Ernest Smith (Seneca, 1907–1975), Progress, 1935, Oil on canvas, Courtesy of RMSC, Rochester, NY
New Exhibition Acts of Faith: Religion and the American West Explores the Dramatic Interplay Between Faith and US Expansion in the 19th Century
On view at the New-York Historical Society September 22, 2023 – February 25, 2024
This fall, the New-York Historical Society presents Acts of Faith: Religion and the American West, a new exhibition that explores the interplay between religion and US expansion in the 19th-century West in order to illuminatehow religion became such a vital and contested part of American life. Acts of Faith takes visitors beyond the mythologized “Wild West” of popular culture to present a fuller and surprising picture: a West populated by preachers, pilgrims, and visionaries and home to sacred grounds and cathedrals that kindled spiritual feeling from the woodlands of New York all the way to the valleys of California. The narrativehighlights the experiences and traditions of people who, voluntarily or involuntarily, took part in this chaotic and transformative era—including diverse Native peoples, Protestant missionaries, Mormon settlers, Catholic communities, African American migrants, Jewish traders, and Chinese immigrant workers.
“It is with great pride that the New-York Historical Society presents this path-breaking new traveling exhibition on the critical role played by religion in American westward expansion,” said Dr. Louise Mirrer, president and CEO of New-York Historical. “The extraordinary diversity of art, artifacts, and objects that have been assembled for the show both illustrate and evoke the ways in which religion served peoples of differing faiths and beliefs as an anchor for social organization, a resource for resistance, and a means of survival.”
Among the highlights of the exhibition, which comprises more than 60 objects and dozens of images and documents, are Robert Weir’s portrait of the famous Seneca chief Sagoyewatha, or “Red Jacket”; a bulto (wooden statue) of San Ysidro Labrador from 19th-century New Mexico on loan from the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe; and an emigrant trunk labeled “From Basel to Salt Lake City, Utah” that belonged to a convert to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on loan from the Utah Historical Society. These are accompanied by specially commissioned installations, multimedia elements, and immersive displays, including a dollhouse-sized diorama of St. Louis’ first Rosh Hashanah ceremony; a large mural depicting a San Ysidro Feast Day in Taos, New Mexico; an illustrated interactive journey to the California goldfields with 49er Sarah Royce; a lifesize, lifelike figure of African American pioneer Clara Brown; and an evocation of a 19th-century classroom. Media elements include visualizations of the Mormon exodus to Utah and the saga of Indian boarding schools as well as an audio guide on the Bloomberg Connects app, offering readings, music, and expert commentary from a range of historical and contemporary voices.
“The rarely told stories captured in Acts of Faith deepen and enrich our understanding of US western expansion and its relationship to American religion for a broad public,” said Dr. Marci Reaven, vice president for history exhibitions and exhibition co-curator. “Visitors will learn how expansion of the US during this time period increased religious diversity but also intensified public and private attempts to bring about uniformity.”
A prologue to the exhibition features a large-scale map of North America overlaid with an array of striking quotations from sermons, speeches, journals, letters, and government documents. The multiplicity of sentiments reveal the diversity of the continent’s peoples and religious landscape around the time of the United States’ founding. The subsequent three sections guide visitors through the 19th century as the US expands, each asking a central unifying question answered by a set of distinctive stories.
“Homelands & New Lands, 1810s–1840s” focuses on how people drew on religion to define and defend their futures in a changing West, as religion played a powerful role in shaping the early years of westward expansion, as well as the ways people participated in, responded to, and resisted expansionist forces. A Prayer Book in the Language of the Six Nations of Indians, from New-York Historical’s Patricia D. Klingenstein Library, and the painting Handsome Lake Preaching his Code at the Tonawanda Longhouse by Seneca artist Ernest Smith, speak to the efforts of Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) peoples to marshal different forms of spiritual power as they contended with colonial dispossession and depredations. Another story, using New-York Historical’s collections, illuminates the work of Protestant missionaries based in New York City. The display features an original architectural drawing for Nassau Street’s Tract House—homebase for their western evangelizing efforts—as well as copies of the tracts and Bibles the missionary societies produced and distributed.
“Trails & Trials, 1840s–1860s,” set in an enlarged US after the war with Mexico, explores how religion helped people imagine their communities. The stories evoke the migrant trails that have dominated popular retellings of Western history. Some trails became so famous or notorious that their names live on: the Oregon, California, Mormon, and Santa Fe Trails, and the Trail of Tears. Religion was an ever-present force along these trails and at the final destinations—motivating journeys, guiding thousands of travelers’ steps, and offering comfort amid cries of displacement. Catholic bishop Jean Baptiste Lamy often traveled the Santa Fe Trail as he pursued his mission to standardize and Americanize the local Catholicism that Nuevo Mexicanos had long practiced. A set of elegant vestments belonging to Archbishop Lamy, on loan from the Sisters of Loretto Heritage Center, evoke his efforts to convey the splendor and authority of the Church.
How religion influenced ideas of right and wrong, exclusion and inclusion is examined in the final section of the exhibition, “Insider & Outsiders, 1860s–1890s.” Conflict over religious liberty and increased pluralism in the West ignited questions about the links between religious, racial, and national identities, galvanizing struggles for dominance. Contests over religious tolerance and freedom of expression unfolded across multiple arenas of daily life. A model of Salt Lake City’s grand temple, on loan from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, anchors a story about conflict over polygamy. A painting of the Sun Dance by Lakota holy man Short Bull sheds light on the government’s ban of Indigenous sacred dance traditions. A rare account of bone repatriation, belonging to the China Alley Preservation Society, explores the role religion played in the anti-Chinese movement. An array of objects, maps, cartoons, and photographs bring to life the struggles over religion in schools (including Indian boarding schools) that suffused late 19th-century America.
Attitudes toward religious tolerance and the legal parameters of religious liberty have changed radically since the 1800s. They continue to change today. A concluding panel and response station pose questions about what can be learned from the conflicts and compromises of our forebears and offer visitors the opportunity to consider religious diversity and liberty today.
Acts of Faith is curated by New-York Historical’s Marci Reaven, vice president for history exhibitions and Lily Wong, associate curator. Historical and visual materials featured are from New-York Historical’s own rich collections, as well as the New York State Museum, Newark Museum of Art, Rochester Museum and Science Center, Eiteljorg Museum, Museum of International Folk Art, Pokagon Band of Potawatomi, American Museum of Natural History, Church History Museum of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Cherokee National Research Center, and many other collections around the country. Following its debut in New York, the exhibition will travel to the Eiteljorg Museum in Indianapolis, Indiana, with additional tour stops to be announced.
Private group tours can be arranged throughout the run of the exhibition. Family friendly story times featuring books set during the time period will take place during the exhibition’s run. Learn more at the family calendar. Additional programs will be announced.
Lead support for Acts of Faith: Religion and the American West is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Major support is provided by the Henry Luce Foundation. Research for this exhibition was supported by the Terra Foundation for American Art.
About the New-York Historical Society
Experience 400 years of history through groundbreaking exhibitions, immersive films, and thought-provoking conversations among renowned historians and public figures at the New-York Historical Society, New York’s first museum. A great destination for history since 1804, the Museum and the Patricia D. Klingenstein Library convey the stories of the city and nation’s diverse populations, expanding our understanding of who we are as Americans and how we came to be. Ever-rising to the challenge of bringing little or unknown histories to light, New-York Historical will soon inaugurate a new wing housing its Academy for American Democracy as well as the American LGBTQ+ Museum. These latest efforts to help forge the future by documenting the past join New-York Historical’s DiMenna Children’s History Museum and Center for Women’s History. Digital exhibitions, apps, and our For the Ages podcast make it possible for visitors everywhere to dive more deeply into history. Connect with us at nyhistory.org or at @nyhistory on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, YouTube, and Tumblr.