Sometimes, when we read scholarly research on social trends and historical observations, we can get hypnotized by simple rationality and still miss personal applications. Predicting the weather isn't 100%, observing the weather is realistic, but describing the weather yesterday often goes beyond the facts- Yes it was 92F, but how did the heat impact your feelings, attitudes, choices, or actions? Were you prepared or unprepared, acclimated or not? Do you like hot weather? Did you stay in all day? Yes? So really your day was 75F.
In reading the rapid change of ultraism, perfectionism, revivalism, utopianism, communism, spiritualism in the western New York region in the early and mid 19th century we can state the facts but miss some important applications.
More and more, my study kept being categorized by Whitney R. Cross's book, The Burned Over District written in 1950. I was also surprised how many more recent scholars openly criticize this book. One commentator said that the subject needs to be refreshed by more recent and relevant attitudes. Another critic spent time bemoaning the 'clumsy writing style'. This is always my fear when we hear of 'new discoveries' about history.
One of my favorite quotes by Dr Calhoun was when he said Charles Hodge celebrated the fact that Princeton was pleased to announce meticulous studies of God's Word had produced "no new discoveries".
And this summary of my study isn't an attempt to revise history, I'm not even saying it is completely accurate.
But it is fair to say that the political, economic, social, and religious elements all seemed to produce a very unusual cultural phenomenon in a vey short span of time.
Cross says in chapter 16 of his book, "Religious ultraism reached its peak about 1836. Then it quite suddenly collapsed."
Later, he writes "Both the nature of ultraism itself and the pressure of external circumstances helped to bring about its disintegration."
Chapter 20: 'The evolving religious emotionalism of western New York carried some people along with it, but left at each stage an inheritance of individuals, or even descendants, whose ability to adjust to further novelty stopped at that given point."
Later: "Apparently, religious extravagances and sensationalism made enemies as well as friends and finally bred sore disillusionment among advocates."
As I have written earlier, we all have remnants of these times and practices in our midst. Mormonism, Advent Churches, Spiritualism, tent revivals, utopian cults.... all of these have roots in the burned over district.
What few sociologists are able to document however is the excellent corrective nature of the Bible when handled correctly and with care. They are also in most cases unable to show that there is a true, historic, and sacred stream of consistent gospel proclamation and discipleship found in the victorious, invisible Church. There is a true faith in the midst of error and imposters. There is a sacred canopy that stands despite taking blow after blow of dissent and accusations.
What have I leaned?
1) There can be a lot of danger and possible damage by one person left alone with just a Bible, concordance...even with good intentions. It is so important that we get good training and connection with those who seek to be 'ministers'
2) We always have to hold the entire Bible as preeminent and let it shape our doctrines. John Calvin is often quoted as saying God limits our knowledge to keep us humble and make sure that we have dealings with our fellows.
3) Rapid visible growth may not indicate Biblical accuracy. God's kingdom is better indicated by perseverance over time rather than momentary trends.
4) Incorrect doctrine and heresy has tragic and hurtful results. The extreme disillusionment when these faulty ideas crumble is bad enough, but sadly, there were some sad and tragic consequences on people as well.
When someone twists the Scriptures to rationalize improper boundaries... be they too strict or too loose; it causes harm.
I think it is vey important for Christians to always stay in the marketplace of ideas and compete for the supremacy of Scripture.... the whole counsel of God. We need to engage rigorous debate in a spirit that honors Christ.
Sometimes we seek to win arguments, but lose souls in the process. We win battles but lose the war.
I want to close with an example of this that may seem controversial:
Recently, on Fox News, Martha MacCallum interviewed the Archbishop of New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan about the possible revival breaking out in Kentucky. Instead of doing to sectarian divide, Dolan applauded all that is good about this movement.
He went on to celebrate the 1st Great Awakening, mentioning Jonathan Edwards and George Whitfield and saw it historically as a time when we truly became Americans.
Are there major theological issues at play here, especially around authority and salvation? ABSOLUTELY
Does it keep us from having discussions and finding common ground on issues that pertain to service and initiatives for the common good? ABSOLUTELY NOT
You can see the interview here:
As our culture gets darker, more isolated, and less haunted by the Christian voices of old, we must continue to find common ground and civil disagreements while still leaving breadcrumbs to the reality of God and the beauty of the gospel message.
We have to engage, lead, and make promise keeping/ peace making a high priority.
If we find hard hearts and doubters along the way, we can't lose hope- we have to be the ones who patiently love, honestly confess, and stubbornly give testimony to God's goodness and His grace.
I finally saw the recent movie called "Jesus Revolution" about the California Jesus People movement in the 1970's. I appreciated the complexity and issues that the directors included in the narrative. God's movements are messy and sin is always in the mix. My favorite line in the movie was "truth is quiet and lies are loud".
I think it is fair to critique the movie in terms of what it didn't cover (Lonnie Frisbee's lifestyle and issues) but it is hard to determine where to go in the time limits of a single movie.
When Smith and Frisbee split, it was interesting to me that it was a theological divide over the role of the Holy Spirit. Smith was later quoted as love should be the highest manifestation of the Spirit, not signs and wonders.
The movie is told more through the story of Greg Laurie, but in many ways, Frisbee is more applicable to my reading on the burned over district... Frisbee is the burned over district personified- a rambling complexity of seeking, experimentation, frailty, inconsistency, and misunderstanding.
We need to see God move, I need it as well. Growing older has a sense of growing colder that seems to go along with it.
If you feel 'burned out' it is OK- tell someone... seek the Lord in prayer, and wait on Him.
But if we want it to be clean and organized- it won't be..... if we are going to be hyper-critical and skeptical- it won't happen.... if we don't make allowances for humanity- we are not living in reality of the human condition..... If we don't get humble, pray, and love then we aren't going to help the true seed grow in good soil.
Final update: The Asbury Revival was technically ended on Feb. 25-
( February 8, 2023 through February 25, 2023- 18 days)
I watched the opening chapel service that started it on youtube and I also appreciate the statement from Asbury's president:
I have been asked if Asbury is “stopping” this outpouring of God’s Spirit and the stirring of human hearts. I have responded by pointing out that we cannot stop something we did not start. This was never planned. Over the last few weeks, we have been honored to steward and host services and the guests who have traveled far and wide to attend them. The trajectory of renewal meetings is always outward—and that is beginning to occur. We continue to hear inspiring stories of hungry hearts setting aside daily routines and seeking Christ at schools, churches, and communities in the US and abroad.
In spite of this, many in my corner of theological pontificators have slammed and mocked the movement with skepticism and criticism- and I am sad to say that it is a mistake. We often shoot our own wounded and that hurts my heart. :(
But, overall personally this has been an incredible study for me- thanks for reading and love to hear your feedback-
Lord- we want to see you move... we are waiting!
Maybe someone reading this one day - possibly all alone and discouraged, will once again pick up God's Word and cry out for mercy.... and that is all I ever hope for... until He returns!
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The LORD is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
 He gives power to the faint,
and to him who has no might he increases strength.
 Even youths shall faint and be weary,
and young men shall fall exhausted;
 but they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength;
they shall mount up with wings like eagles;
they shall run and not be weary;
they shall walk and not faint. (Isaiah 40:28–31 ESV)