“Inspiration and Aspiration” by Solon Borglum, in the garden of St. Mark’s of the Bowery, commissioned by William Guthrie
Christianity remains the most acceptable, best-known and officially sanctioned religion in America, but American Metaphysical Religion has intersected and in many ways transformed Christian belief and practice. The brothers Guthrie are an excellent example of the tension in this dichotomy. Both were Episcopalian ministers in New York City, but both had deep interest in non-Christian culture, including European paganism. The elder brother, William, integrated native American, Hindu, and other spiritual traditions in his liturgies and services. The younger brother, Kenneth, self published many books about Neoplatonism, and also the first translation into English of the Mayan Popul Vuh. But neither brother considered themselves anything but Christian, although in earlier eras of Protestant and Catholic governance they would have certainly been persecuted as heretics if not outright pagans.
WILLIAM NORMAN GUTHRIE: A THRILL AND A THROB
According to The Interstate Lecture Bureau Company brochure about him: “Mr. Guthrie is a man of splendid appearance, magnificent physique, and extraordinary physical vigor which makes him drive his speech like a steam engine. He never does anything meekly, or perhaps even mildly, and does all forcibly.” A quote from the New York Times praises his “fascinating lecture on William Blake” and he seems to have left the Memphis Appeal with a case of the vapors: “He is not only a profound scholar, but he is strikingly original. Moreover, his personal magnetism is extraordinary,” or as William himself wrote about an ideal religious service: “a-thrill and a throb with spiritual conviction.”
William was born in Scotland in 1868. His grandmother was the illustrious Frances Wright, a pioneer feminist and abolitionist in America. In 1886 the eighteen-year-old William began studying at University of the South, the Episcopal college and seminary in Sewanne, Tennessee. He edited the undergrad literary magazine. In 1891 he got his master’s degree, and two years later he was ordained to the priesthood. That year he also married Anna Stuart a fellow student at Sewanee. Anna had been born in New Orleans in 1869. They would have two daughters, Anna and Phoebe. William taught comparative literature at Sewanee, and then moved to Ohio to teach at the University of Cincinnati and the University of Chicago, serving as assistant rector at nearby churches.
In Modern Poet Prophets: Essays Critical and Interpretive (1897) William lingers long on Shelley’s epic poem Prometheus Unbound and ponders deeply the poetry of Walt Whitman, lamenting that in his earlier writing he dismissed Whitman as someone who had “lost his wits, and never gone in search of them.” But now William’s respect for Whitman was so great he even compiled a concordance for Leaves of Grass. As Tisa L. Wenger writes in her essay The Practice of Dance for the Future of Christianity: “Eurhythmic Worship” in New York’s Roaring 20’s, William considered Whitman “‘a religious teacher,’ a bearer of the ‘vital core’ of Quakerism’s Inner Light, and a poet-prophet who revealed ‘the mystic secret of religion'” and embraced “companions from lands and literatures strange to Christendom.”
From 1903 to 1908 William served as rector of a church in Alameda, California. But in 1908 he returned to the University of the South to teach literature and hired Frank Lloyd Wright to build him a home in Tennessee. But then William decided against teaching, and building, at least in Tennessee. He had a new career: rector of a St. Mark’s church in New York City.
St. Mark’s in the Bouerie Church was built in 1799 on what had been the farm of the last Dutch governor-general in America. The second church built in New York City, and the oldest in continuous operation, it had once been the place of worship for Manhattan’s wealthy white Protestants. But as the rich folk moved to the north of the island the parish became a neighborhood of immigrants. The newly arrived Jewish, Russian Orthodox and Italian Catholic families had little use for an Episcopalian church. In 1911 the vestry invited William to become rector. His first response to St. Mark’s was a remark about the surrounding buildings which were in “shocking condition…tenanted by Industrial Workers of the World, Bolshevist presses and other nuisances.” He talked the vestry into buying the buildings. He wanted writers and artists to move in. “In a spiritual account of this downtown parish,” William wrote, “one should not forget the constant pressure exerted by a neighborhood wholly alien.” However, since rent was suddenly affordable in the area, writers and artists began moving in. Three years later William wrote Frank Lloyd Wright this candid appraisal of his opportunity and predicament: “To do anything in St. Mark’s meant to become an ecclesiastical outlaw. I couldn’t be elected to a rat-hole anywhere else.”
St. Mark’s in the Bowery
In 1915 William celebrated the first of many annual “Indian Day” events at St. Mark’s. Wenger writes: “These special services involved prayers and responsive readings drawn from translations of various Native American “myths, holy songs, and secret traditions, chiefly from the ‘Hako’ for the Pawnees.” Underlining the importance of Native Americans for his work, William purchased sculptures of two “American Indian chiefs” titled “Aspiration” and “Inspiration” to flank the church doors, thereby framing the entrance to the physical space of the church with an artist’s rendering of native figures.” These sculptures were the last works of Solon Burglum, installed posthumously. At the St. Nicholastide festivals between 1915 and 1920, William staged “The Ritual Dance of the Zuni Corn-maidens” based on actual Zuni ritual. In May 1924 a Mohawk dancer led the congregation outdoors where five young women danced in “flowing Grecian costumes” to the beat of his tom tom drum. This William called “the ceremonial sacred dance of the Planting of the Seven Varieties of Corn.”
William’s books of poetry and literary studies earned him an honorary doctorate from Sewanee in 1915. His literary interests strayed into many areas unusual for a minister of any Christian denomination. Uncle Sam and Old World Conquerors (1915) boasts a character with the unfortunate name Sambo Hilarious, hailed on page one as “the dark Osiris.” A year later William interest in ancient Egyptian religion produced: The Gospel of Osiris, which includes this invocation that must have been rather surprising to less eclectic Episcopalians:
“As a lion he croucheth,
To spring and roar in glory
Upon Bakha, the mount of sunrise,
Between twin turquoise sycamores:
Hail Heru! the lion of God.
Leaves of the Greater Bible (1917) includes Shelley’s Ode to the Skylark, Ankhenaten’s Hymn to Aton, selections from the Buddhist classic Dhammapada, and a paraphrased Navaho blessing, but the Neoplatonists and even Plato himself are notably absent from this collection of gospel friendly spiritual classics except for a footnote about three Hymns to Zeus which William refers to as “the so called Orphic (neo-Platonic?)” In May 1917 William’s “Service of Patriotic Dedication” featured the names of men killed in World War 1.
Plotinus “On the Beautiful” perhaps explains best why in 1918 William e installed in the churchyard “The Little Lady of the Dew,” a fountain that apparently featured a nude sculpture, by Solon Borglum. The fountain may still be there, but if so the nude was removed, leaving only corrosion like a shadow. Those who insisted on seeing something sinful in this chaste beauty inspired by the “Venus in the garden of the Palace of the Popes in Avignon” he dismissed as “filthy minded.”
While The Religion of Old Glory (1919) is firmly in the tradition of American Metaphysical Religion books fetishizing the flag and other symbols, it avoids the preoccupation with secret societies or mystical initiates by embracing a wide ranging mostly free association of a variety of mythological traditions including the Homeric, Hindu, and Hopi, at times the writing is reminiscent of Joseph Campbell.
In 1921 William wrote that afternoon services at St. Mark’s would feature consideration of “Vedantism, Parseeism, Bahaism, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Shintoism, ancient Roman religion, ancient Greek religion, Chaldean religion, Egyptian religion, Mithraism, etc.”
Though William respected the spirituality of other cultures he was quite clear about the superiority of his own. He liked to include Shakespeare in his liturgies as what he called a “racial scripture” “…the most important thing we can do for the preservation of our race character. When America is being submerged with foreigners and their ways tend to supplant our way, it is our duty to see that they become acquainted with our ways to that they may be preserved as racially superior.” He spoke candidly of “Americanizing our incoming Polish citizenship.” When he granted the petition of a group of Polish Catholics to use as their church one of the buildings owned by the vestry he insisted they use the Episcopal Prayer Book.
Despite believing in the superiority of Christianity, William did not support missions. He called them “Caeserism in disguise…pioneering for trade, creating demands for wares, disturbing the religions of the countries where we went.” “This scaring or bullying or bribing the world into attempting to ‘Westernize,’ ‘Europeanize,’ ‘Americanize,” doesn’t look to me like the work of Christ.” He thought the best result of Christian missions to foreign nations was the growing interest Christian nations were finding in other faiths. By finding spirituality in another religion, Americans “might be Christianized via the Buddha and Lao-Tse.”
“BARE LEGS, BARE KNEES AND BARE HIPS”
Ritual Dance of the Della Robbia Annunciation at Rev. William Guthrie’s St. Mark’s of the Bouwrie Church, 1922, only their feet were bare.
William was influenced by, and helped influence, the American Pageantry movement, which from 1910 to 1917 was so popular historians call it a craze. Historical occasions or heroic persons were usually the themes of these dramatic public rituals as celebrations of art, democracy, and spectacle. Entire communities would join together to create something between a modern parade and living theater. Gifted public speakers told the appropriate stirring stories for the occasion. Local businesses, politicians, clubs and social service organizations promoted themselves, popular performers strutted their stuff, culminating in a costumed carnival parade. The American Pageant Association and the Drama League of America were instrumental in the promotion of the pageants. William spoke at the first Drama League convention. He reminded his listeners “crowds can be managed in both ways, upward and downward.” Pageants could elevate the taste of the masses. He decided to use the principles of pageantry in his church.
At Sarah Farmer’s Greenacre community in Maine, William met Mountfort Mills, a practicing Bahai. At Greenacre liberal Christians mingled with Hindus and New Thought leaders in search of a universal religion. Abdul-Baha, son of Bahaullah the founding prophet of the Bahai faith, directed Mills to join William’s church. William confirmed the Bahai who became a member of the vestry of St. Mark’s and one of William’s most loyal allies during his rebellion against Bishop Manning, which began with a scandal.
As Tisa L. Wenger wrote: “Around 1920, Guthrie began to include dance along with chanted poetry and the fine arts in his special afternoon services, and some of the performances became a regular part of the church’s liturgical cycle. “The Pageant in Honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary,” first staged in 1921 and performed every year for over a decade, was probably the most long-lived of these services. To celebrate the March 25 Feast of the Annunciation, this liturgy dramatized the angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary that she was to become the mother of Christ. The 1922 version of the service began with hymns, Guthrie’s recitation of a poem by Henry Adams titled the “Prayer to the Virgin of Chartres,” and a choir performance of an “anthem on the Annunciation,” composed by the rector himself. The danced portion of the service was titled “Ritual Dance of the Della Robbia Annunciation.” It featured five Barnard College dance students, young women draped in flowing white robes and illuminated by blue spotlights. Their performance concluded with a pose drawn from the 15th century Italian sculptor Andrea dell Robbia’s rendition of the Annunciation depicted on a plaque hanging behind the dancers.”
The trouble started when in 1922 William invited Isadora Duncan to speak at St. Mark’s but Bishop Manning, ultimate authority for the Episcopalians of New York City ordered William to cancel the engagement. The goal of this dancing was, as William’s daughter Phoebe described it in a letter to Ruth St. Denis, the teacher of Martha Graham: “a real sense of religious worship.” But local newspapers saw it differently. To them dancing girls in church were dancing girls in church. Headlines sensationalized the story: “Women Faint in Jam in Mystic Service,” “Girls Dance under Spotlight at Church.” Bishop Manning was “shocked and scandalized.” After all, what sort of preacher titles his sermon “The Necessity of Paganism?” William and his vestry were called to the office.
William’s troubles with Manning went back to an earlier scuffle. In 1921, his thirteenth year as rector of Trinity Church, the wealthy Episcopalian capitol of lower Manhattan, Manning was elected Bishop of New York. Wishing to demonstrate why he thought Manning a bad choice, William organized his parish to provide food and shelter for several hundred homeless men. He suggested they attend Sunday services at Trinity, and that they demand that Trinity follow the good example of St. Mark’s. Manning pleaded inadequate facilities. Guthrie accused Trinity of being “lined up with the capitalists instead of with the house of God.” But three years later one of the leading protestors William sent to Trinity returned to protest at St. Mark’s. Apparently William had less interest in the difficult challenge of homelessness than he had in challenging Manning.
Who knows where the tension between William and Bishop Manning actually began? Manning went to school at the University of the South in Sewanee, he and William became fellow students in 1888. William was two years ahead of him but they were both undergraduates in 1888 and 1889. Manning is remembered for organizing a successful battle to block Bertrand Russell’s opportunity to teach at the City University of New York. The great British philosopher was denounced as an atheist and an apologist for free love. During the Great Depression Manning put a different wrinkle on William’s commitment to spirituality and art, by training local men from the neighborhood to work as artisans for the church.
Manning listened as William described the dancer’s full-length robes and personally guaranteed that even their bare feet would be covered. William insisted that St. Mark’s needed these innovations to survive, and he believed that Christianity itself must evolve in his direction or lose its relevance to the modern world. William was frank about his reasons for flirting with socialism in his sermons. “…people who had never entered the church came often to blaspheme, and in the course of a few months had been sweetened and persuaded to consider the claims of religion.” Like art and dance, a concern for the poor was a way to attract people who otherwise wouldn’t be interested in the church. Manning wasn’t impressed; he ordered William and his vestry to cease all such nonsense at once. William, supported by his vestry, refused. The only punishment at Manning’s disposal was his refusal to visit St. Mark’s therefore making it impossible for new members of the church to be received. But St. Mark’s wasn’t getting new members anyway; instead it was attractive as a large audience of appreciative bohemians. The rebellion lasted eight years.
This brings us to an interesting moment. We have little information about the relationship of the Guthrie brothers. They didn’t reference each other’s work in their own numerous publications. Yet Kenneth was a member of the vestry of St. Mark’s. On this occasion we get a glimpse of what may have been a cause or symptom of a possibly strained relationship. Kenneth commented: “There is nothing in bare legs, bare knees and bare hips except notoriety.” He seems to have projected quite a different scenario than the artistic display emceed by his brother, which he obviously didn’t attend. Kenneth, and many others, believed that even a fully clothed young woman dancing in church might as well be a practically naked pagan. Many churches throughout history have banned dancing and music entirely, considering them expressions of sexuality. Two decades of dance fever had swept up America and Christian crusaders were up in arms about modern dance. Critics refused to accept William’s rationale that dance has almost always been a part of sacred ritual.
To give us a better idea of the impact of the press on the controversy, Wenger quotes a New York Times report on one of Guthrie’s rituals in 1923 to show how “gendered fears of religious ecstasy were applied to St. Mark’s. The article described “crowds of women” surging at the church doors in vain attempts to reach a dimly lit interior “pervaded with the odors of incense.” Once inside, according to the reporter, several women had to be carried out “half-fainting,” presumably overcome “by religious ecstasy provoked by the service.” A Catholic critic described the “semi-vaudeville” of “barefoot girls,” comparing them to the holy rollers and snake dancers of rural Christianity.
No matter how much William argued that the dancing at his church was slow and graceful, not crude, ecstatic, vulgar or frenzied, reporters preferred to depict their own lurid scenes. “The movements of the participants only faintly suggested flesh beneath the long white silken flowing robes,” William wrote, “that same suggestion which one receives from Fra Angelico angels moving in the fields of God.” William might as well have been trying to explain the difference between the paganism of the Platonic ideal and that of the Egyptian festival of Bubastis when the priestesses of Bast sailing down the Nile on their barges flashed the worshippers on the riverbanks.
William’s daughter Phoebe was a dancer. When Isadora Duncan died in 1927 William held a memorial service, eulogizing her as a genius. William and Phoebe exchanged letters with Ruth St. Denis, and in 1930 Martha Graham performed at St. Mark’s the “Adoration Scene” from a fifteenth century British miracle play called The Chester Mysteries.
To William dance was beauty, and the essence of religion. He wrote passionately in defense of dance as a spiritual art form. “The dance is the most inevitable form of expression; it is the human body speaking. The body cannot be denied. An intelligent religion will idealize it. To attempt to ignore it brings disaster. What the world needs is not a frantic faith that will suppress and condemn any normal functioning of the body, for this ends in all sorts of abnormalities.” Many a member of Moontribe or Fractal Nation will tell you stories of illnesses healed by dancing, a practice common to all native American tribes. But this aspect of William’s beliefs perhaps fits American Metaphysical Religion better than Protestant Christianity.
William derived some of these ideas from the work of G. Stanley Hall, the psychologist who in some ways laid the framework for the sports guy bully culture so beloved by so many Americans. Hall believed that the nerve force of white men was being drained by the over stimulation of modern society. The cure was sports, a play “savagery” that gives a man the vitality of primitive masculinity. William and Hall, however, believed the result would be a culture of refined men, instead of bullies wearing logos.
Music was as important to William as dance. He compared the well-known melodies of classic hymns to jigs, replacing them with music by Beethoven and Chopin, among other great composers. In his introduction to Platt’s The Forgotten Books of Eden (1927), the most popular collection of apocryphal and pseudepigraphal literature until the explosion of Gnostic publications in the late 20th century, William makes this statement that will be dear to the hearts of all musicians suffering in a world that ignores copyrights. “An American Indian’s Song is his very own. No other man can sing it without his explicit permission. It is impregnate with his aura. It is not in our sense, however, property. It is believed to invest magically the singer with the mood whence it proceeded, and must, therefore, merge in some way the performer’s identity with that of the originator’s. To sing another’s song is an invasion of his personality, a sort of spiritual piracy involving sacrilege.” As for the power of music, he remarks: “When last year in Arcady and Andritzena, I induced primitive shepherds to sing and play for me lustily all sorts of occasional songs and rituals, they refused to do a burial chant, most positively. For to perform one would surely cause a death in the house.”
LIGHT SHOWS, KAHLIL GIBRAN AND THE BODY AND SOUL CLINIC
According to The Message of the East, a Vedanta monthly, in 1919: “On the invitation of the rector, Rev. Wm. Norman Guthrie, Swami Paramananda spoke at St. Mark’s in the Bouwerie, New York, on Sunday, February 9th. At the regular Vesper Service which preceded his address, Dr. Guthrie read some Persian poems and prayers in order to lead his hearers gradually Eastward to “the great land of mystery” as he put it, “whence the Occident has drawn so much of its inspiration.” The subsequent meeting took place in St. Mark’s Hall, which was crowed to the doors. A distinguished young Arab poet, Kahlil Gibran, first read some of his own poems. “After Mr. Gibran concluded,” Dr. Guthrie writes in a letter telling of the afternoon, “Swami Paramananda, the founder of the Vedanta Centre of Boston, arose and calmly spoke on the genius of mystic poetry in India, captivating all, even those who may have come with some degree of prejudice against his special message. He struck and held the universal note in an Oriental way, which had been struck in the Church in an Occidental way. The Swami winsomely and sagaciously indicated the great preciousness of the permeating sense of unity, of identity. His uses of typical Indian chants imparted a mystic solemnity to the meeting; and one felt that he had closed the program with a truly catholic benediction, under the beautiful Della Robbia Annunciation, before which nine candles were lit, in a manner that will make the afternoon ever memorable to all those who had the good fortune to participate. Many of the audience could not leave for half an hour or more, talking in groups and expressing their joy at the rare quality of the occasion, and hoping that at some early opportunity the thrilling experience might be renewed. Hopes were expressed that Swami Paramananda might open up a branch work at St. Mark’s.” Paramananda was a student of the great yogi Ramakrishna.
In 1919 Kahlil Gibran was appointed to the St. Mark’s Arts Committee. He read from his yet to be published masterpiece The Prophet, his voice echoing in the small church. Other important writers were welcomed as guest speakers. Sunday afternoon stars included multiple Pulitzer Prize winning poet and Lincoln biographer Carl Sandburg, modernist poet and pediatrician William Carlos Williams, and Pulitzer Prize winning playwright and poet Edna St. Vincent Millet, one of many outspoken feminists William welcomed to his church.
William might be considered a pioneer of the light shows that became so famous in the 1960’s and then again in the rave and festival culture. In the June 1922 issue of Popular Mechanics a short article titled “Unusual Lighting Effects Produced in Church” reported “…Guthrie, rector, conceived the idea of delivering “prismatic sermons,” meaning the use of varicolored lights in synchronism with the sermon. Realization of this unusual undertaking required rather elaborate electrical equipment. Fixtures, having lamps of red, blue, green and amber color, were uniformly distributed throughout the interior, each lamp being so wired that either of the various tints, or a diffusion of two or more of them could be obtained from the switchboard. Clear lamps and spotlights, with special shields that conceal them from the congregation, are also installed in sufficient numbers to provide proper illumination for reading purposes. Favorable comment on the innovation has been plentiful, and it is thought that the same, or a similar course will be followed in other places of worship.” Handsome six foot tall plus William must have been that much more charismatic in a spotlight.
In March 1923 William’s’ “Sun-God Service” was an ancient Egyptian call and response ritual that included these verses: “Hail to thee, beautiful God of every day! Beautiful is thy rising in the horizon of the sky” and “Thou art beautiful to behold, great glistening high above the whole earth–Thou art Ra, the Sun-God….” The New York Times reported, “green, blue, red, and amber shades played here and there in the church.” William in a white spotlight “addressed the ancient god.” How did William justify such pagan extravagance? “All these religions must be regarded as preparatory and auxiliary to the highest and most inclusive religion, and therefore capable of contributing to a yet imperfect Christianity…so that Christianity may ultimately become the religion of a united world.”
In July 1923 William opened The Body and Soul Clinic where physical and spiritual healing would be combined. Dr. Edward Cowles, a psychiatrist practicing in Manhattan was director of the clinic and its six physicians. William and his group of ministers attended to the souls of the patients. Two thousand people were treated in the first three months. Most suffered nervous disorders. The clinic claimed ninety percent of the patients were healed. Treatment began with a physical examination, followed by an interview to establish mental health issues, and then the ministers provided spiritual advice and meditations. Phobias may have been the principle illness treated, but many children, too poor for other doctors, received their first medical attention at the clinic. In 1932 the vestry, in the throes of the Great Depression, disappointed William, ordering him to close the clinic. The clinic stayed open anyway, forcing the vestry to lock the church doors.
MORE ADVENTURES WITH FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT
Wanting to generate more income for his church in a neighborhood rapidly declining in 1930 William had to choose between launching a million dollar endowment campaign during the Great Depression or constructing an apartment building on church land. Getting his friend Frank Lloyd Wright the job wouldn’t be easy. William pointed out that Wright was arrogant in meetings and had less experience with skyscrapers than many equally pedigreed New York City architects. Wright agreed with William’s list of his faults but insisted he alone could really bring a great building to life. Wright provided some of his more impressive achievements as evidence of his superior art. Guthrie wanted a simple sketch for 150.00. Wright wanted 7500.00 to provide finished plans right down to the cost breakdowns.
William wrote to Wright: “You always play solitaire. That’s our difficulty….Only genius condescending to magic can save us–coercing, bamboozling them with pictures. That you can’t give them…. All they want is a picture that “gets” them. They need an idol–an outside…. And you want to develop a perfectly realizable organic plan. O dear theorist–you talk as a Moses just back from Sinai. What they want is a Peter Pan.”
On Christmas day Wright began drawing St. Mark Towers, a skyscraper apartment block: four then three octagonal towers alternating vertical and horizontal facades, with cantilevered floors and hung exteriors of copper and glass, two fourteen stories and one eighteen stories high. “I believe the relationship between the old church and the modern prismatic building,” Wright wrote, “would be extremely agreeable.” Wide open windows on the city. Copper fins would reflect light in ever changing patterns while slowly turning a pleasing green. Residents would stroll through a leafy park on their way home to light filled duplex apartments with double-height windows. “The building increases substantially in area from floor to floor,” Wright explained, “as the structure rises–in order that the glass frontage of each story may drip clear of the one below, the building, thus, cleaning itself….” He would build the towers one at a time, the first would finance the second, and so on, until the old stone church would be surrounded by towers of light.
A real estate lawyer blocked the towers because since so much of the architecture had no precedent accurate cost projections based on similar buildings were impossible. Wright lamented: “When I first started my day-dreaming, it was because I believed so deeply in beauty.” Guthrie wrote back to Wright: “The more I think of the tower, the more convinced I am that it should not be in the city at all, but in a grove of trees full of brown thrashers or mockingbirds. Being open to a friendly world is one thing, and being in our style world, in which one seeks refuge is another…. You ridicule the cave, but I suspect that in Manhattan each has to have a cave in which he can escape sight and sound and the new detective systems by which privacy is abolished, and one dreams of a primal cave.” Wright’s response: “You yourself do not know yet what the thing is all about. You’ve been poisoned by the New York atmosphere.” A modified version of the design was eventually built in Battlesville, Oklahoma as the Price Tower.
Later William asked Wright to design a “colossal interfaith cathedral,” actually nine large cathedrals and several smaller chapels, a monument to religious toleration but also a super mall of spiritual traditions. Wright knew it wouldn’t be built but he drew up some plans anyway. The huge structure, part pyramid, part beehive, had a hexagonal base and reached into the sky twice the height of the Eiffel Tower in Paris. This “temple of temples” was designed to uplift the spirits of a million people at a time.
Wright could never think of William “otherwise than in a fervor over some quest, spiritual or aesthetic.” He reported being lectured by William on the philosophy and functions of ancient Greek temples. William told Wright that his mission was “reconstruction of religious expression to make religion again sincerely possible.” Song, dance, sounds, color, processions were the new rituals of his church. He once wrote Wright: “”I’ve planned out so many new rituals my choirmaster is having a picnic.” William never built any of the designs he commissioned from Wright but the designs were usually adapted and used in future projects.
THE DECLINE AND THE LEGACY
Patti Smith and Lenny Kaye perform at St. Mark’s, February 2011.
In 1932 most of the vestry members changed their mind about William. They accused him of mismanagement and demanded that he clear any future expenses before planning his events. A month later William called for the election of a new vestry. He nominated his own supporters, and since he decided who could vote, not surprisingly they won. Then New York Supreme Court ruled that as rector William was within his rights. But the last five years of services weren’t as extravagant or as popular.
In the mid 1930s Phoebe took the St. Mark’s dance group on a tour of Protestant churches and the old Chatauqua circuit. The seeds Guthrie and Phoebe planted grew until in 1955 the Sacred Dance Guild proved that Protestant and Catholic churches had arrived at the realization that dance had a place in their services.
In the “Private Lives” section of the June 28, 1937 issue of Life magazine (which contains a surprising amount of female nudity) William’s distinguished profile appears alongside W.C. Fields (he lost a court case against him for not paying a doctor when the judge ruled whisky caused his bad health) and Leni Riefenstahl (at a party in Berlin Goebbels accused her of having non-Aryan grandparents). William’s entry reads: “The Rev. Dr. William Norman Guthrie plans to retire as rector of Manhattan’s Episcopal Church of St. Mark’s-in-the-Bouwerie before September. In his 26 years he has made his church a centre of controversy by sponsoring eurhythmic dances, inviting in unorthodox lecturers like Helen Menken and the late Amy Lowell. In 1924, Bishop Manning cut his church off from Episcopal visitation.”
Helen Menken was one of the great ladies of Broadway. After her illustrious career as an actress and producer she became a popular performer on radio. Co-founder and trustee of the American Shakespeare Festival Theater and Academy, Menken was also Humphrey Bogart’s first wife, but their marriage only lasted a year and a half, apparently the young Bogart was a mean drunk. In 1927 Menken starred in the American version of The Captive, a hit play in Paris, about a woman leaving her abusive husband for another woman. The lesbian theme attracted the wrong kind of attention. When Basil Rathbone forcefully embraced Menken in their steamy scene together the police shut down the show. At night court Menken wearing handcuffs found herself standing shoulder to shoulder with Mae West, who had been busted for her production Sex. But we are left wondering what was so unorthodox about Helen’s lectures.
Cigar chain-smoking lesbian Amy Lowell, American poet and champion of free verse, was on the cover of the March 2, 1925 issue of Time magazine, just a few months before she died. The following year she posthumously won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. In a letter dated October 21, 1924 Lowell wrote to William to inform him that she could not accept his most recent invitation to lecture because she was preparing for a lecture series in England. She neither desires nor needs the Christianity of churches but “others do need it.” Guthrie should not limit his expression of his theories “within the four walls of a church.” She feels she can’t be the one to help him develop his theories. She admires him, but she doesn’t agree with him.
William’s support of women wasn’t superficial. “Later, having cast out from our world of ideals and divine symbols the woman,” he wrote, “the Protestant reformers left woman without an adequate spiritual expression, and naturally compelled the unconscious feminization of Christ to meet this need. If we have suffered from an effeminate Christ, it has been because the faithful have not been allowed to express their ideal of womanhood in a normal way by the cult of the Mother of Jesus.” Bold language from a Protestant. If he sounds like a Catholic convert in that paragraph he sounds like a more 19th century American Neoplatonist when he wrote: “Whatever is beautiful is good. Seize all beauty, the handiwork of God, and find a way to use it for the advantage of the spirit.”
In 1937 William finally left St. Mark’s. He died December 9, 1994; the Battle of the Bulge began one week later. It must have been depressing for a man who had labored so mightily for communication between cultures and the refinement of religion to see the world at war. Anna Guthrie died in 1959, the same month that saw the premier of Plan 9 From Outer Space. Elvis was in the army. A new world of trashy pop culture was just beginning to evolve into the international juggernaut it is today. It would take almost three decades for William’s spirit to return to St. Mark’s. The eclectic cultural tradition William began was reborn when Allen Ginsberg and friends asked if they could use the church as a place to share their writing after they lost their local bar in the 1960s.
Allen Ginsberg reading at St. Mark’s in 1976.
The church welcomed Allen and his friends by creating The Poetry Project, which has taught and showcased poets ever since. Sam Shepherd produced his first two plays at St. Mark’s. In 1982 Robert Christgau, Richard Hell, Legs McNeil and Billy Altman held their “A Tribute to Lester Bangs” at St. Mark’s, a memorial for the great rock critic.
Soon after the Poetry Project got off the ground St. Mark’s introduced Danspace to train choreographers and dancers while providing a space for performance. St. Mark’s doesn’t have pews anymore; they would get in the way of the large, open dance floor. William would have been pleased.
Excerpt from the Mind Garage’s Electric Liturgy, which claims to be the first rock mass ever written, performed at St. Mark’s in 1969.
But what of William’s younger brother Kenneth? Though they had much in common their relationship appears to have been strained, and they never mention each other’s work though they explored similar themes in their books. As we shall see, Kenneth may have printed snarky remarks regarding his glamorous older brother.
KENNETH SYLVAN GUTHRIE: THE DR. BRONNER OF AMERICAN NEOPLATONISM
If you prefer pure castile soap you have probably at one time or another used Dr. Bronner’s and been bemused by the bottle label with its curious patchwork of important messages about everything from Thomas Paine to true faith and religion. That style of communication, so urgent, and over stuffed with information in small fonts, was also practiced by Dr. Kenneth Sylvan Guthrie, but Kenneth used it as a sales pitch for his publications on obscure topics. With a sense of humor bordering on recklessness, occasionally slightly salacious in his overtures to female readers, Kenneth’s advertisements provide a striking contrast to his low profile career as rector of All Saint’s Church in New York City. Unfortunately his vestry and the members of his church never recorded their feelings about their rector’s snake oil like hawking of his works on Neoplatonism, the mysteries of Mithras, and Zoroaster.
Kenneth lived during a time in may ways like ours, a resemblance he captures in the first paragraph of Regeneration: The Gate of Heaven (1897): “It is hard to realize that during the last hundred years more progress has been made in the arts of civilization than during the many thousand years since the first anthropoid appeared on the earth. The marvels of the steam engine, the telegraph, and the printing-machine are so familiar to the rising generation that they seem nothing extraordinary. When the thousands of years of the life of mankind within the light of history, within which so little real advance was made in scientific research, are considered, it seems little short of a miracle that within a century science should have suddenly arisen, that connection should have been established between the most remote corners of the globe, and that race, nation, and class distinctions should suddenly begin to crumble, leaving each man, in the words of Shelley:
“Sceptreless, free, uncircumscribed, but man:
Equal, unclassed, tribeless, and nationless,
Exempt from awe, worship, and degree, the king
Over himself; just, gentle, wise: but man.”
TWO AUTOBIOGRAPHIES OF KENNETH SYLVAN GUTHRIE
“Rough treatment gives souls, as well as stones, their lustre.” Kenneth Sylvan Guthrie
Kenneth published Numenius of Apamea: The Father of Neoplatonism in 1917, the year the last Tsar of Russia abdicated his throne, when World War I horrified people everywhere with the destructiveness of tanks, trench warfare and poison gas. On the copyright page the author provided his bio as nothing more than an academic resume: “Kenneth Sylvan Guthrie was born in Dundee, Scotland, July 22, 1871. Attended school in Florence, Lausaune, Frankfurt, Wiesbaden, Brussels, Hadleigh, Edinburgh, New York, St. Stephen’s College, Annandale, N.Y. He received B.A., M.A., and G.D., University of South Sewanee, Tenn., 1890, 1893; Ph.D., Tulane, 1893; A.M., Harvard, 1894; M.D., with three gold medals at Medico Chiurgical College, Philadelphia, 1903. Ph.D., Columbia, 1915. Ordained in Protestant Episcopal Church, deacon in 1890, priest in 1897, in charge of All Saints’ Church, N. Y. Professor in Extension, University of the South, Sewanee.”
But eight years later in his introduction to his translation of Proclus, Guthrie gave a much more detailed biography:
“He was born in Scotland’s ‘Bonny Dundee’ on July 22, 1871 of an interesting ancestry, whose spiritual heritage determined his career.
“His maternal grandmother, Frances Wright of Dundee first achieved a literary prominence by writing a dozen dramas of which Altorf was produced in Philadelphia, and published. Then she felt the call to ascertain truth, and in 1802 visited the then young United States, recording her impressions in her Views of Manners and Society in America. In this investigation her conscience was outraged by two abuses, which in characteristic fashion she immediately set out to rectify. As to slavery, she secured from the State of Tennessee a grant of 2400 acres, on the Wolf River, 18 miles E of Memphis, named Nashoba, on which she educated slaves, and freed them in Haiti. As to the subjection of Woman, she was the real pioneer of the Woman’s Rights movement, and is so recognized in Appleton’s Encyclopedia. This naturally led to her last phase, a sociologic one, which led her to visit the colony of Robert Dale Owen in New Harmony, Ind.
“Here she met and married Casimir Silvain Phiquepal d’Arusmont, a noble French emigre from Agen, who brought over with him a number of French youths to educate, on the way stopping in Philadelphia with Col McClure. He was a philosopher and scientist, and invented the since then so popular tonic sol-fa system. The married pair then went to Paris where was born their daughter Frances Sylva. But Frances Wright returned to the United States to her lecturing, and published her still continually reprinted A Few Days in Athens. She then practiced law in Cincinnati, where she died, resting in Spring Grove Cemetery.
“To these five phases of thought was added the note of religious devotion by Frances Sylva, who was converted in Notre Dame by Lacordaire, and devoted her sons to the sacred ministry, and that in the Episcopal Church, as the only sufficiently liberal one.
“Being born too late in his family’s fortunes to be given an education, he earned one, taking his M. A. in 1890 in Theology at Sewanee; his Ph.D. in 1893 at Tulane; A.M. Harvard, 1894; M.D., with three gold medals, 1904; Marburg and Jena, 1911; Ph.D, Columbia, 1915; Professor in Extension, Sewanee, in 1912.
“His mother’s devotional interest fructified in his [books] Communion with God, Presence of God, Ladder of God and Why You Want to Become a Churchman.
“His grandfather’s philosophical and educational interests resulted in his monumental opening to the world in translations of Plotinus, Numenius, Pythagoras and Zoroaster; Teachers’ Problems and How to Solve Them.
“A combination of both these interests resulted in Angels, Ancient & Modern; the Mithraic Mysteries, the Angelic Mysteries of the Nine Heavens, etc.
“His grandmother’s literary taste produced the Spiritual Message of Literature, Collected Poems, Perronik.
“Her quest for truth originated his Message of the Master, How the Master Saved the World, Studies in Comparative Religion, his New Testament Translation.
“Her crusades against abuses continued in his Dawn of Liberty, A Bunch of Thistles.
“Her sociologic ideals matured in his Complete Progressive Education, A Romance of Two Centuries, etc.
“But the very unusual breadth of his conflicting interests checkmated his career, so far as worldly advancement. Little understood or recognized, he had to find consolation in earning his living honestly by teaching a language to children, by pouring out his religious experiences to the few who visited his semi-deserted East Side church, and in putting the accumulated results of his studies in such shape that, to the greater glory of God, they may be of service to humanity, if possible through his children (Sylvia Camilla, Sept. 1, 1916; and Kenneth Launfal, Jan 19, 1918).”
This sentimental introduction lacks Kenneth Guthrie’s usual optimistic fervor. His candor is surprising; he doesn’t hide his nostalgia, sadness or bitterness. His appeal to his grandparents, barely camouflaging his listless list of works is weak stuff compared to the boisterous hard sell of his usual appeal to the browsing reader in the front and back pages of his self published books. But readers are left wondering why Kenneth didn’t mention his older brother William, a controversial but respected minister, and popular lecturer and author.
SOME DETAILS OF KENNETH GUTHRIE’S MYSTERIOUS LIFE
Despite his many publications, Kenneth has escaped the historical record, at least compared to his better-documented brother William. A few references in church records give glimpses of his course. According to the Diocese of Kansas Thirty-Second Annual Convention November 18 and 19 1891: “March 30. Pittsburg, St. Peter’s…received notice that Rev. Kenneth Sylvan Guthrie, PhD, Priest, has been deposed by the Bishop of Pennsylvania for causes not affecting his moral character.” What those causes were remains mysterious. In the Convention of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the ordinations of 1892 Kenneth Sylvan Guthrie is listed as a newly minted rector.
The Diocese of Massachusetts Journal of the One Hundred and Ninth Annual Meeting of the Convention reports that “(for the Eight Months, beginning May 1, 1893…)” Kenneth was minister of the Church of St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts and that on June 28, 1894 Kenneth’s transfer as deacon to the diocese of Pennsylvania was accepted. The same journal also lists him as a deacon in Louisiana. He’s also mentioned as one of those assigned to the Society for the Relief of Aged and Disabled Episcopal Clergyman.
In 1900 Kenneth published Regeneration Applied. In the preface he apologizes to the subscribers of his monthly magazine The Prophet, complaining that he had to do all the work himself, including the type setting; “it has been a weary wait,” he wrote, “wearier than for the subscribers.” Then he brushes off potential requests for refunds asking that any dissatisfied customers pray for him. The book covers much of the same territory as the famous Yogi Ramacharaka books, but whereas those are succinct and intended for practical application, Kenneth’s book is wordy, providing a brisk but bewildering collection of details most readers would find daunting.
In his book In the Presence of God (1904) Guthrie writes with prophetic pathos: “The road is hard and steep. The hills grow bolder, as it were, and O, the level reaches are so rare! Always another valley, and never the summit yet! Forests to the right, and forests to the left, and never yet one glimpse of that white Temple far above. The stones, oh, how they hurt! Mud, mud at every step, and yet at every splash I must proceed, while still the light of day will last.” He wrote that at age 35 but it described the career as an author he was doomed to lead another 34 years. Despite his three PhD degrees, one from Harvard, the second from Columbia, his work never won the popularity or academic acceptance he hoped for.
Kenneth authored the first English translation of the Popul Vuh, the famous Mayan Book of the People, which appeared in the American Theosophical Society magazine The Word in serial form from 1906 to 1907. The translation suffers from its florid scriptural language.
Kenneth taught German and French for one term at South Brooklyn Evening High School in 1909-10.”The Bishop’s Diary, 1912-1913″ section of the Journal of the Proceedings of the annual convention, Episcopal Church, Diocese of Harrisburg notes that the day after Christmas the bishop “received notice that the sentence upon Kenneth Sylvan Guthrie had been terminated by the Bishop of Pennsylvania.” Was this related to the issues that caused him to be deposed in 1891? In the Journal of the One Hundred and Thirty-First Convention of the Diocese of New York A.D. 1914 Kenneth is listed as a warden of his brother William’s church, St. Mark’s of the Bouwerie. A year later he become rector of All Saint’s Church.
In 1919 Kenneth published A Romance of Two Centuries: A Tale of the Year 2025 featuring a narrator who is reanimated by scientists. Clothing designers take heed, here is Kenneth’s description of the fashions of the future: “The loose trousers were buttoned on to a vest, to which were also buttoned soft collars and cuffs, and the artist’s cravat. The outer coat was double-breasted, each flap being buttoned under the opposite arm…starch had disappeared, as both ruinous to materials, and wasteful of human labor. Pressing, also was tabooed, as were pleats, ruffles and flounces.” In the kitchen of the future, men were expected to cook alongside women. Sickness is regarded as disreputable incompetency, proving negligence and lack of judgment. Kenneth describes “a life-card, which I was to retain permanently, which bore all permanent identification data. My photograph was affixed….” Names of the future, which would include information like birth dates would be based on the code invented by Sir Francis Bacon. Banks were abolished because in the past “if the bank failed, the manager only had to hang up a sign that payments were suspended, and policemen drove the unfortunate depositors out in the street to whistle for their money, till they got tired.” In 2025 churches have gone the way of banks, not because religion no longer exists, but because like banks, churches tended to serve their own interests instead of the public good.
Kenneth was another in the long line of American Metaphysical Religion oriented independent scholars who believed that Sir Francis Bacon not only authored the Shakespeare plays, but he included in them messages to be decoded for the future. The most extreme manifestation of the trend was Marie Bauer Hall’s fascination with the Bruton Vault, which she believed contained manuscripts that proved Bacon and his humanitarian colleagues masterminded our modern world. Kenneth also wrote an odd little book on Rosicrucianism: Rosicrucian Mysteries: Playlets on Original Rosicrucian Documents.
Perhaps Kenneth’s most successful work has turned out to be his Pythagoras Source Book and Library (1920) about which David Fideler wrote, “Guthrie’s edition contained his own translations of ancient Greek writings in addition to edited versions of writings initially translated by Thomas Taylor.” In 1986 Fideler edited and published with his Phanes Press a popular and respected improved edition under the title The Pythagorean Sourcebook and Library.
Kenneth was an active prohibitionist but what actions he may have taken against alcohol in America remain obscure.
In 1921 the Living Church printed an investigation of the slave gallery in what was by then a “venerable but little known Church,” reporting that Episcopalians were expected to convert or maintain the Christian faith of their slaves. The articles were based on interviews with Kenneth. Under his leadership his congregation in 1924, the 100th anniversary of the church, presented a pageant remembering the slave gallery. By the 1930’s Kenneth had opened a Lincoln Museum, displaying among other artifacts a bill of sale for a slave, and an iron shackle. Kenneth also directed The Netherlands Art Museum of All Saint’s, commemorating the early Dutch colony in New York. He preserved the original organ of the church, the only remaining window in New York dating to colonial times, and the only surviving “three Decker chancel,” a construction that provided a reading desk for the church’s clerk, a high pulpit for the rector, and a small altar.
One of Kenneth’s books was inspired by a dream a stranger had. Kenneth wrote: “How was I led to resurrect Proclus? On the 21st of May 1924 I was visited by a California miner, Mr. Emil Verch, who though ignorant of Greek, and of even who Proclus was, had visions of a sage giving that name lecturing and demonstrating theorems in an unknown tongue. When I had explained who Proclus was he besought me to restore these inaccessible treasures to humanity by an English edition. I showed him the ponderousness of the undertaking; which indeed I was fortunately in a position to carry out so far as texts went; but as I have to earn my living would he supply the money? Willingly, if he had had the means; but he was working as a sailor just then. Still, wouldn’t I do something for Proclus, anyway? As my whole life has been devoted to just this, making accessible to the public the neglected treasures of Neo-platonism, I tightened my already tight belt by one notch and gathered in one volume everything that was not ponderous or already in print, so as to give the reader a master-key to the situation.”
As I write this Kenneth’s pebble-grained cloth boards bound typewritten manuscript of Angelic Mysteries of the Nine Heavens: A Drama of Interior Initiation (1926) is for sale for 1250.00. The ink and pencil corrections and annotations are in his own hand. Angelic Mysteries is not a John Dee style exposition of angelic arcana, instead Kenneth offers an allegorical poetic dialogue of awkward rhythms and rhymes teaching an amalgam of spiritual beliefs and practices drawn from many different religions and combined into a practical course on self enlightenment and healing that can only be described as American Metaphysical Religion. though Kenneth himself describes it as “embodying Dionysius the Areopagite’s nine fold celestial hierarchy, a vision of judgment and heaven, an evocation of the historic lawgivers, the reincarnatory career of a famous soul, a passage through hell, purgatory & heaven and the mystery of the twenty-four elders.”
Kenneth’s books were published by his own The Platonist Press, a name perhaps inspired by Thomas Johnson’s earlier periodical The Platonist . The press also published several books by Thomas Kip Turvey, including The Conservation of Your Vitality: Explained Physically, Mentally, Spiritually (1926) a 30 page booklet, and the 64 page Temple Doors Opened: An Anthology of Advanced Experimental Religion (1929). Turvey’s personal life and connection to Kenneth remain obscure.
In his one volume Plotinus: Rearranged Chronologically Complete Translation with Concordance, and Studies, Showing Origin Development and Influence Kenneth inexplicably includes a page of ads that undermine the dignity of the work he considers so worthy of respect. The ad begins:
“SPICY SITUATIONS, and Dr Kenneth Guthrie’s REMEDIES
The Board of Education’s Examiner had just turned down the blushing Miss Teacher Candidate, Weeping, she wailed. Is there no hope at all for me? Oh, yes, purred he. Try again next year! What could I study in the meanwhile? Dr. Guthrie’s TEACHERS*PROBLEMS & HOW TO SOLVE THEM. $1.25.” Value and Limits of the History of Education, and “The Mother-Tongue Method of Teaching Modern Languages,” each 30 cents. Will that pass me? Really, Miss you are too pretty to teach school. Get his Progressive Complete Education, or Marriages as the Supreme School of Life, $1.25. And if I pass examination on it? Then I will marry you. Thanks, kind sir!”
It’s hard not to imagine a demented puppet show. Like today’s hard sell network marketers of self help spiritual paths Kenneth knows he must appeal to the personal predicaments and identifications of his potential readers. The dense page full of type is divided by eye-catching headlines. Apparently teachers were still a good market for the Platonically inclined, as they had been during the glory days of the Plato Club. Next up are pessimists who can learn to become optimists, though the example given is a theological student who meets with a Bishop who recommends Kenneth as the “wizard” who can “send you Zoroaster teacher of purity and angels” followed by a list that includes Plotinus, Proclus, Pythagoras, Apollonius and other luminaries of the Platonic tradition.
The next headline: “This is what occurred at the Masonic Club after last night’s Lodge-Meeting.” The Master Mason recommends to a new recruit several books by Guthrie including The Modernized Mithraic Mysteries and books on the Rosicrucians and Shakespeare. Next comes this surreal headline: “Savanarola’s Ghost met Giordano Bruno’s, still reeling from the fire’s agony.” Strangely Savanarola comforts the arch heretic and offers him several mystical books by Guthrie. The last headline: “A Fundamentalist-Modernist Fracas” tells the story of a recent railroad wreck where “the renowned Fundamentalist Rev. U. Cheatem” wound up “cheek to jowl” with “the Modernist Rev. I. Catchem of St Shark’s-in-the-Mill-pond.” (The latter certainly could be a reference to Kenneth’s brother William and his church St. Mark’s of the Bouwrie). The two exchange secrets for managing their flocks. For Fundamentalists Guthrie offers books like Romance of Two Centuries to keep the flock distracted, and Of the Presence of God is among the titles suggested for Modernists who by cribbing notes can make themselves popular pundits.
The ad concludes: “Pray? That was the only point where Fundamentalist and Modernist agreed: Let us prey on the PLATONIST PRESS, Teocalli, 1177 Warburton Ave. No. Yonkers, NY.”
What was Kenneth hoping to accomplish with this lampoon? He complained bitterly about being ignored by academia yet he indulged in jokes that reeked of snake oil. Despite his comedic interludes Kenneth was a serious author. For example, in Teacher’s Problems Kenneth provided a “Calendar of Famous Men, For Object Teaching.” For each month he gave 28 names. April was the month of writers and dramatists and May the month of soldiers. June was for wealthy men and July for pioneers. August belonged to the philosophers, typified by Plato and Hypatia, with Pythagoras on August 1st and Plotinus on the 7th, but Kant, Darwin and Nietzsche made the list, too. September was the month of art, which included music. October was for inventors and November for philanthropists and teachers. December was the month of poets from Homer to The Ramayana. January was for statesmen, exemplified by Moses and Queen Elizabeth I. February was the month of religious leaders from Gautama and Zoroaster to Jacob Boehme and Mary Baker Eddy. March was the month of scientists. Plutarch, who taught history through character study, may have inspired Guthrie’s system. To Plutarch belonged August 4th. For leap years Kenneth provided six intercalary days devoted to prominent women, including Aspasia, the courtesan wife of Pericles of Athens. According to Plato, Aspasia taught Socrates rhetoric.
GUTHRIE VS. MACKENNA: THE BATTLE FOR PLOTINUS
De Medici edition of MacKenna’s Plotinus.
In Teacher’s Problems and How to Solve Them (1917) Kenneth printed an advertisement for his four volume (or sometimes one fat volume) translation of Plotinus:
“WHAT ARE THE SPECIAL MERITS OF THE GUTHRIE PLOTINUS?
“1. It is the only complete one, and will always be the cheapest. It is the famous edition of which Stephen McKenna said, “1 congratulate you; you have gotten ahead of me.”
“2. It is the best for the student, as it has a 60 page concordance, and has the first explanation of Plotinic philosophy’s origin, development, and destiny. Only Dr. Guthrie could do this, because it was he who dug out Plotinus’s master Numenius. Also, his version is representative of contemporary language and ideas, and is not merely taming puzzles into modem dialect.
“3. It is the best for him who wishes to understand Plotinus, because it is the only edition that unscrambles, chronologically, Plotinus’s 4 progressive stages of development from Porphyry’s frightful hodgepodge of 9 medleys. Other translators who perpetuate this disorder after Dr. Guthrie’s discovery seem to be keeping the subject hazy purposely, not for the reader’s benefit.
“4. It is the most faithful version, because Dr. Guthrie’s sole object was to focus the labors of the best students, Marsilius Ficinus, Mueller, Drews, Bouillet, Chaignet, Taylor, and others; but one only thing he does claim, that he has not knowingly left any obscurity. Otherwise he glories in this subservience to all the best that had been done before him, and for himself he claims nothing but the unappreciated production of what nobody else would do, and the critical discovery of Plotinus’s progress. To be original is to be mistaken and misleading.
“READER, DO YOU NEED AN INTRODUCTION TO THIS PLOTINUS?
“Then send for the free booklet “Names to Conjure With” which explains why he is of interest to all religious people; also why PROCLUS, now accessible in Master Key form at $3.00 is of permanent, universal importance…”
Note that Kenneth misspells MacKenna’s name. MacKenna’s translation of Plotinus has become a classic. In Ulysses, James Joyce gives librarian Richard Best this remark: “Mallarmé, don’t you know, has written those wonderful prose poems Stephen MacKenna used to read to me in Paris.” MacKenna’s work was much beloved by his contemporaries, while Kenneth’s foundered in comparative obscurity. MacKenna’s version of the ennead On the Beautiful captures the poetic intensity and ecstasy of the vision of Plotinus. Kenneth’s translation is a rocky road of labor for the reader, without the beauty of diction that gives MacKenna’s such moving eloquence. Kenneth’s accusation that certain translators of Plotinus have ignored his discovery of a new arrangement of the Enneads he labels a willful plot to keep their readers in the dark. Academia never took a shine to Kenneth’s reorganization of Plotinus, though modern scholars agree that Porphyry’s arrangement, while perhaps not quite a frightful hodgepodge, is out of chronological order. As for his production being unappreciated that was something Kenneth could count on.
BORN TOO LATE
Ouija board circa 1919.
In the Catalog of Copyright Entries: Musical Compositions for 1938 Kenneth is listed as composer of a song with the dubious title “American Loyalty Hymn.” What of Kenneth’s wife? The fate of his children? The cause of his death? The quality of his relationship with his brother William? Why doesn’t Kenneth ever mention William? Why is Kenneth’s Neoplatonism conspicuously absent from William’s literary and liturgical collections of pagan cultural artifacts? Those questions are yet to be answered, if they ever can be.
Kenneth was only twenty years old the year Hiram K. Jones died and the Plato Club faded away. Thomas Johnson had given up on his periodical Bibliotheca Platonica. Guthrie was a lonely torchbearer, with no journals to publish in, and no powerful friends to lift him out of poverty and obscurity. The irony could not have escaped him. His feats of translation would have been welcomed with open arms by Emerson, Jones, the Concord School, the Plato Club, the American Akademe, but all that was gone. He could have at least been the Thomas Taylor of America; perhaps he hoped his books would eventually make him that. But there were no American Shelleys or Blakes to take the Neoplatonic vision to new horizons of poetic glory. Like most of today’s authors Kenneth had to market himself. Perhaps he had found that humor was a good way to win over the curious but timid newcomer to philosophy. But Kenneth was a man born fifty years too late. By the early 20’s Edgar Cayce was beginning to achieve renown and the Ouija Board became everyone’s favorite party game. Platonism was passé. Kenneth died in 1940, four years before William. He had lived long enough to see Hitler and Pearl Harbor.
While William Guthrie’s legacy remains a vital part of New York City’s Lower East Side, historians have largely ignored both brothers. Too Christian to thrill pagans and the theosophically inclined, too pagan to be remembered fondly by Christians, they are nevertheless superb examples of American Metaphysical Religion’s impact on American Christianity and culture.
Next blog: Frances Wright, grandmother of William and Kenneth, abolitionist and pioneer feminist, friend of Thomas Jefferson, sometimes mistaken for an atheist, though a careful reading of her work reveals a spiritual perspective suggesting her disbelief had more to do with the church and organized religion than spirituality itself.
You can help support St. Mark’s Historic Landmark Fund here.
Fanny Wright: Rebel in America
Harvard University Press, 1984
Frank Lloyd Wright: His Life and His Architecture
Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan and the Skyscraper
Monticello Research Report
The Mission: For Historic St. Mark’s in the Bowery Crusades and Good Works are a Way of Worship
New York Magazine Dec 24, 1990
The Beehive Metaphor: From Gaudi to Le Corbusier
On 10th Street:Towers That Never Were
New York Times July 7, 2011
Life Magazine June 28, 1937
‘The Practice of Dance for the Future of Christianity: “Eurhythmic Worship” in New York’s Roaring 20’s’
Wenger, Tisa L.
Histories of Christian Life in America, 1630-1965
Maffly-Kipp, Schmidt, and Valeri, ed.
The John Hopkins University Press, 2006
American Pageantry: A Movement for Art and Democracy
Umi Research Press, 1990
American Historical Pageantry
The Uses of Tradition in the Early Twentieth Century
University of North Carolina Press, 1990
The Message of the East
Vol. VIII, March, 1919, No. 3
Article written 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.