The Emergence of Religious
Cults and Movements
IF AMERICAN RELIGION EXHIBITED ANY COMMON CHARACTERISTIC DURING that delightfully naive though turbulent era which preceded the Civil War, it was that it refused to be average. Every man aspired to be a nonconformist, and in no area did his hope bear more evidence of fruition than in religion. Truth seemed always contiguous, available to anyone who would reach out and grasp it. That it should have presented itself in variant and conflicting forms was troublesome only to rationalists, and the Age of Reason was dead. What most Americans craved was truth, in whatever form, that could warm the heart, fire the imagination, and point the way toward a life of bliss, whether in heaven or on earth. Where restlessness and dissatisfaction with the status quo were most pronounced there was most often a tendency to become identified with indigenous cults and movements which sprang up in fertile soil and offered escape from the stark realities of the work-a-day world to a dream land of perfection. This tendency was magnified by the rising tension over slavery, states rights, and nativism, which gripped the country during the three decades of unrest and upheaval antecedent to sanguinary war.