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 should be credited for being one of the major factors that led to this phenomenon. Mormon founder Joseph Smith, who lived in this region, illustrated just how passionate this new zeal for religion was when he wrote:
There was in the place where we lived an unusual excitement on the subject of religion. It commenced with the Methodists, but soon became general among all the sects in that region of the country, indeed the whole district of the Country seemed affected by it and great multitudes united themselves to the different religious parties, which created no small stir and division among the people…Priest contended against priest, and convert against convert so that all their good feelings one for another were entirely lost in a strife of words and a contest about opinions (Joseph Smith, Jr., “1839 History,” The Papers of Joseph Smith, vol. I, 269-270).In his work The Market Revolution, historian Charles Sellers suggests that the construction of the Erie Canal brought an infusion of market capitalism that literally transformed the region. And as is often the case with any major change, a large percentage of the American populace began to see the Market Revolution as a destructive force. The communal subsistence culture, which had tied family members and neighbors together in a tight web of economic and social interdependence, was quickly being replaced by the profit-driven mentality of the Market Revolution. As a result, hundreds of American families sought to reclaim the "lost" communal dependence and purity of the pre-Market Revolution era by turning to religion. And while many of these religions embraced the Market Revolution in western New York, others fought against it. A sudden surge in new 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,and Joseph Smith just to name a few) labored to protect their "flocks" from the clutches of capitalist enthusiasm, each gaining different degrees of success. As historian Charles Sellers states:
For intensely pressured Yankees, this New Divinity's apocalyptic utopia was an irresistible fantasy of surcease from market pressures. Amid "universal peace, love, and general and cordial friendship." These new churches promised "no unrighteous persons" would "invade the rights and property of others." Invoking one of the subsistence culture's favorite Biblical images, they declared that "every one shall securely sit under his own vine and fig-tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid." Lawsuits, luxury, and waste would cease. There would be "such benevolence and fervent charity" that "all worldly things will be in great degree common, so as not to be withheld from any who may want them"These new communal denominations were not the only ones interested in "The Burned-over district." Many of the established religions (Methodists, Quakers, Baptists, Catholics) also flooded the region with missionaries, as the expansion westward marked a change in how religions addressed the need for new converts. By appealing to their need for "old school" communal subsistence as opposed to the emerging market economy, several of these faiths experienced a dramatic increase in new devotees who were happy to use their newfound faith to castigate market economics as the tool of the devil.
But what interests me most about the "Burned-over district's" abhorrence of market capitalism in the name of God is the fact that the religions of this region were themselves participating in a form of ecclesiastical capitalism. The heated competition between the emerging faiths of this region and the established religions of the time caused both to clash in a passionate quest for the souls of western New York. As a result, these churches turned to newer methods of preaching and conversion, which were tailored to the needs and desires of the people. Each promised to deliver bigger and better things than their competitors, while at the same time insisting that the "other guy" would surely deliver their followers to the fires of hell.
And though these competing faiths shared in their condemnation of market capitalism, they themselves invoked one of capitalism's most basic components: competition. The Market Revolution didn't simply transform how the exchange of services and goods were conducted but it also changed the way religion was preached. As a result, western New York became a hotbed for economic and religious revival. It's no wonder why Charles Finney chose to call it the "Burned-over District."