Revivalism in the Burned Over District Part 1

by on January 7th, 2010

I grew up in the buckle of the Bible belt. North-east Mississippi. Home of Elvis, Faulkner, and a church on every corner. I have been to more revival services than I can count. As I grew in my Christian walk, I must confess, that I became a bit cynical about revival services. I made jokes about the Holy Spirit coordinating with local pastors to plan the summer revival season. But in all seriousness, I had never wondered about where this–what should we call it? tradition? practice? habit? comes from. Over the last few weeks we have been exploring the intellectual and ideological history of protestant Christianity. I want to continue that with some commentary about Revivalism in the 1800s. Ron Henzel and Don Veinot have discussed the so-called “Burned Over District” in upstate New York as the watershed location for millennial heresies like the Millerites, the visions of Joseph Smith, and the spiritualism of New Thought. When I started delving deeper into that particular time and place what I found was fascinating and disturbing. History, it seems not only repeats itself but is chock full of intricate traps and snares for those who would glean something from it. Because I am at best an amateur historian, I’ve listed some sources dear reader in case you would like to look into this subject for yourself.

The term “Burned-Over District” seems to have come from a book by Whitney Cross called The Burned-Over District: The Social and Intellectual History of Enthusiastic Religion in Western New York, 1800-1850 (Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York, 1950). However it was first used, it seems, by Charles Finney as a description of the fires of Revival sweeping over western New York. Another great source for history of this era can be found online in a series of articles by John H. Martin called “Saints, Sinners, and Reformers.”

His chapter on Finney and Revivalism is detailed and to an untrained amateur like myself, it looks thorough. Much of what follows are quotes from Martin’s work interspersed with my commentary.

The first thing to note about revivalism is that philosophy and worldview played a not-insignificant influence:

A new era, known as the Romantic Period, was coming into existence at the turn of the 1800s. It would flourish intellectually in various quarters, such as in the Boston of Emerson and other New Englanders before long. Out on the frontier, however, it would flourish in a variant form of romanticism, in religion in particular, which was often anti-intellectual. The religious faith of the frontier era was motivated by emotion and the warmth of a new spirit in religion, and this was most obviously observed in the manifestation of the new religious revival movement. Puritan theology was seen as bookish, dry, and musty by many frontiersmen, many of whom were illiterate. Thus on the frontier, religion often substituted emotion for intellectual thought. As one scholar of American life, Dr. Sidney Mead has put it, “Around 1800 American religion gained a heart—and lost its head.” This was particularly to be true in western New York.

American Romanticism as a movement was associated with Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson who both extolled the virtues of worshipping God without the trappings of organized religion. I wish I had more time to discuss Romanticism in Emerson, Thoreau, and William James but I don’t. Suffice it to say that philosophically there was a trend away from knowing God to experiencing God especially in nature. The new romanticism was rustic (Thoreau lived in the woods to settle his soul), anti-establishment (Thoreau went to jail for not paying his taxes), and anti-sectarian. I think both Thoreau and Emerson were Unitarians (someone correct me on this).

In the case of Finney, as with many other preachers of the time, he eschewed theological training at Princeton Theological Seminary since he did not want “to have his theology ready-made for him.” “He was not,” he said, “going to have his religious ideas spoiled by education.” This was to be true of many of the revivalists who followed after him.

The anti-intellectualism of the rustic Romanticism coincided (notice I do not claim it was the cause. first rule of history: correlation does not entail causation) with a growing distaste for seminary training which was handy since rural New York was far away from Princeton. I saw this first hand not twenty years ago. When I was 19, I “felt a call to ministry” while acting in a college drama ministry. Where I was from, this call could only mean a call to one of three things: 1) Pastoral ministry 2) Music ministry or 3) Youth Ministry (or there was the ever popular discount option: Music and Youth–two for the price of one.) I had no rhythm and I was barely out of the “youth” group myself. So I determined it must be preaching that was my calling. With no training beyond my lackluster reading of my youth study bible and my knowledge of every single Petra lyric, I was encouraged to “get up there and preach” as soon as possible. Two weeks after my call, I delivered a 45 minute sermon with absolutely no relevant point, structure, or understanding. Thank God only one tape was made. I destroyed it. I also was told I had the hand of God on me and was given about 100 dollars as a gift to my ministry. There was no encouragement to seek higher education, no call to deepen my understanding of the history, geography, culture, or language of the Bible. I preached steadily for three years in pulpits all around Northeast Mississippi. Hopefully I didn’t do too much damage.

Martin does give what he considers a seminal cause of revivalism, dissatisfaction with Calvinism. Calvinism of the Puritans was already denigrated as dusty and tired. Part of this came from dissatisfaction with pre-destination in some forms of Calvinism. Rather than critique and honestly differ from Jonathan Edwards and the Puritan dons, the rural romantics embraced Finney’s new doctrine of perfectionism. Perfectionism is a philosophical term about developing virtue that has been around a lot longer than Finney but theologically perfectionism meant that one wasn’t predestined to either heaven or hell but could improve oneself in order to be a better Christian. Rather than looking at one’s life as an experiment to see if one was one of the elect as some Calvinists advised, one could gain holiness by getting closer to God. That “getting closer” is where the tradition of revival started. Listen to Martin:

Salvation became not a becoming one with one God or Jesus, or the entrance into Heaven at the end of life, but it became the beginning of a new life here on earth. One became emancipated from sin, and this could be done through the means of the revival meeting.

An individual could perfect his nature and his universe—yet there was still the problem of sin. It was here that the American religious mind developed a technique which could bring the two concepts together, and this was through the device of the American religious revival. The religious revivals which were to spread from the frontier to all of American society in the nineteenth century were a peculiarly American approach to Christianity. If it is found in operation hereafter anywhere else in the world than in the United States, one can be certain that an American missionary has been in the vicinity.

Thus the American revival system squared the traditional Christian doctrine of man’s sinfulness with the possibility of improvement and salvation. The revival system institutionalized these two opposing views of sinfulness and salvation with little regard for logic or the traditional theology of Christianity.

What is a uniquely American contribution to Christianity? Revivals. Revivals provided the solution to our strong sin nature and the desire for perfection. Finding your Christian walk hard, Brother? Struggling with the old nature? Well it doesn’t mean you aren’t one of the elect like those stuffy Boston folk say. It just means you need to get the Holy Spirit to give you the power to fight your sin nature. And where does that power come from? Well come down to the revival and rededicate your life to pursuing God!

Of course this method had its problems. Revival services do not renovate the heart. People would dedicate and rededicate their lives without any inkling of the spiritual practices and disciplines and community necessary to change. They only knew that often the congregation would sing 100 verses of “Just as I am” and hundreds of people would come down “just as they are” and by next summer they would be “just as they were.” Which reminds me of my favorite revival joke. Seems a certain man would come down to the altar at every revival and pray long and loud, “O Lord fill me! Fill me!” but after a week or two he would be back to his old sinful ways–lying, cheating, and womanizing. One year, a blue-haired saint on the first row had enough. When he started his prayers of “Fill me” the old woman shouted: “Don’t do it Lord. He leaks.”

But revivalism wouldn’t just affect individual Christian discipleship. It would spill over into political reform as well:

Thus the new revival approach under Finney gave lip service to the doctrine of sin of traditional Christianity. Finney and revivalists who followed in his train preached salvation through individual reform, and in time this would become salvation through the reform of society, as in the growing temperance movement and then in the women’s rights and the anti-slavery movement. There were those who would carry the idea of perfection to its extremes, and the more radical Perfectionists felt that conversion made them totally sinless, and they therefore sometimes engaged in behavior which flaunted scriptural, social, and moral codes, and in some cases, such as in the Oneida community, led to a sexuality which shocked society.

But that will have to wait until next time. What are we to make of all of this? Isn’t it true that any movement will be distorted? Isn’t it the case that Christianity has always had its scripture twisting and doctrinal snake oil salesman? Certainly. And I’m not condemning things like the priesthood of the believer, emotional experiences with God, or even the sincere public commitment to Christ. I am not arrogant enough to say that I can read this history like tea leaves. However, what I see is that philosophical trends precede theological ones and together these precede political trends as well. Maybe it’s enough that we are aware of this. Maybe not. What do you think dear reader? What can we glean from this vignette of history?

4 responses to “Revivalism in the Burned Over District Part 1 ”

  1. Deborah prescott says:

    i can’t wait to read what it was that preceded this current spiritual, philosophical, political mess in the USA.

  2. Paula Mann says:

    I appreciated your article on erfectionism, Finney and revivalism. I had always wondered where it came from. I have read widely in church history for 40 years and this is the first I really knew where to put it. I knew it was common on the frontier with preachers like Campbell
    (Church of Christ Disciples) and other groups.

    I also appreciate the tie in that revivalism gave rise to the social gospel, temperance and like movements.

    I am presently in plain conservative Mennonite fellowship and I am not real clear on where the revival meeting practice got into Mennonite
    churches who usually eschew Protestant practices.

    Thanks for an excellent article!
    Paula Mann

  3. Ann says:

    I attended AG churches in south central NYS in 1980′-90′s and see clearly what you are referring to. Not much has changed.

  4. Excellent article! Finney-ism and the form of premillenialism that resulted from the Burned Over District is the father of the modern Independent Fundamentalist Baptist movement. It is through the influences of this movement that Baptists switched from being Baptist to “wet Methodists.” Thanks for the link!

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