May 23, 2019

America's History of Cult Worship

“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?

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.”

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