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Little-Remembered Religious Preachers Get Their Due In 'American Messiahs'

There was the preacher who told his followers he could teach them to defy gravity. And another who insisted the sun is actually at the center of the earth. Then there was the Quaker who became delirious, died, and then was said to have come back to life as the reincarnated Jesus Christ.

It is little wonder that the succession of messianic prophets who emerged over the first two centuries of U.S. history have not been taken seriously. Jim Jones gained notoriety only by overseeing the massacre of 900 of his followers. The Shakers are famous mostly for their furniture. Who knows of George Baker, Cyrus Teed, or Jemima Wilkinson? The characters that come to life in American Messiahs, as author Adam Morris writes, have appeared "irrelevant to American historians, aberrant to contemporary evangelicals, and abhorrent to the average consumerist."

Morris is wise to give these forgotten messiahs the attention they deserve. Bizarre as they were, many were stunningly successful, leading movements that flourished over many years, due in good part to their success at identifying sources of social distress in the country and offering responses that actually made sense to people.

The evolution of American politics and American religion is "a single intertwined history," as Morris writes. Protestantism in particular, from the Puritans to the evangelicals, emphasized individual responsibility and celebrated financial success, providing thereby a moral foundation for capitalism. Those Americans who felt marginalized and powerless, meanwhile, were drawn to more eccentric religious teachings, ones that spoke to their alienation and sense of vulnerability.

Especially appealing were those movements that drew their inspiration from early Christianity. Messianic cults are so-named because their leaders often portrayed themselves as latter-day messiahs, personifying at least the spirit of Christ or claiming that Christ was speaking through them.

Just as Jesus asked his apostles to give up their possessions and follow him, messianic leaders called on their followers to turn their accumulated wealth over to the group and live communally. Those people who responded found their lives simplified, their most basic needs met, and their loneliness diminished, thanks to close and comforting support from fellow believers.

One of the early leaders was Jemima Wilkinson, who, after seemingly arising from the dead in 1776, announced that hers was "the Body which God had prepared for the Spirit to dwell in" and that she was now a he, to be known as the "Public Universal Friend" or "the Comforter." Serving as an itinerant prophet over the next 40 years, the Friend gained fame across New England and established colonies of devoted followers.

Another early figure who left her mark on American religion was Ann Lee, an English woman who immigrated to America in 1774. Her deep religious convictions came after encountering the English evangelist George Whitehead, while her extreme piety was, at least in part, a response to the great offense she took at overhearing her parents' lovemaking. Given to visions and spiritual tremors, Lee was an early convert to a prophetic movement characterized by trembling and ecstatic convulsions. In America, the "Shakers" became known for their advocacy of celibacy, a practice that meant their growth came only through conversions.

In one way or another, almost all of America's messianic leaders have been spiritualists, claiming various powers of clairvoyance. Thomas Lake Harris, who said he witnessed his wife's ascent to heaven when she died, appeared to be especially adept at communicating with the spirit world.

"During one memorable projection," Morris notes, "Harris telepathically transported himself to a meeting of spiritual dignitaries convened in a Greek amphitheater. ... Later on, [he] was privy to a conversation between the spirits of Plato, Socrates, Swedenborg, the Dutch microbiologist Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, and the ancient Greek painter Zeuxis."

For all their nuttiness, however, the messianic cults often addressed pressing social issues at the time. Women played much more important roles in these movements than they did in the rest of society, and virtually all the messianic leaders were fervent advocates of women's rights. With their devotion to "apostolic communism," they were critics of labor exploitation, corporate greed, and racial discrimination, and they eloquently denounced the failure of conventional religion to address those problems.

Cyrus Teed, who developed a practice in medicine and alchemy in the mid-19th century and claimed to be the reincarnation of the prophet Elijah, offered what Morris calls "a stern, puritanical critique of the 'prostituted' Christian churches, which in his view had become the servants of oppressive capitalist institutions." His movement, committed to a communist lifestyle, "functioned as one of many outlets for the urban unrest and bourgeois malaise in late-Victorian Chicago."

One of Teed's successors, George Baker, a black man who disavowed all racial identities, led one of the most successful messianic movements in the early 20th century, with as many as 50,000 followers. Taking the name Father Divine, he established more than 150 "peace missions" across North America by 1936. His institutions were among the few hotels and restaurants in the 1930s that accommodated both blacks and whites, and his followers proposed anti-lynching legislation and advocated for European Jews when other progressive groups were not yet rising to the occasion.

Morris relates this history in a tone that is at once mocking and respectful. Teed's movement is presented as "a viable alternative to the alienation of secularized industrial urbanism and a political-spiritual antidote to the anodyne mainline Protestantism that increasingly served as a handmaiden to big business." But Teed is also the man who preached that Earth was hollow, with the sun inside.

Father Divine was viewed in his lifetime as one of the most important civil rights leaders in America, Morris says, but he also quotes Divine as suggesting that Jesus Christ was possibly "a Martian or a Jupiterian or is from some other planet where there is a superior form of life."

Morris is more disdainful of one of Father Divine's most important followers, a man who took the name John the Revelator. Smitten by a 17-year-old "angel" he named Delight, the Revelator took her with him to Los Angeles.

"In L.A.," Morris writes, "he convinced the girl that she was the Virgin Mary and was destined to give birth to the Messiah in Hawaii. In the Revelator's prophecy, the birth was to be the result of immaculate conception, but he had sex with Delight anyway."

The account of America's messianic leaders ends with the story of Jim Jones, the charismatic but paranoid preacher whose interracial Peoples Temple settlement appeared for a time to be a respectable left-wing commune. California State Assemblyman Willie Brown, San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, and California Gov. Jerry Brown were among the California politicians willing to be associated with Jones in the time before he led his followers to mass suicide.

Like many of the messianic leaders who preceded him, Jones convinced his followers that he had special powers. He had associates secretly gather private information about his followers, which Jones then publicly revealed, to the astonishment of his audience.

"Throughout the healing segment of his services, Jones would don his famous dark glasses to facilitate his 'trance,'" Morris writes. "In fact, the glasses hid the source of his clairvoyance: looking down to read from the notecards that ... spies supplied."

It was a technique other messianic leaders before him had used. Throughout his book, Morris makes clear how much these movements had in common: their claims of divinity; their apocalyptic visions; their semi-socialist ideologies — and often their fraudulence. His writing is sharp and the story is entertaining, though Morris makes clear his purpose is entirely serious: to say these cultists' rejection of society, conventional economic activity, and organized religion says more in the end about the failings of the institutions they left than about the goofy ones they built in their place.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.