The Burned-Over District

Through the Finger Lakes area of New York and moving West from there, there was an extensive religious awakening and upheaval in the early nineteenth century. The definitive history of this phenomenon is Whitney R. Cross, The Burned-Over District:the Social and Intellectual History of Enthusiastic Religion in Western New York, 1800-1850 (Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press, 1950).

Nineteen different denominations are covered in this remarkable volume in enough detail to understand how the various churches were impacted here by a movement which swept the whole United States in waves. Four of the churches rose out of the chaos to create a history of their own, including the Mormon Church which figures so largely in the genealogy world.

The periodical literature which served these denominations is also described and used as a resource for study. The book is still available in paperback from Cornell and I’m sure that has copies both new and used.

What interested me to begin with, were the churches that used itinerants to spread their gospel message: Adventists, Baptists, Congregationalists, Methodists, Mormons (called missionaries), Presbyterians, and Universalists.

These churches still have missionaries, teachers, pastoral visitors, and itinerant ministers who help them keep in contact with members and convert others to their way of life.

Records! These are additional records created and preserved which can be used to document your ancestors and their religious commitments. Cross describes some of their activities in detail.

Although the book is based on New York state, New Englanders, and persons who moved on into Ohio and the West are included for their migration leaders and travel patterns. A bunch of maps show where the congregations were located, where the people settled, where the populations clustered, and how the religious movement crossed the state.

I highly recommend this “old” book for the insight it will give you–I took the time to re-read it–about this very significant happening in New York. And how it affected your ancestors before they moved West into Missouri, Illinois, Iowa, and the far West. If you read it a long time ago, refresh your memory–it will open new resources to your searches. Your favorite New York genealogist, Arlene Eakle

PS Church records sometimes get short shrift in genealogy today with the internet databases. Stay tuned to my blogs for some of the most important collections of church information. I’ve been collecting the information for a long time and I am grateful to have the chance to share it.

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