INTRODUCTION: A Heritage We Didn’t Know We Had
In the quiet of the Philosophical Research Society Library, surrounded by shelves of rare esoteric books, I found myself at a dead end. On that day the library was closed to visitors. The librarian and her assistants were busy upstairs. Manly Hall, a venerable mystic, sat at his desk holding a tome a few inches from his face. Meanwhile his secretary Edith, a white-haired World War II veteran, patiently waited for the next sentence of his dictation. Outside, the southern California sun ruled all with heat and glare. I had searched every shelf. I had asked the librarian, the assistants, and the old man himself, but to no avail. Trips to the libraries of Occidental College, UCLA, USC, and Loyola Marymount fared no better.
It all began when I first saw a large leather-bound volume inside the library vault where my job gave me access to Mr. Hall’s alchemical manuscripts and other rarities of rogue philosophy and religion through the ages. I opened it carefully. To my surprise it contained the first issues of a newspaper called the Platonist. I gently turned the fragile pages. I found translations of ancient Greek philosophical and religious texts, but also the work of the famous French occultist Eliphas Levi, rendered into English by Abner Doubleday, a retired general who fired the first shot in defense of Ft. Sumter at the beginning of the Civil War. Later Doubleday became vice-president of the Theosophical Society. In 1907 the Mills Commission declared that he had invented the game of baseball, but historians beg to differ.
Strange enough that any newspaper should be devoted to that kind of content, but even stranger that it was published in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1881—the year Wyatt Earp and his brothers battled Ike Clanton and his cowboys at the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. While the legendary cattle drives continued, St. Louis was becoming notorious for terrible smog caused by coal-burning factories. How in the world, I wondered, and why in the world, had this newspaper come to life at such a seemingly inhospitable time and place?
Eventually I found a little book called Platonism in the Midwest by Paul R. Anderson, published by Temple University Press in 1963. Some of my questions were answered. I gained a sense of the man behind the Platonist, but so many mysteries remained. As online search tools opened vast archives of academic work, I began looking for papers and books in my areas of interest. To my surprise I found a trickle of new research that with the arrival of the new millennium became a flood. A revolution in academia had opened the way for a new generation of scholars to explore and document what had been neglected and dismissed.
Unfortunately for amateur enthusiasts such as myself, these new books are prohibitively expensive, and people who do not move in academic circles could live their entire lives without any access to them, probably never knowing they exist. Since I have been fortunate to have friends in academia I hope this book will serve as a bridge, bringing some of the latest research to people who would like to know about it, making accessible the hard work of these historians. In the bibliography you’ll find a list of the books I consulted. Request them at your library if you want all the details.
Please understand, I am not an academic. I am not attempting to prove that American Metaphysical Religion is anything more than a catchall metaphor for the esoteric beliefs and practices that have found a home in the melting pot of America. Think of me instead as your tour guide to the rough and tumble world of spirituality American-style. Far more questions will be raised than answered. We will consider not only wild tales of metaphysical leaders and communities, scandals and gossip, but also many neglected gems of thought and action that sincere seekers may find inspiring.
This book is an introduction to four centuries of America’s metaphysical saints, grifters, misfits, revolutionaries, visionaries, eccentrics, and some important thinkers who were far ahead of their time. In some ways this is a guidebook to all the different ways spirituality can be used to cheat people, but we also find examples of the inexplicable and genuine.
It’s no surprise that the people who came to America to make a life, or who were brought here against their will, would have the daring to not only experiment with the occult but also to weave together their own approaches to spirituality. However, for generations well-meaning religiously motivated scholars deliberately ignored this rich, detailed, and influential history, including the fact that the majority of Founding Fathers, mostly Deists and Freemasons, had little respect for the superstitious factions of Christianity most eager to claim them.
Several centuries of denominational historians, scholars of Christian and Jewish history, were mostly interested in prominent people and the fates of institutions. They were eventually replaced by historians who were considered more liberal because they glanced at fundamentalists and Pentecostals. But the metaphysical tradition was kept alive by rogue scholars. In the various metaphysical organizations populated by enthusiasts, books survived that academia had wished into the cornfield. Finally, in the 1990s, professional researchers began exploring metaphysical religion. But it would take until the twenty-first century for the occult to become a legitimate subject of study for a new generation of historians and the academic presses that publish them. “Many of the studies of new religions have been polemical, apologetic, or inaccessible to the general reader,” Sarah M. Pike wrote in New Age and Pagan Religions in America (2004). “The field has often been polarized between scholars who are critical of new religions and those who are more sympathetic to them. . .”
American Metaphysical Religion has been treated as pseudo-religion, yet its influence is substantial. As Patrick Reeves wrote in personal correspondence of 2021 used by his permission, “Is it marginal or mainstream (or mainstream but we’ve been deluded into thinking it’s marginal)?” He also reminds us that religions don’t fit the categories scholars give them: “I think of definitions on religion not as something we discover but lenses we put on reality to make sense of it.”
Many well-educated people argue that the subject of this book doesn’t exist. At best they will allow American Metaphysical Religion (AMR) as an umbrella phrase for the collection of superstitions. However, some scholars believe that AMR is a real religion lacking only unifying institutions, and perhaps better for the lack of them. A few wonder if it might eventually evolve a new religion. All three of these perspectives on AMR have merit. Perhaps time will reveal its true definition, or it may remain a mysterious but ubiquitous influence for centuries, as it has since the earliest days of colonization.
However, we might consider the example of the Imperial Romans, who wrote about Christianity as a disorganized underground of bizarre cults. No Holy Bible existed then. Gnostic sects had at least a dozen gospels of their own; at least another dozen gospels would be lost. Some Christians believed in reincarnation. Others worshiped a Christian goddess, Sophia, the personification of pious wisdom. Some expected the world to end any day. Others thought the world a never-created and never-ending testing place for souls. Despite differences of beliefs, practices, and ethics all were forms of Christianity. Despite its chaotic countercultural beginnings, as Christianity matured it evolved empires.
A characteristic quality of AMR is its relentless optimism, which contributed greatly to American exceptionalism. This world can be so beautiful. Sunrises and sunsets paint the sky. Mosslike malachite grows in copper. An adored cat purrs contentedly. A lover smiles. A child’s innocent laughter rings like the chime of silver bells under the clear sky of a Sunday afternoon. And yet everything in this world that inspires wonder and appreciation can be, has been, and is exploited. We puny creatures with our cosmic minds have already foreseen the sun’s fate and that of our home world. Keep moving! That sign is everywhere in our universe.
And yet, American Metaphysical Religion reminds us, at times life can seem like paradise. If so shouldn’t we study how to make that happen more often or, even better, perpetually? The world may be full of suffering but it’s the responsibility of each of us to do everything we can to make our own little world a heaven. Throughout history such utopian ideas have been for the most part met with ridicule. But American Metaphysical Religion has never given up on this belief in a more perfect world, or at least a more prosperous and joyous life for believers.
While ambition and survival are common motives in the lives we are about to explore, most of these innovators hoped to heal the sick, enlighten the ignorant, and liberate the oppressed. Even the most fraudulent seemed to think they were doing some good, like a discredited medium pointing out that at least the grief-stricken were comforted. They all appreciated and made use of the opportunities for learning and action that freedom provides, as they attempted to understand the meaning of life and the purpose for which it exists. They didn’t just write about it. Most tried out their theories in their own lives, among their friends, and a few with large groups of followers. Most of these grand experiments are little known today. Their obscurity is not necessarily a measure of their value.
As for the influence of what we’re calling American Metaphysical Religion it goes far and wide in the United States. For example, America’s beloved poet Emily Dickinson studied Rosicrucianism, Theosophy, and alchemy. She was deeply interested in Spiritualism. “Spirit pen” was her nickname for her favorite writing instrument. One of Emily’s favorite books was Zanoni, by the British occultist Lord Bulwer-Lytton, a novel about an encounter with a Rosicrucian. Zanoni, Missouri, is an unincorporated town located in Ozark County. The post office and a watermill are all that’s left of this community founded in 1898 and named after Bulwer-Lytton’s book. Allegedly the town inspired an unincorporated community in Gloucester County, Virginia, to also name itself Zanoni.
William James, the father of American psychology, and the first to offer a psychology class, put his reputation as a scientist and a professor at Harvard University on the line when he, and other great intellects with as much to lose, including Alexander Graham Bell, formed the American Society for Psychical Research in 1884. Investigating poltergeists, haunted houses, psychic mediums, they found no proof of the supernatural until William James met a medium named Mrs. Piper. As James explained in his report on her, “If you wish to upset the law that all crows are black, you mustn’t seek to show that no crows are; it is enough if you prove one single crow to be white. My own white crow is Mrs. Piper. I cannot resist the conviction that knowledge appears which she has never gained by the waking use of her eyes and ears and wits. What the source of this knowledge may be I know not, and have not the glimmer of an explanatory suggestion to make; but from admitting the fact of such knowledge I can see no escape.”
Leonora Piper was a housewife from Boston. Many tested her after James dubbed her his white crow, but no one ever caught her committing fraud. The more tests she passed the higher the demand and the fees for her psychic services became. Some skeptics argued that like most of her ilk she was adept at fishing, reading body language, and other techniques of fraudulent mind readers.
Stories about her failures circulated. She told one client he would soon find a wife and would have children, but he never did. Another client had been told his son had died in Mexico. He refused to accept it, convincing himself his son had been kidnapped. Mrs. Piper concurred, describing the asylum where he was being held and the name of the crazed doctor behind the kidnapping. Investigations revealed no asylum, no doctor, and the accuracy of the death as reported by the authorities.
Mrs. Piper was also unable to distinguish sincere clients from skeptics testing her skills. Those tests she often failed. How could Uncle Louie be standing in spirit right behind his beloved nephew when he was actually a thousand miles away on a boat headed for Europe? Even more suspect, how could she not know that Uncle Louie was a made-up character?
Then there were the questions about Mrs. Piper’s controls, the spirits that communicated through her, such as the French physician who could not understand French. A control named Moses predicted a great war would happen soon. The Russians and French would go to war against the British. The Germans would stay out of it. So many mistakes in one prophecy.
We hope Mrs. Piper was equally wrong about the fate of Madame Blavatsky, whom she described as winding up “in the deepest part of hell.” Mrs. Piper is our first but not our last example of this ambiguous combination of genuine inexplicable experiences, such as William James described, and mistaken assertions. But was what James experienced really inexplicable? A maid in the James household was friends with a maid in Mrs. Piper’s house. She may have been the source of Mrs. Piper’s knowledge about the life of William James. Was the friendship between the maids unknown to James? Were both maids willing accomplices? Could his maid have known the details that Mrs. Piper related to James? As promised, we are left with more questions than answers.
As for Mrs. Piper, later in life she announced she never thought she was actually speaking to spirits. She considered her controls aspects of her own subconscious. She thought that what she had done was perhaps telepathy rather than channeling. Later the same year she issued a less decisive comment. She really didn’t know how to explain what had happened to her. She couldn’t be certain that it had nothing to do with spirits.
So many of the stories we will encounter in this chronicle of American Metaphysical Religion culminate in these dead ends where the street signs are all question marks. Is this book nothing but a guide to black crows? I believe we may have a white crow, or several, but we can never completely remove the shadow of doubt. But we can keep in mind a famous statement William James made about the nature of consciousness. In his classic The Varieties of Religious Experience he wrote: “One conclusion was forced upon my mind at that time, and my impression of its truth has ever since remained unshaken. It is our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the flimsiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. We may go through life without suspecting their existence; but apply the requisite stimulus, and at a touch they are there in all their completeness, definite types of mentality which probably somewhere have their field of application and adaptation. No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite discarded” (James 1936).