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The Bible in America from the pilgrims to the Civil War
When the first European colonists came to America, they brought with them the foreign religion of Christianity. They brought various Bibles; they interpreted the texts in a new light; and they searched for an authentic American religion. Throughout the history of struggles, war, civil unrest, feminism, Civil Rights, and freedom of religion, the Bible has remained a fixture in American culture; regardless of the multiplicity of interpretation. It has been used for uplifting the downtrodden and it has been used to condemn those who did not deserve condemnation. And although it was originally written in languages that no American speaks, the text is often seen as American as the constitution itself. While the debate of America’s supposed Christian founding will forever rage on, there is little debate on whether the founders knew the Bible. The cases before you show a small window into how early Americans used and viewed the biblical text, with some of those traditions continuing into today. Many Americans, such as Herman Melville, interpreted the Bible to show that Americans were the new chosen people of God. The only thing certain is that Americans have created a plethora of interpretations of how the Bible fits in the history of America.
In addition to the overview provided in each box below, you can use the arrow buttons to view collection items that were part of the exhibit. If you click on the image or caption title, the image will be enlarged in a new tab with the option to zoom in further.
Puritans and Pilgrims
The story that is told every Thanksgiving is that the Pilgrims came to America to escape religious oppression from the King; however, it is a little more complex. While they wanted to practice their own religion, their interpretation was staunch and exclusive. This is what led to the burning of non-Puritans and people accused of being witches. They attempted to keep their staunch interpretation of Christianity by educating everyone in the “correct” belief. As a result, the Geneva Bible was their Bible of choice, with all its study notes and its literal translations. One text that was always difficult for them to translate was the Psalms. The Psalms were used in all religious services and needed to be sung; however, you cannot literally translate music. They also believed in mission and conversion, and attempted to convert the Native Americans and slaves. But this salvation was done so for a variety of reasons, such as to pacify their neighbors and to ensure that the slaves were not teaching their own religion to Puritans. This is why Eliot produced the first Bible printed in America. He used his knowledge of the Bible to put Algonquin to the English alphabet. And lastly, the fear of African religions and witchcraft was what sparked the Salem Trials. Cotton Mather, as a witness to this, urges Puritan slaveholders to do more to convert their slaves to Christianity for the protection of the community.
Much of the religious history of America is told first through the history of the Pilgrims and Puritans who came from the Mayflower. They spent years establishing their religious presence in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and in some ways, did so violently. Above is an image of the Geneva Bible, which would have been the particular translation of the Puritans. Often called the first study Bible, it contained massive amounts of notes, some of which take up more space than the biblical text.
Above is an image of Cotton Mather’s Christian History of New England. In it, he defends the right of slavery, discusses issues of conversion, and explains issues of witchcraft in New England.
The Great Awakening
When the American colonies began to grow, there was a surge of diversity in Christianity, especially Quakers and Catholics. On the eve of Revolution in the 18th Century, an evangelical movement began that was spurred by both nationalism and religion. The First Great Awakening was an attempt to unite people under Christianity regardless of class, race, and gender; it confronted traditional beliefs of the past century; and it criticized some of the “freedoms” in which the colonists were engaging. The sermon that typified this time was Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” which told colonists that Hell awaited them if they did not repent. Supposedly he was interrupted several times by people pleading for their souls. Preachers like George Whitfield would travel the colonies and preach to anyone who would listen. He later met the Wesley brothers, and they ministered to people in Georgia. Regardless, the Awakening had lasting effects that led to the Revolution.
Jonathan Edwards, believed by many to be the father of The Great Awakening, traveled around the thirteen colonies in the 1740s preaching to tens of thousands of individuals. One of his most famous sermons, Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God, used vivid metaphors to strike emotion into his audience as he described the fate sinners would face in God’s righteous wrath. Edwards cited Psalms 73:18 in his sermons as a way of expressing the judgment sinners would face at the expense of God. He would have used a Geneva translation, such as the one shown above.
Across the sea in England and Ireland, a man by the name of John Wesley spurred the genesis of the Methodist Church. During the Great Awakening, Wesley and his brother Charles were pivotal in bringing Methodism to the colony of Georgia. Above is an image of the Wesley New Testament, which contains his commentary.
Above in image of a hymnal written by John and Charles Wesley
The King James Bible in America
Undoubtedly, the King James Bible is the most important biblical text for Protestants in America. To the point that many Christians today will only read it. However, with the diversity of Christians in America, it was not the first translation printed. After Eliot’s Algonquin, the German Quakers and Mennonites of Germantown, PA printed the Luther translation in 1743. At this time, all of the King James Bibles were being supplied and printed by Britain. However, when the war broke out, the supply of Bibles was cutoff. In 1777, Robert Aitken began printing copies of the King James New Testament. In 1781, even before the war was over and the Constitution did not exist, Aitken took his text to the chaplains of the Continental Congress. On approval, they took it to Congress, who approved of Aitken’s “pious and laudable act.” The King James Bible was now authorized by Congress and was officially printed in America.
While the King James Bible is the most important Bible for American Christians, it is not the first European Bible printed in America. Instead the first Bible printed was a Luther Bible [image above] in 1743.
Americans continued to import the King James Bible until the revolution, when it became difficult to do so. As a result, many of the King James Bibles, such as the one shown above, where brought over to America. This particular one was brought to Canada from Scotland and eventually made its way to Missouri.
The Bible shown above is an edition of the first King James Bible to be printed in America. It contains a letter to Congress in the front pages after the completion of the American edition of the King James Bible.
The Bible and Early Presidents
The religion of the President of the United States is usually a contested issue. However, there were several presidents who were influenced by religion regardless of their belief. It is widely accepted that Thomas Jefferson was a Deist, believing that a creator made the natural world and then let it run on its own. As a result, Jefferson did not believe in “superstition” and especially miracles. However, he did believe in morality and ethics, and was concerned that most Christians cared more for the sacrifice of Jesus than his words. As a result, he simply cut all the miracles from the Gospels. The sixth President, John Quincy Adams was a Unitarian and believed in the importance of the Bible. This is why he was involved in the American Bible Society at its founding. Maybe because of this, he chose not to swear on the Bible, and instead chose the Constitution. The irony of swearing into office on the Bible is that the Bible discourages it. Lincoln was another President whose religion is disputed. Although he was raised Baptist, he never seemed to join the church. However, he had an extensive knowledge of the Bible, and his life and presidency was full of tragedy and trying issues. Scholars are unsure if the Civil War and the death of his children turned him toward or away from religion.
Above is an image of The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth produced by Thomas Jefferson himself. By cutting out the miracles in the New Testament, he was able to assemble his own gospel by gluing everything back together in what he believed was Christ’s moral philosophy. He compared the French, Latin, Greek, and English translations.
Above is an image of one of the first Bibles published by the American Bible Society. This Society was created by several “Founding Fathers,” including Francis Scott Key, John Jay, and president John Quincy Adams. This particular Bible was owned by William Boerum who embarked the seas upon the USS Constitution, the famous battle ship nicknamed “Old Ironsides” during the War of 1812.
The image show above is of Lincoln’s Devotional, which is a Christian inspirational book that dives into the abolitionist beliefs of the 16th president. This book features biblical scriptures and poems for everyday of the year, divided by month into lessons.
Native American Bibles
Chief Pontiac of the Ottawa is quoted in saying, “They came with a Bible and their religion, stole our land, crushed our spirit, and now tell us we should be thankful to the Lord for being saved.” Like the Puritans, many colonists used religion in an attempt to pacify the Native Americans on whose land they occupied. The Cherokee went to great lengths to assimilate in hopes that they could remain on their land in Georgia and North Carolina; however, they were removed by Andrew Jackson on the infamous Trail of Tears in 1831. With all of these efforts, most Native Americans converted to Christianity, and in the process, translated the Bible into various languages. In many ways, these new Christians kept much of their traditions and beliefs from before and integrated them into Christianity.
Either through the work of missionaries or through attempts to assimilate to white culture, many Native Americans converted to Christianity. This was done both prior to the “Indian Removal Act” of 1830, which saw the removal of the Cherokee and other eastern tribes, as well as after resettlement in Oklahoma and the west. The next few images show Bibles in Shawnee, Ojibwa, and Cherokee. Some of the Bibles are the work of Native Americans and others by missionaries for converting.
In Palmyra, New York, a young man was struggling with what it meant to be an American and what it meant to be Christian. Then an angel appeared to him and told him where to find the Golden Plates that held the answers that he sought. In these plates, it told of a Jewish prophet’s flight from Jerusalem to America, the new Promised Land. Like Joseph Smith, many other Americans were dealing with the idea of what it meant to be an American after the Revolution. The same would happen after the Civil War, when so many Americans would deal with the apocalyptic events. Some Americans returned to the concept of America being the new Israel and attempted to integrate Judaism into Christianity. This is the case for groups like the Seventh Day Adventists who tried to return to the proper teachings of the Bible by following the rules of the Sabbath and dietary laws.
The Second and Third Great Awakenings are divided by the Civil War. The Second one is represented by a time in which America is far enough away from the Revolution that it searches for the true American religion, while the Third one is dominated by the results of the apocalyptic disaster of the Civil War. The next two images are of two works by Joseph Smith who founded the Latter Day Saints Church in New York, prior to the war. For Smith, America had to be the Promised Land and blessed by God.
Above is an image of the scripture of the Church of Christ, Scientist by Mary Baker Eddy. After the war when the nation needed healing, several spiritual groups arose and in this context Mary Baker Eddy looked for the deep healing power of prayer.
The Bible and Slavery
No debate divided the country like the discussion of the Bible and slavery. This debate led to the split of so many denominations, including Methodist and Baptist, with the Baptists remaining divided. While the Bible acknowledges slavery, most scholars know that this was a historical issue; however, many slave owners did not agree. If the Bible is speaking to them and their time, then slavery must be accepted like all other issues. In many ways, this became an issue of theology between the Old and New Testaments. Most advocates of slavery used the Old Testament as the authority, while abolitionists looked to the Gospels and Jesus’ emphasis on “love thy neighbor.” Southerners also believed that Africans were cursed by God and needed to be enslaved. They believed that Noah’s son Ham, who was cursed for looking at his father’s nakedness in Genesis 9, was the ancestor of all Africans. Harriet Beecher Stowe was central to the debate of the Bible and slavery. She wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852, which not only showed the realities of slavery but attempted to show the role of Christianity in freedom. She wanted readers to see that slaves were Christians and that Christian love only accepted freedom. The book incited praise from abolitionists and criticism from slave owners. According to legend, Lincoln himself told Stowe that the book started the Civil War.
During the time before the war, there were many Christians and Jews that owned slaves; and yet, there were many of the same who said slavery was not allowed in either religion. As a result, the Bible became the center of the argument and whether it outlawed or allowed slavery. On the left is a text written by Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin who believed that slavery was against any of the teachings of Jesus.
Above is an image of an English Bible from Josiah Priest’s time period turned to one of the verses [Isaiah 14.2] he used to say the Bible advocated for slavery.
The Bible and the Civil War
The United States had never seen anything before and has never seen anything since like the Civil War. And while slavery was at the heart of the war, it also involved religion, identity, and culture. The destruction was so cataclysmic that some believed that the Gates of Hell were loosed on the world. When the English Civil War broke out, many thought the end of the world was near. The same could be said about the American Civil War. The Bible was brought with soldiers along the way for protection and for guidance during the dark times. Many preachers became abolitionists, soldiers, advocates for slavery, and political figures, and the Bible and its many interpretations were at the center. In Kansas, John Brown ran his campaign almost as an evangelical terrorist, which would lead to constant attack on cities like Lawrence, even long after Brown’s death. One such attack was Quantrill’s Raid in 1863, which saw the almost near destruction of Lawrence and the death of 164 civilians. Similar destruction occurred across the nation as if the fires of Hell burned on Earth. Afterwards, the rebuilding of the nation was done poorly and many wounds were left open. As a result, many new denominations of Christianity appeared, emphasizing the “End Times,” purity, and healing, such as Seventh Day Adventist, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Church of Christ, Scientist.
The next three Bibles from the American Civil War. It was believed that having a Bible in battle would represent the protection of the armor of God over the heart. The tiny size of each of these Bibles shows that it can fit conveniently over the heart in a soldier’s pocket pouch while going out to war. The Cromwell’s Bible is significant because it was a reprinting of the Bible carried in the English Civil War of 1642. The Cromwell’s Bible shown above was found on soldier Almarcin Doak who was killed in the Battle of Martinsburg.
The inscription show above was in a Bible that belonged to Thomas Robinson Sweet who was held in Libby Prison during the war. He was the brother of William Sweet, the twelfth president of Baker University.
Above is George Washington Paddock's account of Quantrill’s Raid.
The Bible and Freedom
Much like some of the new religious groups, African-Americans turned to the Bible and religion to find healing and to find freedom. In many ways, they saw themselves as the tribes of Israel who were placed in bondage and were allowed to be freed by God. Many families stayed in the South and attempted to reclaim their life and identity. Other’s left in the “Great Migration” for urban centers all over America, like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia. While emancipation had occurred, Jim Crow was now in full effect and where they went, African-Americans met violence, segregation, and lynching. Whole African-American only churches and denominations, such as the African Methodist Episcopal, were created out of need and safety. Towns and settlements began to spring up like Quindaro and Nicodemus in Kansas and Eatonville in Florida, the home of Zora Neale Hurston. Reading the text, people knew that the Bible promised freedom and it promised the reward, but the road would still be long and hard.
After the emancipation of slaves and the end of the Civil War, many African-Americans looked to the church for hope of the future to come. Several African-Americans moved west and looked for homes outside of the South. Before the war ended, free Africans settled the site of Quindaro outside of Kansas City. The Bible shown above is probably from one of the churches there.
Many people believed that they could find their story in biblical texts such as Exodus or the Hagar story in Genesis. Two verses that were prophetic to people was Genesis 15.13-14 depicted above in a Bible printed after the war. Most African-Americans were apart of three denominations: Baptist, African Methodist Episcopal, and Methodist.
The A.M.E. church was founded by Richard Allen after he was not allowed to pray in front of a white congregation. His portrait is shown above.
Jews in America after the Civil War
Jews have been in America since its earliest periods, and they lived throughout the thirteen colonies. They settled in many areas, including the South, where they were slave owners. Some of the Jews who lived in major cities like Atlanta, left after the destruction. After the war, the nation focused on the settlement of the West as an attempt to unify the nation from coast to coast. Many people went west on the various trails, Oregon, California, and Santa Fe, which were slowly becoming railroad routes. Many Jews took these trails before and after the war to try their life in California. America saw a rush of immigrants after the War, and Jews represented a large portion of them. Where Jews went, they did not necessarily need synagogues. To have a religious service, you need certain religious objects and you need ten adult men. This means that Torah scrolls and other scrolls like the Esther Megillat would have traveled with them; however, they needed cemeteries for proper burial. As a result, across the nation there are cemeteries in areas where no communities stayed for long periods of time. With cemeteries also came the Genizah, which was an area that you stored or buried documents that contained the name of God. One such Genizah can be found in Eudora, Kansas. Now that the war was over, Jews and other Americans looked for a new life across the country, but the one thing that remained constant was the Bible remained with them.
Like many people after the war, a large population of American Jews decided to travel west. Many of which, who were former southern slave owners, went to the west in hopes of finding new lives after the destruction of major cities like Atlanta. Many traveled on the Santa Fe Trail that passes by Baker University. When traveling they would have taken their holiest objects such as the Megillat Esther seen above, which was important for the holiday of Purim.
They also would have brought Torah scrolls such as the one shown above, which is inscribed with the names Jeremy and Joseph Cohen on the handles.
The Puritans: A Transatlantic History by David D. Hall
Publication Date: 2019-11-12
A panoramic new history of Puritanism in England, Scotland, and New England This book is a sweeping transatlantic history of Puritanism from its emergence out of the religious tumult of Elizabethan England to its founding role in the story of America. Shedding critical new light on the diverse forms of Puritan belief and practice in England, Scotland, and New England, David Hall provides a multifaceted account of a cultural movement that judged the Protestant reforms of Elizabeth's reign to be unfinished. Hall's vivid and wide-ranging narrative describes the movement's deeply ambiguous triumph under Oliver Cromwell, its political demise with the Restoration of the English monarchy in 1660, and its perilous migration across the Atlantic to establish a "perfect reformation" in the New World. A breathtaking work of scholarship by an eminent historian, The Puritans examines the tribulations and doctrinal dilemmas that led to the fragmentation and eventual decline of Puritanism. It presents a compelling portrait of a religious and political movement that was divided virtually from the start. In England, some wanted to dismantle the Church of England entirely and others were more cautious, while Puritans in Scotland were divided between those willing to work with a troublesome king and others insisting on the independence of the state church. This monumental book traces how Puritanism was a catalyst for profound cultural changes in the early modern Atlantic world, opening the door for other dissenter groups such as the Baptists and the Quakers, and leaving its enduring mark on what counted as true religion in America.
Indonesia is the fourth largest country in the world. It comprises more than 17,000 islands inhabited by 230 million people who speak over 300 different languages. Now the world's largest Muslim nation, Indonesia remains extraordinarily heterogeneous due to the waves of immigration - Buddhist, Hindu, Arab, and European - that have defined the region's history. Fifty years after the collapse of Dutch colonial rule, Indonesia is a nation in the midst of dramatic upheaval. In this broad survey, Jean Gelman Taylor explores the connections between the nation's many communities, and the differences that propel contemporary breakaway movements. Drawing on a broad range of sources, including art, archaeology and literature, Taylor provides a historical overview from the prehistoric period to the present day. The text is enlivened by brief capsule histories on topics ranging from pepper to Maharajas to smallpox.
In the eleventh century, the Bible was available only in expensive and rare hand-copied manuscripts. Today, millions of people from all walks of life seek guidance, inspiration, entertainment, and answers from their own editions of the Bible. This illustrated book tells the story of what happened to the ancient set of writings we call the Bible during those thousand years. Anchoring the story in material evidence--hundreds of different translations and versions of the Bible--Lori Anne Ferrell discusses how the Bible has been endlessly retailored to meet the changing needs of religion, politics, and the reading public while retaining its special status as a sacred text. Focusing on the English-speaking world, "The Bible and the People" charts the extraordinary voyage of the Bible from manuscript Bibles to the Gutenberg volumes, Bibles commissioned by kings and queens, the Eliot Indian Bible, salesmen's door-to-door Bibles, children's Bibles, Gideon Bibles, teen magazine Bibles, and more. Ferrell discusses the Bible's profound impact on readers over the centuries, and, in turn, the mark those readers made upon it. Enjoyable and informative, this book takes a fresh look at the fascinating and little-recognized connections among Christian, political, and book history.
Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers by Daniel L. Dreisbach
Publication Date: 2016-12-01
No book was more accessible or familiar to the American founders than the Bible, and no book was more frequently alluded to or quoted from in the political discourse of the age. How and for what purposes did the founding generation use the Bible? How did the Bible influence their politicalculture?Shedding new light on some of the most familiar rhetoric of the founding era, Daniel Dreisbach analyzes the founders' diverse use of scripture, ranging from the literary to the theological. He shows that they looked to the Bible for insights on human nature, civic virtue, political authority, andthe rights and duties of citizens, as well as for political and legal models to emulate. They quoted scripture to authorize civil resistance, to invoke divine blessings for righteous nations, and to provide the language of liberty that would be appropriated by patriotic Americans.Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers broaches the perennial question of whether the America founding was, to some extent, informed by religious - specifically Christian - ideas. In the sense that the founding generation were members of a biblically literate society that placed the Bible atthe center of culture and discourse, the answer to that question is clearly "yes." Ignoring the Bible's influence on the founders, Dreisbach warns, produces a distorted image of the American political experiment, and of the concept of self-government on which America is built.
Beginning with a handful of members in 1830, the church that Joseph Smith founded has grown into a world-wide organization with over 12 million adherents, playing prominent roles in politics, sports, entertainment, and business. Yet they are an oddity. They are considered wholesome, conservative, and friendly on one hand, and clannish, weird, and self-righteous on the other. Mormonism: A Very Short Introduction explains who Mormons are: what they believe and how they live their lives. Written by Richard Lyman Bushman, an eminent historian and practicing Mormon, this compact, informative volume ranges from the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to the contentious issues of contemporary Mormonism. Bushman argues that Joseph Smith still serves as the Mormons' Moses. Their everyday religious lives are still rooted in his conceptions of true Christianity. They seek revelation to solve life's problems just as he did. They believe the authority to seal families together for eternity was restored through him. They understand their lives as part of a spiritual journey that started in a council in heaven before the world began just as he taught. Bushman's account also describes the tensions and sorrows of Mormon life. How are Mormons to hold on to their children in a world of declining moral standards and rampant disbelief? How do rational, educated Mormons stand up to criticisms of their faith? How do single Mormons fare in a church that emphasizes family life? The book also examines polygamy, the various Mormon scriptures, and the renegade fundamentalists who tarnish the LDS image when in fact they're not members. In a time when Mormons such as Mitt Romney and Harry Reid are playing prominent roles in American society, this engaging introduction enables readers to judge for themselves how Mormon teachings shape the character of believers.
Viewing the Civil War as a major turning point in American religious thought, Mark A. Noll examines writings about slavery and race from Americans both white and black, northern and southern, and includes commentary from Protestants and Catholics in Europe and Canada. Though the Christians on all sides agreed that the Bible was authoritative, their interpretations of slavery in Scripture led to a full-blown theological crisis.
Religion has been a powerful political force throughout American history. When race enters the mix the results have been some of our greatest triumphs as a nation--and some of our most shameful failures. In this important book, Mark Noll, one of the most influential historians of American religion writing today, traces the explosive political effects of the religious intermingling with race. Noll demonstrates how supporters and opponents of slavery and segregation drew equally on the Bible to justify the morality of their positions. He shows how a common evangelical heritage supported Jim Crow discrimination and contributed powerfully to the black theology of liberation preached by Martin Luther King Jr. In probing such connections, Noll takes readers from the 1830 slave revolt of Nat Turner through Reconstruction and the long Jim Crow era, from the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s to "values" voting in recent presidential elections. He argues that the greatest transformations in American political history, from the Civil War through the civil rights revolution and beyond, constitute an interconnected narrative in which opposing appeals to Biblical truth gave rise to often-contradictory religious and moral complexities. And he shows how this heritage remains alive today in controversies surrounding stem-cell research and abortion as well as civil rights reform. God and Race in American Politics is a panoramic history that reveals the profound role of religion in American political history and in American discourse on race and social justice.
White Men's Magic: scripturalization as slavery by Vincent L. Wimbush
Publication Date: 2014-03-15
Characterizing Olaudah Equiano's eighteenth-century narrative of his life as a type of "scriptural story" that connects the Bible with identity formation, Vincent L. Wimbush's White Men's Magic probes not only how the Bible and its reading played a crucial role in the first colonial contactsbetween black and white persons in the North Atlantic but also the process and meaning of what he terms "scripturalization." By this term, Wimbush means a social-psychological-political discursive structure or "semiosphere" that creates a reality and organizes a society in terms of relations andcommunications.Because it is based on the particularities of Equiano's narrative, Wimbush's theoretical work is not only grounded but inductive, and shows that scripturalization is bigger than either the historical or the literary Equiano. Scripturalization was not invented by Equiano, he says, but it is not quitethe same after Equiano.
Weird John Brown: divine violence and the limits of ethics by Ted A. Smith
Publication Date: 2014-11-01
Conventional wisdom holds that attempts to combine religion and politics will produce unlimited violence. Concepts such as jihad, crusade, and sacrifice need to be rooted out, the story goes, for the sake of more bounded and secular understandings of violence. Ted Smith upends this dominant view, drawing on Walter Benjamin, Giorgio Agamben, and others to trace the ways that seemingly secular politics produce their own forms of violence without limit. He brings this argument to life--and digs deep into the American political imagination--through a string of surprising reflections on John Brown, the nineteenth-century abolitionist who took up arms against the state in the name of a higher law. Smith argues that the key to limiting violence is not its separation from religion, but its connection to richer and more critical modes of religious reflection. Weird John Brown develops a negative political theology that challenges both the ways we remember American history and the ways we think about the nature, meaning, and exercise of violence.
Describes the experiences of former slaves in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Tennessee during the Reconstruction years in an effort to understand the reasons for the mass migration of freed people to Kansas in 1879.