Title: Objects of Devotion: Religion in Early America
Author: Peter Manseau
Publisher: Smithsonian Books
Genre: Religious history, culture
Number of Pages: 252
ISBN 13: 978-1-58834-592-9
Price: US $29.95
Reviewed by Gary McCary for the Association for Mormon Letters
Most of us are familiar with “coffee table” books. They are usually large volumes consisting mostly of pictures, photographs, or other works of art with a minimum amount of description. Some “coffee table” books that I possess have titles such as “The World of Gloria Vanderbilt,” “Historic Ballparks,” and “Vanity Fair’s Hollywood.” They are heavy on photographs and light on actual information. But Peter Manseau’s “Objects of Devotion: Religion in Early America,” though a large book in size, is a work of art that shouldn’t be placed on one’s coffee table, but on one’s bookshelf alongside other works of history, historical fiction, or biography.
“Objects of Devotion” enlightens us about religion in the United States using the prism of the material religious culture of our nation’s colonial period through the early republic. This book is the companion volume to a Smithsonian National Museum of American History exhibition. The major contribution the book makes to American history is to show the wide range of religious traditions vying for acceptance and a place in the public square from the 1630s through the 1840s.
A common assumption among most casual readers of American history is that Protestant Christianity dominated early America, barely allowing room for other religious expression in the 17th and 18th centuries. But the facts–and relics–tell a different story.
For decades, an old iron cross lay hidden in the nation’s capital. Its two welded beams, inscribed in English and Latin, were packed away in a nineteenth-century tower on the campus of Georgetown University and largely forgotten. But this cross is, in fact, a vital piece of American history. It is believed to have been made by members of the first Catholic expedition to the English colonies, which came to Maryland in 1634 in two ships called the ARK and the DOVE. In 1862, someone wrote on the cross, “This cross is said to have been brought by the first settlers from England to St. Mary’s.”
Late in the twentieth century, a Georgetown University professor rediscovered the cross by literally stumbling upon it. In many ways this cross represents the freedom of religion on which America was built. And in 2015, when Pope Francis visited the United States for the first time, that cross was used by him in the papal Mass in Washington D.C. The photo of this old rugged cross in Manseau’s book is very touching–and very beautiful.
This story, and so many more, is what makes “Objects of Devotion” such a delightful book. Manseau divides his volume into geographical sections: New England, The Mid-Atlantic, The South, and Beyond the Borders. One can see paintings, portraits, etchings, and photographs of John Eliot’s Algonquian Bible, Roger Williams’s Compass Sundial, The Book of Mormon, Mikveh Israel, Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an, The Cane Ridge Meeting House, a Revolutionary Torah Scroll, and Cotton Mather.
There are more than 150 color illustrations of key places, people, and artifacts of American religion. The description and story of each item is thorough and illuminating. For example, did you know that Native Americans were the first to play stickball (which may later have evolved into what we call baseball today)? Stickball, originally, was a ritual battle enacting the struggle between good and evil, and thus had deep religious overtones. In this volume we see an 1846 painting by George Catlin titled “Ball-Play of the Choctaw–Ball Up,” as well as photographs of Cherokee stickball sticks from the 19th century.
The French historian Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, “On my arrival in the United States, it was the religious aspect of the country that first struck my eye, and the longer I stayed there, the more I perceived the great political consequences resulting from this new state of things.” He also writes, “In America religion is perhaps less powerful than it has been at certain periods and among certain nations, but its influence is more lasting.” At a time when the ranks of religiously unaffiliated Americans have never been larger, the influence of religion–for good and bad–has never been stronger.
“Objects of Devotion” gives the reader a glimpse into the bedrock formation of religion–and religious diversity–in early America. These objects’ influences are truly lasting.