... an impressive cultural history ... The book’s real value comes in its...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 ... 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 ... For a glimpse of life on the religious edge that reflects America as a whole, American Messiahs is a valuable guide.
... Adam Morris offers up some truly strange historical characters ... gripping ... Morris shows that these oddball spiritual liberators are not just historical footnotes. They reveal society’s fundamental themes and contradictions.
[Morris is] a fine writer of prose, with an instinctive feel for storytelling and a genius for quotation. One senses while reading this book the ghost of the proposal behind it—the promise of a smart, revisionist take on American messianic movements. But that message is often muddled, not least because Morris is too entertaining a writer to keep from dunking on his subjects ... The two most darkly significant messiahs Morris writes about are also most indicative of what’s wrong with this otherwise fascinating book ... Throughout the book, Morris is so intent on pointing out the good done in spite of his messiahs’ beliefs that he rarely lingers on the lasting harm done to those who believed in the messiahs themselves. This winds up making the book appear to argue that these messiahs attracted followers because they were anti-capitalist visionaries and not because they claimed to be living gods ... Has the Jim Jones rehabilitation moment arrived? ... Still, Morris is onto something.
Mr. Morris’s selection of prophets and cranks is representative rather than definitive. He does an admirable job of knitting their histories into a pleasantly overstuffed narrative that parallels the evolution of the U.S. itself. Taken as a whole, the story of the 'revolutionary microsocieties' they founded forms a vivid history of American anxiety and hope ... Mr. Morris wisely avoids drawing much distinction between the huckster and the zealot. His small-time messiahs were all somewhere in between: Every one of them was their own first convert. Yet he also remains clear-eyed about the danger of charismatic fanatics. His story ends in 1978 at Jonestown, in Guyana, where more than 900 members of the Peoples Temple died. It is a scene so horrific that it almost reframes the preceding two centuries of messianic experimentation into mere prelude. Yet nothing remotely like the violence at Jonestown ever occurred within any of the other messianic societies. On the contrary, despite their folly and occasional corruption, these movements served as unlikely incubators of vital ideas about equality and justice.
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 ... As such, they are, Morris reminds us, 'symptoms of the system’s health, not its disease.'
Though they will recognize linkages between Jones and his predecessors, readers may marvel that because those messiahs rejected capitalism and the traditional nuclear family, Morris actually regards Jones’ followers as representative of a truer American Christianity than that found among conservative churchgoers. Astonishing sympathy for a lethal cult.
Morris is at his best when he discusses the man who arguably embodied these tenets more than anyone else: Father Divine ... Unfortunately, the rest of the chapters are somewhat dry, scholarly, and jargon-laden. Moreover, the brevity of many of the chapters impedes the narrative flow, and the brief epilogue would benefit from more information on post-Jonestown cults (David Koresh and the Branch Davidians receive only one paragraph). Ultimately, the book should serve as a useful reference for students of messianic movements and the history of American religion in general, but nonscholarly readers may lose interest at some point in the narrative ... An informative and occasionally enlightening survey of American messianic movements, but it will likely have limited appeal among general readers.
Though the book examines familiar figures such as 18th-century Shaker Ann Lee, many of these messiahs 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.