- Blood from the Sky: Miracles and Politics in the Early American Republic by Adam Jortner
Miracles, Supernatural, Common Sense philosophy, Empiricism
David D. Hall’s seminal work, Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgement, demonstrated how thoroughly enchanted was the world that the New England Puritans inhabited.1 In this provocative and beautifully written book, Adam Jortner convincingly argues that the age “of miracles and wonders” declined, but did not end, when the Puritans became Yankees (x).
The early republic was replete with encounters with the supernatural: visions of angels and gods, mystical conversions, healings, tongues speaking, exorcisms, and other heteroclites. Blood rained from the sky above Ohio in 1804, not far from the site of the famed Cane Ridge revivals (1). Enlightenment principles of epistemology changed the nature of religious experience in America—moving it from the exterior to the interior. Republicanism followed suit. “A republican people needed to ground their choices on reason,” writes Jortner, “anyone who could not base decisions on that ground was dangerous” (14). So, while encounters with the supernatural became rarer, this scarcity “may have made the supernatural more significant in the early republic” (9). As a result, the relatively exceptional moments when the miraculous broke into the historical plane meant that such events were even more disruptive to both religion and politics in Jeffersonian America. “Miracles-mongers,” as Jortner calls them, enjoyed such authority that they were [End Page 359] able to establish “their own towns and polities,” from which they waged violent defenses of their claims to the supernatural. But when “such supernaturalism threatened republicanism, the republicans needed to get rid of it” (16).
Blood from the Sky is divided into two parts. The first chapter of part one examines the rise of Scottish Common Sense philosophy in the Anglo American world, specifically after the American Revolution. Ironically, this increased faith in empiricism meant that eyewitness testimonies of miracles and apparitions buttressed belief in, and the authority derived from, the supernatural. Next follows a chapter that seeks to rebuild the world of magic, miracles, and witchcraft of the early American republic, and seeks to show how the supernatural was organized and policed. A third chapter pits supernaturalism against anti-supernaturalism, “a well-articulated body of thought,” Jortner writes, that understood that belief in the supernatural begot barbarism, which begot tyranny, and thus was the enemy of civilization and liberty (68–69).
The second part of the book examines three cases for which belief in, and encounters with, the supernatural were central to religious identities and practices. Jortner describes the Shakers’ claim that a returned Christ’s spirit dwelled in and revealed itself through Ann Lee. According to the Shakers, the Dark Day of 1780 signaled the inauguration of this new dispensation of Christ, after which Lee and her followers traversed New England performing supernatural acts. For Lee and for the generation of Shakers who followed her, miracles were evidence of the truth of their movement. For anti-Shakers, supernatural claims not only were signs of religious heresy but also signaled that the Shakers threatened the (reason-based) republican order. As such, mobs and laws targeting Shakers were justified defenses of the emerging American republic. Jortner next looks at Native American prophets, including Neolin and Tenskwatawa, about whom Jortner has written so powerfully before.2 Jortner argues that it was Tenskwatawa’s ability to bring forth (or prophesy) an eclipse that solidified his authority over the pan-tribal “Prophetstown” community that he would build in western Ohio, from which “nativist” Indians resisted Anglo American geographical encroachment and cultural and political hegemony. When William Henry Harrison failed to [End Page 360] undermine the prophet with rhetoric, the future president launched military campaigns against Tenskwatawa, which eventually led to the death of the prophet’s brother Tecumseh and the destruction of Prophetstown. Jortner’s final major case study is of Joseph Smith, Jr.’s early Latter-day Saints, the largest and most successful movement of “miracle-mongers.” The Mormons’ success was...