The Burned Over District


A map of the Burned Over District.

Several years ago, when I was studying for ordination in The Wesleyan Church, I came across the term “The Burned Over District.” Now being that I was working two jobs at the time and pastoring a church in the midst of my studying for ordination, I didn’t stop to look up the term.  This was in the days before we had always on, instant internet.  I was studying in my office at church, which means I would have had to get up, go back to the house, fire up the modem and do the search.  From my reading, I knew it was in the general vicinity of Western New York.

It has been over 10 years since I’ve been ordained, but this summer I heard the term again – in reference to the area that the Western New York District of the Wesleyan Church resides in, so when I got home from district conference, I looked it up.  Above you can see the area that is encompassed by the Burned-Over District.

The Burned-Over District is a phrase that was coined by Charles Finney during the Second Great Awakening.  He called it the Burned Over District because he felt the area had been so heavily evangelized that there was no more “fuel” left – that there was no one left to convert.  That’s an interesting concept, except that it really wasn’t true.  Western New York had been not evangelized any more heavily than say than the rest of New York or the Lower Ohio River Valley.

An interesting phenomenon is that during the 19th century, the Burned Over District was the home of much religious revival and social reform.  Interestingly enough, not only was the Burned Over District home to much religious revival, but it where many cults (those who practiced out of orthodox Christianity) got started.  The Later Day Saints movement started here, as well as the Millerite movement – which birthed the Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses and others.  The Shakers farmed in the area and Oneida Society established a community in Central New York.

I find all of this fascinating. Several weeks ago, I went to Syracuse to pick up my daughter and two children for a visit. Her husband was going to come down later.  I was well ahead of schedule, so I took the long way and drove through several historical towns.   The first was Waterloo – which claims that it is the birthplace of Memorial Day.  The second was Seneca Falls.  This is where the first meeting for Women’s Rights was held.  It was held in a Wesleyan Methodist Chapel.  The reproduced chapel sits right on Main Street.  Wesleyans were on the forefront of this social movement.  A Wesleyan, Luther Lee, preached at the first ordination of a woman in America.  Wesleyans were also on the forefront of the Abolitionist movement.  Again the Burned Over District was a place where this was a hot topic.  If I would have continued driving, I would have ended up in Auburn, NY, which was the home of Harriet Tubman – most of you know her as a key player in the Underground Railroad – which by the way – there were Wesleyan churches that served as stations on the Underground Railroad.

So, while we live just outside the Burned Over District, our church is influenced by it greatly.  Today, few would consider Western New York and even Central New York to be over evangelized.  Most Wesleyans wouldn’t consider it.  We have just 36 churches here in Western New York (and two counties in Pennsylvania.)  Our desire is for revival – our desire is to see a transforming presence in our churches and in our communities.  We need to continue to reach people for Jesus.  I love the fact that this region is the home of the Second Great Awakening – what if, this could be the home of the Third Great Awakening.  What if Western New York could be the place where reconciliation begins in our country.  I know that I am game for it.  The Kingdom needs it.  Let me finish with Jesus’s words from the sermon on the mount.  It is about what is needed if we are to bring His Kingdom to earth.

“God blesses those who are poor and realize their need for him,
    for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.
God blesses those who mourn,
    for they will be comforted.
God blesses those who are humble,
    for they will inherit the whole earth.
God blesses those who hunger and thirst for justice,
    for they will be satisfied.
God blesses those who are merciful,
    for they will be shown mercy.
God blesses those whose hearts are pure,
    for they will see God.
God blesses those who work for peace,
    for they will be called the children of God.
God blesses those who are persecuted for doing right,
    for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.

“God blesses you when people mock you and persecute you and lie about you and say all sorts of evil things against you because you are my followers. Be happy about it! Be very glad! For a great reward awaits you in heaven.

Matthew 5:3-12

There are people out there who need to hear about Jesus.  I know that I’ve quoted this several weeks in a row, but the vision of the Wesleyan Church is this:

Celebrating every time a disciple makes a disciple and a church multiplies itself until the Wesleyan Church has a transforming presence in every zip code.

I know that the Western New York region is far from being over-evangelized and I want to do my part and I desire to see McCrae Brook do its part in reaching our region for Jesus and to make disciples.


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