The Burned-Over District is a description of the religious character of Western New York during the first half of the 19th century (p. vii). The events and movements in the Burned-over District have left an astounding impact on the religious, political and social development of American culture. Prohibition, emancipation of the slaves, numerous cults and utopian societies, and several questionable Christian methodologies and theologies all find their roots in this exciting time and place.
Cross, who never tips his hand to reveal his own spiritual allegiance, begins with the Great Revival of 1799-1800 (what many call the Second Great Awakening). While Kentucky got most of the attention from historians, Cross makes a case that the most significant affect of the Great Revival was found in Western New York. The Revival spawned a desire for “enthusiastic” expressions of Christianity which would define the first half of the 19th century. In the wake of the emotionally/spiritual tsunami at the turn of the century would be a series of seasonal revivals (pp. 10-11) leading up to the revivalism of Charles Finney, especially his 1826 and 1831 campaigns in and around Rochester. Finney would set the spiritual agenda that changed the face of Christianity and has had lasting impact to this day. Finney’s (and his imitators’) influence rest not in his theology, which seemed to have little form in the early years (pp. 158-160), although later Finney would train an army of preachers in his particular brand of perfectionism. Nor were the so-called “new measures,” which changed the methodology of the evangelical church, the ultimate change agent (pp. 160-173). Rather it was the idea that particular types of enthusiasms must accompany vital religion (pp. 163, 183).
Since Finney did not believe that revivals were miraculous (p. 199) it was left to the ingenuity of men to manufacture spiritual excitement through whatever means worked. Since the normal means available to local churches (preaching, prayer, etc) were unable to maintain such a high level of enthusiasm, traveling bands of revivalists were needed to conduct “protracted” and emotional meetings to elevate the spiritual passion of the people (pp. 183-184). Since such passion could not be maintained for long, regular revival meetings became necessary to keep the enthusiasm going. Believers soon became dependent on the revivalist and extended meetings which were long on emotionalism but short on doctrine and true biblical exposition. Ultimately such artificial and empty passion could not be maintained and the people began to look to unorthodox ways of getting their emotional “fix” (pp. 257, 284). It began with what Cross calls ultraism, which was enthusiasm without concern for truth (p. 252). Pragmatism ruled the day and since orthodox expressions of Christianity could no longer arouse the desired emotional effects, the Yankees began to look elsewhere. In general ultraism led to “liberal religion, biblical criticism, and a social gospel” (p. 278, cf., p. 357). Specifically an amazing number of cults and other false teachings emerged including: Shakerism (pp. 30-32), Mormonism (pp. 114, 138-150), perfectionism (pp. 238-251), moralism (p. 211ff), Millerism (Adventism) (pp. 287-321), utopian societies (pp. 322-340), spiritism (pp. 325, 342-352) and liberalism (p. 357).
What began as a desire to know and better serve God led to a wholesale erosion of the Christian faith in Western New York and eventually throughout much of the world. The Burned-Over District is a powerful reminder of what happens when God’s people untether themselves from biblical authority and chase the wind of unbridled passion.