Burned-over district

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Map showing the counties of New York considered part of the "Burned-over District"[1][2]

The term "burned-over district" refers to the western and parts of the central regions of New York State in the early 19th century, where religious revivals and the formation of new religious movements of the Second Great Awakening took place, to such a great extent that spiritual fervor seemed to set the area on fire.[3]

Charles Grandison Finney (1792–1875) popularized the term: his posthumous 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 Awakening:

I found that region of 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, but which turned out to be spurious. ... It was reported as having been a very extravagant excitement; and resulted in a reaction so extensive and profound, as to leave the impression on many minds that religion was a mere delusion. A great many men seemed to be settled in that conviction. Taking what they had seen as a specimen of a revival of religion, they felt justified in opposing anything looking toward the promoting of a revival.

These spurious movements created feelings of apprehension towards the revivals in which Finney was influential as a preacher.

In references where the religious revival is related to reform movements of the period, such as abolition, women's rights, utopian social experiments, anti-Masonry, Mormonism, prohibition, vegetarianism, and Seventh-Day Adventism, the "burned-over" region expands to include other areas of Upstate New York that were important to these movements.[citation needed]

Historical study of the phenomenon began with Whitney R. Cross, in 1951.[3][4] Subsequent study in the last quarter of the twentieth century re-assessed the extent to which religious fervor actually affected the region. Linda K. Pritchard uses statistical data to show that, compared to the rest of New York State, to the Ohio River Valley in the lower Midwest, and to the United States as a whole, the religiosity of the Burned-over district was typical rather than exceptional.[5] More recent works have argued that these revivals in Western New York had a unique and lasting impact upon the religious and social life of the entire nation.[6][7][8]


Western New York was still an American 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 won many converts to Protestant sects, such as Congregationalists, Baptists, and Methodists. Converts in nonconformist sects became part of numerous new religious movements, all of which were founded by laypeople during the early 19th century, including:

Social and political reform[edit]

In addition to religious activity, the region known as the Burned-over district was noted for social radicalism. The Oneida Institute (1827–1843) was a center of abolitionism and the first college in the country to admit black students on the same terms as white students. The short-lived New-York Central College was the first college to accept both black students and women from its beginning and was also the first college in the country to employ African-American professors. Alfred University is the oldest surviving college in the United States to admit women to all its programs of study, rather than having female-specific programs.[10]

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the early American feminist, was a resident of Seneca Falls in central New York in the mid-1800s. She and others in the community organized the Seneca Falls Convention devoted to women's suffrage and rights in 1848.

The larger region was the main source of converts to the Fourierist utopian socialist movement, starting around 1816. The Skaneateles Community in central New York, founded in 1843, was such an experiment. The Oneida Society was also considered a utopian group.

Related to radical reform, Upstate New York provided many Hunter Patriots, some of whom volunteered to invade Canada during the Patriot War from December 1837 to December 1838.


The District can be broadly described as the area in New York State between the Finger Lakes and Lake Erie,[1][2] and contains the following counties:

See also[edit]



  1. ^ a b Martin, John H (2005). "An Overview of the Burned-over District". Saints, Sinners and Reformers: The Burned-Over District Re-Visited.
  2. ^ a b Altschuler, Glenn C.; Saltzgaber, Jan M. (1983), Revivalism, Social Conscience, and Community in the Burned-over District: the Trial of Rhoda Bement, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, ISBN 0801415411, LCCN 82014296, OCLC 8805286
  3. ^ a b Cross, Whitney R (1950), The Burned-Over District: The Social and Intellectual History of Enthusiastic Religion in Western New York, 1800–1850, New York: Harper & Row, LCCN 50012161, OCLC 1944850
  4. ^ Wellman, Judith (2000). Grassroots Reform in the Burned-over District of Upstate New York: Religion, Abolitionism, and Democracy. ISBN 0815337922.
  5. ^ Pritchard, Linda K. (Summer 1984). "The burned-over district reconsidered: A portent of evolving religious pluralism in the United States". Social Science History. 8 (3): 243–265. doi:10.2307/1170853. JSTOR 1170853.
  6. ^ Johnson, Paul (2004). A shopkeeper's millennium: society and revivals in Rochester, New York, 1815-1837 (1st rev. ed.). New York: Hill and Wang. ISBN 9780809016358.
  7. ^ Kruczek-Aaron, Hadley (2015). Everyday religion: an archaeology of protestant belief and practice in the nineteenth century (1st ed.). Gainesville: University Press of Florida. ISBN 9780813055503.
  8. ^ Ferriby, Peter Gavin. "History of American Christian Movements: Introduction". Sacred Heart University Library. Sacred Heart University Library. Archived from the original on 2020-10-01. Retrieved 9 June 2021.
  9. ^ Landmarks of American women's history, Chapter: Watervliet Shaker Historic District, Page Putnam Miller, Oxford University Press US, 2003, pp. 36 ff.
  10. ^ Strong, Susan (2008). Thought Knows No Sex; Women's Rights at Alfred University. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. p. 57. ISBN 978-0-7914-7513-3.

Further reading

  • Backman, Milton V. "Awakenings in the Burned-over District: New Light on the Historical Setting of the First Vision". Brigham Young University Studies 9.3 (1969): 301–320.
  • Cross, Whitney R. "Mormonism in the 'Burned-Over District'". New York History 25.3 (1944): 326–338. JSTOR 23163065.
  • Foster, Lawrence. Religion and Sexuality: The Shakers, the Mormons, and the Oneida Community (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984)
  • Friedman, Lawrence J. "The Gerrit Smith circle: Abolitionism in the Burned-over District". Civil War History 26.1 (1980): 18–38.
  • Hill, Marvin S. "The Rise of Mormonism in the Burned-over District: Another View." New York History 61.4 (1980): 411–430. JSTOR 23169797.
  • Martin, J.E. "Saints, Sinners and Reformers: The Burned-over District Re-Visited", The Crooked Lake Review, Fall 2005, no. 137. Book-length study in a local history quarterly.
  • Roach, Monique Patenaude. "The Rescue of William 'Jerry' Henry: Antislavery and Racism in the Burned-over District." New York History (2001): 135–154. JSTOR 42677782.
  • Wellman, Judith. "Crossing over Cross: Whitney Cross's Burned-over District as Social History". Reviews in American History 17#1 (1989): 159–174. JSTOR 2703143.

External links[edit]