Who Owns the Oldest Synagogue Building in the United States?

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Touro Synagogue, Newport, R.I.

A federal court just ruled that Congregation Shearith Israel (Manhattan, 1654), the oldest Jewish congregation in America, owns Touro Synagogue (Newport, R.I.), the oldest synagogue building (1763) in America.

Find out more by reading Sharon Otterman’s story at The New York Times.

Here is a taste:

Two Jewish synagogues consider themselves the oldest in the nation, for different reasons. Shearith Israel, founded in Manhattan in 1654, is the oldest congregation, though it is not located in its original building. Touro Synagogue, in Newport, R.I., built in 1763, is the oldest synagogue building.

But now a federal court has ruled that Shearith Israel in New York actually owns the Touro Synagogue building in Newport, the result of twists in a history spanning centuries.

Justice David H. Souter, the retired associate justice of the Supreme Court, wrote the opinion for the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston issued on Wednesday. In it, he overturned a district-court ruling that the congregation that has worshiped for more than 130 years in the Touro Synagogue building, Jeshuat Israel, had control over the building and its objects.

The appeals court instead enforced a series of contracts between the two congregations from the 20th century, in which Jeshuat Israel acknowledged that it was leasing the Newport building. Now, what may be the country’s most historic synagogue building — which George Washington visited in 1790, inspiring an important letter on religious freedom — is officially owned by a group that is based 180 miles away.

The reasons are complicated. When Newport’s Jews faced persecution during the American Revolution, they fled the town and the synagogue building, many for New York. Without a congregation in Newport, Shearith Israel took control of the synagogue, along with the sacred ritual objects with which the congregants fled. Among the objects was a pair of decorative knobs with attached bells made of silver and gold designed to top the shafts around which the Torah scrolls were rolled.

Read the rest here.

 

Nimrod Hughes and the Apocalypse of 1812

NimrodNimrod Hughes believed that one-third of the world’s population would be destroyed on June 4, 1812.  Read all about it at Past is Present, the blog of the American Antiquarian Society:

Hughes’s prophetic pamphlet was titled A solemn warning to all the dwellers upon earth, given forth in obedience to the express command of the Lord God, as communicated by Him, in several extraordinary visions and miraculous revelations, confirmed by sundry plain but wonderful signs, unto Nimrod Hughes, of the county of Washington, in Virginia, upon whom the awful duty of making this publication, has been laid and enforced; by many admonitions and severe chastisements of the Lord, for the space of ten months and nine days of unjust and close confinement in the prison of Abingdon, wherein he was shewn, that the certain destruction of one third of mankind, as foretold in the Scriptures, must take place on the fourth day of June, in the year of our Lord 1812. In it, Hughes claimed to have received apocalyptic visions from God during a recent imprisonment. A Solemn Warning was a bestseller, and many editions were published from mid-1811 into 1812, including at least six in English and two in German. On October 25, 1811, the Carlisle Gazette noted that “[Nimrod Hughes’s] prophecies are eagerly sought after from every corner, and the printers are hardly able to keep pace with the uncommon demand.” The popularity of this pamphlet eventually spawned a massive assault against Nimrod Hughes and his prophetic pretensions in the press.

Read the entire piece here.

The best thing I have read on Nimrod Hughes and people like him is Susan Juster’s Doomsayers: Anglo-American Prophecy in the Age of Revolution.

Missionaries in the “Era of Good Feelings”

The Author's Corner with Emily Conroy-KrutzOn Tuesday, we called your attention to Sara Georgini’s series on the “Era of Good Feelings” at the U.S. Intellectual History Blog.

The series continues with a piece by Emily Conroy-Krutz of Michigan State University. Some of you may recall that Conroy-Krutz visited the Author’s Corner in September 2015 to discuss her book Christian Imperialism: Converting the World in the Early American Republic.

In her post at the USIH blog she discusses “Missionary Intelligence and Americans’ Mental Map of the World” in the Era of Good Feelings.

Here is a taste:

Throughout its history, an important part of the foreign missions movement was communicating what they termed “missionary intelligence,” sharing information about the world with their domestic supporters who might never leave their home communities. By the 1830s, missionary promoters were convinced that it was only American ignorance about the world that prevented the mission movement from receiving the high levels of support that they felt it deserved. The solution to such a quandary was for the foreign mission movement to continue to educate the country about the world at large. Geographic, ethnographic, and political information about the world made up much of the published materials of the mission movement of this era.

This educational role reveals the ways that missionaries saw themselves as important mediators between the world and the nation. Like trade and commercial networks of the same era, the foreign mission movement connected the United States to a much larger world. If we want to understand the mental map of early 19th century Americans, the foreign missions movement provides us with a helpful point of entry. And if we want to understand the diplomacy of the early republic, we ought to think more about these missionaries.

Read the entire post here.

The First Shaker Village in the United States

WatervleitAtlas Obscura is featuring some of the early American architecture of Watervliet, New York, the first Shaker village in the United States.  Here is a taste of the accompanying piece:

The millenarian Christian sect, fleeing persecution in England and isolating themselves from wider society in colonial America, established their village near what is now Albany, New York in 1776. Many of the buildings in the town, which stands just southwest of the Albany Airport, have been demolished, but the site still includes nine of the town’s original buildings built between the 1820s and 1920s, as well as the main Meeting House built in 1848 (which replaced the original built in 1791).

In addition to the large worship space, the Meeting House also includes a museum with many examples of Shaker products, village artifacts, and interpretive displays. Many of these artifacts have simple, uniquely Shaker designs. The sect not only farmed to meet their own needs but also created manufacturing industries, inventing or improving many products to sell very profitably to the public.

Read the entire piece here.

The Erie Canal: Religion and America’s “First Great Social Space”

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Lockport, NY on the Erie Canal, 1839 (Wikipedia Commons)

In The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society I wrote about the way the ABS used water as a metaphor to describe its work during the early 19th century:

The ABS owed owed much of its distribution success to burgeoning American infrastructure.  The construction of the Erie Canal and other canals reduced by months the time it took to send Bibles from New York to growing river and lake cities like Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and St. Louis.  ABS packages traveled down the Ohio or Mississippi and along the tributaries extending from these mighty rivers.  A representative from the Pittsburgh Bible Society described ABS packages as floating “messengers of salvation,” making visits to the “huts of the poor and destitute” on the frontier.  Fitting with a nation committed to building itself through travel across rivers, lakes, and canals, the ABS and its auxiliaries often used water metaphors to describe the distribution process.  The Bible traveled along “little streams” that flowed into the “mighty river” of the Christian nation that the ABS hoped to forge.  The distribution of the Bible was like the opening of a great “flood gate” that poured through the “arid regions” of the country, serving as a “streamlet to water every plant.”  The managers of the Indiana Bible Society, using a passage from the Book of Ezekiel, described the process of distribution as “Holy Water” issued from the “Sanctuary” that “spread wide and flowed deep, and all things lived wheresoever the waters came.” Both literally and figuratively, the ABS was using water to link remote and scattered settlements into a Bible nation.

A few years before I started working on The Bible Cause, I was asked to appear on a radio show to talk about the relationship between early American religion and the Erie Canal. I declined the offer.  I was busy at the time and I did not think I had much to say on the subject.  When they asked me if I knew of anyone else who might be qualified to appear on the program I wish I knew about the work of S. Brent Rodriguez-Plate.

Check out the Hamilton College religious studies professor’s recent piece at Religion News Service, “The Eric Canal and the birth of American Religion.”

Here is a taste:

The first great social space in the United States was not Boston Common, William Penn’s Philadelphia squares or L’Enfant’s great avenues of Washington, D.C.

It was an artificial river, 4 feet deep and 40 feet wide, cutting across New York state.

Like the Silk Road in Asia, the Erie Canal not only established physical links across geographic regions, it also remade the social and religious lives of everyone it touched.

Albany newspapers, Genesee flour, Syracuse salt and Western timber traveled on the canal alongside theater groups, former slaves, tourists, industrialists and religious revivalists. This “one thronged street, from Buffalo to Albany,” as Nathaniel Hawthorne phrased it, exceeded its transportation uses to become an empire builder, a political-economic superpower that was inextricable from a spiritual empire.

Physical work on the Erie Canal began on July 4, 1817, when upstate New York was one vast wilderness in the eye of the young nation. Within three decades of its opening this “psychic highway” cultivated experimental spiritual groups, including the Mormons, the Adventists, spiritualists, followers of a revived apocalypticism and utopian communal societies such as the Oneida Community, with the Amana Colony and the Shakers passing through. The emotion-laden revivals of the Second Great Awakening also ignited along the way, giving rise to the evangelicalism that we know today.

Read the entire piece here.

Early American Religion at the Smithsonian

Aerial_view_of_National_Museum_of_American_History (1)

Are you looking for something to do this weekend?

Why not head to Washington D.C. to see the new “Religion in Early America” exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History?  The exhibit, which is curated by historian Peter Manseau, is part of a larger exhibit on American identity titled “The Nation We Build Together.” It opened this week.

Over at Religion News Service, Adelle Banks reports on the new exhibit:

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.”

Read the rest here.

Scholars Tackle White Supremacy and American Christian History

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Alma White founded the Pillar of Fire Church in 1901.  She was associated with the KKK and anti-Catholicism.  This is a 1926 issue of the church’s magazine (Wikipedia Commons)

The Religion & Culture Forum is running a series of posts on the history of the relationship between white supremacy and Christianity in modern America.  A taste:

The June issue of the Forum features Kelly J. Baker’s essay, “The Artifacts of White Supremacy.” Discussions about racism—and white supremacy in particular—tend to treat it as a matter of belief, while there’s considerably less talk of how racialized hate becomes tangible and real. And yet, we know the Ku Klux Klan, the oldest hate group in the U.S., by their hoods and robes. Artifacts signal (and often embody) the racist ideology of the Klan, along with their particular brand of Protestantism and nationalism. Robes, fiery crosses, and even the American flag were all material objects employed by the 1920s Klan to convey their “gospel” of white supremacy. The Klan’s religious nationalism, its vision of a white Protestant America, became tangible in each of these artifacts, and each artifact reflected the order’s religious and racial intolerance. Nationalism (or “100% Americanism”), Protestant Christianity, and white supremacy became inextricably linked in these material objects. Examining the historical artifacts of white supremacy helps us to better understand how white supremacy manifests today and might also help us better identify and analyze the presence and effect of racism in American life and politics.

Over the next few weeks, scholars will offer responses to Baker’s essay. We invite you to join the conversation by sharing your thoughts and questions in the comments section below.

Responses:

Fred Clark, aka Slacktivist, has written a nice post on the forum.  Read it here.  I was particular struck by his use of a quote from Randall Stephens’s response to Baker.   Here it is:

In the 1920s, America’s most famous crusading fundamentalist, Billy Sunday, made some efforts to keep his distance from the Klan. But Klansmen tended to see the revivalist as a kindred spirit. Without cozying up too much to the organization, Sunday found ways to praise the robed terrorists. Other traveling preachers like Bob Jones, Alma White, B. B. Crimm, Charlie Taylor, and Raymond T. Richey lauded the white supremacist groups in their sermons and publications. Billy Sunday’s ardent prohibitionism, biblical literalism, and nativism made him particularly attractive in the eyes of Klan members. In 1922 a South Bend, Indiana, newspaper cracked a bleak joke about their mutual affection. “Down in West Virginia the other day,” an editor noted, the Klan “slipped Billy Sunday the sum of $200. With Sunday’s O.K., that ought to put the K.K.K. in good standing with old St. Peter.” Sunday returned the favor with kind words about Klansmen who lent a hand in police vice raids. The revivalist would accept other larger-than-average donations from the Klan at revivals in Indiana, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Louisiana between 1922 and 1925. In Richmond, Indiana, Klansmen showed up to give him their donation decked out in all their full regalia. Fittingly, in 1923 a Klan-supporting editor in Texas rhapsodized: “I find the preachers of the Protestant faith almost solid for the Klan and its ideals, with here and there an isolated minister … who will line up with the Catholics in their fight on Protestantism, but that kind of preacher is persona non grata in most every congregation in Texas.”

Again, check out the entire Religion & Culture Forum series here.

When Removing Monuments Strengthens Our Knowledge of the Past

St. Paul

Earlier this week we posted on Kate Shellnut’s Christianity Today article on the way that churches in the South are dealing with their Confederate legacy and monuments.

Since I wrote that post I learned about similar efforts at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, the so-called “Cathedral of the Confederacy.”  Jefferson Davis was a member of this church.  Robert E. Lee worshiped there during the Civil War.

In recent years the church has formed the “History and Racial Reconciliation Initiative” to deal with Confederate symbols in the church, including Confederate battle flags. According to this article at Episcopal News Service, some of these symbols have been removed. Others have not, but the church continues to have conversations about what is appropriate.

Some of the comments on the Episcopal News Service piece have not been pretty.  Here are a few:

Historical “censorship” and revisionism as demonstrated above, is intellectually dishonest, spiritually counterfeit and an anathema to freedom. Actions like these, as innocuous as they appear, are small steps on the path to totalitarianism.

What seems to be lost in all of this is that History is important. We don’t need to be erasing it, we need to learn from it! If we destroy all of the symbols of periods of history we do not like, what have we accomplished? Nothing except a little misguided “feel good” for those in favor of the destruction of the symbols. The same symbols that people want to destroy provide us with a chance to explain how we have resolved those issues, grown as a Church and as churchmen, and understand and respect the journeys of those who lived though those times struggled with their own faith. What can be wrong with that? Have we not learned from the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Holocaust, and from the Civil Rights Movement? Should we destroy the Holocaust Museum, etc.. I hope not.

The confederacy is a part of our history. It is wrong to glorify it, but I think we need to remember it so that we don’t let this happen again. Sweeping things under the rug don’t make them go away, compassion and justice keep them from happening again. I was born and raised in Miami. My family lived in Key West and had slaves and freed them but still provided for them as long as they lived. It is our history, we can’t make it go away – we need to remember.

Political correctness has gone too far when it results in the re-writing of history. It’s our past and we all live with it. The USSR was the last regime in my lifetime to attempt to re-write history. I am saddened the U. S. is going that way.

One of the leaders of the History and Racial Reconciliation Initiative is public and religious historian Christopher Graham.  (He is mentioned in the article).

Graham has turned to his blog “Whig Hill” to address some of the negative comments. He argues that the history conversations at St. Paul’s have actually led the members of the congregation to have a better understanding of their shared past.

Here is a taste of his post:

To the main point; I’ve heard this charge often—that pulling down monuments is erasure; that we’ll know less and be deprived of the opportunity to learn and be inspired—even if by the transcendence of error. Never have had an adequate response to it until now.

What has happened at St. Paul’s is a rebuke to the assertion that we’re erasing the past. Since removing a small number of Confederate icons from the sanctuary, St. Paul’s now knows more about its own history than it ever has.

Even at this early stage of the HRI process, the people at St. Paul’s are able to articulate:

  • Who congregants were in the 1850s and how they fit into Richmond’s slave based economy.
  • How their faith reconciled slaveholding with Christianity, and how they enacted that faith to shape the racial-religious landscape of Richmond.
  • How sharing wartime anxiety, adrenaline, and grief (and yes, faith in the Confederacy’s ultimate cause) tied the church’s identity to the Confederate nation and its leaders.
  • How the narrative of racial difference forged in slavery continued to shape Episcopalian practice in Virginia (and beyond) for a century after 1865.
  • How the stories this church told itself with its memorials contributed to the “Lost Cause” explanation of the Confederacy—and in doing so constructed a history of race and slavery that reinforced efforts to disfranchise and marginalize African Americans in political, economic, and social life in Richmond in the twentieth century.
  • Who among its parishioners that supported the movement toward legal segregation in the 1902 Constitution, the 1912 and 1914 city segregation ordnances, the 1924 Racial Integrity Act, and the 1926 Massenberg Bill. (Most, likely, at the first, but a decreasing number by the last.)
  • Who among its parishioners and clergy (Bowie, Munford, Tucker, Carrington) that tirelessly and passionately opposed the adoption of these laws, and promoted anti-lynching and anti-Klan legislation, even if we recognize that they did so because of their racial paternalism.
  • How churchmen and churchwomen of St. Paul’s—along with the rest of Richmond’s elite—challenged and shaped the geography and culture of segregation that dominated the twentieth century and that we still see the vestiges of today.

These are just a small and incomplete sampling of the points upon which we’re developing a new narrative about our own past.

We haven’t erased history. Indeed, the removal of a small number of tablets has served as a catalyst for knowing more. And that may be my key takeaway in this particular moment: whether you alter a memorial landscape or not, the action can’t be the only thing, but just one point in a larger process of discovery and re-inscription. Moving things may not even be the most important element of that process in the end.

I can’t say (because nothing has been decided) what will become of the items removed, or those that remain. In fact, this process and the discussions around it have ranged far beyond the location of memorials. But I do know that the knowledge that we’re beginning to carry about our past, present, and future, feels far more consequential right now.

Read Graham’s entire post here.  This is a wonderful model for how to bring good history to bear on the life of religious congregations.  I am glad that Graham is involved in this initiative.

I wonder what it might look like to have a similar conversation in a church that places an American flag in the sanctuary.

Call for Papers: Women and Religion in the Early Americas

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Mary Maples Dunn

Ann Little, aka Historiann, is co-editing a special edition of Early American Studies in honor of the late Mary Maples Dunn.  Here is the call for papers:

Call For Papers: Women and Religion in the Early Americas

For a special issue in honor of the life and career of Mary Maples Dunn, Early American Studies seeks article-length contributions from scholars working on the history of women and religion in the early Americas. Mary Maples Dunn (1931-2017) was a leading practitioner of women’s history, as a scholar, as a teacher, and in her life as a university leader. She worked in a variety of fields from early American women’s history; to colonial Latin American history; to the history of religious women; to the history of women’s education as well as, of course, the worlds of William Penn and early Philadelphia.

The editors invite essays that consider the history of early American women, early American religion (or both) and are especially interested in work that makes cross-cultural comparisons or integrates multiple Atlantic orientations: North and South (French, British, Dutch, Spanish and/or Portuguese) East and West (from European and/or African links to Native American perspectives). We are interested in both formal article-length contributions (10,000 words) and in shorter essays on “Notes and Documents” that highlight innovative or creative ways of reading/using primary-source documents (3,000-5,000 words).

To submit, please email a 3-page CV and a 1,000 word summary of the contribution you propose to write by September 30 to Ann Little (ann.little@colostate.edu) and Nicole Eustace (nicole.eustace@nyu.edu). Please use the subject line “Mary Maples Dunn Special Issue Submission.” We will notify you of your preliminary acceptance by October 31, 2017 and final essays are due on April 30, 2018. Articles are to be published, subject to peer review, in 2019.

The Author’s Corner With Doug Winiarski

WinarskiDouglas Winiarski is Associate Professor of Religious Studies and American Studies at the University of Richmond.  This interview is based on his new book Darkness Falls of the Land of Light: Experiencing Religious Awakenings in Eighteenth-Century New England (University of North Carolina Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Darkness Falls on the Land of Light?

DWAn earthquake, actually, and a stunning discovery at a public library in Massachusetts. I was a master’s student at Harvard Divinity School looking for some interesting texts to study for a paper I had planned to write about popular religious responses to the famed Great Earthquake of 1727. On a broiling hot summer day in 1995, I drove up to the public library in Haverhill, Massachusetts—which was located near the epicenter of the earthquake—hoping to examine the town’s earliest Congregational church record book. The archivist gruffly informed me that the original volume was too delicate to be retrieved from their vault. But after a little prodding he wandered into the back room pulled out a small bundle of manuscripts: hundreds of neatly trimmed slips of paper bearing short religious narratives written by nearly everyone in the community, from wealthy merchants and Harvard graduates to obscure single women and African Americans.  Half of them had been composed during the surge of church admissions that followed the earthquake. The Haverhill relations turned out to be one of the richest—and certainly one of the largest—collections of religious autobiographical writings composed in British North America prior to 1750. And only a handful of scholars had ever seen them. It’s an experience I’ll never forget. I knew instantly that I had a story to tell about the religious experiences of ordinary people in eighteenth-century New England. Figuring out what that story was, however, required more than two decades of archival work in New England and abroad.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument Darkness Falls on the Land of Light?

DWThe rise of trans-Atlantic evangelicalism during New England’s era of great awakenings sundered an inclusive and flourishing Congregational establishment. The key agents inciting this dynamic and divisive change were not prominent ministers and theologians such as Jonathan Edwards, but ordinary people who learned to experience religion in extraordinary new ways over the course of the eighteenth century.

JF: Why do we need to read Darkness Falls on the Land of Light?

DW: Darkness Falls on the Land of Light is the first book to examine both the thriving Congregational system in provincial New England and the shattering of that system entirely through the religious experiences of lay men and women. The book features an eclectic cast of fascinating characters and unusual events. And it’s built on a vast array of remarkable manuscripts. Although Darkness Falls on the Land of Light is primarily a study of the transformation of New England Congregationalism, readers will come away with a greater appreciation for the diversity of denominations in the region by the time of the American Revolution: Anglicans, Baptists of varying stripes, sectarian groups, and “nothingarians,” or people who held all religious institutions at arm’s length. Above all, I devote considerable attention to examining the costs of the so-called Great Awakening revivals of eighteenth century, something that scholars have been slow to acknowledge. The “people called New Lights”—progenitors of today’s evangelicals—were religious insurgents, troublemakers, radicals; and many of them were bent on breaking apart the Congregational establishment. New Englanders struggled to come to terms with the marketplace of fractious and competitive religious groups that emerged from the revivals. It’s as important a story today as it was during the eighteenth century.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

DWI guess you could say I’m a child of the American Bicentennial. I was caught up with the celebrations and pageantry of my home town in 1976. Four years later, my mother took me on a trip to visit Revolutionary War sites in Boston. I can still remember walking the Freedom Trail and visiting the Old South Church for the first time. I had no idea that these places would play such a prominent role in my professional life. It wasn’t until the final week of college that one of my mentors encouraged me to connect my interest in early American history with my recent undergraduate training in religious studies by applying to graduate school. Suddenly, everything seemed to fall into place.

JF: What is your next project?

DWI am currently working on a new book that explores the fascinating but troubled relationship between the earliest western Shaker converts and the followers of Tenskwatawa, the controversial Shawnee Prophet and brother of the famed war captain Tecumseh, during the years leading up to the War of 1812. The story of the Shakers and the Shawnee Prophet—at least as I envision it at this early stage—is about a religious culture that might have been, one that could have taken shape in the crucible of the early American frontier. It’s a tragic tale in which two notorious groups of dangerous religious outsiders briefly discovered common ground and mutual respect within a racially charged and violent backcountry world. Perhaps when it’s finished, the book may offer a cautionary message for our own times about how we, as a society, should think about religious difference and the relationship between religion and violence. We’ll see.

JF: Thanks, Doug!

The Author’s Corner With Jenna Weissman Joselit

StoneJenna Weissman Joselit is Charles E. Smith Professor of Judaic Studies and Professor of History at George Washington University.  This interview is based on her new book Set in Stone: America’s Embrace of the Ten Commandments (Oxford University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Set in Stone?

JWJ: The importance that so many contemporary Americans attach to having the Ten Commandments a visible part of their physical environment piqued my curiosity, prompting me to look for the origins of that relationship both within and without the confines of the sanctuary. I wanted to know more about how earlier generations of Americans kept these ancient dos and don’ts close at hand – and why.  Many twists and turns later, which brought me to phenomena as disparate as mid-19th century archaeological sites in central Ohio and 20th century Hollywood movies, I came away with a heightened understanding of the multiple ways in which the Ten Commandments imprinted themselves on the modern American imagination.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Set in Stone?

JWJ: The presence of the Ten Commandments is vital to, even an anchor of, American identity as well as a testament to the porousness of the divide between religion and culture.

JF: Why do we need to read Set in Stone?

JWJ: In a word: context.  By exploring how previous generations variously celebrated, redefined, visualized, domesticated, miniaturized and monumentalized the Ten Commandments, the book offers its readers the opportunity to think about the relationship of the past to the present and with it, the life cycle of a religious and cultural phenomenon that is at once divine and earthly, word and object.  In the wake of the Civil War, the Reformed Church Messenger suggested it was high time for Americans to take another look at the Ten Commandments, or, in its words, to “air” and “ventilate” them.  I’d like to think that, a century and a half later, Set in Stone does much the same thing.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

JWJ: I wish I could say that I experienced some kind of eureka moment when everything fell into place and my career path was clearly set forth, but that didn’t happen.  Instead I drifted into becoming an historian. From a very young age, I loved to write and to concoct stories and majoring in American history at college seemed like a good fit as well as a creative outlet.  By the time I entered graduate school, I had come to understand that the discipline of history was also a high-stakes enterprise. I relish its fusion of creativity and responsibility.

JF: What is your next project?

JWJ: At the moment I’m considering a couple of options.  Having very much enjoyed casting Set in Stone as a series of narrative accounts, I would like to try my hand at writing an honest-to-goodness mystery set in the past.  We’ll see.

JF: Thanks, Jenna!

Summer in the Archives

ArchivesMicrofilm

I will be in the archives this summer.  If all works out as I have planned it, I hope to be spending some time at the New Jersey State Archives in Trenton.  Stay tuned.

Over at Religion in American History, Cara Burnridge has collected some of that blog’s “‘greatest hits” on American religious history archives.

Here’s a small taste:

Now that RAAC2017 has come and gone,* summer is in full swing. For me, and I suspect many readers too, that means it’s time for archival research. Fortunately, we’ve accumulated a quite a few posts for those who might be researching for the first time or heading somewhere new. Here’s a round-up of what we’ve posted previously.

Read the rest here.

Court Evangelical Robert Jeffress: “Why don’t we ever hear terrorists shout ‘this is for Jesus Christ'”

I am not excusing what happened in London this weekend. It was a tragedy.  I pray for the families of the victims, law enforcement, and our global leaders as they seek wisdom for how to deal with the threat of ISIS and other forms of Islamic terrorism.

But please Robert Jeffress, learn some history before you start spouting off on Twitter.

Just a quick scan of the “Christian terrorism” Wikipedia page reveals:

  • 1605: In the Gunpowder Plot Guy Fawkes and English Catholics try to assassinate James I and blog up Parliament.
  • 1860s and 1870s: Ku Klux Klan claimed to perform their acts of terrorism against African Americans in the name of white Protestant Christianity.
  • 1920s:  KKK again
  • 1971: A Catholic extremist group called Ilaga killed 70-100 Muslims worshiping in a Mosque
  • Since 1993, 11 people have been killed in attacks on abortion clinics in the United States.

And this is just a very small sampling.

None of these acts represent the true spirit of Christianity, which is a religion of peace and love for one’s enemies. But let’s not claim that terrorists have never acted in the name of Jesus.

I will agree with one thing in Jeffress’s tweet.  We need to pray.

Friendship in Early America

JSHI just learned that the theme of the recent issue of the Journal of Social History is “Friendship in Early America.”

Here is the table of contents:

Janet Moore Lindman, “Histories of Friendship in Early America: An Introduction”

Gregory Smithers, “‘Our Hands and Hearts are Joined Together’: Friendship, Colonialism, and the Cherokee People in Early America”

Shelby Balik, “‘Dear Christian Friends’: Charity Bryant, Sylvia Drake, and the Making of a Spiritual Network”

Thomas Balcerski, “‘A Work of Friendship’: Nathaniel Hawthorne, Franklin Pierce, and the Politics of Enmity in the Civil War Era”

Janet Moore Lindman, “‘This Union of the Soul’: Spiritual Friendship among Early American Protestants”

Nik Ribianszky, “‘Tell Them that My Dayly Thoughts are with Them as Though I was Amidst Them All”: Friendship among Property-Owning Free People of Color in Nineteenth-Century Natchez, Mississippi.

African Muslims in Early America

National-Museum-of-African-American-History-and-Culture-1-1020x610

The National Museum of African American History & Culture website has a very informative feature on African Muslims in early America.  Online exhibits of this nature will go a long way toward debunking the myth, popular among many conservative evangelicals today, that the arrival of Muslims in the United States is a relatively new phenomenon.

Here is a taste:

While we do not know exactly how many African Muslims were enslaved and transported to the New World, there are clues in legal doctrines, slaveholders’ documents, and existing cultural and religious traditions. African Muslims were caught in the middle of complicated social and legal attitudes from the very moment they landed on our Eastern shores, and collections at the Museum help provide insight into their lives.

African Muslims were an integral part of creating America from mapping its borders to fighting against British rule. Muslims first came to North America in the 1500s as part of colonial expeditions. One of these explorers was a man named Mustafa Zemmouri, also known as Estevanico, who was sold by the Portuguese into slavery in 1522. While enslaved by Spanish conquistador Andrés Dorantes de Carranza, Estevanico became one of the first Africans to set foot on the North American continent. He explored Florida and the Gulf Coast, eventually traveling as far west as New Mexico.

African Muslims also fought alongside colonists during the Revolutionary War (1775-1783). Multiple men with Muslim names appear on the military muster rolls, including Bampett Muhamed, Yusuf ben Ali (also known as Joseph Benhaley), and Joseph Saba. Other men listed on muster rolls have names that are likely connected to Islamic practice, such as Salem Poor and Peter Salem, whose names may reflect a form of the Arabic salaam, meaning peace. These men often distinguished themselves on the battlefield.

The founding fathers were aware of Islam and the presence of Muslims in America. Thomas Jefferson, who owned a copy of the Qur’an, included Islam in many of his early writings and political treatises. Campaigning for religious freedom in Virginia, Jefferson argued in the proposed “Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom” that, “neither Pagan nor Mahamedan [Muslim] nor Jew ought to be excluded from the civil rights of the Commonwealth because of his religion.” Unfortunately, this language was amended before ratification to remove references to non-Christian groups. Jefferson was not the only statesman who recognized religions other than Christianity in his work. However, their knowledge of and theoretical openness to Islam did not stop them from enslaving African Muslims.

Read the piece and see the artifacts here.

The Author’s Corner With Douglas Thompson

RichmondDouglas Thompson is Associate Professor of History in the College of Liberal Arts at Mercer University.  This interview is based on his new book Richmond’s Priests and Prophets: Race, Religion, and Social Change in the Civil Rights Era (University of Alabama Press, 2017)

JF: What led you to write Richmond’s Priests and Prophets?

DT: I never intended to write this book. A lot of the research for this project had been done for a dissertation. When I completed the Ph.D., I already had a job in a teaching university so publishing a book, particularly turning a dissertation into a book, did not register on my radar. Once I abandoned the “dream” of being a dean because it took me away from the classroom, I sketched out a research agenda that included a project on how automobiles transformed the American South. When I applied for a sabbatical, the plan was to begin the research on that project and develop an article for publication to float the idea for the larger project. Every time I sat down to work on the car project, however, I kept thinking about the Richmond research. Just before my sabbatical I pulled out the dissertation and began tearing it apart.

After a feverish month I had a chapter written and drafted out the reimagined book. I sent the chapter off to two people I trust—one a specialist in religious history and one who is not—and told them to decide whether I should pursue the book on Richmond. Both readers encouraged me to write it, so I spent the sabbatical covering some new research and writing the book. The peer review draft went to the University of Alabama Press as I came off sabbatical.

JF: In two sentences what is the argument of the book?

DT: Outside the glare of the 1960s spectacles of marches, kneel-ins, and sit-ins Richmond’s ministers and congregations provide a compelling story about how white Christians wrestled with social change. Without overstating the findings, their variety of responses shed light on Christianity as an agent of change in social movements.

JF: Why do we need to read Richmond’s Priests and Prophets?

DT: I wrote the book for a middle ground between academics and practitioners of Christianity. While I dislike the term microhistory, the narrow focus helps us see how events on the ground both looked like the larger civil rights narrative but also how people disrupted that story.  My hope is that people will read about how folks tried to make progress and used denominational mechanisms to bring about change but also to impede change in desegregating schools and congregations. Chapter one addresses an idea found initially in Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma and repeated since then that the church is not the church unless its functions in its ideal form. Even as Myrdal praised black congregations for conserving cultural identities within African American communities, he blamed white Christians for failing to condemn segregation and racism. In fact, the same forces that help black congregations sustain cultural norms also inform how white congregations might resist desegregation.

In Richmond, I found lots of Christians doing what Myrdal called for but I also found other people attempting to maintain segregation in churches. A good example of this is when white Presbyterians opened a two-week desegregated summer camp in 1957 and maintained the practice through the end of the decade and beyond, but First Presbyterian Church, Richmond spent three years trying to undo that work. The traditional way to interpret this episode is that the progressive move to desegregate was prophetic and that FPC had a conservative reaction. The problem with that simple reading is that it misses two points about desegregation. First, the presbytery had created at least two black congregations so there were children within the presbytery who would not be able to attend and it could not afford a separate camp. Second, the arguments for desegregation were not forward thinking but backward glancing. Presbytery leaders took seriously the command in the Torah, emphasized in prophets like Amos, and taught in Jesus’ treatment of the neighbor that the stranger is a son or daughter of God. The nature of the prophetic voice is not politically progressive although we tend to think about it that way. Richmond’s religious newspaper editors, ministerial association, as well as Methodists and Presbyterians present an array of approaches to desegregation. Their stories can help us understand social change and churches in our present day.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

DT: I am still coming to terms with that one. There was a day not long into my sabbatical when I had written something and realized that idea was all mine. A few weeks later someone asked what I did and I responded “I am an historian” for the first time, usually I would say teacher or professor.

The other way to answer that question is to tell the story of my first semester in seminary. I had Bill Leonard—Baptist historian now at Wake Forest—for church history. Since Southern Baptist Theological Seminary did not have an official advising program, I asked Bill if he would be my adviser. Within a few weeks of the start of the relationship while visiting in his office, he asked what I was going to do with an MDiv. I said I wanted to be a campus minister. Given our conversations up to that point and the rapid changes taking place in Southern Baptist circles, he said something like “you’ll never get hired.” Talk about existential angst. In hindsight, he was correct. I drifted through classes for the next couple of weeks wondering what I was doing in seminary. Shortly before the end of the term and sitting in one of his lectures, I thought, “I want to do that.” The Ph.D. program at Virginia tweaked that idea a little more and a teaching fellowship at Mercer landed me doing what I do today.

JF: What is your next project?

DT: I have a contract with University of Georgia Press for a book tentatively titled “A Journey of Conscience: Martin Luther King, Jr., the Vietnam War, and the Struggle for the Soul of America.” I am also in the early stages of a project on Wendell Berry. The car project is always with me.

JF: Thanks, Doug!

 

America and the Ten Commandments

StoneOxford University Press blog is running an excerpt from Jenna Weissman Joselit‘s new book Set in Stone: America’s Embrace of the Ten Commandments.

Here is a taste:

Although we are told that Moses received the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai, their presence has always been particularly strong in America. Regardless of who invokes them and for what purpose, the Ten Commandments have proved to be incredibly versatile and enduring in our cultural idiom. Below you’ll find ten moments in American history where the Decalogue has made its presence felt.

1. In June 1860, a man in Ohio named David Wyrick found an oddly shaped stone in one of the many Native American burial sites in the area which had indecipherable markings on it. He claimed to have found one of the stone tablets that God had bestowed upon Moses. Largely ridiculed at first, he then discovered another stone, shaped like the top of a church window which was covered in what was later confirmed as a variant of Hebrew script. When brought to experts the script did indeed feature a form of the Ten Commandments, abbreviated, but still the basic text. Was it authentic or an elaborate hoax? You can go to the Johnson-Humrickhouse Museum in Coschocton, Ohio to see the stones for yourself.

2. In 1897, Alabama Senator John Tyler Morgan proposed that all immigrants be given a test to display mastery of the Ten Commandments in order to gain American citizenship. He claimed that it was not a religious test but rather a “test that goes to the constitution of society.”

3. In 1905, the Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco revealed the stain glass window of its newly constructed synagogue. At first glance, the window seemed to depict a traditional scene of Moses descending from Mount Sinai with the stone tablets in his hand. Closer examination, however, revealed that the mountain in the background was not Mount Sinai, nor were the flora and fauna that of Israel. Rather, El Capitan of the Yosemite Valley loomed in the background, complete with the plant and animal life of central California, refiguring the Golden State as the Promised Land.

Read the entire post here.