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Critique of Anthropology

Mystics against the Market : American religions and the autocritique of

Lars Rodseth and Jennifer Olsen
Critique of Anthropology 2000 20: 265
DOI: 10.1177/0308275X0002000303

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Mystics against the Market

American religions and the autocritique of

Lars Rodseth and Jennifer Olsen

Department of Anthropology, University of Utah, USA

Abstract  This article asks what might be learned about Western cosmology by
focusing on religious traditions that originated in the United States and have
developed outside the mainstream of Christianity. Mormonism and other Ameri-
can religions, we argue, carry a hidden repertoire of mystical and communal
themes that directly conflict with the Western market mentality as often
described in the anthropological literature. These religions, furthermore, have
surprising affinities with mystical and communal traditions outside the West,
affinities that are fully revealed, ironically enough, only in the context of Ameri-
can cultural expansion in the non-Western world.
Keywords  capitalism  communalism  cosmology  frontier  Mormonism 

To understand better the local peoples entering (or resisting) modernity,

anthropology must surely try to deepen its understanding of the West as
something more than a threadbare ideology. (Asad, 1993: 23)

Among the first local peoples to enter (or resist) modernity were West-
erners themselves. This historical fact must be taken into account if anthro-
pology is indeed to deepen its understanding of the West. Too often,
however, our own tradition remains but a threadbare ideology in the
anthropologists hands. Individualism, rationalism, utilitarianism, con-
sumerism these and a few other market-friendly syndromes are offered
again and again as the core values that distinguish the West from other
civilizations. What else there might be to the Western tradition, including
some legacy of resistance to the market and its mind-set, has received sur-
prisingly little attention from anthropologists.1
At the same time, a number of anthropologists have converged upon
this neo-Weberian thesis: before the Industrial Revolution, before even
Newton or Descartes, there was something about Christianity that gave the
Western mind a prototypically modern cast (Asad, 1993: 123; Dumont,
1986: 27ff; Hefner, 1993; Paul, 1998; Sahlins, 1996; Schneider, 1990). The
wellsprings of Western ideology, according to this view, must be sought in
Vol 20(3) 265288 [0308-275X(200009)20:3; 265288;013842]
Copyright 2000 SAGE Publications
(London, Thousand Oaks, CA and New Delhi)

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Critique of Anthropology 20(3)

cosmological traditions of la longue dure. Thus the religious genealogy of

the West, reaching back in some versions to the Fathers of the early Church
(Dumont, 1986; Sahlins, 1996), has become a major focus of anthropo-
logical interest.
In thus bringing anthropology to bear upon some perennial concerns
of Western intellectual history, the recent research of Asad, Dumont,
Sahlins and others is clearly of immense importance. What is surprising,
however, is the way this research has tended to sharpen our focus on the
ideological mainstream as it flowed through European cities, to the
neglect of alternative or fringe traditions such as those of rural Europe
or colonial America. Dumont, for example, describes his Essays on Indi-
vidualism (1986: 267) as an attempt to lay bare a general configuration that
underlies the common way of thinking in modern (as opposed to tra-
ditional or holistic) society. He goes on to make clear that:
. . . if one speaks of modernity in a merely chronological sense, then it is found
to contain, not only on the level of social practice, but even on that of ideology
itself, much more than the individualistic configuration which characterizes it
comparatively. (1986: 268)

Similarly, Sahlins (1996: 3956) admits to the relative neglect of variant

and conflicting positions in an effort to identify some common average
mainstream Judeo-Christian ideas basic elements of the would-be
authoritative discourse.
Yet such an approach raises important (and familiar) questions about
how a culture is to be defined and what the costs might be to identifying
an entire tradition with some set of characteristic or mainstream or
authoritative ideas within that tradition (Rodseth, 1998; cf. Asad, 1993:
18). Having deconstructed so much of the Orientalist imagery produced
by earlier generations of anthropologists, those who turn now to the analy-
sis of their own civilization must resist the temptation to construct simi-
larly broad, if Occidentalist, imagery. Following not only Gramsci or
Bakhtin but our own ethnographic sensibilities, we know that liminal or
subaltern groups are capable of sounding a systematic counterpoint to the
mainstream of communication (Wolf, 1982: 390) a counterpoint that
may provoke a response within the prevailing order (cf. Williams, 1977:
117). The mainstream itself may be difficult to comprehend, in fact,
without some understanding of alternative and competing ideologies. This
is not only because authoritative discourse is commonly constructed in reac-
tion to existing alternatives, but because such discourse often carries within
itself masked or recessive cultural traits that become apparent only when
they are seized upon and elaborated by groups outside the mainstream (cf.
Dumont, 1986: 17). To neglect the voices of such groups, even when they
reside within the West, seems a strangely un-anthropological enterprise
and one that is likely to rob us of important insights into what any cultural
tradition is and how it came to be that way.

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Rodseth and Olsen: Mystics against the Market

Accordingly, this article asks what we might learn about Western cos-
mology by focusing not on Pauline, Augustinian or Calvinist sources but
on American religions, grown up in the 19th century, which continue to
diverge, often radically, from mainstream Christianity (Bloom, 1992, 1996).
While Mormonism is the example to be considered here in detail, our
general argument sheds light on a wide range of American philosophies
and faiths, from Emersons Transcendentalism to Southern Baptism and
Pentecostalism. The thrust of our argument is that these distinctly Ameri-
can traditions have a hidden repertoire of mystical and communal themes
that directly conflict with Western cosmology as described, for example,
by Sahlins (1994: 43940, 1996). The West, according to Sahlins, finds its
ideological origins in the Augustinian notion of human finitude the
nature of man as an imperfect creature of lack and need (1996: 397). The
Western self, deprived and depraved, is thus separated by an infinite dis-
tance from an infinite God. Homo economicus and other modern concepts
of the actor are traced by Sahlins back to the dogma of finitude and absol-
ute separation from God. Yet this is precisely the dogma that American religions,
especially in their 19th-century beginnings, have tended to repudiate. Even now, we
argue, Mormonism and other American religions have surprising affinities
with mystical and communal traditions outside the West, affinities that are
fully revealed, ironically enough, only in the context of American cultural
expansion in the non-Western world.2

Two tiers for the spirits

If absolute separation of the self from God is to form the core of any cos-
mology, that cosmology would seem to require a rather strict monotheism
to eliminate the problem of multiple divinities or spirits that might fill the
breach, as it were, between humans and the supreme being. In its official
manifestations, of course, Christianity would seem to embody just such a
strict monotheism. To leave it at that, however, would not only mistake the
whole of the Christian tradition for its official manifestations, but would
ignore the fact that even official Christianity recognizes spiritual beings or
personified powers that do indeed help to fill the gap between humans and
God. As Horton (1982: 213) argues:
. . . both Islam and Christianity allow for a multiplicity of lesser spiritual
agencies operating under the aegis of the supreme being, whilst most if not all
indigenous cosmologies allow for the same combination. Hence the conflict
between the traditional religions and the so-called world religions is not so
much a conflict between radically different world-views as a conflict over what
to worship and what to eschew within a single pantheon.
If the lesser spirits, then, find greater emphasis and elaboration in
traditional religions, they are seldom eliminated even from the most
monotheistic cosmologies, which usually acknowledge, with some

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Critique of Anthropology 20(3)

ambivalence, the semi-divine status of angels and saints and the preternat-
ural powers of demons, witches and ghosts.3 Such lesser spirits, further-
more, are often of central importance in the religious practices of the laity,
if not the official hierarchy, in many Christian denominations. Angels and
saints, in particular, serve not merely as external media for communication
with the divine, but as manifestations of the divine within the believers per-
sonal experience and spiritual consciousness (e.g. Bloom, 1996; Knox,
1994). In this light, the separation of the self from God seems less than
absolute within Christian cosmology. The idea of absolute separation may
be important within certain prominent Christian traditions, yet this does
not imply that Christianity or Western cosmology in general can be defined
by this idea. The challenge thus posed to Sahlins (1996) should be clear
Beyond this, when Christianitys full pantheon is recognized and taken
seriously, Christian encounters with traditional religions are cast in a new
light. Bearing the marks of its long history as a traditional religion, Chris-
tianity in this light seems much freer to accept and perhaps to incorporate
many of the animistic beliefs of indigenous peoples. Yet this hardly fits our
usual expectations. Even Horton, who stresses the role of the lesser spirits
in both Christianity and Islam, tends to see these monotheistic faiths as
catalysts for change within indigenous religions, but not vice versa. Thus he
emphasizes the potential for Western and African religions to be reconciled
in monolatry, the worship of one deity among the others of the pantheon:
Indeed, it would seem that missionaries all over Africa have usually striven
to discover the name of the indigenous supreme being, and, where suc-
cessful, have gone on to tell the people of his true nature (Horton, 1971:
100). From this perspective, African conversion to Christianity involves not
the overthrow of the indigenous pantheon but a reinterpretation and an
elaboration of an element within that pantheon the indigenous idea of a
supreme being. At the same time, Horton tends to retain the assumption
that cultural influences are flowing in one direction only. If Western and
traditional religions are to mingle and combine, they seem always to do so
within the traditional culture and on terms favorable to the supreme being.
Yet there is a second front along which Western and traditional re-
ligions might combine, a front that Horton recognizes but does not explore
the meeting ground of the lesser spirits. Because many Westerners are
inclined to downplay or dismiss the lesser spirits included within their own
cosmological traditions, they may fail to appreciate the potential at this level
for reconciliation with traditional (non-Western) beliefs. Among Africans,
however, this potential is clear: African converts to Christianity, according
to Horton (1971: 105), have a striking tendency to seek spiritual guidance
and support from the underground or countercultural traditions of the
West i.e. not only from the writings of the Western faith-healing sects, but
also from those of the Rosicrucians, the Spiritualists, the Theosophists, and
other such followers of Western occultism. What Horton does not mention

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Rodseth and Olsen: Mystics against the Market

is the possibility that Western occultists might eventually return the favor,
seeking confirmation of their own beliefs within the traditions of an exotic
in this case, African cosmology.
Indeed, to be symmetrical, Horton might have argued that exposure to
traditional cosmologies has helped to enhance and elaborate Western
beliefs about lesser spirits, but Westerners, after all, have always had such
beliefs have clung to them, in fact, long after being Christianized (e.g.
Butler, 1990; Favret-Saada, 1980; Ginzburg, 1983; Leventhal, 1976). Even
without the catalyst, then, of African or other traditional religions, the
modern West has always carried the potential for large-scale conversion
to what might be called polylatry the honoring (if not the worship) of mul-
tiple spirits or divinities. Such conversion would, in effect, reverse the dis-
enchantment of the world that Weber saw as the master trend of modern
Western history (see also e.g. Lvy-Bruhl, 1985; Tambiah, 1990; Thomas,
1971). Reanimated with many lesser yet closer spirits, the cosmos would
diverge dramatically from the image presented by Sahlins (1996) the
image of the Western self cut off by an infinite distance from an infinite
God. Under what conditions, however, would we expect Western cosmol-
ogy to become polylatrous? Why would the lesser spirits, so long neglected
and subordinated, suddenly be recognized and promoted within the Judeo-
Christian hierarchy?
The answer obviously depends on how these spirits are implicated,
semantically or pragmatically, in wider contexts of culture and society. What
do the spirits mean to people and how does their meaning change? Again
we may take a clue from Hortons classic essays on religious conversion in
Africa (1971, 1975a, 1975b). These essays propose a two-tiered model of a
typical traditional cosmology in which the lesser spirits . . . are in the main
concerned with the affairs of the local community and its environment
i.e. with the microcosm, while the supreme being is concerned with the
world as a whole i.e. with the macrocosm (1971: 101). The cosmos is thus
semantically divided into local and global domains, each of which is associ-
ated with one tier of the pantheon (see also Horton, 1975a: 219, 1993:
359). If this model seems rather too tidy to be anything but a hypothetical
construct, Horton claims to have arrived at the model through a slow and
painful process of induction (Horton, 1975a: 220, n. 3), involving both
intensive fieldwork and a wide literature review.
However closely the two-tiered model adheres to empirical reality, it
provides a convenient tool with which to examine the spatial organization
of religious beliefs (Rodseth, 1998) the myriad ways in which meanings
are distributed over a landscape, depending on prevailing patterns of travel,
commerce and communication (e.g. Barth, 1990; Mann, 1986). In par-
ticular, the model suggests that key religious beliefs depend on the degree
to which local communities have been incorporated into the modern
macrocosm Hortons term, it would seem, for what Wallerstein (1974)
calls the modern world system or what Hannerz (1992, 1996) refers to as

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Critique of Anthropology 20(3)

the global ecumene. As the macrocosm penetrates and then incorporates

local communities, Horton argues, the religious emphasis tends to shift
from the lower tier of the pantheon to the higher (1975a: 220):
Where the way of life is dominated by subsistence farming and commerce is
poorly developed, the social relations of the people of a particular area are
likely to be largely confined by the boundaries of their microcosm. . . .
However, where there is a development of factors making for wider communi-
cation (for instance, a development of long-distance trade), the social life of
those involved will no longer be so strongly confined by the boundaries of their
microcosm. Many of their relationships, indeed, will cut dramatically across
these boundaries. In this situation, given the same basic cosmology, religious
life is likely to take a somewhat different form. Less attention will be paid to
the spirits, and more to the supreme being.

Monolatry, then, even without Western missionary activity, might have

developed in traditional societies anyway, once enough of the population
had been drawn into the macrocosm of the modern world (Horton, 1971:
In keeping with Hortons logic, however, modern societies are hardly
immune to an outbreak of polylatrous beliefs. Such beliefs would seem to
thrive on any reversal of the process described by Horton would thrive,
that is, on a withdrawal of modern people into new microcosms. Under these
circumstances, Westerners might be expected to rediscover the polylatrous
potential of their own cosmological traditions, activating the lesser spirits
and coming to venerate them, along with the supreme being, as divine
agencies in everyday life. Thus, by shifting Hortons model into reverse, we
can imagine a scenario in which the modern world is re-enchanted
infused with animistic and magical elements usually associated with the
micro-cosmologies of the pre-modern or non-Western world.
But what is the evidence, if any, that the West has been re-enchanted
in this way? The answer depends on what social and religious organizations
are to be counted as new microcosms. Esoteric orders such as the ones
mentioned by Horton Rosicrucians, Spiritualists, Theosophists have
indeed formulated radical, post-Christian cosmologies, yet their social
organization has generally not been local or microcosmic but strikingly
cosmopolitan. Theirs is a mysticism of the macrocosm, it could be argued,
generated by increasing transactions in spiritual capital between the West
and the traditional cultures of the Levant, India and East Asia. At the same
time, with the commercialization and mechanization of modern society, the
West has seen scores of utopian and millenarian movements aiming to
create more intimate and humane forms of social organization (e.g.
Collins, 1988; Hobsbawm, 1959; Williams, 1962).4 Some of these move-
ments provide dramatic examples of modern Westerners withdrawing into
new microcosms, yet the resulting communes, phalanxes and other utopian
experiments have often been cosmologically conservative or rationalist
rather than mystical or polylatrous. This is perhaps understandable insofar

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Rodseth and Olsen: Mystics against the Market

as localism is not the cause of such movements but their effect the often
brief flowering of what remains, at root, a macrocosmic ideology.

American mysticism and the market revolution

A proper reversal of Hortons original scenario would involve the long-term

parochialization of a large segment of the modern world a return to local-
ism, subsistence production and communal sharing in a population whose
ancestors had been relatively worldly, market-oriented and individualistic.
Such a process would require vast expanses of new land and formidable new
barriers to the penetration of state power, urban culture and market econ-
omics. Yet these conditions were met in colonial North America not along
the coast, where cheap water transportation gave access to world com-
merce, but inland, where Euro-American settlers cut or greatly reduced
their links to the market (Stokes, 1996: 19) and went on to create a locally
oriented and largely self-sufficient way of life.5 While coastal culture, then,
was relatively modern, competitive and cosmopolitan from the earliest
decades of European settlement, a quite distinct economic culture devel-
oped in the interior (Sellers, 1991: 5):
New World land closed the interior to the market it galvanized at tidewater.
Moving goods was infinitely more difficult across the thinly inhabited reaches
of America than in densely populated Europe. . . . Consequently people who
settled at any distance from navigable water mainly produced use values for
susbsistence rather than the markets commodity values for sale. . . . By the end
of the [18th] century, the majority of free Americans lived in a distinctive
subsistence culture remote from river navigation and the market world.
In this opening passage of The Market Revolution, Charles Sellers summarizes
a new conception of Euro-American farmers in the early national period
and, by extension, a new conception of American cultural history. Only in
the last 20 years have historians exploded the idea, still commonly held
outside their field, that America has always been a capitalist society, imbued
with a distinctive entrepreneurial spirit going back to the Puritans (Stokes,
1996: 3). Even the farmers of the remote interior were generally seen, in
the old perspective, as frustrated capitalists eager to break out of their local
economies and to gain access to wider markets. Beginning in the late 1970s,
however, this perspective was challenged by rural historians who argued
instead that American farmers in the early national period were principally
motivated not by profit margins but by familistic and communal values that
grew from a local and largely self-sufficient way of life (Clark, 1979, 1990;
Henretta, 1978; Merrill, 1977).6 Thus reconceptualized, these farmers are
depicted by Sellers (1991, 1996) as the principal antagonists of the market
revolution that was under way in the United States by about 1815 (see also
Johnson, 1992; Stokes and Conway, 1996). As the barriers to overland trans-
portation were surmounted, this revolution spread into the heartland,

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Critique of Anthropology 20(3)

established the hegemony of capitalist culture in America, and in the

process created ourselves and most of the world we know (Sellers, 1991:
Before it could triumph, however, the market faced fierce resistance in
the form of a religious movement, or cluster of movements, known as the
Second Great Awakening (Carwardine, 1993; Hatch, 1989). In rural areas
threatened by capitalist transformation, this surge of religious fervor con-
stituted a vast revitalization movement, a means of resisting and eventually
of adapting to the encroaching market and its culture of competitive effort
(cf. Leone, 1979: 16). Even as Yankee evangelists, then, stressed divine
rewards for moral striving, self-discipline and other bourgeois virtues,
plebeian preachers recharged the subsistence culture of the interior by
insisting that ordinary people could be saved by an ecstatic rebirth: Direct
access to divine grace and revelation, subordinating clerical learning to
every persons reborn heart, vindicated the lowly reborn soul against hier-
archy and authority, magistrates and clergy (Sellers, 1991: 30).
Yet born-again Baptists or Methodists were still theologically con-
servative compared to many smaller sects that proliferated in this period.
These sects, according to Johnson and Wilentz (1994: 6):
. . . went beyond evangelical orthodoxy into direct and often heretical experi-
ence of the supernatural. Young women conversed with the dead; male and
female perfectionists wielded the spiritual powers of the Apostles; farmers and
factory hands spoke directly to God; and the heavens opened up to reveal new
cosmologies to poor and uneducated Americans like Matthias and Joseph

What was awakened, then, in the Second Great Awakening was not just
spirituality in the orthodox sense but what Sellers (1996: 323) calls magic
the vividly experienced everyday presence and agency of the supernatural.
The farming interior, already heir to a peasant animism that had for cen-
turies magicalized the patriarchal Christian God, now expressed this deep
strain of pre-Christian animism in suitably Christian theological terms
(Sellers, 1991: 2930).7 Thus began an American Kulturkampf, according to
Sellers, pitting the magical spirituality of a parochial and fatalist country-
side against the self-reliant effort of a cosmopolitan and activist market
(1991: 31). The lesser spirits of the local community were being mobilized
against the macrocosm.
Paradoxically, however, the very religious movements intended to
defend a traditional, community-oriented way of life could end up pro-
moting distinctly modern forms of competition and individualism. As
Hatch (1989: 14) observes:
. . . insurgent religious leaders . . . defied elite privilege and vested interests and
anticipated a millennial dawn of equality and justice. Yet, to achieve these
visions of the common good, they favored means inseparable from the indi-
viduals pursuit of spiritual and temporal well-being.

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Rodseth and Olsen: Mystics against the Market

What were these means so inseparable from the flowering of the indi-
vidual? Hatch writes of an individualization of conscience flowing from
the conviction that ones own interpretation of Scripture should not be
mediated by any other authority, historical or ecclesiastical (1989: 41).
With this radical democratization of religion, however, established denom-
inations soon found themselves in cut-throat competition, while the spiri-
tual market was thrown open to wildly divergent points of view (Butler,
1990: 273). In such a spiritual marketplace, every individual was a potential
visionary or seer, turning inward not only to choose the right but to feel the
presence of angels and of God.
In this sense, the lesser spirits of the Second Great Awakening were
not just local but personal gods, moving within the souls of the believers
themselves. At the extreme, in fact, they were the souls of the believers them-
selves. This is why Bloom (1992: 523) identifies Orphism, the cult of the
divine or shamanic self, as one of the broad influences flowing equally
through the American folk tradition, the religious movements of the early
19th century, and the writings of our elitist seer, Ralph Waldo Emerson.
In an Orphic mode, the lesser spirits are not external agents angels,
demons, ghosts but seeds or sparks of divinity within human hearts.
In a broader perspective, however, American Orphism is just an
extreme manifestation of a mystical tradition that can be traced from
Emerson back to the earliest colonial heretics (Miller, 1956: 18990):
To our minds, no longer at home in the fine distinctions of theology, it might
seem that from the Calvinist doctrine of regeneration, from the theory that a
regenerate soul receives an influx of divine spirit, and is joined to God by a
direct infusion of His grace, we might deduce the possibility of receiving all
instruction immediately from the indwelling spirit, through an indwelling spirit
which is essentially mystical. Such was precisely the deduction of Mistress Anne
Hutchinson, for which she was expelled into Rhode Island. It was exactly the
conclusion of the Quakers, who added that every man was naturally suscepti-
ble to this inward communication, that he did not need a special and super-
natural dispensation. Quakers also were cast into Rhode Island or, if they
refused to stay there, hanged on Boston Common.

Mysticism is carefully defined by Miller (1956: 189) as the doctrine that the
ultimate nature of reality or of the divine essence may be known by an
immediate insight.8
Yet the paradox now seems all the more intractable: how could such
mysticism, with its radically individualized conception of the divine, provide
a basis for collective life? If the lesser gods were bulwarks, as Sellers would
have it, against the macrocosm of the market, they could also be corrosive
agents within the local community or congregation: Americans found it
difficult to realize . . . that a commitment to private judgment could drive
people apart, even as it raised beyond measure their hopes for unity
(Hatch, 1989: 81). The free spiritual market might favor, for a while, a
religious entrepreneur whose visionary experiences could inspire

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Critique of Anthropology 20(3)

congregational, or even national, solidarity. Yet the same entrepreneur was

ever vulnerable to challenge from the next wave of spiritual innovation.
Over time, then, in Hatchs (1989: 14) view, religious movements eager to
preserve the supernatural in everyday life had the ironic effect of acceler-
ating the breakup of traditional society and the advent of a social order of
competition, self expression, and free enterprise.
Under these conditions, for a new religion to survive, it would have to
become more corporate in organization, capable of absorbing and chan-
neling innovation to serve its own ends. In particular, an enduring Church
would require a hierarchy of credentialed authorities entrusted to evaluate
and authenticate new claims to divine revelation. Even as the market revol-
ution, then, spread into the rural interior, replacing familism and fatalism
with a bourgeois ethic of self-reliance and self-control, American denomi-
nations began to cross the familiar Weberian terrain of institution-building
and routinization. Communal mysticism, as a Churchs founding impulse,
could hardly be repudiated, but it could be hidden away where few would
find it: deep within a routinized creed of social decorum, personal responsi-
bility and the methodical improvement of body and soul.

Cosmologies in collision

By the 1850s, American Baptists, Methodists and Disciples of Christ were

playing down their plebeian beginnings in the interest of achieving bour-
geois respectability (Hatch, 1989: 2016; Sellers, 1991: 375; cf. Carwardine,
1996). The invention (or reinvention) of proper ecclesiastical and scholarly
authority was so successful that Baptists and Methodists, in particular, came
to constitute the religious establishment in many parts of the country,
boasting their own colleges and seminaries as well as increasingly ornate
churches. The keen irony of this turn of events is pinpointed by Sellers
(1991: 161): Eventually capitalist transformation would obliterate from the
memory of both great popular denominations their origins in a massive cul-
tural mobilization against the market and its ways. Yet traces of communal
mysticism were apparently preserved, especially within the Baptist tradition,
which is still capable of launching primitivist movements intended to
restore a vaguely remembered, pre-market world of local familism and
magical spirituality (cf. Johnson and Wilentz, 1994: 173).
One American sect that remained openly communal and mystical
throughout most of the 19th century, only to turn all the more sharply
toward respectability around 1900, was the Mormon Church more prop-
erly, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS). Mormonism
originated in western New York, where the Second Great Awakening struck
a tinderbox and left the region burned over by the fires of religious revival
(Arrington and Bitton, 1992: 3; Cross, 1950). The Mormon prophet, Joseph
Smith, Jr (180544), came from a family of uprooted Yankees who had for

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three generations suffered the hardships of boom-and-bust capitalism,

moving many times before settling on the New York frontier in 1816. Over
the next decade, the construction of the Erie Canal thrust capitalist
imperatives inland, slashing shipping costs to New York City, rapidly replac-
ing subsistence farming with commercial agriculture, and bringing the
American Kulturkampf to a climax (Sellers, 1991: 217). Losing their farm
near Palmyra, New York in 1827, the Smiths were one of many impover-
ished and demoralized families in the region who sought relief in magical
and occult practices as well as in religious mysticism (Brooke, 1996; Quinn,
Mormonism from its beginnings included key elements that are mysti-
cal in the sense that we use the term. Joseph Smiths visions of God and
Jesus Christ, for example, and his translation of a mysterious sacred text are
classic cases of knowing the divine essence . . . by an immediate insight
(Miller, 1956: 189). Moreover, as Mormon cosmology was elaborated in a
series of revelations from the late 1830s on, the mystical union of human
and divine came to be anchored in the very structure of the universe.
Before the creation of the earth, according to this cosmology, all human
beings resided as spirit children in the presence of God. The place where
God dwells, while not a planet like this earth, is in fact a globe like a sea
of glass and fire a crystal sphere, apparently, with divinatory properties
(Doctrine and Covenants, 130: 68). Those spirits who were faithful to God
received human bodies and were born to earthly parents. Yet the cosmol-
ogy denies any sharp contrast between spirit and flesh: All Spirit is matter,
according to Joseph Smith, but it is more fine or pure (Doctrine and
Covenants, 131: 78). The possible sources of this idea and its radical anti-
Calvinist implications are well summarized by Brooke (1996: 202):

All things were dually spiritual and material, a concept that would have
emerged naturally from an immersion in divining magic, where stones grew
alchemically into silver and gold, to be buried in the ground and protected by
volatile spirits. God had not created the world and humanity from nothing, ex
nihilo, but from preexisting substances. . . . Spirit and matter were pervasively
linked rather than divided by a chasm negotiated only by grace and atonement.

Having taken bodily form, furthermore, human beings were expected to

keep this form, even in the afterlife: We will lose our bodies in death for a
brief span but they will be returned to us more beautiful than we have ever
known them before, and they will be as real and tangible as they are now
(Richards, 1976: 309). Rather than meeting God, then, in a purely spiritual
condition, Mormons remain after death in exalted but decidedly material
This is only appropriate, in fact, because God himself is conceived in
Mormon cosmology as a finite and material being (Ostler, 1989). Rejecting
the doctrine of original sin and Christianitys general denigration of the
flesh, Joseph Smith dared to conceptualize the deity as a fleshly creature,

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though more glorious than an ordinary human being: God himself was
once as we are now, and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder
heavens! That is the great secret (in Burton, 1970: 202). Because divinity,
furthermore, is not an absolute status but a matter of degree, the Mormon
universe is replete with gods and various lesser spirits a striking contrast
to the stripped-down pantheons offered by most Christian sects. In no other
way, in fact, does Mormonism depart so dramatically from traditional
Judeo-Christian doctrine. To reconcile his own conception of the pantheon
with the Bibles, Joseph Smith claimed that Paul had alluded to gods many
and lords many (Burton, 1970: 208) and that the Old Testament had been
mistranslated from the Hebrew:
The word Eloheim ought to be in the plural all the way through Gods. The
head of the Gods appointed one God for us; and when you take [that] view of
the subject, it sets one free to see all the beauty, holiness and perfection of the
Gods. (Smith in Burton, 1970: 2089)
Mormon deities, furthermore, are not exclusively male. From Joseph
Smiths time to the present, LDS theology has included often vague but
persistent references to Heavenly Mother, the wife and companion of
Heavenly Father (Wilcox, 1989). For God to be a Father, there must be a
Mother: this seems to be the reasoning from ordinary experience that has
led many Mormons, from the 1840s onward, to posit the existence of a
female deity. In fact, by 1909, this tenet had been incorporated into official
Church doctrine, which states that all men and women are in the simili-
tude of the Universal Father and Mother, were begotten and born of
heavenly parents and are literally the sons and daughters of Deity (Smith
et al., 1909: 80). Although Latter-Day Saints might be seen as monotheistic
in the sense that they worship only the one deity who was appointed for
us, Mormon cosmology clearly implies the existence of a multitude of
worlds, each ruled by divine parents.
In sharp contrast, then, to Augustinian and Calvinist cosmology, Mor-
monism holds that man and God are of the same substance, separated by
several grades of exaltation but not by an infinite chasm. As a result, human-
ity is capable of contacting and even merging with the divine. Having
reached celestial heaven, the highest of three levels of salvation, those
human beings deemed worthy can expect to become gods themselves. This
doctrine was revealed to Joseph Smith in 1843 (Doctrine and Covenants,
132: 20):
Then shall they be gods, because they have no end; therefore shall they be from
everlasting to everlasting, because they continue; then shall they be above all,
because all things are subject unto them. Then shall they be gods, because they
have all power, and the angels are subject unto them.
As Brigham Young explained: We are created, we are born, for the express
purpose of growing up from the low estate of manhood, to become gods,
like unto our Father in heaven (in Smith and Sjodahl, 1950: 827).

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According to the Mormon prophets, then, the universe is characterized by

a continuous, cyclical process whereby spirit children take human and then
divine form, eventually creating spirit children of their own. In light of this
theological punctuation, Bloom (1992: 105) describes Mormonism as a
kind of modern gnosticism, in which spirit and matter, God and man, were
to be different only in degree, not in kind.
In short, one could hardly imagine a putatively Christian tradition that
diverges more radically than Mormonism does from what Sahlins (1996)
calls Western cosmology. Even if a distinction between body and soul is
universal, Sahlins argues, what has set the West apart is the notion of a civil
war between them (1996: 402). This war was inevitable given the famous
metaphysical evil of human finitude, according to which The world,
including the creature, was created ex nihilo: nothing divine as such is in it
(Sahlins, 1996: 396). As an imperfect creature of lack and need, forever
tainted by the Fall, man is doomed to wear out his body in the vain
attempt to satisfy it (1996: 397). From this Augustinian starting point it is
but a few historical steps, in Sahlinss account, to Economic Man and all the
rest of the Western market mentality. Yet none of these observations sup-
posed to capture the fundamental ideology of the West apply to the dis-
tinctively American religion of the Mormons.

Mormons in the land of Mammon

Mormonism was founded on the principle of continuing revelation, such

that the ultimate earthly authority of religious matters resided in the living
prophet (Arrington and Bitton, 1992: 244). Yet many other Mormons, no
less than the Churchs founder, are assumed to have had direct experience
of the divine. Even now, the President of the Church is considered a
prophet, and any Church member can bring questions to God for personal
revelation. Thus the individualization of conscience that Hatch (1989)
traces to the Second Great Awakening remains crucial to modern Mormon
practice. The cosmology of the Church, furthermore, is not a closed or
static system but continues to be revised according to what is revealed
(Leone, 1979: 1923):
. . . on at least one point free access to theology Mormon doctrine is vitally
and brilliantly alive among the people, having emerged just where everybody
officially proclaims it ought to be, but where no one is prepared to find it. Safe
in the hands of the people, it can take whatever turns are required; unimpeded
by higher authority or formal logic, Mormons do not see what they are doing,
which is keeping a vital faith vital, creating and recreating Mormonism just as
Joseph Smith wanted.
At the same time, as Leone (1979: 1667) makes clear, the Church hier-
archy has been transformed since the late 19th century, emerging as an
elaborately stratified bureaucracy governed by flexible, rational regimes.

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Increasingly, in fact, the Church has attempted to adapt to mainstream

Christianity by downplaying the mystical dimensions of Mormonism
(Brooke, 1996: Ch. 12; Quinn, 1998) and emphasizing its codification in
scripture and its respect for clerical and other credentialed authorities
(Leone, 1979: 378). Thus, while it is still possible in principle for any
Church member to experience direct communion with God, current claims
to divine revelation are subject to evaluation and authorization by the
Church hierarchy. This helps to create a profound tension between the
Churchs original mystical impulse and its current strain toward bourgeois
or mainstream respectability (see especially Brooke, 1996: 2969).
Another, equally profound tension has developed between the
Churchs original ideal of communal solidarity and the modern realities of
competitive individualism (Leone, 1979: 78, 166). The early Church was
conceived as a United Order in which all households would partake
equally of the available resources (Arrington, 1958: 28):
In May 1831, when the New York converts to the infant church began to arrive
at the newly established gathering place of Kirtland, Ohio, the Lord is reported
to have inspired Joseph Smith to instruct that land and other properties be
allotted equal according to their families, according to their circumstances,
and their wants and needs. The revelation went on further to say: And let
every man . . . be alike among this people, and receive alike, that ye may be
The communal ethic was reflected in a range of institutions that were criti-
cal to the survival and growth of the early Church. The consecration of
property, eventually replaced by a system of tithing, helped to redistribute
wealth and assure the socialization of surplus incomes (Arrington, 1958:
7). Construction, agriculture, mining, manufacturing and merchandising
were all organized on a largely cooperative basis. The Perpetual Emigration
Fund assisted the poor in relocating to the Churchs gathering place, which
shifted from Ohio to Missouri and Illinois before the migration to the Great
Salt Lake Valley in 1847. Throughout much of the 19th century, Mormon
economic ideals helped to establish village-like colonies in which property
was held in stewardship from the Church and productivity increased
through cooperative industry.
In all of this, it may be argued, the early Mormons were attempting to
stay ahead of the market revolution that had earlier transformed the fron-
tier world of Joseph Smith, drawing his western New York into the com-
mercial economy and destroying a relatively self-sufficient, agrarian way of
life. If religious persecution was the immediate cause of Mormon migra-
tion, each new westward settlement offered the hope of both religious and
economic autonomy: The goal of colonization, of the settled village, and
of resource development was complete regional economic independence.
The Latter-day Saint commonwealth was to be financially and economically
self-sufficient (Arrington, 1958: 26). Under the leadership of Brigham
Young (180177), the Mormons rapidly developed the arable valleys in

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Utah and surrounding territories. Before the 1870s, they seemed indeed to
have established their own Great Basin Kingdom beyond the reach of both
the American government and the world market. In 1869, however, with
the completion of the transcontinental railroad, the Mormon territory
began to lose its economic independence. The Panic of 1873 triggered
bank failures and the closing of mines, shops and factories throughout Utah
(Arrington, 1958: 323):
That the Panic should have any appreciable effect on the Mormon economy
was due, of course, to the entangling economic alliances with the East which
had been built up after the completion of the transcontinental railroad. In the
more or less self-enclosed system of the Mormons the railroad had catapulted
an enclave of merchants, bankers, freighters, and prospectors.
Just as the Erie Canal, then, had carried the capitalist culture of the East to
Joseph Smiths family farm, the railroad now drove it into Brigham Youngs
theocratic kingdom. In response, communalism temporarily resurged
among the Latter-Day Saints.
Through agencies created by the church Mormon leaders carried out an
economic action program which delayed and mollified the absorption of the
Mormon economy into the broader social economy of the nation an action
program which constituted a unique response to the challenge of eastern
competitive capitalism. (Arrington, 1958: 235)
The most sweeping initiative was the United Order of Enoch, a compre-
hensive reorganization of Mormon society designed to root out individu-
alistic profit-seeking and trade and achieve the blessed state of opulent
self-sufficiency and equality (1958: 324). By the time of Youngs death,
however, in 1877, the economy had improved and the United Order was
abandoned in practice, though maintained as an ideal to be realized in a
future generation (Arrington, 1958: 385; Arrington and Bitton, 1992: 126).
While founded, then, on an ethic of communal solidarity, the Mormon
Church has come to embrace the hegemonic culture of private enterprise,
personal responsibility and methodical self-improvement. Such bourgeois
values can be observed not only within LDS industries and storefronts but
within the Church hierarchy itself. Like their Baptist and Methodist coun-
terparts in the 19th century, Mormons in the 20th century have developed
elaborate institutions of sacred and scholarly authority. If the Baptists thus
became the Established or Catholic Church of the American South
(Bloom, 1992: 174), Mormons are poised, perhaps, to secure a similar pos-
ition in the American West (1992: 192). Joseph Smiths vision of every man
. . . alike among this people . . . that ye may be one has now given way to a
system of credentialed statuses within a vast bureaucracy. What the modern
Church most obviously values is not communal sharing or mystical experi-
ence but the improvement of the self through education, moral striving and
adherence to bourgeois propriety. Such improvement is a major aim of the
missionary work expected of all young Mormon men (Arrington and

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Bitton, 1992: 300). Although less upwardly mobile than their male coun-
terparts, women missionaries can have what Shepherd and Shepherd
(1994: 1701) call a liberating experience in which demanding duties
outside of marital and family obligations are assumed, self-reliance and
organizational skills are exercised, and self-confidence and a sense of sister-
hood are presumably strengthened. The general pattern here is obviously
congenial to the world of corporate capitalism, in which competitive indi-
vidualism is combined with loyalty and deference to authority to allow
mobility up and down a well-defined ladder of success.
This is what Mormonism has, in practice, become. Yet the teachings of
Joseph Smith and other founders of the Church are always there to be redis-
covered in Mormon scripture, even if the communal and mystical import
of these teachings has little bearing on the lives of most Mormons today. As
Hefner (1993: 18) notes, a religions central doctrines may remain latent
for long periods, only to be taken up when conditions favor their revivalist
application to new historical circumstances. Since the 1920s, splinter
groups of fundamentalist Mormons have indeed revived practices of
communal living and polygynous marriage long abandoned by the main-
stream Church (Baer, 1988; Van Wagoner, 1992). Such groups take inspi-
ration not only from Mormon scripture but from divine or angelic
revelations, the use of seer stones and other mystical influences (Brooke,
1996: 2978). Despite the evolution of the Church, then, from a small com-
munal movement to a multinational and militantly bourgeois institution,
the ideals of small-group solidarity and mystical experience not only persist
in recessive form in Mormon populations, but carry the potential to inspire
and sustain actual behavior.
In this light, Mormons stand in an ambiguous relationship to the
American capitalist culture that they attempted for decades to outrun or
resist. On the one hand, most Mormons today would seem to personify that
culture, defending as they do a classic conservative agenda of free enter-
prise, American patriotism, family values and the like (Bloom, 1992: 88).
On the other hand, many of these same Mormons are carriers, in the epi-
demiological sense, of a radical critique of capitalism, a critique inspired by
the communal mysticism of the early Church. Because the critique is reces-
sive, in fact, and only occasionally expressed in social action, it is all the
more difficult to eradicate from the pool of Mormon culture. Such a
pattern is hardly unique to Mormonism or the other American religions
considered here. Many shamanic traditions, as Samuel (1990, 1993) and
Thomas and Humphrey (1994) argue, have been absorbed into more
official, clerical religions intolerant of the potentially subversive activities of
freelance religious specialists. Yet shamanic strands persist within such
religions and can suddenly come to life, threatening the survival of many
otherwise comfortable kings, priests, and presidents.

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The ghost in the ecumene

The West looks different, we have argued, when American cultural currents
are recognized alongside and not just within the European mainstream. By
virtue of its sojourn in a strange and dangerous hinterland, what is now
American culture occupies an extremely ambiguous position in the
history of the West as a whole. This was more apparent, perhaps, in the 19th
century, when the United States was not leader of the Western world but
was often viewed instead as a marshland (or backwater) of dubious cultural
credentials. How the country is conceptualized thus depends on ambigu-
ous and shifting conceptions of center and periphery. Colonial America has
been described by Bailyn (1986: 113) not as a progressive frontier but as a
ragged outer margin of a central world, a regressive, backward-looking
diminishment of metropolitan accomplishment. Much the same might be
said of the early republic, especially outside the new centers of metropolitan
accomplishment on the eastern seaboard. From this perspective, cultural
innovations on American soil appear not as extensions of a Great Tradition
but as parochial curiosities beyond the pale of Western progress.
Our own view, however, aligns with that of Hannerz (1992: 266), who
develops the metaphor of creolization as a way of capturing the ebb and
flow of meanings between center and perhiphery: Anglo culture, the
culture of the WASPs, may have provided the metropolis, the Standard, the
mainstream, but as it reaches out toward every corner of society, it becomes
creolized itself. Thus, what Hallowell (1957) called the backwash of the
frontier the often powerful influence of Native American culture on
Euro-American settlers (Bailyn, 1986: 1289) is but one example of the
creolization to which the modern West is surprisingly susceptible. The his-
torical development of the global ecumene, in Hannerzs (1992, 1996)
terms, has involved countless pulses of Western expansion and indigenous
response. Each response has tended to leave its trace on the outposts that
would serve in turn as staging points for the next expansionist pulse: Mar-
ginal with respect to the conquering power, these peripheral worlds
acquired distinctive and permanent characteristics, and they eventually
formed core worlds of their own that, in many cases, generated margins
even more complex than they themselves had been (Bailyn and Morgan,
1991: 1). The same point is made, interestingly, by Dumont, whose empha-
sis on individualism as the hallmark of Western ideology can easily eclipse
the larger picture he presents (1986: 1718):

If nonindividualistic elements, aspects, or factors are present in contemporary

ideology and in society at large, where do they come from? They derive in the
first instance from the permanence or survival of premodern and more or less
general elements such as the family. But they also derive from the very
operation of individualistic values, which has let loose a complex dialectic
resulting in combinations where they blend subtly with their opposites in
diverse domains, and for some of them as early as the end of the eighteenth

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Critique of Anthropology 20(3)

and the beginning of the nineteenth century. . . . To the extent that the indi-
vidualistic ideas and values of the dominant culture are spreading worldwide,
they undergo modifications locally and engender new forms. Now and this
has escaped notice the new, modified forms can pass back into the dominant
culture and operate there as modern elements in their own right. In that way
the acculturation of each particular culture to modernity can leave a lasting
precipitate in the heritage of global modernity. Further, this process is
sometimes cumulative inasmuch as this precipitate can in turn be transformed
on the occasion of a subsequent acculturation.

This extremely rich argument later elaborated and prominently pre-

sented in the first chapter of German Ideology (Dumont, 1994) anticipates
many recent trends in the anthropology of transnationalism and globaliz-
ation (e.g. Appadurai, 1996; Clifford, 1997; Hannerz, 1996). Yet Dumonts
argument has at least one implication that seems to have gone unexplored.
If Western culture does indeed contain nonindividualistic elements,
aspects, or factors, what happens when these are carried along with (or deep
within) the dominant ideology to local peoples who are said to be enter-
ing (or resisting) modernity? Our suggestion is that these submerged ele-
ments, freed from their original matrix, may be activated in the encounter
with non-Western cultural forms and indeed, as Dumont notes, leave a
lasting precipitate in the heritage of global modernity.
In this light, the missionary expansion of the Mormon Church is
hardly the blunt instrument of cultural imperialism it might otherwise
appear to be. While missionaries may intend to send messages in one direc-
tion only, they are often deeply influenced by the backwash of the culture
in which they operate (e.g. Lian, 1997). Missionar y experience thus
becomes one of the many ways in which cultural imperialists participate,
however inadvertently, in their own acculturation. At the same time, even
without intercultural contact, the very efficacy of Western modes of expan-
sion tends to generate otherness among Westerners themselves as witnessed
by the development of Mormonism and many other traditions on the
Great Frontier. When these Western others are overtaken by the main-
stream of capitalist expansion, they are often pressured to re-adapt to that
mainstream by relegating their communal and mystical tendencies to an
inner sanctum of the (merely) domestic, psychic or sentimental. Some
do not or cannot adapt in this way and may be forced into a socially mar-
ginal and stigmatized position, as in the case of Holy Ghost people and
other Pentecostal charismatics (Anderson, 1979), memorably described by
Bloom (1992: 175) as American shamans. Yet if they emerge reborn
as creatures of the market, they also find themselves uniquely equipped to
teach others, outsiders, how to make the same adaptation. In this way,
perhaps, the most backward of Westerners come to form the vanguard
of Western expansion, even as they discover and rediscover the many
meanings of the West.

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Thoughtful and encouraging comments on an earlier draft were provided by Dean

May and Eric Hinderaker of the Department of History, University of Utah.

1 One recent work that directly challenges any easy identification of the West
with individualism or rationalism is Jack Goodys The East in the West (1996).
Despite the title, however, Goodys main purpose is to demonstrate that many
so-called Western patterns are found in the East as well. Here we are princi-
pally concerned with the complementary question of whether communal and
mystical patterns usually associated with India and other parts of the East are
in fact integral to the West (cf. Collier, 1997: 1016; Dumont, 1994: 616,
2 Whether such expansion might actually be facilitated by maintaining in
recessive form a potentially radical critique of the dominant and explicit
traditions of the West is a question for further research.
3 The same point was made by Anthony F.C. Wallace (1966: 723) in his revealing
comparison of the pantheon of the Iroquois with that of the small Christian
community in which he grew up. As Wallace put it, Even the so-called
monotheistic religions invariably include an elaborate pantheon (remember
that we are using the term religion in the summative sense and not as the
label for a particular cult institution which happens to be monotheistic).
4 In Europe, in fact, the pattern may go back to the late Middle Ages, when the
new profit economy seems to have triggered a spiritual crisis, especially in the
reviving cities (Little, 1978; Ozment, 1980: 945; cf. Grundmann, 1995: 2315).
The intitial reaction, according to Little (1978), was the founding of reformed
monastic orders such as the Carthusians and Cistercians, which were pledged
to religious poverty and withdrew into the countryside to pursue a more self-
sufficient way of life.
5 A strikingly similar pattern is described by Thompson and Lamar (1981: 27) in
the case of white settlers on the southern African frontier (see also Ross, 1981).
Despite the fact, they argue: that the Cape peninsula and the neighboring
arable lands performed a minor but useful role in the capitalist system, during
the 18th century the white pastoralists who dispersed beyond the arable belt
loosened their links with it. Transportation was exclusively by horse and by ox
wagon on tracks that were subject to seasonal inundations. The pastoralists did
obtain a few imported goods . . . in exchange for farm produce and for sheep
and cattle they sold on the hoof to itinerant traders from Cape Town, but there
was no market for the bulk of their flocks and herds and there were no real
towns in the colony except Cape Town. It was not until diamond and gold
mining began toward the end of the 19th century that the means existed for
full-blooded capitalist practices to flourish in southern Africa.
At the same time, ironically, Thompson and Lamar emphasize the contrast
between southern Africa and North America, where a vast, usable system of
waterways and portages is argued to have facilitated [the] penetration of the
market (1981: 28). At any distance from such waterways, however, white settle-
ments in North America seem to have closely resembled their 18th-century
counterparts in southern Africa.
6 Anthropologists will recognize in this debate echoes of the formalist-substan-
tivist controversy in economic anthropology. Significantly, Sellers and other
historians in his camp have been influenced by both Polanyi (1944) and an

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Critique of Anthropology 20(3)

earlier incarnation of Sahlins (1972), erstwhile leaders of the substantivist

movement (Sellers, 1991: 6 and 449).
7 Many or most Europeans, in fact, held on to animist beliefs and occult practices
right through the 18th century, even as such beliefs and practices were
generally abandoned by educated elites (e.g. Butler, 1990: 2830; Thomas,
1971: 57083). In this light, rural American religions of the early 19th century
were perhaps continuous with the religious countercultures of Europe.
Mormonism in particular has been interpreted as an American outgrowth of
European hermeticism (Brooke, 1996; Quinn, 1998).
8 When such an insight is achieved through an alternate state of consciousness,
mysticism is equivalent to shamanism in Geoffrey Samuels (1990, 1993)
sense. According to Samuel (1993: 8), a shamanic religion involves: the regu-
lation and transformation of human society through the use (or purported use) of
alternate states of consciousness by means of which specialist practitioners are held to
communicate with a mode of reality alternative to, and more fundamental than, the world
of everyday experience (emphasis in original). For our purposes, the most
important implication of this definition is that shamanic religions remain open to
change through divine revelation. What Samuel calls clerical religions, by
contrast, appeal to scholarship and philosophical analysis as sources of
authority, and exhibit a tendency toward stable orthodoxy.

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 Lars Rodseth is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Utah. He

received his PhD from the University of Michigan in 1993. He has conducted field-
work in Nepal and Micronesia, and is the author of Distributive Models of Culture:
A Sapirian Alternative to Essentialism, American Anthropologist 100 (1998): 5569.
Address: Department of Anthropology, University of Utah, 270 S 1400E rm 102, Salt
Lake City, UT 84112-0060, USA. [email:]
 Jennifer Olsen received her BA degree from the University of Utah in 1996. She
conducted fieldwork in India and Nepal in 1995, and currently lives in Wisconsin.

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