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

The Theosophical Dawn

H.P. Blavatsky in New York City in the late 1870s

While Spiritualism reached its peak of influence in the United States - and exported its ideas abroad - there appeared in America an occult organization like nothing the West had ever seen. Neither quite Eastern nor Western, it was named the Theosophical Society. Its stated aim was to recover forgotten esoteric ideas at the heart of the world's religious traditions. Theosophy's leading light, a brilliant and eccentric Russian noblewoman named Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, explained that in 1873 she journeyed to America, the land of Spiritualism, "with feelings not unlike those of a Mohammedan approaching the birthplace of his Prophet." The opening created by Spiritualism made the young nation into a magnet for every kind of spiritual experiment.

With retired Civil War colonel Henry Steel Olcott at her side, Madame Blavatsky founded the Theosophical Society in New York City in 1875. Within three years, however, Blavatsky and Olcott departed for India, where their organization grew increasingly active in the early 1880s. At the time, Theosophy dedicated itself to reintroducing Hindu and Buddhist ideas in India and Sri Lanka, whose religious traditions were under twin assault from British colonial rule and missionary campaigns. A core part of Theosophy's mission was to re-ignite interest - in Europe, Asia, and America - in the mystical teachings of the East. The consequences were as enormous as they are today forgotten.

A young, starch-collared law student named Mohandas Gandhi came into contact with Blavatsky's followers when he was studying in London in 1889. In a remarkably overlooked fact of twentieth-century history, Gandhi very openly credited Theosophy with bringing him back to Hinduism, to the study of its holy book, the Bhagavad Gita (which became the guiding text of Gandhi's life), and to the ideals of universal brotherhood. Madame Blavatsky's Key to Theosophy, Gandhi wrote in his autobiography, "stimulated in me the desire to read books on Hinduism, and disabused me of the notion fostered by the missionaries that Hinduism was rife with superstition." Theosophy, Gandhi later told his biographer, "is Hinduism at its best." Hence, it was not in America alone that occultism and social reform crossed paths.

Indeed, the mystical experimentation that had been cut short by the Thirty Years' War seemed everywhere to flourish anew in Europe in the second half of the nineteenth century. On the continent as in America, the theories of Darwin had the dual effect of undermining old ecclesiastical certainties while creating a new hunger for mystery in a biologically ordered world. For avant-garde artists and intellectuals who had lost faith in old-line religion, esoteric philosophies offered a new light. In 1855, French writer-magician Eliphas Lévi, in his Transcendental Magic, proclaimed the existence of an occult philosophy hidden at the base of all "ancient doctrines" and "under the seal of all sacred writings in the ruins of Nineveh or Thebes, on the crumbling stones of old temples and on the blackened visage of the Assyrian or Egyptian sphinx…in the cryptic emblems of our old books on alchemy, in the ceremonies practiced at reception by all secret societies." In Lévi's vision, occultists discovered a renewed sense of mission and drama.

What came to be seen as a European occult revival attracted formidable intellects and earnest seekers, though with a peculiar twist: leading European occultists of the late nineteenth century often adopted airs of secrecy and pageantry, as if mimicking the outer appearances of ancient temple orders and mysterious sects would assist their quest to revive lost or fragmentary knowledge. Often on the thin pretext of concealing hallowed doctrine, they cloaked their study groups and fraternities in mystery and exclusivity. In America, by contrast, occult spirituality was about to make its deepest inroads into the settings of mainstream daily life.

The Power of Mind

By the late nineteenth century, America was suffused with influences from Freemasonry, Transcendentalism, Theosophy, and Spiritualism. Each, in its own fashion, imbued the nation's spiritual culture with the conviction that the Divine existed not at the top rung of a cosmic ladder, but within the settings of ordinary existence.

And ordinary existence was undergoing remarkable changes. As the nineteenth century closed, the fruits of modern science appeared everywhere: telegraphs, motor engines, electricity, and automated production. In medicine, Pasteur's germ theory was explaining illnesses that for years had resisted understanding. In biology, Darwin had theorized a gradual order in the development of all forms of life. In politics, Marx had classified economics as a matter of "science," in which inevitable outcomes could be foreseen. In psychology, Freud had begun to codify childhood traumas that triggered adult neuroses, and hypnotists (more-respectable versions of Mesmerists) claimed the power to alter behavior through autosuggestion and conditioning. Caught in this onrush of currents, intellectual leaders from all walks of life-academia, clergy, business-reasoned that scientific principles were applicable to every aspect of existence. Why couldn't there be a "science" of success, or even a "science" of religion-that is, a protocol of definable, rational steps that would produce a desired result?


Inspired by the possibilities, a group of religious thinkers and impresarios formed a loosely knit spiritual movement around this "scientific" religious concept. Thoughts, they argued, could be seen to manifest into actual events, such as health or sickness, wealth or poverty. They claimed Ralph Waldo Emerson as their founding prophet: "We know," the Concord mystic wrote in 1841, "that the ancestor of every action is a thought." The Bible, in their reading, seemed to agree, particularly in the Proverb: "As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he." In an enthused leap of reasoning, the movement that came to be known as New Thought maintained that the individual's creative mind was one and the same as the creative force called God. As such, a person could literally think his dreams to life. It was America's boldest-and most influential-attempt at what one religious scholar called "a practical use of the occult powers of the soul."

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