The bicentennial of the start of the Erie Canal, just 10 miles from Hamilton College, was marked in 2017. At first linking Utica and Rome, the canal eventually stretched the 363 miles from Albany to Buffalo. Its impact on the economic development of the young United States has long been discussed in historical literature. What isn’t often noted is the impact of the canal on the religious life of the United States.
Visiting Associate Professor of Religious Studies Brent Plate became fascinated by the coincidences he saw between the socio-economic prominence of the canal in the 19th century and the rise of numerous religious movements along the canalway. The Mormons, spiritualism, and the Adventists all began along the canal, while communal societies such as the Oneida Community, Amana Colony, and the Shakers all passed through the area. Meanwhile, the religiously infused social movements of abolition and women’s rights gained significant energy along the canalway.
In the past year, Plate wrote and spoke about a number of these 19th century developments in various public settings.
Writing in the leading Jesuit magazine, America, Plate told the story of Austin Steward, former slave in Virginia who became a well-respected businessman in Rochester, N.Y., leading religious movements and becoming president of the utopian Wilberforce Colony in Ontario, Canada.
Plate argues, “In a land where a former slave like Steward could become a successful business owner and Sunday School teacher on Main Street in a booming canal city, the perfectible state of humanity seemed to be within range.”
Religion Dispatches published Plate’s essay on Matilda Joslyn Gage, who along with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, was one of the leaders of the women’s rights movement in the 19th century. Gage, who was a cousin to 1818 Hamilton graduate and abolitionist Gerrit Smith, lived in Fayetteville, N.Y.; her childhood home was a stop on the underground railroad. Gage’s life was lived along the canalway, and the new modes of transportation allowed constant contact with new forms of activism and intellectual thought.
Among the many groups to emerge out of the canal, few were as prominent as Mormonism. In an essay for Sacred Matters, Plate notes the ways the development of early Mormonism would have been impossible without the canal. The two prominent early leaders of the Mormon tradition, Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, both lived and worked in the canalway, and the printing of the Book of Mormon in 1830 was reliant on the transportation pathways to transport a printing press and published materials.
In addition, Plate’s brief overview of “The Erie Canal and the Birth of American Religion” ran in Religion News Service, and was published by several newspapers across the country.
Plate brought several of these themes together in lectures that he delivered at Colgate University’s “Heretic’s Club,” the Oneida County Historical Society, and the regional meeting of the American Academy of Religion.
In March, Plate also discussed “The Erie Canal and the Birth of American Religion” on The Academic Minute, a syndicated radio program that airs locally on WAMC/Northeast Public Radio.