Africa, the burned-over continent?

How the aftermath of the Second Great Awakening may point to Africa's future

A small area in upstate New York influences our world today in ways that most of us are not aware. This area has been dubbed the “burned-over district” because it was the red-hot center of activity during the Second Great Awakening, a revival that deeply affected much of the United States from about 1790-1840. While the Second Great Awakening undoubtedly had many good consequences for upstate New York, it also had many negative results, and thus the district received the rather negative moniker, “burned-over.”

Since examining history is one of the best ways to predict future trends, in today’s post, I’d like to compare what happened in New York during the 19th century to what is and what might happen in Africa during the 21st century. 

Is Africa becoming the burned-over continent?

Photo by Gift Habeshaw on Unsplash

Revival fire kindles in New York.

With the construction and completion of the Erie Canal in 1825, upstate New York experienced booming growth, both in terms of population and prosperity. At the same time, it became the center of revivalist activities that came to be known as the Second Great Awakening. The First Great Awakening had occurred in the previous century, affecting both Britain and America but centering on the New England colonies.

Most of the residents of upstate New York were transplants from Connecticut and Massachusetts, descendants of those deeply affected by the First Great Awakening. But in their new frontier settlements, unhinged from the restraints of established institutions and traditions, drunkenness and licentiousness reigned.

Into this climate came preachers such as George Gale and Asahel Nettleton, whose preaching saw numerous conversions, the establishment of new churches, and general benefits to society. But other preachers followed, such as Charles Grandison Finney, who came to believe that revival was not something given by God, but a condition that could actually be produced systematically by following what he called “new measures.”1

After decades of revivals produced by “measures,” which featured emotional manipulation and what would eventually come to be labeled as “easy-believism,” the area became known as a “burnt district” or “burned-over district.” The flames of revival had burned so hot and for so long in the area, that it was now difficult to see the same results as had previously been experienced, because people began to be disillusioned.

Revivalism leaves a burned-over district.

As a result of the revivalistic methods employed by Finney and others, upstate New York began to experience widespread disillusionment with the status-quo among its Protestant churches. Many people began to ask, “Isn’t there something more to Christianity?”

For some, this led to social activism that eventually gave rise to what became known as the Social Gospel. Initially, however, it was largely driven by a post-millennial eschatology — the belief that the world is slowly transitioning into the kingdom of God, and at the culmination of this transition, Christ will return. Because most of these post-millennialists believed that it was their duty to foster this transition, they were drawn to social and political causes such as abolitionism, temperance, and women’s rights.

Others, however, began to look for inspiration outside the Bible. It’s quite remarkable that the burned-over district gave rise to the two most significant unorthodox movements in the world today. Joseph Smith founded Mormonism in Fayette, New York in 1830. Around the same time, William Miller founded the Adventist movement or Millerism near Albany, which later gave birth to both the Seventh Day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Still others began to look for answers in occult and spiritualist practices. Many scholars trace the lineage of the American New Age movement to the burned-over district. Most prominent were the three Fox sisters who claimed to communicate with the dead.

While the Fox sisters were attempting to communicate with the dead, utopian societies were more concerned with the living. John Humphrey Noyes founded one such utopian community in 1848 in Oneida, New York. He claimed that Jesus had already returned and true believers should now live in perfect love and unity, which included abandoning marriage for free love.

The burned-over district stands in Christian history as a warning sign against a form of evangelism that is founded on what at the time would have been called enthusiasm — that is emotional and ecstatic experiences. Intense emotional experience cannot be maintained by most people over the long-term, and results in people seeking even more extreme emotional experiences to feel the same high, or in people becoming disillusioned altogether. That, in a nutshell, is the story of the burned-over district. The revivalism of Finney and others stoked human emotion, but when this emotion waned, people began to look elsewhere.

Today, are we looking not only at a district but a continent that is in the process of following the same path as the burned-over district in New York?

Meet the burned-over continent.

History has a funny way of repeating itself. Today, are we looking not only at a district but a continent that is in the process of following the same path as the burned-over district in New York?

First, let’s recognize that the growth of Christianity on the African continent has proceeded at an incredible pace. In 1900, only 9% of Africans were Christians, and most of them belonged to old African churches, such as the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. By 2020, nearly 50% of Africans were Christians. In 2018, Africa surpassed South America as the continent where most Christians live.2

Yet, most of this growth, especially over the past 50 years, has been due to the pentecostal/prosperity movement. While those from America can probably easily identify those we might label as “responsible charismatics” — people who practice speaking in tongues and other “miraculous” spiritual gifts, but within reasonable bounds — the movement in Africa and other areas of the Global South has become largely undocked from any biblical moorings. All one must do is note regular headlines from the BBC: “South African Pastor sprays his followers with healing insecticide.” “Meet the man who ‘walked on air.’” “Self-styled prophet makes followers eat snakes, rats, hair.

Recently, however, another type of article caught my eye. The Guardian reported about a Nigerian man who calls himself Moshe Ben Avraham. Ben Avraham was born to an Anglican family, but had become dissatisfied with his church. Then after falling extremely ill, he experienced a healing after being prayed over by someone from an African-based group called the White Garment Sabbath, a splinter group of the Zion Apostolic Church. He then joined the group, which, among other distinct beliefs and practices, worships on Saturday. His practice of the Old Testament Sabbath led him eventually to become a Messianic Jew. He then abandoned Jesus altogether to practice Orthodox Judaism. Today, he considers himself Jewish and leads a synagogue of fellow Nigerian Jews.

While I’ve never met an African Jew in my own ministry, the journey that Ben Avraham took from Anglicanism to Judaism did not seem far-fetched to me. The landscape of African Christianity is extremely diverse, complicated, and intermingled. Of course, you will find every denomination from Europe and America present on the continent, from Roman Catholicism to Assemblies of God to Jehovah’s Witnesses. Yet, at the very same time, every denomination has been infiltrated by pentecostalism. The most formal Presbyterian church in my city, for example, has a contemporary service where prophecy and speaking in tongues are encouraged.

But there are also countless groups that missiologists label as African-initiated churches. These are churches or religious movements started in Africa by Africans. I remember when I first read about these movements in college. The textbook celebrated these movements as Africans taking the faith and really making it their own. Yet, most of these movements are completely heretical and even cultic. The most popular among these, which I have encountered regularly, is the Zion Apostolic Church. This church originated in Zimbabwe and involves communal and nomadic living, polygamy, and child marriage.

In one sense, Christianity has exploded in Africa, but how Christian is African Christianity? All around us, people are pushing emotional experience and novel prophetic perspectives to further and further extremes. Some governments have even begun to talk about regulating churches due to the prominence of extreme, dangerous, and abusive behaviors. 

But the question remains, “What will be next?” I suppose there is a threshold at which such extremist and abusive behavior will no longer be tolerated. What comes after that? My guess is unbelief. Just as Africa transitioned from pagan to Christian at lightning speed, I predict that it will make a similar transition to a place where the majority will label themselves “nones” — that is as having no religion — just as many do in the West today. This will not be an intellectual, atheistic materialism. It will simply be a disillusioned, disenchanted non-religiousness. 

Perhaps I am wrong. Africans pride themselves on their spirituality. But what happens when the fire runs out of fuel? Unfortunately, I don’t think I can give anyone a grand vision of a continent moving from unorthodox Christian movements to a thoughtful, doctrinally-robust orthodoxy. We can pray for this, and God may choose to grant it. 

But more realistically, we can hope to found islands of orthodoxy — churches and denominations that take the biblical doctrine seriously. Such churches will likely be voices crying in the wilderness, but do not be discouraged. Even voices crying in the wilderness can make straight the way of the Lord.

  1. See Iain H. Murray, Revival and Revivalism: The Making and Marring of American Evangelicalism, 1750–1858 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1994). []
  2. See more from the Center for the Study of Global Christianity. []
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Joshua Hutchens

Joshua Hutchens

Joshua Hutchens (PhD, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is a missionary to Malawi and president of Gospel Life. Before becoming president of Gospel Life, he served as a pastor in Kentucky. He is married to Stacy Leigh, and they have five children.

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