A New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice Selection
A history with sweeping implications, American Messiahs challenges our previous misconceptions about “cult” leaders and their messianic power.
Mania surrounding messianic prophets has defined the national consciousness since the American Revolution. From Civil War veteran and virulent anticapitalist Cyrus Teed, to the dapper and overlooked civil rights pioneer Father Divine, to even the megalomaniacal Jim Jones, these figures have routinely been dismissed as dangerous and hysterical outliers.
After years of studying these emblematic figures, Adam Morris demonstrates that messiahs are not just a classic trope of our national culture; their visions are essential for understanding American history. As Morris demonstrates, these charismatic, if flawed, would-be prophets sought to expose and ameliorate deep social ills—such as income inequality, gender conformity, and racial injustice. Provocative and long overdue, this is the story of those who tried to point the way toward an impossible “American Dream”: men and women who momentarily captured the imagination of a nation always searching for salvation.
Scholar and journalist Morris examines the theological, ideological, and personal relationships among a series of American spiritual leaders over the course of two centuries in his captivating debut. He argues that these messianic figures such as Civil War veteran and anticapitalist Cyrus Teed, civil rights pioneer Father Divine, and cult leader Jim Jones compose a movement and shared a conscious rejection of the individualism engendered by "capitalism and exclusionary social hierarchies." Hoping to restore "primitive" religion to a modern age in need, these figures often emerged from reform movements and embraced communal living, celibacy, and new scientific theories. Though the book examines familiar figures such as 18th-century Shaker Ann Lee, many of these messiahs including Cyrus Teed, Father Divine, charismatic Quaker Universal Friend (born Jemima Wilkinson), and 19th-century California spiritualist Thomas Lake Harris will be new to a general audience. Morris's research is extensive, and his reconstruction of his subjects' complex personal histories is impressive. Readers hoping for salacious tales will find a few of those too, though in the main these leaders were troubled by the physiology of the brain, the difficulties of running communities, and the aspirations of underlings who might contest their claims to divinity. Morris's work is a fine examination of a series of Americans whose lives and missions shed light on the dominant institutions and values they sought to subvert.