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Q&A: New Smithsonian project reveals religious backstory to ordinary items of early American life

POSTED: May 1, 2017 11:01 a.m.
Kelsey Dallas/

Peter Manseau

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What do George Washington's christening robe, early Mormon currency and a bell made by Paul Revere have in common? They all help tell the complicated tale of religion in early American life.

The robe, in addition to being an interesting relic from the first president's life, illustrates how homes, where the president was christened, could be a sacred space for colonial families. The gold coins and wrinkled bills capture a persecuted minority's quest for independence. And the bell shows how professional skills were brought to serve personal faith.

These items and dozens of others populate the pages of "Objects of Devotion: Religion in Early America" (Smithsonian Books, $29.95), a book written to accompany a forthcoming exhibit at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. The items and the stories behind them help readers and exhibit visitors recognize how much faith communities have changed in 350 years — and also how much has remained the same.

"To be in its presence is also to discover that an object such as (an) old, rugged cross is not merely a piece of the past. It is part of an ongoing story of belief and believers, the places that brought them together and the objects that both shaped and came to symbolize the complex system of relationships that together are known as religion," writes the book's author, Peter Manseau, in its introduction.

Manseau, a religious historian and museum curator, brought objects as diverse as a Noah's Ark play set and the notes James Madison spoke from to call for the Bill of Rights, shedding light on America's centuries-long struggle to create a religiously diverse society that would guarantee freedom for all.

"We wanted to tell this story not just as a conflict between ideas, but through objects," he said. "These ideas were not just something people debated, but something that people lived."

Manseau, who also authored "One Nation Under Gods: A New American History" and other popular books, spoke to us about the lessons he learned while researching this project and what our belongings tell us about ourselves.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What do Americans misunderstand about religious practice during the 17th and 18th centuries?

The exhibit and book have three takeaways. We wanted to highlight the interaction of religious freedom, religious diversity and religious growth in the period from 1630 to 1830.

I think that when people encounter the book or visit the museum, the first thing they'll be struck by is that religion in early America was far more diverse than many people learned in school.

Despite early efforts to create homogenous religious communities, religious disagreement was a fact of American religious life from the very beginning. When the first Europeans arrived, they were joining a landscape that was already full of diverse religious perspectives.

This idea of religious freedom that we take for granted was born of practical necessity. There were so many religious groups vying for a space in the public square, and the only way for them to interact was to institutionalize religious freedom.

At the time, many people thought this religious freedom would create a situation in which religion became a lesser cultural and moral force. Exactly the opposite happened, and it was only with the disestablishment of state religion that you had this great explosion of religious devotion.

The interaction of religious freedom, religious diversity and religious growth sets the stage for the way we continue to think about and live with religion in America today.

I usually think of religious freedom as an ideal to debate in legislatures or courtrooms. How did you capture it in religious objects?

We have a tendency to think about religion in early America as a history of ideas. Of course it was, and religious freedom is a very powerful idea.

But the advantage of telling this story in a museum space and book is that it forces us to look at objects and to consider the material culture in which these things came about. It forces us to think about the individual journeys and stories that contributed to these ideas.

One of my favorite little objects in the book and exhibit is a compass used by Roger Williams when he was exiled from Massachusetts in the 1630s. He was made to leave because of a heretical religious notion, but it's a story that can be told with an object.

He used his sundial compass to find his way into what would become Rhode Island to establish the colony of Providence, where he set the stage for religious freedom law in America.

How did you choose which objects to highlight?

A lot of that decision, given the time period, came down to finding out what's available. When you're talking about the 17th century, you don't have a huge amount of material culture to work with.

We were trying to find right objects to tell the right stories, and to find ways to bring different stories into conversation.

For example, it was natural to include something like the Winthrop cup, a cup used by the first governor of Massachusetts, John Winthrop. He brought it across the ocean and eventually gave it to the First Church of Boston.

The Winthrop cup is clearly a religious object, and we were able to put it in conversation with objects that don't seem that religious. The cup is shown next to Williams' compass, enabling us to share the story they tell together.

In addition to highlighting little-known or surprising objects, the book features some untold stories from members of minority religious groups. Why did you want to include diverse voices?

We wanted to tell a story that was reflective of the majority and minority cultures and to show moments of interaction between those two populations.

It was a matter of reaching out to communities still in existence today to find out what objects they still have to reflect the early parts of their history.

One such group was the Jewish community in New York. I had known of Congregation Shearith Israel, an early synagogue in the city, and I made a trip there to talk with them. I was astonished by the number of treasures they have.

We ended up including a Torah scroll that was damaged during the Revolution. It tells a fascinating story as an object, because when you unroll it, you can still see the burn marks left when soldiers occupying the synagogue set it on fire.

It's an object that almost functions like a photograph in terms of capturing a moment in time. By unpacking that story, you can also tell a much larger story of community, of resilience and of a desire to be part of the spectrum of religious life in America.

Today, much of our lives, including some spiritual practices, take place online. Will an exhibit like this be possible a few centuries from now?

I think you're right that there's been a move toward the digital world in our culture, but that doesn't mean we've moved away from objects.

In 200 years, people will tell the story of how we interface with the internet and the story of how religion has moved into these little computers we carry around in our pockets.

That would capture something that's a common theme throughout the book and exhibit: that the objects we use to tell the story of religion in America aren't necessarily obviously religious objects.

For example, we've included Cherokee stickball sticks, used in a game that would eventually become lacrosse. When stickball was originally played by the Cherokee and other North American Indian tribes, it was as much as a religious ritual as it was an athletic pastime. It was played under the direction of a medicine man and used as a ritual battle between good and evil.

Objects that don't necessarily seem religious illustrate that most stories in American history have a religious dimension if you look for it. The same will be true of the objects we interact with now.

What's the biggest lesson you learned from this project?

I learned that these objects tell stories that are still unfolding. You can't necessarily know the full significance of an objects by looking at its role upon its earliest use.

The example I like to point to for this is the Eliot Bible, the first Bible printed in North America. It was in the Algonquian language, and it contributed or sought to contribute to the conversion of Native Americans.

If we tell the story one way, the Eliot Bible contributed to the demise of indigenous culture. It's true that that's part of the story. The language in which that Bible was written fell into disuse over the course of generations.

But a fascinating thing happened late in the 20th century. A Wampanoag woman wanted to learn what the language of her ancestors sounded like. She became a linguist and, for her doctoral work, she tried to re-create the Algonquian language. The only source she could look back to was this Eliot translation of the Bible. She was able to use it and rebuild the language.

In a very unlikely way, the book saved the language. Objects have a way of being part of stories that unfold over generations, even over centuries.
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