In “American Messiahs,” Adam Morris exhumes the lives and beliefs of a linked procession of self-appointed prophets who tried to upend American religion cults—and the American way of life.
Illustration by Daniel Zender
Most people have never heard of Cyrus Teed, which is a shame. He was born in Trout Creek, New York, in 1839. As a boy, he worked along the Erie Canal, experiencing some of the worst labor conditions that nineteenth-century America had to offer.
As Adam Morris recounts in a new book, “American Messiahs,” Teed soon became a staunch anti-capitalist, and he spent much of his life trying to abolish wage labor entirely. This didn’t prevent him from pursuing a number of business ventures.
At one point, he ran a mop factory; at another, he hawked something called an Electro-Therapeutic Apparatus, which provided its owners with the putative health benefits of mild, recurrent electrocution.
Teed was a student of “eclectic medicine,” a branch of healing that rose in response to widespread—and frequently justified—fears of doctors. In Teed’s day, you didn’t become a surgeon if you didn’t have the stomach to wield a bone saw.
Teed also believed that he had, living within him, a spirit of some sort. He would go on to proclaim that this spirit had once empowered Enoch, Elijah, and Jesus. The New York Times headline wrote itself: “A Doctor Obtaining Money on the Ground That He is the New Messiah.
” Teed called himself Koresh, a transliteration from the Hebrew version of the name Cyrus, and criticized mainstream Christianity as “the dead carcass of a once vital and active” faith. Then, in the eighteen-seventies, he founded a commune, Koreshan Unity, and announced that “the new kingdom” would be formed through women’s emancipation—he envisioned a group of celibate, bi-gendered beings—and the destruction of monopoly capitalism.
Teed is one of the case studies in “American Messiahs,” in which Morris exhumes the lives and beliefs of a linked procession of self-appointed prophets who tried to upend American religion—and the American way of life.
They did so by attracting thousands (sometimes tens of thousands) of followers while preaching a version of what Morris calls “apostolic communism,” which has a clear basis in scripture. According to Acts 4:32, the first Christians, in Jerusalem, “were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common.
” The typical history of Christianity will tell you that this passage has been influential in certain monastic communities but scarcely anywhere else.
Morris is out to prove this account wrong, and, in many ways, he succeeds. As it happens, a resilient strain of Christo-Marxist thinking has endured in America. Its adherents have almost always been celibate, anti-marriage, anti-family, relatively enlightened on matters of gender and race, and unblushingly communistic.
The Americans who spearheaded these movements had another commonality: they all believed, in one manner or another, that they were living gods. For Morris, this fact has too often been exploited as an excuse to dismiss a radical tradition.
“Far more than for their heretical beliefs,” he writes, “the communistic and anti-family leanings of American messianic movements pose a threat to the prevailing socioeconomic order.” In other words, these men and women were, morally speaking, light-years ahead of their time—and that’s why we don’t take them seriously.
It is interesting that these movements had progressive goals long before mainstream society did. One of the first prophets Morris writes about is a woman: the Quaker pacifist Jemima Wilkinson, who assumed her prophetic identity in 1776, following a bout of fever, when she was twenty-three. She called herself the Public Universal Friend, the All-Friend, and the Comforter, among other names, and answered only to male pronouns.
This had less to do with modern conceptualizations of transgenderism than with Wilkinson’s belief, hinted at through four decades of missionary activity, that the spirit who inhabited her was Jesus. Wilkinson cited a passage from Jeremiah—
“A woman shall compass a man”—to account for this possession by the Christ spirit, and she had an abstemious Christian desire to expunge sexual activity from the human experience. (Wilkinson shared this desire with her contemporary Ann Lee, who founded the Shakers, and who was supposed to have said that there are no “sluts in heaven.”)
Wilkinson denounced war and slavery, and her burgeoning flock was largely led by women. Her public image was helped by the fact that she was a skilled horseman, physically indomitable as she ventured into Revolutionary War zones to proclaim the nearness of the End Times.
Here is Morris, in one of his typically well-tuned descriptions, relaying the sight of this gender-bending charismatic galloping across the world of George Washington:
Nearly every contemporary account remarks upon the dark beauty of the Comforter’s androgynous countenance: a well-apportioned female body cloaked in black robes along with a white or purple cravat, topped by a wide-brimmed hat made of gray beaver fur.
It’s fair to assume that the Christ spirit did not inhabit Wilkinson, but whether she believed it did is a thornier question. Morris nods at the likeliest answer when he refers to contemporaneous critics who guessed that her transformation into the Public Universal Friend was “a grandiose stunt carried off by a woman who considered herself too clever to end up an old maid.”
Indeed, Morris argues that Wilkinson—and American messianic movements writ large—often provided shelter to those trying to escape the hardships of being a woman. Until well into the twentieth century, “women’s work” was highly exploitative.
Not even marriage shielded women from indignity and assault, as marital rape was sanctioned by American law. Women have tended to flock to American messianic movements, Morris argues, precisely because such movements promised “equal rights among the faithful.”
For instance, the prophet Thomas Lake Harris—who, early in his career, wrote about doing psychic battle on an astral plane with Milton—ran what Morris describes as an “interracial, intergenerational, and communistic” community, which was “practically unheard of anywhere else in the country.”
This was the Brotherhood of New Life, which, in the late nineteenth-century, had outposts in New York and California. Harris, too, believed that God dwelled within him, and his precepts included shared property, celibate marriages, and economies anchored by the production of wine.
(He also believed that fairies lived in our bloodstream, and that “divine respiration,” a fancy breathing technique, was the key to paradise.) Like the Public Universal Friend’s incipient feminism, Lake’s “communalism” represented, in Morris’s words, “the ultimate repudiation of the values and institutions that Americans historically hold dear,” among them “the sacrosanct individualism on which American culture thrives.”
This is why, Morris goes on, American messianic movements have historically found “reliable opponents in the press, in law enforcement, and in the courts.”
It’s true that America was shaped by extreme religious movements. Every November, we celebrate the seventeenth-century Puritans who arrived at our shore seeking religious liberty. We tend to forget that these Puritans weren’t oppressed because they were religious; they were oppressed because they were fanatics.
They fled Europe to build a “city upon a hill,” a new and “primitive” Church in which equality reigned and private property was abolished. Their land reform failed, but their exceptionalism remains a vital layer of the American bedrock.
As Morris writes, “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.”
Still, as the Puritans prove, the radical religious impulse need not be accompanied by a leader who claims to be God. At its core, the only difference between a cult and a religion is antiquity. But antiquity amounts to a lot.
Among other things, it allows followers to live and believe within the parameters of a complex intellectual tradition. A human claiming to be God, and making concomitant demands of his or her community, falls into a much simpler intellectual tradition: the cult of personality.
It could be that the press, law enforcement, and the courts tend to find fault with self-appointed deities because, as often as not, they do and believe alarming things. As Morris tells us, Wilkinson, despite her abolitionist convictions, mooched her way into a mansion built with a slavery-spawned fortune.
Teed was a eugenicist, and his “mind cures” often proved lethal. Harris preached equality but routinely subjected the women and children of his commune to sadistic punishment. To say that these qualities are distractions—that the real reason these messiahs were scorned is that they threatened the American order—is a hard sell.
In his author bio, Morris describes himself as “an independent scholar.” He’s 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: “Obviously the death of two-thirds of the Trinity was not an auspicious sign for the community,” he writes of one cult. Of Teed, he writes, “Overthrowing capitalism with a communist mop factory proved impossible.”
The two most darkly significant messiahs Morris writes about are also most indicative of what’s wrong with this otherwise fascinating book. Father Divine (born George Baker, in Maryland) burst upon the American scene in the early nineteen-thirties.
After learning the preacher racket from a man who called himself Jehovia, Divine began his public life running a for-hire work service, gigging out early followers as maids and day laborers. He’d already forbidden the use of “hello” among his people, because it contained the word “hell”; instead, his followers greeted one another with “peace.”
That gave his movement its name, the International Peace Mission Movement, which remains active to this day. One of the most famous tenets Divine, who was black, put forth was a disavowal of the concept of racial categorization, as a result of which he was attacked and mocked by Marcus Garvey and Richard Wright.
As Morris puts it, this teaching is also the reason that “Father Divine’s Peace Mission has, for the most part, been deleted from the history of black struggle in America.” Nevertheless, his Peace Missions became some of the only integrated institutions in the United States.
Early in his career, Father Divine was arrested in rural Georgia. He refused to give his real name and was booked as “John Doe, alias God.” This soon became his joke on everyone.
After declaring himself “fully attuned to the Christ Consciousness,” Divine started driving around in a Cadillac, accompanied by young women who scribbled down everything he said.
An example of his penetrative wisdom: “Positive thoughts will bring about positive conditions in your bodies, and negative thoughts will produce negative conditions in your bodies.”
A religious thinker Divine was not, but he was a genius about property scams. By the nineteen-forties, his movement controlled millions in real estate, though none of it was held in Divine’s name. This was done purposefully, so that if he was sued—and he would be—he’d be protected from losing everything.
Morris tells the story of Ruth Boaz, a former member of the Peace Mission Movement who later wrote a tell-all about Father Divine, including time she spent as his mistress. In the book, she detailed his singular ability to “capture the minds of sincere people and bend them to his will.”
For some reason, Morris rides to Divine’s rescue, writing, “Her description is at odds with the fact that many of Divine’s followers were educated professionals, and that a great deal of those who joined the movement acquired training in nursing and other stable careers.”
Perhaps that’s so, but what does it have to do with Divine’s credibility? Morris details the man’s many hypocrisies, from rejecting the New Deal largely because it cut into his recruitment program to possibly urging one of his less stable supporters to stab a servant of the court who served Divine with papers. The inclination to defend a cult leader against the charge of “mind control” is somewhat baffling.
Morris also points out that investigators looked into Father Divine’s finances, including Adam Clayton Powell, who concluded that Divine really did lift people out of poverty. This is comforting, but it appears not to matter to Morris that he did so by encasing his followers’ minds within a debasing fantasy.
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.
Of course, that is exactly backward. Both Socrates and Jesus recommended turning the other cheek. Both Socrates and Jesus were killed for their beliefs. Yet when Socrates’s birthday rolls around, we don’t give each other presents.
All religious movements appeal to ethics, but their primary draw is spiritual—a surrender to a higher power. When Morris writes that his messiahs “deemphasized familial bonds,” or that their communes “lacked organizational structure,” he seems unduly confident that their goal was to overcome industrial capitalism, rather than to insure that their followers were easier to accrue and control.
Father Divine died in the mid-nineteen-sixties, but not before a student minister from the highly segregated state of Indiana came calling. The power, the people hanging on Divine’s every word—the future founder of Jonestown liked what he saw.
This may be Father Divine’s most damning legacy: he gave us the Reverend Jim Jones. Morris believes that Jones may have been genuinely moved by experiencing “an integrated movement, numbering tens of thousands of adherents who successfully lived according to the apostolic socialism described in the Book of Acts,” which Father Divine certainly preached, even if he didn’t always practice it. Jones might well have found that inspiring, given that he made improving race relations the special focus of his ministry.
Morris’s account of Jones’s bizarre, star-crossed life is quite good, and he helpfully lingers on how completely a man of the evangelical left Jones was. For the vast majority of American history, as Morris reminds us, movements we would today call “evangelical” were largely leftist, which is best evidenced by the towering figure of William Jennings Bryan.
Abolitionism was an obviously leftist concern, as was feminism, but so was, at one time, temperance. All three movements were spurred on by influential American evangelicals pursuing their own version of social justice.
This was the Christian tradition from which Jones seemed to emerge: outspoken, fiery, and unmistakably progressive. In time, Jones would attract star-studded admirers from the American Left, from Jane Fonda to Angela Davis to Willie Brown.
But Jones was always lying about his true goals. A crypto-socialist by the nineteen-fifties, and later an outright Maoist, Jones was a self-professed atheist when he first met Father Divine. Religion, to Jones, was the opiate of the masses, and he intended to be the dealer. His early goal was finding a church that would allow him to smuggle Marxism into his sermons. Here is Morris:
If truly embraced, the principles outlined in the social creed would require Methodists to engage in community service, work to alleviate poverty, and foster love and caring in the community. Upon reflection, Jones realized that “infiltrating” the ministry would be the most effective way for him to advance his Marxist convictions.
Christian charity and Pentecostal ardor could be combined to achieve radical social change through the solidarity and strong social bonds that existed in communities of faith. This was a powerfully transformative idea that later crystallized into one of Jones’s favorite maxims: “The ends justify the means.”
On its face, Jones’s project was successful: the Peoples Temple Full Gospel Church was the first racially integrated church in Indianapolis, and getting it on its feet was almost entirely Jones’s doing. But his means to that end were precisely the problem.
He’d already learned to scam his followers with his supposed mastery of telepathy and faith healing. Even more electrifying to Jones’s largely black congregation was the fact that he didn’t preach what Morris deems the “patient forbearance” of the typical black evangelical church. A tireless promoter of interracial friendship, Jones preached immediate, radical action—while encouraging his flock to tithe heavily.
Most of us know the end of Jones’s story. The retreat to Guyana, the drugs, the sex, the failed defection attempt to the Soviet Union, the assassination of U.S. Representative Leo Ryan, the Flavor Aid packets, the jungle Masada of Jonestown itself. Morris knows all this, too, which makes the following passage all the more disquieting:
Jim Jones was a visionary with stunning charisma, nearly boundless energy, and the intellectual resources of few other religious leaders of his generation. That he ended up a drug-addled paranoiac with grandiose delusions about his world-historical significance is one of the great tragedies not only of American religion, but also of American leftist politics.
Is this it, then? Has the Jim Jones rehabilitation moment arrived? Jones wasn’t that intellectually gifted, for one thing; he did have a “stunning charisma,” but his ideas were a flimsy synthesis of New Age tropes and spiritual Darwinism.
And, going by the evidence Morris himself provides, Jones was running a one-man psy-op on vulnerable people who would end up ruinously entrusting him with their lives. This needs to be said: Jones was a man who spent his last moments on earth demanding that babies be filled with poison. The tragedy belongs to his victims, not to the vapors of his political talents.
On his very last page, Morris writes that “American messianic experiments in apostolic socialism appealed to converts’ highest ideals: they stood for equal access to jobs and education, gender parity, racial justice, and more dignified human labor.”
This seems fair. But it’s also true that all socialist experiments have appealed to the highest ideals. Forget socialism: the art of politics is—or at least used to be—about appealing to the highest ideals.
A movement is more than its worst excesses, but these particular movements were founded upon the deification of individuals who were, in the best cases, power-hungry narcissists.
For all their religious fervor, they might have paid closer attention to the text. The New Testament had something to say about reaping what you sow.
Still, Morris is onto something. Reading his study of Teed, I came across an expository sentence, a sentence just trying to direct some traffic, but the longer I stared at it, the more resonant it became:
“Teed had just been made an honorary Shaker by the North Family at New Lebanon, and was fresh off a failed attempt to take control of the celibate Harmony Society at Economy, Pennsylvania.”
As a sentence about America, it has it all: heterodoxy, entrepreneurialism, cultural appropriation, sexual repression, and a town that could have been named by the Protestant work ethic made sentient.
It occurred to me, reading it, that perhaps we don’t fear the cult because it threatens the American way. Perhaps it reminds us of exactly who we are.