Thursday, June 15, 2017

A Tiny 18thc Copper Charm with Large Significance

Thursday, June 15, 2017
Susan reporting,

Some of the artifacts in the new Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia are large: cannons, battle flags, and even General Washington's campaign tent. Others are smaller: books, silver cups, and powder horns. This tiny copper charm (about the size of a dime; it's enlarged here) marked in Arabic may be the smallest in the collection - but it may also be one of the most important in telling the larger story of the Revolution, and of diversity of 18thc America.

While the Founders who wrote and signed the Declaration of Independence were to a man Christians (some more so than others), they were also extremely careful to keep their religion from the documents that created the new country. Yes, God is there in the form of a Creator and a Supreme Judge, but you won't find any specific mention of Christianity, or of Anglicans, Catholics, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Friends, Congregationalists, or any other Christian denomination or sect, either.

English-speaking gentlemen in the 1770s were still acutely aware of the difficulties that England had faced in the previous century in regards to an established state religion that had no tolerance of other faiths - difficulties that had deposed King James II in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. The Founders were determined to learn from that, and the freedom to worship as one pleased (or even not to worship at all) was one of their most important and revolutionary tenets of the new country.

The First Amendment of the Constitution, ratified in 1791, spelled it out even more clearly: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." At this time, this was a remarkably radical statement, boldly moving the country from the religious establishments of individual states to a kind of complete religious freedom that had been previously unknown anywhere.

But then, by the 1770s, the American colonies were already a religiously diverse place. The first Sephardic Jew had landed in Jamestown with other settlers in 1621, and by the time of the Revolution, there were Jewish settlements throughout the colonies, with large and active communities in New York City, Philadelphia, Newport, Savannah, and Charleston.

Other Gods were also being worshiped in the new country. Native Americans had their own deities, beliefs, and rituals. Africans who were enslaved and transported to the colonies against their will also brought their religions with them. Some were tribal worshipers, while others were members of the Islamic faith.

Which leads back to this small copper charm, which dates to around 1760. Here's the information from the Museum's placard:

"This small medal bears an Arabic phrase that translates as No God but Allah. It was found in an archaeological investigation of Fort Shirley in western Pennsylvania. This fort protected the Pennsylvania frontier during the 1755-1756 campaigns of the French and Indian War. The medal may have belonged to an enslaved African American. Many enslaved people were Muslims. Colonial Americans also traded extensively with Muslim communities in Africa and Asia, and this medal may have ended up in Pennsylvania through one of those trading networks."

Of course, this medal was never intended as a commentary on religious freedom. It was a personal object, a symbol of private beliefs, and from the hole drilled through it, was likely worn on a cord or ribbon around the owner's neck, and tucked inside his or her garments for safekeeping. While it's unlikely the medal's owner, or his or her circumstances, will ever be discovered, the medal itself remains as a symbol of an old faith in a new country - and of the religious freedom that has been part of America since its inception.

Muslim Charm, c1760, Fort Shirley, Huntingdon County, Pennsylvania. On loan to the Museum of he American Revolution from Juniata College. Photo credit: Museum of the American Revolution. 

8 comments:

scrapiana said...

Fascinating and resonant - in light of current politics. Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

Great post. Looks like there were Muslims in America long before the Drumpfs....

Steve Ross said...

When Benjamin Franklin died in 1790, every clergyman (they apparently were all men) in Philadelphia marched together in it. They included at least one imam and several rabbis. As a Jew, I note that Allah, the unnamed god of Israel, and the god of Christians IS THE SAME GOD, the one with whom Abraham communicated. The Koran reveres Abraham and Jesus (as a prophet, not a god). The phrase "there is no god but Allah" just means that there is no god but the one Jews, Christians and Muslims revere.

The distinction is important because the founders did tend to believe in this god, not always as Christians, but as diests. The Pilgrims and Puritans who colonized Massachusetts starting in 1620 regarded themselves as Christians but did not celebrate Christmas! The early 1800s saw a rebirth of religious fervor throughout the colonies, with many new protestant denominations founded. By keeping government out of religion, the founders made religion bloom in the United States.

This dime-size silver piece probably started its life as a coin, and could have been dropped or misplaced in Philadelphia during daily prayer. Perhaps the Abrahamic god took an offering to help us remember our own history in trying times.

Karen Anne said...

Susan, I thought the founding fathers were mostly Deists, not Christians.

Susan Holloway Scott said...

Scrapiana and Anonymous: Yes. And that's all I'm going to say. ;)

Susan Holloway Scott said...

Steve Ross - Thank you for the eloquent comment. The Founders certainly were an intelligent and far-seeing bunch, weren't they? Ahh, those early days before party politics!

Susan Holloway Scott said...

Karen Anne - You're right. A number of the Founders did in fact lean towards (and some outright tumble into) Deism. In fact, the original version of this post included a paragraph about Deism, but my word count was becoming encyclopedic, and I ended up deleting it. My sense is that Deism was more of a belief than a religion, especially since it eschewed organized religion. It also seemed to be something that followers came to later in life - a conscious philosophical choice - as an alternative to the more traditional Christian denominations in which they had been raised. So when I say the Founders were all Christians, I probably should have qualified that by saying they'd all begun as Christians.

Deism also seemed to have been a private belief that could exist side by side with traditional church attendance (whether for "appearances", or religious uncertainty). Even Thomas Jefferson - responsible for that Deistic "Creator" in the Declaration of Independence - seemed to have followed both paths. There's an interesting article on the Monticello website about this here: https://www.monticello.org/site/research-and-collections/jeffersons-religious-beliefs

Anonymous said...

Well said!

 
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