(WASHINGTON, DC) --Accommodating different—and sometimes conflicting—religious views can be a controversial prospect in America. The Smithsonian’s new religion curator believes the past can offer some guidance.
“Religious diversity is not a new question. It’s not a new problem,” said Peter Manseau, who works at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. “This is something that we’ve been negotiating around and trying to work out since the earliest moments of our history.”
For the first time ever, the popular National Museum of American History in Washington, DC is highlighting the role of religion in the formation of the United States. The new exhibition, “Religion in Early America,” examines religious diversity, freedom and growth from the colonial era through the 1840s. It will be open until June 2018 and is part of a larger Smithsonian exhibit about the ideals of freedom in America.
Manseau told me he believes it’s significant that the Smithsonian is including religious freedom in the mix.
“These are really fundamental questions about what it means to be an American and who gets to be an American,” he said.
Manseau was hired last year to be the Lilly Endowment Curator of American Religious History--the Smithsonian’s first curator of religion in more than a hundred years. He believes American history cannot be properly understood without examining religion.
“The touchstones of our common culture—America’s music, literature, arts and even its sports—are impossible to imagine without the distinctive blend of deep faith and irreverent doubt that has marked American attitudes toward religion since colonial times,” Manseau wrote in Objects of Devotion, the Smithsonian’s companion book to the new exhibition. “Regardless of one’s own beliefs, the cultural significance of religion remains relevant to all.”
For the “Religion in Early America” exhibit, Manseau helped assemble artifacts from the Smithsonian’s collection, as well as items on loan from private collections.
Among the featured artifacts are: George Washington’s 1732 christening robe and the Bible used when he was sworn into office; the 1640 Bay Psalm Book, considered America’s first hymnal; a church bell crafted by Paul Revere; Puritan leader Roger Williams’ compass sundial; a cloak worn by Quaker minister, abolitionist and women’s right activist Lucretia Mott; a handwritten manuscript from the Book of Mormon; and a mid-18th century portable pulpit used by itinerant preacher George Whitefield.
There are also early signs of religious skepticism. The exhibit includes Thomas Jefferson’s book The Life and Moral of Jesus of Nazareth, also known as “The Jefferson Bible.” Displayed next to it is a New Testament with passages that have been cut out.
“Jefferson, during his retirement, is spending a lot of time reading the New Testament and wondering how he can reconcile the teachings of Jesus with the ideals of the Enlightenment, with reason. So, he decides that he will go through the New Testament with penknife in hand and cut out the parts that he agrees with,” Manseau said. “He takes those pieces …and he pastes them into this book that he creates.”
The exhibit acknowledges that spiritual practices were here well before the Europeans arrived. On display are Native American wampum beads, which held religious ritual significance well beyond their use as a form of cash. The exhibit also contains lacrosse-like sticks, which were used in Native American sacred rituals.
“Europeans came to the Americas and found a land already full of religious beliefs and practices,” Manseau said.
According to Manseau, the original thirteen states became home to three thousand churches and more than a dozen Christian denominations, as well as a variety of other faiths, including Judaism, Islam and traditional African practices.
One unusual artifact is an early nineteenth century Islamic text, written by Bilali Muhammad, an enslaved Muslim in Georgia. It is the only known Islamic text written by a Muslim slave in America. Manseau said the text appears to contain basic Islamic teachings, such as when Muslims pray and why they wash their hands and feet before prayers. There are also “some snippets of half-memorized Islamic legal texts,” and some very basic paraphrases of the Quran, although they are not written in standard Arabic. “Scholars still struggle with it,” Manseau said, adding, “They believe the author was trying to put down what he remembers about Islamic practice.”
There is also a Torah scroll on loan from New York’s Congregation Shearith Israel, which was founded in 1654. The scroll was damaged when Hessian soldiers set the synagogue on fire in 1776.
Among the Catholic items on display are a 17th century cross believed to have been made from iron taken from the ships on which the first English Catholics arrived in Maryland, and a chalice used by Archbishop John Carroll, the first Roman Catholic prelate in the US. The exhibit notes that when colonial laws made it illegal for Catholics to practice their religion, some priests disguised liturgical items, for example, disassembling chalices and making them look like bells.
Manseau said, taken together, the exhibit shows that living together amid diversity has always been a matter of negotiation.
“Most visitors will be surprised how diverse religion in early America was and the practical implication of that diversity eventually was religious freedom,” said Manseau.
“It can remind us that … the idea of religious freedom as we think of it now was not immediate, and it was not inevitable,” he added. “Every generation needs to make sense of how different and conflicting beliefs can be part of the same society.”