Books: Unlikely characters

Peter Manseau tells the stories of those who brought new faiths to the new world.

Man holding a bible (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Man holding a bible
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Every US schoolchild has heard of the Salem witch trials and the women unfortunate enough to be accused and tried in this most pious Puritan community.
But few who have studied the country’s history have heard of “Tituba, the Barbadian slave who escaped the death sentence through fantastical revelations which cleverly fed into her inquisitor’s fear of Caribbean sorcery.”
In his book, One Nation, Under Gods, Peter Manseau gives a thoroughly enjoyable depiction of Tituba and a few other individuals who wove their particular religious influence into the fabric of the country, from the earliest explorers to the flower power characters of the 1960s.
The title refers to wording inserted in 1954 into the US Pledge of Allegiance recited daily in many schools throughout the country.
Each of Manseau’s chapters describes someone who brought a different religious vision to challenge the norm. Manseau explores the tenets of various faiths with a light tone, thereby avoiding the drudgery that a philosophical slog through religious minutia might have entailed.
Moving through the timeline of US history, Manseau recounts very human stories, most ignored by standard histories.
For the Spanish explorations, he concentrates not on Cortez and other notables but on the tale of Muslims, often slaves, who played pivotal roles. The resilience of these captives was profound.
One, Mustafa Zemmouri, survived at least two ill-fated missions, acting as an intermediary and interpreter. As one of a very few survivors, he came to be seen by the native population as a kind of sachem.
He made his way through Florida and large portions of Mexican territory.
Probably in a perpetual search for escape, he ended his journey among the Zuni tribe of native Americans in New Mexico and became a tribal legend.
The brutality of slavery in the US is common knowledge. Instead of dwelling on the obvious, Manseau tells the stories of several Muslims who came across the Atlantic as slaves, and yet achieved such acclaim that they certainly had an impact on the prevailing notion of the Christian righteousness of their status. Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, an educated son of the local imam in his Angolan village, was sent by his father to sell two slaves when he was caught and transported to the US around 1730. He and another slave, Abd al-Rahman, so impressed their captors that their stories spread widely. In both cases, they were eventually sent back to their homeland, Al-Rahman at the bequest of the sultan of Morocco and the order of president John Quincy Adams.
For the period of the American Revolution, Manseau recounts the voyage of one letter, written in Yiddish, indecipherable to the British blockade officer who took possession of it during a routine search.
The contents of the letter were innocuous, but it was representative of an intricate web of support for the rebels among Jews and the Dutch, both in the New World and in Europe. This financial aid to the colonists seems to have had a direct impact on the language guaranteeing religious freedom in the US Constitution.
As Manseau outlines, the 1800s saw the height of homegrown alternatives to traditional Christianity, as well as the popularity of foreign faiths bought back by well-traveled missionaries and other seekers, both men and women. Ralph Waldo Emerson is the quintessential “American” philosopher. Manseau’s discussion of his aunt’s involvement with Hinduism and its effect on him and other members of the new England intellectual elite is surprising and enlightening. Thoreau took one of the books lent by the aunt to Emerson in Walden Pond. Herman Melville attended one of Emerson’s lectures and found unexpected affinity with the speaker. Indeed, ‘Vishnoo’ appears during the death throes of the Pequot in Moby Dick. As with many of the chapters, the brief exposition is tantalizing. Manseau’s scholarship is noteworthy and his lengthy bibliography gives ready access to his many original source materials.
Later chapters, taking the theme into the 1900s, contain the more familiar stories of the Mormon quest for a home, the racist “yellow peril” laws, riots on the West Coast, and the shameful Japanese- American internment during World War II. Here, too, Manseau brings in little-known aspects, such as the possible Native American influence on Joseph Smith. There is also a chapter on Sikh immigrants, who have often been ignored. A poignant chapter, “War Prayers,” details the fight over symbols on military cemetery grave markers, where religious diversity opposed and prevailed over the rigidly entrenched Christian symbolism.
The chapter on the spiritual explosion of the latter half of the 1900s is undoubtedly the most entertaining. There is a lengthy tale of psychedelic dabblers and the wealthy Cuernavaca gurus. Their stories lead through intricate meanderings from pot-filled rooms in Haight Ashbury, San Francisco, along a jet setter’s saga, directly to the birth of Scientology. Manseau explores the influence of the dedicated and venal few over the very gullible many.
The story of “el pocito” – a site in New Mexico, sacred for centuries and now a tiny Catholic shrine – brings the book back to its beginning with the confluence of powerful native and imported faiths.
I’m not entirely persuaded that the “gods” of Manseau’s examples have generally been a major influence in the evolution of the country, but the stories are unusual and thought-provoking – as well as particularly relevant during this election campaign cycle.