The Long Island Museum of American Art, History and Carriages

formerly The Museums at Stony Brook

Stony Brook, NY



Religion and the Founding of the American Republic


A new exhibition examining the role that religion played in the early American republic will run from February 24 through April 29, 2001 at the Long Island Museum of American Art, History & Carriages (formerly the Museums at Stony Brook), which will be the only venue in the Northeast for this important traveling show. The intersections of religious faith and early democratic principles in the founding era of the United States played a vital role in the formation of the new nation's identity. Organized by the Library of Congress, the exhibition focuses on the centrality of religion to early American life and politics from the Protestant Reformations of the 1500s through the Second Great Awakening and the rise of the Mormons and new sects during the 1830s-50s.

Composed of approximately 160 artifacts, including original prints, letters, paintings, manuscripts and other early documents from the Library of Congress, Religion and the Founding of the American Republic traces the development of colonial America by examining the profoundly pious spirit and the traditions that shaped it. Religious convictions were at the heart of the early American experience; faith and the promise of religious freedom prompted many men and women to risk a perilous crossing of the Atlantic Ocean. The exhibition examines the full religious spectrum of early America, including Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, Anglicans, Quakers and Congregationalists, as well as early religious minorities such as Jews and Catholics. (left: The Prayer in First Congress, AD 1774, Bottom pane of the Liberty Window, Christ Church, Philadelphia, Penn., after a painting by Tompkins Harrison Matteson, c. 1848. Jacob Duche offered the first prayer in Congress. John Adams described the services in Carpenter's Hall on September 7, 1774: Duche "read several Prayers, in the Prayers, in the established form; and then read the Collect for the seventh day of September, which was the Thirty-fifth Psalm . . . after this Mr. Duche, unexpected to every Body struck out into an extemporary Prayer, which filled the bosom of every Man present. I must confess that I never heard a better Prayer or one so well pronounced . .. with such fervor, such Ardor, such Earnestness and Pathos, and in Language so elegant and sublime - for America, for the Congress, for the Province of Massachusetts Bay, and especially the Town of Boston. It has had an excellent Effect upon every Body here.")

The ways in which religious needs and motivations informed the everyday political actions of the American founders is a central issue of the exhibition. It also examines the church-state relation and identifies the democratic theological precepts that helped to influence the Founding Fathers in writing both the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution.

The exhibition closes with a consideration of religion in the newly independent American republic. Evangelical revivals helped solidify the Baptist and Methodist congregations as the largest in the United States. At the same time, inconsistent views on racial equality led to the establishment of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1816. Another new religious body, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormons, was treated with hostility by mainstream Protestants, while Catholics, Jews, and other religious sects continued to be persecuted for their beliefs. In this way, Religion and the Founding of the American Republic emphasizes the paradox that religion could be both a unifying force and a divisive force at the same time.

Exhibition highlights include a silver Torah breastplate; evangelist George Whitefield's portable pulpit; and a stained glass window depicting the Prayer in the First Congress, A. D., 1774, c. 1848, from Christ Church in Philadelphia; beautiful and colorful Pennsylvania German religious fraktur and watercolor images; and an important letter by Thomas Jefferson on the subject of religion. The exhibition is accompanied by an illustrated brochure and catalogue. Religion and the Founding of the American Republic was made possible by grants from The Pew Charitable Trusts, Mr. and Mrs. Henry J. (Bud) Smith, and the Lilly Endowment, Inc. The Long Island Museum venue of the exhibition is supported in part by The Three Village Herald.

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