- Blood from the Sky: Miracles and Politics in the Early American Republic by Adam Jortner
Christine Skolnik, Adam Jortner, Early America, Miracles, Politics, Antebellum, Supernaturalism, Disenchantment, Modernity, Jeffersonian America, Rationalism, First Amendment, American History
In 1775, passionate rebels following charismatic leaders in Lexington and Concord fought in the first battles of a war to oppose arbitrary authority and establish an independent American republic. In 1838, a government within the same republic fought against and brutally defeated an independent Mormon militia, composed of passionate men following charismatic leaders, attempting to overthrow what they perceived as arbitrary authority (183). History is written by the victors, but there is much to be learned from comparing such structurally similar and yet historically distinct events. In some cases and contexts, political values supported by religious beliefs seem rational, while in other cases and contexts, the fusion of religion and politics seems irrational and dangerous. This is obvious in hindsight, and yet it is true, if not a truism, that religious and political cultures are typically blind to their own contemporaneous moral assumptions and cultural prejudices.
Blood from the Sky: Miracles and Politics in the Early American Republic, a history of eccentric religious experiences and organizations in the American republic from 1780 to 1838, is an astute and accessible study of the politics of miracles, and an invaluable reference for scholars interested in the American supernatural. It should also be of interest to scholars in various disciplines focusing on the time period or major subtopics, particularly those working in the history of religions, history of rhetoric, and cultural studies. Jortner's thesis is fairly straightforward: the experience and discourse of the supernatural in the Early American republic was integral to public discourse and prompted political action on the part of religious fanatics and conservative forces alike. Though the book is far more narrative than analytical, its analytical theses are so well supported the book will surely transform our perspective on past as well as present-day conflicts regarding freedom and religion. Among Jortner's most significant findings are the bias against marginal religions when historians read antisupernaturalist reports out of historical context; the common themes and rhetorical strategies of various religious leaders [End Page 302] with very different and sometimes opposing agendas; and the important differences between the rationally conservative attitudes of the Founding Fathers and the supernatural orientation and zeal of present-day Evangelicals.
The first part of the book is a description and analysis of the epistemological, religious, and political climate of the era. In Chapter 1, Jortner traces the intellectual history of the Enlightenment and explains how it influenced popular religious and political discourse. This chapter is important in setting the stage for the kinds of arguments made by eccentric religious leaders and their opponents. Chapter 2 is a compelling and convincing, if not compressive, account of various supernatural practices of the period. Jortner's introduction makes clear that he is focused on external manifestations, rather than mental experiences, and yet the chapter seems encyclopedic, because of the breadth of research and level of detail. In Chapter 3, Jortner develops his analytical thesis, which revolves around the complex relationship between religious and political freedoms. While American democracy is founded on the principle of religious freedom, it can also be undermined if not undone by superstition and religious fanaticism.
The second part of the monograph focuses on the most popular and politically controversial American sects of the period. Jortner's accounts and analyses of Shakers, Native American Prophets, and Latter-day Saints enrich our understanding of these religious movements as well as the sociocultural circumstances that gave rise to and suppressed them. The last chapter of this section focuses on a number of less prominent but equally interesting sects, including the Babcockists, Wilkinsonians, and Cochranites. The inclusion of these sects contributes to Jortner's study by illustrating that Early American readiness and appetite for miracles and miracle workers was fairly commonplace, but also by exploring some of the most eccentric though also, in some ways, forward-looking characteristics...