Sunday, March 2, 2008
Erie Canal and the "Burned-over District"
One of the largest achievements of the early 19th century is the completion of the Erie Canal. Though ignored by the federal government, Governor Henry Clinton of New York was able to gain the funding necessary to complete the project. The canal turned out to be such a huge success that the debt for the project was paid off within the first year of the canal's operation.
The Erie Canal brought a tremendous amount of wealth and commerce to the state of New York. In fact, it is because of the Erie Canal that New York earned the nickname "The Empire State."
What a lot of people don't know when it comes to the Erie Canal is that its construction helped to spark the fires of religious revival throughout the state. The area of western New York, which evangelist Charles Finney dubbed "the burned-over district," was a particular hot bet for religious fanaticism, scarcely seen in any other part of the American republic. Though the construction of the Erie Canal cannot be given full credit for this surge of religious enthusiasm, it can be credited for being one of the major factors that led to this phenomenon.
In his work The Market Revolution, historian Charles Sellers suggests that the construction of the Erie Canal brought an infusion of market capitalism that forced religions to adapt. While many of these religions embraced the Market Revolution in western New York, others fought against it. A sudden surge in the number of religious communal societies, each embracing a communistic economy and the hope of a rapidly approaching millennium, became the antithesis to the capitalist changes enveloping New York. These societies saw capitalism as an evil to be avoided. The various religious leaders that emerged from western New York at this time (Ann Lee, Charles Finney, Joseph Smith, Jonathan Edwards to name just a few) labored to protect their "flocks" from the clutches of capitalist enthusiasm, each gaining different degrees of success.
Many of the established religions (Methodists, Quakers, Baptists, Catholics to name just a few) also flooded the region with missionaries, as the expansion westward marked a change in how religions addressed the need for new converts. Other religious ideologies, such as Universalism, Unitarianism and Deism affected the way citizens understood religion.
What interests me about these movements is how they were so closely related with capitalism and the Market Revolution. As the market's influence grew, so too did the religious zeal of the various dogmas. Capitalism was seen as an evil to be combated, instead of a practice to be embraced. It is amazing how different things are today!