I come from an area that has been termed the “Burned-Over District.” I don’t actually recall hearing that term until long after I moved away from there. However, the term is an old descriptor for the region I was raised in. I am from Western New York State in the United States. Charles Finney, an Evangelist of the 19th Century coined the expression “Burned-Over District” for Western New York (Niagara Frontier) and the Finger Lakes Region. He believed that there was so much Evangelization carried out there that there was no longer any “fuel” (unconverted) for revival.
The region has been known for its innovations. I am from Chautauqua County. Chautauqua County is famous for the beginning of the “Chautauqua Movement” that began in the late 1800s (look it up). It is the home of Lilydale… a spiritualist community that survived from the heyday of Spiritualism in the 19th century, to its resurgence today. The Harmonians (a Utopian society) settled there for a time before moving West. Mormonism (the most successful non-Christian religious group to develop in the Burned-Over District) stopped in Chautauqua County for a bit.
In other parts of the Burned-Over District there were many other groups… Utopians, Syncretists, Spiritualists, Restorationists, Innovators. The Millerites (Adventists) started here. The Social Gospel has its roots here. There are more. But the question is “Why did so many groups and beliefs find this area to be such a breeding ground for such?”
The quick answer is that I Don’t Know. I think there may be a few reasons… but would be interested in hearing other thoughts.
1. National Culture. Spiritual Fervor. Nationally, the US was going through the 2nd “Great Awakening.” There was a strong interest in spirituality and renewal.
2. National Culture. Rapid Change. This was a time of considerable change nationally. The story Rip Van Winkle talks about the huge changes that Eastern New York underwent in the late 1700s such that the region was almost unrecognizable to someone who had been there only 20 years before. The Western part of New York went through huge changes of nationalization, industrializaiton, and more. The Erie Canal suddenlly brought huge transformation to a backwater part of the country.
3. Lack of Clergy. This was a frontier region so relatively few seminary-trained religious leaders were there. Clergy, having been trained within a faith community, tend to be agents of preservation rather than agents of change. Even when they seek change, the change tends to be less extreme than developing a brand new religion (such as the case of Mormonism).
4. Cultural Disatisfaction. The frontier (and this was definitely a frontier region in the 1800s) is full of people who come there because of dissatisfaction with their previous circumstances. My ancestors came to Western New York from Sweden because of dissatisfaction, in part, with economic circumstances there. Having a large pool of dissatisfied people creates an environment for radical change. This can lead to an openness to new beliefs or even worldviews. Just as the first state to allow women to vote was Wyoming (a frontier region), Western New York in its frontier days was also innovative with having the first female physcian, who graduated from Geneva College, and being the site of the Seneca Falls Convention for Women’s rights. Certainly the Utopian societies, such as the Harmonians, the Oneida Society, or the Shakers point to a dissatisfaction with the status quo.
5. Spiritual Disatisfaction. The term “Burned-Over District” might be in itself informative. The area had been so heavily evangelized that their were few respondents. This might have been an early indication of something we now describe as a “post-Christian” culture. When a culture becomes dominated by a certain faith, there is often a strong disatisfaction with it… After all, if the culture and religion are seen too much as being the same, dissatisfaction with culture can transfer easily over to dissatisfaction with religion. Fundamentalism seeks to restore a simpler faith. It is not surprising the growth of Christian Fundamentalism in this region. Others like the Millerites were apocalyptic… looking for a rapid end to things. Others, like the Mormons, created an alternate history and theology.
6. Pattern Formation. When one person innovates and breaks loose from cultural conventions, it often inspires others to do the same. Back when I lived in Chautauqua County, I lived near a cult founder. His name was Calvin Kline, but changed it to Calvin of Oakknoll, and created a group called the Religious Society of Families. That group wasn’t very successful, mostly (I think) because of the difficult personality of its founder. He ultimately died in 1999 in prison (he had killed a man). I can’t help but think that he was inspired to start a religion because of others before him who had done likewise. Even in my case, I went into missions. In some places this would be strange, but even in the tiny country church I was raised in, I was not the first to go into missions. There were at least two before me, one of whom was a relative. It is easier to seek to do what someone has done before.
So what can we gain from these thoughts (hopefully somewhat correct thoughts)? Hopefully, I have some ideas in Part 2.