The "Burned-Over District"

The Second Great Awakening in Western New York

by: Brian Austin

Background of the Second Great Awakening

Although Americans still were greatly influenced by religion by the end of the 18th century, even with Enlightenment ideas of rationalism. However, there were many educated people and frontiersmen who were not as impacted by religious ideas. By the beginning of the 19th century, this changed when a gigantic religious revival spread across the United States of America. Many religions were reformed, revived, or created during this time, all focusing on ideas of individual discovery of the followers' religions.

Video: The Burned Over District

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The Burned Over District - Religions of Central NY by Dr. Mike McKenzie

Origins of the "Burned Over District"

A new wave of migrants, in search of new lands, settled in the area of western New York in the late 1700s. Around the same time, the Second Great Awakening began and traveling Protestant preachers came across this area. The new inhabitants of the area were very open to these preachers and their religious ideas. Missionaries followed, including groups like the Methodists and the Presbyterians. Perhaps the most successful preacher in this area was Charles Grandison Finney, who sparked revivalism in the protestant faith through religious and social innovations. Joseph Smith was another important leader who created the Church of Latter-day Saints, a religion that now numbers in the millions. This religion, called Mormonism, as well as Methodists and Presbyterians, grew in converts by the thousands in this area of New York. This region got its nickname from this rapid conversion, which is compared to the "burning of a forest fire", since religion spread so quickly across the area. The Burned Over District quickly turned into one of the most important locations during the Second Great Awakening.

Important Leaders

Charles Grandison Finney

  • lawyer and preacher of the Presbterian faith
  • led a huge revivalism of the faith through his preaching of new ideas for his religion throughout the Burned Over District, which in turn helped to generate thousands of conversions
  • stressed the importance of the individual in conversion
  • came up with the term "Burned Over District"
  • "The Father of Modern Revivalism"
Joseph Smith, Jr.
  • Received a vision from God and Jesus, where he was told to restore a new religion, which will become the Church of Later-day Saints, or Mormonism
  • After his initial vision, he claims that he received more , containing messages with the directions and ideas of the new church that he is to set up
  • believed that followers of Mormonism had the constant company of the Holy Spirit, and that they could become aware to many unknown blessings to the world through personal revelation
  • Through his preachings and encouragement to join the new church, Mormonism grew by the thousands within the Burned Over District
William Miller

  • created a new religious group called the Millerites, who believed that the Second Coming of Jesus Christ would occur on October 22, 1844
  • preached his ideas of the Second Coming and gained many converts
  • although the date came and passed, Adventism developed from his ideas and is still a religion today
The Fox Sisters

  • Kate and Margaret Fox claimed that they communicated with spirits through rapping noises
  • traveled the area demonstrating these communications, gaining much popularity
  • sparked the beginning of Spiritualism in America

Major Beliefs and Practices

During this time, within the Burned Over District, many different sects of religions developed or were redeveloped. These religions included Methodism, Presbyterianism, Mormonism, Adventism, Spiritualism, and many other small groups. Although these groups were different in their specific beliefs and practices (covered above), they all did have some similarities

Similar Practices

  • preached their ideas to groups numbering sometimes in the thousands, in preachings called tent meetings, so called because they were held outside in open areas and the preacher sometimes stood under a tent.
  • the preachers traveled all across the area to speak their ideas to people everywhere, which was an important system in gaining large numbers of converts
Similar Beliefs
  • emphasis on the role of conversion as a step to achieving salvation into heaven
  • more personal learning, versus the "old fashioned" ways of strictly interpreting the Bible and public sermons
  • importance of the individual's ability to reconcile sins through prayer
  • stressed importance of religion in everyday lives of Americans

Social activism was an effect of these practices and beliefs in this area, . This included social ideas like the abolition of slavery, restrictions on alcohol, and women's rights. Some important leaders of these social activists, including Charles Grandison Finney, Susan B. Anthony, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, lived in this area and were influenced by these religious revivalist ideas.

Other Beliefs/Practices

  • Many areas in the Burned Over District set up utopian societies, which were completely isolated and set up with equal rights for all. Groups that set up these societies included the Oneidas and Shakers