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When the Messiah Came to America, She Was a Woman

Chris Jennings | Random House | February 25, 2016 | 7,852 words
Posted inBooks, Featured, Nonfiction, Story

When the Messiah Came to America, She Was a Woman

On the rise and fall of American utopia.
Robert Owen's vision of New Harmony, Indiana. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Chris Jennings | Paradise Now: The Story of American Utopianism | Random House | January 2016 | 29 minutes (7,852 words)

Below is an excerpt from Paradise Now, Chris Jennings’ look at the history of the golden age of American utopianism, as recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky. 

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A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not even worth glancing at. . . .


Mistaking day for night, they took wing.

At noon, darkness spread across the sky. It was the nineteenth of May 1780, a Friday. On the rolling pastureland of western New England, sheep and cows lay down one by one in the damp grass. As the darkness became total, finches and warblers quieted and returned to their roosts. Above the white pines and budding oaks, bats stirred. Mistaking day for night, they took wing.

The fratricidal war for American independence was grinding into its fifth year. A week earlier, the Continental army had surrendered the smoldering port of Charleston to the British navy after more than a month of heavy shelling. In New England, with so many young men off fighting, gardens went unplanted and the wheat grew thin.

For many colonists the war with Great Britain aroused a stolid nationalist piety, a consoling faith in “the sacred cause of liberty”—the belief that providence would guide the rebels to victory and that the fighting itself constituted an appeal to heaven. But in the hilly borderland between New York and Massachusetts, the anxiety and austerity of the long conflict inspired frenzied revival meetings. This was the New Light Stir, an aftershock of the Great Awakening of radical Protestantism that had coursed through New England in the 1740s. From makeshift pulpits, the New Light evangelists shouted an urgent millenarian message: These are the Latter Days; the Kingdom is at hand.

Standing at the crack of American independence, these backwoods Yankees believed that they were living the final hours of history. It is written: He will come back and the righteous will be delivered from sin for a thousand years of earthly peace and happiness. The New Lights believed that the time had come and that their small revivals, held in fields and cowsheds, would trigger the return of Christ and the millennium of heaven on earth. Looking up from their plows and their milking stools, these hill-country farmers scanned the horizon for signs of His approach.

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