Author of the Month

Mitch Horowitz, Author of the Month for August 2009

Occult America: The Secret History of How Mysticism Shaped Our Nation (cont.)
By Mitch Horowitz

An Occult Republic

Even in its colonial history, America was entwined with esoteric spirituality. North America's first intentional mystical community reached its shores in the summer of 1694. That year, the determined spiritual philosopher Johannes Kelpius led about forty pilgrims out of Central Germany - a region decimated by the Thirty Years' War - and to the banks of the Wissahickon Creek, just beyond Philadelphia. The city then hosted only about 500 houses, but it represented a Mecca of freedom for the Kelpius circle, who longed for a new homeland where they could practice their brands of astrology, alchemy, numerology, and mystical Christianity without fear of harassment from church or government.

Soon more mystical thinkers from the Rhine Valley journeyed to America, building a larger commune at Ephrata, Pennsylvania. A young woman named Ann Lee fled persecution in her native Manchester, England and relocated her esoteric sect, the "Shaking Quakers" - or the Shakers - to upstate New York in 1776. That same year, a Rhode Island girl, Jemima Wilkinson, declared herself a spirit channeler, took the name Publick Universal Friend, and began to preach across the northeast. The trend was set: America became a destination for religious idealists, especially those of a supernatural bent.

By the 1830s and 40s, a region of central New York State called "the Burned-Over District" (so-named for its religious passions) became the magnetic center for the religious radicalism sweeping the young nation. Stretching from Albany to Buffalo, it was the Mt. Sinai of American mysticism, giving birth to new religions such as Mormonism and Seventh-Day Adventism, and also to the spread of Spiritualism, Mesmerism, mediumship, table-rapping, séances, and other occult sensations - many of which mirrored, and aided, the rise of Suffragism and related progressive movements. The nation's occult culture gave women their first opportunity to openly serve as religious leaders - in this case as spirit mediums, seers, and channlers. America's social and spiritual radicals were becoming joined, and the partnership would never fade.

The robust growth of occult and mystical movements in nineteenth-century America was aided by the influence of three mighty social and spiritual movements: Freemasonry, Transcendentalism, and Spiritualism. Each helped transform the young nation into a laboratory for religious experiment and a springboard for the revolutions in nontraditional and therapeutic spirituality that eventually swept the globe. Consider:

  • Freemasonry is, perhaps, a direct remnant of the most radical thought movement to emerge from the Reformation, and it instilled a strong anti-authoritarian streak in America's early religious culture. Masonry's penchant for occult and pagan symbolism suggests how some of the nation's Founders - many of whom were Masons - understood religious truth as emanating from a common source that could be found in different cultures throughout history, including those of a mystical and pre-Christian past. American Masonry emphasized religious tolerance, which its highly placed members, including George Washington (pictured in Masonic garb at left) and Benjamin Franklin, modeled and interwove throughout American life. Early in his presidency, Washington took matters a step further. In a letter to the congregation of a Rhode Island synagogue, the first president wrote: "It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent national gifts." In other words, minority religions were no longer guests of the new republic, but full members. Whatever Freemasonry's airs of secrecy and images of skulls, pyramids, and all-seeing eyes, it is in this principle where one finds the order's truly most radical, even dangerous, idea: the encouragement of different faiths within a single nation.
  • In New England in the mid-nineteenth century, the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and their contemporaries extolled the individual's capacity for spiritual self-discovery beyond the boundaries of established religion. Their thought movement called itself Transcendentalism and introduced mystical concepts from Eastern and Western esoteric traditions into the bloodstream of American life. As defined by these "Yankee mystics," Transcendentalism believed the seat of worship - the place of communion with the Divine - existed within. As the Transcendentalists saw it, the individual mirrors a larger cosmos, which bestows a natural order, or ebb and flow of life, and a sense of objective truth. This truth can be verified by lived experience, as it has by seekers throughout history. Transcendentalists drew freely on "Hindoo" texts, such as the Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita, as well as the ethical and religious traditions of antiquity. Echoing the Hermetic concept of As Above, So Below, Emerson depicted man as a microcosm of the universe. ("The world," he wrote, "globes itself in a drop of dew.") Indeed, some saw within Transcendentalism the idea that man shapes the outer world as much as it shapes him. Philosophy, wrote Emerson, "proceeds on the faith that a law determines all phenomena...That law, when in the mind, is an idea." In this sense, Transcendentalism aided the rise of the "positive thinking" and self-improvement movements of the twentieth century.
  • In the late 1840s, there dawned a movement that popularized belief in the supernatural like nothing the young nation had ever seen. It was called Spiritualism. Through table-rapping, séances, and mediumistic trances, millions of Americans became convinced that communication with the "other side" was available to each individual. Spiritualism also became the first religious movement that Americans exported abroad, inspiring séance circles in London and Paris. Yet the movement had another, largely unknown side. Spiritualism possessed a surprising culture of egalitarianism and social concern. The movement attracted the interest and participation of social reformers because, among other things, it provided a setting in which women - for one of the first times in modern history - could serve as religious leaders, at least of a certain kind. Many spirit mediums were women - active suffragettes among them. Spiritualism's thought leaders, which included the formidable Anglo-American religious thinker Emma Hardinge Britten, saw the movement as the basis of a new religious and social order. Suffragism, free love, talking to the dead, transcendental visions, communal living - each found expression within Spiritualism.
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