Spencer McBride Dives into History of Burned-Over District and its Chautauqua Connection

Historian and documentary editor, Spencer McBride speaks about how western New York gre to be named the Burned-over District, during his lecture “The Origins And legacy of the Burned-over District” on Monday, July 22, 2019 in the Hall of Philosophy.

Chautauqua was founded 14 years after the Burned-over District ran its course. Many may think that Chautauqua has no connection to the Burned-over District, but Spencer McBride, a historian, author and editor for The Joseph Smith Papers, said that solid connections exist between the two.

On Monday, McBride opened Week Five’s interfaith theme, “Chautauqua: Rising from the Ashes of the Burned-Over District,” in the Hall of Philosophy with his lecture, “The Origins and Legacy of the Burned-over District.”

The Burned-over District, McBride said, was an early 19th-century movement, in which religious revivals became popular nationwide, and locally in Western New York.

It took place, McBride estimated, between 1790 and 1860, and it was a part of a national development termed “The Second Great Awakening,” which was a revival of religious fervor that drove Americans to churches. The movement spanned as far as Britain, and as close as local cities and regions in New York, including Buffalo, Albany, Rochester, the Finger Lakes and Chautauqua.

McBride said this deep religious fervor in the 1790s doesn’t imply that there was no religious presence in America prior to that. Before this Burned-over District, in the Revolutionary War era, there was a “very rational approach” to religion by preachers who were predominantly from the elite class. In stark contrast, coming into the 1790s, religion was growing more personal and influential.

“What we see in the Second Great Awakening,” McBride said, “is this move for people to experience religion, to become converted through a spiritual experience that they felt.”

Because of those “spiritual experiences,” many entered ministry claiming it was their calling. They were called by the spirit to serve in ministry, which completely destroyed the commonly held belief among preachers that one had to be from the elite class to preach. So, throughout the country in the 1790s and into the 1800s, many who felt a calling studied the scriptures and became ministers.

“And the driving engine of all of this is the revival meeting,” McBride said. “Often held outdoors, a revival meeting would take place over several days, and you’d have preachers preaching enthusiastically, encouraging their congregations to seek salvation, to be saved, to have that spiritual experience of conversion that ultimately changes their lives.”

The meetings were so effective, McBride said, that church membership rapidly grew throughout the country — from 2 million in 1790, to over 20 million in 1860. The number of preachers tripled — instead of one minister for every 1,500 Americans, there was a preacher for every 500 Americans in 1850.

Even though this change was nationwide, some areas experienced religious fervor more intensely than others. So, McBride asked, why was Western New York a highly concentrated area of religious fervor? One answer, McBride said, is termed the Yankee Invasion.

“There is a huge population in Western New York following 1790,” he said. “One of the results of the American Revolution, and one of the reasons some people felt inclined to fight against the British, is King George and the third parliament had declared after the Seven Years’ War that there could be no white settlement west of the Appalachian Mountains. Well, after the revolution, a settlement west of the Appalachian Mountains opened up and many were anxious to get there between the years 1790 and 1820.”

In this 30-year period, a flood of people left New England for Western New York. This meant that about 10% of the American population was on the move. McBride said that, in addition to being a large group, 60% of the people moving were under the age of 25. What this meant was that a lot of families in New England were sending their children off to New York.

And, as a cautionary measure to keep their children from losing religion during this move, families sent missionaries — who knew that when one is young, it is easy to question or reconsider one’s religion — to New York to encourage their children to continue attending church.

“We don’t often use the word ‘marketplace’ when we talk about religion,” McBride said. “But if we think about it in terms of a marketplace, there were more religious choices than ever, and here was a large group of people anxious to consider those choices. And so, this demographic shift makes New York a prime spot for religious revivalism.”

So, how did the name, “Burned-over District,” come about? McBride said the religious fervor from 1790 to 1860 was not necessarily constant, but there were actually surges of religious intensity that would last a couple of years before dying down.

For example, Charles Finney — one of the best known revivalists, who was remarkably famous for his preaching — arrived in Oneida County in 1826 to preach. But not many people showed up to listen to him talk because he had arrived at the tail-end of a wave of revivalism, and people didn’t want to hear him.

“And so, Charles Finney wrote a letter, quite frustrated, in 1826,” McBride said. “And he said, ‘I found that region of the country, what in the western phrase would be called a burnt district. There had been a few years previously, a wild excitement passing through that region, which they called a revival of religion. And it resulted in a reaction so extensive and profound as to leave the impression on many minds that religion was a mere delusion.’ ”

Finney termed Western New York the “Burnt District,” and McBride said the name eventually evolved into the “Burned-over District” because of a young historian from Harvard University, named Whitney Cross, and his dissertation adviser, who both felt that the “Burnt District” didn’t sound right.

Western New York stands out as part of the Burned-over District, McBride said, because there was a large number of new religious movements in the area.

“The Shakers originally came from New England, and they come to a settlement just outside of Albany called Watervliet,” McBride said. “You get the rise of the Mormons, … the Oneida perfectionists … (and) spiritualists.”

Some of this religious revivalism coincided with social reform, McBride said.

Examples of these social reforms are abolitionism, the temperance movement, the women’s rights movement and a great number of political reforms heading toward stronger democracy.

“Now, this is not to say that all of these reforms were necessarily religious reforms,” McBride said. “You could be an abolitionist without being a devout Christian. You could fight for women’s rights without being a devout Christian, so on and so forth. But we also see, in other parts of the country, religion being used to confront or battle these reform movements.”

For example, Angelina Grimké, a prolific writer and women’s rights activist, wrote about Christians in the South who were using the Bible to defend slavery, and people who used Christianity to defend the idea that men should have more power and more rights than women.

“This is an important caveat,” McBride said, “because … people walk away thinking that those who are actively involved in their religion and their religious community will always push for social reform, but that’s not the case, and it’s important for us to recognize that.”

Despite the disagreements among the people inside and outside the reform movements, the Burned-over District is essential to the national history of religious revivalism and social reform because those who were in New York during the Burned-over District took all of the religious views, practices and social ideas with them when they moved west, McBride said.

“Chautauqua actually falls outside the chronological boundaries of the Burned-over District, which ended in 1860,” McBride said. “Chautauqua was founded 1874, so, what’s the connection?”

During the Burned-over District’s surge, religions like Protestantism, Baptistism and Methodism experienced extreme growth.

“Prior to 1790 in the United States, we’re talking about a total population of fewer than 10,000 Methodists,” McBride said. “You get to over half a million, and approaching a million, Methodists by the time you’re in 1850.”

After the Burned-over District smoldered out, Methodist Sunday school teachers began setting up camps at Chautauqua, which marked the beginnings of the Institution that serves as a “bastion for educating as many people as can be educated,” McBride said.

McBride concluded his lecture with some thought-provoking questions for the audience.

“Do we see social change influencing or changing religion in our own time?” McBride asked. “Similarly, what role is religion currently playing in present-day reform movements, and on what side of the reform movements do different people’s religious views place them? On a personal level, how does our faith drive us to real action to make our communities better, … stronger … (and) safer?”

As a historian, McBride said, the one question to hold onto throughout the week is, “How does the history of the Burned-over District, of religious and social change, influence the way you understand the world today, and how will it affect the way you build the world of tomorrow?”

Tags : Hall of Philosophyinterfaith lectureinterfaith lecture recaplectureWeek Five
AnaBella Lassiter

The author AnaBella Lassiter

AnaBella Lassiter is a rising senior at Penn State Behrend in Erie, where she’s studying English with a focus in professional writing and history. She also serve as the Arts & Entertainment editor of her school’s paper, the Behrend Beacon. She is eager to report on the afternoon lectures for The Chautauquan Daily. When she’s not writing, she is walking her dachshund or rereading Wuthering Heights for the 30th time.