A Tour Through the ‘American Messiahs’ of Our Past

His movement, the International Peace Mission, is absent from most histories of the civil rights movement because of “its tacky theology, its unappealing blend of communistic lifestyle and respectability politics, its disavowal of racial identity, and most of all, its iconoclastic leader: a squat, bald, dark-skinned man whose followers called him God and their Redeemer,” Morris writes. Yet over the next 20 years, the Peace Mission expanded into a global network of racially integrated hostels and businesses, with outposts in at least 25 states and several foreign countries.

No matter how many times critics accused Father Divine of causing a public disturbance, racketeering or other charge to get him hauled into court, they struggled to prove that he had broken any laws. (They also struggled to explain the mysterious wealth that allowed him to buy up dilapidated mansions and drive around in a chauffeured Rolls-Royce.) But in 1932 he was convicted of violating Section 72 of New Jersey’s Crime Act, which made it a misdemeanor to impersonate Christ.

The law was a needful one. America has long been a hothouse of apocalyptic sects and self-proclaimed saviors, “overrun with messiahs,” the Methodist minister Charles Ferguson wrote in 1928. As strange as Morris’s subjects may seem, in some ways they are quite typical of American religious culture.

Take their demographics. Morris’s messiahs were unusual in appointing women to leadership positions, but their female-majority membership was ordinary. For at least the past 300 years, most religious communities in North America have included a disproportionate number of women. Religion has long offered women a sphere of meaningful work and greater autonomy wherever mainstream culture restricts their opportunities — even if it has subjected them to other kinds of domination.

Nor did theories of personal divinity, goofy pseudoscience, communication with the dead or prophecies of worldly glory distinguish these spiritual entrepreneurs. People like Cyrus Teed and Father Divine were only the most zealous exponents of America’s unofficial national faith: a spiritual smorgasbord of positive thinking, seasoned by the eclectic 19th-century movement known as New Thought.

Other scholars have traced this mishmash of mind cures, millennialism, mesmerism, spiritualism, theosophy and other strains of pseudoscience and mysticism. The central idea of New Thought spirituality is that all humans possess a divine essence. God, or Spirit, is everywhere, and once we learn its secrets, we can manipulate reality with our minds. Faith is not a gift or a comfort, but a superpower.

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