New Smithsonian exhibit explores diversity of religion in early America

IMAGE: CNS photo/Chaz Muth

By Carolyn Mackenzie

(CNS) — The Smithsonian National Museum of American History’s new exhibition,
“Religion in Early America,” celebrates the free exercise of religion and the
religious diversity that define American faith life.

exhibit features artifacts from Christianity, Judaism, Islam
and other major world religions. Peter Manseau, the museum’s Lilly Endowment curator
of American religious history, is the author of several books and curator of the
new exhibit.

can’t really think about the role of religion in America today without
wondering about how it all began,” Manseau told Catholic News Service.

exhibit, which opened June 28, displays artifacts and stories of American religious life from the
1630s to the 1840s. Reflecting the many Christian denominations that made up
early America, it also features noteworthy items of Jewish, Islamic, Mormon,
Native American and other faith traditions. Visitors from diverse backgrounds
will likely find their own religious beliefs represented in the objects.

real power is seeing all of these together, and recognizing that these are all
part of the same American story,” Manseau said.

Some of
the exhibit’s biggest draws are the Jefferson Bible, the George Washington
Inaugural Bible, Archbishop John Carroll’s chalice and paten and a church bell
forged by Paul Revere. Manseau explained that the Jefferson Bible is an edition
of the New Testament that Thomas Jefferson edited himself, removing certain
passages while including others.

wanted to create a story of the life and teachings of Jesus that was in line
with his understanding of the Enlightenment, with his desire to lead a
reason-led life,” Manseau said. “So he went through several copies of the New
Testament with a penknife in hand and cut out those parts that he agreed with,
and glued them together into a new book that he called ‘The Life and Morals of
Jesus of Nazareth.'”

noteworthy objects include the Communion cup of Gov. John Winthrop of
Massachusetts, a Torah scroll damaged in 1776 during the British occupation of
Manhattan, a 19th-century Arabic manuscript and an iron cross made by the first
English Catholics in Maryland. Pope Francis used this cross at his papal Mass
in Washington in 2015.

to tradition, it was made by the first English Catholics who came to America on
the Ark and the Dove in 1634,” Manseau said. “When they needed a cross to use
in their public worship, they took iron ballast beams and had a blacksmith
pound them together into a new iron cross that they used.”

penned the book “Objects of Devotion: Religion in Early America,” which
presents images of some of the exhibit’s artifacts and tells stories of
religious movements and figures in American history.

exhibit and book both highlight the influence of the Carroll family on
Catholicism in America. Charles Carroll, the only Catholic signer of the
Declaration of Independence, became a senator in the newly formed government.
His cousin, Archbishop Carroll of Baltimore, became the first bishop in the
United States, founded Georgetown University in Washington, and worked to
create other schools and religious communities.

pointed out a chalice on display that belonged to Archbishop Carroll,
explaining that such chalices were designed to be taken apart and disguised as
a bell when placed on the side of a saddle. Such disguise was helpful to
priests at a time when Catholicism was often met with disdain.

“We try
to tell the full story of early Catholic experience in America, and we don’t
shy away from this early bigotry against Catholics,” Manseau said as he
described the purpose of such saddle chalices.

“And so
we tell stories like that, but also stories of early Catholic triumphs, such as
the building of the Baltimore basilica, again through the leadership of Bishop
John Carroll,” Manseau said.

many of the Catholic artifacts come from the mid-Atlantic, the exhibit does not
organize its items based on religion. Rather, “Religion in Early America” is
arranged by region, an approach that displays how America’s beliefs are diverse
in location as well as in content.

than presenting this story chronologically, we decided that presenting it regionally
would be the best way to show that there was diversity in every part of early
America,” Manseau said. “So we have exhibit cases on New England, the
mid-Atlantic and the South. In each of those regions there were a number of
different religious traditions that were trying to establish themselves to be a
part of the public square, and we wanted to show that that happened across

exhibit does not so much strive to paint a depiction of the everyday early
American’s religious life as it emphasizes the diversity characteristic of the
United States since the earliest settlers arrived.

“I think
that the main takeaway that people have when they come into ‘Religion in Early
America’ is that the religious traditions that were present here were far more
diverse than many suspect, and that the practical implication of this diversity
really was religious freedom,” Manseau said.

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Note: The “Religion in Early America” exhibit runs until June 3, 2018. It can
be viewed online at

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