In Blood from the Sky, Adam Jortner presents a valuable exploration of the supernatural during the United States’ opening decades. In the words of its author, the volume concerns “miracles, wonders, and other supernatural events in the early republic: what people believed, how they discussed, debated, and shared those beliefs, and most importantly, what they did about them as a result” (2). More precisely, the book examines how belief (and disbelief) in the occult intersected with epistemology, religion, and politics. Jortner argues that belief in the supernatural was alive and well in post-independence America. He contends that the intellectual and political atmosphere of the early United States provided fertile ground for supernaturalism. Moreover, the author asserts that debates over the supernatural “helped create the political, ideological, and religious world of the Age of Jefferson” (1). The book is both an intellectual and cultural history strongly anchored in the historiography of politics and religion in the early republic. In keeping with its scope, the study draws upon a broad range of contemporary sources, including philosophical treatises, private correspondence, published works, novels, and plays. Following Stuart Clark, Jortner takes an “antirealist approach” (3) to his subject. He eschews the notion that supernatural beliefs are a mere adjunct to rational social, economic, and political forces and that it is the scholar’s job to simply cut away the distracting tangle of the occult in order to get at the real dynamics of change. Rather, the author sidesteps the issue of whether or not beliefs are true or false and embraces the idea that drawing meaning from the supernatural involves analyzing it on its own terms to see what it can tell us about the outlook of those who believed (and disbelieved) in the miraculous. Jortner’s analysis has its limits, and the author clearly indicates that he does not explore every sort of phenomenon that fits under the rubric of the supernatural, but only those that he describes as the “physical supernatural” (xi): miraculous events that were observable in and had an impact on the real world. After an introduction that lays out the author’s thesis and theoretical orientation, the three chapters that comprise the book’s first part present key features of Jortner’s argument. The first considers the intellectual foundations of supernaturalism by examining how Americans’ embrace of Scottish Common Sense philosophy and British probabilism opened the door to a sort of supernatural revival in the turn-of-the-century United States. Specifically, a growing trust in “facts” established by the experience of credible witnesses created an environment where a belief in miracles and other supernatural activities could take root (28). Chapter 2 catalogues the various forms that the supernatural took in the early republic, while the third chapter presents the crux of Jortner’s argument: how the supernatural became the focus of important political debates about the relationship between reason, religion, and the survival of the republic. The four chapters that form the book’s second part follow up with a series of case studies that put into motion the ideas outlined in its first. Each centers on different spiritual movements—such as the Shakers, Native American revitalization religions, and the Mormons—that embraced supernaturalism. Through these discussions, Jortner illustrates the impact of the supernatural in the early United States and how each of the religions became caught up (and sometimes destroyed) by the debate over the role and risks of occult belief in a republic. While these chapters present stories well known to students of religion in the early republic, Jortner is able to present fresh insights by examining them through the lens of supernaturalism. In addition, he emphasizes that instead of being seen as separate, the stories of these sects need to be understood within a common context of the politics of the supernatural. Blood from the Sky represents a significant contribution to our understanding of the supernatural and its relationship to religion and politics in the early United States. The book is clearly written and argued, and these traits as well as its short length make it well suited to classroom use. Though not a comprehensive study, Jortner meets his objective of initiating an important discussion in the field of the early American republic. Out of the book’s two parts, the first is the more powerful, while the second is somewhat repetitious, as the author basically reiterates the same argument. The organization of the second part may also not be best suited to advancing the author’s point of view. While Jortner contends that we should not consider the religious movements of the early republic in isolation from one another, his decision to segregate them into different chapters works against this outlook. Perhaps the author’s perspective would have been better served by thematic chapters built around the various issues that these movements illustrate. However, this problem does not significantly detract from Jortner’s considerable accomplishments. Blood from the Sky is a thoughtful study of an important topic and certainly merits the attention of anyone interested in religion, politics, or the occult in the new nation. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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