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After decade in storage, Washington letter on religious freedom will go public
George Washington's letter will go on display after being out of public view for almost a decade.
May 23rd, 2012
02:18 PM ET

After decade in storage, Washington letter on religious freedom will go public

By Alex Zuckerman, CNN

Washington (CNN) – After sitting in storage for nearly a decade, George Washington’s signature statement on religious liberty will go on display this summer in the city where freedom of religion was enshrined in the Constitution: Philadelphia.

America’s first president wrote the letter to a Jewish congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1790, assuring American Jews that their freedom of religion would be protected. The document will go on display this summer for the first time since 2002 in an exhibition at Philadelphia’s National Museum of American Jewish History.

For nine years, the letter has been kept out of public view, in storage at a sterile Maryland office park a few hundred feet from FedEx Field, where the Washington Redskins play. CNN took an inside look at the document in September.

But the Morris Morgenstern Foundation, which owns the letter, has agreed to put the historic document on public display, officials at the National Museum of American Jewish History said.

“Our institution as well as others have been trying to have access to (this) for a long time,” said museum director and CEO Ivy Barsky. “We feel fortunate that the Morgenstern Foundation thought us worthy.”

The loan agreement between the museum and the foundation is unusual. The museum will have the letter for three years but will be allowed to show it for just three months per year. The letter will be kept in a dark storage area for preservation for the other nine months.

An excerpt of the letter showing George Washington's signature.

The document will be accompanied by an exhibit called “To Bigotry No Sanction: George Washington and Religious Freedom,” which will run June 29 to September 30. Barsky said the exhibit came together only after the museum was certain it could showcase Washington’s letter.

Before going into storage in 2002, the letter was on display at the Klutznick Museum at B’nai B’rith International Headquarters in Washington. It was on display there for 45 years before the organization downsized, closing its museum. The letter went into storage.

After that,  many people did not realize where the letter had gone, according to Jane Eisner, editor of  Forward, a Jewish newspaper. Eisner dedicated a series of editorials over the last year to lobbying for public display of the letter. She also sent a reporter, Paul Berger, to research the history of the letter.

“This is one of those rare moments as a journalist where you can see the fruits of your labor,” Eisner said. “All we had was all Washington had, which was words. We just have our words and arguments that we try to put out in the public sphere as best we could.”

Morris Morgenstern, center, showed a number of notable people his prized letter, including then-Sen. John F. Kennedy.

The letter is considered to be Washington’s key public statement on religious freedom. Eisner and Barsky say that the document signaled a welcoming of all people to America in pursuit of freedom.

“May the father of all mercies scatter light, and not darkness, upon our paths,” the letter reads, “and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in His own due time and way everlastingly happy.”

The letter addressed the congregation’s fears that Jews could face discrimination in the new nation. “The letter starts off to the Hebrew congregation of Newport, Rhode Island,” said Mordechai Eskovitz, rabbi of the Touro Synagogue in Newport. “It was meant for the congregation. It is addressed to the congregation.”

The Touro Synagogue, in Newport, Rhode Island, where Washington sent his letter.

The Library of Congress had asked to display the letter during a 2004 exhibit on the 350th anniversary of Jewish life in America. When the loan was not completed, many historians speculated that no one would be able to meet the standards of the Morgenstern Foundation for exhibiting the letter.

“Usually people would die just to be invited to display their property,” said Jonathan Sarna, professor at Brandeis University and a pre-eminent scholar on Jewish-American history. “If the Library of Congress wanted something of mine, they would have it the next day with insured mail.”

Berger, the Forward reporter, says the letter’s placement at another Jewish museum could mean the Morgenstern family would like to see the letter stay in a Jewish facility. “Nobody knows why the family chose the museum in Philadelphia over the Library of Congress,” he said.

The Morgenstern Foundation did not respond to requests for comment.

It is unclear where the document will go after its three-year loan at the Museum of American Jewish History.

– CNN’s Dan Merica contributed to this report.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: History • Judaism

soundoff (869 Responses)
  1. pennylane

    Why can't we get along with each other without thrashing each others belief system...Personally I don't care if you pray to a rock...in the end if we are to be judged it isn't going to be by You, Me or Someone else... and if when there is a Judgement what you belief in really won't matter...because He who Judges will be the only one that will matter. So lets try and be kind and respect each others differences...other wise you all sound like a bunch of hypocrites

    June 9, 2012 at 11:50 am |
    • nisroc00

      Because people think the Bible/Quran is religion. Almost nobody in this world can practice religion with out a book and because each book is different people argue. People love to argue as it is part of our nature to destroy ourselves. Then you look at those who do not attend church, who do not do drugs, smoke or drink yet enjoy their lives and live their lives, no better religion than that.

      June 10, 2012 at 6:57 pm |
    • Da King

      True faith in the Loving God will work. You are on the right track. "Love your Neighbor" and Love God Back!
      May be too late though.

      June 10, 2012 at 7:26 pm |
  2. Pete

    More empirical evidence that our founding fathers did not found a "Christian Nation". The focal point was freedom of religion and freedom from religion (seperation of church and state). Furthermore, Adams, Washington, Franklin, and Jefferson were a mix of agnostics, atheists, unitarians, and deists. They were brilliant men and didn't blindly accept that a sky man was watching their every move, judging them, and demanding worship.

    June 8, 2012 at 9:11 am |
    • Pete

      The 1796 Treaty with Tripoli states that the United States was "not in any sense founded on the Christian religion- Signed under Washington and Adams.

      June 8, 2012 at 9:27 am |
    • Dawn

      The founding fathers were Deists. Deism is (according to Wikipedia) a religious philosophy which holds that reason and observation of the natural world, without the need for organized religion, can determine that the universe is the product of an intelligent creator. According to deists, the creator never intervenes in human affairs or suspends the natural laws of the universe.

      June 9, 2012 at 5:50 pm |
    • Da King

      Pete, that was and is wrong. But that is something nonbelievers can hang on to. God is better.

      June 10, 2012 at 7:28 pm |
  3. TGM

    His letter is being taken out of its correct social context. It was written before '9//11' and the mass settlement in the USA of 'brown supremacists' from the AlQaeda countries whose freedom of religion includes the koran-mandated requirement to murde non-believers.

    June 7, 2012 at 5:23 am |
    • larry

      hate much?

      June 8, 2012 at 3:53 pm |
  4. Kindness

    1. For you.
    A thought to consider without a typical ego response
    Accept Jesus Christ as your lord and savior. You never know how soon is too late. Transcend the worldly illusion of enslavement.
    The world denounces truth....
    Accepting Jesus Christ (for me) resulted in something like seeing a new color. You will see it .....but will not be able to clearly explain it to anyone else..... Its meant to be that way to transcend any selfism within you.
    Also... much the world arranges "surrounding dark matter into something to be debated" in such a way that protects/inflates the ego.
    The key is be present and transcend our own desire to physically see evidence. We don't know anyways by defending our own perception of dark matter.
    Currently.... most of us are constructing our own path that suits our sin lifestyle. Were all sinners. Knowing that we are is often an issue. But both Christians and non are sinners.
    We don't like to Let go and let god. We want control to some degree. This is what Jesus asks us to do. "Follow me".
    It's the hardest thing to do... but is done by letting the truth of scripture lead you (redemptive revelation)... as I said .
    Try reading Corinthians and see if it makes sense to you. Try it without a pre conceived notion of it being a fairy tale.
    See the truth...
    do we do what it says in today’s society... is it relevant... so many have not recently read and only hinge their philosophy on what they have heard from some other person...which may have been full of arrogance pride or vanity..
    Look closely at the economy ponzi, look at how society idolizes Lust , greed , envy, sloth, pride of life, desire for knowledge, desire for power, desire for revenge, gluttony with food etc .
    Transcend the temporal world.
    Just think if you can find any truth you can take with you ....in any of these things. When you die your riches go to someone who will spend away your life..... You will be forgotten.... history will repeat itself.... the greatest minds knowledge fade or are eventually plagiarized..... your good deeds will be forgotten and only give you a fleeting temporary reward . your learned teachings are forgotten or mutated..... your gold is transferred back to the rulers that rule you through deception. Your grave will grow over . This is truth .
    Transcend your egoism and free yourself from this dominion of satan. Understand you are a sinner and part of the collective problem of this worldly matrix... Repent.... Repent means knowing (to change)
    Evidence follows faith. Faith does not follow evidence.....
    Faith. Above. Reason. In. Jesus. Christ.
    Faith comes by Reading or Hearing the word of god from the bible. Ask Jesus in faith for discernment and start reading the New Testament... You will be shocked when you lay down your preconceived notions and ....see and hear truth ... see how Christ sets an example ... feel the truth....
    Read Ecclesiastes. Read Corinthians.
    You can’t transcend your own egoism by adapting a world philosophy/s to suit your needs. Seek the truth in Christ.
    Sell all your cleverness and purchase true bewilderment. You don't get what you want ....you get what you are in Christ.
    I promise this has been the truth for me. In Jesus christ .
    Think of what you really have to lose. ...your ego?
    Break the Matrix of illusion that holds your senses captive.
    Once you do . you too will have the wisdom of God that comes only through the Holy Spirit. Saved By grace through Faith. Just like seeing a new color.... can't explain it to a transient caught in the matrix of worldly deception.
    You will also see how the world suppresses this information and distorts it
    You're all smart people . I tell the truth. Its hard to think out of the box when earthly thinking is the box.

    It’s a personal free experience you can do it free anytime.
    Don't wait till you are about to die.. START PUTTING YOUR TREASURES WHERE THEY REALLY MATTER >

    It’s awesome… and it’s just between you and Jesus..

    June 6, 2012 at 6:42 pm |
    • YeahRight

      "A thought to consider without a typical ego response"

      Your posts reek of ego so the rest of it is moot, especially since you keep posting this garbage over and over again. LOL!

      June 6, 2012 at 6:45 pm |
    • Da King

      He's trying to Save you, Yeah Right. You'll need more light than that. If it happens, it will be something grand and undeniable.

      June 10, 2012 at 7:45 pm |
    • gregrustin

      relax bro

      June 10, 2012 at 9:17 pm |
  5. justyntoo

    if you were to also read geo.wash. farewell address you would see in his own words that this country was based on the belief in god in the judea-christian tradition , and it was the duty of the united states government to foster and protect freedoms of speech , religion , press etc .. ( even if they disagree with what that freedom's belief is ) from those that would use the power of law making ,to curtail these freedoms . he was against the establishment of a national religion because of king george and his ilk . we now have another king george as president who is by selective law enforcement trying to remove all religion from our society . if that is done then there will be no restraint on anyone , other than what someone who does not want restraint , will put on them selves . good bye america , john adams stated – if a non christian governs the united states then our freedoms will end . not all our presidents have wanted to be christian but because of the faith equation of the people , the people would not have voted for him , so we have had - c i n o - . it is a proven fact that church goers are better workers , citizens ,volunteers for the common good . beware what you ask for , the choice is before you . choose wisely .

    June 6, 2012 at 6:37 pm |
    • gregrustin

      unrighteous anger.............tea party

      June 10, 2012 at 9:20 pm |
    • Nsandas

      To justyntoo,

      "it is a proven fact that church goers are better workers , citizens ,volunteers for the common good . beware what you ask for"

      Where is this "Fact" proven? Where is you evidence?

      June 10, 2012 at 10:15 pm |
  6. USA401

    Teaparty senators should go there and read it.

    June 6, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
    • cbinal

      Haha – Teaparty Senators already know what it says. Democrats need to go read what it says instead of having someone else interpret it for them. They'll be shocked. That's the whole problem – the arrogance of the Dems who think they know it all.

      June 6, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
  7. DOCFEE

    GW was right "freedom of and FROM religious groups". GW and Thomas Jefferson would be ashamed of the country they help to start. End the debt , tax the churches....all of them. Why do I have to subsidize them?

    June 4, 2012 at 4:07 pm |
    • cbinal

      What a fool – where does it say freedom "FROM" religion? What you and other fools like you don't seem to understand is that a Church is made up and supported by the TAXPAYERS who are members of that Church – not YOU! You and the rest of the country don't subsidize anything for a Church. They receive a 503 C status because the Government recognizes the important work that churches do to help the needy and it doesn't cost the gorvernment anything. What you are asking for is double taxation on anyone that belongs to a Church. I pay my taxes and I donate to the Church – please quit volunteering me to pay more taxes just because you don't like Christians. And the funny thing – Christians are probably the majority of the taxpayers in this country, we're not cheating on our taxes to get out of it.

      June 4, 2012 at 6:37 pm |
    • JWT

      You cannot have freedom of religion without freedom from religion.

      June 4, 2012 at 9:39 pm |
    • Cielo

      cbinal~ When churches get into polittics, they are NO LONGER just a church. Poliical organizations pay taxes even though they afre already tax payers. When churches DON'T pay taxes, they become a government sponsored political organization. Churches have NO BUSINESS in politics. As long as they do, they SHOULD pay taxes!

      June 4, 2012 at 11:19 pm |
    • On my knees for God's pleasure

      @cbinal. Did you skip Matthew 5:22? "...whoever says, 'You fool,' shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell."

      June 5, 2012 at 1:36 am |
    • cbinal

      @Cielo – A Church is not only made up of taxpayers but also of VOTERS. As a member of a Church, a taxpayer, a voter, and a citizen of this country we have the right to discuss politics if we want. And if I want to know my Pastor's opinion or if he wants to express it, that's fine with me. But, yes I do have a problem when politicians come to "campaign" at a church and the Pastor stands up and says, "Vote for this man or you won't have a job." That's a problem.

      June 5, 2012 at 6:23 pm |
    • cbinal

      @On my knees. No I didn't skip Matt 5:22, because I understand "context" whereas you obviously do not.

      June 5, 2012 at 6:25 pm |
    • On my knees for God's pleasure

      @cbinal, It is easy to change the words in the Bible to your liking, as you just did. The "context" shows that unrighteous anger is not good, and your anger is clearly self-righteous. "We pay taxes outside of church, so shove it!"

      June 5, 2012 at 9:05 pm |
    • cbinal

      @On my knees, Wow?! I don't know if you are a non-Christian who tries to attact Christians by using what little knowledge you have of the Bible or if you consider yourself a Christian and you are trying to teach me something. If you are trying to teach me something then you are a perfect example of what is wrong with so-called Christians these days – you don't understand what you are reading. The context is not anger or righteous anger. First he is talking to believers, second about being self righteous, third the relationship between believers to believers and God, and finally, and most important, that there isn't a "degree" to your sin – one sin and you've broken the entire Law. DO a search on "fool" throughout the Bible and see if I used it wrong. Some people need to be comforted, others need to be confronted.

      June 6, 2012 at 10:54 am |
    • andyst

      Churches are supported by their congregation. Those members of the congregation donate money which has been taxed at source. So churches are recieving money that has already been taxed.

      June 6, 2012 at 3:00 pm |
    • sanitypleez

      @andyst, donations to a church are tax deductible, so that money is not taxed at source. Essentially this means the government is subsidizing the churches in the same way they do for all non-profit charities. I have no problem with that as long as they all play by the same rules. That means no political activity.

      June 6, 2012 at 4:00 pm |
    • cbinal

      @Sanity – a Subsidy is money directly paid to organization. A deduction is not a subsidy. It was my money which has been taxed at the source, the government allows a deduction on your taxes at the end, if you choose to give to a charity or a church. That is far from the same thing. That is what everyone flipped out about in the early Bush years when he proposed giving grants to churches for services for the poor - that would be a subsidy.

      June 6, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
    • sanitypleez

      @cbinal, I said it was "essentially" a subsidy. A tax deduction is income lost by the government. Hypothetically, if some one chooses to give $100 to a charity and their income tax bracket is 25%, that person is really only out $75 and the government has essentially given $25.

      June 7, 2012 at 8:18 am |
    • cbinal

      @Sanity – there is so much wrong with everything you are saying. First of all, you don't get back the same amount of donations equal to your tax bracket. You get a small portion deducted. I wish I could get back my tax bracket of everything I've donated. Second, you act like this is money that started out as the government's, I borrowed it, made donations and then asked for some back. This was money I earned privately – not from the government, I paid income taxes on it, I've paid property taxes, state taxes, sales tax, etc. and I get a tiny deductable for a donation to a Church. And I'm suppose to agree with you that Churches should be taxed and I get no deductable? I guess that's how you guys go about killing the Churches because they won't last long if that happens. Liberals/Democrats think nothing through for themselves, you just spout the same old garbage.

      June 7, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
    • cbinal

      @Sanity – OH and by the way, why don't you go see how much "income lost by the government" is due to actual IRS collection expenses, prosecutions, and frauds. I guarantee you that the "income lost" on churches wouldn't compare. The IRS is actually a private organization and would be considered bankrupt if the government wasn't backing them and keeping it afloat. I say do away with all income taxes and deductions and go to a national sales tax – that would settle it all.

      June 7, 2012 at 6:46 pm |
    • sanitypleez

      @cbinal – When you deduct a charitable donation, the amount of the donation get subtracted from your taxable income. Therefore you are NOT paying federal tax on it. I agree you may still be paying some state or local tax based on your local tax code. You certainly do not pay sales tax or property tax on donations to a church (as you claim). You only pay sales tax on money that you buy something with. You only pay property tax on property you own. It's not that complicated.
      I specifically said that I do not have a problem with the tax status of churches as long as they follow the same rules that other charitable organizations are held to.
      Also, I fail to see the relevance of the IRS comments. I made no mention of the magnitude of impact on the government budget, just that they are a source of financial support to the churches. Anyway, your statements weren't even accurate. The IRS is NOT a private organization. They do hire private contractors, but they are a federal government organization.

      June 8, 2012 at 8:47 am |
    • cbinal

      @Sanity – I'm sorry, I presumed you had a clue and would do some research on your own instead of listening to your Liberal sources. First let me clear one thing up – I've been paying taxes and making donations probably longer than you have been alive, I never said anything about paying sales taxes to a church – that's just idiotic. I was commenting on all of the taxes I already pay (and you also) but, you are suggesting that I should pay more than you because I belong to a church. My point was, plain and simple, I earn the money – it's not the governments "income" that they just allowed me to have during the year. Anyway, I'm done with you ignorance, go look up whether or not the IRS is a federally owned organization or not, also the Federal Reserve – they are not official government owned and ran organizations, they are funded and audited by the Government. You're in for an awakening hopefully. Think for yourself.

      June 8, 2012 at 3:41 pm |
    • cbinal

      @Sanity – try this link and read section 4. http://nontaxpayer.net/irsnara0.html

      June 8, 2012 at 4:38 pm |
    • sanitypleez

      @cbinal – Nice! a link to a conspiracy theory website that claims that people don't really need to pay federal taxes. I love these things. As for as the "Think for yourself" comment, you may want to be careful what you wish for. If more people started thinking for themselves, the churches may start to empty out even faster.

      June 9, 2012 at 8:52 am |
    • Da King

      DOCFEE. You are lost and it makes me sad. If you see a man with a staff, follow him. The staff is to pull the wolfe's off of you, not to beat you. He will know your voice, if you listen to his.

      June 10, 2012 at 7:38 pm |
  8. POSTER

    REDUNDANT

    June 4, 2012 at 11:30 am |
  9. Doy

    I though you screened and refused to post trash, What do u call the first 3 through 11 comments?

    June 3, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
    • LTCB

      I'd have to agree that there's a lot of stuff that goes way beyond things I've said and had pulled. Maybe no one is minding the store. What I wanted to see in this piece was a reasonable length quote from the letter with context. Would have been nice to see a picture of the actual text that was complete enough to read too.

      June 3, 2012 at 7:48 pm |
    • moose

      I wondered same thing

      June 5, 2012 at 12:47 am |
  10. Doy

    Was George Washington a Jew? he quoted "“May the father of all mercies scatter light, and not darkness, upon our paths,” the letter reads, “and make us all in our several vocations useful here" I believe that Obama was not the first minority President, just the first African minority in the presidency. What do you think?

    June 3, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
    • cbinal

      He was a Christian – you've been lied to by the Liberals

      June 4, 2012 at 6:18 pm |
    • Cielo

      cbinal~ George Washington was NOT a christian. He was a Deist, recognizing God in many different aspects.

      June 4, 2012 at 11:21 pm |
    • Common Sense

      George washington was a Christian and we were founded as a Christian nation sorry

      June 5, 2012 at 10:39 am |
    • cbinal

      @Cielo – again – lied to. Go look at his writings including the full text of this one. You can't be a Diest and believe that the God that you believe exists is concerned with your day to day life or the well being of the people of this country.

      June 5, 2012 at 6:28 pm |
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    June 2, 2012 at 9:14 pm |
    • JoeP199

      Hey, that's great! Finally,a place where all the bigots can get together. Now, why don't you all just go there and stew in your own filth?

      June 5, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
    • Dawn

      JoeP – I wish I could "thumbs up" your comment!

      June 9, 2012 at 5:53 pm |
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    • Sergei

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    • MySay500

      You are mentally disturbed with your little self.

      June 8, 2012 at 8:41 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.