Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History
Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History
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The Smithsonian Gets Religion

A new exhibit at the National Museum of American History looks at the role of religion—including Judaism—in early America

Jenna Weissman Joselit
August 17, 2017
Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History
Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History

The White House boasts an enormous Christmas tree, sponsors an Easter egg-rolling contest, hosts an annual prayer breakfast, and engages in weekly Bible study. In ways both large and small, its occupants—then, as now—routinely invoke the presence of the divine. So, too, do the nation’s politicians, both Democrat and Republican, who are given, rousingly, to concluding their speeches to the American public with the phrase “May God bless America.” Surely all this bespeaks a proud and public assertion of faith.

Curiously enough, the National Museum of American History, a part of the Smithsonian—that complex of museums in D.C. known fondly as the “nation’s attic”—has paid little attention to America’s religious landscape. While this stellar repository of Americana has trained its sights on nearly every aspect of the country’s past, from locomotion to Julia Child’s kitchen, religion has been conspicuously absent from its galleries. Until now.

A few weeks ago, “Religion in Early America,” a jewel of an exhibition, made its debut on the museum’s second floor. A handsome catalog with a more lyrical title, Objects of Devotion, accompanies the show, rounding out and elaborating on its themes of religious pluralism, cultural improvisation, and freedom.

“Religious traditions that were present here were far more diverse than many suspect, and the practical implication of this diversity was religious freedom,” explained Peter Manseau, the National Museum of American History’s newly appointed Lilly Endowment curator of American religious history. “There was not just one ‘city upon a hill,’ but many ‘cities,’ many hills,’” he added, expanding on John Winthrop’s famous comment about Puritan New England.

To get that point across, Manseau has populated “Religion in Early America” with objects that range in scale and variety as well as religious affiliation. From a miniature Noah’s Ark, a child’s toy of the 1820s, to a mighty church bell from Paul Revere’s foundry (yes, that Paul Revere), the exhibition also contains the restrained bonnet of a Quaker woman, an early edition of the Book of Mormon, a 13-page handwritten text in Arabic that outlines the basic teachings of Islam, and a hand-woven basket used to “pass the plate” in a Baptist church in Virginia.

There’s something for everyone. Even the early republic’s tiny Jewish community—all but invisible amid the thousands of churches then thick on the ground—is present and accounted for, especially within the catalog, whose pages are flanked by images of a Sefer Torah and a beribboned Torah mantle. I suspect that those with a penchant for quantifying—how many objects in the show represent the Jews? How many in the catalog?—are apt to be disappointed. But they shouldn’t be. Presence, not metrics, is the point.

Nestled side by side, as if “gathered in conversation,” the lively objects that make up “Religion in Early America” tell of communities in motion, of the intersection of the private and the public, and, most dramatically, of the “many ways religious ideas have remade the country.”


Why, then, had no exhibition on the varieties of American religious expression taken up residence within the precincts of the nation’s premier history museum? Was there something about religion that rendered it taboo? A political football? A cultural minefield? Or was the subject thought to be visually uninteresting, heavy on ideas, short on stuff? There must have been some compelling reason why America’s parade of faiths didn’t make the cut.

After all, it’s not as if the National Museum lacked the goods. By 1929, a published account of its “objects of religious ceremonials” ran to well over 200 pages. Bronze Buddhas and alabaster Buddhas; ivory, wood, and glass rosaries; a porcelain holy-water foundation; and a bishop’s miter; temple gongs, a Qu’ran stand; prayer rugs; and a wooden demon-queller from Japan filled its storerooms. There were even two wooden scale models of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Salt Lake City, and a bonanza of “Jewish religious ceremonial objects,” too.

Said to be the “largest and most complete, indeed that of the best anywhere,” the nation’s early 20th century holdings of Judaica ranged from ketubot (illustrated marriage contracts) and pewter seder plates to a metal Shield of David badge worn by delegates to the Second Zionist Congress and a “Jewish butcher stamp,” with the Hebrew word kosher written in relief.

Nor could one argue that the Smithsonian’s staff lacked the requisite expertise or intellectual enthusiasm. Curators with Ph.D.s in Semitics, among them Cyrus Adler and I.M. Casanowicz (both men held advanced degrees from Johns Hopkins), were hardly in short supply. What’s more, these two scholars worked assiduously to ensure that the nation’s preeminent museum paid “rigorous historical and scientific” attention to creed and cult.

At one time or another throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the divisions that bore responsibility for collecting ritual objects bore the designation of “Oriental studies,” “biblical antiquities,” “historic archaeology,” “historic religions,” and “Old World archaeology.” Bureaucratic meddling from on high did not mandate these changes so much as new and continuously emerging conceptual schemes about how to frame, understand, and enlarge the intellectual parameters of what constituted religious experience.

For years, it was standard practice for museums to “deal only with the religious practices and ideas of the barbarous nations,” Adler related, “and to treat but sparingly those of the more civilized and cultivated nations of the earth.” Instead, the Smithsonian focused on what it took to be the three foundational religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (“Mohammedanism” was once the preferred designation).

A complex and novel undertaking, its hand was guided by both ambition and taxonomy. The National Museum of American History and other institutions within the orbit of the Smithsonian were determined to take their place alongside other world-class, encyclopedic museums of the Western world. If the Louvre and the British Museum boasted comprehensive holdings of religious artifacts from the ancient world, their American counterpart was sure to follow suit. Scope was strategic: a matter of standing, of establishing the nation’s museological bona fides.

Imposing order and discipline on its varied holdings was just as important. A form of interpretation as well as an organizing principle, creating neat, tidy, and discrete categories of classification kept one religion at arm’s length, boxed off (quite literally), from another. As much a philosophical position as a curatorial one, its emphasis on taxonomy helps explain why the National Museum of American History was so reticent when it came to the American religious experience.

It didn’t fit the mold. Too new, too untried, too porous, too numerous, the American religious scene defied categorization. A blend of tradition and improvisation, its motley ceremonial objects were deemed unworthy of either study or display. More damning still, American religion lacked the supreme pedigree: historicity, the patina of old age.

Funny how things change. It’s those very disqualifications of yesteryear that render “Religion in Early America” a visual delight, a stimulating intellectual encounter as well as a necessary, if belated, corrective.


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Jenna Weissman Joselit, the Charles E. Smith Professor of Judaic Studies & Professor of History at the George Washington University, is currently at work on a biography of Mordecai M. Kaplan.