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Mystics and Messiahs: Cults and New Religions in American History Paperback


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Product Details

  • Series: Cults and New Religions in American History
  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA (November 15, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195145968
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195145960
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.3 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #462,881 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

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.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Library Journal

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
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

More About the Author

Philip Jenkins is the author of The Lost History of Christianity and has a joint appointment as the Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of the Humanities in history and religious studies at Penn State University and as Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University. He has published articles and op-ed pieces in The Wall Street Journal, The New Republic, The Atlantic Monthly, The Washington Post, and The Boston Globe and has been a guest on top national radio shows across the country.

Customer Reviews

3.4 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

32 of 34 people found the following review helpful By Jonathan H Barlow on November 14, 2002
Format: Paperback
I like this book a great deal; we used it in a grad. seminar in my Ph.D. work. The book is very well researched, and the author takes great pains to understand the nature of the religious groups he discusses. He reveals that too often a standard stereotype of cults has prevented the FBI and other "cult watching" groups from correctly understanding and resolving conflicts that arise in cults. My only criticism is that at times, the author is a little too fair to the cults. It is hard for him to condemn even the most destructive behavior, and it gives the book a preachy tone, as though his readers are all bigots in need of sensitivity training toward cultists. This book is leagues better, however, than your standard "anti-cult" books, though, and I can't really think of anything like it on the topic. Highly recommended.
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22 of 27 people found the following review helpful By Steve Jackson on June 4, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Philip Jenkins is one of America's best historians of religion, and also a frequent contributor to Chronicles magazine. In this work, Jenkins shows us that concern over "cults" goes back to the 1800's and that many of the allegations raised about modern cults (sex abuse, etc.) were also made about groups in the past (which as Jenkins states, doesn't mean that this is never found in certain fringe groups).
Prof. Jenkins makes all sorts of interesting observations in this history of fringe groups, such as that some practices like women ministers and speaking in tongues were once considered far-out but are now considered mainstream. (Just look at the sorry state of "evangelical" Christianity in the U.S.) But the best part of this book is that it is just good history: lots of interesting facts and colorful characters.
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19 of 23 people found the following review helpful By Robert H. Nunnally Jr. on February 3, 2001
Format: Hardcover
Religious tolerance remains a key challenge today. Some contend that we are in a remarkable and unprecedented era of new "cults" and "heterodoxy". Jenkins' work is a timely and highly entertaining reminder that the American religious landscape has always been filled with new faiths dismissed in their time as deviant. In particular, Jenkins shows that in some instances the very religious movements that were once denounced as new faiths produce the leaders who in turn denounce the faiths that come after them. I found the work anecdotal and interesting, the kind of book one flips through back and forth rather than necessarily treating as a "novel-style" linear text.
One might imagine that a work with Jenkins' theme would run a severe risk of being either a polemic or a dreary dissertation-like tome. Mystics and Messiahs evades both risks. Jenkins' writing style is highly readable, and his tone is not that of a pedantic, but of a sympathetic skeptic telling a bit of interesting popular history. The book is well documented, but there is no loss of a good read in pursuit of an "academically-refined text".
America's pulsating religious need in our time is the need for tolerance (as the song says, "what's so funny 'bout peace, love and understanding?"). Jenkins' book illustrates the lessons from our history that past Americans' intolerance has caused us to learn, without interfering with the fact that the story of America's many faiths is a darned entertaining read.
It is refreshing to see a level-headed book which is neither "XYZ Evangelist's Book of Cults" or "What Christians Fail to Get about our Wonderful New JLK Faiths". Instead, in the Dragnet parlance, it's more "just the facts", and whether one is a fervent believer or a casual skeptic, this one is a worthwhile read.
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15 of 22 people found the following review helpful By George Lundskow on June 24, 2002
Format: Paperback
The book is good scholarship in that it presents a myriad of facts about a myriad of organizations and movements. However, it is also extremely bad scholarship in that the author is unable to make sense of his own research. The extensive facts become a cluttered maze, a complex puzzle the author is unable to fit together. The book is a good historical reference, but otherwise an a-theoretical work that offers little insight. The author would do well to reach out and read the work of others who apply a more analytical perspective to similar material. I am not trying to be insulting, but he seems to have no comprehension of the history he reports.
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