginning in the winter of 1799–1800, western New York experienced what came to be called the Great Revival. These first few months marked the beginning of a series of revivals that would occur over the next 50 years. After this first winter, revivals occurred across the region almost simultaneously. Swift communication of revival news was aided by the river trade routes and the great amount of traffic between towns during that time. Also facilitating the great speed and symmetry with which these revivals occurred were the many societies that arose out of this first period of revival. Every denomination and religious group formed a society whose duties were to seek converts, at least at first. The greater goal ultimately became broad-scale revival across religious lines—a fact reflected in the Plan of Union in 1801 and the American Home Missionary Society (AHMS) in 1826. The latter grew out of the many local societies that had been sustaining revivals for more than two decades. The AHMS effectively centralized missionary efforts in the region, ensuring that revivals spread and persisted across the region. Though revival occurred consistently throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, revival was at its highest pitch prior to 1825. The various organizations and mechanisms put in place, as well the momentum built by the many successful revivals in the region and what one historian calls “the growing appetite of the region for exhibitions of zeal,” combined to make the next 25 years a time of unprecedented conversion and religious spirit (Cross 30 ).
The effects of religious enthusiasm in the Burned-over District would last long after the last revival tent was dismantled. The converts and religious movements it produced, as well as the commerce it helped support and the social reform it spawned, were proof of the overarching effects of the Great Revival. Further, in the annals of American religious history, western New York will forever be viewed as a place so saturated with the spirit and popular zeal that it was literally “burned over.”
Lydia Eeva Natti Willsky
See also: Eddy, Mary Baker (1821–1910)
Barkun, Michael. Crucible of the Millennium: The Burned-over District of New York in the 1840s. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1986.
Cross, Whitney. The Burned-over District: The Social and Intellectual History of Enthusiastic Religion in Western New York, 1800–1850. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1950.
Evans, Robert. Fire from Heaven: A Description and Analysis of the Revivals of the “Burned-over District” of New York 1800 to 1840 and Spiritual Deceptions. Hazelbrook, Australia: Research in Evangelical Revivals, 2005.
Smith, Timothy L. Revivalism and Social Reform: American Protestantism on the Eve of the Civil War. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980.
Wellman, Judith. Grass Roots Reform in the Burned-over District of Upstate New York: Religion, Abolitionism, and Democracy. New York: Garland Publishing, 2000.