Souvenirs of Yesteryear: The Burned-over District

How many churches do we really need? All we can get, might be one very appropriate answer. However, do more churches mean more churchgoers? Probably not. Churches, like any other organizations, compete for market share, so some pull in many worshipers while others end up with empty pews.

Our earliest settlers built churches, lots of them. It seems as if every little dinky hamlet had a church. I used to attribute this activity to a social need for a communal center. But then I read the 1950 book by Whitney R. Cross, “The Burned-over District. The Social and Intellectual History of Enthusiastic Religion in Western New York, 1800-1850.”

The photo shows what I previously thought of as a burned-over district, a huge grass fire. This one occurred in the Town of Smithville on April 23. Once started, it spreads rapidly in all directions. This photo was snapped a week later and already new grass was sprouting.

Cross picked up on the analogy of a wildfire and applied it to religious fervor. The Burnt-over District is that part of New York State west of the Catskills and the Adirondacks (page 4). This broad area of enthusiastic religion occurred during the period 1800 through 1850 (page ix). He then goes on to describe how “the fires of the spirit swept over the area again and again”. The competition to save souls was remarkable as one denomination tried to out do the other. I would describe it in modern terms as an industrial strength feeding frenzy.

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