The Eerie Legacy of the Erie Canal

The Erie Canal turned 200 years old on July 4th. Construction for the canal began on July 4th, 1817. In addition to serving as an effective means of transportation and commerce, it aided the spread of religious movements—not all of them good.

In an article with the Religion News Service, S. Brent Rodriguez Plate explains how the Erie Canal made possible the spread of Mormonism. Joseph Smith grew up in a canal town in Pennsylvania. The first five thousand copies of the book of Mormon were printed on a press delivered by the canal, their distribution made efficient with the canal.

Along the banks of the canal other religious leaders found fertile soil for their messages. Like a magnet, the canal drew budding populations as villages and towns formed in its path. These crowds were ready made audiences for preachers of all varieties. So much so that Charles Finney called this the “burned over district,” where there were no longer enough lost souls to kindle revival fires.

The efficiency and usefulness of the canal was first overshadowed by the railroad then more modern transportation advances. The canal’s two hundred year birthday (bicentennial) reminds us of the both the opportunity and danger inherent within such significant cultural changes. Like the canal, what flows downstream will always be a mixture of the good and the bad and a lot of the in-between.

That’s why Christians cannot stand idly by in the face of transportation, communication, and technological advances. Whether it’s the canal, broadcasting, or the social media of our day, there will always be someone peddling golden plates upstream. Faithfulness requires engagement. Put your waders on. It’s time to speak and defend Truth.