Friday, July 01, 2016

Talking Erie Canal: Jack Kelly's Heaven's Ditch

Jack Kelly's Heaven's Ditch has the enticing subtitle "God, Gold and Murder on the Erie Canal." When I first saw it, I assumed that the important part of that phrase was "Erie Canal." I was wrong: the key word is "God."
The western arm of New York State was the stage for some of the most dramatic developments in the United States in the early 19th century. It was large and fertile and potentially one of the best routes connecting the Atlantic Coast to the new Midwestern states. The geographic advantages led ambitious engineers and politicians to dream of a huge artificial waterway, the largest in North America. The same kind of ambition, directed to a different goal, inspired a different kind of dreamer to build godly societies. Western New York became the incubator of many different religious and social movements. People poured into the region in high hopes of striking it rich. Some succeeded, others were disappointed, sometimes times again and again. But winners and losers alike refuse to be discouraged. Western New York, its economy energized by the building of the canal, nourished wild dreams. And among those dreams were dreams of salvation and the creation of a Christian society.
Elsewhere, I have seen this region called the Burnt-over district, a reference to the many religious revivals that sprang up here or came through. The young United States had had a fair number of skeptical irreligious people, with both ordinary people and people of ambition following the founding fathers in rejecting the established religions of the early American colonies. But in the wilderness areas being settled after 1800, there was a revival of enthusiastic Christianity.
Heaven's Ditch is rich in personality sketches and anecdotes that illustrate the religious flavour of social change that took place in the wilderness. No doubt this comes from contemporary newspapers, which the literate if not highly educated American public enthusiastically read. We learn about many self-appointed leaders who went from settlement to settlement preaching conversion to a born-again, Biblical Christianity. More often than not they taught ideas quite different from the mainstream Protestantism which had been dominant for so long. William Miller for instance became famous for predicting that the end of the world would take place sometime around 1843. His prophecies reached far beyond the districts around the Erie Canal. A famous and significant failure-turned-leader was Joseph Smith, the prophet of Mormonism. And there are many more. In the brand-new society by the canal there was a free market in preaching and teaching. It was possible to write a huge new biblical testament such as the book of Mormon, one revealed to you by angelic and magical means, and be seen not as a probable fraud, given your lack of biblical languages such as Hebrew, but as a wonder of the new do-it-yourself society.
Of course it was not all smooth sailing. Richer and more established members of society were very sceptical of the new religious leaders, who they saw as marginal characters with little legitimate qualification to teach or reconstruct society.
One of the most interesting conflicts of the 1820s and 30s was between the Masons and their opponents. The Masons were an old-fashioned movement, devoted to an Enlightenment-style skepticism. In the Revolutionary period many of the Founding Fathers and other patriots were Masons, and as time went on, many of the local leaders of society joined the organization. But as time went on, Masons came to be resented for their domination of local society. Their cult of secrecy was seen as a threat to republican liberty. And when the new revivalist Christianity began to grow, the religious movement of course opposed the Enlightenment Masons.
In September 1826, an apostate Mason named William Morgan was kidnapped by some of his former friends, who were angry with Morgan because he had published a book revealing many Masonic cult secrets. Morgan was never seen again, and no one who actually knew what had happened to him was willing to go public. Morgan's fate became a widespread popular mystery, and more. For critics of the Masons, it proved that the secret society saw itself as above the law. Outrage turned into a movement, and a new political party, the Anti-Masonic Party. The Morgan scandal was the beginning of a great decline of Masonry; as years went on Masons were seen not as an American Enlightenment movement, but as a dangerous conspiracy of vigilantes. The Anti-Masons went on to be a national party that contributed to the formation of the Whigs.
This is just a single example of how the new country on either side of the Erie Canal generated wild, enthusiastic projects which seemingly came out of nowhere but went on to contribute to the mainstream. (Even the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints have to be regarded as such, given their nearly 200-year-long history and their prominence in the Mountain States.) And if American life and culture and politics seem wild and enthusiastic today, Jack Kelly's book reminds us that America comes by this kind of stuff honestly.
This is a very entertaining book, but I do miss a final discussion of how the Burnt-Over District settled down to be an unremarkable part of New York State.

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