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Liberty and Lunacy

Reissue of 85-year-old book reminds of America’s history of cultish ideas

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An illustration of the logic of some communes from the 1st edition


When preacher Jonathan Edwards took the podium at a church in Enfield, Conn., on July 8, 1741, he wasn’t trying to ignite American evangelism. But that’s just what happened, according to Gilbert Seldes in his provocative journey through 19th century America, The Stammering Century, first published in 1928 and recently reissued by the New York Review of Books. Ten years earlier, Edwards had warned Boston that God created man without sin, but that salvation was granted by God only through his arbitrary grace. It was an early shot in the revivalism of the First Great Awakening, and by the time Edwards addressed the Enfield congregation with what has come to be known as the “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” sermon, he had formed 10 ideas to consider in order to get into God’s good graces, reminding believers that “[t]he manifold and continual Experience of the World in all Ages, shews that this is no Evidence that a Man is not on the very Brink of Eternity, and that the next Step won’t be into another World.”

Stammering zeroes in on the argumentative logic of his ideas in its opening chapter: Salvation is not guaranteed, it has to be earned; hell awaits all who don’t. Anybody who grew up in the Bible Belt or a stone’s throw from an Evangelical church recognizes the seductive rhetoric of this message but, to Seldes, it’s the persuasiveness of Edwards’ causal potency that’s infectious—the chasm separating the situation of life as it is observed and the idealized vision of the way it could be. Seldes uses this idea to frame his book, arguing that Edwards’ methodology was “responsible not only for the normal development of religious theory, but for nearly every deluded Messiah, every strange cult and, indirectly, for a hundred political experiments, fads, pseudo-scientific social crazes, and movements.”

Seldes, born in 1893 in a utopian farm community in New Jersey, is a writer to whom many of us are indebted. His 1924 book, The Seven Lively Arts, treated jazz, vaudeville, comic strips, and other popular entertainments with the same seriousness afforded to ostensibly highbrow art. It’s a book that puts Krazy Kat creator George Herriman and Buster Keaton on the same level as Pablo Picasso, an intellectual calibration that frames a wealth of 20th century American discourse.

In Stammering, Seldes turns mostly to figures of political and religious reform efforts in the 19th century, but the book is less a linear history than an ethnography of the American mind. Exhaustively researched, Stammering evocatively and nimbly writes about the aforementioned Edwards; Oneida community founder John Humphrey Noyes; the proto-occultist-qua-spiritualist Fox sisters, the “spirit rappers” of Rochester; temperance radical Carrie Nation, who attacked saloons with an ax; and Robert Matthias, the cult leader who took men’s wives as his own and lived decadently on their dime in 1830s New York before turning to murder to protect his self-created kingdom; and other ostensible eccentrics of the 1800s.

It’s a fascinating read, a detailed immersion in the old, weird America that Greil Marcus, who wrote the preface to this new edition, has so frequently alluded to when talking about pre-commercialized music. Marcus frames Stammering as a reminder that being American is equal parts founding-fathers’ self-evident truths and fringe-group irrationality, a democratic dream that all men are created equal and the individualist desire that some men might be more equal than others.

While there are many 20th century exceptions—Raëlism, Japan’s Aum Shinrikyo and Pana-Wave Laboratory, Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church, Uganda’s Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God—America seems to be especially fertile cult soil. And you don’t have to have an unhealthy fascination with so-called “cults” to rattle off American-made splinter groups/utopian movements who promise something that conventional religion and/or the democracy experiment do not: the Church of Scientology, Heaven’s Gate, the Manson Family, Branch Davidians, Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple, the Family International (formerly the Children of God, who once practiced “flirty fishing,” proselytizing through sex), Warren Jeffs’ activity in the Mormon sect Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the black separatist Nation of Yahweh, Gene Spriggs’ Twelve Tribes—and on and on and on.

Yes, that the United States is one of the largest countries in the world by land mass and population may certainly suggest a higher probability that more of anything is going to happen here; and being a U.S. citizen means we hear about domestic affairs more. But drawing a line from the colorful historical figures Seldes assays in Stammering, continuing through to the cult leaders and members mentioned above, the book creates a graph that makes room for today’s relatively moderate extremists of the left and right, be they evolution deniers and Tea Party members or food-reform radicals and climate-change warriors. It’s easier to ghettoize the ideological Other as irrational aberrations—people who just don’t see or understand an empirical truth—than it is see your opposition joined to you by the culture that you share. And some 80 years after its publication, Stammering’s thesis feels more presciently uncomfortable: that the irrational and the utopian might go hand in hand in the American mind, suggesting that where we live, the self-proclaimed greatest country on earth, constantly bounces between liberty and lunacy.

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