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Anglo-American Prophecy in the Age of Revolution

By Susan Juster

Publication Year: 2011

The age of revolution, in which kings were dethroned, radical ideals of human equality embraced, and new constitutions written, was also the age of prophecy. Neither an archaic remnant nor a novel practice, prophecy in the eighteenth century was rooted both in the primitive worldview of the Old Testament and in the vibrant intellectual environment of the philosophers and their political allies, the republicans. In Doomsayers: Anglo-American Prophecy in the Age of Revolution, Susan Juster examines the culture of prophecy in Great Britain and the United States from 1765 to 1815 side by side with the intellectual and political transformations that gave the period its historical distinction as the era of enlightened rationalism and democratic revolution.

Although sometimes viewed as madmen or fools, prophets of the 1790s and early 1800s were very much products of a liberal commercial society, even while they registered their disapproval of the values and practices of that society and fought a determined campaign to return Protestant Anglo-America to its biblical moorings. They enjoyed greater visibility than their counterparts of earlier eras, thanks to the creation of a vigorous new public sphere of coffeehouses, newspapers, corresponding societies, voluntary associations, and penny pamphlets. Prophecy was no longer just the art of applying biblical passages to contemporary events; it was now the business of selling both terror and reassurance to eager buyers. Tracking the careers of several hundred men and women in Britain and North America, most of ordinary background, who preached a message of primitive justice that jarred against the cosmopolitan sensibilities of their audiences, Doomsayers explores how prophetic claims were formulated, challenged, tested, advanced, and abandoned. The stories of these doomsayers, whose colorful careers entertained and annoyed readers across the political spectrum, challenge the notion that religious faith and the Enlightenment represented fundamentally alien ways of living in and with the world.

From the debates over religious enthusiasm staged by churchmen and the literati to the earnest offerings of ordinary men and women to speak to and for God, Doomsayers shows that the contest between prophets and their critics for the allegiance of the Anglo-American reading public was part of a broader recalibration of the norms and values of civic discourse in the age of revolution.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press

Series: Early American Studies


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pp. c-ii

Title Page

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p. iii-iii

Copyrights Page

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p. iv-iv

Table of Contents

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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-xii

Prophets are messengers. They listen to frequencies few others can or want to hear, for warning signs-signs that things are not what they seem, that trouble is coming. More often than not, they are lonely figures, their advice ignored and mocked by those who most need it. The "company of prophets" who visited Anglo-America in the war-torn years ofl765-1815 was, I think, particularly good at conveying certain messages, though not always the ...

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pp. 1-20

Noah White was no one's idea of a prophet, not even his own. A simple farmer from Massachusetts, he became an unlikely participant in the wars over religious enthusiasm that consumed as much cultural energy as the more famous constitutional battles of the late eighteenth century. "Since I first thought of prophesying, which was in January 1799;' he explained in his rambling treatise Visionary Thoughts, or, Modern Prophecy, "I have had ...

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1: The Making of a Prophet

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pp. 21-56

In June 1781, the Methodist itinerant Freeborn Garrettson wandered into a small church in Virginia. "I saw a man in the pulpit dressed in black;' he recorded in his diary. As he listened to the man speak, Garrettson became concerned. "I soon perceived he was a man bereft of his reason. I went into the pulpit and desired him to give over." Declaring that he was "a prophet sent by God to teach the people;' the man rebuffed Garrettson's plea ...

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2: Varieties of Prophecy: Fortune-Tellers, Visionists, and Millenarians

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pp. 57-95

We can think of revolutionary-era prophecy as spanning a continuum ranging from simple folk practices to learned exegesis. On the lower end of the spectrum are the cunning people, folk healers, and "second sighted" whose ability to see into and manipulate the future was limited in kind and scope. Their prophetic powers rarely reached beyond the personal and the immediate: unexpected deaths, sudden reversals in fortune, warn ...

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3: Body and Soul: The Epistemology of Revelation

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pp. 96-133

Three decades before the French Prophets made their dramatic entrance upon the British religious scene, a prophetess by the name of Jane Lead joined a small millenarian sect in London. Lead was a new breed of prophet from the fire-eaters of the Civil War era, who, convinced that the world would come to a bloody end in their own lifetime if not by their own hand, spoke with an urgency born of genuine panic. Lead was more a mystic ...

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4: Millenarian Politics: Language and the Public Sphere

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pp. 134-177

Joseph Thomas cut a distinctive figure in the American backcountry, an area swarming with itinerant preachers and folk prophets, in the early 1800s. Known as the "White Pilgrim" for his white robe and monastic demeanor, Thomas traveled a familiar path from itinerant preacher to inspired prophet after an epiphany in 1812. Told that "I should esteem nothing on earth my own ... and that I should deny the present fashion of dress, both ...

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5: A Rogues' Gallery: Richard Brothers and Nimrod Hughes

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pp. 178-215

A number of prophets, admittedly a small minority, were public figures of some renown, men and, less commonly, women who spoke directly to and for a promiscuous audience of skeptics, believers, and agnostics. While revolutionary-era prophets on the whole preferred the safety of the printed page to the perils of live theater, a handful of men and women braved ridicule and worse to offer themselves as living sacrifices to the...

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6: Women of Revelation: Jemima Wilkinson and Joanna Southcott

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pp. 216-259

While Richard Brothers languished in a private asylum and Nimrod Hughes was still a twinkle in the eye of America's neophyte urban press, an unlettered seamstress from England's provincial southwest was beginning her remarkable rise to fame as the revolutionary era's premier prophet. Alone among her peers, Joanna Southcott has been the recipient of serious scholarly as well as popular interest in the nearly two centuries since her death; alone among ...

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pp. 260-272

Looking back in the 1850s over a long and productive career as an itinerant Methodist preacher, Peter Cartwright saw a long chain of enthusiasm and imposture linking the eclectic prophets of the early republic who had so bedeviled him to the organized millenarian movements of antebellum America. The prophets of the 1790s "would even set the very day that ...


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pp. 273-277

E-ISBN-13: 9780812202380
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812219517

Page Count: 288
Publication Year: 2011

Series Title: Early American Studies