The Erie Canal and the Birth of American Religion

A lithograph of the Erie Canal at Lockport, N.Y., around 1855. Image courtesy of Creative Commons/published for Herrmann J. Meyer

The first great social space in the United States was not Boston Common, William Penn’s Philadelphia squares or L’Enfant’s great avenues of Washington, D.C.

It was an artificial river, 4 feet deep and 40 feet wide, cutting across New York state.

Like the Silk Road in Asia, the Erie Canal not only established physical links across geographic regions, it also remade the social and religious lives of everyone it touched.

Albany newspapers, Genesee flour, Syracuse salt and Western timber traveled on the canal alongside theater groups, former slaves, tourists, industrialists and religious revivalists. This “one thronged street, from Buffalo to Albany,” as Nathaniel Hawthorne phrased it, exceeded its transportation uses to become an empire builder, a political-economic superpower that was inextricable from a spiritual empire.

Physical work on the Erie Canal began on July 4, 1817, when upstate New York was one vast wilderness in the eye of the young nation. Within three decades of its opening this “psychic highway” cultivated experimental spiritual groups, including the Mormons, the Adventists, spiritualists, followers of a revived apocalypticism and utopian communal societies such as the Oneida Community, with the Amana Colony and the Shakers passing through. The emotion-laden revivals of the Second Great Awakening also ignited along the way, giving rise to the evangelicalism that we know today.

Meanwhile, the canal engendered the religiously infused social movements of the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage and temperance. Little wonder the 19th century’s most famous preacher, Charles Finney, called this area the “Burned-over District.” Even so, this term belies a deeper truth: Flowing through the ashes were currents of American faith that continue to influence us today.

The Erie Canal is the place where the young United States, and its religiosity, ceased looking to the East and the past — Europe and New England — and began looking West and to the future — to a grand unfolding continent.

The canal follows the only significant gap in the Appalachian mountain chain extending from Maine to Georgia, a geographical fact attributed by George Washington and his contemporaries to the goodness of “Providence.” This was God’s gift to the fledging nation, inspiring citizens to move west and glean benefits from the natural riches of the continental interior. National mythologies about Manifest Destiny flowed from geographical realities and a good dose of Yankee engineering.

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SOURCE: Religion News Service
S. Brent Rodriguez Plate

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