When most people think of American religion we think of evangelicals preaching to huge stadiums, or Protestant ministers in neighborhood churches, or choirs in southern Baptist congregations. Most Americans believe America is a Christian country, founded by Christians.
But a new vision of American history has been born in the last twenty years as historians of American culture have overcome prejudice and peer pressure to reveal a rich spiritual life until now all but ignored, and the revelation that the more things change the more they stay the same.
THEN AS NOW
Do you have a friend who sees a trance channel? Someone who enjoys reality shows about mediums on cable television, or perhaps one who reads books about the famous American psychic Edgar Cayce? While Cayce’s predictions about the discovery of Atlantis, and of violent earth changes collapsing large areas of the American continent, have so far failed to materialize, many of his readings about healing and diet foreshadowed advice now common in modern medicine.
But long before the sleeping prophet reported on reincarnation Americans were exploring the mysteries of conversing with the dead. Prior to the American Revolution the Quakers of Pennsylvania continued the experiments of their 17th century English brethren who were not content with mere communication but who had also tried to raise the freshly buried dead by prayer and commands inspired by the New Testament. 17th century American Quakers were also no strangers to astrology and other forms of divination.
In 1838 several young women of the Shaker community were walking in a field when above their heads they heard “beautiful singing.” Back home they danced around their rooms in a quiet frenzy “under the influence of a power not their own.” Then they fell into trances and were lifted onto beds where they gave messages from the dead. Like Edgar Cayce, they were sleeping prophets. They called them then what we call them now: spirit mediums.
Ever read your horoscope in a newspaper? Have a relative who bugs you about the latest astrological prognostication for your sign or society in general? The gentlemen farmers of the Virginia Colony studied the stars for much more than reckoning the best time for planting. They also painted mystical symbols on their barns to ward off evil, symbols that would have been more familiar to Elizabethan occultists than average God fearing Christians.
Know a friend who prefers home cures to modern medicine? Maybe a superstitious kid with a four leaf clover or some other lucky charm? Have you ever known someone who practices candle magic? You would have found all that and more among the hill people of early Kentucky, where if you wanted your newborn to have a beautiful singing voice you would have touched him with a bell.
Cotton Mather was an important figure of the Salem Witch Trials, but he was also an admirer of John Winthrop Jr. the eldest son of John Winthrop the Puritan governor of Massachusetts Bay and nemesis of Tom Morton the Pagan Pilgrim. Unlike his devout father, John Jr., first governor of Connecticut, was an herbal alchemist and healer who brought to America most of the library of that most notorious of English wizards, Queen Elizabeth’s favorite, John Dee. When John Jr. died Mather eulogized him as “Hermes Christianus,” suggesting that Christ and the God revered by alchemists could coexist in America. Cotton Mather may have rejected witchcraft but he was no stranger to metaphysics.
Then as now America was an amazing blend of every faith from everywhere. African slaves brought their kitchen cures, voodoo spells and intoxicating rhythms. Native Americans shared herbal remedies, vision quests, and sacred smoke. The French brought tarot cards and the dramatic Freemasonry of the Grand Orient de France, an inspiration to Albert Pike, the brigadier general, frontiersman and lawyer who authored Morals and Dogma of the Ancient and Accepted Rite of Freemasonry (1871) the classic of American Freemasonry; a good deal of which was cribbed from writings by Eliphas Levi, the Parisian cabalist and magus. Pike is the only member of the Confederacy to be memorialized by a statue in Washington D.C. He would sometimes show up at Freemason meetings fresh from his western travels still dressed in mountain man garb.
Germans brought America Rosicrucian plans for an enlightened new world, and the mystical theosophy of Jakob Boehme. The British brought their love for that father of science Francis Bacon, as well as their own form of Freemasonry, but they also brought their preoccupation with Elizabethan angelic magic, and the Hellfire Club which counted among its members for a time Benjamin Franklin, and which foreshadowed some of the radical ideas about freedom later promulgated by the notorious humorist Aleister Crowley.
African religion was an early transplant to America. In 1680 the Anglican minister Morgan Godwyn complained of spirit possession among the slaves, who drummed and danced in rituals for rain. The hoodoo that would become so familiar in the American south was already being practiced as dog teeth, feathers, broken bottles and egg shells were gathered for use in spells. A hundred years later the notorious dances at Congo Square in New Orleans gave birth to the rhythms of jazz and later rock and roll, two characteristically American art forms.
Immigrants from Sweden contributed the voluminous writings of scientist and philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg. His discoveries regarding the cerebral cortex, cerebrospinal fluid, the pituitary gland and the nervous system, his advances in metallurgy, and his nebular hypothesis were exceeded only by his flights of fancy regarding the inhabitants and details of other planets and dimensions. His writing influenced generations of Americans including the famous 19th century medium Andrew Jackson Davis.
The Chinese contributed their enigmatic oracle The Book of Crises or I Ching, acupuncture and the philosophy of Taoism. India contributed yoga, the Bhagavad Gita and Ayurvedic medicine. Japan gave America zen. From the Egyptian Book of the Dead to the Tibetan Book of the Dead, all of these were crucial to the counterculture of the beats in the 1950’s and the hippies of the 1960’s, and they remain essential streams in the great river of America’s spiritual heritage.
American presidents from Lincoln to Reagan have consulted these nonconventional sources. Scholars have given a name to this grab bag of beliefs and practices and what it became as it and America evolved together. They call it American Metaphysical Religion.
In modern religious America sin is no longer the unavoidable pain of life as understood by orthodox European Christianity. Suffering, Mother Theresa’s path to salvation, never quite caught on in America. Instead pain is a navigational warning to help the traveller get back on the road to pleasure.
Sin once meant damnation. Salvation required sacrifices. But to Americans after the Civil War, for example, sin meant absence from lost loved ones; seances were salvation. Today sin is understood by many American Christians as lack of the material wealth that provides enhanced opportunities for the pursuit of truth, freedom, and ultimately immortality.
American Metaphysical Religion brought yoga classes to Christian churches all over the world. In fact, scholars argue that some denominations of American Christianity belong to the lineage of American Metaphysical Religion in all but name.
A conservative estimate of the number of Americans with a casual or dedicated interest in American Metaphysical Religion is ten million, making American Metaphysical Religion bigger than the American Mormon Church or the American Methodist Church. 31% of Americans believe in astrology according to a poll from 2008, which would put the number of Americans involved in American Metaphysical Religion, on the high end, at around one hundred million.
Unlike their well organized, community oriented Christian fellow citizens, metaphysicians tend to be private. Many groups were born and died in secrecy. Records were destroyed to avoid the eye of history: the natural result of generations of persecution and ridicule, from the witch trials of Salem to the 20th Century U.S. Army’s reluctance to allow pagan symbols on graves in military cemeteries.
In the Richmond Daily Dispatch, the Confederacy’s newspaper of record, Northerners were condemned as demon possessed. Yankees weren’t real Christian Americans, they were Spiritualists. and therefore debauched. To this day in many American subcultures admitting an interest in mediumship, tarot or astrology invites ridicule.
American Metaphysical Religion is the story of many courageous Americans who dared to define their own spiritual paths against overwhelming odds. In last month’s blog we considered Thomas Morton, the Pagan Pilgrim. In future issues we’ll survey other famous and obscure contributors to American Metaphysical Religion’s impact on the history of the United States, including:
Ralph Waldo Emerson may have looked with contempt upon the levitating tables and ghostly knocks of Spiritualism, but he shared the audacious goal of discovering a direct relationship with the spiritual world. For Emerson that meant studying then setting aside all religions to find a fresh relationship with Truth with a capital T. Emerson perused the cutting edge scholarship of his time to become one of the first Americans to think deeply about the religious traditions of India and China, but he considered nature itself the most profound scripture of revelation.
What began with annoying knocks and furniture moving for no visible reason, what we would call, and they called, poltergeist phenomena, turned into a worldwide obsession when the Fox sisters asked the mysterious source of the noise to copy the snaps of their fingers. Soon hundreds of neighbors thronged the humble rented house just a block from the local church to witness the communications of a peddler who said he had been murdered in that very room. The witnesses were stunned when the ages and dates of death of lost family members were knocked accurately Every inch of the premises were searched for any sign of tampering but nothing suspicious was found.
Maggie and Katie had an older sister, Leah, who quickly parlayed them into a money making venture that heralded a new age of easy communication with the dead. The sisters had few other alternatives: only the hard lives of factory work or farm drudgery. Maggie and Katy were romanced by the wealthy and powerful; but so many gifts of fine wine and champagne caused a lifelong struggle with alcoholism. Many women who had been silenced all their lives by proper manners found freedom of self expression as mediums. Many of them, including the Fox sisters, then fought for women’s rights and the abolition of slavery.
Late in life, all but forgotten by the movement they did so much to help popularize, the Fox sisters claimed to have faked it all. Angry at Leah, who arranged for herself all the respect and comforts her sisters lacked, Maggie and Katy denounced her as the mastermind of an elaborate deception. In front of a rowdy audience denouncing her on the one hand as a fraud and on the other as a traitor, Maggie demonstrated some of her tricks: cracking her joints with a knack for manipulating the acoustics of a room. Many of her explanations of how she faked their more inexplicable manifestations, and demonstrations of knowledge, were as mysterious as the events themselves. Leah, jeered on the streets of her own neighborhood, died soon after. Later the sisters recanted their confessions. They claimed that their horror at the circus of fraud the world of mediumship had become had betrayed them into the hands of Catholics eager to discredit spiritualism. Since it was obvious their principle motivation by then was money for survival, only their closest friends stayed loyal. Katie and Maggie died penniless, teased by street children, while the more popular mediums of the day, many of them extravagant impostors providing popular entertainment, lived in luxury.
Doctor Phineas P. Quimby practiced a talking cure that many claimed talked them out of serious diseases. Quimby explained that he could sympathize with a patient, even feeling their symptoms, then with the right suggestion delivered in conversation he could change the patient’s belief. In one example a man with a diagnosed heart condition was asked to remember when the symptoms first appeared. He recalled the time he clutched for his missing wallet which he normally carried in his breast pocket. Realizing the connection between his anxiety about money and his disease he claimed to have been completely cured. But Quimby was also known for healing at a distance, which he explained by assuring patients that he could tune into their true inner selves, of which the body was “nothing but a dense shadow, condensed into what is called matter, or ignorance of God and Wisdom,” Quimby allegedly wrote. “The priests and doctors conspire together to humbug the people, and they have invented all sorts of stories to frighten man and keep him under their power. the truth shall set you free.”
Quimby saw as many as five hundred patients a year. His family showed off testimonials and used them cleverly in advertising “Doctor” Quimby’s services. But who really wrote the three volumes of Quimby’s Complete Writings? Quimby himself was almost illiterate. The most likely candidate is his long time secretary, the well educated and cultured Emma Ware. Several personal notes by Quimby in his own very poor writing, and a note from Emma, survive to witness that he wasn’t capable of the supple cadence and carefully thought out metaphors of his essays. But Emma nevertheless intends her letter to be evidence that Quimby cured her, and many others.
Careful scholarship by Professor Gillian Gill and others has revealed contemporary testimonies that shed a different light on Quimby. Reports from embarrassed mill girls, and shocked wives, of indecent advances, and two witnesses to Quimby’s vast fluency in swear words, quite a contrast to the confident, kindly old healer his followers remembered. One letter writer tells a story full of pathos about a small boy dying, trying to convince himself Quimby was making him better, trying vainly to think and believe his way free of death’s clutches. Was Quimby a gentle old healer or a horny hustler? As the history of spiritual leaders in general suggests he may have been both. Perhaps Quimby healed only psychosomatic conditions that had been mistaken for more serious illnesses, but the fact remains that he positively transformed the lives of a few thousand people. When he died in 1866 it seemed his family and a few friends would remember his practice and theory. But his influence only increased. By the turn of the century he was revered by the New Thought movement as their founding father.
Ironically, though Emma Ware may have written the essays of Quimby, another of his patients would take Quimby and Ware’s ideas and make them her own and then the world’s. Quimby healed Mary Baker Eddy, and the Quimby family recruited her to write gushing letters of endorsement to the local paper. She became his devoted student, taking down notes of his conversations. Eddy’s evolution from invalid to what Mark Twain called “monarch” of Christian Science made her the most powerful woman in the United States. In 1906 thirty thousand of her followers joined her in Boston for the dedication of the expanded, and magnificent by any measure, Mother Church. In her eighties Eddy said she was dying not because of old age but because of the murderous thoughts of the press who were expecting her death, and of the leaders of her own Church of Christian Science who were too eager to get her out of the way so they could run the profitable international organization themselves. At it’s peak around 1971 almost two thousand churches were operating worldwide. But by 2009 there were only nine hundred.
Most people have heard of Mark Twain and his classics about Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and The Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court, but few know that he also wrote scathing satires of spiritualism (Extracts from Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven) and Mary Baker Eddy (Christian Science and “The Secret History of Eddypus, the World Empire”). In Twain’s heaven harps are handed to new arrivals by spirits who have quickly become bored with the heavenly choir. In Twain’s Christian Science a fellow with so many broken bones he looks like a hat-rack isn’t reassured when told his pain is purely imaginary. Yet earlier in his career, as a reporter, Samuel Clemons had written newspaper articles endorsing mediums he encountered in San Francisco. In grief over his brother’s death he turned to a medium whose inept and fraudulent reading soured Mark Twain on mediumship for the rest of his life. After death, he enjoyed one of the most prolific of all careers of allegedly channeled writers who returned from the beyond, however he like most seemed to lack the talent he had when alive.
Willy Reichel was a German tourist who traveled across America at the start of the Twentieth Century seeking Spiritualist adventures. He was disappointed from one end of the country to the other until he reached San Francisco. How can we explain his excited eyewitness account of a celebrated medium there who conjured Willy’s dead friend? The spirit wore appropriate regional clothing, conversed with his old friend in the correct German dialect, and provided details about their adventures as young men. Among the wealth of frauds and hustles that fill the history of spiritualism many stories like Willy’s can be found. Skeptics dismiss them all as fantasy and lies, until their own encounters with the inexplicable.
Victoria Woodhull’s father was not only cruel and violent, he also abused her sexually. Noticing she and her sister had a knack for diagnosing illness he put them on the road, augmented the show with his own old fashioned mind reading hustles, and sold snake oil at two bucks a bottle. At age fifteen Victoria married a doctor who turned out to be a drug addict, a drunk and a regular at the local brothels. To support her husband and first child, a son whose brain damage may have been caused by his father, Victoria turned to the stage, and some say to prostitution. When her drunken husband almost killed their newborn daughter Zulu by forgetting to tie off the cut umbilical cord Victoria decided to leave him. Relatives took care of the children as Victoria rejoined her sister, traveling for several years as spiritual healers.
Victoria’s second husband, Colonel Blood, the Union Army Civil War veteran, inspired her to fight for women’s rights. Under the patronage of that titan of’ industry Cornelius Vanderbilt, Victoria became the first female stock broker, opening with her sister a brokerage on Wall Street, and then a muck raking newspaper. Financially independent now, Victoria took good care of her children. She travelled through 19th century America lecturing on the controversial subject of free love. This was not the free love of the 1960’s. Victoria argued that wives should be allowed to leave abusive marriages. Marriage should be an act of love, not economic expediency, or improvement of social standing for the bride’s family.
Victoria Woodhull was the first woman to speak before the Judicial Committee of the United States Congress. Her inspiring speech on the subject of voting rights for women she claimed had been dictated to her by her spirit guide, the ancient Athenian orator Demosthenes. In 1872 she became the first female presidential candidate in American history, although her announced vice president on the ticket, the great African American abolitionist Frederick Douglass, never acknowledged his nomination. The U.S government refused to print her name on the ballot. Under age 35, she was too young to legally run. When she used her newspaper to expose the adultery of America’s most beloved Christian preacher of the day it was revealed she herself lived with her lover, her husband, and her ex-husband. First she was ruined financially, then charges were trumped up against her. Her spirits abandoned her, she said, her gift seemed to blink off. She was exorcised by Catholic monks as arranged by her mother. Then Victoria divorced her free thinking husband. Despised and notorious she fled the United States for the United Kingdom where she married an English lord. There with her daughter Zulu she published a magazine called The Humanitarian. In her later years as a noble widow she was known for her dignity and for being good to the people of her lands. No one remembered or would have believed the truth about her youth in America.
Paschal Beverly Randolph may have been born a free African American but as a child he was still forced by poverty to beg on the streets of New York City. He taught himself to read and write several languages. He traveled across several continents in search of secret knowledge. By 1860 he was a respected writer of wild fiction and even wilder non fiction: books about sex magic, occult mirrors, the plight of women throughout human history, time travel, ESP, erotic potions, and birth control. Randolph was founder of the first public Rosicrucian order in America. His notorious secret rituals included gatherings of black men and white women where alcohol flowed freely and hashish provided the incense, at a time when interracial sexual relationships were illegal. His complex amalgam of cabala, spiritualism, and ceremonial ritual foreshadowed many theories and practices of the New Age. Madame Blavatsky borrowed some of his concepts but she held him in contempt, in private using the n word to refer to him. She claimed that his alleged suicide in 1875, or perhaps murder, was the result of a magical battle between them that he lost. Randolph had the peculiar distinction of being the only black man on Lincoln’s funeral train, until he was noticed and dropped off at the next stop.
Thomas Johnson’s father was a United States senator who later became a member of the Confederate Congress. Tom was a lawyer who longed to be a professor of philosophy. He served as mayor of his small town for ten years, and as president of the local board of education, but his true passion was Plato. He exchanged letters with the famous transcendentalist Bronson Alcott, a close friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson, the author in whose essay “Intellect” Tom read a passage that transformed his life: “This band of grandees, Hermes, Heraclitus, Empedocles, Plato, Plotinus, Olympiodorus, Proclus, Synesius and the rest, have somewhat so vast in their logic, so primary in their thinking, that it seems antecedent to all the ordinary distinctions of rhetoric and literature, and to be at once poetry and music and dancing and astronomy and mathematics. I am present at the sowing of the seed of the world. With a geometry of sunbeams the soul lays the foundations of nature.”
Tom collected a library of eight thousand volumes, shipping them to the quiet hamlet of Osceola, Missouri, just forty miles southeast of Kansas City the biggest cow town south of Chicago, a frontier cacophony of cowboys and endless stockyards. In 1861 the notorious Jayhawkers burned and looted Osceola during their campaign to drive pro-slavery folk out of Kansas and Missouri. Osceola’s population of 2500 dropped to 200. The attack inspired the 1976 Clint Eastwood film The Outlaw Josey Wales. Just twenty years after the attack, only sixteen years after the Civil War, Tom published a magazine that had no current events and the only obituaries were of long dead philosophers. Instead it reprinted english translations of the Platonic and Neoplatonic teachers of the ancient pagan civilizations of Greece and Rome.
Tom called his chimerical publication The Platonist. In 1881 the first issue arrived, the same month as prohibition made Kansas a dry state. His Platonic magazine had a very small subscription base but it sailed through a year and a half of monthly issues providing rare texts of profound pagan spirituality in the middle of the midwest when the midwest was still the wild west. But the next issue didn’t come out until 1884; regular issues followed for almost a year. Two years passed before the next edition arrived, now half the size, with a cleaner more modern layout and font, and articles about Theosophy and other new fangled religions mixed in. The Platonist lasted almost two more years appearing for the final time in 1888. By then the cattle of Kansas City had been overwhelmed by fields of cotton. Leadbelly was born, and so was Phillip Francis Nowlan the science fiction writer who invented Buck Rogers. The first Sherlock Holmes stories were published. Women held a strike in the matchstick factories of England where their skin and jaws were eaten away by phosphorus so that their disfigured faces glowed in the dark. That year Jack the Ripper terrified first London, then the world. The bold modern age cared as little for Plato as it did for mediums. But both would rise in popularity again.
William Walker Atkinson was a successful lawyer in Chicago who wrote and self published popular books in his own name and a host of pseudonyms including Yogi Ramacharaka, Swami Bhakti Vishita, Swami Panchadasi, Theron Q. Dumont, Magus Incognito and The Three Initiates. Atkinson advised his readers on everything from the breathing exercises and asanas of Hatha Yoga to the use of self hypnosis for healing and prosperity. He was a pioneer of the New Thought and Positive Thinking movements. Many of his books, written over a hundred years ago, are still popular today, and perhaps most surprising, he was widely read and respected in India, and still is.
The Chihenna-Chiricahua Apache warrior and medicine woman Lozen, little sister of Chief Victorio, displayed an uncanny ability to protect her tribe by sensing the location of the U.S. Cavalry that was hunting them. Lozen would stand with her arms outstretched, palms open to the sky. Saying a prayer that affirmed her connection and dependence on Ussen the supreme Apache deity, she could sense the direction, proximity and number of the enemy by the tingling in her arms. When she stayed behind to help a pregnant Apache woman give birth Victorio stumbled into an ambush by the Mexican army; he and his band were slaughtered. Lozen then joined Geronimo in a campaign of revenge that evaded and terrorized the U.S. Cavalry for years. When she convinced Geronimo to surrender so they could be reunited with their families who had been sent far away to Florida the U.S. government broke the agreement. She died of tuberculosis, like so many of her tribe, a prisoner of war far away from her home on a bleak reservation in Alabama around 1890. Generations later she inspired female New Age shamans of the 1980’s and riot grrrl feminist punk bands of the 1990’s.
Big game hunter and best selling author Stewart Edward White wrote adventure novels popular with generations of American boys. During their long and very happy marriage and travels White and his beloved wife Betty (not the Golden Girl) discretely explored mediumship. They were tenaciously focused on experiencing and finding a way to describe what she called the higher frequency of life beyond death. Their greatest adventure began when Betty died. Her detailed communication from beyond the grave included Betty’s descriptions of the afterlife in best sellers of the 1940’s like The Unobstructed Universe and Across the Unknown.
Manly P. Hall arrived in Los Angeles when the sidewalks were still made of wood. During the Great Depression he published The Secret Teachings of All Ages an outrageously expensive and successful book that has never been out of print since. With contributions from his congregation he built a library and an auditorium, with an architectural flair inspired by the Mayans. There his Sunday morning lectures were a fixture of the metaphysical life of southern California for six decades. He gave over two thousand lectures and wrote and published more than two hundred books. He was an astrologer, a mystic, an art collector, with a knack for sharing what he learned from his voracious reading. He made difficult philosophies accessible to people who might never have encountered or understood them. Elvis, Burl Ives, John Denver, Bela Lugosi and Krishnamurti were among his fans and friends. In the future I’ll be writing about my own experiences with him.
Professor Ian Stevenson researched reincarnation in Nepal, India, and Lebanon, finding startling cases, including a deaf and dumb boy who was born a few days after a neighbor had drowned. As soon as he could walk the boy began visiting the dead neighbor’s family. He mimed how he drowned. He correctly showed them where he drowned. He claimed to be the children’s father. The University of Virginia published several volumes of Stevenson’s research in the 1970’s.
Edward A. Monroe’s mother was the daughter of a hell and brimstone Irish preacher who was doubly shocked when in 1918 she ran off with a Cherokee indian from Oklahoma who had a car, the first car they’d ever seen. In his later years he was recognized as a shaman among the Taos Pueblo natives. A WW2 veteran he helped liberate a concentration camp. He worked for decades as a mechanic for the LAPD. After he retired he prayed to be made useful. He didn’t become a medium easily, but when he did the alleged spirit that spoke through him, a wry Scotsman, inspired comparisons to the quality of Edgar Cayce readings. Known as the Seer of the Sunbelt for his many tours through the southwest and midwest in the 1980’s, he gave readings to military veterans, Christian retirees and others no one would guess consulted a medium. Especially skilled at remote medical readings, he not only diagnosed with accuracy but also prescribed inventive and effective cures. He also worked with LAPD and other law enforcement agencies, helping solve cases that would otherwise remain unsolved. He shunned the fame so many sought during the New Age. I’ll be sharing some of my own experiences with him.
Would it then surprise you to find out that at least one of the day one occupiers at OWS fits nicely into the definition of a practitioner of American Metaphysical Religion? Read Kelly Heresy’s weekly Newtopia column Occupy and Evolve, and his blog Live Rent Free or Die, for a look at how this American tradition continues to provide vital inspiration in our nation’s darkest hours. Fans of serendipity can scarcely imagine my surprise at having written most of this article without knowing Kelly, and most of the rest of it without knowing that Kelly had any interest in this subject, or that he could or would write about it.
But what do we mean by metaphysical? Not the strict definition of classical philosophy. The American definition of metaphysics is more practical and literal: an interest in what is beyond the physical. An audacious combination of religion and science used to achieve material and spiritual goals.
What are the principles of American Metaphysical Religion?
These are not the result of one man’s vision, or a scholarly agenda. They are the four themes that reappear over and over again in the spiritual life of Americans throughout our history as outlined by Professor Catherine L. Albanese in her masterpiece A Republic of Mind and Spirit.
Principle 1: The Power of Mind
“We are a nation that can do anything we put our minds to,” our presidents and other politicians often remind us, referring to American exceptionalism. The power of thought to influence health and wealth, to change fate, and to reinvent identity has always been an American preoccupation. American Metaphysical Religion gave America its “can do against any odds” identity.
Principle 2: The Law of Correspondences
The idea that celestial and terrestrial objects can influence each other dates back to ancient Egypt and beyond. It was a favorite secret of medieval European occult philosophy. The sympathetic magic practices of Native Americans, Europeans and Africans blended in America. In the American melting pot the theory achieved new levels of complexity and popularity
American Metaphysical Religion draws inspiration from any and all religious and cultural sources. Christians, Buddhists, Moslems, Africans, Native Americans, pagans and Jews will find reflections of their religions. Americans, finding correspondences between these supposedly exclusive religions, create hybrid spiritual paths that can be completely personal and private.
But the law of correspondences cuts both ways. Americans pioneered the fashion statement of wearing brand names and t shirts of bands and movies, using the law of correspondences to create the magical effect of being cool.
Not oil or solar energy, but energy as the actual matter of being. If matter is energy, and thought is energy, can thought influence matter? Can a poor sick man change his thoughts and since by the law of correspondences like attracts like, can he achieve health and wealth?
Americans have always been enamored of energy and preoccupied with its lack. Americans have explored all sorts of energies unproven by science, from the Odic Force of the Mesmerists to the Orgone energy of Freud’s student Wilhelm Reich. Americans today embrace feng shui to change the energy flow of homes and offices.
Principle 4: Salvation as Healing
The Power of Mind can be used to work the Law of Correspondences to change the Energy given to and therefore received back from the world. Anyone can evolve a more enjoyable and productive life.
Disease is understood as a symptom of disarray. By aligning with guidance from the deepest parts of oneself and of the world it is believed that life can be lived harmoniously. By right thought, meditation, the use of oracles, healing, sacred drugs, and magical ritual many Americans believe their lives can be transformed from a path of harsh challenges to a journey of purpose and epiphany.
This is not the religious conversion of the old religions, it’s something closer to therapy. American Metaphysical Religion has always borrowed from and contributed to the development of the science of psychology.
We’ll see these four principles again and again, eloquently expressed in many different forms, put into practice in sometimes almost unimaginable ways, with almost unbelievable results (good and bad).
We are not seeking to advance or recommend these beliefs or practices. We will not argue whether they are true or false. Both opinions will be represented. Our theme is that we cannot understand America without understanding American Metaphysical Religion.
Millions who thought themselves outcasts from mainstream America, many ashamed to admit their beliefs, may (or may not) be delighted to find they are part of the quintessentially American tradition of American Metaphysical Religion.
Next issue we’ll explore the collision of native and European cultures in “When First They Met,” as we focus on the story of Elizabethan scientific genius, astrologer and alchemist Thomas Harriot and his encounters with the Algonquin and other New England native cultures around 1580. We’ll also look at the impact of the even earlier Spanish invaders on the peoples of the country they called America.
The indispensable bedrock study of American Metaphysical Religion:
A Republic of Mind and Spirit
A Cultural History of American Metaphysical Religion
Catherine L. Albanese
Yale University Press, 2007
Nature Religion in America
From the Algonkian Indians to the New Age
University of Chicago Press, 1990
Platonism in the Midwest
Paul R. Anderson
Temple University, 1963
Transatlantic Spiritualism and Nineteenth-Century American Literature
Palgrave MacMillan 2007
A Life of Albert Pike
Walter Lee Brown
University of Arkansas Press, 1997
Body and Soul
A Sympathetic History of American Spiritualism
Robert S. Cox
University of Virginia, 2003
Paschal Beverly Randolph
A Nineteenth-Century Black American Spiritualist, Rosicrucian and Sex Magician
John Patrick Deveney
State University of New York, 1997
The Life of Victoria Woodhull, Uncensored
Algonquin Books, 1998
Mary Baker Eddy
Perseus Books, 1998
The Secret History of How Mysticism Shaped our Nation
Bantam Books, 2009
Mystics and Messiahs
Cults and New Religions in American History
Oxford University Press, 2000
Edgar Cayce in Context
The Readings: Truth and Fiction
K. Paul Johnson
State University of New York Press, 1998
Mediums and Spirit Rappers and Roaring Radicals
Spiritualism in American Literature 1850-1900
University of Illinois, 1972
Crookes and the Spirit World
The important investigations by Sir William Crookes OM.FRS in the field of psychical research
Mediums of the 19th Century
University Books, 1963
An Occultist’s Travels
R.F Fenno and Co. 1908
The Unobstructed Universe
Stewart Edward White
E.P Dutton, 1941
ARTICLE BY RONNIE PONTIAC
Newtopia staff writer RONNIE PONTIAC is a founding member and primary guitarist of Lucid Nation, executive producer of the documentaries Rap is War, Exile Nation, and the award winning animated short Cohen on the Bridge. He associate produced The Gits documentary, and was art editor, then poet in residence for Newtopia Magazine in its former incarnation . He’s a published author of works on obscure topics such as ancient Greek religion and the history of alchemy. Follow him on Twitter @AmerMysteries.