Alongside its live animals, human curiosities, scientific specimens, and assorted oddities, the American Museum displayed a number of religiously themed exhibits. Visitors could peruse waxwork figures arranged in tableaux of biblical scenes such as the Last Supper and “The Birth and The Trial of Christ,” ponder a cosmoramic view of Jerusalem, and consider a carved figure of “Christ on the Cross.” While making up a small number of the museum’s overall exhibits, those on religious themes helped Barnum to promote the American Museum as a place where respectable middle-class families could feel comfortable. Despite the large influx of Irish Catholic immigrants into New York City beginning in the 1840s and the consistent presence of a Jewish minority, Protestant Christianity governed the museum’s displays of religious imagery and themes. The American Museum’s 1850 guidebook articulated this assumption of Christian superiority when it summarized a number of its exhibits, both familiar and exotic: “The necessity, too, which the human mind is under of having some object of veneration or worship, is equally exemplified. From nations varying in mere doctrinal points, we have evidences of their faith in the pure doctrines of Christianity; from those to whom the living truths of that religion have not been brought, we have as well, tokens of their cognizance of some spirit or essence in the universe, better than themselves; and that very recognition, however unskillfully it may be expressed, or however grotesque may be its forms and symbols, encourages the hope that all may yet be brought to the true belief.”
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Religion in Barnum’s America
Jonathan D. Sassi.
This 800-word essay describes the range of predominantly Protestant religious denominations present in antebellum U.S. society, and their impact on social and political life. The American Museum contained a number of religious exhibits, including paintings and waxworks of famous christian scenes.
Document Type: Background Essay.
Intersections: Scriptures, Prints, and Paintings in Antebellum America
Library Company of Philadelphia.
This online exhibit explores the relationship between art and religion in America from the colonial era through the eve of the Civil War. The site includes works in a variety of genres, along with commentary about the works and the artists who created them.
Document Type: Website.
“Dedication of the Five Points’ Mission House,” New-York Daily Times, June 18, 1853
This newspaper article describes the 1853 opening of the Five Points Mission House, a Methodist mission located in one of New York City’s most impoverished neighborhoods. The article illustrates the attitudes that motivated urban missionary work in an “infected district of the City” that was predominantly Catholic, and reflects how Protestant evangelism, poor relief, and reform went hand in hand during the antebellum era.
Document Type: Text.
“Measures to Promote Revivals,” 1835
Charles Grandison Finney.
Evangelist Charles Grandison Finney delivered these lectures in 1834 when he was pastor of New York City’s Chatham Street Chapel (Second Free Presbyterian Church), and they were subsequently published in 1835. In this lecture, Finney defended his controversial “New Measures”—and by extension, many of the new Protestant religious practices that marked the Second Great Awakening—from conservative criticism. Finney argued that evangelists should be free to introduce new forms that made the gospel message relevant and appealing to changing audiences, especially given that the early republic was an age when all sorts of new entertainments (like the American Museum) competed for the public’s attention.
Document Type: Text.
“Solitude in a Crowd,” Frank Harper; or, The Country-Boy in Town, 1847
American Sunday School Union.
This story excerpt belongs to a vast genre of Sunday school books, hundreds of which were published in antebellum America. Such books were inexpensive, widely distributed, and produced by trade publishers and denominational houses as well as the American Sunday School Union. The books aimed to nurture young people in the Protestant faith, allowing the instruction of Sunday schools to be continued during the week and imparting such values of the Protestant ethic as self-discipline, thrift, sobriety, and literacy itself. Most Sunday schools featured a library of such books, and indeed access to these libraries acted as an important draw to get children into Sunday schools. In this Sunday school book excerpt, a young clerk from rural New Jersey faces the temptations of popular culture offered by the lower Manhattan neighborhood that housed the American Museum.
Document Type: Text.