by Mitch Horowitz, author of Occult America: White House Seances, Ouija Circles, Masons, and the Secret Mystic History of Our Nation (Bantam hardcover 2009, Bantam trade paperback October 2010).
In 1970, philosopher Jacob Needleman opened a new discussion about religion in America. His book The New Religions was one of the first scholarly works to consider esoteric and alternative religious movements not as oddball trends but as forces that reflected a serious and widespread search for meaning among young Americans.
A generation later, this discussion has been expanded by a broad range of mainstream religious scholars – from Catherine Albanese to Jeffrey J. Kripal to Ann Braude – who are transforming how we understand the nation’s alternative religious culture. New Age or metaphysical movements are no longer viewed within academia as fringe oddities but as crucial aspects of our religious history. This line of study should be encouraged. Without it, we cannot fully understand the nature of America’s religious life.
In my book Occult America, I enter this discussion by arguing that the nation’s occult and esoteric religious movements of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries shaped today’s culture of therapeutic spirituality, and helped spread widely held liberal attitudes about religion.
First a definition: I use “occult” to describe religious or spiritual systems that believe in an unseen world whose forces act upon us and through us. This hidden world, it is believed, can be tapped for personal insight and practical help. Think of channeling, séances, astrology, numerology, and the type of mind-power mysticism popularized in The Secret. Of course, these things also exist within mainline faiths. But practices such as spirit channeling, divination, or mind-power metaphysics are traditionally considered occult or supernatural when pursued outside the parameters of established churches and congregations.
Early American history is entwined with this kind of 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 Spiritualism, mediumship, table-rapping, séances, and other occult sensations – many of which mirrored, and aided, the rise of suffragism and early progressive movements.
Spiritualism possessed a surprising culture of egalitarianism and social activism. The movement attracted the interest and participation of social reformers because, among other things, it provided one of the first settings in modern life in which women could serve as religious leaders, at least of a certain sort. Most spirit mediums were women – and the social opening that Spiritualism provided attracted a generation of suffragists. “Spiritualism,” announced the voting-rights pioneer Mary Fenn Love, “has inaugurated the era of woman.” The nation’s social and spiritual radicals were becoming joined, and the partnership would never fade.
In the 1840s, American mystical movements were also developing the first stirrings of a therapeutic or healing-based spirituality. One of the most important of these was the “mental healing” movement that emerged in New England. By mid-century, a Maine clockmaker named Phineas Quimby, partly acting on his own ideas and partly though the influences of Swedenborgian philosophy and Mesmerism, began experimenting with how people’s moods could influence their physical wellbeing. He codified his system into a set of cosmic laws – or a “Christian science,” a term adopted by his most influential student, Mary Baker Eddy.
Throughout the latter part of the nineteenth century, Spiritualism also developed a healing spirituality, though more of a psychological sort. In an age of high rates of childhood mortality, grieving families rarely had anywhere to turn to relieve their suffering. Calvinist Protestantism offered nothing in the way of pastoral counseling. Hence, many people sought solace at the séance table. The letters and diaries of the era attest to educated people experiencing some of the most moving episodes of their lives with hands joined around a darkened séance circle. Those who believed in the reality of contact often testified to having an experience of catharsis. The earliest stirrings of a therapeutic spirituality appear in both mental-healing and Spiritualism.
By the dawn of the twentieth century, mediums and mind-cure practitioners were applying their supernatural principles to other areas of life. The mind-power, or positive thinking, movement that grew out of Quimby’s experiments seemed to hold the answer to economic anxiety and the urge for upward mobility. To a nation tempted by mass-produced goods, and possessed of a bootstrap mentality, a mental approach to success felt intuitively right. This became the template for the leading self-help philosophies of the twentieth century from Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich to Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking, and finally, in our own time, to the mega-selling book and movie The Secret.
In the mid-twentieth century, the new spiritual therapies – from meditation to motivational thinking – began revolutionizing how religion was understood: not only as a source of salvation but as a means of healing. This laid the groundwork for the culture of self-help spirituality often associated with the New Age. Indeed, by the late 1960s and early 1970s, there no longer existed any easily discerned “occult” or “Eastern” or “yogic” subculture; rather, America experienced the rise of a vast metaphysical culture that appeared ever-expanding, ever accommodating, and perpetually read to adapt to an individual’s needs. As seen through the success of Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking, concepts that had once seemed magical could easily be recast in language with which the church-going public was comfortable. Hence, the spiritual avant-garde entered the mainstream.
As I write near the end of Occult America, religious Americans in the early twenty-first century shared, to a greater or lesser extent, these traits:
1. Belief in the therapeutic value of spiritual or religious ideas.
2. Belief in a mind–body connection in health.
3. Belief that human consciousness is evolving to higher stages.
4. Belief that thoughts, in some greater or lesser measure, determine reality.
5. Belief that spiritual understanding is available without allegiance to a specific religion or doctrine.
To a very great degree, these ideas, in their most popular form, entered our culture through occult personas and groups, only a few of which I’ve noted here. These concepts were once the domain of America’s occult and alternative spiritual movements – and today are found across the religious landscape. In this sense, “occult America” had changed our world.
A widely known writer and speaker on the history and impact of alternative spirituality, Mitch Horowitz is the editor-in-chief of Tarcher/Penguin and the author of Occult America (Bantam 2009/2010), which The Washington Post Book World called: “Fascinating…a serious, wide-ranging study of all the magical, mystical, and spiritual movements that have arisen and influenced American history in often-surprising ways.” Horowitz has written for U.S. News & World Report, The Washington Post, Parabola, and BoingBoing. He has recently appeared on CBS Sunday Morning, Dateline NBC, and All Things Considered. You can visit him online at www.MitchHorowitz.com