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Mystics and Messiahs: Cults and New Religions in American History Paperback – November 15, 2001
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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 Digital 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 Digital edition.
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Top Customer Reviews
The book's main flaw is that depth is sacrificed for breadth. Someone not familiar with the groups covered might come away thinking that Scientology had no more impact or notoriety than any of a number of other movements that found many adherents in the 1960s. While the movements before about 1950 are given detailed write-ups, those from later on are a bit jumbled together, so the reader is left with little sense of why each was appealing.
This is a good text for broadening one's understanding of the history of alternative religion, but is not strong when it comes to informing about the new religions themselves.
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.
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.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
Interesting book. Good book to scan rather than read cover to cover.Read more
What this book really is, is a history of cults/ new religious movements...Read more