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Newport, Rhode Island

“Children of the Stock of Abraham” in America: The Jewish Congregation of Newport

After the Dutch lost control of their settlements in Brazil to the Portuguese in the mid-seventeenth century, the small Sephardic Jewish community that had flourished under the tolerant laws of the Netherlands found themselves in diaspora. A handful of these families migrated north, eventually settling in Newport, Rhode Island around 1658. Founded as a haven for religious dissenters, colonial Rhode Island was a notably diverse and relatively religiously tolerant society where the Jewish population could expect to flourish without fear of reprisal.

Constructed between 1759-1763 for a Jewish congregation that had been meeting in Newport for over a century, Touro Synagogue is the oldest Jewish synagogue in the United States.

View of West Façade of Touro Synagogue. Historic American Buildings Survey, June, 1971. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hhh.ri0083/photos.144467p

View of West Façade of Touro Synagogue. Historic American Buildings Survey, June, 1971. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hhh.ri0083/photos.144467p

The building and its interior furnishings reflect the elegant neo-classicalism popular in the mid- to late- eighteenth century, and suggest the success of the Newport congregation in adapting to their new home.

The integration of the Newport Jewish community with the rest of the town is also indicated by the placement of their house of worship. The synagogue (indicated by the letter K on this map) was located in the heart of Newport’s commercial and governmental activity; note the shading which indicates its prime situation on a rise overlooking the harbor, and its close proximity to the courthouse (L).

A Plan of the Town of Newport by Charles Blaskowitz. London: William Faden, 1777. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Divison, 74692104.

A Plan of the Town of Newport by Charles Blaskowitz. London: William Faden, 1777. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Divison, 74692104.

The dedication of the synagogue was described in a diary entry by local Congregational ministry Ezra Stiles.

In the Afternoon was the dedication of the new Synagogue in this Town. It began by a handsome procession in which were carried the Books of the Law, to be deposited in the Ark. Several Portions of Scripture and of their Service with a Prayer for the Royal Family, were read and finely sung by the priest and People. There were present many Gentlemen and Ladies. The Order and Decorum, the Harmony and Solemnity of the Musick, together with a handsome Assembly of People, in an Edifice the most perfect of the Temple kind perhaps in America and splendidly illuminated, could not but raise in the Mind a faint Idea of the Majesty and Grandeur of the Ancient Jewish Worship mentioned in Scripture.

Dr. Isaac de Abraham Touro performed the Service. The Synagogue is about perhaps fourty foot long and 30 wide, of Brick on a Foundation of Free Stone; it was begun about two years ago, and is now finished except the Porch and the Capitals of the Pillars. The Front representation of the holy of holies, or its Partition Veil, consists only of wainscotted Breast Work on the East End, in the lower part of which four long Doors cover an upright Square Closet the depth of which is about a foot or the thickness of the Wall, and in this Apartment (vulgarly called the Ark) were deposited three copies and Rolls of Pentateuch, written on Vellum or rather tanned Calf Skin: one of these Rolls I was told by Dr. Touro was presented from Amsterdam and is Two Hundred years old, the letters have the Rabbinical Flourishes. A Gallery for the Women runs around the whole Inside, except the East End, supported by Columns of Ionic order, over which are placed correspondent columns of the Corinthian order supporting the Ceiling of the Roof, the Depth of the Corinthian Pedestal is the height of the Balustrade which runs around the Gallery. The pulpit for Reading of the Law, is a raised Pew with an extended front table; this placed about the center of the Synagogue or nearer the West End being a square embalustraded comparting with the length of the Indented Chancel before and at the Foot of the Ark.

On the middle of the North Side and Affixed to the Wall is a raised Seat for the Parnas or Ruler, and for the Elders; the Breast and Back interlaid with Chinese Mosaic Work. A Wainscotted Seat runs around the Side of the Synagogue below and another in the Gallery. There are no other Seats or Pews. There may be Eighty Souls of Jews or 15 families now in Town. The Synagogue has already cost Fifteen Hundred Pounds Sterling. There are to be five Lamps pendant from a lofty Ceiling.

Ezra Stiles, Friday 2 December 1763 in Diary. Cited in HABS No. RI-278

Interior, Touro Synagogue. New York Public Library Digital Collections. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/a5c31f84-0606-ffc6-e040-e00a18060180

Interior, Touro Synagogue. New York Public Library Digital Collections. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/a5c31f84-0606-ffc6-e040-e00a18060180. Many of the same rich appointments Stiles commented upon are still visible in this early twentieth century postcard.


“To Bigotry No Sanction”: Washington’s Visit to Newport

In 1790, shortly after Rhode Island ratified the Constitution, George Washington visited the state to promote passage of the pending amendments to the Constitution. Now known as the Bill of Rights, these amendments were largely a response to Anti-Federalist fears about the extensive powers of the national government and delineated several essential personal rights as beyond the reach of Congressional legislation. To many Americans, especially those belonging to minority religious groups, the most significant of the proposed amendments was the one protecting religious liberty.

In Newport, Washington was met by a welcoming delegation of the town’s leading citizens, among whom was Moses Seixas, the warden of the Touro Synagogue. In his address, Seixas left no doubt of his support for the proposed religious liberty amendment, expressing his relief and gratitude to “the Ancient of Days, the great preserver of men” that the Jews–so often grievously “deprived … of the invaluable rights of free Citizens” on account of their religion–now lived under a government “which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”

George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799: Series 4. General Correspondence. 1697-1799Newport, Rhode Island, Hebrew Congregation to George Washington, August 17, 1790, Address of Welcome.

George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799: Series 4. General Correspondence. 1697-1799 Newport, Rhode Island, Hebrew Congregation to George Washington, August 17, 1790, Address of Welcome.

In Washington’s response, the new president quoted Seixas’ description of the government of the new nation as one where neither bigotry nor persecution on religious grounds were to enjoy protection.

The citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy—a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.

It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

Invoking the common heritage of Jews and the nation’s Christian majority, Washington closed his letter to the Jewish congregation by expressing his hopes that the “children of the stock of Abraham” in America would “continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants,” and that all of that nation’s citizens would find “light, and not darkness upon [their] paths.”

George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799: Series 2 LetterbooksGeorge Washington to Newport, Rhode Island, Hebrew Congregation, August 17, 1790

George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799: Series 2 Letterbooks. George Washington to Newport, Rhode Island, Hebrew Congregation, August 17, 1790

Princeton, NJ

Presbyterian Evangelicalism

Frontispiece to An Account of the College of New-Jersey, Woodbridge, N.J., 1764 | Gilbert Tennent. New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed September 19, 2016. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47d9-7acf-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

Frontispiece to Gilbert Tennent,  An Account of the College of New-Jersey (Woodbridge, N.J., 1764). New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed September 19, 2016. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47d9-7acf-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

The sister-institutions of Princeton University (then known as the College of New Jersey) and later, Princeton Theological Seminary have been at the center of American Presbyterian education and scholarship. Founded in 1746 to provide training for New Light (evangelical) ministers during the Second Great Awakening, the college moved into Nassau Hall (shown above, from a sketch drawn by Gilbert Tennent) in 1756. Ministerial training ceased to be the primary goal of the college after John Witherspoon was named to the presidency in 1768, although Princeton retained a strong evangelical identity and connection to American Presbyterianism until the end of the nineteenth century. 

John Frelinghuysen Hageman, History of Princeton and its institutions (J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1879), 324.

John Frelinghuysen Hageman, History of Princeton and its institutions (J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1879), 324.

As the curriculum at Princeton became more broadly academic, it became apparent that a new institution where ministerial candidates could go to obtain specialized theological training was needed. Accordingly, in 1809, the Presbyterian Church in the United States voted to establish a seminary where students might be taught in accordance with the great creeds and confessions of Presbyteriansim. Naturally, given Princeton’s long-standing associations with American Presbyterianism, as well as its desirable location in the mid-Atlantic, the denomination hoped to be able to locate their new seminary near the existing college. In 1811, the General Assembly reached an agreement with the new president of Princeton, Ashbel Green, in which the college ceded a portion of its land to be used to create the campus for the new seminary and pledged to accommodate the seminarians in its own buildings until construction of the theological school could be completed. 

Relations between the seminary and the college remained close for almost a century; indeed, Charles Hodge, professor and second president of the seminary served as a member of the college’s Board of Trustees from 1850-1878, where he used his influence to help keep religious instruction central to the college’s mission and curriculum. Professors at one institution were regularly invited to give lectures at the other, and together, the College and the Seminary combined to offer the nation a model of excellent, religiously-influenced education with a strong orientation towards public service as an expression of personal piety.

At the seminary, Archibald Alexander and his successors in the theology department over the next century–Charles Hodge, Archibald Alexander Hodge, and B.B. Warfield– developed this general attitude towards life and learning into a unique strain of Reformed evangelicalism, eventually known as “the Princeton school.” Characterized by a combination of robust scholarship and strict confessionalism with “concern for religious experience [and] sensitivity to the American experience,”[1] for over a century, Princeton theology epitomized orthodox Christian scholarship in America. The writings of Princeton theologians, were not limited to academic audiences, but were widely distributed throughout the country in both book and article form. Through their students’ ministries and their own writings, Princeton’s theologians aimed at cultural transformation in the name of furthering Christ’s kingdom on earth, while simultaneously adhering to the most rigorous standards of academic scholarship.

The Clash of Cultures: Christianity and Liberalism

All of that changed in the 1900s, when the college and the seminary both fell under the influence of liberal, secularizing scholarship. In response, J. Gresham Machen, an esteemed professor at Princeton Theological Seminary published Christianity and Liberalism in 1923. Machen’s book undertook a defense of orthodox Christian doctrine against what he saw as the tendency of American Protestants to water-down the gospel in search of the elusive and transitory goals of relevance and ecumenicism. (Machen had been one of the most vocal opponents of an earlier attempt to unify the nation’s Protestant denominations into one “Organic Union” on the grounds that such an agreement, aimed at the “consolidation… of particular churches” into one generic and doctrinally imprecise ‘church’ was both impractical and unbiblical; see “Protestant Churches Make Plan For United Action,” Scarsdale Inquirer, Number 13, 7 February 1920.)

Machen’s concern only grew stronger after his own denomination, the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, adopted the Auburn Affirmation in 1924. Intended by its authors and signatories as a statement in favor of freedom of conscience and the congregational governance at the heart of Presbyterian polity, Machen and other critics saw the Affirmation as a rejection of the authority of the Bible and an abandonment of traditional Reformed doctrine. For the next several years, Machen would work to prevent this sort of theological pluralism from prevailing at the seminary and in American Christianity more broadly. Although often labeled as a fundamentalist for his staunch adherence to Biblical inerrancy and other traditional orthodox doctrines, Machen wrote:

I never call myself a “Fundamentalist.” There is indeed, no inherent objection to the term; and if the disjunction is between “Fundamentalism” and “Modernism,” then I am willing to call myself a Fundamentalist of the most pronounced type. But after all, what I prefer to call myself is not a “Fundamentalist” but a “Calvinist”—that is, an adherent of the Reformed Faith. As such I regard myself as standing in the great central current of the Church’s life—the current which flows down from the Word of God through Augustine and Calvin, and which has found noteworthy expression in America in the great tradition represented by Charles Hodge and Benjamin Breckenridge Warfield and the other representatives of the “Princeton School.” (Machen to F.E.  Robinson, Esq., President of the Bryan University Memorial Association, June 25, 1927. Reprinted in THE PRESBYTERIAN, vol. 97, no. 27, July 7, 1927)

When, in 1929, a reorganization of the Seminary’s administration allowed for the inclusion of not only liberal, but also non-Reformed professors on the faculty, Machen and three other members of the faculty (Robert Dick Wilson, Oswald T. Allis, and Cornelius Van Til) left to found Westminster Theological Seminary in nearby Philadelphia.


Machen’s Church Trial

Machen’s efforts to stem the tide of modernist heresy in the Presbyterian church did not end with his retreat from Princeton Theological Seminary. In 1933, after he became convinced that the official missions activities of the Presbyterian Church were more in keeping with the teachings of modernist philosophy than Christian orthodoxy, Machen founded the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions. The General Assembly of the PC(USA) accused Machen of undermining the denomination’s efforts and ordered him to disassociate himself from the Independent Board. When Machen refused, on the grounds of conscience, he was brought before a church court in the New Brunswick Presbytery for a disciplinary hearing.

Clipping from an unknown newspaper. Image provided by the PCA Historical Center, St. Louis, MO. Used by permission.

Clipping from an unknown newspaper. Image provided by the PCA Historical Center, St. Louis, MO. Used by permission.

Machen’s trial, held at the First Presbyterian Church in nearby Trenton, NJ, garnered nationwide attention; it was reported in the major newspapers of Philadelphia, New York, and Baltimore, as well as in Time Magazine (Monday, Mar. 11, 1935). The irony of Machen’s position–being harried out of a denomination that only ten years earlier had ‘affirmed’ the primacy of individual conscience to scripture–was not lost on outside observers who pointed to the trial as a watershed moment in the history of American Christianity. Indeed, two years after Machen’s trial (and subsequent suspension from the PC(USA), followed by his departure from the denomination to found the Orthodox Presbyterian Church), satirist and cultural commentator H. L. Mencken–normally quite critical of Christianity–applauded the theologian for his astute grasp of the peril presented to the church by modernism, and for the logical tenacity with which Machen defended his beliefs.

He [Machen] saw clearly that the only effects that could follow diluting and polluting Christianity in the Modernist manner would be its complete abandonment and ruin. Either it was true or it was not true. If, as he believed, it was true, then there could be no compromise with persons who sought to whittle away its essential postulates, however respectable their motives. (H. L. Mencken, “Dr. Fundamentalis,” Baltimore Evening Sun 18 January 1937, 2nd Section, p. 15.)

As Mencken observed, for a man of Machen’s faith and learning, there had been literally no other course to take.


 

[1] Mark A. Noll, The Princeton Theology 1812–1921 (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 13.

Philadelphia Area, PA

Mother Bethel African-American Episcopal Church

OIH

Albert Newsam, 1844 National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, NPG.99.94

Albert Newsam, 1844. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, NPG.99.94

 

1910 | Philadelphia Colored Directory. The New York Public Library. New York Public Library Digital Collections. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47df-9d9f-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

1910 | Philadelphia Colored Directory. The New York Public Library. New York Public Library Digital Collections. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47df-9d9f-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

1910 | Philadelphia Colored Directory. New York Public Library Digital Collections. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47df-9d9d-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

1910 | Philadelphia Colored Directory. New York Public Library Digital Collections. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47df-9d9d-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

Mormon Tabernacle

The Mormon Tabernacle

Construction on “the Great Tabernacle” began in the Spring of 1863 and was completed in 1875. The design of the building was meant to roughly reflect the shape of a tent, based on the Old Testament tabernacle (tent) that housed the Ark of the Covenant prior to the construction of the temple in Jerusalem. The Tabernacle was considered an engineering marvel at the time of its construction: the hall is 150 feet wide and 250 long with no internal pillars breaking up the span of the dome. The openness of the building and its elliptical shape contributes to its amazing acoustics; an orator speaking in a normal conversational pitch on the dias at the front of the building can be clearly heard in all seating areas. Including the balcony (added at a later date), the Tabernacle can seat between 6-7,000 people. Although it is no longer used as the main venue for the LDS Annual Conference, it continues to be the primary performance home of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir which debuted there July 4, 1873.

[View of Salt Lake Tabernacle and city], 1867 - 1893] The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

[View of Salt Lake Tabernacle and city], 1867 – 1893] The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

"Great Mormon Tabernacle." Andrew Russell. The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1869. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47d9-4bc3-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

“Great Mormon Tabernacle.” Andrew Russell. The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1869. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47d9-4bc3-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

"Interior of Mormon Tablernacle." New York Public Library Digital Collections. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47d9-4fec-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

“Interior of Mormon Tablernacle.” New York Public Library Digital Collections. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47d9-4fec-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

Boston

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