To Understand How Religion Shapes America, Look To Its Early Days

"We can't tell the story of America without telling the story of religion," Manseau says, "and we can't answer questions about the importance of religion today without going back to earlier generations."

The persecution that Puritans faced in England was a key factor driving them to the New World. So it also was with Quakers, Baptists, Shakers, Jews, and other religious minorities, all of whom saw America as a place they would finally be free to practice their faith.

 

Religion has played an outsized role in U.S. history and politics, but it’s one that has often gone unrecognized in U.S. museums.

“As a focused subject area, it’s been neglected,” says Peter Manseau, a scholar and writer installed last year as the first full-time religion curator at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History.

America’s exceptional commitment to religious freedom stems from the diversity of its faith traditions. The rebellious attitudes prevalent in frontier settlements fostered the growth of evangelical movements. African slaves introduced Islam to America. The drive to abolish slavery was led largely by Christian preachers.

“We can’t tell the story of America without telling the story of religion,” Manseau says, “and we can’t answer questions about the importance of religion today without going back to earlier generations.”

Manseau’s appointment as curator and his inaugural Religion in Early America exhibit signal “the beginning of a renewed engagement with the role of religion in American history,” according to John L. Gray, the museum director. Each of the objects in Manseau’s exhibit adds a special dimension to the larger narrative.

The oldest item in the collection is the Bay Psalm Book, a translation of the Psalms assembled by a team of educated Puritans in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1640. The Puritans split from the Church of England, determined to purify the practice of their faith. The only songs they allowed in their worship were the Psalms, but they needed a Psalm book for their services.

“It’s a great example of the do-it-yourself approach to American religion that you see again and again,” says Manseau, who holds a Ph.D. in the history of religion from Georgetown University and is the author of several books. “Separated from the cultures in which these traditions were born, there’s a need to improvise, a need to make things new, with the materials at hand.”

The persecution that Puritans faced in England was a key factor driving them to the New World. So it also was with Quakers, Baptists, Shakers, Jews, and other religious minorities, all of whom saw America as a place they would finally be free to practice their faith.

“This country, somewhat uniquely, is a nation of transplanted religions,” Manseau says, “interacting with the beliefs and practices that were here, but also with new traditions coming in, learning and needing to negotiate, to compromise, and finding ways to live together. The practical implication of this diversity was religious freedom and the disestablishment of any particular church.”

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