Manseau Discusses Religion in Early America

By Elijah McGuire-Berk

Elm Staff Writer

On March 3, Historian Peter Manseau spoke about his book, “One Nation Under Gods: A New American History.” Manseau himself is a former Patrick Henry Fellow from 2011-2012 who has worked with the C.V. Starr Center for the American Experience in the past. The Department of Philosophy and Religion and the Institute for Religion, Politics, and Culture cosponsored the event.  OneNationUnderGods.bySierraMontuori(3)

His book, as its name implies, tells the untold stories of how various religions shaped the early days of America including “the Jews who sailed with Columbus,” the “Buddhists who built the railroads,” and the “Scientologists of recent times,” according to the program for the event.  These various religions “have played a disproportionately large role in shaping American freedom.”

The Director of the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience Adam Goodheart kicked off the speech. He introduced Mansaeu as “not just a historian, but a literary scholar and novelist and memoirist and journalist and travel writer”

After Goodheart’s introduction, Manseau delivered his speech concerning the effects of different religions on early America.  He started by describing the War of 1812, when the British torched Washington D.C. causing America to lose many important buildings including the Library of Congress. Upon hearing this news, Thomas Jefferson was more than willing to donate his personal collection of books to help rebuild the Library of Congress.  Manseau  said, “Critics worried that there were too many foreign languages among the books that Jefferson owned and that the collection contained, ‘English works on progress and speculative freedom.’” He said, “Some members of Congress even floated the idea of burning Jefferson’s books to avoid any potential spiritual contamination.” That was one particular example of religion shaping the policies of a young nation.

Manseau spoke to the Washington College community about his book on March 3 in Hynson Lounge. Copies of “One Nation Under Gods” were available to students and other attendees.
Manseau spoke to the Washington College community about his book on March 3 in Hynson Lounge. Copies of “One Nation Under Gods” were available to students and other attendees.

He then went on to describe the religion of the slaves brought to America from Africa. He told the story of a man named Omar Ibin Said, a Muslim slave who did not own a Koran but was able to practice his religion by dedicating the entire holy book to memory. In 1810, he was arrested during a failed escape attempt, but his time in jail gained attention from news reporters.  Manseau said, “He began to draw a crowd. First for his quiet mysterious demeanor, then for the strange way which he prayed, five times a day, and finally for the graffiti he began to put on his jail cell walls.” Said used small bits of coal found on the floor of his cell to write on the walls. What he drew, according to Manseau “was most likely verses from the Koran.” Later on, he wrote in his memoir that he had loved to read the Koran while he was free, but as a slave he was forced to convert to Christianity. His memory of his true faith was all he had left of his freedom.

Manseau wrote parts of his book during his Chestertown residence as a Patrick Henry Fellow. The next year, he was a part-time resident scholar with Washington College, teaching courses in the departments of philosophy, political science, and English as well as co-directing the Starr Center’s collaboration with the New York Times. Goodheart said, “If you look in the book’s acknowledgements, which I hope you will, you’ll see there’s a lovely and generous shoutout to Washington College and Chestertown.”

For more on this topic, Manseaus’ book,One Nation Under Gods: A New American History,” can be found via various booksellers such as Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

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