Exhibit showcases the earliest stirrings of American religious diversity

Quotes from Jonathan Edwards, left, and Omar ibn Said in the “Religion in Early America” exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

WASHINGTON (RNS) Enter the “Religion in Early America” exhibit and there are objects you expect to find: Bibles, a hymnal and christening items.

But on closer inspection, a broader picture of faith in the Colonial era emerges: a Bible translated into the language of the Wampanoag people, the Torah scroll of the first synagogue in North America and a text written by a slave who wanted to pass on the essentials of his Muslim heritage.

“Religion in early America was not just Puritans and the Pilgrims, and then the Anglicans and the negotiation of Christian diversity,” said Peter Manseau, curator of the exhibit that opens Wednesday (June 28) at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

“It was a much bigger picture. It was a story of many different communities with conflicting, competing beliefs, coexisting over time with greater and lesser degrees of engagement with each other.”

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A church bell display at the “Religion in Early America” exhibit in Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History/Jaclyn Nash

The yearlong exhibit, part of the museum’s “The Nation We Build Together” series of exhibitions, demonstrates mostly through material objects the range of religious expression from Colonial times through the 1840s.

The gallery that recounts religious freedom, diversity and growth is bookended by two large physical depictions of religious life.

Peter Manseau is curator of American religious history at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Photo courtesy of Peter Manseau

On one end is an 800-pound church bell crafted by revolutionary rider Paul Revere in 1802 that hung for three decades in a Unitarian Universalist church in Maine and later was used to call factory workers to a textile mill in North Andover, Mass.

“Ministers would say, ‘I know that I can find a better sounding bell if I import one from Europe but because I’m a patriot, I’m going to buy a Paul Revere bell,’’’ said Manseau, author of the exhibit-related book “Objects of Devotion: Religion in Early America.”

At the other end of the exhibition space is a foldable pulpit used in the fields of the English Colonies by evangelist George Whitefield in the First Great Awakening of the 1700s.

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“It’s a representation of the changing forms of worship in America that then transformed the nation,” Manseau said of the growth in denominations such as Methodism, which had more than 18,000 churches by 1860. “This was a new way of experiencing religious devotion, a very emotionally driven way, sort of a carnival atmosphere — religion as spectacle rather than something endured through long Puritan sermons.”

Also on view: a Boston-based evangelist’s translation of the Bible into the Algonquian language of the Wampanoag people, creating what became the first published Bible in the U.S., with hopes of converting Native Americans. Manseau said it was used mostly so colonists could say to people back in England “look what’s possible for converting native America if you continue to fund our missions.”

The Mid-Atlantic region display of the the “Religion in Early America” exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History/Jaclyn Nash

Harvard Divinity School scholar Catherine Brekus, an expert on the history of religion in America, said it’s appropriate for the exhibit to reflect the range of religions that existed in early America.

“We tend to think much more about the Pilgrims but in fact the original 13 Colonies were really very religiously diverse,” including “lots of different Native American religions,” as well as Catholics, Jews and Muslims. “The middle colonies — Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Maryland — were the most religiously diverse in early America and most linguistically diverse too.”

Beyond traditional Protestant life, the exhibit depicts what it calls the “flowerings of religious devotion,” as well as objects influencing faith found already existing when the Pilgrims arrived.

On display are a 1654 Torah scroll from New York’s Congregation Shearith Israel, a page from the 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon and the iron cross believed to be fashioned from the ships that brought the first English Catholics to Maryland.

Some scholars estimate that 20 percent of African-born men and women were followers of Islam before they were transported as captives.

A 13-page Arabic document written by Muslim slave Bilali Muhammad in the 19th century. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

A 13-page Arabic document written by Bilali Muhammad in the early 19th century reveals the efforts of a man who lived on Sapelo Island, Ga., to leave a legacy of his Muslim faith. Considered the only known religious text written by a Muslim slave in the U.S., it includes passages from the Quran as well as details on the basics of Islamic practice — from the times of prayer to explanations for washing hands and feet before praying.

“What it seems to be is a document written by someone who is in the process of forgetting a language and trying to remember it,” said Manseau. “It seems that, on this remote island plantation where he lived, he was making an effort to pass along his beliefs and practices to the following generation.”

In contrast, just a step or two away from that small volume is a portrait of Omar ibn Said, a slave jailed in Fayetteville, N.C., after an escape attempt who wrote Arabic verses on his cell with a piece of coal. He converted to Christianity after being sold to a prominent Presbyterian family.

“He becomes, in a minor way, kind of a media figure in the 19th century,” said Manseau of a time when stories of his conversion in the Southern Christian press placated fears sparked by a recent Muslim slave revolt in Brazil. “They point to him as basically the good Muslim who abandoned Islam for Christianity.”

The exhibit also includes numerous examples of how faith was lived outside of houses of worship and within homes.

There is an 1820s playset of 45 Noah’s Ark figures and a children’s book from the mid-1800s that begins with “A is for Adam.” And there’s a silver bowl from the home of Virginia patriot George Mason.

A Noah’s Ark playset from the 1820s, when many children were allowed to play with “Sunday toys.” RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

“George Mason might throw a party and chill his wine glasses in this bowl but then the next day, or the next Sunday, would christen his children in this bowl,” said Manseau. “There was no separation. There was no sense that one was profane and one was sacred.”

About half of the objects, such as Thomas Jefferson’s 1820 unorthodox version of the Bible and George Washington’s christening robe from 1732, are part of the Smithsonian’s collection, and some have appeared in past exhibitions. The rest — such as African Methodist Episcopal Church founder Richard Allen’s candlesticks and hymnal and Rhode Island founder Roger Williams’ compass and sundial — are on loan.

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The exhibit, which closes June 3 next year, is part of a larger initiative by the museum to feature religion in a variety of dimensions, including theater and musical presentations. Manseau, who wrote “One Nation, Under Gods,” said future exhibits are planned that will focus on how religion intersects with other aspects of evolving American culture.

“Religious liberty was not immediate,” he said. “It was not inevitable. It was born of very practical concerns by practical people trying to create a new nation and a new way of thinking.”

About the author

Adelle M. Banks

Adelle M. Banks, production editor and a national reporter, joined RNS in 1995. An award-winning journalist, she previously was the religion reporter at the Orlando Sentinel and a reporter at The Providence Journal and newspapers in the upstate New York communities of Syracuse and Binghamton.


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  • They conveniently left out where Puritans tortured and hung dissenters for not paying the church tax or not believing the Puritan rules, or where the Anglicans whipped and drowned baptist preachers, or where the christians here executed over a million indians for not converting to christianity.

    Cannot allow this fake history to stand and make them sound like good upstanding christians while Methodists were hanging 119 catholics in st augustine.

  • “Omar ibn Sayyid Was Not A Christian”
    I attempted to submit this response to Peter Manseau (Smithsonian) however he has yet to respond. Also, there are 2 writing document samples from Omar ibn Sayid, dated 1853 and 1857 that I refer to in this commentary, that unfortunately I forsee no way to upload for clarity of reference. Regardless, I hope that readers will be able to follow, just the same.

    Unfortunately this “idea”that Omar ibn Sayyid “publicly converted to Christianity” must be corrected.

    The document shown here in your FB Post is dated from 1853. It starts
    out with the “Bismillahir Rahmanir Raheem”, which means “In the Name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful”. It continues with “Sal Allahu A’la Sayyidina Muhammad”, which means “Peace and Blessings of Allah be upon our Prophet Muhamad”. This is the common proper etiquette whenever a Muslim writes a document of a religious nature, not to mention the Quran instructs Muslims to “offer prayers and salutations upon Prophet Muhammad, just as Allah and His angels offer salutations and blessings. (Surah AHzab 33:56 )

    “Allah and His angels send blessings on the Prophet: O ye that believe! Send ye blessings on him, and salute him with all respect.”

    Further in this letter you have posted is the mentioning by Omar that he is sending a gift to Mr. Thooni Tailor. Mr. Thooni Tailor is not a Muslim. The “gift” is Surah Fatiha written in the middle of the page.

    “Surah Fatiha” is the Opening Chapter of the Quran, recited by Muslims at least 19 times daily in their daily prayers. Why would a man who converted to Christianity write or send such things to a Christian? (Remember Omar ibn Sayyid wrote his autobiography in 1821.)

    Why would a man who converted to Christianity speak about “Allah” and send prayers and salutations upon “Our Prophet Muhammad”, or write Surah Fatiha, the Opening Chapter of the Quran?

    Let’s follow the timeline of
    Omar’s documents and his behavior.

    As I mentioned, this document you posted is from 1853.

    Since Omar ibn Sayyid calculated time by the Hijri Islamic calendar, he would have been born in 1770, but by Hijri calendar conversion that would be 1183AH. In 1853 the Hijri year would be 1269AH and
    Omar would be 86 years old. In 1857 the Hijri year would be 1273AH and Omar would be 90 years old . In the year 1863 the Hijri year would be 1279AH which was the year of his death and he would have been 96 years old.

    I gave you this to keep things in proper perspective.
    (Remember Omar ibn Sayyid wrote his autobiography in 1821.)

    This document you posted from 1853 Omar would be 86 years old. The
    last known handwritten document of Omar ibn Sayyid is mistakenly identified by the recipient of the writing as “The Lord’s Prayer”, when it is actually “Surah Nasr” the 110th chapter of the Quran.

    The recipient, states the date as July 27, 1857 describing Omar as “88 years of age and a devout Christian.” This was written 4 years after your 1853 document.

    Immediately after writing the first verse of Surah Nasr, which title translates as “Help or Victory of Allah”, Omar has inserted his own commentary or tafsir into the text.

    Omar ibn Sayyid is now 90 years old, writing “Surah Nasr” the 110th chapter of the Quran, which means

    “Help or Victory of Allah”,
    and immediately after this first verse, which reads: “When comes the help of Allah and victory”……..Omar ibn Sayyid writes this commentary or tafsir “Good News for the Believers”.

    Those who can read Arabic, can see it “Qariyba wa Bashril Mu’mineen” which means “Good News for the Believers (Muslims)”. At the very end of thechapter he has written, Omar ibn Sayyid follows through again with the proper etiquette of a Muslim by writing the word “Tamat, which means “it is finished” and he writes “ismiy Omar” which means “my name is Omar”.

    This is the last known written documents of Omar ibn Sayyid at 90 years old writing Quran from memory and adding his own commentary. This exact same commentary would be written by other Fulani Muslims involved in the 1835 Muslim Slave Rebellions of Brazil.

    Why would a man who converted to Christianity, after 42 years of not having access to an Arabic Quran write this so impeccably from memory or give such things to a Christian as a gift?

    Please, please, please never repeat the idea that Omar ibn Sayyid converted to Christianity. This is an erroneous unauthenticated
    hypothesis/argument of those who “don’t know the difference between Surah Nasr and the Lord’s Prayer.” I humbly request that you edit and correct your post/article/exhibit accordingly.

    The unfamiliar American non-Arabic speaking public takes information and exhibits posted by institutions like Smithsonian, as being authentic and correct, when in reality, it is an incorrect premise and unauthentic postulate.

    Your readers can see this and other historically accurate presentations regarding the history and lives of African Muslims enslaved in the Americas on our social media below. We are a multi-award winning non profit. We do tour the US with the best of “live” dramatic “living history performances” and traveling exhibits. “The best of educational heritage enrichment programs.”