Written by Don Byrd

A new exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History entitled “Religion in Early America” features artifacts marking America’s diverse history of religion from the colonial period through 1840. I am super excited to see it when I get the chance – the exhibit continues until June 3, 2018.

Reading about it in Smithsonian Magazine, I continue to be moved and impressed by the clear connection between America’s religious diversity and our commitment to religious freedom. The health of one signals the health of the other. This was true even in early America, through an influx of competing views of Christianity, alongside numerous other faith traditions. Peter Manseau, the museum’s curator of religious history, makes the case:

This outpouring of faith established a connection between religious diversity, freedom and growth. “If they didn’t find a way to live together, they would never create a society that would function as one,” Manseau says. “And, contrary to the fears of many in early America, this creation of religious freedom did not lead to the decline of religion as a cultural or moral force, but rather led to explosive growth of religious denominations.”

Items in the exhibit include Thomas Jefferson’s personalized Bible, John Eliot’s 1663 Algonquin Bible, a 17th-century cross from the first Catholic community in North America, a 19th-century manuscript from an enslaved Muslim, and a 1640 edition of the Puritan hymnal. This is apparently the first exhibit to explore early American religion, and is the initial stage in a 5-year program designed to “integrate faith into the collections through scholarship, exhibitions, events and performances.”

NPR has more on the exhibit here in a story from June 28.

Next time you are in D.C., check it out and let me know what you think.