What Caused the New York Burned Over District?

ABSTRACT: Emotional crusade evangelism in the Burned Over District destroyed the American Dream by replacing New England’s original covenant to govern by God’s law, with an exclusively personal conversion. This led to single issue social crusades at the expense of cultural reformation. It created a spirit of ultraistic willingness to do battle with a multitude of social problems, such as temperance, slavery as sin, feminism, and utopian socialist experiments. That often led to various cults,  Mormonism, Millerism, and Premillennialism, instead of institutional reconstruction based on the law of God. We must understand this in order to know what God is expecting of our efforts at reform. He promises blessing for obedience.

Competing Philosophies

The Pilgrims were not the only group who saw America as a Shining City Set on a Hill, an example of how to start over from scratch “and get it right this time.”  The earliest colonial charters at Jamestown (1607) and Plymouth (1620) required organization under a socialist model.  This caused mass starvation.  Later migrations (1629-1640) learned little by example.  Each town had a shared grazing “commons,” price controls, and a social organization based on geography rather than Biblical family units of 10, 50, 100, etc.  This, plus other problems transformed young, disenchanted, third generation Puritans into impressionable Yankees in search of raw land in New York. Thus, the Burned Over District was vulnerable to the emotionalism of Charles Finney’s Second Great Awakening.

The Virginia colony had been set up in 1607 with a contrary worldview. Francis Bacon, the likely author of the Shakespeare plays, according to https://sirbacon.org, shared his Rosicrucean vision of the New World in New Atlantis.  He spoke of futurist science that was revealed to him way ahead of his time. This required a mix of Christian and Classical allusions in the plays to mask his esoteric tendencies.

Calvinism Compromised

In 1787, James Madison carried this, pragmatic, pluralistic mindset into America’s founding document.  Jefferson, Franklin, Washington and others were all members of the fraternity.  This arcane movement attacked the Shining City (by now cut off from Bible law) in a variety of other ways behind the scenes.  The murder of Captain William Morgan in 1826 for his threatened expose of the lodge fueled great alarm. This sparked a decade-long, political reaction (1826-40) from the “Anti-Masonic Party.” 

The vigorous Calvinism of Knox’s Scottish Reformation was dissipated early on. This erosion was formalized in 1787 when the Presbyterians removed the civil magistrate’s duty to uphold God’s law from the Westminster Confession.  The spirit of common-sense rationalism from the Right-wing Enlightenment was their undoing. And the undoing of America. After that capitulation, Rosicrucian mantras of separation of church and state, feminism, and free will wrapped New York culture up in a psychological straight jacket.  Religious enthusiasm, unregulated by God’s law, led to single-issue social crusades and ultimately to Civil War. In the aftermath of the War came a reactionary swing toward extreme secularism, reinforced by Article VI of the U.S. Constitution.

I. Introduction

A. Burned-Over District Philosophic Seedbed of Modern America

The Burned-Over District was focused in upper and western New York state. The words “Burned Over District” refer to a region saturated by personal religious revival and spiritual fervor waiting for an outlet. This spirit of Ultraism created radical philosophical shifts that transformed modern America. It was a melting pot of ideas that bred seismic cultural fissures that remain today. Billy Sunday and Billy Graham were later manifestations in the 20th Century. It took the form of religious movements, utopian conclaves, and social crusades, all grist for the nation’s emerging civil religion. Charles Finney’s Second Great Awakening in 1826 and again in 1831 rode a wave of smaller revivals that started in 1800. These crusades ignited unmatched spiritual fervor that made Jonathan Edwards seem tame by comparison. Traditional Christianity and culture was left in the revivalist dust.

Beyond religious fervor, the Burned-Over District shaped a variety of intellectual currents. Most of these had a socialistic flavor, carried over from New England. Movements like abolitionism and radical feminism arose with not much reference to Biblical norms. The spark of innovation and dissent, common to third generation Puritans fueled the birth of various “isms.” These included socialism, Premillennialism, and other cultic ideas. These diverse philosophies became a toxic mix of counterindications, mostly incompatible with orthodox Christianity and culture.

B. Influence of Diverse “isms” Rooted in this Region

1. Why Not Peaceful Resolution?

As noted, The influence of The Burned-Over District’s religious enthusiasm touched every aspect of contemporary American life. It spawned urgent Social and political movements unwilling to wait for the leavening influence of the Bible on cultural institutions. For example, about 20 other nations had peacefully eradicated slavery during this same time period. America was the only nation agitated into a devastating war by radicals like John Brown and William Lloyd Garrison. First came temperance, then socialism, and ultimately Civil War. This is a badge of shame, not of honor.

2. war leads to centralization

The Civil War in turn led to a centralizing tendency in American government. If the kingdom and rule of Christ is delayed, per Premillenialism, demogogues such as Abraham Lincoln step up to take His place. Pharisaic traditions of men replace Biblical moral and economic injunctions. This explains why the Burned-Over District became a testing ground for so many utopian experiments. These included the notorious Oneida Community and Brook Farm, among many others. Virtually all of them read socialism into the Bible’s voluntary sharing in times of emergency.

The pervasive impact of the diverse “isms” took root and flowered in the cultural and artistic realms as well. After the Bible the New England Yankees loved their Shakespeare. The esoteric allusions in the plays, often attributed to Francis Bacon, entered from New England as well as Virginia. Together they contributed to the radical intellectual tapestry.

Although most Christians did not recognize it at the time, the Constitution James Madison bequeathed to them had no Biblical foundation. Madison’s Supremacy Clause in Article VI gradually eroded the Biblical cultural foundations of the first generation Puritans. The Constitution makes itself “the highest law of the land,” with no reference to any higher law of God. These radical ideas incubated in the Burned Over District and then fanned out from New York. In general, they migrated due west through the Northern tier of states during the Pioneer era.

3. Character of the Out-Goers

The vast majority of the “out-goers” were third-generation New Englanders, for whom there was very little land left to settle by the time of their maturity. Most had barely reached their 20th year, so were young and impressionable, New Light disciples of Jonathan Edwards. They were thus more susceptible to Enlightment currents of psychology that were stirring in the 18th Century than their 17th Century, Puritan grandparents. The First generation settlers failed to organize Biblically by families — tens, fifties, hundreds. Instead, they organized geographically in pie-shaped slices around the towns. This and other factors encouraged their grandchildren to split off to the West.

Most departed from Western Massachusetts, Western Connecticut, or Western Vermont. The latter skirted the Adirondack Mountains to settle in Jefferson or St. Lawrence Counties. Others came directly West over the Catskills and some North from Pennsylvania along the Suhannasque River. The latter brought the Quaker penchant for resistance to Puritan orthodoxy. When the Erie Canal came in 1825 they flooded West in droves to settle on the Ontario Plain north of the canal or the Genessee River Valley and eventually beyond. Macbeth and Hamlet were among the most popular books read in 1600s New England, after the Bible. Thus, they were filled to the brim with Yankee moral aspirations — vestiges of their Calvinist upbringing — and a lust for adventure.

II. Cultural Experiments in Puritan Massachusetts

A. Jamestown and Plymouth Socialism and Mass Starvation

Jamestown and Plymouth were organized on socialist models required by their Charters and faced dire consequences. In Jamestown, the emphasis on communal property hindered individual initiative leading to widespread hardship. Starvation loomed as colonists struggled with inefficiencies inherent in the collective approach. Likewise, Plymouth’s initial Charter mandated communal living.  This contributed to the infamous winter of 1620 when nearly half the settlers perished due to scarcity from lack of personal responsibility. On Thanksgiving Day they huddled around a table with a few kernals of corn on each plate.

B. Boston Puritans Repeat the Socialist Folly

The Great Migration of Puritans fleeing Stuart persecution started a decade later. They learned nothing from the Pilgrim disaster. The shared grazing commons in early Puritan Massachusetts created the same problems. When everybody is responsible to maintain the fences, nobody is responsible. With no incentive for responsible land use, overgrazing was inevitable, which harmed both livestock and the community. Price controls, intended to ensure fairness, disrupted market dynamics and stifled economic growth. As noted above, non-Biblical social organization, based on geography rather than Biblical family units of tens, fifties, hundreds, etc., eroded family loyalty.  This fostered discontent and instability. It lingers today in the American tradition that 18-year-olds must get out on their own.

C. From Puritans to Yankees in Burned-Over District

By the 3rd generation, discontent with Massachusetts society compelled third generation Puritans to migrate westward. In the process they became self-sufficient and self-righteous Yankees with a more secularized mindset. Jonathan Edwards individualized preaching reinforced this perspective. Seeking fresh opportunities, they ventured into the untamed wilds of New York state.  Here they hoped to establish settlements based on more individualistic lifestyles.

This westward movement marked a cultural and ideological shift as they distanced themselves from the faltering society of their Puritan forebearers. Women were more housebound in those days, which fostered female involvement and leadership in church. They were also more available to participate in the various cultural issues of the day, especially the temperance movement. All of this contributed to the feminization of American life. A stigma against church and religion for men insinuated itself. Church was for girls and sissies.

D. Socialist Tendencies Imported to New York

A number of notable figures encouraged the migration of socialist tendencies from Massachusetts to New York. For example, Robert Owen was a successful Welsh industrialist and utopian socialist who established the community of New Harmony in 1825. New Harmony symbolized the persistant influence of communual ideologies, although it was short-lived. In addition, the Oneida Community, founded by John Humphrey Noyes, blended socialism with religious fervor.  This too, reflected the enduring impact of early communal experiments on New York’s economic landscape. This tradition emerged again a century later in Franklin Roosevelt’s economic New Deal during the Great Depresion of the 1930s.

It is ironic how many successful free market entrepreneurs answered the siren song of socialism. Another example is an Oneida member who invented an ingenious small animal trap, that the community manufactured and sold.  Thus, this colony lasted quite a while longer.  Not pure socialism.  The same was true of the Amana colony in Iowa which prospered until a significant percent of malingerers arose to undermine productivity. Thus, Amana appliances was forced to go public in the early 20th Century.  Also, not pure socialism.  Again, America as a whole learned nothing, adopting a so-called “mixed economy” that is now about to implode in the early years of the 21st Century.

III. Alternative Worldviews in Virginia

A. Francis Bacon and the Shakespeare plays

The Shakespeare plays, often ascribed to Francis Bacon and his studio of authors, reflect a curious fusion of Christian and Classical allusions. We have, for example, in “Hamlet,” Shakespeare employing Christian themes like moral redemption alongside Classical elements such as revenge.  This intricate blend of worldviews was necessary for Bacon to transmit his Roscicrucean philosophy without arousing suspicion in Christian London. 

Bacon was a visionary thinker who wove esoteric symbolism into his works hand in hand with Biblical words and themes. This subtle blend conveyed a worldview with humanist doctrines camouflaged by spiritual themes for a generally Christian audience.  In a nutshell, it revived aspirations for a humanistic Tower of Babel, rising to challenge God in the heavens. Much can be accomplished by the charm of classical poetry that would be rejected in a more prosaic format. This imprinted an indelible mark on the cultural tapestry of Virginia, that was carried over to the nation as a whole, especially in 1787.  This “God-Language” and architecture is why so many Christians are deceived about the true philosophy on which our institutions are built.

B. Bacon’s New Atlantis in 1607 Jamestown

Francis Bacon’s Rosicrucian vision, as articulated in New Atlantis, was the impetus for the colonization of Jamestown in 1607.  Bacon organized this in Elizabethan London and somehow arranged the funding. Many of the “gentleman pioneers” refused to work and almost died, but were rescued by the tobacco of colonist John Rolfe. Sweet Tobacco plants thrived in the streets and cemetaries of Jamestown and were soon being marketed in the streets of London. Bacon’s futuristic ideas included visions of advanced science he had received from “friendly angels.” These were a guiding beacon for the fraternal lodges of many of the early settlers.  This gave birth to the Anti-Masonic Political Party in the early 1800s.

C. Fatal Amendment of Westminster Confession

1. Scottish Rationalism

Infected by Scottish rationalism of the right-wing, Enlightenment, Presbyterians in 1787 voted to remove  the magistrate’s duty to uphold God’s law from the Westminster Confession.  This  dealt a death blow to the nation.  It occurred during the same summer and same city as the Constitutional Convention, convened just across town in Philadelphia. This alien philosophy was transplanted to Amerca by Pastor John Witherspoon when he was invited to be Princeton President in 1768. It was just in time to adulterate the thinking of some 50 of America’s founding fathers and the Presbyterian General Assembly.

It bears repeating.  In 1787, removal of the civil leader’s duty to enforce God’s law from the original Westminster Confession, was concurrent with the Constitutional Conclave in Philadelphia. The latter also excluded the duty to enforce God’s law that was found in earlier colonial Charters, such as the Massachusetts Body of Liberties.

2. Theological Suicide

This theological shift, just across town from the Convention, was a suicidal retreat from explicit biblical foundations. It paved the way for a secular model of government for both church and state in America. The dreadful consequences are felt to this very day. 

Average Americans, mostly Calvinist in theology, had no idea the extent of the damage.  It was transmitted by Pastor John Witherspoon’s senior class lectures on principles of the secular social contract at Princeton.  By this means, over 50 of America’s founders graduated from Witherspoon’s Moral Philosophy class and were thus infected by the Right-Wing Enlightenment. This was the work of philosopher Thomas Reid in Scotland.

D. Fatal Amendment of the Articles of Confederation

The newly minted Constitution duplicated the same fatal error. James Madison, the Father of the Constitution, introduced a pragmatic, pluralistic mindset into America’s founding document.  This pluralism was based on a social contract in the Preamble. It excluded the oath-bound commitment to Bible law.

And so, the emphasis shifted to a social contract, creating a nation built on humanistic compromise rather than strict adherence to the freedom of biblical law. This transformation excluded an oath-bound commitment to biblical law in Article VI.  The Constitution itself is made “the supreme law of the land.” These features reflected the evolving ethos of the Enlightenment era and guaranteed future disaster. And finally, the exclusion of all religious tests of fidelity to God’s law in Article VI sealed the tragic deal.

E. Elevation of Lodge Members to Social Leadership

1. Favoritism for Lodge Members

As noted above, Arcane fraternal lodges, with members like Thomas Jefferson, infiltrated societal leadership positions. The esoteric beliefs and fraternal rituals permeated influential circles. From these positions of authority they manipulated the strings of power. This infiltration, veiled in secrecy, marked a departure from overtly Christian government.  Thus, they could harness the levers of power, including the courtroom, for the benefit of lodge members who knew the signals.  For example, one judge was reported to have recoiled in shock when a convicted murderer stood before him for sentencing and flashed the sign of a brother lodge member.  By contrast Jesus spoke openly, but in parables that could only be understood by believers.

2. Thomas Jefferson Illuminism

Thomas Jefferson’s lodge membership illustrates the extent to which this arcane influence could extend into the leadership fabric of the culture. Their esoteric rituals and beliefs shaped Jefferson’s worldview and political decisions.  All of which, makes Christian claims that Jefferson’s mention of God in the Declaration of Independence reflects a Biblical worldview, ring hollow. It betrays extreme naïveté.

Thomas Jefferson was indeed a high ranking lodge member. He was initiated at Fredericksburg, Virginia in 1768. The design of his personal seal is an example of Jefferson’s devotion to the Lodge. This seal prominently features symbols, such as the all-seeing eye and the pyramid, reflecting their influence on his personal and political decision-making.

In addition, some historians suggest that Jefferson’s emphasis on Enlightenment ideals in the Declaration of Independence, may have emerged from the philosophy associated with Freemasonry. This includes human rights, human reason, radical separation of church and state, with liberty apart from God’s law. It’s essential to note that lodge influence on individuals can vary. Lower degrees are generally uninformed about upper degrees. However, the blood-curdling oaths at every degree leave little room for excuse. But Jefferson’s  affiliation is an historical example of how Freemasonry could influence prominent figures. 

IV. Cultural Values in Burned-Over District

A. Murder of Captain Morgan and the Anti-Masonic Party

The murder of Captain William Morgan in 1826, for his threat to reveal Masonic secrets, fueled the rise of the Anti-Masonic Party between 1826 and 1835. The public was shocked into awareness of the existence of secret societies and their potential threat to the concept of justice in government. The appeal was to transparency and accountability. Very few, if any, could trace the origin back to Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis and its rule by a bureaucracy of scientific elite called Salomon’s House.

As noted, Captain William Morgan’s mysterious disappearance after exposing Masonic secrets led to the formation of the Anti-Masonic Party. This party had significant influence on elections and shaping public discourse against secret societies for about a decade.  The lodge was driven into hiding for a time, but memories are short, and eventually it revived.  In like manner, many suspected the existence of a scientific elite behind the Covid panic of 2020.

B.  Baptists and Methodist Armenianism

1. God’s First Choice

That same timeframe witnessed deterioration of staunch Calvinist theology from John Knox’s Scottish Reformation in the late 1500s.  Calvinism’s grip on New York’s religious landscape gave way, evolving towards a more man-centered, Armenian view of salvation. Jesus had told his disciples that “ye have not chosen Me, but I chose you and ordained you…” Elsewhere the Bible says, “There is none that seeketh God, no not one.” Nonetheless, Baptists and Methodists embraced the more popular idea of free will. Thus, they elevated the sovereignty of man above that of God. 

But, it is a question of whose will is prior and supreme — God’s or Man’s. Thus, the influence of these two denominations burgeoned, reflecting a broader cultural shift towards individual agency in religious matters. Ironically the formerly “reformed” Presbyterians initiated the enthusiastic revivals in Eastern New York state.

2. Potter and Clay

Passages like Romans 9 and Jeremiah 18 give us the picture of God as a potter, who shapes vessels for different purposes. As uncomfortable as we might be with this idea, Paul in Romans 9:21 asks who is the pot to challenge the potter. This of course complies with Rosicrucean doctrines of free will and feminist objections to God’s created order.

These subtleties appear only with a careful study of Bible doctrine, which the Presbyterians required of their clergy. This of course, put them behind in the race to evangelize the West. And so, this shift transformed religious attitudes and actions in America. It fostered a more participatory and individualistic approach to the Christian faith.  The concept of “Christendom” faded from the collective Christian consciousness, and with it the idea of God’s law as the foundation of the nation’s criminal justice system.  This departure from His law is the one thing that God will not tolerate. We see this in passages like Deuteronomy 29, Leviticus 26, and Matthew 5:17-20.  

C. Land Speculation and Fractional Reserve Banking

Land speculation, driven by the allure of leveraged prosperity, flourished in New York. Fractional reserve banking emerged as a financial strategy with formation of the Bank of England in 1694.   This allowed ambitious land projects to be funded beyond immediate availability of capital. This illustrated the apparent transformative power of economic practices on cultural values.  Little thought was given as to how these practices were violating Biblical principles of “just weights and measures” and “the seven year limit” on debt. Jonathan Edwards had called attention to the underlying covetousness, but failed to address the need for institutional Reformation.

In the 19th century, land speculation in New York and projects like the Erie Canal, relied on fractional reserve banking. This financial strategy allowed investors to fund large-scale ventures beyond their immediate capital.  This corrupt “American System” was promoted by Senator Henry Clay. Subsequently, it was championed by railroad lobbyist, Abraham Lincoln, who was since elevated to the level of sainthood by the financial elites. This greed, of course, led to the Civil War and the explosion of crony capitalism in the 20th century.

D. Erie Canal Influence in Burned-Over District

The Erie Canal, completed in 1825, revolutionized trade by linking the Atlantic to the Great Lakes. This economic artery transformed Northwestern New York into a commercial hub, attracting diverse demographics. Some New York towns evolved into commercial hubs, while others were industrial focused. The latter focused on processing raw materials from their rural hinterlands.  The canal’s impact on transportation and commerce reshaped cultural values, fostering economic prosperity and cultural exchange.  This was perhaps the only successful canal project of the period. However, Its utility has been questioned because it was rendered worthless by the railroads within about a decade.

Emotional, religious Ultraism tended to flourish with a booming economy and died down during economic hard times.  This was in part due to the ability of wealthy Christians such as the Tappan Brothers to fund the itinerate pastors and their projects.  Nonetheless, completion of the Erie Canal transformed New York into a bustling trade hub. The canal encouraged the mixing of people from various backgrounds who migrated to take advantage of economic opportunities, thus reshaping the cultural fabric. For a while this stimulated a mini anti-Catholicism “ism” and social crusade.

E. Feminism and Woman’s Predominance in Churches

Feminism flourished in New York, because of women’s active roles and leadership in religious settings. The predominance of women in churches challenged traditional gender roles, contributing to feminism in the broader culture. Ultimately, this created the impression that Christianity was not a man’s religion. 

Women taking leadership roles in churches, propelled feminism in New York. For example, women like Sarah J. Hale, editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, advocated for women’s rights and challenged societal expectations.  Such women took the lead in the temperance movement until it was nudged aside by the “slavery as sin” juggernaut. This shift was due to the Immediate Emancipation demands of William Lloyd Garrison and John Brown. 

That fact that at least 4 New Testament books gave rules for regulating slavery and pointedly did not make it an occasion for warfare evaded the Enlightenment do-gooders.  They also gave no thought to the purpose of the Old Testament system of slavery (indentured servitude). This was/is God’s alternative to the contemptible prison system championed by the Quakers.  Here we have the tragic result of Connecticut’s rejection of the religious test oath for leadership back in the mid-1600s. Anyboy’s crackpot ideas may be adopted if unleashed from the oath-bound commitment to the specifics of Bible law. But God will not be mocked.

F. “Common School” Secularization of America

The government-sponsored “common schools” had a profound impact on religion, as education became more secularized. This cultural shift, inititated in New York, reflected broader trends across America. It marked a transition towards a more pluralistic and secular society and endless bickering over whose religious views would prevail in the schools.

And so, the introduction of “common schools” in New York, funded by the government, had a profound impact on Christianity. The secularization of education accelerated the shift toward a more inclusive and diverse cultural landscape in America.  Sadly, the bitter fruit of the church’s surrender of her Great Commission teaching role is now coming to fruition in 2024. Incredibly, the schools have degenerated to the point of gender role confusion and mutilation of children in the public schools.

V. Social and Religious Turmoil

in the Burned-Over District

A. Precursors to revival in Burned-Over District

The Burned-Over District’s social and religious turmoil had precursors, including the Great Revival of 1800. Other factors included the transformative impact of the Erie Canal, and the dynamic interplay between rural and urban lifestyles. With the industrial revolution well underway, countless farm boys headed for the city to ride the wave of “progress.” In addition, Mission groups further fueled the region’s spiritual fervor. Thus, it created a climate ripe for spiritual awakening, especially in cities along the canal route, and in the Genesee River valley running North toward Rochester.

B. Finney’s Second Great Awakening

Charles Finney burst on the scene with his initial call to emotional, personal salvation using “new methods.” Religious enthusiasm flowed East to West along the canal route, then southwest along the Genesee river system. It was these traditional farmers in the southwest who were especially vulnerable to emotional revivalism.   A number of Finney imitators sprang up as his attention gravitated toward population centers back east, notably New York.  Finney’s Second Great Awakening brought dynamic change, emphasizing emotional, personal salvation. Finney introduced innovative methods such as dramatic rhetorical techniques and woman’s prayer tactics.  The Apostle Paul’s simple delivery method was somehow lost in the shuffle.   

Imitators proliferated, employing Finney’s techniques, expanding the revivalist fervor and altering the religious landscape.  Other techniques used emotionally charged sermons and “new methods,” like the “anxious bench” to spark mass conversions. Imitators adopted these techniques, amplifying the fervor of the 2nd Great Awakening to engage recalcitrant men.  Following two great revival campaigns in 1826 (east NY) and 1831 (west, Rochester), response cooled, giving rise to “the burned over district” and a spirit of expectant Ultraism.  According to Whitney Cross’s “The Burned Over District,” Ultraism is a spirit of “increasingly radical religious beliefs, doctrines” on which to take decisive action.  This led to all the “isms” of the next phase.

C. Burned-Over District Cooperation to Competition

There was an Initial willingness of most denominations to cooperate in revival (Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterians, others). This spirit later became more competitive when response grew more tepid.  Initially, denominations like Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians collaborated in revival efforts, fostering a sense of unity. Later, this competition marked a shift from collective revival to denominational distinctiveness.

D.   Finney Moderates in Response to Ultraism

Finney’s gradual moderation and shift of congregations toward Ultraism (readiness for application) resulted in a variety of abnormalities. These included cults, Mormonism, Millerism, and Premillennialism.  The lack of systematic Bible study was bearing bitter fruit. It led to a variety of social crusades such as abolitionism, temperance, feminism, and socialism.

Finney’s methods gradually evolved, shifting congregations towards Ultraism and practical applications. This shift manifested in the emergence of the above-mentioned, social campaigns. All these campaigns reflected the region’s evolving religious and social attitudes. 

E. Religious Enthusiasm in Burned Over District

The consequences of unregulated religious enthusiasm are new, usually heterodox, ideas about religion and its applications.  Unfortunately, it birthed novel religious ideas and applications, fueling the rise of cults, radical social movements, and diverse expressions of faith. These left an enduring impact on American religious thought.

For example, The Shakers, an ecstatic religious sect, emerged, emphasizing communal living and celibacy as a consequence of this fervent spiritual climate.  This religious enthusiasm is the consequence of ignoring or refusing to self-consciously build a nation and culture on an oath-bound commitment to the law of God. The Presbyterians cut their own throat in their 1787 modification of the Westminster Confession of Faith. They released the magistrate from obligation to the law of God, which sent the nation careening down a path of political and social anarchy.

VI. From Burned-Over District, to Temperance,

to Slavery as Sin and Civil War

A. Rosicrucian Mantras Impact Burned-Over District

Returning to Virginia, the pervasive influence of Rosicrucian mantras was diffused throughout the colonies and deeply impacted the Burned-Over District and New York’s culture. For example, Rosicrucian ideals influenced women’s rights advocate Matilda Joslyn Gage. She impacted the feminist movement in New York and contributed to the evolving cultural narrative.

The esoteric ideals of radical separation of church and state, feminism, and free will wrapped the region in a psychological straightjacket. This mindset, rooted in arcane dogma, contributed to a heightened sense of Yankee individualism and obstinate departure from traditional religious norms.

B. Religious Enthusiasm and Civil War

Religious enthusiasm in the Burned-Over District, divorced from a foundation in God’s law, had tragic consequences. The fervor, unchecked by specifics of Biblical law, played a role in fueling the tensions that ultimately erupted into the Civil War. Way too many Christians were responding emotionally to Enlightenment concepts of human rights. These Christians were neglecting Ephesians, Colossians, Philemon, or other specific Bible instructions about the question of slavery.  The lack of a shared ethical framework contributed to the deepening divide between regions.  The fiery rhetoric of abolitionist movements was influenced by religious fervor, but lacked a unified Bible law foundation. Thus, they escalated tensions that ultimately ignited the Civil War. In spite of this, slavery was not a defining issue in most Northern states. This is proven by Black Codes in the North which reflected discriminary attitudes of most Northerners toward freed blacks.

C. Moral Reformation vs. True Conversion

Revival without Reformation leads to perfectionism, premillennial pessimism, and pressure for Utopia NOW.  The Burned-Over District witnessed a tension between moral reformation and true conversion. For example, perfectionism and premillennial pessimism fueled a fervent desire for immediate utopia. This pressure for immediate societal transformation, grounded in religious fervor led to problems. It created an atmosphere where the pursuit of perfection often clashed with the complexities of human nature and societal structures.

For example, The Oneida Community in the Burned-Over district was driven by perfectionist ideals and premillennial pessimism. It sought immediate utopia through communal living and complex social structures such as communism of wives.

D. Burned-Over District Political Realignment

The religious and social upheavals in the Burned-Over District prompted a realignment of political parties. Issues like temperance, abolition, and women’s rights gained prominence, leading to a shifting political landscape.

For example, Post-Civil War, the Constitution’s interpretation shifted.  New Supreme Court rulings reinforced a strict separation of church and state, marking a decisive turn toward extreme secularism.  In addition, the Bill of Rights, originally intended to restrict the Federal government, was turned upside down to apply primarily to the states.  Moreover, the emergence of the Free Soil Party represented anti-slavery sentiments in the Burned-Over District. This partisanship highlighted the realignment of political parties around critical moral and social issues in this region.

E. Constitutional Secularism after Civil War

Post-Civil War, the reaction to the religious fervor of the Burned-Over District manifested in extreme secularism. The Constitution, supposedly a document aimed at balancing government and religious freedom, became a tool for divorcing public life from religious influence. This shift marked a significant turn toward a more secular and pluralistic society, setting a new course for the nation’s cultural and political trajectory. Such Pluralism is a recipe for endless quarelling and social unrest.

This was the result of a Preamble whose governing authority was “we the people” with no reference to God.  It was reinforced by Article VI prohibition of a religious test oath and the provision making “this Constitution the supreme law of the land” to the exclusion of the “higher law of God.”  And finally, the First Amendment, clause 1, institutionalized political pluralism, aka political polytheism, in America life. This violated the First Commandment: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”

These and other features make the U.S. Constitution a radical severing of covenant with the Triune God of the Bible.  American Christians are loathe to admit this, blaming our current cultural meltdown on departure from the alleged Christian Constitution. Such blindness is the inevitable result of rejecting the law of the Lord: “The Lord will smite you with madness and with blindness and with bewilderment of heart”….(Dt. 28:28).

In 2024 the cultural “chickens” are finally coming home to roost. America evangelicals have not yet come to grips with this reality, which stands in he way of meaninful reform. God simply will not bless any such rejection of His governing authority.

VII. Lessons for the Future

A. Bible-law Reformation for the Entire Culture

Placing emphasis on a comprehensive Bible-law reformation is  paramount, as opposed to a limited personal revival. For instance, consider how even limited adherence to God’s law, as seen in early colonial charters, created stability and prosperity. Needed is a holistic transformation, building on individual salvation to encompass societal structures. 

Turning to the Bible, Romans chapter 7 tells that the entire creation groans in anticipation of revealing of the sons of God. Christ died to redeem the entire realm of creation back to Himself, not just sinful mankind.  However, when we focus selfishly only on our personal salvation we deny Him His rightful Kingship.  Jesus is Prophet, Priest, and King.  Instead, we prefer to focus on the Priestly role, and defer His Kingship into the distant future.  But, when we deny the practical kingship of Christ, we end up in a Burned-Over, cultural wilderness such as in 19th Century New York and 21st Century America.  

By contrast, the Plymouth Colony, founded on biblical principles, experienced stability and prosperity when they abandoned the socialist model for Biblical free exchange.   Likewise, the Mayflower Compact outlined government under God with a comprehensive Bible law reformation.  The New Testament Book of Acts mentions the phrase “Kingdom of God” almost 20 times.  In fact, the very last verse of the book draws a distinction between evangelism and kingdom building.  Describing Paul’s last two years in Rome, he was “preaching the kingdom of God, and teaching concerning the Lord Jesus Christ with all openness, unhindered” (Acts 28:31).

B. Personal Revival and Isolated Social Crusades

For these reasons, avoiding exclusively personal revival and isolated social crusades is crucial for sustained cultural development. We’ve seen how fervent religious enthusiasm led to fragmented social movements in the Burned Over District and to Civil War. Focus instead on a balanced approach that integrates personal, spiritual revival with a comprehensive societal vision based on the specifics of Bible law. The Mosaic covenant of Exodus 20-24 summarizes this.

The culmination of the Burned-Over District’s isolated social issue crusades was the abolitionist movement.  Rejecting the Biblical instruction about slavery, the abolitionists plunged the nation into a devastating Civil War.  Had they proceeded patiently they could have abolished chattel slavery gradually following the example of about 20 other nations during that same period.  Yet even today we have some Christian leaders pointing to the Civil War as a shining example of the only nation in history, where a nation went to war against itself to free another segment of society.  On the contrary, the U.S. was the only nation in the world that didn’t have the maturity to resolve the issue peacefully.

C. Blessing for Obedience to God’s Law

The Proverb tells us that “he who turns away his ear from hearing the law, even his prayer will be an abomination.”  Deuteronomy 28 promises national blessing for obedience to God’s law and cursing for disobedience.  America’s fate was sealed in the summer of 1787. Both the national civil charter and the national church charter — the Constitution and the Westminster Confession of Faith, respectively – rejected the law of God that year.

VIII. Conclusion

A. Burned-Over District Recap

The key point is the impact of religious fervor on societal transformations and their political consequences in the Burned-Over District. The economic impact of the Erie Canal and the ill-fated temperance and abolition movements underscore the far-reaching implications of replacing Biblical law with religious enthusiasm.

B. Bible-law Cultural Reform

A comprehensive Bible-law reformation emerges as the call to action. Drawing from the lessons of the Burned-Over District, the challenge is to proactively shape the future by anchoring cultural, religious, and political dimensions in the enduring principles of God’s law. It’s the only way to recover a sustainable future.

Imperfect as they were, many of the early colonial charters provided a foundation for a thriving society.  Looking back to our roots, we must pray and labor for a comprehensive Bible-law reformation in order to truly experience the blessings of liberty. 


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