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“Compagnie” hall – 23 times America

A display of various paintings, books, manuscripts, objects and videoclips evoke the Protestant roots of American identity, from the first settlements to the present day. The WHO IS WHO installation completes it and presents the main Christian denominations in the United States.

While 57% of Americans read the Bible at least once a week, compared to only one in 10 Swiss, it is because the United States developed on a Protestant dynamic that we can still see four centuries after the landing of the Calvinist Pilgrim Fathers in Massachusetts. The Bible is central there. Everyone is free to interpret it as long as they do not interfere with religious freedom, a core value of American democracy.

The exhibition brings together in 23 wooden displays various testimonies of this religious identity anchored in the Reformation. The exhibition design by contemporary artist Séverin Guelpa alludes to travels and going away, and exhibited items include specific Bibles, the first history book ever published in North America, the Methodist saddlebags of a “circuit rider” preacher and an abolitionist teapot.

The exhibition also showcases a conch that was used to call Native American to prayer with music, an Amish girl’s apron made of organza from St. Gallen, speeches by Martin Luther King and Billy Graham, statistics, maps, and a singular survey of the great Christian families. All in all, a colorful collection that evokes the American specificities of a movement that was born in Europe and owes much to John Calvin.

Like other minority communities in Europe, the Amish have found in the United States a place to live their faith freely: they have preserved ancient ways of life symbolized here through various objects and garments: two dolls, an iron, a children’s book, a young girl’s apron and an headdress for men.
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The United States has gone through powerful phases of Spiritual Awakenings over the centuries. Very active revivalist preachers would elate crowds by using emotional language. Among them featured George Whitefield (1714-1770), Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) and, more recently, Billy Graham.
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71% of Americans identified as Christians in 2014, 47% of whom were Protestants and 21% Catholics. 7% identified with another religion and 23% with none, a proportion that has risen sharply since the previous census seven years earlier. Figures vary greatly from one state to another.
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Christianity in the USA has done much to instill justice and solidarity in a recent country that had to invent its own social policies. Walter Rauschenbush and Andrew Canergie each made their contribution, in different ways.
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The famous American holiday is linked to the story of the Mayflower and the Pilgrim Fathers. It was celebrated a short year after their landing in gratitude to God and also to thank the Amerindians for their assistance. It later became an official holiday, anchoring its story in the founding moments of the nation.
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Despite its reputation for a certain rationality, Protestantism has long credited the existence of demons and witches. Faith in an invisible world (13) becomes all the more consistent when a community is going through economic, political or social difficulties. Such was the case in 17th-century New England, around Boston, during the infamous Salem Witch Trials.
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The early days of European colonization of North America were marked by opposing waves of identitarian closure and tolerance. Places like Pennsylvania and Providence, a hospitable colony founded by Pastor Roger Williams, encouraged the latter.
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The United States have been perceived as a promised land whose superpower status would attest to its divine calling. In the works of conservative painter John MacNaughton, Moses or Jesus Christ stand on Capitol Hill, while the motto “God bless America” can be understood as both a statement and an invitation.
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Abolitionism of slavery had a major impact on American history. While some proponents of slavery have sought to justify it using the Bible (see section XII), several abolitionist activists have drawn their values from their Protestant faith, especially Harriet Beecher Stowe (17), author of the best-seller Uncle Tom’s Cabin (20), or John Sewall, who wrote the first anti-slavery tract in the country, The Selling of Joseph (18). An abolitionist teapot (19), the poems of Phyllis Wheatley (21), America’s first black writer, and a photo of the Fisk Jubilee Singers (22), the first Gospel choir in history, bear witness to these movement that fought for the dignity of African-Americans.
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Native Americans have been victims of the creation of the United States. An entire civilization was almost wiped out (24) during the three centuries that followed the landing of the Mayflower. But several measures had also been undertaken by some to protect Native American identity, out of missionary concern but also respect for a different culture. The Bible translated into Algonquin (23) or the large conch shell that was used to call the Delaware Indians to prayer (25) are examples of such concerns.
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The Puritans could rely on the Geneva Bible as their source for “Sola Scriptura”. The Geneva Bible symbolizes the relation between Calvin, who took part in its edition, and the future United States of America. 150 years later, the Geneva Protestant Albert Gallatin was its finance minister and a leading entrepreneur.
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Support for freedom of speech, one of the most important American values, relied on the diffusion of satirical cartoons and writings that did not hesitate to criticize religion. English painter William Hogarth mocks a Revivalist preacher, while others choose to turn Catholics prelates into crocodiles. Funny cartoons, however, could also be used to raise awareness on various social issues.
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Three great spiritual Awakenings took place throughout the 18th and 19th century. Supporters of those Awakenings condemn the traditional churches’ collusion with the elites and their apathetic rationalism. Faith should be more sentimental and focused on the Bible. Like the Quakers, they favor a direct relation to God, and most conversions occur after listening to a preacher. Pentecostalism and healing services are heirs to this Revivalist tradition.
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Although slavery was largely fought against by various American churches, many Christians justified its practice and took part in the trafficking of slaves between Africa and the United States. Bibles were even manipulated in this perspective, and violent forms of struggle against abolitionism emerged in the 19th century.
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Bible is a staple of American culture. More than half of Americans read it at least once a year, as indicated in section XXII. It encountered several specific editions, such as the Jefferson Bible, the women’s Bible or a Korean missionary Bible. The Mormons are inspired by another writing, the Book of Mormon, which is based on a more recent revelation of Christ.
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It might be a stretch to say that Protestants invented oatmeal, corn-flakes and basketball, but nevertheless devout Protestants have used their faith principles to launch products and brands domestically and internationally. An American fast fashion retailer put a bible verse on its plastic bags, as a discreet but key element of its branding.
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XVII.   1620
In November 1620, the story of the landing of the Pilgrim Fathers and the early days of the Plymouth colony following their arrival on the Mayflower were told for the first time in Morton’s Memorial, the oldest history book ever published in the USA, and of which one of the first editions is displayed here. It stands next to the first Creed from the New World and the creed of the Baptist tradition, which represents the most important Protestant movement in the United States today. 62 years before the voyage of the Mayflower, Calvin had thought of America, but further south, in Rio, from where his envoy Jean de Léry returned with extraordinary notes published in 1580 in his Voyage faict en la terre du Brésil.
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Among the two main American Protestant periodicals, one is conservative, one liberal. The conservative one has print run that is sevenfold that of its liberal counterpart, which shows that American Christianity has been increasingly leaning towards the right compared to the 1960s.
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The Rev. Martin Luther King Junior is an American icon (53). A martyr, a prophet of the fight against segregation, the most important Protestant figure in the country, a true preacher and speaker , the reverend King proved to be just as impactful as his 16th-century namesake.
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The First Amendment to the Constitution protects freedom of religious expression in the public space. Having a religious phrase on the dollar bill is not contradictory. As for the American flag, it is a sacred symbol that arouses a severely regulated cult.
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From the very first days of European colonization, the future United-States have considered themselves to be a pioneer nation watched by the rest of the world. The biblical motif of the “shining city upon a hill” imposed the expectations of being a role model country. Major figures throughout American history have used it.
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Comparisons between the United States and Switzerland show that Americans are less shy when it comes to talking about their faith publicly.
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The discussion on Bible and science is very active in modern-day America. At the beginning of the 20th century, it focused on the issue around creationism and the origin of life: who is right? Darwin or the Bible?
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