Item description for The Burned-over District: The Social and Intellectual History of Enthusiastic Religion in Western New York, 1800-1850 by Whitney R. Cross...
Overview During the first half of the nineteenth century the wooded hills and the valleys of western New York State were swept by fires of the spirit. The fervent religiosity of the region caused historians to call it the "burned-over district."
"Burned-over District was a name applied to a small region, during a limited period of history, to indicate a particular phase of development. It described the religious character of western New York during the first half of the nineteenth century. Time, subject, and area have thus all combined to confine the scope of this book. The study has nevertheless seemed rewarding, mainly because its implications transcend all three limitations.
The meaning expands in a geographical sense because this one area provides a case history in the westward transit of New England culture. Likewise, it is representative as a sample of the change from youth to maturity in a single section affected by continuing westward movement. The subject of religion has broader significance in this period and locality than might at first appear. This section was the storm center, and religious forces were the driving propellants of social movements important for the whole country in that generation. As far as time goes, this book is an illustration of the way in which the minds of one era help to form the destinies of succeeding generations. Neither the causes of the Civil War nor the origins of national prohibition, to cite only two prominent examples, can be thoroughly understood without reference to the Burned-over District." from the Preface"
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Studio: Cornell University Press
Est. Packaging Dimensions: Length: 8.43" Width: 5.4" Height: 1.05" Weight: 1 lbs.
Release Date Sep 5, 2000
Publisher Cornell University Press
ISBN 0801492327 ISBN13 9780801492327
Reviews - What do customers think about The Burned-over District: The Social and Intellectual History of Enthusiastic Religion in Western New York, 1800-1850?
An Excellent and Still Relevent Background to Mormonism Nov 22, 2007
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Although the "Burned-Over District" was published some sixty years ago, Whitney Cross' book is still essential reading for anyone who wants to understand why Mormonism would emerge in 1830.
Religious revivals, like fires, swept through western New York, producing reformers, anti-drinking zealots, those who denounced "priestcraft," prophets, and saints. One man deeply influenced by the heated winds of his times was Joseph Smith.
"In religion," Cross writes, "optimism took the form of belief in an early millennium. Just as the American political system would lead the to equality and justice, so would American revivals inaugurate the thousand years' reign of Christ on earth before the Second Coming and the end of the world" (p. 79).
Thus, we are not surprised to see the emergence around 1830 of three churches founded on millennialism--The Church of Christ (later the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly known as the "Mormon"), the Adventists, and the Disciples of Christ. Each of these new American religions preached millennialism, opposed drinking, and wanted to return to New Testament Christianity.
Much more has come to light since Cross published his book--especially about magic and the occult--but his book is still valuable. Highly recommended.
The roots of mormonism... Oct 11, 2007
I picked up a little 411 about the so-called "great awakening" that happened in America in the late 18th century, but I hadn't heard about the phenonmenon of the 'burned over district" until I read Fawn Brodie's famous biography of Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism. Smith was raised in Palmyra, one of the towns in the burned over district.
Geographically, the burned over district was most of north western new york state, stretching east and further north. It was an area colonized by Yankees from Conneticut, Vermont, etc. Many of the burned over types continued migrating into Ohio. It was, in fact, Yankees from the burned over district who founded Oberlin, etc.
In this book the phrase "burned over" means areas that were subject to repetitive church revivals run by itninerant preachers who were supported by various denomintions- methodists, baptists- all protestants.
Basically, people would get together at these big, multi day revival meetings, have an emotional experience and "convert". Bear in mind that almost all of those effected went to church BEFORE their revival experience.
This religious enthusiasm manifested itself in various ways. The citizens of the burned over district created a couple of notable american religions: mormonism and seventh day adventism. They were key supporters of the temperance movement and the anti slavery movement. Around the 1840s a group called the Millerites, very grounded in the burned over practice, made a lot of fans with their prediction that the world would end, first in october 1843 and then in october 1844. After that didn't go down, the burned over district basically reverted to normality. Some enthusiasts got super liberal (like Oberlin is today), some got into wife swapping and radical socialism, some became seventh day adventists (who believe, strangely enough that the world DID END in 1844! True fact!). and some just became regular baptists or methodists or whatever.
A Classic Study, Still Useful but Somewhat Outdated Feb 4, 2006
One of the most interesting books on antebellum reform to appear in the middle part of the twentieth century was Whitney Cross's "Burned-Over District." Originally published in 1950, Cross focused his attention on the western part of upstate New York and the religious and reform fervor that dominated the social and religious landscape. Emphasizing revivalism and religious experimentation during the Second Great Awakening, Cross sensitively balances sociological analysis with historical narrative to create a powerfully provocative portrait of life on the rural lands of western New York. At a fundamental level, Cross overturns the "Frontier Thesis" of Frederick Jackson Turner that argued for American exceptionalism based on the influence of a frontier environment. Cross sees many more longstanding European antecedents in the maku-up of society in "The Burned-Over District." He also notes that the settlers in this area did not have time to develop "religious enthusiasms" on their own, and that it was brought to them from the East.
Cross really sees the "fires" of revivalism and "enthusiastic religion" as a central ingredient in the making of American character, at least in upstate New York. This upheaval reoriented the landscape of American culture, gave rise to many of the mainstay denominations of later years, birthed such radical religious concepts as Mormonism and the Oneida Perfectionists, and altered the politics of the day through the introduction of such entities as the anti-Masonic party.
Cross divides his book into four basic parts. The first three chapters lay out the general parameters of the Second Great Awaking, its origins, evolution, and rationale. He finds this a purely constructed event, created through the efforts of missionary societies, itinerant preachers, and local religionists. His fourth and fifth chapters explore the appeal of revivalistic fervor, using a heavily sociological analysis. In both of these major sections of "The Burned-Over District" Cross emphasizes the influence of easterners on the experience as a direct challenge to the "Frontier Thesis." In chapters 6 through 9 Cross discusses specific leaders of these efforts, and in the last part of the book he explores the radical movements that emerged from revivalism and "religious enthusiasm."
I first read this book in graduate school about 1980 and found it a fascinating study, in part because it helped to put in context the rise of Mormonism, which was a special interest of mine. On rereading it, I find it still an interesting and useful work but it is less powerful than I recall from my graduate school experience. I still find it a useful local study of one aspect of antebellum reform, but there are other community studies of significance that have emerged to modify and in some instances to supersede its analysis. Among these are outstanding books on religious fervor such as Robert Abzug's "Cosmos Crumbling: American Reform and the Religious Imagination" (Oxford University Press, 1994), and community studies such as "A Shopkeeper's Millennium: Society and Revivals in Rochester, New York, 1815-1837" (Hill and Wang, 1979) by Paul E. Johnson. While a bit outdated, "The Burned-Over District" is still a most useful study.
Important Correction of the Frontier Thesis Apr 14, 2000
This pioneering study suffers from the absence of a clear thesis, although it seems obvious that Cross wished to challenge Turner's frontier thesis as applied to antebellum reform. Investigating the social, economic, and intellectual currents of antebellum western New York, he argues that settlers on the primitive frontier did not have time to engage in religious and reform enthusiasms. Only with the coming prosperity did settlers divert their attention to these matters. Moreover, the New England heritage of the "Yorker" settlers greatly influenced their openness to the revivals. Despite some flaws in the work, his correction to the frontier thesis was convincing, but I believe that his greatest contribution to the scholarship was his demonstration than meaningful investigations into the reformer's mind were possible. Cross was one of several students of the great Arthur Schlesinger Sr. who criticized the frontier thesis: for others, see Timothy Smith's Revivalism and Social Reform (1957) and Charles Foster's Errand of Mercy (1960). Students of antebellum reform looking for community studies may wish to try the more recent Shopkeeper's Millennium (1978) by Paul Johnson or The Democratic Dilemma (1987) by Randolph Roth.