cover image Mystics & Messiahs: Cults and New Religions in American History

Mystics & Messiahs: Cults and New Religions in American History

Philip Jenkins. Oxford University Press, USA, $55 (304pp) ISBN 978-0-19-512744-7

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.)