If you drive into Palmyra, New York, today you’ll come upon a site not unlike what the Mormon founder Joseph Smith saw two hundred years ago: a cluster of four tall steeples rising from four Protestant churches. Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, and Episcopalians confront each other at adjacent corners of the town’s crossroads. Though they aren’t the same steeples as in Smith’s day, the inter-denominational face off was already in force, leading Smith to reflect: “There was in the place where we lived an unusual excitement on the subject of religion. . . . 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.”
In a newly settled land rife with new religious movements in direct competition for people’s souls, Smith was able to work within the discord to form something fresh and novel. As is well known through contemporary caricature and acclaim alike, he forged one of the most powerful religious traditions operating in the world today.
What isn’t so well known is that the origins of Mormonism, like the origins of many American religious practices and beliefs, are deeply bound up with the birth of the Erie Canal, on whose banks the town of Palmyra grew. The early lives of both Joseph Smith and Brigham Young were nourished by canal-based social and economic developments, and ultimately the printing and distribution of the Book of Mormon would not have had an impact without the canalway.
The first great social space in the United States was not Boston Common, William Penn’s Philadelphia squares or L’Enfant’s great avenues of Washington, D.C. It was an artificial river, 4 feet deep and 40 feet wide, cutting across New York state.
Like the Silk Road in Asia, the Erie Canal not only established physical links across geographic regions, it also remade the social and religious lives of everyone it touched. Albany newspapers, Genesee flour, Syracuse salt and Western timber traveled on the canal alongside theater groups, former slaves, tourists, industrialists and religious revivalists.