WFW: The Burned-Over District

April 14, 2010


“Is not my word like fire,” declares the LORD, “and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?” Jeremiah 23:19

I live in an area of New York State that was once called the “Burned-Over District.” Central and Western New York State were once the hotbeds of Christian revivals, brought about by the work of evangelist Charles Grandison Finney. I admire Finney very much. I have studied much of his life and the history of New York State– and it’s fascinating.

This area was called the “burned-over district” because it had been almost completely evangelized and converted. Bars closed, businessmen stopped their shady practices, people sang hymns on the streets together, bankers cheated no one, and politicians were moral. When you think about it, it was pretty amazing, especially about the bankers and politicians. lol

I have read much of Finney’s work– it’s totally mind-blowing. The kids and I have been reading “Experiencing the Presence of God,” a compilation of Finney’s works, and it’s wonderful. Here’s a portion of one of the events he describes. This event took place in a cotton factory New York Mills, NY, not too far from where I live. I believe the factory was at the location of the current Mohawk Valley Knitting Machinery Co, on Main Street, although I am not 100% sure.

Finney once visited the factory to see the machinery… All of the workers knew who he was. One lady, who saw him as she was working, made a rude comment to her neighbor then laughed. Mr. Finney stopped and looked at her with sorrow in his eyes. She stopped working, breaking her thread. She then became so upset that she could not repair the thread and start again. Trying to calm herself, she looked out the window. But again and again, her emotions got the best of her. Finally she sat down and cried.

I wouldn't say any rude comments, if I was you...

Mr. Finney then approached her and spoke with her. She soon showed a deep sense of sin. The feeling spread through the establishment like fire, and in a few hours almost every person employed there was under conviction. The feeling was so pervasive that the owner, though a worldly man, was astounded and stopped all work to hold a prayer meeting.

In the owner’s opinion, it was a great deal more important to have these people converted than to continue production. In a few days, the owner and nearly all the employees (about 3,000) were fully converted.

That was what it meant to get a “burned-over district.”

Finney reported in his book:

This spread through the factory. The owner was there, and seeing the state of things he said to the foreman, “Stop the mill and let the people attend to religion. It is more important that our souls be saved than that this factory run.” The factory was shut down and I scarcely ever saw a more powerful meeting than that one. It was a huge building and many people worked there. The revival went through the mill with incredible power, and in a few days nearly everybody there was converted.

Dr. Lansing, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Auburn, [a small town in western New York] came to Utica to see the revival there. He urged me to go and minister for a time with him and I agreed. But when I arrived in Auburn in 1826, I found that some of the professors in the theological seminary there were taking a hostile attitude to the revival…

I had been aware that a large number of ministers east of Utica were writing letters about the revivals, and taking a hostile stand against them. But until I came to Auburn I was not fully aware of the amount of opposition I was destined to meet from these ministers – who did not personally know me but were influenced by false reports. Soon after I arrived in Auburn I learned that a secret network was developing with the aim of uniting the ministers and churches to hedge me in, and prevent the revivals from spreading.

It makes me angry that modern pseudo-historians include the kooky cults of Upstate New York and consider them a part of the “burned-over district,” too. Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and John Humphrey Noyes were not in any way part of Finney’s revivals. New York State was not consumed with Mormonism or communal socialism. As a matter of fact, these groups were chased out of towns for “corrupting public morals.” The Mormons fled for Utah, and the Noyes group dissolved into chaos. Finney was a preacher of Jesus Christ according to the holy scriptures. Big, big difference. I think it’s wicked to pervert history like that. Lies!

That verse in Jeremiah that I quoted above is from Jeremiah 23. In the same chapter, it says this (and this is how I feel about the “burned-over district” now):

Concerning the prophets: My heart is broken within me; all my bones tremble. I am like a drunken man, like a man overcome by wine, because of the Lord and his holy words. The land is full of adulterers; because of the curse, the land lies parched, and the pastures in the desert are withered. The [prophets] follow an evil course and use their power unjustly. β€œBoth prophet and priest are godless; even in my temple I find their wickedness,” declares the Lord. Jeremiah 23:9-11

If you want to read a little more, there’s a very good and brief essay about Finney, his work, and his detractors at Christianity Today.

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5 Responses to “WFW: The Burned-Over District”

  1. Penny Raine Says:

    Just thinking the other day how desperately I long to be in a move of God like that. It is the ultimate in encouragement. I have seen a few but not as big as that. And have you read about the Hebrides Revival with Duncan Campbell? I have a recording about it by him. Folks threw themselves on the altar crying that Hell was too good for them. Real repentance is a sign of real conversion. We don’t see real stuff often enough. While one salvation is every bit as good as a thousand there is just something about the presence of the Lord moving through a community like that. Bring it here Jesus!

  2. Lisa Says:

    UGH! I hate it when media and non-Christians throw Christians in with every “religious” group out there.

  3. akaGaGa Says:

    It’s been a while since I read Finney’s memoirs, but I remember that story well – and I confess, with a little envy. I’m with Penny: Bring it here Jesus!

    Alas, Jeremiah’s laments are more in tune with upstate New York today.

    The thing that bothers me about Finney, though, is that he bounced back and forth between Troy and Utica – and never once landed in the space in between, which is where I happen to live. What, have we got leprosy or something? πŸ™‚

  4. Karen Says:

    How interesting! Can you imagine the revival in their hearts? LOL at your LOL at the politicians and bankers.

  5. Miss Szymanski Says:

    I LOVE hearing stories like that. I agree: Bring it here, Jesus! But can you imagine what would happen if we all were “in tune” with the Holy Spirit as Finney was? Anything is possible to him who believes.

    My mother used to read us a pamphlet that she had chronicling some of the stories from Finney’s revival in New York; we used to sit around the dinner table and talk about it. It was fascinating to hear! My mother still has the worn pamphlet some where. I should snoop around and see if I can find it — I better not; she’d probably never see it again if I did! πŸ˜‰