The best books of the hidden history of America through the eyes of holy men, prophets, mystics, and visionaries

Why am I passionate about this?

For me, history is always about individuals; what they think and believe and how those ideas motivate their actions. By relegating our past to official histories or staid academic tellings we deprive ourselves of the humanity of our shared experiences. As a “popular historian” I use food to tell all the many ways we attempt to “be” American. History is for everyone, and my self-appointed mission is to bring more stories to readers! These recommendations are a few stand-out titles from the hundreds of books that inform my current work on how food and religion converge in America. You’ll have to wait for Holy Food to find out what I’ve discovered.


I wrote...

Holy Food: How Cults, Communes, and Religious Movements Influenced What We Eat - An American History

By Christina Ward,

Book cover of Holy Food: How Cults, Communes, and Religious Movements Influenced What We Eat - An American History

What is my book about?

Does God have a recipe? Independent food historian Christina Ward’s highly anticipated Holy Food explores the influence of mainstream to fringe religious beliefs on modern American food culture.

Author Christina Ward unravels how religious beliefs intersect with politics, economics, and, of course, food to tell a different story of America. It's the story of true believers and charlatans, of idealists and visionaries, and of the everyday people who followed them—often at their peril. Holy Food explains how faith pioneers used societal woes and cultural trends to create new pathways of belief and reveals the interconnectivity between sects and their leaders.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Stammering Century

Christina Ward Why did I love this book?

I stumbled upon this 100-year-old book during my research for my upcoming book. Seldes proved to be the exact type of irascible storyteller I needed to read to frame my work. He is irreverent, lyrical, and highly opinionated! Seldes is a self-proclaimed (maybe the first) pop culture critic who turned his finely honed intellect to profiling the religious seers and conmen of the first two decades of the United States.

The Stammering Century set the template for the newly minted genre of author—the ‘public intellectual.’ Seldes weaves disparate first-person accounts and his own ideas about how religion in America twists and turns to become something entirely new and not always welcomed. This edition features a delightful essay by noted cultural historian, Greil Marcus that inspires us to read history not just as a series of dates but as a wildly entertaining and oft-times accidental series of bad ideas.

By Gilbert Seldes,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Stammering Century as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Gilbert Seldes, the author of The Stammering Century, writes:

      This book is not a record of the major events in Ameri­can history during
      the nineteenth century. It is concerned with minor movements, with the
      cults and manias of that period. Its personages are fanatics, and radicals,
      and mountebanks. Its intention is to connect these secondary movements
      and figures with the primary forces of the century, and to supply a back-
      ground in American history for the Prohibitionists and the Pente­costalists;
      the diet-faddists and the dealers in mail-order Personality; the play censors
      and the Fundamen­talists; the free-lovers and eugenists; the cranks…


Book cover of American Radicals: How Nineteenth-Century Protest Shaped the Nation

Christina Ward Why did I love this book?

English professor Holly Jackson reveals another little-known era of 19th Century American History in American Radicals. She masterfully profiles men and women who “did the work” of making the United States match the promise of her ideals. Jackson is an enthusiastic writer who makes us see how interconnected and how human our great-great parents and their peers were to fundamental social issues we still struggle with today.

American Radicals reveals early women’s rights, civil rights, labor rights, and native rights movements with fresh insights.

By Holly Jackson,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked American Radicals as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A dynamic, timely history of nineteenth-century activists—free-lovers and socialists, abolitionists and vigilantes—and the social revolution they sparked in the turbulent Civil War era

“In the tradition of Howard Zinn’s people’s histories, American Radicals reveals a forgotten yet inspiring past.”—Megan Marshall, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Margaret Fuller: A New American Life and Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast

NAMED ONE OF THE TEN BEST HISTORY BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY SMITHSONIAN 

On July 4, 1826, as Americans lit firecrackers to celebrate the country’s fiftieth birthday, both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were on their deathbeds. They would leave behind a groundbreaking…


Book cover of American Messiahs: False Prophets of a Damned Nation

Christina Ward Why did I love this book?

Writer Adam Morris picks up the mantle of Gilbert Seldes and revisits the exploits and lasting impact of early American New Religious Movements noted in The Stammering Century with more detail and new 20th Century “messiahs.” Morris, unencumbered by academic constraints, allows his active mind to make connections and see what makes men (mostly men) claim the mantle of divine inspiration.

Beautifully written and laser-focused, Morris traces the growth of rogue religionists with an unsparing assessment of the impact they’ve had on American culture.

By Adam Morris,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked American Messiahs as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Mania surrounding messianic prophets has defined the national consciousness since the American Revolution. From Civil War veteran and virulent anticapitalist Cyrus Teed, to the dapper and overlooked civil rights pioneer Father Divine, to even the megalomaniacal Jim Jones, these figures have routinely been dismissed as dangerous and hysterical outliers.

After years of studying these emblematic figures, Adam Morris demonstrates that messiahs are not just a classic trope of our national culture; their visions are essential for understanding American history. As Morris demonstrates, these charismatic, if flawed, would-be prophets sought to expose and ameliorate deep social ills-such as income inequality, gender…


Book cover of Accidental Gods: On Men Unwittingly Turned Divine

Christina Ward Why did I love this book?

Anna Della Subin’s quiet triumph of a history expands our focus beyond the United States, but we feel the impact and meaning to and in America. In Accidental Gods, she masterfully explores—opposite of self-appointed messiahs—what happens when deification is thrust upon someone. In doing so, she uncovers the bizarre characters and absurd events that lead to banal and sometimes cruel outcomes. The book transcends the facts of history and becomes a meditation on the many ways to be human.

By Anna Della Subin,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Accidental Gods as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A provocative history of race, empire and myth, told through the stories of men who have been worshipped as gods - from Columbus to Prince Philip

Spanning the globe and five centuries, Accidental Gods introduces us to a new pantheon: of man-gods, deified politicians and imperialists, militants, mystics and explorers. From the conquistadors setting foot in the New World to Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, elevated by a National Geographic article from emperor to messiah for the Rastafari faith, to the unlikely officers hailed as gods during the British Raj, this endlessly curious and revelatory account chronicles an impulse towards deification…


Book cover of In and Out of This World: Material and Extraterrestrial Bodies in the Nation of Islam

Christina Ward Why did I love this book?

The religious history of America has long overlooked the unique spiritual life of Black Americans. Dr. Stephen Finley has been at the forefront of a new generation of researchers and historians chronicling the incredibly rich history of Black New Religious Movements in the United States and how they’ve influenced both popular Black culture and all-American culture. In and Out of This World peels back closely guarded beliefs and practices and gives readers the context to understand them not as fringe lunacy but a logical endpoint to a diverse and robust cosmology. Dr. Finley does what the best historians do—makes us care about people while giving us the information to understand their ideas and beliefs.

By Stephen C. Finley,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked In and Out of This World as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

With In and Out of This World Stephen C. Finley examines the religious practices and discourses that have shaped the Nation of Islam (NOI) in America. Drawing on the speeches and writing of figures such as Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X, Warith Deen Mohammad, and Louis Farrakhan, Finley shows that the NOI and its leaders used multiple religious symbols, rituals, and mythologies meant to recast the meaning of the cosmos and create new transcendent and immanent black bodies whose meaning cannot be reduced to products of racism. Whether examining how the myth of Yakub helped Elijah Muhammad explain the violence directed…


You might also like...

Book cover of Benghazi! A New History of the Fiasco that Pushed America and its World to the Brink

Ethan Chorin Author Of Benghazi! A New History of the Fiasco that Pushed America and its World to the Brink

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Story-lover Middle East expert Curious Iconoclast Optimist

Ethan's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

Benghazi: A New History is a look back at the enigmatic 2012 attack on the US mission in Benghazi, Libya, its long-tail causes, and devastating (and largely unexamined) consequences for US domestic politics and foreign policy. It contains information not found elsewhere, and is backed up by 40 pages of citations and interviews with more than 250 key protagonists, experts, and witnesses.

So far, the book is the main -- and only -- antidote to a slew of early partisan “Benghazi” polemics, and the first to put the attack in its longer term historical, political, and social context. If you want to understand some of the events that have shaped present-day America, from political polarization and the election of Donald Trump, to January 6, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, Russian expansionism, and the current Israel-Hamas war, I argue, you need to understand some of the twists and turns of America's most infamous "non-scandal, scandal.”

I was in Benghazi well before, during, and after the attack as a US diplomat and co-director of a medical NGO. I have written three books, and have been a contributor to The NYT, Foreign Affairs, Forbes, Salon, The Financial Times, Newsweek, and others.

By Ethan Chorin,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Benghazi! A New History of the Fiasco that Pushed America and its World to the Brink as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

On September 11, 2012, Al Qaeda proxies attacked and set fire to the US mission in Benghazi, Libya, killing a US Ambassador and three other Americans.  The attack launched one of the longest and most consequential 'scandals' in US history, only to disappear from public view once its political value was spent. 

Written in a highly engaging narrative style by one of a few Western experts on Libya, and decidely non-partisan, Benghazi!: A New History is the first to provide the full context for an event that divided, incited, and baffled most of America for more than three years, while silently reshaping…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in cults, social reformers, and Islam?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about cults, social reformers, and Islam.

Cults Explore 56 books about cults
Social Reformers Explore 36 books about social reformers
Islam Explore 121 books about Islam