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America’s Messiah Complex

How cults feed on American ideals, aspirations, and hypocrisies.

Members of the Israelite House of David, a cult in Benton Harbor, Michigan, in the 1920s. FPG/Getty Images

For the past four decades, it seems, we’ve all been drinking the Kool-Aid when it comes to cults. In the wake of the spectacular human tragedy of Jonestown (from which the oft-quoted idiom about Kool-Aid comes), we’ve defaulted to seeing cults as homicidal and suicidal. Jim Jones’s Peoples Temple sits at the apex of this pyramid of doom, of course—but before he became a paranoid drug addict who led his followers to deprivation and mass death in Guyana, Jones was an outspoken advocate for racial integration, a fervent communist, and voracious reader who worked indefatigably for Civil Rights in his racist home state Indiana. Is it at all possible to examine those aims as well as the destruction he later wrought? How can we make sense of the utopian dream that lies just beyond the field of bodies?

Liveright, 432 pp., $28.95

Adam Morris’s American Messiahs: False Prophets for a Damned Nation attempts this difficult task, tracing a series of cults and communes through history from the founding of the American Republic to the fall of Jonestown. Morris makes plain that “the impulse to purify the group through separation from mainstream society, now regarded as the signature of a cult, could not be more fundamental to the nation’s history.” What else were the Puritans, after all, if not a fundamentalist, break-away, apocalyptic cult? The history of the United States is one of such groups, always eager to divorce themselves from the world in search of purity.

Morris’s book does for American history what Norman Cohn’s The Pursuit of the Millennium did for pre-modern European history: Rather than accept that the United States is ever proudly marching forward toward progress, enlightenment, and democracy, American Messiahs makes plain that we have always been a nation waiting on the cusp of the Millennium, and that time and time again we’ve turned to the prophets shouting that the End is close.

Morris doesn’t go into the wide panoply of American cults, focusing instead on six leaders: Public Universal Friend (who was born Jemima Wilkinson), Ann the Word (born Ann Lee), Thomas Lake Harris, Koresh (née Cyrus Teed), Father Divine (aka James Baker, Jr.), and, of course, Jim Jones. Each of these figures is well deserving of her or his own book (and to be certain, most of them—particularly Jones—have been the subject of several). By bringing them together, Morris succeeds in creating a lineage that spans the first 200 years of American history. From colonial New England to northern California, to Florida and back to Depression-era Harlem, American Messiahs offers a parallel history of a nation through its self-appointed deities.

Public Universal Friend, the first messiah of the young United States, was born in 1758, and was still unmarried when, at 23 years old, she came down with a fever that by all rights should have killed her. After six days of delirium, she awoke, announcing that she was no longer Jemima Wilkinson and that her body had been requisitioned by God for humanity’s salvation. The Friend now used male pronouns (though he insisted he was neither male nor female), and began delivering sermons of an impeding Apocalypse, riding through New England gathering up converts. Going by various titles, including not just the Public Universal Friend, but also “the All-Friend,” “Friend of Sinners,” and “the Comforter,” he brought neither friendship nor comfort to what he perceived as the hypocrites of New England society. “Wherever he went,” Morris writes, “the Friend had made himself disagreeable among well-to-do Quakers and old-light Congregationalists by chastising those who made their fortunes off the slave trade and selling rum to Native Americans.” Attracting a modest but respectable following, the Friend ultimately moved his flock to Utica, New York, to establish a utopian commune—where things gradually fell apart, as greed, selfishness, and inequality among the congregants exacerbated already difficult living conditions. The Friend died in 1819, but first he established a template for other prophets to follow: Call out the hypocrisy of America, gather up converts under an apocalyptic and utopian banner, start a heaven on Earth, and watch it all go straight to hell.

Each of the messiahs profiled by Morris brought with them various idiosyncrasies, but none could top Cyrus Teed, aka Koresh, whose theology led to perhaps the most gruesome post-mortem life of any god or prophet. Teed had built a successful commune (the Koreshan Unity) in southwestern Florida with his puritanical critique of mainline churches, which, he argued, “prostituted” their members through the debased institution of marriage. Through celibacy and religious purification, Teed instructed his followers, they would “translate” from their corrupt, mortal forms to a bisexual, immortal new body. (Teed’s cosmology didn’t stop there; among his many arguments, he preached that we lived on the inside of a hollow globe—directly above our heads is China, only it’s blocked by the sun.) He also told his followers that he was the living God, and that upon his death he would be the first to translate into this new, utopian form. So when Teed died in December, 1908, the Koreshans put his corpse in a bathtub and waited.

Florida’s humidity was (to put it extremely mildly) unkind to the corpse, and the congregants who shuffled by the bathtub containing Teed’s mortal coil had differing feelings about his transformation. One would later write of the “very marvelous transformations” that his body underwent:

by no means good looking, oh no—some would call it hideous—not a trace of any of our Master’s features are recognizable but a perfect likeness of Horus the great Egyptian god…. Still it was not repulsive to the majority of us. I would like to look at it over and over again.

Other Koreshans were less awed. Teed’s own sister remarked bluntly, “That thing ought to be put in the tomb.” It was a while before the Koreshans accepted the obvious: Teed’s body was not in a chrysalis undergoing metamorphosis—it was decomposing rapidly. It took a full week before they let the coroner bury him.

Why these particular prophets? Morris had so many colorful, charismatic figures to choose from, but what seems to unite these six is their politics. In differing ways, each of these figures set out to critique some fundamental component of American culture: capitalism, the nuclear family, morality and sexual identity (like the Friend, Teed imagined a coming body that transcended sexual difference). The Friend’s critique of New England’s mercantile class would gradually be sharpened by his ideological descendants. Teed, for example, recognized early on that American sexual politics were bound up in economics. “The Koreshans welcomed anyone,” Morris writes, “who agreed that women’s emancipation and the overthrow of monopoly capitalism could not be achieved independently. Capitalist competition and women’s subjugation were mutually reinforcing phenomena.”

Cults fascinate and terrify because of their megalomaniac leaders and their connections with violence, to be sure. But they also arise out of legitimate critiques of capitalism and moral fallibility. “American messiahs,” Morris reminds us, “tend to arise from progressive movements within left politics because they identify capitalism and exclusionary social hierarchies as sources of evil that will inevitably damn the nation to perdition.” America, a supposedly democratic society built on inequality and injustice, has always provided hypocrisies for self-styled prophets to position themselves against. Too often, though, these genuine critiques are buried beneath the idiosyncrasies, excesses (and sometimes violence) of their leaders.

Father Divine, the charismatic Harlem preacher, has since come to be known for his outsized megalomania, his predilection for Cadillacs and other excesses, but contemporary Civil Rights leaders and sociologists long acknowledged (if at times begrudgingly) his importance to New York’s black community in the years before World War II. Divine was legendary for his free meals to anyone who wanted them (his Sunday feasts attracted thousands, lasting well into the night), and for his ability to find his followers reliable and steady employment, elevating them out of poverty. “It would be fair to say that Father Divine’s Peace Mission,” Morris explains, “has, for the most part been deleted from the history of black struggle in America for its tacky theology, its unappealing blend of communistic lifestyle and respectability politics, its disavowal of racial identity, and most of all, its iconoclastic leader: a squat, bald, dark-skinned man whose followers called him God and their Redeemer.”

And, then, of course, there’s Jim Jones. Of the figures profiled in American Messiahs, it is Jones whose story will be most well-known. Less known is his early career as a courageous campaigner for civil rights in a deeply racist Indiana, operating the state’s first integrated church and brazenly taking on the KKK—a bright and promising future that was eclipsed by the Peoples Temple’s stunning conclusion with hundreds of deaths. Jones (like Divine) has been summarily removed from the roster of civil rights activists for fairly obvious reasons: Little he did was so singular that it couldn’t be replicated by others, and the damage and harm done far outweighed their good deeds (exponentially so in the case of Jones).

But while their civil rights messages may not have been particularly novel, what set them apart was their desire to be set apart: they, like Teed and the Universal Friend, argued that the system cannot be changed from within, that only by breaking away from the fabric of capitalism could any meaningful change be possible. As Morris writes, the “American messianic impulse is based on a fundamentally irrefutable truth first observed by the Puritans: the injustices of capitalist culture cannot be reformed from within.” Dismissing cult leaders as nothing more than delusional narcissists hungering for free love and freer money misses what makes them so compelling in the first place: The blunt recognition that the system won’t save us.

As such, they are, Morris reminds us, “symptoms of the system’s health, not its disease.” For all their terrible faults and tragic ends, the figures who are the subject of American Messiahs: False Prophets of a Damned Nation weren’t wrong in their initial critiques of American inequality—an inequality that will continue to outlast these momentary attempts to change the country’s course. As long as we have a monstrous system, we will also have to contend with these monsters on the margins trying to save us from it. The problem, after all, is right there in the subtitle to Morris’s book: These particular prophets may be false, but the nation is still damned.