The American Religious Experience

Mystics and Messiahs book cover

Philip Jenkins, Mystics and Messiahs: Cults and New Religions in American History. Oxford University Press, 2000. 294 pp. $27.50 

Philip Jenkins is Distinguished Professor of History and Religious Studies and Director of the Religious Studies Program at Pennsylvania State University. For over twenty years he has produced numerous books, articles, and reviews on many topics in American cultural and political history. One theme that he explores repeatedly is twentieth-century America’s peripheries. He considers the seams where pieces of the social fabric fray or tear: prostitution, drugs, extreme right organizations, spies, child abuse, and various responses to these threats to social order and harmony. Mystics and Messiahs is an outstanding addition to this ongoing exploration.  

Jenkins probes the religious margins of American society in the twentieth century, enlightening us not only about the denizens of those margins, but also their critics, who typically saw themselves as guardians of moral correctness, doctrinal purity, and social cohesion. Jenkins notes that their condemnations of alternative religions have a familiar ring across the decades. The anticultists of the 1970s and 1980s sound remarkably like critics of Christian sects in the 1920s and 1930s. He suggests that the rise and fall in popularity of marginal religious groups, and the opposition to them, can be charted as a cycle that has gone through two complete revolutions since the 1910s. Emergence and growth of these groups is followed by reaction from cultural spokespersons, including clergy, former members of cults, and journalists. Later reaction evolves into restrictive legislation and activism on the part of law enforcement agencies.  

The first two decades of the twentieth century witnessed the emergence of Christian sects like the Christian Scientists, the Pentecostals, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who in turn elicited the first sustained anticult responses. Rooted in nineteenth-century America’s fear of deviant religious movements that experimented with gender and sexuality, communal arrangements, and other social structures based upon their perfectionist and millennialist fervor, early twentieth-century opponents of these new Christian sects doubted the veracity of various sectarian teachings and teachers. They appealed to a common body of religious knowledge and values in mainstream America to enlist the sympathy and aid of their readership. Also during this era the first new age emerged, an occult fringe of groups influenced by western esotericism and Asian religions that included Theosophy, Rosicrucianism, and an incredibly diverse array of smaller movements. California, then as now, attracted many seekers dissatisfied with the mainstream religious messages of the day, who founded occult communities on the West Coast.  

Jenkins also devotes a chapter to new religions among African Americans of the early twentieth century. The chapter stands out as historical reportage for its attention to the peculiar nature of anticult criticism of these groups. He persuasively argues that cults among African Americans were perceived by their critics as more pernicious, bestial, and dangerous than their white equivalents. These critics based their opposition on white cultural assumptions about the nature of African Americans: they were seen as primitive, prone to emotional excess, and susceptible to unscrupulous con men (and women) who played on their ignorance and innocence. This anticult discourse is most apparent in the creation of voodoo as a literary entity that readers confused with actual people and rituals in New Orleans, Haiti, and the American South. Voodoo became, in the popular media of the day, a cannibalistic, erotic, and violent way of life, reflecting many fears of social disruption that plagued middle-class white Americans.  

Later Jenkins enlarges on this theme of anticult speculation by explaining the concepts upon which anticult rhetoric rested. Marginal groups were condemned because they were sexually deviant, or followed female leaders, which in the minds of many Americans of the era amounted to sexual deviance or strongly suggested it. The growing medicalization of human emotional and mental life in the early twentieth century also influenced the anticult agenda of the day. Members of marginal groups were diagnosed as psychologically deficient, insane, and prone to criminal behavior. Although the therapeutic tone of these condemnations villified the innocent rather than clarifying the issues, anticultists were confident that their observations were accurate. 

The final chapters of the book consider the most recent wave of new religions and their critics. Jenkins emphasizes the continuity of new and old. The occult and the New Age of the Sixties relied upon the occult communities of the earlier twentieth century for ideas, literature, and inspiration. What distinguished this era from an earlier one, Jenkins argues, is the nationwide influence that various marginal groups enjoyed. By the mid-1980s this wave of marginal religious revival had spawned yet another cadre of anticult writers and advocates who portrayed cults in the darkest colors possible. This led to drastic anticult measures, including deprogramming, or the forced removal of individuals from marginal religious communities in order to compel them to alter their attitudes toward the groups they had joined using questionable, even dangerous psychological techniques. 

This book’s major strength is also its biggest weakness. Jenkins is a skilled narrator, weaving together diverse religious groups and their critics into a single story that is dramatic, compelling, and seemingly comprehensive. No single volume to date has done more to provide us with such a host of names, events, and movements related to marginal religions in twentieth-century American history than this one. But has Jenkins been too successful as a narrator? Nothing is left unexplained. Every incident, resemblance among different groups, and scandal fits neatly into his story. He seemingly has given us a complete picture. No interesting avenues for further investigation are suggested.  

Jenkins’s effort to provide the reader with as complete a narrative as possible thus ignores one of the most fundamental truths about his topic: marginal religions, for whatever reasons (and these are both hotly debated and legion), consistently deny any scholar’s effort to categorize and encapsulate them. Marginal religions tend to be elusive and subversive, defying conventional interpretations and provoking observers to construct new interpretive frames of reference to account for them. Therefore, any historical narrative that describes their importance must be partial. The entire story about marginal religions in any era can never be told. Our perceptions of them, our very definitions of them, are continuously re-negotiated as we move further away from them or, when they revive in some form, move closer to them.  

Jenkins’s work is crucial, and as thorough as perhaps any historian of the time can presently hope to be, given the nature of the subject. His book fills a gap in the scholarship by providing us with a plausible narrative about marginal religions and their detractors in twentieth-century America. Recommended for classroom use and for general reading audiences, it is another fine effort by a noted and prolific American historian to enlighten us about the cultural space where the values and visions of Americans are constantly reassessed. 

Michael Ashcraft, Truman State University