American Messiahs: False Prophets of a Damned Nation

Liveright: Norton. Mar. 2019. 400p. notes. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781631492136. $28.95; ebk. ISBN 9781631492143. REL
Independent scholar Morris considers the Puritans, who came to America to reestablish the "pure" Christianity of the early church based on ideals of mutual aid and equal acceptance, in this examination of the history of messianic movements. He details how eclectic leaders, their followers, and movements often appealed to the highest tenets of equality, racial justice, gender parity, and shared wealth. In an early example, he describes how Jemima Smith in 1776 claimed she had died and been reborn as the Public Universal Friend, founding an itinerant public ministry, dressed as a man, to establish the New Jerusalem. He continues to trace the lineage of messianic movements up to Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple massacre in 1978. America's long tolerance of religious cults almost disappeared after this tragedy when an anticult mentality developed. The book closes with a look at the current singularity movement, which melds messianic tropes with technology to claim that humans in union with artificial intelligence will become software and live forever.
VERDICT Scholars of American religious history will appreciate this meticulously crafted account.

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