Cover image for Mystics and messiahs : cults and new religions in American history
Mystics and messiahs : cults and new religions in American history
Jenkins, Philip, 1952-
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Publication Information:
New York : Oxford University Press, [2000]

Physical Description:
294 pages ; 24 cm
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BL2525 .J46 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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Are religious fringe movements a recent phenomeon in American history? Are widespread fears of mass suicides, sexual abuse, and brainwashing in cults justified? Do marginalized religious groups play any positive role in American spiritual life? Do the panics over such groups follow anydiscernible pattern? Phillip Jenkins gives fascinating--and surprising--answers to these and many other questions in Mystics and Messiahs, the first full account of cults and anti-cult scares in American history. Jenkins shows that, contrary to popular belief, cults were by no means an invention of the 1960s. In fact,most of the frightening images and stereotypes surrounding fringe religious movements are traceable to the mid-nineteenth century when Mormons, Freemasons, and even Catholics were vehemently denounced for supposed ritualistic violence, fraud, and sexual depravity. As Charles Ferguson observed in1928, "America has always been the sanctuary of amazing cults." But America has also been the home of an often hysterical anti-cult backlash. Jenkins provides an insightful new analysis of why cults arouse such fear and hatred both in the secular world and in mainstream churches, many ofwhich--Baptists, Quakers, Pentecostals, and Methodists--were themselves originally regarded as cults. Most importantly, Jenkins argues that an accurate historical perspective is urgently needed if we are to avoid the kind of catastrophic confrontation that occurred in Waco or the ruinous prosecutionof imagined Satanic cults in the 1980s. While not ignoring genuine instances of aberrant behavior, Mystics and Messiahs goes beyond the vast edifice of myth, distortion, and hype to reveal the true characteristics of religious fringe movements and why they inspire such fierce antagonism.

Author Notes

Phillip Jenkins is Distinguished Professor of History and Religious Studies at Penn State University and the author of Pedophiles and Priests: Anatomy of a Social Crisis (OUP). He lives in University Park, Pennsylvania.

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

Cults wax and wane, with today's cult sometimes becoming tomorrow's church. Moreover, the supposed crimes of a cult have been much the same for more than 100 years. Shakers, Mormons, and even Catholics were accused of ritual violence, swindling, and sex crimes in nineteenth-century America. The same charges were brought against Christian Scientists, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Pentecostals, out of whose peculiarities the modern, pejorative cult image was fashioned. The genuinely non-Christian theosophist, spiritualist, Hindu, and Buddhist gurus and their followers were similarly slandered, and so have other eccentric sects been since: consider the Branch Davidians. There were two cycles of cult growth, anticult reaction, sensational cult reporting, and official suppression of cults in twentieth-century America. A few cult crimes seem to confirm all cults' bad rep, but Jenkins argues that cults are more realistically regarded as the cutting edge of religious development. Loaded with intriguing sketches of dozens of cults and distinguished by Jenkins' healthily nonjudgmental attitude, this is a superb historical primer on what, tomorrow, may be a hot topic again. --Ray Olson

Publisher's Weekly Review

Although the term "cult" has existed only for the last century, historian Jenkins argues that America has been peppered with new religions since Plymouth Rock. He identifies several particularly fertile periods of religious innovation in the 19th and 20th centuries, noting the accompanying rise of anti-cult movements that reflect widespread unease with new religions. Anti-cultists have often dismissed new movements as heresies or confidence games but have routinely failed to recognize the ways new religions meet the deep psychological needs of their eras. (Christian Science, for example, offered turn-of-the-century Americans an optimistic religion that eschewed original sin and empowered individuals--particularly women--to heal themselves and others.) Jenkins does fascinating demographic research with baby booms to identify generational patterns of religious creativity; one table shows, for example, that "cult" leaders from the 1920s and '30s had been born within the same fifteen-year span in the late 19th century. Jenkins profiles some of the more famous new American religions, such as Mormonism, as well as some lesser-known groups, such as the House of David. This study offers sweeping cultural breadth and fresh insights into the role of new religions, though it remains to be seen whether Jenkins's prediction of a cult resurgence around 2010 will pan out. (Mar.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Benjamin Purnell and the House of David, Jim Jones and the People's Temple, Mary Baker Eddy and Christian Science, Aimee Semple McPherson and her Angelus Temple, Father Divine, the Shakers, and the Oneida community are among the many names--unfamiliar, famous, and infamous--that appear here. Jenkins (history and religious studies, Penn State) shows that contrary to what some may think, cults and new religious movements and their mystical or messianic leaders have been on the American scene for a long time. He emphasizes that distinguishing between cults, a pejorative term, and denominations or religions is highly subjective, especially since, in time, cults often become denominations. This serious and important volume is well written but not necessarily light reading. Highly recommended for public and academic libraries.--John Moryl, Yeshiva Univ. Lib., New York (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Jenkins (Pennsylvania State Univ.) finds that small religious groups with new ideas and practices in tension with the establishment have permeated American society throughout its history, particularly during the last two centuries. He summarizes a large variety of characteristics that have been used in defining a cult. His structure is chronological, covering the period from about 1800 to 2000 in 11 chapters. His strongest argument is that the emergence of new religious movements has always provoked polemical, anticult rhetoric from the American religious majority, e.g., the Protestant majority in the nineteenth century sought to discredit not only Mormons and Christian Scientists, but also Roman Catholics. Today the targets are new but the rhetoric is similar--"people should not accept new religious ideas." Yet Jenkins notes that new denominations arose from the religious fringe: Baptists, Methodists, Quakers, Pentecostals, and Mormons all had distinctive new ideas and all were sharply denounced, yet they became mainstream. He also identifies ideas that came from the religious periphery and are now widely accepted: karma, reincarnation, meditation, women ministers, charismatic worship, and dietary guidelines. Jenkins calls for evaluation--keeping good new ideas while rejecting bad ones--but he concedes that the cycle of cult boom and cult scare is likely to continue. General readers and undergraduates. ; Baylor University