Saturday, August 5, 2023



In American Messiahs, Adam Morris explores the hidden history of messianic movements within the United States, and their remarkable influence on their respective times. Beginning at the birth of the country, the roots of Quaker charismatic tradition created the Society of Universal Friends. This is the first in the series of messianic movements Morris discusses which shared what Jim Jones would later label, “Apostalic Socialism,” or rather the understanding that the Christian Church is founded on the ideals of charity, mutual aid, and the equal and impartial acceptance of every member including the weak, poor, and sick. With many of America’s first colonists being Puritan Separatists, our history is deeply seeped in the desire for a new world, one which eschews corruptible institutions, and readily places faith in higher powers. To that end, we follow a story which explores desires to transcend marriage institutions, gender, class, and race to heal the people of the world. At the same time, this story is deeply entwined with scandals of sexual exploitation, financial ruin, skepticism of intentions, and murder. From Jemimah Wilkinson, to Cyrus Teed, Thomas Lake Harris, to the man only known as Father Divine, and finally Jim Jones, this is the story of America’s failed and disdained saviors.

Favorite Part:

My favorite part is the first section, the majority of which is devoted to the absolutely fascinating story of Jemimah Wilkinson, and how she passed and became the Public Universal friend. The tale goes that a young Quaker girl, Jemimah Wilkinson, was stricken with typhus. As her condition worsened, the Wilkinson family believed her body grew cold and passed, but miraculously afterwards warmed again. When coming to, it appeared that it was Jemimah no longer, but now was the Public Universal Friend, a divine being merely inhabiting the girl’s body. The Friend would not respond to Jemimah’s name, or to female pronouns. Very importantly to their movement, and to later messianic movements, there was a theological distinction placed between the Divine Spirit of Christ and the mortal body of Jesus, which in turn was became justification for the Public Universal Friend to maintain the claim of the continuation of Jesus’ Church by the Friend, while avoiding claims that the Friend was claiming to be the return of Jesus Christ. In turn, this also fulfills a vague prophecy in the King James Bible, Jeremiah chapter 31:22, “The Lord hath created a new thing in the earth, a woman shall encompass a man.”

As the Friend daringly began preaching in Philadelphia, still in the physical form at least of a woman, his Church became the talk of the town. His appeal to the equality of women and the abolition of dividing classes became hugely appealing to Philadelphia’s women, as well as the poor and socially disadvantaged. At public meetings, the Friend would even apparently psychically call out members of the audience and reveal what troubles them, or reveal personal information which otherwise the Friend could not have known. Confidants of the Friend would later admit that this came from a circle of informants and spies that the Friend employed, and would today become an important tool of T.V. Evangelists and psychics alike. Despite this, those same people would maintain that the Friend never seemed to break from this character, and believed that Jemimah at least completely believed what she preached. As many would eventually become disillusioned with the Society of Universal Friends after a series of illegal land disputes, some sought to humiliate the Public Universal Friend himself. One who became a judge in Ontario county, Arnold Potter, attempted to lead a posse of former Friends to apprehend the Friend, but he escaped by his superior horsemanship. In the end, the Friend’s home in the Society founded town of Jerusalem was under siege, where he was captured and charged with blasphemy. However, as blasphemy at the time was not considered an indictable offense, he was released, however this effectively spelled the end of his public ministry. The Universal Friend would die a second time on July 1st, 1819, at the age of sixty six.


Many of the lectures we covered are explored wonderfully in the same section about the Public Universal Friend. First, we have the dualistic beliefs of the Universal Friends, explicitly stated in the soul and body explanation of the Universal Friend’s divinity. This shares a similar theme to Heaven’s Gate, who believed their souls would be taken up into a passing comet which in reality was an alien mothership. Here, Jemimah’s soul is taken up by God to be His bride, while the Holy Spirit inhabits her body to continue Jesus’ ministry on earth. In addition, the Friend’s sermons often centered around the incoming apocalypse and second coming of Christ to which he was the forerunner of. This was all aided by the incredible vagueness of connections to King James translations of Biblical passages, another common tool used in prophecy relating to figures like Nostradomus or fortune tellers. Later in life, the Friend used such vagueness to claim that he had predicted the French Revolution to a visiting Frenchman, much to his chagrin.


If you will notice, I did not refer to any of the movements, figures, or groups here as “cults”. That is because I believe that the term is extremely divisive, imprecise, and unscientific. Most people will feel confident in saying that Jim Jones and his congregation are what would be described as a cult. He was a singular and deity like figurehead, he had multiple mistresses while carefully maintaining his followers’ relationships via committee in the Jonestown days, and his story ended with the mass suicide of his followers. But, are all these factors required to be a cult? Here is a video which discusses the topic, and this channel also provides a wonderful array of world religions which may themselves have been considered cults had history turned out differently;


The book ending on Jonestown is a stark warning to America about placing our whole faith and mind in the hands of people claiming messiahship, those who claim they will lead us all to utopia. As a Christian myself I found many of these figures cringeworthy, perhaps with the exception of Father Divine for his radical approach to civil rights and his genuine passion. The truth of the matter is that there are just as many people deranged and selfish as there are genuine, and even the genuine people of the world are capable of evil. One of the dramatic final lines of the book claims that Jonestown marked, for now, the final chapter in messianic communalism. But messianic thinking is still widely prevalent, and it seems to bleed deeply into the political and cultural landscape. Without wanting to politicize this report, I must say that there is no politician, businessman, or celebrity that will lead us to utopia, and it will take the effort of everyone to improve our world even marginally.

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