Smithsonian Exhibit Shows Religious Diversity in Early American Life

By Banks, Adelle M. | The Christian Century, August 30, 2017 | Go to article overview

Smithsonian Exhibit Shows Religious Diversity in Early American Life


Banks, Adelle M., The Christian Century


Walk around the Religion in Early America exhibit and a broad picture of faith in the colonial era emerges: there's a Bible translated into the language of the Wampanoag people, the Torah scroll from the first synagogue in North America, and a text written by a slave who wanted to pass on his Muslim heritage.

"Religion in early America was not just Puritans and the Pilgrims," said Peter Manseau, curator of the exhibit, which opened recently at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. "It was a story of many different communities with conflicting, competing beliefs, coexisting over time with greater and lesser degrees of engagement with each other."

The yearlong exhibit, part of the museum's The Nation We Build Together series of exhibitions, demonstrates the range of religious expression from colonial times through the 1840s.

The gallery that recounts religious freedom, diversity, and growth is bookended by two depictions of religious life. On one end is an 800-pound church bell crafted by revolutionary rider Paul Revere in 1802. At the other end is a foldable pulpit used in the fields of the English colonies by evangelist George Whitefield in the First Great Awakening of the 1700s.

"It's a representation of the changing forms of worship in America that then transformed the nation," Manseau said, referring to the growth in denominations such as Methodism, which had more than 18,000 churches by 1860. "This was a new way of experiencing religious devotion, a very emotionally driven way."

Also on view: a Boston-based evangelist's translation of the Bible into the Algonquian language of the Wampanoag people, creating what became the first published Bible in the United States, with hopes of converting Native Americans.

Catherine Brekus, a scholar of the history of religion in America at Harvard Divinity School, said it's appropriate for the exhibit to reflect the range of religions that existed in early America.

"The original 13 colonies were really very religiously diverse," including "lots of different Native American religions," as well as Jews and Muslims. "The middle colonies--Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Maryland--were the most religiously diverse in early America and most linguistically diverse, too."

On display are a 1654 Torah scroll from New York's Congregation Shearith Israel, a page from the 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon, and an iron cross believed to have been fashioned from the ships that brought the first English Catholics to Maryland. …

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