A Cultural History of the Religious Fringe

By Kevin O’LearyJuly 5, 2019

A Cultural History of the Religious Fringe

American Messiahs by Adam Morris

THE NEW BOOK American Messiahs is an impressive cultural history of a recurrent phenomenon in the American experience: the emergence of a radical religious group led by a supposed messiah.

Adam Morris tells the story of eight of these eclectic movements and their charismatic leaders, and the most notorious is Jim Jones, who achieved a damned form of immortality by leading a mass suicide of his Peoples Temple disciples in the jungles of Guyana in 1978, shortly after his henchmen had gunned down California Congressman Leo Ryan.

But in important respects, Jones is the outlier in the story and does not fit the smart narrative nearly as well as the earlier prophets chronicled who were largely benign figures. The book’s real value comes in its preceding profiles and Morris’s ability to show how these fringe religious movements gave refuge to people fleeing America’s hard-driven commercialism and provided a safety value to societal stress that, in other countries, might take on the tone of political protest against injustice.

These messiahs, each of whom provoked the wrath of “normal society,” are all-American figures: self-made women and men showing their independence by rejecting established religion and the norms of society to follow their own path, which involved developing a message that would sell in the spiritual market of the time.

The author begins with two 18th-century women who sought to shatter the patriarchal hierarchies of the early Christian churches. In 1776, while the rest of the nation was focused on beating the British, a young woman named Jemima Wilkinson awoke from a fever and announced that her body now belonged to God and that she had a special mission of salvation. She gave up her name and gender identity and became known as “Universal Friend.” She went on to attract a group of devoted followers and founded the communal town of Jerusalem, New York.

About the same time, another woman touched by the divine founded the Shakers. Mother Ann, as she was known, was seen to be the female vessel of the Christ spirit. Her followers famously lived in celibate communities that celebrated the equality of the sexes. She railed against the “prostitution” of marriage and, like the messiah figures who followed her, she found willing recruits to her cause of women dissatisfied with married life. For the Shakers, a return to the values and virtues of the early Christian church required celibacy, the abolition of private property, and a dedication to collective hard work. Among Mother Ann’s oft-quoted maxims — which became the Shaker motto — was “Hands to work, and heart to God.” She also was known to say there are “no slovens nor sluts in heaven.”

If you are a regular reader of more traditional American histories, you might think that Morris is telling the story of sinister cults across America. Not so. With a sympathetic view of the messiah phenomenon, his stories present a portrait of life on the American fringe that, while definitely odd, is not frightening — at least not until the horror story of Jim Jones.

American Messiahs is reminiscent of Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, a wonderful book about the historical Jesus in first-century Palestine. Aslan presents Jesus as one of a series of charismatic messiahs leading a fight against the Romans and a corrupt elite. All of these “anointed ones” stir the wrath of the Romans and end up crucified. In Morris’s story, the American messiahs often are ostracized — sometimes run out of town and pestered by journalists and law enforcement — but mostly they are left alone to follow their vision.

Each of Morris’s leaders is deeply critical of American society and established religions, and each, in his or her own way, attempts to refound and reestablish an uncorrupted Christian church, taking as their inspiration the apostolic or “primitive” church of the first believers in Christ’s message as described in the Book of Acts. This church was based on the equal acceptance of the whole of humanity as members and practiced a communal form of living that forsook the norms of what we now call bourgeois private property.

Radical politics and radical religion frequently share connections. In 1844, a young Karl Marx wrote an essay titled “On the Jewish Question” in response to Bruno Bauer, another Young Hegelian. Marx — the grandson of rabbis — critiqued the Rights of Man and the French Revolution, arguing that the political rights granted by the revolution were insignificant. While it was important to have the right to vote, the real question for Marx was who had power in the economy. Voting in elections, to Marx, was similar to going to synagogue or church. It was one day of worship and salvation out of seven. But what about the other six days, when we treat others as a means to an end and are less than true to our “species being”?

Marx argued that a political and economic revolution of profound dimensions was required if we were to end our alienation from one another and our true selves. For Marx, only in a communal communist society where the means of production were owned in common could people find true happiness and freedom.

The religious radicals more or less agreed. Morris writes that the “Shaker influence on the development of nineteenth-century American socialism cannot be underestimated.”

Next in Morris’s story comes Thomas Lake Harris, a socialist California vintner and celebrity spirit medium, and Dr. Cyrus Teed, whose wild ideas on brain science, celibacy, and reincarnation helped him found an escapist community in the then wilds of Florida, where he became known as the messiah Koresh. For the casual reader, these two stories are a bit hard to follow, though not because Morris is ungifted as a writer (he is quite strong as a stylist). But Harris and Teed are characters who have some truly wacky ideas, and readers may not want to follow every twist in their mental and spiritual pursuits.

Harris, one of the leaders of the New York City spiritualist community during the antebellum era, had a mercurial quality to his religious tastes. He moved quickly through Calvinism, Universalism, and Spiritualism, and like Teed, was open to medical and scientific breakthroughs that we now recognize as quackery. One of Teed’s strangest undertakings was his effort to vindicate the hollow-earth theory after reading about cellular cosmogony.

Having come of age during the Second Great Awakening movement, Harris and Teed complemented their unorthodox approaches to Christianity with anti-capitalist creeds and a message of millennial urgency. They quickly learned not to fall into the trap of giving a precise date for when the end of time might come. During the Civil War, Harris asked what the point of killing in the name of abolition was as long as everyone remained a slave to sin and to the exploitation of modern industrial capitalism. With the 1861 establishment of the first Brotherhood colony in Dutchess County, New York, Harris started one of the most successful communal societies in the nation’s history.

Perhaps the most intriguing and successful character profiled by Morris is Father Divine, a black preacher who played a significant role in the 20th-century African-American community, but whose importance has largely been forgotten. Adored by tens of thousands and loathed by the more mainstream Civil Rights movement, Father Divine was both a disruptive force and a civic leader. Seeking recruits, he would visit mainstream churches and, in the middle of services, rise to declare his divinity and his belief that racial differences did not exist.

With a knack for finding jobs for his followers during the depths of the Great Depression, he preached celibacy and communal living and built a real estate empire by restoring historical buildings in the nation’s downtowns. Based in New York (and later Philadelphia), he would offer free feasts on Sundays where all were welcome. Known as “angels,” his followers worked at jobs he found for them in hotels or went to work helping the Divine community with cooking, cleaning, and laundry.

Divine’s plan, like that of the Shakers in the prior century, had admirable characteristics but a disturbing cult-like quality. The angels who joined Father Divine were asked to sever ties with their families, cease using their given names, and adopt an “angelic name” like Obedience Love or Sweet Determination. Married couples were expected to separate and treat each other as just another “brother” or “sister.” Of course, it was this cult quality, gone terribly wrong, that led to mass death at Jonestown.

For a glimpse of life on the religious edge that reflects America as a whole, American Messiahs is a valuable guide.


Kevin O’Leary is a research fellow at the Center for the Study of Democracy at UC Irvine. He is finishing a book about the struggle between liberals and illiberals across American history.

LARB Contributor

Kevin O’Leary is a research fellow at the Center for the Study of Democracy at UC Irvine. He is finishing a book about the struggle between liberals and illiberals across American history.


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