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Disrupting the Cemetery: An Interview With Adam Morris

Our June BookStory features “American Messiahs: False Prophets of a Damned Nation” by Adam Morris. The book traces various messianic figures through centuries of American history, from the 18th century communalist teachings of Jemima Wilkinson to Jim Jones and the tragic end of his Peoples Temple at Jonestown, Guyana.

“American Messiahs” examines these diverse figures and their social reform movements as important elements within American religious and political history. Morris identifies ideological currents that run from the early Puritans, through the Civil Rights and Evangelical movements, to the techno-utopianism of the singularity movement today.

We spoke with Morris about this work, touching on specific figures, the word “cult,” his understanding of the driving forces behind American religion and spirituality.

 

BackStory: You have this quote in the book that I thought was really interesting, which is “the injustices of capitalist culture cannot be reformed from within.” And you talk about how that starts with the Puritans really, and then informs these Messianic movements on a fundamental level, and unites them throughout American history.

Morris: That’s right. So each of them, and again it wasn’t just each of them, it was many different communal societies were reacting against perceived injustices wrought by the developing economic system in the United States. Obviously a capitalistic one. And what makes the Messianic societies so successful in my view, and what I try to point out in the work, is they all go back to the first communities of Christians described in the book of Acts of the Apostles. Where there are two verses that suggest that the first Christians lived communistically. That is, they held all things in common. That is the wording used in the Bible. And this was a practice that of course was abandoned, but has been repeated or reattempted many times.

It’s that verse and that suggestion to abandon all the sins that go along with the acquisition of private property, as these Messianic societies all discover, and they find a utility in that idea. Not only because it helps people live more harmoniously together if no one is trying to get one over on anyone else, at least in terms of profit. But because it articulated a really coherent alternative to the prevailing social order.

BackStory: Later in the book you talk about how Jim Jones, and the Jonestown mass murder-suicide, and his general megalomaniac tendencies did a real amount of damage to socialism in America

Morris: Yes. So up until the tragic end of People’s Temple, there always was a strong left progressive flank of Evangelical Christianity in the United States that often worked in tandem with, if not directly with, other leftist political movements. You really see this clearly in the 19th century in the progressive movement where religious organizations see common cause with the labor movement, at least over some issues such as alleviating the suffering of the slums. And this was a tradition that Jim Jones was upholding. It’s an American tradition that really wasn’t interrupted until the Jonestown tragedy of 1978. It’s because of how dramatic and how cautionary tale seem to be in terms of the result of the People’s Temple experiment in mass murder suicide that the far right side of Evangelical Christianity in the U.S. was able to consolidate it’s hegemony over the movement. And to speak on behalf of all Christians the way it had done in the latter half of the 20th century after that time.

Really, Jim Jones was presenting an echo of that, what was a much stronger tradition in the 19th century. As you probably know, the fundamentalist had triumphed in around the turn of the century. At least in terms of turning back this sort of social gospel mentality that remained largely confined after that to African American churches. And so that’s why Jim Jones saw Pentecostalism and the African American church as really important places to begin, or at least to organize and foment the activity that he wished to undertake, the reform activity.

He was very successful at doing that by co-opting all the rhetoric of this Christian anticapitalist quasi-socialism and updating it to the 20th century conditions of oppression experienced not just by black people, but also by poor whites and anyone who is sympathetic to the cause of blacks and poor whites. And that was how he came to found the first integrated church in Indianapolis and became, pretty much until the late seventies, a very respected proponent of civil rights. 

Jim Jones on a stage before a microphone, holding an award placard. MLK is projected on a wall in the background.

Reverend Jim Jones is given the Martin Luther King, Jr. Humanitarian award at Glide Memorial Church, 330 Ellis Street by Reverend Cecil Williams in San Francisco.

BackStory: There’s one word that neither of us have been using this entire interview and that is “cult.” You avoid the use of that word or that label in the book as well. Why is that?

Morris: I use the word only when I’m quoting someone and in so doing, I follow what I think is the wisdom of Rebecca Moore, who is one of the foremost authorities on People’s Temple. Actually two of her relatives perished in Jonestown, at least two. She points out correctly in one of her books on Jonestown that “cult” always already implies a moral judgment that’s being made. A negative moral judgment against the group that’s being described that way. And that’s only become more and more true as time goes by. It used to be that “cult” was a word without that kind of negative valence.

Certain Catholic cults of saints described themselves that way, obviously not intending to be pejorative. And the word continued to be used that way as sort of a special or a smaller sect throughout the 19th century. And it’s really only in the 20th century, predominantly following the FBI sting operations of the 1930s against spiritual groups perceived to have fascist sympathies that you see the word “cult” acquiring the intensely negative valence that it has now. And the reason I don’t like to use it is because if we approach these groups with that lack of generosity of spirit, with that refusal to engage with their beliefs, because that’s essentially what you’re doing when you classify a group as a cult, then you won’t achieve a real understanding of why they attracted people in the first place.

Very few people set out to join a cult. And when people do join a group that we would perceive to be a cult, they don’t realize many times they’re doing it. Or they would describe the group in very different terms. Most of the Messianic societies that I profile fall into that latter category where they saw their groups as really meaningful, spiritual communities for people who had subscribed very deliberately to a different set of values. I really don’t think we’d be able to understand the importance of these groups and the way that they provide this continuity of a counter cultural history of American spirituality and even American social movements if we approach every one of these groups with that level of doubt and contempt. 

Cyrus Teed standing next to a huge fish hanging vertically.

Dr. Cyrus R. Teed stands beside a tarpon. 1905 or 1906. Black & white photonegative, 4 x 5 in. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.

BackStory: I want to step now to the epilogue where you talk about going to a singularity convention. What unites a lot of these groups in your book is that they seek to reform capitalist culture. But is that something that these techno utopian people really have in common? And if not, what do they bring that continues that trend that you’ve been talking about throughout the book?

Morris: No, I would say that following the Jonestown tragedy of 1978, Messianic movement in the US has a very different profile. And you see this clearly by looking at movements from the eighties and nineties. For example, the nation of Yahweh led by Yahweh Ben Yahweh was another messianic climate, and it was racially exclusive rather than inclusive and open. And it was much more from the get go an authoritarian movement, in ways that in spite of the grandiosity of people like Father Divine and Cyrus Teed, their movements were much more meant to be people powered as with People’s Temple.

What you see instead with the Branch Davidians and the nation of Yahweh is a closure to the world. There is not a desire to include or reform the rest of American society. They are much more sealed in partly as a response to that change, which is itself a response to a huge change in American Christianity and Christian culture in the U.S. that comes about after the late seventies. But also, these groups fall under very harsh scrutiny from the government or are immediately destroyed.

What you see with the singularity is something different from either of those two typologies of American messianic thought. And that is a messianic notion that attempts to suture the divide or the opposition between capitalism and salvation.

So these two things, capitalism and salvation were seen to be opposed by everybody from the early Shakers all the way up to Jim Jones. They all articulated a view of society and a spiritual lifestyle that was directly at odds with practically everything else that falls from American capitalism’s popular culture of consumerism. And what you see here in Silicon Valley is people who really want to accommodate a spirituality within a culture that is hyper capitalist.

These are people who think about futures quite literally as well as economically. They really believe that according to, what I would call, the prophecies of Ray Kurzweil, the futurist who is regarded as the foremost voices and singularity movement, they believe that it will be possible to transcend death. This is something Kurzweil says in one of his books from 1999. He believes that mortality is something that we will be able to innovate our way out of. We’ll be able to disrupt the cemetery maybe, and as a result their consciousness will live on in perpetuity in some fashion or another.

Now he claims that we don’t know exactly how that’s going to happen. That’s part of what the singularity is. It’s a discovery or a moment of knowledge accrual or some other intervention world historically that we can’t see past. In the same way the invention of the steam engine was not something people could have seen past before it was invented. All the social changes wrought were not visible or imaginable to people who came before.

So really you have a secular version of heaven, or a secular version maybe more accurately of the spiritualists notion of the spirit land, where people’s consciousness’ have replaced the notion of a soul and a digital, using primitive terminology, we’ll say a digital realm is replacing the celestial notion of heaven. And everyone at the conference seems to believe that capitalism will be this point of continuity between these two things. But not only will capitalism bring about this change by hastening the scientific discoveries that are required for the singularity to occur, but that it will continue to exist after we’ve solved mortality.

So these are the people who believe even if we achieve immortality of the mind that we will still need capitalism. And not only will we have it and need it, but they will be the elect. They will be there somehow engaged now in primitive accumulation of whatever sort of capital will exist in that realm. And I find that to be a really astonishing thought. Because what you see here is a faith in capitalism that borders on religious. I certainly I think it is religious.

But they recognize the problem that humans have created for themselves and other problems such as mortality that has existed from time immemorial. And they are creating a quasi-spiritual movement surrounded by the conviction that humans will be able to overcome this. And the reason I wanted to include that in the book is because that is an echo of the old, post millennial strand of American Christian thought that was so dominant in the 19th century. So many people saw the injustices that were being created by a democratic society that was not completely democratic, that was moving very quickly through a process of industrialization that was not working out the same way for everyone. In those days, a popular interpretation of the book of Revelation and the apocalypse described therein was that the thousand year rule of Christ would occur only after humans demonstrated that they deserved it or could preserve it.

And so a line of reasoning that followed from that interpretation of the Bible, which is that Christ will only come back, or the messiah will only return after the thousand years have been completed. Those thousand years being the rule of Christ on Earth without Christ actually being present. It’s more the thousand years dedicated to Christ, showing that human humanity is regenerated, restored spiritually and capable of receiving the messiah. And this is what a lot of people fought and why among reformers, social reformers Christian and otherwise utilize this train of thought to galvanize reformed movements. And you find that echo very curiously with the singularity futurists.

 

Adam Morris is a writer and literary translator whose work has appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, the Believer, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Salon, and elsewhere. His book,
American Messiahs: False Prophets of a Damned Nation,” is out now.

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