The People Who Stir America: BackStory on Revivals and Prophets

By December 21, 2015

The December 11, 2015 episode of the impeccably crafted history podcast BackStory is worth a listen, on the topic of ?American Prophets.? In many ways, it?s a sequel to their ?Born Again? episode on the history of American religious revival back in April, continuing the story of charismatic leaders and religious movements forging transformation and innovation in an intense cultural pressure cooker. In ?American Prophets,? the hosts explore Neolin (Delaware / pan-Indian), William Seymour (Asuza Street, Pentecostalism), Brigham Young (Mormonism), Mary Baker Eddy (Christian Science), L. Ron Hubbard (Scientology) and Elijah Muhammed (Nation of Islam). When added to the earlier episode?s portrayal of the First and Second Great Awakenings, Handsome Lake, Sam Jones, Aimee Semple McPherson, and Billy Graham, we now have a nice two-hour audio documentary on diverse American new religious movements featuring a stellar cast of religious scholars. [1] (And I just might be assigning the pair as early required listening in my senior seminar on American religion come January).

George Mason University religious studies professor John Turner is the featured scholar on the segment about Brigham Young, which focuses on the lead-up to the 1857 Utah war (with a mournful Western-sounding harmonica soundtrack) and interrogates Young?s vision of Utah theodemocracy, in which Young functioned not unlike a big-city political boss. Ultimately, Turner argues in the segment that the forging of a self-sufficient Mormon peoplehood proved far more enduring than Young?s relatively short-lived experiment in fusing church and state.

By the way, another scholar with a connection to Mormonism in the same episode is David Holland (Harvard Divinity School), speaking about Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy from his forthcoming book on female religious authority. I was struck by his description of the shift from 19th century women-centered folk healing practices to a male professional realm in the early 20th century:

With the professionalization of medicine, folk healing practices that had traditionally been the domain of women were increasingly moving into the hands of men, to the exclusion of women. Christian Science returned the healing power to women and so religious authority—which is based on the capacity to heal—is not gendered specifically, but in fact transcends gender.

Of course Holland isn?t explicitly talking about Mormonism here, but rather about the dialogue between general American culture and Christian Science. Nonetheless I detect a possible Mormon history connection (perhaps even subtext?) in that the tide of Mormon women?s folk-but-religiously-sanctioned healing practices also flowed away in the precise same time period that he discusses, accompanied by the consolidation of male religious authority that paralleled the broader cultural rise of an institutionalized medical (and educational, and business, and political) professional and managerial class. This is a powerful backstory (if you will) in 20th century American religion which is evident in multiple faiths including Mormonism, as woven into the larger story of intersecting gender and power in American religious history. The episode’s other themes also resonate across many religious traditions and eras, including resistance and armed insurgency, social mobility and migration, economic and psychological dislocation, and American striving toward perfectability. Together these episodes are a lively reminder of new(-ish) religious movements’ deep taproots into America’s particularly fertile soil.

[1] Full disclosure: I had the pleasure of contributing to the April episode segment on Aimee Semple McPherson?s media empire, which I hope doesn’t diminish the “stellar” characterization too much.

Article filed under Comparative Mormon Studies Cultural History Gender Scholarly Inquiry Women's History


  1. I always enjoy Backstory episodes (and I regularly assigned them for extra credit in my classes). This was rather well done, as was the April episode!

    Comment by Saskia — December 21, 2015 @ 9:29 am

  2. Thanks Tona – I also found David Holland’s comments on women, health and healing to be thought-provoking vis a vis Mormon women and healing practices. The lecture that he gave at the Mary Baker Eddy library entitled “Hester Prynne, Mary Baker Eddy, and Women of Revelation in American History” is also a really useful launching point for thinking about Mormon women.

    Comment by Kris — December 21, 2015 @ 9:44 am

  3. That bit from Holland is fascinating, and as Kris points out could be said, I think, about Mormonism for a while. I’ll be looking forward to his book project. Are you aware of the title/release date?

    Comment by J. Stapley — December 21, 2015 @ 4:44 pm

  4. ^ No, not yet.

    Comment by Tona H — December 26, 2015 @ 6:42 am

  5. Thanks for the heads up Tona H.

    Comment by WVS — December 27, 2015 @ 12:20 am


Recent Comments

wvs on News from the Mormon: “Congrats to Chris Blythe!”

David G. on Book Review: Colvin and: “Thanks, Charlotte!”

J Stuart on Book Review: Colvin and: “Can't wait to read the rest of the review in JMH. Thanks, Charlotte!”

Ben S on MHA 2020 Networking Materials: “Thanks for this.”

Th. on Book Review: Jake Johnson,: “. Just commenting on your first paragraph: Egad.”

Steve Fleming on A note on the: “No but haven't really looked.”