Burned Over? Revivalism And Its Effects On The Local Church

Home / Articles / Jon Speed / Burned Over? Revivalism And Its Effects On The Local Church
Burned Over? Revivalism And Its Effects On The Local Church

The Erie Canal and Evangelicalism

Most students of church history and sound theology have opinions on what has brought about the current spiritual malaise in evangelicalism. I once heard a fellow speaker at an evangelism conference state that the modern church has not recovered from the 19th century as a whole. I don’t think I would go that far because of the ministries of men like Charles H. Spurgeon. Other men such as Archibald Alexander, Edward Payson, Asahel Nettleton, and Gardiner Spring had blessed ministries as well.

At least the speaker was on the right track. Speaking generally–since there were godly men doing amazing things during this time’American evangelicalism would be far better off (and the world as a whole since spreading this stuff is what we call missions) if we could have time warped past most of the 1820’s to the 1840’s. It’s true enough that heresies and errant methodologies developed well into the 20th century, but those abuses began or gained a head of steam during these earlier decades. And sadly for a son of Welsh and Scottish settlers in the area, these abuses found a greenhouse of activity in upstate New York.

Upstate New York is where I have spent most of my life and where my family on the Speed side can trace its heritage back to a family farm in Genesee County in 1850. I have ministered in churches in my hometown (Oakfield), and also in Rochester, a small town in Sullivan County (Callicoon) and now in Syracuse. Church historians have another name for much of this region along the Erie Canal where I’ve spent most of my time: the burned over district. Burned over, because revivals sparked in the Second Great Awakening and more specifically by men like Charles Finney and his predecessors and imitators spread like wildfire through this area and left the area burned over spiritually like charred farmland. There were periods of great religious excitement followed by many decades of great religious apathy which we have not yet recovered from. In fact, we’re not likely to recover from it apart from a gracious and genuine move of God, something this area has never seen.

In the meantime, the methodologies which started here and the heresies that were either started or found traction here have spread through the rest of American evangelicalism in the last 200 years. And they’ve done so with similar results. Charles Finney’s (from Adams, NY) invitation system of inviting sinners to respond with some physical, outward action (sinner’s prayers, walking an aisle, signing a decision card) found its origins here. The ecstatic emotional extravagances found in much of the Second Great Awakening (and warned against in the First by leaders of it) which were duplicated by the Shakers (Albany, NY), supported by ministers like G.W. French (Oneida and Syracuse, NY), and developed into the seeds of modern Pentecostalism by Edward Irving (Great Britain) have now developed into practices which are being called new but are as old as the 1830’s. Practices like hysterical laughter and slaying in the Spirit are not original to the Toronto Blessing. There’s nothing new under the sun.

In such a religious atmosphere it’s not surprising that there were departures from orthodox theology regarding the precious doctrine of the return of Christ. As the social media of the day cranked out printed material in the form of theological and denominational journals and books, ideas went up and down the Erie Canal (and the rivers and smaller canals) and crisscrossing The Pond. The religious excitement increased expectation of the soon return of Jesus Christ. The political atmosphere including America’s Manifest Destiny gave weight to the idea that the Millennium must be near. Paired with the spread of Pentecostal emotionalism, people claimed special revelations and new insights into the Bible that no one had ever seen before.

The doctrine of the pretribulational rapture was introduced in 1830 on the other side of The Pond. At first, it was introduced as a partial rapture of only those who had been baptized in the Spirit and found its origins in the Irvingite movement in Great Britain. Darby would finesse the doctrine a bit before it found traction in The Plymouth Brethren movement. They would become its main proponents until an American from Ohio named C.I. Scofield popularized it for the American fundamentalist movement in his study Bible. The Bible school movement begun by D.L. Moody would make this Bible and its footnotes their text book for the next 100 years. [An aside: as a former dispensationalist I often wondered why an exhaustive list of books published in the 19th century and early 20th century would have to include both fundamentalist and Pentecostal publishers. The reason goes back to the origins of the doctrine in Edward Irving, who is considered by some church historians as the father of modern Pentecostalism.]

Meanwhile, back in upstate NY during the decades in question, endtime heresies were being spread across the land in a variety of forms. In these decades you can chronicle the birth and explosive growth of eschatological heresies American evangelicalism has not yet recovered from: Campbellism (Church of Christ, Disciples of Christ), Adventism (Seventh Day, Millerites, and eventually the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Brooklyn, NY), Mormonism (born on the Erie Canal town of Palmyra, NY), the Shakers (Albany, NY), the Oneida Community (Oneida, NY), and so on, ad infinitum. All of this religious confusion happened while (and as a response to) the Finney-like circuit rider evangelists who traveled the Canal creating converts who had made a decision but who had never been regenerated. The end-times hype gave these false converts a place to land: either in a cult (as in the example of Joseph Smith, a direct product of the revivalism) or (later) in fundamentalism where true salvation could be defined by keeping an outwardly observable set of unwritten rules following an outward decision rather than by the fruit of regeneration. If they landed in fundamentalism, they could also participate in the end times hype via the Scofield version of the IrvingDarby rapture doctrine.

Add to this melee the birth and growth of parachurch ministries along the Canal during the same decades as responses to social ills. The temperance movement. Abolitionist societies (Frederick Douglass lived in Rochester, Gerrit Smith lived in Petersboro, Harriet Tubman settled in Auburn, and John Brown lived near Lake Placid). Suffrage (most of the abolitionists were also suffragists and temperance people. Susan B. Anthony was from Rochester, NY and Elizabeth Cady Stanton hailed from Seneca Falls). These movements provided a model for activists who were religious and local churches were used as recruiting points for these movements. As a result, other evangelistic ministries imitated their leadership structures and recruiting methods.

The Aftermath

The inevitable result of this mess has been the shift away from a corporate understanding of Christianity to an individualization of it (a common theme in the denominational meetings that were held in upstate NY by mid-19th Century). The local church was left a smoldering heap of a ruin. In one of the biographies in my library I read of a Finney-like evangelist who recorded a discussion he had with a minister from New England while they were traveling the Erie Canal on a packet boat in the 1850’s. The minister told the evangelist that the great tragedy of the revivals of the time was the destruction of the local churches. Specifically, the minister cited the great number of churches along the Canal that suffered from having pastors who would not stay longer than just a few years. The evangelist’s answer to the dilemma? Immigration. After all, the great influx of immigrants brought a wide variety of cultures together and they just couldn’t get along. In the older eastern cities (Boston, New York, Philadelphia) the churches were more firmly established. Never mind the fact that immigration was exploding in the eastern cities as well and that the flow of immigration came through those cities as they also filled with immigrants. Perhaps the pastors would be more settled once the area was more established? 200 years later, the average tenure of a pastor is still just a few years.

Between the emotional hype, the explosion of the cults, the disappointment of false conversions, the embarrassment of failed predictions of the return of Jesus, and the growing recruitment of church members and pastors by parachurch organizations and causes, who would want to commit to the local church? 19th century parachurch organizations and cults found willing recruits from churches that were better catechized than ours ever thought of being. As our present day social media churns out duplicates of these same errors warmed over, where do the new Joseph Smiths, the new Ellen G. Whites, and the new Edward Irvings find their recruits? In local churches that have been stripped down of their confessions, their hermeneutic, and their ecclesiology.

The Cure

I’ve deliberately painted a picture of destruction reminiscent of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. If we do not learn from these tragedies in upstate New York, our present day Bible belts are doomed to repeat this history. The inevitable result will be other burned over districts devoid of real spiritual life and ripe for postmodernism where truth has been abandoned for meaninglessness. How do we rewind and make the changes needed to get back to a strong local church and a pure proclamation of the gospel?

It’s pretty simple. It begins with peeling away the layers of evangelicalism like an onion. We need to acknowledge that most of what we do and some of what we believe does not come from Biblical mandate but is cultural. Such a process is painful and requires both intellectual honesty and humility. Admitting that our Christianity looks more like the 1830’s rather than either the first century or the intellectual progress of a more refined theology in the 21st is a bitter pill to swallow.

We need to get back to the simplicity and primacy of studying and preaching the Bible verse by verse. We need to return to the simplicity and primacy of the local church. We need to return to the wisdom of the great confessions of faith rather than continuing to try to reinvent doctrinal statements of our own concoction. All of the abuses of upstate NY revivalism can be traced directly to an abandonment of these principles. If local churches will commit to being faithful rather than being numerically successful (a byproduct of revivalism in all of its forms) perhaps a Sovereign God would bless us with true revival. Why? Because when we trim away the extra-Biblical trappings of evangelicalism we will find in the truth the fullness of Jesus Christ Himself. True revival comes when the church is fascinated with Jesus in all of His depth and glory.

I am simply stating that a Biblical hermeneutic, a revived ecclesiology and a Reformed theology can cure all that ails the American church. These three principles all have one thing in common: all three were abandoned by the revivalists of the 1820’s-1840’s. Restoring them could reverse the 19th century curse. It takes decisive action on the part of church leadership to break with the mess of pottage we traded for our birthright and it means making decisions that won’t be popular amongst those who want to hold on to various elements of 19th century theology and practice. The most difficult part of this is being willing and able to identify those practices and beliefs which originated in this time frame. They have become such a part of our practice and our doctrine that we assume them to be Biblical when just a passing examination reveals they are anything but. The beauty of it is that rather than complicating church life such a strategy simplifies it so that Christians can live their lives for the glory of God without worrying about fads, excessive church programming, or evangelical personality cults.


What is most definitely NOT needed is an obsession with the mysticism andor pietism of revival culture. Modern Reformed-leaning Baptists in particular have a tendency to idolize either the great moves of God in the past or, more to the point, the men God used in those moves. We love the study of revival history and in that pursuit we read all of the biographies of the men God used. We think that if we read these biographies and imitate their lives we might also see revival in our time. I say this as someone who has a tendency to do the same thing.

In so doing, we commit two serious errors. First, we help create an atmosphere similar to that which existed in the 1820’s which amounted to a seedbed for revivalistic abuses. The Second Great Awakening was born out of the abuses of the First. The great books which were influential in the First were reprinted heavily in the Second. However, they did not seem to stem the tidal wave of extremism. While that can be blamed on the theology and practice of the leaders of the Second, we do ourselves a disservice if we don’t acknowledge the revival culture that was created by the First Great Awakening. We do not need to work to create another revival culture.

Second, our emphasis is taken away from God and placed on what we do. This is ironic for Baptists who lean towards a Reformed soteriology. However, we are tempted to think if we pray hard enough, repent of enough things, evangelize enough, read enough, etc., that we will see revival. As much as Reformed-leaning Baptists claim to despise what Finney taught, this is pretty much what he was suggesting, at least in part.

These errors are remedied when we remind ourselves of the value and virtue of faithfulness in spite of a lack of evidence of revival. Be faithful to preaching the Word Sunday after Sunday. Be faithful to lead your family quietly. Be faithful to love the Lord with all of your heart, soul, mind and strength and to love your neighbor as yourself. Be faithful to live a life of obedience to all that is commanded in church life, family life and civilly. Appreciate the history of solid men of God, but don’t obsess over it. Repent when you sin. And maybe you will see revival someday. More likely you will be like many other faithful men of God who never saw such a work. But in the end you will hear, Well done, good and faithful servant.

Annotated Bibliography

I have included this list of books here, not as a works cited list, but as a reading list that has helped shape my own thinking on these issues. Some of them are alluded to in the essay, but since I am writing for a blog and not a research paper, it is not footnoted. Most are not alluded to at all, but have helped flesh out some of my thinking about the decades of 1820-1840 in upstate New York. I have included some annotations here in order to further show how these books fit into my thinking at this point.

1. Adams, Charles Evangelism in the Middle of the Nineteenth Century; or, An Exhibit, Descriptive and Statistical, of the Present Condition of Evangelical Religion in All the Countries of the World Boston: Charles H. Peirce [sic?], 1851. Second Thousand (Second Printing, the first being 1850).

Believe it or not, this is the first book printed with the word evangelism in the title. The word evangelization appears in the following work, which may be earlier: Home Evangelization; A View of the Wants and Prospects of Our Country, Based on the Facts and Relations of Colportage. NY: American Tract Society, n.d. Based on the printing of the book and some of the writing, I believe this was printed in the late 1840’s, but I suppose it could be early 1850’s as well.

Modern day evangelicals cannot conceive of a Christianity where the word evangelism didn’t exist, at least in English. Christianity existed very well without that word and yet managed to actually do it Biblically prior to the mid-Nineteenth Century. The relationship between evangelism and revivalism is explained by the circumstances of the 19th century. Evangelism as we know it today is the direct descendant of revivalism.

2. Brodie, Fawn M. No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith, The Mormon Prophet NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1966.

This book not only reveals the origins of Mormonism and is the definitive biography of Smith, but it helps one to understand the spiritual climate of Western New York during the 1820’s and 1830’s. The author was excommunicated from the LDS after its publication.

3. Cross, Whitney The Burned-Over District: The Social and Intellectual History of Enthusiastic Religion in Western New York, 1800-1850 Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1950.

The best book on the culture of New York during the height of the revivalism.

4. Dallimore, Arnold Forerunner of the Charismatic Movement: The Life of Edward Irving Chicago: Moody Press, n.d. (1983).

While this book does not examine his eschatology, it does an excellent job revealing Irving’s pneumatology which set the stage for his acceptance of the new revelation of the doctrine of the rapture. Irving didn’t care much for confessions or creeds and the absence of the rapture from those documents would be easily overcome in his mind by a last days revelation from a teenaged prophetess.

5. Edwards, Jonathan Thoughts on the Revival of Religion in New England, 1740. To Which is Appended a Narrative of the Surprising Work of God in Northampton, Mass., 1735. NY: American Tract Society, n.d. (ca. 1840’s).

Often reprinted during the revivals in upstate New York, it is sometimes used for justification for emotional outbursts in revivals because of the abuses Edwards documents. For an example of this kind of citation, see #10 in this list.

6. Finney, Charles G. Lectures on Revivals of Religion NY: Leavitt, Lord & Co., 1828. 2nd Edition, Revised.

This is more or less the manual that many of the Finneyite revivalists used for their ministries. My take on this book is that there is a lot here that modern evangelicalism would do well to consider: the nature of true and false repentance and the use of the Law in evangelism, for example. Those positives are countered by Finney’s tendency in later life towards outright heresy (Lectures on Systematic Theology published in 1846-47). The imitation of Finney was a successful pattern for conducting revivals in that day, but it created many false conversions in spite of his own warnings against them. I believe Finney was sincere though sincerely wrong.

7. Finney, Charles G. Memoirs of Rev. Charles G. Finney NY: A.S. Barnes & Co., 1876.

A fascinating read which documents the revivals along the Canal and elsewhere. It also documents Finney’s rejection of his church’s confession of faith and his admission of lying to his ordination council about that rejection.

8. Gaddis, Maxwell Pierson Foot-Prints of an Itinerant Cincinnati, OH: Printed at the Methodist Book Concern for the Author, 1855.

A typical circuit-rider biography with a fantastic (and humorous) chapter on the Millerites as they awaited the return of Jesus in Cincinnati.

9. Gerstner, John H. Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth Brentwood (TN): Wolgemuth & Hyatt, 1991.

Absolutely essential reading which proves that Dispensationalism is a departure from orthodoxy and a radical departure from the five points of Calvinism, even while claiming to hold them.

10. Grunder, Rick Mormon Parallels: A Bibliographic Source Lafayette, NY: Rick Grunder-Books, 2014.

This is a monumental work of more than 2,000 pages in (now in.pdf) that traces the cultural and theological climate which more or less created Mormonism. There are a surprising number of evangelical works cited, e.g. almanacs from the American Tract Society and a work by Thomas Chalmers. Unitarianism has a strong representation here as well.

11. Henry, G.W. Shouting: Genuine and Spurious, In All Ages of the Church’ Oneida, Madison County, NY: Published and Bound by the Author, 1859.

Henry spent some time as a blind Methodist pastor in Syracuse, NY where he encouraged outbursts of shouting, slaying in the spirit, laughter, etc. as evidences of the Spirit of God in meetings. Interestingly, his children wrote down the entire text of this book by dictation, which unfortunately makes it read a bit like a rambling conversation without the benefit of editing.

I believe that some of these manifestations were encouraged by Henry in an attempt to recreate the appearance of a revival in this area. According to the book, he was doing this in the 1850’s in Syracuse. In 1851 Finney spent the better part of a year in the Syracuse area where he preached in downtown Syracuse and in what is now known as The Valley neighborhood, but was then known as Onondaga Hollow. He preached in the Presbyterian Church every Sunday. While Finney claimed to be experiencing revival in Syracuse in his personal correspondence, he was vague about the number of converts. A look at the church records reveals that only one family was baptized and entered into membership in 1851. When revival did not come, or what the believers of the time thought was revival, all of the unsubstantiated assertions and hysteria in the world could not bring life. A lot of work was put into the appearance of a revival in Syracuse in the 1850’s.

In one of those weird twists of history, one of the churches where Finney preached in Syracuse was located within a literal stone’s throw of the Sabine house (the house is across a small park from the church) where Joseph Smith is said to have spent several months as a boy and where it is claimed he heard the Spalding manuscript read out loud. This document is thought to be a source document for the Book of Mormon. Since the manuscript has never been found it has not been proven. It is more likely that the Book of Mormon is a product of the religious, superstitious and pop culture of the time.

12. Kuiper, R.B. God-Centred Evangelism: A Presentation of the Scriptural Theology of Evangelism Edinburgh & Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, n.d. (2002).

A fantastic but much neglected work on evangelism. This is what evangelism should look like,

13. Lloyd-Jones, D. Martyn Revival Westchester (IL): Crossway Books, n.d. (1987).

A sound presentation of Biblical revival.

14. MacPherson, Dave The Great Rapture Hoax Fletcher, NC: The New Puritan Library, n.d. (1983).

An important (and much attacked) work showing the connection between Edward Irving, J.N. Darby and a teenaged girl named Margaret MacDonald who claimed to have a vision regarding the rapture of the Church in 1830 that was partial (for charismatically-endowed, Spirit-filled believers only). In 2010 I was able to use the Dallas Theological Seminary library’s extensive collection on Edward Irving to establish the connection between Darby and Irving and Irving’s connection to Port Glasgow, Scotland, where MacDonald lived. DTS has one full shelf and another partial one of Irving’s works and books on Irving, but it appears to be rarely used. As an aside, one class that will never be taught at any fundamentalist Dispensational seminary or Bible college is Church History 301: The History of Dispensationalism. It would be more likely to be taught in a charismatic institution.

15. Murray, Iain H. The Old Evangelicalism: Old Truths for a New Awakening Edinburgh & Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, n.d. (2005).

This is what evangelicalism used to look like, pre-abuses.

16. Murray, Iain H. The Puritan Hope: A Study in Revival and the Interpretation of Prophecy Edinburgh & Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, n.d. (1998).

A historical examination of the postmillennial eschatology of the Puritans and how that influenced the early missionary movement. I have not commented on the Postmillennialism of the early 19th century and its role in the abuses, mainly because I’m not sure I understand that role exactly at this point. If there was a role, it was in the hopeful expectation of improvement and the return of Jesus. Including the First Great Awakening, the birth of the United States, the explosion of the gospel proclamation in the birth of the modern missionary movement, and the wildfire spread of the Second Great Awakening all of the elements were present for a strong expectation of the soon bodily return of Christ. Such an atmosphere would be ripe for errant teachings to pop up on the very subject, especially when He did not come. While Dispensationalists are often criticized for newspaper exegesis, it’s possible that the believers of that time who were largely Postmillennial (e.g. Finney) did the same thing. The only difference is that whereas Dispensationalists tend to focus on the doom and gloom, Postmills would tend to focus on the good things. This is why it’s important to ignore current events while considering one’s eschatology and derive it Sola Scriptura rather than Sola Media.

17. Murray, Iain H. Revival and Revivalism: The Making and Marring of American Evangelicalism, 1750-1858 Edinburgh & Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, n.d. (2002).

The best work on the subject, bar none. He includes some excellent evidence that some of Finney’s abuses were learned from several other ministers in the Oneida County area of New York State in the mid 1820’s.

18. Penton, M. James Apocalypse Delayed: The Story of Jehovah’s Witnesses Toronto (ON): University of Toronto Press, n.d. (1985).

A record of the attempts of the JW’s failed predictions on the return of Jesus, with documentation of the connection between Dispensationalism (specifically, that of J.A. Seiss, whose commentary on Revelation used to be heartily recommended by Dispensationalists such as Wilbur M. Smith) and the eschatology of Charles Taze Russell. The JW’s are based in Brooklyn, NY.

19. Quinn, D. Michael Early Mormonism and the Magic World View: Revised and Enlarged Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books, n.d. (1998).

This work is the best work on the influence of the magic world view on Joseph Smith and the surprising prevalence of such a view amongst evangelicals of the time. It helps explain the large numbers of people who followed Smith’s delusion in the United States. My theory is that the large numbed who emigrated from Europe in the 1840’s and later were drawn by Mormonism’s eschatology which has marked similarities to Dispensationalism. This new teaching was growing in Great Britain at the time thanks to the influence of J.N. Darby and the Plymouth Brethren. For example, consider the last verse of the Book of Mormon which sounds very much like a description of the rapture (Moroni 10:34) [my thanks to Rick Grunder’who had never heard of the term rapture–for pointing this out to me as we discussed the rapture concept in a private conversation a couple of months ago]. Sidney Rigdon–who was a Campbellite preacher and fascinated by eschatology’was an early convert to Mormonism and there is some proof that his influence on Smith can account for Mormonism’s eschatology, which was more fully developed in several revelations in the Doctrine & Covenants. The author of this book, like Fawn Brodie, was excommunicated from the LDS.

20. Tyerman, L. The Life of the Rev. George Whitefield Azle, TX: Needs of the Times Publishers, 1995 (facsimile reprint of the London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1876 edition).

The other two volume historical biography of Whitefield (the preferred set being Dallimore’s work). Whitefield’s ministry became a standard for what revival would look like: powerful preaching, lots of traveling, massive numbers, and a home life that was a mess.

21. Wisner, William Incidents in the Life of a Pastor NY: Charles Scribner, 1850.

Another circuit rider biography, with the conversation along the Erie Canal that I describe between an eastern minister and the evangelist. Wisner was the itinerant evangelist.

Jon Speed
Latest posts by Jon Speed (see all)