James Darsey has argued that a primitive source of reform rhetoric in America is the Old Testament. We argue that the discourse of American reform has another rhetorical ancestor that originates from the prophetic tradition of the American Religion, a scholarly term for the democratic religiosity of nineteenth-century America. By performing a comparative analysis of three theophanies, recorded in the personal narrative accounts of Emanuel Swedenborg, Joseph Smith, and Ellen G. White, we present a theory of the rhetoric of theophany. We then analyze Eugene V. Debs’s “How I Became a Socialist” as the reformer equivalent of a theophanic conversion myth, discussing how the experientialism, polarization, and subversiveness of theophanic rhetoric enables prophets and reformers to launch their careers, even from places of marginalization.

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