Acts of Faith: Religion and the American West is a new exhibit at the New York Historical Society that explores the interplay between religion and United States expansion in the 19th-century West. It opens September 22, 2023, and will be on display through February 25, 2024.
The exhibit illuminates the way religion became a vital and contested part of American life. Acts of Faith takes visitors beyond the mythologized “Wild West” of popular culture to present a fuller and surprising picture: a West populated by preachers, pilgrims, and visionaries and home to sacred grounds and cathedrals that kindled spiritual feeling from the woodlands of New York all the way to the valleys of California.
The narrative highlights the experiences and traditions of people who, voluntarily or involuntarily, took part in this chaotic and transformative era — including diverse Native peoples, Protestant missionaries, Mormon settlers, Catholic communities, African American migrants, Jewish traders, and Chinese immigrant workers.
The exhibit includes more than 60 objects and dozens of images and documents. Highlights are Robert Weir’s portrait of the famous Seneca chief Sagoyewatha, or “Red Jacket”; a bulto (wooden statue) of San Ysidro Labrador from 19th-century New Mexico on loan from the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe; and an emigrant trunk labeled “From Basel to Salt Lake City, Utah” that belonged to a convert to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on loan from the Utah Historical Society.
There are installations, multimedia elements, and immersive displays, including a dollhouse-sized diorama of St. Louis’ first Rosh Hashanah ceremony; a large mural depicting a San Ysidro Feast Day in Taos, New Mexico; an illustrated interactive journey to the California goldfields with 49er Sarah Royce; a lifesize, lifelike figure of African American pioneer Clara Brown; and an evocation of a 19th-century classroom.
Media elements include visualizations of the Mormon exodus to Utah and the saga of Indian boarding schools as well as an audio guide offering readings, music, and expert commentary from a range of historical and contemporary voices.
The exhibit was curated by Marci Reaven, vice president for history exhibitions, and Lily Wong, associate curator. A major contributor to research was Dr. Susan Yohn, professor emeritus from Hofstra University.
Support for Acts of Faith: Religion and the American West was provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Henry Luce Foundation, and the Terra
Foundation for American Art.
The New York Historical Society, located at 170 Central Park West at Richard Gilder Way (77th Street) in Manhattan, is open on Tuesday-Thursday from 11 am until 5 pm, on Friday from 11 am until 8 pm, and on Saturday and Sunday from 11 am until 5 pm. Admission for adults is $24; Seniors, Educators, and Active Military personnel is $19, students is $13, children 5-13 is $6, and children under five are free. Admission is pay-as-you-wish from 6–8 pm on Fridays. There are free daily tours at 1 pm and 2:30 pm.
Illustrations, from above: Ernest Smith (Toonawanda Seneca, Heron Clan, 1907-1975), “Progress,” 1935 (courtesy RMSC, Rochester); and 14th Ward Female Relief Society, Album Quilt, 1857 (private collection).