The burned-over district refers to the western and central regions of New York in the early 19th century, where religious revivals and the formation of new religious movements of the Second Great Awakening took place.
The term was coined by Charles Grandison Finney, who in his 1876 book Autobiography of Charles G. Finney, referred to a "burnt district" to denote an area in central and western New York State during the Second Great Awakening. He felt that the area had been so heavily evangelized as to have no "fuel" (unconverted population) left over to "burn" (convert).
In references where the religious revival is related to reform movements of the period, such as abolition, women's rights, and utopian social experiments, the region is expanded to include those areas of central New York that were important to these movements.
Religion in the district
Western New York was still a frontier during the early Erie Canal boom, and professional and established clergy were scarce. Many of the self-taught people were susceptible to enthusiasms of folk religion. Evangelists achieved many converts to Protestant sects, such as Congregationalists, Baptists and Methodists. Converts in nonconformist sects became part of numerous innovative religious movements, all founded by laypeople during the early 19th century. These include:
- The Latter Day Saint movement (whose largest branch is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints). Joseph Smith lived in the area and said he was led by the angel Moroni to his source for the Book of Mormon, the golden plates, near Palmyra.
- The Millerites. William Miller was a farmer who lived in Low Hampton, New York. He preached that the literal Second Coming would occur "October 22, 1844." Millerism became extremely popular in western New York State. Some of its concepts are still held by church organizations affiliated with Adventism.
- The Fox sisters of Hydesville, New York conducted the first table-rapping séances in the area, leading to the American movement of Spiritualism (centered in the retreat at Lily Dale and in the Plymouth Spiritualist Church in Rochester, NY), which taught communion with the dead.
- The Shakers were very active in the area, establishing their first communal farm in central New York.
- The Oneida Society was a large utopian group that established a successful community in central New York; it subsequently disbanded. It was known for its unique interpretation of group marriage, which had mates chosen by committee; the children of the community were raised in common.
In addition to religious activity, the region including the burned-over district was noted for social radicalism. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the early feminist, was a resident of Seneca Falls in central New York. She and others in the community organized the Seneca Falls Convention devoted to women's suffrage and rights.
The larger region was the main source of converts to the Fourierist utopian socialist movement. The Skaneateles Community in central New York was such an experiment. The Oneida Society, likewise in central New York, was also considered a utopian group. Related to radical reform, upstate New York provided many members of Hunter Patriots, some of whom volunteered to invade Canada during the Patriot War.
- Cross (1950)
- Martin, John H (2005). "An Overview of the Burned-Over District". Saints, Sinners and Reformers: The Burned-Over District Re-Visited.
- Glenn C. Altschuler, Jan M. Saltzgaber: Revivalism Social Conscience, and Community in the Burned-over District. The Trial of Rhoda Bement. Cornell University Press, Ithaca NY 1983 (online version)
- Cross, Whitney, R. (1950) The Burned-Over District: The Social and Intellectual History of Enthusiastic Religion in Western New York, 1800–1850.
- John H. Martin, Saints, Sinners and Reformers: The Burned-Over District Re-Visited, The Crooked Lake Review, Fall 2005. Book-length study in a local history quarterly.
- The “Burned-Over District, 1810-1830, Federal Census Indices”, Oliver Cowdery