Paul Revere’s Church Bell

Revere Bell

Yesterday we reported on “The Nation We Build Together,”  a new floor of exhibits at the National Museum of American History in Washington D.C.  One of those exhibits is “Religion in Early America.”  It was curated by Peter Manseau, the Lilly Endowment Curator of American Religious History at the museum.

Over at “O Say Can You See,” the blog of the museum, Manseau writes about one of the featured items in the exhibit.

Here is a taste:

For several decades after the Revolution, Paul Revere was as famous for his church bells as for his midnight ride. His role as a horse-powered early warning system filling the Massachusetts countryside with shouts of “The British are coming!” in 1775 did not become the stuff of legend until Henry Wadsworth Longfellow published his heroic poem “Paul Revere’s Ride” in 1861. Yet he was always known as a man who could use sound in the service of his country.

While he is often remembered simply as a patriot silversmith, Revere’s career and reputation were far more complex during his lifetime. The opening days of the struggle for independence included the events that would eventually make him known to history, but he spent the latter part of the war under a cloud for the charges of insubordination leveled against him during the disastrous Penobscot Expedition, a chaotic naval operation that cost Continental forces hundreds of lives in 1779. Eventually exonerated of any wrongdoing, he continued to work to clear his name and improve his standing in the new nation.

With military laurels beyond his reach, Revere sought to rise socially through business. He broadened his metal-working to include a bell foundry in 1792, when the congregation to which he belonged, the New Brick Church, required a replacement bell for its tower. Between 1792 and his death in 1818, Revere’s company—Revere and Son—made more than 100 bells. The family-run foundry would ultimately cast 398, with the last bell sold in 1828.

Read the entire post here.

 

“The Nation We Build Together”

Aerial_view_of_National_Museum_of_American_History (1)

Erin Blasco, the social media manager at Smithsonian National Museum of American History, calls our attention to “The Nation We Build Together,” a new theme-centered floor scheduled to open on June 28, 2017.

Here is a taste of her interview with John Gray, the Elizabeth MacMillan Director at the museum:

The museum’s new floor unites several different exhibitions under the unified theme of “The Nation We Build Together.” Can you talk about what that theme means to you?

We really want our visitors to have the opportunity to explore the largest ideals and ideas in America. And the name, “The Nation We Build Together,” says we are a people and a nation that works collectively through our democracy to forge our nation. This is an ongoing and complicated process—but we are always working toward our national motto: E Pluribus Unum (Out of Many, One). It is so important that, as Americans, we view ourselves as part of the body of America, working together, being together, and building this nation together.

We know “The Nation We Build Together” has been in development for many years. But why is that theme an important one to explore in 2017?

“The Nation We Build Together” is an important theme that resonates across our history, one that’s fundamental to understanding America, ourselves, and the larger political process—not limited to party politics, but how we learn, make, and determine how we are governed together.

That said, there’s never a better time than the present to understand America. Every election turns out to be different than some people expected. That was true last year, four years ago, four years before that, all the way back to our founding—it’s the nature of democracy as we practice it in America! Our new exhibition American Democracy: A Great Leap of Faith will help our visitors understand and contextualize the inherent changes we see over time in America. It’s both reassuring and inspirational.

What are we trying to inspire visitors to think or do differently after visiting “The Nation We Build Together”?

The whole floor is about inspiring engagement—understanding that you are part of the process in a bigger way. Many Voices, One Nation inspires all of us to participate in building American communities—really build them! American Democracy: A Great Leap of Faith reminds all of us that we must play an active role in our democracy to keep our nation vital and responsive. And Religion in Early America helps us understand the historical underpinnings of how we practice and celebrate the diversity of religious experience in America.

Read the rest here.

I wonder if there will be anything in the exhibition on the history of philanthropy? Check out Episode 23 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast (“Giving in America”) with Amanda Moniz, the David Rubenstein Curator of Philanthropy at the museum.

I am also eager to see Peter Manseau‘s “Religion in Early America” exhibit.  I played a very small consulting role on the companion volume.

Religion and “Hamilton”

hamilton

In his review of Lin Manuel-Miranda’s Broadway hit “Hamilton,” Peter Manseau, the new curator of American religious history at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, writes: “Miranda’s ingenious retelling of Revolutionary-era U.S. history studiously ignores common eighteenth-century notions of the role religion should play in society, replacing them with the fully privatized faith of today.”

But wait!  Perhaps religion does play an important role in “Hamilton.”  Civil religion that is.

Here is Manseau again:

Yet despite the play’s stalwart separation of church and founding statesmen, there remains something about Hamilton that strikes a religious nerve: namely, the way that its various canny subversions of the popular imagery of the Founding era ultimately reaffirm the American creation myth. The musical’s off-the-charts popularity stems from more than Miranda’s catchy hooks and inventive lyrics. As Hamilton continues to swell into a bona-fide reflection of the zeitgeist, one underlying factor seems most responsible for its rise: Miranda’s fable of the republic’s founding offers a way to take part in the cult of sacred history without the usual birthright credentials and ritual obeisances. This is no mere hip-hopera; it’s an altar call for would-be patriots previously too burdened by ambivalence to fully embrace the American faith.

The favored avatars of this faith may change with the times, but its creed does not. The birth of the nation remains our One True God. The Revolution, the Constitution, and the Founding Fathers serve as something of a trinity establishing the culture’s unquittable cosmology and incontestable truth. Seen this way, Hamilton is less a new vision of the past than a translation of the sacred stories of American civil religion into the vernacular—in this case, the lingua franca of contemporary pop culture, a mashup of hiphop, R&B, rock, and show tune samples. And like any vernacular rendering of a text considered holy and immutable, it is at once radical on the surface and retrograde underneath—the best example in years of how a dominant worldview adapts to survive social change.

Read Manseau’s entire piece at The Baffler.

The Author’s Corner with Peter Manseau

Peter Manseau is a novelist, journalist, and curator of the upcoming “Religion in Early America” exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. This interview is based on his new book One Nation Under Gods: A New American History (Little, Brown and Company, January 2015).

JF: What led you to write One Nation Under Gods?

PM: A few years ago the question of religion’s role in the creation of the United States was receiving quite a lot of attention. I followed these discussions, and read a few excellent books considering Christian influence in early America, including Steven Waldman’s Founding Faith, Thomas Kidd’s God of Liberty, and of course, John Fea’s Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? To further the discussion of religion’s role in American history, I wanted to gather a wide-ranging set of stories about other kinds of religious influence that can be seen from the beginning.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of One Nation Under Gods?

PM: Since its founding, the United States has undeniably been a majority Christian country, but demographics only tell part of religion’s role in our shared history. As it has through other aspects of culture – literature, art, music – America has been shaped through the minority influence of beliefs and practices on the margins of dominant religious views, despite frequently violent efforts to suppress this influence by the majority.

JF: Why do we need to read One Nation Under Gods?

PM: In the ongoing conversation about the place of conflicting religious ideas in American culture, it’s important to remember that these are not new questions. Many know this in theory, and perhaps have some awareness of arrival of Jews in New Amsterdam, or the presence of Islam among the enslaved, but what One Nation Under Gods tries to do is bring this diversity together into a narrative considering such moments central rather than peripheral to the American story.

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

PM: Strictly speaking, I’m not an American historian. My doctorate is in religion, and as a writer I wear a number of hats (novelist, memoirist, journalist), though I do like to think the skills required of other literary genres helped me complete a character-driven narrative history like One Nation Under Gods. Yet though my academic training was not in American history, as someone who writes mainly about belief, it was probably inevitable that I would look to the rich territory of the nation’s multi-religious past.

JF: What is your next project?

PM: As I completed edits on this book, I realized there was a story I wished I’d included: the significant and mostly forgotten influence of spiritualism on nineteenth century America. To tell this story in a compelling way, I’m at work on a narrative history that uses a few colorful figures to describe how technology—electricity, photography, the telegraph—helped spread belief in communication with the dead well beyond mediums and table-rapping séance rooms. Like One Nation Under Gods, it’s an attempt to vividly portray the negotiation between the margins and the mainstream, though this time I’ll focus on the unexpected influence of just one set of unorthodox beliefs.

JF: Can’t wait to read about it. Thanks Peter!

And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author’s Corner