Mania surrounding messianic prophets has defined the national consciousness since the American Revolution. 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.
... 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.