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date: 28 March 2017

Alternative Religious Movements and Race in America

Summary and Keywords

Alternative religious movements have played a significant role in American history. There is no easy definition for these types of groups; their ideas and practices vary. One clear commonality, though, is their development on the sociocultural margins. Thus, inherent in alternative religious movements is a critique of dominant culture, and this offers a powerful means of engaging issues of race in America. Other groups, however, choose to echo prevailing racial ideas as a means of making themselves mainstream. The typical narrative of American religious history is white and Protestant, and alternative religious movements have provided both criticism and approval of that story.

While a close look at every alternative religious movement would be impossible, even an abbreviated exploration is revealing. During the antebellum period the question of slavery and the white supremacy that supported it prompted alternative religious movements to ask questions about equality. While many Shakers and Spiritualists recognized value in all, other groups, like the Mormons, encoded contemporary racial assumptions in their early theology. Throughout the 19th and into the 20th century, African Americans and Native Americans criticized white supremacy by offering alternative explanations of humanity’s history and destiny. The 1890s Ghost Dance movement envisioned an Indian paradise devoid of whites, and in the early 20th century black alternative movements in northern cities emphasized the religious significance of their blackness. Though these groups criticized the white supremacy surrounding them, others continued to emphasize the superiority of whiteness. In the latter part of the 20th century, many Americans associated racialized alternative religious movements, such as the Nation of Islam, the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, and the Peoples Temple, with fear or brainwashing. In examining how alternative religious movements engage racial assumptions, articulate racial discourse, or create religio-racial identities, a study of these movements illuminates the interplay between religion and culture in American history.

Keywords: African American religions, alternative religious movements, Native American religions, race, race and religion, white supremacy

In the story of American religion, alternative religious movements have been a force since the arrival of colonial religious dissenters. Groups who fall under these categories, either here in the United States or abroad, elude easy definition. No simple checklist of traits exists for alternative religious movements. Similar to sects, they sometimes develop as splinter groups that break off more popular, established groups. Others emerge as religious bricoleurs. Groups have varied ideas about authority, gender, race, politics, economics, and everyday life. Despite these differences, most alternative religious movements develop in similar sociocultural spaces: the margins. According to J. Gordon Melton, a foundational scholar of these movements, many of these groups “have been assigned to the fringe of the dominant religious culture and secondarily by elements within the secular culture, and hence are a set of religious groups/movements that exist in a relatively contested space within society as a whole.”1 However, even with this fringe location alternative religious movements intersect with dominant traditions and trends.

The counter-mentality inherent in alternative religious movements indicates a critique of dominant religious groups as wrong or incomplete, and it also reflects a wider criticism of society or the dominant culture. Considering the racial diversity of the United States and the power of white supremacy, it is no surprise that many alternative religious movements develop new religio-racial identities (to use Judith Weisenfeld’s category), prompt racial conflict, and/or include distinctive racial discourse. Race is a method of categorizing people, and so the so-called natural differences between the races are human constructs. The construction of racial differences and identities began with the first encounters between Native Americans, Europeans, and Africans. Political and religious power shapes and has shaped the ways Americans perceive race and racial differences. If alternative kinds of religious groups have been present in abundance for the entirety of American religious history, as Stephen Stein and others have argued, then a closer look at alternative religious movements and race is a small but illuminating part of a larger story.2 White Protestants have dominated both American religious history and the field’s historiography, and as such attention to race and alternative religious movements helps break open that corral. The snapshots provided here elucidate the creativity and contestation inherent in American religion.

Antebellum Spiritual Hothouse

In his 1990 classic Awash in a Sea of Faith: Christianizing the American People, historian Jon Butler coined the term antebellum spiritual hothouse to refer to the flurry of religious innovation that followed disestablishment.3 The development and growth of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (or the Mormons), the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing (or the Shakers), the Oneida Perfectionists, the Millerites, American Spiritualism, and the growing popularity of the Methodists and Baptists all attest to the innovation of this period. Some of these groups preached the radical idea of racial equality, or at least selected members of their movement did. Others did not.

Spiritualism became popular across the United States in the late antebellum period. To put it simply, Spiritualists believed that people could access the world of the dead. Typically this was done through séances, which ranged from the simple writing of messages received from the spirits of the dead to the use of machines and other spirit technologies for communication. Since the spirits chose whom they communicated with, Spiritualism offered an alternative path to religious authority. Many Spiritualists followed the lead of Andrew Jackson Davis, who argued that the world of the dead was organized in a system of spheres that spirits, regardless of race or gender, ascended as they spiritually progressed. Most American Spiritualists and other practitioners of metaphysical religions were whites and believed that racial identities remained in the spirit world. While many of them advocated for abolition and at least a semblance of racial equality, some believed in white superiority. Others channeled the spirits of romanticized Native Americans, advocated on behalf of the “vanishing Indians,” and argued for the protection of Native lands.4 Crossing the Atlantic Ocean, Spiritualism was also popular in Victorian England (most notably, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a Spiritualist) and Spiritism, an outgrowth of Spiritualism, developed in France. Spiritism, in turn, became an export; for example, Spiritism has become part of the syncretic religious blends of Brazil.

While the majority of séance practitioners were white, nonwhites also practiced Spiritualism. One prolific group in New Orleans was composed of Afro-Creole men whose arguments for black rights were supported by messages received from the spirits of political greats like Abraham Lincoln, Montesquieu, and John Brown. Calling themselves the Cercle Harmonique, these Afro-Creoles imagined how the ideal society should operate in the post–Civil War world. The spirits with whom they communicated offered guidance on political and social issues. The Cercle Harmonique’s séance records describe a spirit world in which race no longer existed, and spirits denied the ontological reality of racial identities. For example, one spirit explained that while on earth his hair “looked black” and only his “real Being” manifested in the spirit world. Another spirit described how his raced body encased only his “luminous” spirit; after death, he left his “temporary envelope [the body]” behind and moved to a superior realm of existence. Because all were “children of the same father,” Confucius’s spirit argued that there were “no different races.”5 It made sense for this particular group of Spiritualists to argue that race was an empty signifier of a category. New Orleans and the United States reified a racial hierarchy that placed white above black. In response, the spirits who guided the Cercle Harmonique described an ideal spiritual republic in which America’s racial hierarchy was replaced by a meritocracy of charity.

Spiritualism was not the only antebellum spiritual hothouse religion that transcended racial lines. The Shakers, an English import, lived in celibate, utopian communes and believed that the Second Coming of Christ had arrived in the person of their founder, Mother Ann Lee. The majority of Shakers were white, but their support for abolition and their arguments for gender and racial equality made them an attractive group for a variety of people. During an 1830 thunderstorm, Rebecca Cox Jackson, a free black woman, experienced a religious awakening. This was not all that out of the ordinary for the early 19th century, since religious experiences swept the new republic during the Second Great Awakening. Like many others, Jackson searched for a community that felt right. She found it in the Shakers, among whom she was respected as a prophetess. Despite the Shakers’ confirmation of racial equality, this did not always translate into the everyday world. Jackson became frustrated with the group’s outreach to nonwhites. After briefly breaking official ties with the Shakers, Jackson returned and founded the first black Shaker community in mid-century Philadelphia.6

While most Shakers and Spiritualists preached racial equality, many of their antebellum spiritual hothouse contemporaries did not. In fact, the antebellum spiritual hothouse’s greatest success story, Mormonism, possesses a complicated racial past. When the angel Moroni, God the Father, and Jesus Christ appeared to founder Joseph Smith, they did so in beautiful white bodies. These bodies were not just spiritual ones; they were material bodies too. Occupying a white body, Smith’s vision of Jesus sacralized whiteness. This was not the only facet of early Mormon teaching that broached questions of race. Racial identity was woven into the story told in the Book of Mormon, a text that offered a biblical history for the United States and described Native Americans as the descendants of a lost tribe of Israel. Centuries before the birth of Jesus, a group of Jews led by the patriarch Lehi sailed to America. The resurrected Christ would appear to Lehi’s people, but his blessing could not secure lasting piece in ancient America. Lehi’s descendants separated into two factions: the light-skinned Nephites, who continued to worship God, and the Lamanites, who began to ignore God. With a punishment reminiscent of how some interpreted Cain’s mark, God cursed the Lamanites with dark skin. Fighting broke out between the Lamanites and the Nephites, and the Nephite line ended with Moroni, but not before he buried the story of his people (the Book of Mormon). The descendants of the Lamanites continued to roam America and would greet European settlers when they arrived. Mormons understood Native Americans as the Lamanites’ descendants.

Thus, the racial assumptions of the day were encoded in early Mormon theology. White skin indicated holiness, while dark skin signified unrighteousness. While some blacks converted to Mormonism and some Native Americans out west found prophetic convergences with their new Mormon neighbors (convergences that were no doubt bolstered by both groups’ issues with the federal government), early Mormonism reified Christ’s white body. Until 1978, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints officially denied black members the priesthood and sealing ordinances. Their limitations on African Americans notwithstanding, Mormonism has been very successful in missionary ventures abroad. Of the fifteen million Mormons worldwide, six million are in the United States, which means the church has a robust global presence. Part of this success is due to their strong dedication to missionary activities. The church encourages all Mormon men to embark on a two-year mission around age eighteen to locations domestic and abroad.7

Native Challenges

The groups of the antebellum spiritual hothouse were not the only alternative religious movements developing in the early 19th century. Prophets emerged in Native American communities who preached messages of separation from their white Christian neighbors, and others received visions of syncretism. Handsome Lake’s so-called Longhouse Religion brought together indigenous ideas of the Seneca and those of nearby Quaker missionaries. Out on the Columbia Plateau, some prophets combined the spiritual power of the white newcomers with traditional ideas. These are examples of what anthropologist Anthony Wallace deemed revitalization movements; in fact, he often used Handsome Lake’s teachings as the exemplar of such movements. He defined revitalization movements as a “deliberate, organized, conscious effort by members of a society to construct a more satisfying culture.”8 When they are under stress, Wallace argued, cultures undergo a period of “cultural distortion” followed by revitalization.9 Wallace understood this to be a period of innovation in order to create that “more satisfying culture,” a process akin to that followed by a number of alternative religious movements.

One of the most influential of these early republic prophets was a Shawnee man named Lalawethika. In 1805, when he was in his mid-thirties, Lalawethika transformed from an alcoholic who lived in his brother Tecumseh’s shadow to a prophet known as Tenskwatawa, which means “the open door.” Tenskwatawa experienced a series of visions (during which his family thought he had died) and saw the world of the dead. In this vision and a number of revelations that followed, Tenskwatawa described the defeat of a Great Serpent that had crossed the ocean and how that serpent represented evil, the creation of Native peoples and the separate creation of whites, the evils of white culture, and the importance of purification. A number of scholars identify Tenskwatawa’s visions as inspiration for a pan-Indian movement in the early 19th century. While numerous Native communities maintained diplomatic alliances with one another through systems of reciprocity, Tenskwatawa’s visions pointed to something deeper: the Great Spirit had created all Native peoples, while whites were created by a lesser, and perhaps evil, spirit. This idea took European assumptions about their superiority over Native “barbarism” and inverted it.

With this common creation, a sort of polygenesis, Tenskwatawa’s message urged unity among all Native tribes over and against whites and polluting white culture. Since the Great Spirit’s children were superior, so too were their cultural ways. His visions and prophetic message moved across tribal borders and throughout the Old Northwest Territory and into the South, oftentimes brought by his brother Tecumseh. Echoing his brother’s visions, Tecumseh told the Delaware, Wyandot, Creek, and Choctaw to purify their lives and their communities. This meant the destruction of all the tools, ideas, and consequences of white culture; the “civilizing” process brought by white culture robbed Indians of their political independence and their sacred power. Though Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa succeeded in uniting Native communities across tribal lines, U.S. forces squarely defeated their warriors and allies. With those defeats, Tenskwatawa’s ideas about Indians’ separate creation and resulting racial superiority lost much of their spiritual capital, and the U.S. government forced large land cessions across the region.10

Religious innovation among Native Americans hardly ended with the defeat of Tecumseh and the failed prophecies of his brother. Following the end of the Indian Wars of the West and Great Plains was the Ghost Dance movement. Though the Ghost Dance prophet Wovoka, or Jack Wilson, as he was also known, was not entirely original in his ideas (Hawthorne Wodziwob preached something similar in the 1870s), Wovoka is typically credited with the prophecy and ritual of the Ghost Dance. On January 1, 1889, during an eclipse of the sun, Wovoka experienced a vision that would become the center of the Ghost Dance movement. Preaching the importance of universal love and a system of ethics that seemed similar to Christianity, Wovoka offered the promise of a new world. Through the practice of the Ghost Dance (a group round dance), Native Americans would be able to bring about the creation of a new world that closely resembled pre-contact America. Deceased Indians would be reunited with their living descendants, and whites would be gone. What happened to whites varied among the tribal groups who embraced the Ghost Dance. Some believed that whites would be destroyed in the creation of the new world; others taught that whites would return to their own ancestral world, and some offered no clear depiction of what happened to whites. Many Native Americans saw Wovoka as the “Indian Messiah” and one who would save them from the cultural genocide of Manifest Destiny. Following his message would restore the world to a better, purer state. In many of its manifestations the Ghost Dance movement was a blend of Christianity and Native American religious ideas and practices. A letter from a group of Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians who practiced the Ghost Dance distinctly identifies Wovoka as the Messiah, and they were not alone in this conclusion. The letter’s scribe, an Arapaho who attended the famous Indian boarding school in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, wrote that “Jueses” was on the earth.11 This Indian Jesus would bring salvation and redemption to his beloved Indian children. While the prophetic message of Tenskwatawa offered an understanding of a pan-Indian creation of the world and provided rules to live by, Wovoka proposed a vision of a pan-Indian paradise. Ridding America of whites and their culture, Wovoka’s Ghost Dance prophecy presented an Indian utopia amidst the institutional and everyday violence of Manifest Destiny.

From Wovoka’s Paiute home, the Ghost Dance spread throughout the mountain West and into the Great Plains. Most scholars of American religion know too well the tragic massacre of Lakotas who practiced the Ghost Dance. In December of 1890, U.S. Calvary troops opened fire on Ghost Dance participants at Pine Ridge Reservation near Wounded Knee Creek. The Wounded Knee massacre would claim the lives of over two hundred Lakota men, women, and children. The U.S. Calvary troops associated the Ghost Dance with Lakota war dances and assumed the practice was hostile. Contemporary anthropologist James Mooney extensively studied the Ghost Dance movement, research that culminated in his six-hundred-page book The Ghost-dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890 (1896). He explored the practice of the Ghost Dance among a number of tribes in the work; of the Lakotas at Pine Ridge Reservation, he wrote: “To my questions the answer almost invariably was, ‘The dance was our religion, but the government sent soldiers to kill us on account of it. We will not talk more about it.’”12

New Blends, New-esque Ideas

The Ghost Dance was hardly the only alternative religious movement developing in the late 19th century. Founded in 1875 by Russian immigrant, world traveler, and mystic Helena Petrovna Blavatsky and American military officer and lawyer Henry Steel Olcott, the Theosophical Society was a new religious system based on seemingly old esoteric knowledge, Asian religious elements (particularly Buddhism and Hinduism), and Spiritualism. Theosophy claimed an interest in “a Universal Brotherhood of Humanity without distinction of race, colour, or creed.”13 The Theosophical Society’s claims of universal brotherhood were sorely tested following Blavatsky’s death; domestic and international schisms plagued the organization for decades. Similarly to the Afro-Creole Spiritualists in New Orleans, who argued for humanity’s progress and the equality of all, the Theosophical Society claimed that all humanity had equal value and equal opportunity for spiritual growth and development. In one of her foundational writings on Theosophy, Blavatsky argued, “All men have spiritually and physically the same origin, which is the fundamental teaching of Theosophy.”14

Despite these claims of universal humanity, Blavatsky’s ideas also appear to have been shaped by the prevailing white supremacy of the day.15 In The Secret Doctrine, considered to be Blavatsky’s magnum opus, she argues that modern science was not in conflict with the ancient wisdom of Theosophy. Also in The Secret Doctrine, Blavatsky recounts the history of humanity back to prehistoric races that lived on now-lost continents. The majority of contemporary humanity was part of the Aryan race, or the fifth root race (root race referring to steps in human evolution). Though Blavatsky claimed that the Aryan race varied in skin color from “dark brown, almost black, red-brown-yellow, down to the whitest creamy color,” she also identified lower forms of humanity who were hybrids of the Aryan race and its predecessor.16 Those lower humans included “the ‘narrow-brained’ savage South-Sea Islander, the African, the Australian.”17 While Blavatsky claimed that this did not make those hybrid races inferior, it reflects some of the contemporary ideas of the eugenics movement. Both scientific racism and social Darwinism placed the world’s races and ethnicities in a hierarchy, and while not all rankings were the same, all placed white Europeans and Euro-Americans at the top. The majority of Americans interested in Theosophy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were upper-class, educated, and privileged, which puts Blavatsky’s racial hierarchy in conversation with contemporary race science. Complicating this further was Blavatsky’s contention that the next step in human evolution would come from racial mixing in the United States. Blending various esoteric religious ideas and mirroring the language of eugenics as well as the radical idea of racial mixing, Blavatsky’s teachings reflected the larger racial concerns of the turn of the 20th century.

Another alternative religious movement emerging at this time was the Native American Church, best known for its ritual use of peyote. Though the Native American Church was not formally established until 1918, Comanche Quanah Parker and Delaware-Caddo John Wilson began promoting the ritual use of peyote following the massacre at Wounded Knee. Their practice was known as the “Peyote Way” (now frequently called Peyote Religion) and was a blend of Christianity and Native American traditions. The use of peyote connected these practices to older means of communicating with the supernatural, while the adoption of Christian symbols and figures is reminiscent of the Ghost Dance. Like the Ghost Dance and the teachings of Tenskwatawa, Peyote Religion supported pan-Indianism by transcending tribal boundaries. Peyote Religion and the Native American Church provided a religious alternative to mainstream Christianity that allowed Native Americans to remain connected to their pasts while adapting to white America’s dominance. Peyote use has not been without its difficulties for ritual users. Practitioners have long argued for peyote’s healing properties, but peyote’s psychoactive properties can hamper its use. In the mid-20th century, a number of U.S. states outlawed peyote use, though many allowed it for religious purposes. The best-known legal case involving peyote was 1990’s Employment Division v. Smith, which called into question the legality of peyote use. Though the 1978 American Indian Religious Freedom Act protected religious practices, the Supreme Court allowed states like Oregon to punish Native American peyote users like Al Smith because the law denied others the right to use the substance. In 1994 President Bill Clinton signed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act Amendments, which restored Native American rights to use peyote (among other things).18

This protection was offered only to Native Americans, which legally limits Peyote Religion to recognized tribal members. This does not mean that nonnatives do not use peyote. On the contrary, the New Age religions of the late 20th century heavily drew from Native American religious practices, including peyote use, drum circles, and sweat lodges (with the latter two being more popular). Some Native Americans view this as cultural appropriation and criticize New Agers. Vine Deloria Jr., author of Custer Died for Your Sins and God Is Red, was one of these critics and identified such New Age practices as colonial exploitation.19 Opinions on whether or not white Americans and other nonnatives can practice Peyote Religion and sweat lodges varies, but the disagreements illuminate how ideas about race continue to shape post-contact Native American religions.

Black Identities, Black Theologies

Technological and scientific innovations have long helped the spread of alternative religious movements. Beginning during World War I, southern blacks moved to the North, in particular, for jobs that opened up in industrial sectors and as white men joined the military. With the Great Migration, around six million southern blacks moved to the North and to the West from 1910 to 1970, and they brought religious creativity with them. While the North was culturally different from the rural South in many ways, institutional and everyday racism was prevalent across the country. Recent black migrants experienced discrimination in employment and housing in addition to everyday experiences of racism. Scholars like Clifton Marsh and Arthur Huff Fauset have argued that such racism increased the appeal of the new black religions developing in northern cities, especially those with some nationalist influence.20 Black Hebrew groups, the Moorish Science Temple, Sweet Daddy Grace’s United House of Prayer, and Father Divine’s Peace Mission Movement grew in popularity in cities like Chicago, New York, Detroit, Baltimore, St. Louis, and Washington, DC.

One of the first Black Hebrew groups to develop was Church of the Living God, the Pillar Ground of Truth for All Nations, formed by F. S. Cherry in 1886. This was followed by the Church of God and Saints of Christ, created in 1896 by William Saunders Crowdy. Both of these groups contained ideas, terminology, and rituals from Judaism and Protestant Christianity. Judaism offered these “former” Christians attractive rhetorical strategies. First, many southern black Christians had long argued that they were God’s chosen people and just as God had freed the ancient Israelites from their bondage in Egypt, he would also free African American slaves. Second, following the Civil War, a number of urban blacks began to associate Christianity with slavery. It was the religion of white slave owners, and as such many whites had justified slavery with Christianity. Christianity, then, was a white religion. Claiming a Jewish heritage allowed African Americans to throw off the yoke of their former owners’ religion and articulate a respectable history.

In 1916, Wentworth Arthur Matthew created the Commandment Keepers Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation of the Living God Pillar & Ground of Truth, Inc., or Commandment Keepers for short. Matthew went further in Jewish orthodoxy than his predecessors; for example, he learned Hebrew. Like a number of other black religious movements of the early 20th century (most notably the Rastafari movement), Matthew also looked to Ethiopia. Judaism had a long history in Ethiopia, dating back to the meeting of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. It was also an independent country in the early 20th century, at a time when colonialism still reigned in Africa. Matthew claimed credentials from Ethiopia and thus associated himself with one of “the oldest families of the Jewish or Hebraic race upon the earth.”21 Claiming a relationship to a respected, independent African country and an ancient religion, black Hebrews pushed back against Jim Crow. The legal and everyday culture of Jim Crow America tried to deny African Americans self-definition. Groups like Matthew’s Commandment Keepers and the Moorish Science Temple argued for a respectable black identity by reimagining their religio-racial identity.

Timothy Drew, turned prophet Noble Drew Ali, founded the Moorish Science Temple in 1920s Chicago. Claiming a direct connection to Allah, which gifted him healing abilities, Ali styled himself as Allah’s “last Prophet in these days” sent “to redeem men from their sinful ways.”22 Ali replaced the Prophet Muhammad as Allah’s final and thus most significant prophet. He provided a new message to “fallen humanity,” and much of that message focused on African Americans. Ali argued that categories like black, Negro, colored, and African American were inaccurate. Instead, Ali told this population that they were Moorish Americans, a unique religio-racial identity. Ali taught that the Moorish population’s true religion was Islam, though Europeans had stripped them of it during slavery. It was time for them to return to Islam, “which was founded by our forefathers for our earthly and divine salvation.” Christianity, by contrast, was prepared for the salvation of “European nations.”23 Linked to their religious identity, then, was their racial identity. Ali traced the Moors back to the biblical Canaanites and Moabites, thus providing them a long, illustrious lineage. Further identifying the Moors as Asiatic, Ali argued that the Moors came from the Middle East and Morocco. This religio-racial identity exempted the Moors from the racial hierarchy of Jim Crow because they resided outside it. Ali further instructed members to keep a “neat and clean” appearance and wear Middle Eastern– and Egyptian-inspired sashes and fezzes. Moorish Science Temple members also carried a “Nationality Card,” which identified them as both Moors and citizens of the United States. Thus members possessed a unique identity that was both American and transnational. This distinctive religio-racial identity marked Moorish Science Temple members as different from those recent Great Migration arrivals (which many of them indeed were). Rather than be subjected to Jim Crow racism, Ali’s followers attempted to transcend contemporary racial categories.

Ali and Matthew gained traction through claiming religio-racial identities that transcended both Christianity and U.S. borders. Other groups remained within the spectrum of Christianity but still shared in Ali and Matthew’s attempts to escape Jim Crow. George Baker was born the ordinary son of freed slaves, but he developed an identity that demanded authority far beyond that of a rabbi or prophet. Pulling from Pentecostalism and the positive thinking of the New Thought Movement, Baker became Father Divine of the International Peace Mission Movement. Father Divine was God incarnate, and he encouraged followers to embrace his body and their own bodies. Since God made humans in his own image, this meant that no body was worthless. Father Divine preached that all people were equal regardless of race or gender. Additionally, since Father Divine was God in a body, this sacralized black bodies. With a message of complete equality, Divine and his most dedicated followers lived communally in what Divine called heavens.

The Sermon on the Mount was a big focus in Father Divine’s theology. Between the Great Depression and Jim Crow, jobs were difficult to come by in the 1930s, but Father Divine provided for his followers. The Peace Mission Movement opened a network of businesses, such as hotels and restaurants, which offered services at affordable prices and jobs to Peace Mission Movement members. This allowed them to accrue savings in the millions, which funded their charitable ventures. The Peace Mission Movement was well known for their “love feasts” or “love banquets.” These were elaborate free meals for followers and nonfollowers alike. The feasts overseen by Divine were particularly joyous affairs, since God was there to bless the meal. Followers recount Divine’s walking around during the meal with a carafe that dispensed endless coffee, akin to the story of Jesus and the loaves and fishes. Referencing this biblical story, Divine instructed members to live like Christ at all times; on one occasion he preached, “You must be unselfish and unbiased and you must feed the people and do unto others as you would have them do to you. That is the way Jesus did when he fed the five thousand. He did not want to send them away hungry, did He?”24 Father Divine fed his followers’ bodies and spirits. Numerous Peace Mission Movement songs focus on how happiness comes from Father Divine’s body: a short, fat, balding, black body. Arguing that he was God in a body and that all bodies were equal, Father Divine provided a distinctive alternative to mainline Christianity that offered a race theology of equality.

Also elevating the spiritual significance of black bodies was Marcelino Manuel DeGraca, a Cape Verde Islands immigrant to the United States better known as Sweet Daddy Grace. Grace was the founder and bishop of the United House of Prayer for All People of the Church on the Rock of the Apostolic Faith, a Pentecostal-influenced church he founded in 1922. The United House of Prayer articulated an inclusive faith; all people were welcome, and all mattered. The majority of Grace’s followers were African American; like Father Divine’s movement, his movement primarily gained traction in cities in the North and Mid-Atlantic. Grace was an accomplished faith healer, and he sold toiletries, healing products, and other goods to followers, as well as Grace Magazine. United House of Prayer also focused on real estate, home owners insurance, and life insurance. This allowed the church to offer services denied to black citizens by Jim Crow.

Like his contemporary Noble Drew Ali and others, Grace focused on uplifting those citizens whom the United States neglected. While Grace did not claim to be God in a body (as did Father Divine), Grace identified himself as God’s current “man” on earth. Grace explained, “God made His man and sent him to the people that they may follow him.”25 These men included Moses and Noah, and the most important of these was Jesus. Like Jesus, Grace would act as an intermediary between God and humanity; salvation would come through Grace. Pulling from Pentecostalism and the popular faith healers of the day, Grace offered something both familiar and different.26 And like Father Divine, though the majority of his followers were black, Grace offered himself to all people. Bishop Grace, Father Divine, Prophet Ali, and Rabbi Matthew all created alternative religious movements that pulled from well-established religious traditions but also made new racial arguments. Whether it was a claim for racial equality, the creation of a distinctive religio-racial identity, a call for uplifting black Americans, or a combination, these new urban religious movements created theologies in which black identities mattered.

Alternative Religious Movements and Fear

Perhaps the most popular 20th-century black religious movement was the Nation of Islam (NOI). Founded in 1930 by the mysterious Wallace Fard Muhammad, the NOI quickly grew under the leadership of the prophet Elijah Muhammad (born Elijah Poole). With this growth, the NOI published its own newspaper and owned a number of businesses. More popularity came with the leadership of Malcolm X, though he would leave the NOI for Sunni Islam in 1964 and become a critic of the NOI. Many questioned the Muslim orthodoxy of the NOI; Elijah Muhammad taught that he was the final prophet of Allah and that Wallace Fard Muhammad was Allah in the flesh. He additionally viewed the Qur’an and the Bible as prophetic about African Americans. Many of his teachings focused on the experiences of African Americans. Elijah Muhammad taught that “the blackman” was the original creation of Allah and that whites were the result of a genetic experiment a few thousand years ago.27 As a deviant creation, whites were inherently corrupt, selfish, and stupid. He called white Americans “white devils,” a phrase frequently repeated by his onetime student Malcolm X.28 Elijah Muhammad promised that black salvation would come through a return to Islam, the creation of a separate black economy, and the formation of a separate black state. While the first objective was the most important (and reminiscent of the Moorish Science Temple), most outsiders focused on the latter two. Elijah Muhammad and his followers identified Christianity as a white man’s religion and a force of colonialism. Christianity supported slavery, and, even more, it was superstitious. As argued by scholar Edward E. Curtis IV, many NOI converts highlighted the practical nature of their religion. It emphasized salvation, self-improvement, self-esteem, and safety; the NOI taught members to “walk right, talk right, look right, and try to be right.”29

With a leader who proclaimed, “The original man, Allah has declared, is none other than the black man,” the NOI was popularized and demonized for its racialized claims.30 Perhaps the best example of this is the 1959 television documentary The Hate That Hate Produced, which identified the NOI’s theology as “a gospel of hate.”31 Following Elijah Muhammad’s death in 1975, the group divided on these (and other) radical claims. Elijah Muhammad’s son Warith Deen Muhammad rose to leadership in the group and moved it in a direction similar to that of the group’s most famous dissenter, Malcolm X. Warith Deen Muhammad changed the group’s name and jettisoned many of his father’s more radical and racialized teachings. A few years later Louis Farrakhan left the new leadership and restored many of Elijah Muhammad’s teachings. (He now encourages NOI members to read and study L. Ron Hubbard’s Scientology classic Dianetics.) Even though Warith Deen Muhammad later discarded some of his father’s teachings, a common thread that still connects the original NOI with its later iterations is a strong critique of American racism. Warith Deen Muhammad continued to use his father’s phrase so-called Negroes when referring to African Americans and lamented how so many black Americans “hated their black skin.”32 His father’s black poweresque call for African Americans to embrace their identity remained important to his teachings and Farrakhan’s.

The NOI was not alone in their racially influenced religious ideas. In addition to the NOI and the appropriation of Native American traditions by the New Age movement was white interest in Asian religions. The opening of immigration in 1965 led to an influx of Asian immigrants and new religious ideas and practices. In the decades of “seeker” religion, as those raised in mainline Christian households searched for new religious ideas and practices, Asian religions gained quick popularity.33 During the economic, social, racial, and political turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s, new religious movements could easily gain traction. One of these movements was Transcendental Meditation, the consciousness brainchild of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, which became popular to the United States in the 1960s. Transcendental Meditation required only forty minutes of meditation per day, and the Maharishi’s message and exotic guru appeal swept across counterculture America. As Jane Iwamura argues in Virtual Orientalism: Asian Religions and American Popular Culture, the popularity of the Maharishi and other gurus had much to do with their exotic identity. These “oriental monks” offered old, Eastern wisdom to a disenchanted West, and the guru’s foreignness, his non-whiteness, lent authority to his knowledge.34 While the Maharishi did not spark fear in a traditional sense, he embodied the foreign unknown, and his popularity concerned a number of American parents.

The International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), or the Hare Krishna movement, as it is more commonly known, is another alternative religious export to the United States.35 ISKCON is a strand of Hinduism that was founded by A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada in the 1960s. In this bhakti yoga–focused religion, practitioners focus on Krishna as “the Supreme Personality of Godhead.”36 Understanding physical characteristics as arbitrary, black, white, male, female and so on, ISKCON centers one’s identity on spirit rather than body. Brought to the United States by missionaries, ISKCON quickly became popular among young, white American adults. As with Transcendental Meditation, ISKCON members have highlighted the countercultural orientation of their movement. For example, one poster made a connection between a drug high and ISKCON by advertising: “Stay High Forever. No More Coming Down.” Converts typically found ISKCON either through a family member or acquaintance or through ISCKON’s public presence. As such, many in the media and many conservative Protestants referred to the group as a cult. In particular, seeing middle-class white youth dancing and chanting “Hare Krishna” struck many as odd. Court cases centered on brainwashing in the 1980s harmed the group’s public image, as did fund-raising controversies and other scandals.37 As they have reached out to South Asian immigrants, more and more ISKCON members are not white, which has helped the group establish more legitimacy in the United States.38 ISKCON’s public presence has also prompted legal issues, namely, lawsuits over their missionary activities in airports and other public places.39

The Unification Church, whose members are frequently called “Moonies” after founder Sun Myung Moon, faced similar, if not more scrutiny than other Asian religion “exports.” Pulling from his childhood upbringing in indigenous Korean religions, Pentecostalism, and Presbyterianism, Moon developed a unique religious movement. Claiming to be Buddha, Jesus, and others, Moon told followers that he was sent as a new messiah to restore the earth. Preaching the importance of humanity’s oneness and discipline, Moon married followers from various backgrounds in mass wedding ceremonies. The combination of the Moonies’ unorthodox views on marriage and its foreign origin made it easy to label the group as dangerous.40

White supremacist movements also proliferated in the latter part of the 20th century, sometimes exacerbated by millennial anxieties. These millennial groups are reminiscent of the second iteration of the Ku Klux Klan. When the Klan re-formed in the 1920s with the mission to protect America as a white, Protestant nation and using fear, intimidation, and Christianity, they targeted African Americans, Catholics, and Jews.41 Some of these late-20th-century groups, like the vaguely labeled Christian Identity, are difficult to pin down. Christian Identity lacked a clearly articulated theology. Members adhered to a survivalist mentality, and many of them stockpiled supplies such as food, weapons, and explosives for the anticipated chaos of Y2K. Destruction of the world was thought to be necessary, since it was under Satan’s control. Prepared for survival, adherents believed that superior races would stay alive. Dark-skinned people, or “mud people,” as they were often called, and Jews would rightly perish. The former desired to die because they were inferior, and the latter deserved death because of their nefarious ways. When the year 2000 began with no apocalypse, some groups reworked the start date for the end of the world. For example, Aryan Nations, a white supremacist neo-Nazi group who espouse a similar theology, simply extended the date.42 While most Christians in the United States harshly criticized these groups for their melding of white supremacy with Christian millennialism, alternative groups such as these continue to terrorize nonwhites, often by leaving nooses at black residences.

One of the country’s most well-known alternative religious movements is also one of its least understood: Scientology. Founded by L. Ron Hubbard, the Church of Scientology is based on his teachings and writings, most notably 1950’s Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health. While many critics claim that the details of Hubbard’s life, especially his intellectual achievements, are bogus, Scientology still boasts a large following. (One such claim is that the Blackfeet Indians taught Hubbard the tribe’s secrets and accepted him as a “blood brother.”43) Scientology has been most successful in the United States, and though the organization has encountered legal troubles here, they have more overseas. Critics and followers both recognize Hubbard’s abilities as a storyteller and writer, and scholars have identified similarities in his earlier science fiction writing and the theology of Scientology. Hubbard’s ideas center on the mind and suffering. During a person’s lifetime, negative experiences imprint upon a person’s mind and form negative memory traces or engrams. These can be removed during auditing, and ideally one wants to reach a level known as “Clear,” meaning clear of all negative memory traces.44 Those who have obtained the status of Clear also can capitalize the full power of their thetan, or spirit. Auditing is overseen by an auditor with the use of an E-meter (or electro-psychometer). With Scientology’s rising popularity during the 1960s and 1970s, Hubbard augmented the parts of Scientology that seemed religious in the more traditional sense, fleshing out the movement’s cosmology, notions of supernatural beings, and aliens.45 Among Americans, Scientology was and still is most popular with the white, upper-middle class.46 Part of this popularity is due to the celebrities who identify with the church, almost all of whom are white. Since 1955, when he founded “Project Celebrity,” the church has actively recruited celebrities, who are often seen at the organization’s Celebrity Centres. The money required to be a member of Scientology also plays a role in recruitment. Auditing sessions are expensive, and on average white Americans occupy a higher socioeconomic status.

No conversation of alternative religious movements and race would be complete without mention of the Peoples Temple. The group, often demonized, frequently serves as a warning about alternative religious movements. Founded in 1955 by Reverend Jim Jones, the Peoples Temple blended ideas from Pentecostalism, Methodism, and, later, socialism. They emphasized racial integration and harmony and viewed socialism as an important corrective to capitalism’s inequalities. In the mid-20th century, these foci made the Peoples Temple attractive to African Americans and sympathetic whites. After the group moved from Indiana to northern California, they grew significantly, their social service programs expanded, and their theology radicalized. God was reimagined as the principle of socialism, and Jones, though he was white, claimed to be the “black messiah.” Jones even tried to appropriate Father Divine’s identity. With his fears of nuclear destruction and increasing criticism from defectors and detractors, Jones moved the group to a farming compound in the jungle of Guyana in the mid-1970s. Jones’s theology and the socialism of Jonestown, as the compound was called, promised true salvation to those America and its normative Christianity defined as “subhuman.” Jones explained, “Whoever made you did not love you. I did not make you, but by damn I will save you.”47 Peoples Temple members understood Jonestown to be a utopia, in contrast to the dystopia that was the United States. While racism, sexism, classism, and ageism ruled in the United States, these destructive forces were supposedly absent in Jonestown. It was here, on November 18, 1978, following the murder of Congressman Leo Ryan, that the group committed mass suicide or mass suicide/murder (depending on one’s perspective). Over nine hundred people, 914 of whom were Peoples Temple members, died from drinking cyanide-laced Flavor-aid and, in a few cases, gunshots.

Before the final night in Jonestown, Jones oversaw a number of what were called “white nights” or practice runs for revolutionary suicide.48 Through revolutionary suicide, Jones sought a superhuman way to avoid what he called a subhuman death. In the audio recording from that November night, Jones’s final words were “We didn’t commit suicide, we committed an act of revolutionary suicide protesting the conditions of an inhuman world.”49 The radical theology of the Peoples Temple, especially its fervent calls for racial harmony and economic equality, appealed to those the United States treated as subhuman; focusing on the types of people attracted to the Peoples Temple assists in unpacking their theology. However, it was the actions of Jim Jones and his followers that led many Americans to associate alternative religious movements, especially those holding radical ideas, racial or otherwise, with danger.

Review of the Literature

Since the academy first started studying these groups in the 1960s, alternative religious movements have gone by many names: cults, emergent religions, outsider movements, fringe communities, new religious movements, and alternative religions.50 Some of these descriptors are loaded terms, which makes sense when one considers the historiography of these movements. Initial interest in these types of religious movements rose in the 1960s as nonnormative Protestant groups grew in popularity.51 Part countercultural, part Eastern immigrant–inspired, many of these movements aroused both fascination and concern from scholars and the public. A number of sociologists and, to a lesser extent, psychologists attempted to explain the appeal of these and other nonnormative Protestant groups. In the 1970s, as studies of alternative religious movements in the United States began to enter the general historiography of American religion, this subdiscipline, much like its subjects, remained on the margins. Following the final “white night” at Jonestown, however, interest in these religious movements grew, both inside and outside the American academy. Research on “cults,” brainwashing, and deprogramming was popularized and printed in accessible publications. Though most academics are highly critical of the literature on brainwashing, many Americans have viewed cults as a problem that needs to be explained.52 Scholars often treated alternative religious movements with criticism, fascination, and/or sympathy, and the subdiscipline grew. The 1988 founding of the Center for the Study of New Religions (CESNUR) was followed up nine years later by the first issue of Nova Religio: The Journal of New and Emergent Religions.

Some research on African American alternative religious movements precedes the historiography’s dominant monographs. Due to the identity politics outsiders associated with groups like the Moorish Science Temple or Father Divine, work on black “cults,” such as Arthur Huff Fauset’s Black Gods of the Metropolis, appears decades before the cult controversy of the 1970s.53 Like the earlier work in alternative religious movements, such as Leon Festinger and colleagues’ When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group That Predicted the Destruction of the World (1956) or Jacob Needleman’s work on alternative spirituality, Fauset and C. Eric Lincoln (who would study the NOI in comparison with the “negro church”) emphasized the sociological functions of alternative religious movements.54 A breakthrough came with R. Laurence Moore’s 1986 text Religious Outsiders and the Making of Americans.55 Moore casted a wide net and analyzed how Mormons, Catholics, Jews, Christian Scientists, millennialists, 20th-century fundamentalists, and adherents of African American Christianity all sought acceptance in American society. Unlike previous scholars who published works on alternative religions, Moore normalized these groups as not fringe but part of the main canon of American religious history. While some of the groups studied were not new religious movements (such as Catholicism or Judaism), Moore’s work reflected a shift in the study of alternative religious movements. Instead of sociologically explaining them away, Moore and many scholars after him emplaced these groups in the American context. Outsiders could say much about America. When David Koresh and the Branch Davidians barricaded themselves in their compound just outside Waco, Texas, in 1993, many Americans assumed another cult suicide was imminent.56 A number of alternative religious movement scholars thought otherwise, and while some scholarship turned almost apologetic, much of it remained on the path Moore had modeled the previous decade.

The 1990s and the 2000s saw a diverse mixture of works that focused on specific alternative religious movements and monographs and encyclopedias that aimed for a broader take on the subdiscipline. Many of these works were attentive to the interplay between the culture surrounding new religious movements and the interplay (the push and pull) between that culture and the movement. Work on the intersections of alternative religious movements and race have become more popular. While much of the scholarship on Native American religions does not situate itself as work on alternative religious movements, books like Gregory Dowd’s A Spirited Resistance (1993) and Gregory Smoak’s Ghost Dances and Identity (2008) illuminate many of the same religious, social, and cultural forces.57 The subfield of African American religions increasingly has taken Curtis Evans’s 2008 call to get beyond the normative framework of black religion as Protestantism.58 The 2013 establishment of the Journal of Africana Religions has furthered complicated the image of the black church by putting African American religious groups in a wider context.

Primary Sources

Primary sources on alternative religious movements are vital to the study of them but rarely can be used in a straightforward fashion. All primary sources require a willingness to read against the grain and with a close eye to cultural context, but perspectives are particularly charged when it comes to alternative religious movements. As William Sims Bainbridge has explained, “Multiple primary sources may merely repeat the group’s official version of the facts and thus not really be independent.”59 Since alternative religious movements often illuminate interesting sites of conflict in American religion, primary sources from insiders, defectors, critics, and “objective” outsiders are all important and required for an in-depth study.

Unfortunately, a primary source reader specifically devoted to race and alternative religious movements has yet to be edited and published, though primary sources about alternative religious movements can be found in a number of documentary readers. William Ashcraft and Dereck Danschke edited a reader in 2005 specifically on new religious movements; it covers a vast array of alternative religious movements.60 John Corrigan and Lynn S. Neal’s 2010 edited volume Religious Intolerance in America: A Documentary History includes two chapters rich with primary sources about 20th-century new religious movements (one general chapter and one specifically on the Branch Davidians).61 Additionally, Milton Sernett’s edited reader African American Religious History: A Documentary Witness contains a grouping of documents on 20th-century alternative movements (such as Father Divine and the NOI).62

There are a small number of archives devoted to new religious movements. One of them is the New Religious Movements Research Collection at Graduate Theological Union. Most of their archival material is from 1955 to 1998 and covers a variety of 20th-century movements. The special collections division at University of California–Santa Barbara also possesses a wide array of archival documents on new religious movements, particularly the David Bromley Papers and the Cult Awareness Network Collection. The former contains a number of legal files involving new religious movements, and the latter includes files on a vast array of groups as well as documents from the former watchdog group. Other archives around the country have collections tied to certain alternative religious movements. The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture holds collections on a number of African American alternative religions, such as the Moorish Science Temple and Father Divine’s Peace Mission Movement. Helpful for the Ghost Dance and other Native American religions are the papers of James Mooney, housed at the National Anthropological Archives. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints holds their massive array of archival documents and artifacts at the official Church History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. Additionally the Joseph Smith Papers offer a vast collection of the personal and religious writings of Mormonism’s founder. Archives of the Theosophical Society can be found across the world, including Wheaton, Illinois, and Point Loma, California.

Some such groups possess their own sacred text; the Book of Mormon or the Moorish Science Temple’s Holy Koran are two examples. Not always, but typically the entirety of these texts are easily accessible. At times secondary sources can double as primary sources, such as James Mooney’s Ghost-dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890 or Arthur Huff Fauset’s Black Gods of the Metropolis.63 Newspaper coverage of alternative religious movements also provide interesting perspectives on them, as do reports on brainwashing, such as Margaret Singer and Janja Lalich’s Cults in Our Midst: The Hidden Menace in Our Everyday Lives and former Unification Movement member Steven Hassan’s Combatting Cult Mind Control.64

The Internet has eased the availability of primary sources on this topic. For example, the files compiled during the FBI’s investigation of the Moorish Science Temple and the NOI provide a wealth of documents on the group, all of which have to be read carefully considering the context surrounding the investigations. The Religious Studies Department at San Diego State University maintains the site “Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple,” which includes a large section of primary sources covering the group’s tenure from Indiana to Guyana. Many alternative religious movements today have their own websites, and these often provide primary sources for analysis, sometimes in the form of member testimonials or videos. For example, on the official website for the Church of Christ, Scientist, there is a section of videos and essays on healing experiences. The website for Heaven’s Gate contains and is itself a primary source.

World Religions & Spirituality Project: Curated by David Bromley at Virginia Commonwealth University, this site includes a number of encyclopedic articles on alternative religious groups.

The Joseph Smith Papers: A digital collection of many of the writings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints founder Joseph Smith.

Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple: A site curated by San Diego State University professor Rebecca Moore that contains primary sources, personal reflections, and scholarly essays on the Peoples Temple.

FBI files on the Moorish Science Temple: The declassified files compiled by the FBI on the Moorish Science Temple.

FBI files on the Nation of Islam: The declassified files compiled by the FBI on the NOI. The files on the 5 Percenters, a group that broke from the NOI.

FBI files on Jonestown: The declassified files compiled by the FBI on the Peoples Temple and the murders and suicides of Jonestown.

A number of alternative religious movements maintain an Internet presence. For example, the webpage for Heaven’s Gate (a small movement who believed that the earth was about to be recycled, so it was important to leave their physical bodies behind and ascend to a spacecraft hidden in the tale of the Hale-Bopp comet) is still as it was in 1997 when the group committed suicide.

Further Reading

Bromley, David G., and Hammond, Phillip E., eds. The Future of New Religious Movements. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1987.Find this resource:

Chryssides, George R., and Zeller, Benjamin E. The Bloomsbury Companion to New Religious Movements. New York: Bloomsbury, 2014.Find this resource:

Gallagher, Eugene. The New Religious Movements Experience in America. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2004.Find this resource:

Gallagher, Eugene, and Ashcraft, W. Michael, eds. Introduction to New and Alternative Religions in America, 5 vols. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2006.Find this resource:

Jenkins, Philip. Mystics and Messiahs: Cults and New Religions in American History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.Find this resource:

Lewis, James R., ed. Cults in America: A Reference Handbook. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 1998.Find this resource:

Lewis, James R., ed. The Oxford Handbook to New Religious Movements. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.Find this resource:

McCloud, Sean. Making the American Religious Fringe: Exotics, Subversives, and Journalists, 1955–1993. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005.Find this resource:

Melton, J. Gordon. Encyclopedic Handbook of Cults in America. New York: Routledge, 2014.Find this resource:

Moore, R. Laurence. Religious Outsiders and the Making of Americans. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.Find this resource:

Stark, Rodney, and William Sims Bainbridge. “Of Churches, Sects, and Cults.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 18 (1979): 117–131.Find this resource:

Siegler, Elijah. New Religious Movements. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2007.Find this resource:


(1.) J. Gordon Melton, “An Introduction to New Religions,” in The Oxford Handbook to New Religious Movements, ed. James R. Lewis (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 17.

(2.) Stephen Stein, “Alternative Religious Movements in American History,” in The Columbia Guide to Religion in American History, eds. Paul Harvey and Edward J. Blum (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012).

(3.) Jon Butler, Awash in a Sea of Faith: Christianizing the American People (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990).

(4.) Molly McGarry, Ghosts of Futures Past: Spiritualism and the Cultural Politics of Nineteenth-Century America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), 66–93.

(5.) Various séance records, as quoted in Emily Suzanne Clark, A Luminous Brotherhood: Afro-Creole Spiritualism in Nineteenth-Century New Orleans (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016), 134.

(6.) Jean McMahon Humez, ed., Gifts of Power: The Writings of Rebecca Jackson, Black Visionary, Shaker Eldress (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1987).

(7.) Matthew J. Grow, “The Modern Mormon Church,” in The Oxford Handbook of Mormonism, eds. Terryl L. Givens and Philip L. Barlow (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), especially 62–66.

(8.) Anthony F. C. Wallace, “Revitalization Movements,” American Anthropologist 58.2 (1956): 265.

(9.) Ibid., 269.

(10.) Gregory Evans Dowd, A Spirited Resistance: The North American Indian Struggle for Unity, 1745–1815 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993); and Joel Martin, Sacred Revolt: The Muskogees’ Struggle for a New World (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993).

(11.) “The Messiah Letter,” as quoted in James Mooney, The Ghost-dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890, extract from the Fourteenth Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1896), 780.

(12.) Mooney, The Ghost-dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890, 1060.

(13.) H. P. Blavatsky, The Key to Theosophy (1889; The Theosophy Trust: ebook, 2006), 214.

(14.) Blavatsky, The Key to Theosophy, 24.

(15.) Scholars of Theosophy are divided on this point. For arguments that Blavatsky was not racist, see James A. Santucci, “The Notion of Race in Theosophy,” Nova Religio: The Journal of New and Emergent Religions 11.3 (2008): 37–63. For others who question this, see John L. Crow, “Lemuria Rising: California in the Place-Making Imagination” (paper presented at the annual meeting of the Southeastern Commission for the Study of Religion, March 4–6, 2012).

(16.) Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine: The Synthesis of Science, Religion, and Philosophy, vol. 2 (Point Loma, CA: Aryan Theosophical Press, 1917), 249.

(17.) Ibid., 168.

(18.) Thomas C. Maroukis, The Peyote Road: Religious Freedom and the Native American Church (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2012).

(19.) Vine Deloria Jr., “Is Religion Possible? An Evaluation of Present Efforts to Revive Traditional Religious Practices,” Wicazo Sa Review 8.1 (1992): 35–39. For another critical view, see the short 1996 documentary film White Shamans and Plastic Medicine Men (1996), directed by Terry Macy and Daniel Hart.

(20.) Clifton E. Marsh, From Black Muslims to Muslims: The Resurrection, Transformation, and Change of the Lost-Found Nation of Islam in America, 1930–1995 (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 1996); and Arthur Huff Fauset, Black Gods of the Metropolis: Negro Religious Cults of the Urban North (1944; Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1970).

(21.) Wentworth Arthur Matthew, “Black Judaism in Harlem,” in African American Religious History: A Documentary Witness, ed. Milton C. Sernett (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999), 475. Also see Jacob Dorman, Chosen People: The Rise of American Black Israelite Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).

(22.) The Holy Koran of the Moorish Science Temple of America (Chicago 1927), chap. XLVIII, verses 1–6.

(23.) Ibid., chap. XLVIII, verse 7.

(24.) Father Divine at Pinebrook Hotel, Pine Brook, NJ, May 20, 1945, quoted on Father Divine’s International Peace Mission Movement webpage. For the story of Father Divine’s miraculous coffee carafe, see R. Marie Griffith, Born Again Bodies: Flesh and Spirit in American Christianity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 144.

(25.) Grace, quoted in Danielle Sigler, “‘Grace Has Given God a Vacation’: The History and the Development of the Theology of the United House of Prayer for All People,” in The New Black Gods: Arthur Huff Fauset and the Study of African American Religions, eds. Edward E. Curtis IV and Danielle Sigler (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2009), 44.

(26.) Marie W. Dallam, Daddy Grace: A Celebrity Preacher and His House of Prayer (New York: New York University Press, 2007); and Sigler, “‘Grace Has Given God a Vacation.’”

(27.) Elijah Muhammad, Message to the Blackman of America (1965; Phoenix, AZ: Secretarius Memps Publications, 1997).

(28.) Muhammad, Message to the Blackman of America, 117, 218, and 231. In this text Muhammad also references the “white race” as “devils” on a number of occasions.

(29.) A female NOI convert, as quoted in Edward E. Curtis IV, Black Muslim Religion in the Nation of Islam, 1960–1975 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009), 27.

(30.) Muhammad, Message to the Blackman of America, 53.

(31.) Mike Wallace (narrator), The Hate That Hate Produced, television documentary, produced by Mike Wallace and Louis Lomax (New York: WNTA-TV, 1959).

(32.) Iman W. D. Muhammad, “Self Government in the New World,” Bialian News, March 19, 1976.

(33.) Robert Wuthnow, After Heaven: Spirituality in America since the 1950s (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998).

(34.) Jane Iwamura, Virtual Orientalism: Asian Religions and American Popular Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

(35.) Peter Williams uses the terminology of import and export religion when discussing the increase in Asian religions in the United States after 1965. Peter Williams, America’s Religions: From Their Origins to the Twenty-first Century (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2015), 473.

(36.) A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, Krsna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead (1970; Alachua, FL: Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1997).

(37.) Travis Vande Berg and Fred Kniss, “ISKCON and Immigrants: The Rise, Decline, and Rise Again of a New Religious Movement,” Sociological Quarterly 49.1 (2008): 79–104.

(38.) Benjamin E. Zeller, “The International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON),” World Religions and Spirituality Project.

(39.) Larry D. Shinn, “Cult Conversions and the Courts: Some Ethical Issues in Academic Expert Testimony,” Sociological Analysis 53.3 (1992): 273–285. The use of the term cult in the article title reflects the era in which it was published.

(40.) David G. Bromley and Anson D. Shupe Jr., “Moonies in America”: Cult, Church, and Crusade (Beverly Hills, CA: SAGE, 1979).

(41.) Kelly J. Baker, Gospel according to the Klan: The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915–1930 (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2011).

(42.) Philip Lamy, Millennium Rage: Survivalists, White Supremacists, and the Doomsday Prophecy (New York: Plenum Press, 1996); Jeffrey Kaplan, Radical Religion in America: Millenarian Movements from the Far Right to the Children of Noah (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1997); and “Anti-Semitic, Christian Identity Believers Surprised at Result of Y2K” Southern Poverty Law Center, March 15, 2000.

(43.) Hugh B. Urban, The Church of Scientology: A History of a New Religion (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011), 31.

(44.) Ibid., 46.

(45.) Ibid.; Hugh B. Urban, “Church of Scientology,” World Religions and Spirituality Project; and Lawrence Wright, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief (New York: Knopf Doubleday, 2013).

(46.) Harriet Whitehead, “Reasonably Fantastic: Some Perspectives on Scientology, Science Fiction, and Occultism,” in Religious Movements in Contemporary America, eds. Irving I. Zaretsky and Mark P. Leone (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1974), 547–588.

(47.) Jim Jones preaching in 1973, as quoted in David Chidester, Salvation and Suicide: Jim Jones, the Peoples Temple, and Jonestown (1988; Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2003), 55.

(48.) Chidester, Salvation and Suicide, 145–146.

(49.) Ibid. 138.

(50.) Judith Weisenfeld encouraged the field to cease worrying about the correct terminology for such groups “in favor of a more flexible set of descriptors.” Judith Weisenfeld, “Whither New Religious Movements?Proceedings: Fourth Biennial Conference on Religion and American Culture, June 4–7, 2015 (Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, 2015), 21.

(51.) While the 1960s might have prompted the interest in alternative religions in the United States, scholars of Japanese religion had been interested in these “new religions” following a wave of post–World War II religious innovation.

(52.) Critical of this view was Jonathan Z. Smith in “The Devil in Mr. Jones,” Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982); and Chidester, Salvation and Suicide.

(53.) Fauset, Black Gods of the Metropolis.

(54.) Leon Festinger, Henry W. Riecken, and Stanley Schachter, When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group That Predicted the Destruction of the World (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1956); Jacob Needleman, The New Religions (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1970); and C. Eric Lincoln, The Black Muslims in America (1961; Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1994).

(55.) R. Laurence Moore, Religious Outsiders and the Making of Americans (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986).

(56.) James D. Tabor and Eugene V. Gallagher, Why Waco? Cults and the Battle for Religious Freedom in America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997); Lawrence Foster, Joel W. Martin, David Chidester, and Nancy T. Ammerman, “Forum: Interpreting Waco,” Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation 8.1 (1998): 1–30; and Dick J. Reavis, The Ashes of Waco: An Investigation (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1998). It is worth mentioning that Reavis dedicated this book to believers in the Ghost Dance movement.

(57.) Dowd, A Spirited Resistance; and Gregory Smoak, Ghost Dances and Identity: Prophetic Religion and American Indian Ethnogenesis in the Nineteenth Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008).

(58.) Curtis Evans, The Burden of Black Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008). Also see Judith Weisenfeld, New World A-Coming: Black Religion and Racial Identity during the Great Migration (New York: New York University Press, 2016).

(59.) William Sims Bainbridge, “New Religious Movements: A Bibliographic Essay,” in Teaching New Religious Movements, ed. David Bromley (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).

(60.) William Ashcraft and Dereck Danschke, New Religious Movements: A Documentary Reader (New York: New York University Press, 2005).

(61.) John Corrigan and Lynn S. Neal, eds. Religious Intolerance in America: A Documentary History (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010).

(62.) Sernett, African American Religious History.

(63.) James Mooney, The Ghost-dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890; and Fauset, Black Gods of the Metropolis.

(64.) Margaret Thaler Singer and Janja Lalich, Cults in Our Midst: The Hidden Menace in Our Everyday Lives (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1996); and Steven Hassan, Combatting Cult Mind Control (Rochester, VT: Park Street Press, 1988).