Are religious fringe movements a recent phenomenon in American history? Are widespread fears of mass sucides, sexual abuse, and brainwashing in cults justified? Do marginalized religious groups play any positive role in American spiritual life? Do the panics over such groups follow any discernible pattern? Phillip Jenkins gives fascinating--and surprising--answers to these and many other questions in Mystics and Messiahs, the first full account of cults and anti-cult scares in the course of American history.
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 even Catholics were vehemently denounced for supposed ritualistic violence, fraud, and sexual depravity.
Jenkins provides an insightful new analysis of why cults arouse such fear and hatred both in the secular world and in mainstream churches, many of which--Baptists, Quakers, Pentecostals, and Methodists--were themselves originally regarded as cults. Most importanlty, Jenkins argues that an accurate historical perspective is urgently needed if we are to avoid the kind of catastrophic confrontation that occurred in Waco or the ruinous prosecution of imagined Satanic cults in the 1980s.