May 29, 1998 Major Religion Exhibition to Open at the Library of Congress

"Religion and the Founding of the American Republic" Free Symposium Explores Exhibition Themes

Contact: Helen Dalrymple (202) 707-1940
Website: View the exhibition online

On June 4, the Library of Congress will open a major exhibition, "Religion and the Founding of the American Republic," in the Northwest Gallery of the recently restored Thomas Jefferson Building. It will be on view through August 22.

A symposium celebrating the opening of the exhibition will be held in the Coolidge Auditorium of the Jefferson Building on June 18-19 that will explore many of the issues developed in the exhibition. It will be chaired by Jaroslav Pelikan, Sterling Professor of History Emeritus at Yale University. The two-day symposium is free and open to the public; no reservations are required. The full schedule for the symposium is attached.

The comprehensive collections of the Library of Congress comprise a unique national resource for an exhibition of this scope on the role that religion played in the founding of this country. The Library's Manuscript Division holds the major collections of the papers of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, those founders most instrumental in establishing the church-state policy of the new nation, as well as the papers of many of their colleagues, such as George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, who also interested themselves in this issue.

The Library's Rare Book and Special Collections Division contains thousands of pamphlets and broadsides covering all aspects of religion in early America.

The iconography of early American religion can be seen in the collections of the Prints and Photographs Division and its sounds can be discerned from the revival hymnals and psalm books held in the Music Division.

Significant items from the Library's collections appearing in the exhibition include:

  • The original draft of Jefferson's letter to the Danbury Baptists, January 1, 1802, in which he asserted that there should be "a wall of separation between church and state";
  • William Penn's Frame of Government (1682) for Pennsylvania, which included provision for freedom of religion;
  • James Madison's original draft of his Memorial and Remonstrance (1785), setting forth an argument for religious liberty;
  • Jefferson's Act for Establishing Religious Freedom (1786);
  • John Leland's "Objections to the Federal Constitution" (February 1788), containing his plea to amend the new Constitution to secure religious liberty;
  • Madison's original draft of his speech introducing the Bill of Rights (June 8, 1789);
  • Washington's letter to the Touro Synagogue (August 17, 1790), his testimony in support of religious liberty.

Among the artifacts that have been borrowed for the exhibition are: the stained glass "Liberty Window" from Christ Church, Philadelphia, showing Washington and the members of the First Continental Congress at prayer; communion silver used at Jamestown; 17th century Catholic religious medals, excavated at the site of the first Catholic Church in British North America (St. Mary's City, Md.); the field pulpit of the famous 18th century evangelist George Whitefield; and an 18th century matzoh board from Touro Synagogue, Newport, R.I.

This exhibition gives the visitor an opportunity to explore the nation's founding and the widespread conviction of that generation of the social utility of religion. George Washington affirmed this view in 1796 in his Farewell Address (which will be shown in an original double broadside printing, unusual for the time), declaring that religion, as the source of morality, was "a necessary spring of popular government." In 1835 Alexis de Tocqueville observed in Democracy in America (the first printing of which will be on display) that Americans believed religion to be "indispensable to the maintenance of republican government."

How, or if, religion was to be encouraged by the state and whether its health was to be left entirely to private endeavors were difficult questions that confronted the Founders and which the exhibition will examine. For those unable to view the exhibition in Washington, it will be on-line at

"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. After closing in Washington in August, the exhibition will travel to venues around the nation. The national tour of the exhibition was made possible by the Lilly Endowment Inc.

A 136-page softcover volume, illustrated with 59 black-and-white and 18 color plates, was written by curator James Hutson to accompany the exhibition. Published by the Library of Congress and distributed by University Press of New England, it is available from the Library's Sales Shops and the University Press for $21.95. The development and publication of the book were made possible by a generous gift from The Pew Charitable Trusts and Mr. and Mrs. Henry J. (Bud) Smith.

The Library's Mary Pickford Theater will host a free film series in June, July and August as a further complement to "Religion and the Founding of the American Republic." It broadens the exhibition's scope to explore the many ways in which film and television have explored the role of religion and faith in American culture. The series opens on June 9 with a screening of "The Scarlet Letter" (MGM, 1926). Other films to be shown include "The Crucible," "The Miracle Woman," "Elmer Gantry" and "Say Amen, Somebody."

Also on the schedule are rarely seen treats such as a 1956 episode of the CBS-TV series "You Are There" about the Salem witch trials, educational films produced by Yale University in 1924, and a 1939 Academy Award-winning short by Warner Bros. called "Sons of Liberty." All of the programs in the series illustrate the enormous impact that America's religious underpinnings have had on its popular culture and public discourse.

Reservations or requests for information about the film schedule may be made by calling (202) 707-5677. Reserved seats must be claimed at least 10 minutes before the 7 p.m. showtime, after which standbys will be admitted to unclaimed seats. All programs are free, but seating in the Pickford Theater, located on the third floor of the Madison Building, 101 Independence Avenue S.E., is limited to 64.


Coolidge Auditorium, Thomas Jefferson Building June 18-19, 1998

Jaroslav Pelikan, Yale University, Chair

Thursday, June 18

11 a.m.
"Religion in 18th Century America"
-- David D. Hall, Harvard Divinity School

2-5:30 p.m.
"How to Govern a City on a Hill: Religion and Liberty in the 1780 Massachusetts Constitution"
-- John Witte Jr., Emory University School of Law

"The Use and Abuse of Jefferson's Statute for Establishing Religious Freedom: Separating Church and State in 19th Century Virginia"
-- Thomas E. Buckley, S.J., Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley

"Thomas Jefferson, a Mammoth Cheese, and the 'Wall of Separation Between Church and State'"
-- Daniel Dreisbach, American University

Comment: Michael Crawford, head, Early History Branch,
Naval Historical Center

Friday, June 19

10 a.m.-12:30 p.m.
"Republicanism and Religion: The American Exception"
-- Mark A. Noll, Wheaton College

"Women and Religion in the Early Republic"
-- Catherine A. Brekus, University of Chicago Divinity School

Comment: Rosemarie Zagarri, George Mason University

2-4:30 p.m.
"The Influence of Christianity and Judaism on the Founders"
-- Michael Novak, American Enterprise Institute

"The Question of the Christian Nation Considered"
-- Jon Butler, Yale University

Comment: James Smylie, Union Theological Seminary, Richmond


PR 98-033
ISSN 0731-3527