“Religion in Early America” Exhibition Opens June 28 at Smithsonian

National Museum of American History Asks How Did Religious Freedom Shape America?

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History will for the first time explore the role of religion in the formation and development of the U.S. with the exhibition, “Religion in Early America.” Opening June 28 in The Nicholas F. and Eugenia Taubman Gallery, this inaugural exhibition will look at the themes of religious diversity, freedom and growth from the colonial era through the 1840s. It will close June 3, 2018.  

“Religion in Early America” will open in a newly transformed wing of the museum’s second floor. Under the theme, The Nation We Build Together, the exhibitions on this floor tell the story of America’s founding and future as a country built and building on the ideals and ideas of freedom and opportunity.

The exhibit will highlight religious traditions in the northern, southern and mid-Atlantic regions of the U.S. On display will be national treasures from the museum’s collection, including George Washington’s christening robe from 1732; Thomas Jefferson’s The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, also known as “The Jefferson Bible”; a cloak worn by abolitionist Quaker minister Lucretia Mott; and Wampum beads, which had religious uses as well as serving as currency.

A new acquisition on view in the exhibit is an 800-pound Revere and Son bronze bell made in Boston in 1802 for a Maine Congregational church. It later hung in the tower of the Stevens textile mill in North Andover, Mass. The bell is a gift of J.P. Stevens & Co. Inc., through the American Textile History Museum Collection.

“America is known throughout the world as a place where all are free to believe and worship as they choose, but our journey to religious freedom is a complex and fascinating story,” said Peter Manseau, the Lilly Endowment Curator of American Religious History. “We cannot hope to understand the history of the United States without grappling with how, why and what early Americans believed.”

The exhibition will also feature objects of religious significance on loan from museums, institutions and private individuals:

  • Torah scroll on loan from New York’s Congregation Shearith Israel, founded in 1654
  • 19th-century Arabic manuscript written by a Muslim enslaved in Georgia from the University of Georgia library
  • 17th-century cross from Georgetown University believed to have been made from iron taken from the ships the Ark and the Dove on which the first English Catholics arrived in Maryland
  • Handwritten page from the Book of Mormon manuscript

“Religion in Early America” was made possible by leadership support from Ambassador Nicholas F. Taubman and Mrs. Eugenia L. Taubman. Generous support came from the Foundation for Religious Literacy and H. Bruce McEver. The museum will continue to document the country’s diverse spiritual traditions through a major multi-year religion initiative made possible by a $5 million grant from Lilly Endowment Inc. The grant provides a permanent endowment for a curator in American religion, as well as support for scholarship, future exhibition planning and performances exploring religious faith through music and theater.

Religion Symposium

On June 26, the museum will host a religion exhibition preview and celebration with a “Religion in Early America” symposium from 6 to 9 p.m., featuring music by Grammy-nominated shape note singer Tim Eriksen. Manseau will lead a panel discussion with Jenna Weissman Joselit, professor of Judaic Studies at George Washington University, and Stephen Prothero, professor of religion at Boston University. Registration for the free event is at http://bit.ly/nmahREAsymposium.

Companion Book

Objects of Devotion: Religion in Early America by Peter Manseau and published by Smithsonian Books is the exhibition’s illustrated companion volume. It explores the wide range of religious traditions. The original 13 states were home to approximately 3,000 churches and more than a dozen Christian denominations, as well as a variety of other faiths, including Judaism, Islam, traditional African practices and Native American beliefs.

The “Religion in Early America” website is at: https://americanhistory.si.edu/religion-in-early-america.

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Amelia Avalos
(202) 633-3129 

Melinda Machado
(202) 633-3129