If historians have their way, Americans will soon learn how important religion has been in US history

Historians in the News
tags: religion



Visitors to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History could be forgiven for thinking that religion has not played a large role in the nation’s history. Most are more interested in seeing Dorothy’s ruby slippers anyway, but the stories told by the official repository of artifacts from United States history have largely steered clear of involving religion to any meaningful degree. This is about to change, thanks to the work of many prominent scholars of American religion. On March 20, NMAH hosted a symposium on Religion in Early America, organized by Stephen Prothero, to introduce the museum’s plans regarding religion and to discuss some major issues in its representation.

NMAH%2BSunstone.jpgMormon sunstone capital from the original Nauvoo temple (currently on display at the National Museum of American History) Photo by Charles Richter, 2015

Introducing the symposium, NMAH director John Grayannounced both an exhibit on religion in early America scheduled to open in 2017, on the second floor of the newly remodeled west wing, and the museum’s goal to hire a permanent curator of religion. The initial exhibit will be curated by David Allison, associate director of curatorial affairs, and guest curator Peter Manseau, whom many readers of this blog will know from his recent book One Nation Under Gods. The exhibit will include such artifacts as Lucretia Mott’s cloak, George Washington’s christening robe, and the Jefferson Bible, on which the museum recently performed significant conservation work.

In his opening and closing remarks, Prothero, who had initially been brought to NMAH on a fellowship following the God in America PBS series, described religion in America as “connected, contested, and complicated.” The challenge for the museum is to represent the interconnected nature of the stories of religion in America while also acknowledging the conflicts, not only between religious traditions, but also over the interpretations and definitions of religion itself. The exhibit and symposium both address three major themes: religious freedom, religious growth, and religious diversity....




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