religion and the “burned-over district” — 9/30/14

Today’s selection — from The Metaphysical Club by Louis Menand. One of the most fervent outbursts of religion in American history was in western New York state during the Second Great Awakening (roughly 1790 to 1850). Nationally during this time, there was a profusion of new sects and denominations and the number of preachers per capita tripled. Western New York saw so many revivals and new sects, including Mormonism, that it became known as the “Burned-over district”:

counties of New York considered part of the “burned-over district

“‘There is no country in the world where the Christian religion retains greater influence over the souls of men than in America,’ wrote Alexis de Tocqueville, and the remark has been cited many times since as a rebuke to people who prefer to see a secular morality prevail in American public life. It’s true that the role of faith in the formation of American values can be underestimated by nonbelievers. But it’s also the case that when Tocqueville visited the United States, in 1831 and 1832, religious exuberance was at an unusual pitch. Even if Tocqueville had not been the amazingly quick study he was, he could scarcely have missed it.

“The Second Great Awakening, which had begun in New England at the turn of the century, had spread westward, spinning off denominations as it went. Between 1776 and 1845, the number of preachers per capita in the United States tripled. Methodism, in the eighteenth century an insignificant offshoot of Anglicanism, grew to become the largest church in the nation; Mormonism, the Disciples of Christ, Universalism, Adventism, Unitarianism, the many Baptist churches, and the African-American church — along with Transcendentalism and a number of spiritually based humanitarian movements, including abolitionism — all emerged in the same period. It was a sectarian frenzy.

1839 Methodist camp meeting

“It was also, taken as a whole, a mass movement, and its tenor was populist. As Protestant revivalisms tend to be, it was pointedly anticlerical, and it therefore mixed a great deal of popular superstition and folk therapeutics with traditional Christian mythology. From one point of view, the Second Great Awakening, which lasted from 1800 to the eve of the Civil War, was, as Tocqueville interpreted it, a kind of democratization of European Christianity, a massive absorption into American popular culture of the Protestant spiritual impulse, stripped of most of its traditional hierarchies and formalities. But from another point of view, it was the last blast of supernaturalism before science superseded theology as the dominant discourse in American intellectual life.

“For a dissolute young man looking to be struck by evangelical lightning in the 1830s, western New York State was the place to be. The spirit of revivalism had arrived there in the 1820s, and it persisted for so long and generated so many diverse sectarian waves that the region began to be called the ‘Burned-over District,’ or, sometimes, the ‘Infectious District.’ ”

The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America

Author: Louis Menand
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Copyright 2001 by Louis Menand
Pages: 80-81
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