Review: Adam Jortner, Blood From the Sky

Adam Jortner, Blood from the Sky: Miracles and Politics in the Early American Republic (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2017).

JortnerThe role of religion in the early republic has received a fair amount of attention in the recent decades. And though there are competing narratives concerning how ministers and denominations took advantage of the post-revolutionary era—the “Hatchites” arguing that they embraced the democratization and empowered the common man, while the “Butlerites” and “Porterfieldites” emphasizing how leaders capitalized on the fear of  a chaotic society—there has been a general point of agreement: religion and politics now took place within a secularized sphere. Expectations of democratic governance led religionists to frame their arguments in a way to match the new republican age. Politics drove religious belief and practice, and not the other way around.

But Adam Jortner’s new book argues that such a narrative overlooks the supernatural arena of the period. “There was a world of miracles and wonders in the early republic,” he explains, “perhaps not as wide as among the Puritans, but far broader and more intense then historians had previously imagined, and those miracles were caught up in the ideas about fact, knowledge, Liberty, and masculinity.” The “enlightenment,” however one defines it, did not obliterate miracles; on the contrary, it only made them more important. Jortner’s history is a series of case studies where the realms of natural and supernatural converge. In Jeffersonian and Jacksonian America, the boundaries of rational and irrationality were constantly tested. Blood From the Sky is a reclamation project to prove the centrality of miracles to early American culture and politics. “It was not a world of wonders, but it was a world that wondered about wonders, and that wondering was pasted onto the theological and political crises that shuck American religious structures as miracles emerged again and again in the new republic” (9). Understanding these points of conflict, Blood From the Sky argues, tells us a lot about the first few decades of America’s founding political culture.

The book is broken up into two parts, each with several chapters. The first part is organized thematically in order to give a broad view of these developments. Chapter One is a sprawling account of miracles over the last five millennia. Supernatural interventions didn’t disappear after the rise of enlightenment principles, but they were instead rationalized. Americans were interested in facts, and miracles were therefore seen as factual. Further, the government had a role in determining when these miracles disrupted society. “The battle over miracles was not going to be just a struggle over souls but a struggle over the nature of the state” (39). The second chapter discusses how miracles were governed in the early republic, and raises important questions: Was democracy equipped, for instance, to judge witch trials? How far could the state get involved in delineating between these supernatural episodes? Jortner traces the persistence of sigils and dream books, as well as witchcraft and treasure seeking, long after we assume they died. Even in the era of Jefferson, Americans tried to mesh republicanism with old (and often discarded) laws concerning magic. And finally, Chapter Three traces the “politics of the supernatural,” an increasingly prominent republican ideology that believed supernaturalism was connected to tyranny.

Jortner draws from a host of sources for this exceptionally large narrative. The dangers and potential of magic were not only outlined in sermons and political orations, but also literary novels and theater performances. Ideas of supernaturalism permeated the culture, as citizens wrestled with its role (or lack thereof) in a republic. “The question of interpreting marvels and performing fantastic things,” he argues, “was, therefore, intimately connected with the challenges of the republican experiment” (87). As a result, Jortner’s analysis can be quite broad and stretched at times. There are moments of brilliance, especially when Jortner connects America’s history to European historiography, but it could also be strained. The book, I believe, is at its best when focusing on individual stories.

The second part of the book, which includes four chapters, does exactly that. This section focuses on four groups: the Shakers, the Mormons, Native Americans, and the “would-be sects.” The Shakers retained a constant commitment to miracles throughout the early republic. Their belief in supernaturalism also shaped how others viewed them. Importantly, critics cast them as a political threats, conjoining their belief in miracles with tyranny. Shakers were seen as a despotic government. But they were not alone. Nativist prophets also proved their authority through miracles. Neolin, Handsome Lake, and Kenekuk all based their arguments on a supernaturalism tethered to the land. They also claimed control over these actions. After a solar eclipse justified Tenskwatawa’s leadership, he enacted his own witch hunt among his tribes. Early Mormonism, of course, was similarly rife with miracles, and “the public critique of Mormonism was connected to the antisupernaturalist thesis” (141). Jortner’s final chapter focuses on a number of short-lived sects from the era who had similar origins as Mormonism but lacked the longevity. Though this grouping never forged as coherent a narrative as the preceding chapters, their presence in the book adds to the pervasiveness of the cultural anxiety.

Blood From the Sky says as much about democratic politics as it does about the religious imagination. There is an irony in the book’s title. While “Blood From the Sky” refers to a particular account of a miracle, it also hints to a consistent tension that permeates the overall story: violence. Shakers, Native prophets, and Mormons all posed such a threat they they could only be vanquished by force. Their trials tested the limits of republican stability. The Shakers were raided, the Mormons kicked out, and Natives conquered. Blood didn’t come from the sky, but rather from fellow citizens. When confronted with miraculous claims that seemed to fall outside republican discourse, democracy appeared to fail and extralegal justice was the only measure for relief.

If the “would-be sects” of Jortner’s final chapter proved a disparate bunch, so does Jortner’s “religious mainstream” that presented an “antisupernaturalist thesis.” In highlighting the conflicts between miracle seekers and their discontents, Jortner is quick to downplay the providentialism that played a significant role in mainstream political thought. I fully embrace his point about the contested space of miracles in the early republic, but I almost wish he had taken it further: that those Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians who rejected the Mormons, Shakers, Native prophets, and other sects did so not because they were so dissimilar, but because they were too close for comfort. That is, I think Jortner could have argued early American political culture to be even more miraculous.

One of the things I loved about this book is the implicit argument that religious belief mattered. People were sincere when they claimed they saw heavenly angels, communed with spirits, and drew from the supernatural. “At some level,” Jortner explains, “we must believe that our subjects meant what they said” (5). He takes aim at what he calls the “realist predilection” that looks for ulterior motives. By deciding whether these miracles actually existed, we are leaving history behind and entering theology: letting our understanding of an invisible world dictate our interpretation. In Jortner’s tale, the more important task is to explain what these miracles meant to those who experienced them and listened to them.

Another implicit argument that I found significant had to do with race. Jortner’s broad cast of characters included white Mormons, Native prophets, and black agitators. Boundaries of rationality transcended demographic background and hints to the porous parameters between traditionally segregated groups. Religious and political histories can do a better job at choosing themes that better integrate a vast array of individuals into their narratives.

Blood From the Sky is a model monograph. Its chapters are short, the prose is impeccable, and the characters are memorable. I think it would work wonderfully in the classroom, either as individual chapters or as the entire book. Jortner has an eye for catchy quotes, biting irony, and enduring phrases. Historians of early American religion and politics would be wise to integrate its conclusions into their teaching and research.

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