Signs and Wonders

One Nation, Under Gods: A New American History BY Peter Manseau. Little, Brown and Company. Hardcover, 480 pages. $28.

The cover of One Nation, Under Gods: A New American History

Imagine a delegation of chiefs from the Six Nations of the Iroquois passing through the rural town of Palmyra, New York, in the early 1800s. Among them is Red Jacket, the nephew of the most famous Iroquois prophet, Handsome Lake. Handsome Lake and his followers preached sobriety, conversed with spirits, and implored their beleaguered people to return to Iroquois traditions like the longhouse. Handsome Lake’s visions involved hidden scriptures that described the religious origins of the conflict between his people and whites and included a figure similar to Jesus. Quaker missionaries had lived among his tribe.

Among the curious Palmyrans thronging to hear Red Jacket was probably a sixteen-year-old boy obsessed with the culture of Native Americans. A month later, this boy would recount the tale of the second of many visitations from an angel he called Moroni. Eventually, he would claim to have discovered buried golden plates that chronicled the first inhabitants of North America and their encounter with Christ. The boy, Joseph Smith, went on to become the founder of Mormonism. Handsome Lake’s teachings faded into obscurity, but as Georgetown University professor Peter Manseau argues in his riveting new book, One Nation, Under Gods, the Iroquois leader’s influence on Mormonism is “one of the best examples of the collaborative nature of American belief.”

With a novelist’s verve and a historian’s precision, Manseau deftly guides us through a cacophonous religious landscape, studded with encounters so unexpected and bizarre that they could be the stuff of speculative fiction. Rather than beginning with a city on a hill built by hardy Puritans in search of religious freedom, Manseau reminds us that we are a country of longhouses and pueblos, visionaries and iconoclasts. Even the Puritans were not a religious monolith; within decades they had splintered into dissenting faiths and traditions. Roger Williams decamped to Rhode Island, William Penn took his Quaker beliefs to what became Pennsylvania, and Anne Hutchinson fled to New York. “John Winthrop’s city upon a hill turned out to be built on a veritable volcano,” Manseau writes.

Under the pressures of exile and threatened annihilation, religions morphed into other shapes. The Taino Indians of the Greater Antilles prophesized that a race of men wearing clothes would destroy them long before the arrival of Columbus’s ships. They worshipped multiple gods and coaxed spirits into the human realm by carving “zemies”—small statues—from tree branches, shells, and clay. Unable or unwilling to view the Taino as the fully human creators of sophisticated spiritual practices, the Spanish decimated them through enslavement and disease.

Yet, as Manseau compellingly argues, “the Taino did not simply vanish, they went underground.” Residues of their practices linger in rival faiths such as Santos and in images of saints throughout churches in US cities and the Caribbean. Despite Columbus’s Catholic zeal to subdue the heathens he encountered on his travels, many of his sailors were Jews and Muslims who’d been persecuted in, and ultimately ejected from, Spain under the Catholic monarchy. His translator, the first Spaniard to communicate with the indigenous people of Hispaniola, was a secret Jew. Faith may have been “forced into exile, but it was still hiding in plain sight,” Manseau notes.

Those on the margins of society, especially women and slaves, sought “solace and sanction outside the bounds of authorized religious practice.” Omar ibn Said, a runaway slave in Fayetteville, North Carolina, was an educated Muslim leader in Senegal before he was sold into bondage. Like ibn Said, 20 percent of African-born slaves had been followers of Islam before captivity. After his recapture and forced conversion to Christianity, ibn Said served out his years as the property of the sheriff and became a local celebrity. In his autobiography, he denounces slavery and Christians’ belief that one person can own another.

One Nation, Under Gods is crammed with enthralling tales of dissenters and outliers reinventing religious traditions to make sense of their often desperate circumstances. Sikhs driven out of Bellingham, Washington, by rioters later became key litigants in challenges to racial restrictions on citizenship. Nineteenth-century Chinese immigrants, reviled by whites, reshaped the American cities of the West. Each chapter ends on a similarly hopeful note—a narrative tic that sometimes has the unintended effect of downplaying the subjugation and horrors people faced in favor of accounts of religious reinvention.

The book also restores women’s negotiations for power and influence within and without dominant faiths as a key force in shaping our religious history. Witchcraft was a spiritual equalizer, “providing religious authority outside social structures that were inevitably defined at the time by class and gender.” During the Salem witch trials, Tituba, a West Indian slave, survived the purge of so-called witches by improvising “a new idiom of resistance”: To her interrogators, she spun elaborate stories of the devil that resonated with and confirmed what they already believed. Tituba took control of her own story, while other women who transgressed the norms of Puritan society burned at the stake.

Thomas Jefferson enshrined his ideas about religious pluralism in his own wide-ranging library. When Congress, wary of his collection’s religious eclecticism, debated incorporating it into the Library of Congress, Jefferson asserted that all testaments of faith were valid and must be allowed in recognition of the disestablishment clause.

Manseau’s book likewise represents a remarkable gathering of American spiritual voices. Much more than a simple catalogue of diversity, One Nation, Under Gods is a stunning history of religious cross-pollination. Religions “exist only in relation to each other,” Manseau writes. “They change and grow, live and die, through adaptation, competition, imitation and assimilation.” And that process, in a sense, is the hidden American gospel, grounded in a chance encounter on a hill in upstate New York.

Tanya Erzen is a Soros Justice Fellow and an associate professor of religion at the University of Puget Sound.