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Mystics and Messiahs: Cults and New Religions in American History
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Mystics and Messiahs: Cults and New Religions in American History

3.54  ·  Rating details ·  74 Ratings  ·  13 Reviews
In Mystics and Messiahs--the first full account of cults and anti-cult scares in American history--Philip Jenkins shows that, contrary to popular belief, cults were by no means an invention of the 1960s. In fact, most of the frightening images and stereotypes surrounding fringe religious movements are traceable to the mid-nineteenth century when Mormons, Freemasons, and ev ...more
Paperback, 304 pages
Published November 15th 2001 by Oxford University Press, USA (first published 2000)
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Susie Meister
Sep 18, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Jenkins responds to the public concerns over cults. He argues that there has been no period in which we cannot find numerous groups more or less indistinguishable from the most controversial modern movements. Generally Jenkins calls them "fringe religious movements" instead of the perjorative term "cults". He demonstrates how the American religious landscape and its focus on apocalypse throughout its history makes this movements a natural fit in American culture. Jenkins shows patterns of cult a ...more
Gary Miller
Jan 31, 2010 rated it really liked it
Jenkins is a professor of history and religious studies at Penn State.

Interesting book. Good book to scan rather than read cover to cover. The first issue for the author was trying to define the word “cult”. He points out many established religious groups of today were considered cults (or at the very least were victims of violence) at one time such as the Mormons, Jehovah Witnesses, Christian Science, Quakers and Baptists.


He covers almost every conceivable group. Many I had heard of (Theo
Peter Orvetti
Jul 16, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Unlike most other books on the subject, Jenkins takes a much broader look at alternative religious movements in the United States. While groups like the People's Temple, Heaven's Gate, and the Branch Davidians can be found here, along with movements like I AM and ECKANKAR, Jenkins considers esoteric groups generally not discussed in such histories, like the Rosicrucians, Theosophists, Ordo Templi Orientis, and so on. He also looks at the evangelists of the 1920s and 1930s, like Aimee Semple McPh ...more
Apr 04, 2013 rated it really liked it
The first 2/3rds of this book were great. I was especially impressed by the chapter delineating the difference between cults, sects, religions and the movement between the three. The tracking of the cyclical nature of cult formation and public reaction was also fascinating and is probably the most important thesis put forth by this book.

The last third barely talked about new religious movements at all. It only spoke of cults that *didn't* exist, millennial doomsday cults that are already gone or
Jun 02, 2012 rated it really liked it
I used this book for a Graduate course on False Messiahs and Cults. It was an interesting read that was quite entertaining. I enjoyed the history of the cults and false messiahs/prophets in America; there is a history that was longer than I anticipated regarding American cults. Quite amazing how many religions were deemed cults, now are mainstream. However, it is equally amazing how “religions” that should be labeled as cults have survived over a century with growing following over time. Jenkins ...more
Sep 05, 2011 rated it really liked it
This is the second book by Mr. Jenkins I have read this year and I enjoy his insights into American history, specifically in the intersection between public policy, the mass media, and moral panics. This book deals with new religions, or "cults" as they are often labeled in the media and by opponents, rightly or not. I especially appreciated Mr. Jenkins' insights about Waco, Heaven's Gate and Jonestown, along with his perspectives on religions that were identified as cults, such as the Mormons a ...more
Oct 22, 2011 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I spent about two hours reading and skimming this book today, and I think that I got the main point. America has been a hot bed for religous kooks and odd ball cults since the very beginning. I want to check out Aimee Semple McPherson, and the founder of The Silver Shirts at Wikipedia. Jenkins is a very good religious historian, and I have several more of his books in my lists at the library.
Insightful. It has changed my perspective on a lot of things, and has made me increasingly sceptical of many of the claims made by certain contemporary organizations as to the depravities carried out by certain fringe groups. I wish I had a stronger background in this area in order to determine the validity of his claims, but for now they definitely feel right.
[Name Redacted]
Mar 20, 2012 marked it as to-read
I feel like I should give this book a chance, but while Jenkins is often a remarkably astute and thorough scholar, he also has a clear axe to grind against Mormons and a weirdly dismissive attitude towards any other non-Catholic/Orthodox/Protestant manifestation of Christianity.
A.J. Jr.
Mar 19, 2012 rated it it was amazing
An important, and timely, book.
Adrian Rose
Jul 31, 2015 rated it it was amazing
An amazing study into the diversity of the United States and where it has led us in terms of religion.
Nov 07, 2015 rated it liked it
Shelves: religion
Read this for my Cults in America class at Illinois Wesleyan. Good stuff, it goes through the history of the cult booms and busts in the US.
Brittany Anne
Sep 12, 2013 rated it really liked it
Very interesting approach to religion and how the media spins the bias... Jenkins is an excellent read and presents the material in a pretty unbiased way.
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John Philip Jenkins was born in Wales in 1952. He was educated at Clare College, in the University of Cambridge, where he took a prestigious “Double First” degree—that is, Double First Class Honors. In 1978, he obtained his doctorate in history, also from Cambridge. Since 1980, he has taught at Penn State University, and currently holds the rank of Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of the Humanities. He ...more
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