Smithsonian Exhibition on Religious Diversity in Early America Relies on an Alumnus and a Georgetown

The Smithsonian's National Museum of American History's exhibit "Religion in Early America" includes a 17th-century iron cross from Georgetown. The museum's fabrication shop created a wooden replica of the cross for Georgetown's use while the original is on view. Watch a time-lapse video of the faux-finish work being completed. Video courtesy of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.

By Jeffrey Donahoe

Historian Peter Manseau (G'11, 13) opens his newest scholarly work, Objects of Devotion: Religion in America, with a tantalizing mystery

"For decades, an old, rugged cross lay hidden in the nation's capital. A few short miles from the White House, the Capitol Building, and the Smithsonian Institution, its two crudely welded beams of weathered iron, inscribed in English and Latin, were packed away in a nineteenth-century tower on the campus of Georgetown University, where an understanding of the object's significance had faded with time."

iron cross
This iron cross is believed to have been made by members of the first Catholic expedition to the English colonies in 1634. Photo: National Museum of American History, lent by Georgetown University.

This cross, which Manseau calls "a vital piece of American history," takes an important role in "Religion in Early America," a year-long exhibition on view until June 3, 2018, at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. Manseau, the Lilly Endowment Curator of American Religious History, curated the exhibition. Objects of Devotion is a full-length, generously illustrated exhibition catalogue that combines scholarly rigor and an accessible voice for the general reader.

The Smithsonian exhibition uses material objects to explore religious diversity, freedom, and growth in America, and the interaction of those three factors from 1630 to 1830.

Stumbling Onto History
A well-known and much-loved Georgetown icon, the iron cross has hung in a place of honor in Dahlgren Chapel since Georgetown's Rev. G. Ronald Murphy, S.J., discovered it in the basement of the Healy Building in 1989. (He literally stumbled over the cross in the dark in his search to find it.) It was used in Pope Francis' first Mass in the United States in 2015.

"We knew that an exhibit like this would need a cross, a significant cross," Manseau says. "During my time at Georgetown as a doctoral student, I loved Dahlgren Chapel and was aware of the cross, so it was the first thing that jumped to mind."

"I was really pleased that Georgetown was able to lend it," he adds.

To make the cross available for a year, the Smithsonian fabrication shop made Georgetown a perfect replica in wood as a stand-in, painstakingly matching the iron's color and texture with a faux finish.

Objects of Devotion
Historians believe that the iron cross came to the Maryland colony—formed as a safe haven for Catholics—with the first Catholic and Jesuit settlers who landed at St. Mary's City in southeastern Maryland in 1634. Two inscriptions on the four-foot high, two-foot wide, 24-pound cross were etched in 1862, more than 200 years after the landing. The vertical inscription reads, "This cross is said to have been brought by the first settlers from England to St. Mary's." On the horizontal bar, another inscription reads, Ad perpetuam rei memoriam (For the eternal memory of the event).

But memory often fades into legend. The most-told story is that ballasts from the Ark and the Dove, the ships that carried the Catholic settlers—and their fellow Protestant settlers—on the four-month journey from England, were melted down and made into the cross. In his research for the exhibition, Manseau uncovered a later theory—that the cross was made from horseshoes. The exhibition presents the Ark and the Dove tradition.

Asked about the veracity of the ship materials story, Manseau responds, "Even if it did not directly come on the Ark and the Dove, the cross was certainly used by the members of the community that was formed at that time. My feeling about religious objects is their importance to those who used them, who organized their communities around them."

The Smithsonian exhibition also includes an 18th-century silver chalice and paten used by Archbishop John Carroll, founder of Georgetown and the first Catholic prelate in the United States, in his spiritual ministry. It is on loan from the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Baltimore, which Carroll helped found.

Other objects include the famous Bay Psalm book, the first book printed in British North America, the Bible that George Washington used at his first inauguration, and a Torah scroll from the first Jewish congregation in New York, founded in 1654. The exhibition also includes lesser-seen objects representing Native Americans and Muslim culture, brought to America by African slaves. There are even such everyday items as a needlepoint sampler and children's toys that provided religious and moral lessons as well as entertainment.

Peter Manseau
Peter Manseau (G'11,'13)

Multitalented Author
Manseau was appointed curator of American religious history at the National Museum of American History in 2016, the first person to hold the position at the museum.

It's no surprise that Manseau's Objects of Devotion combines academic rigor and a novelist's voice. In addition to another scholarly work on American religious history, One Nation Under Gods, Manseau is the award-winning author of Vows, a memoir, the travelogue Rag and Bone, and a novel, Songs for the Butcher's Daughter. His most recent work, The Apparitionists, came out in October.

Manseau was already a published author when he earned his doctorate from the religion pluralism program Georgetown's theology department, the first program of its kind in the country. "I may be the only person who's ever written a dissertation on American Yiddish literature at Georgetown," he quips.