American Liberalism & the Occult

I just watched this video about American liberalism having some origins in the occult. It reminds me of some passages from books I was recently reading (the passages are below the video).

American history is a lot more interesting than they teach in school. By the way, the guy in the video seems to be partly talking about America’s Great Awakenings. America has always been a country of religious experimentation. The deism of many of the founding father is an example of this (such as Thomas Paine writing and speaking about deism, atheism and Jesus being based on solar mythology).

What interests me the most is the time period in question is America’s Third Great Awakening which includes the Civil War, Reconstruction, and Populist Era… which set the stage for the Progressive Era. The book passages below are about the Populist Era when this Third Great Awakening became fully manifest as a movement.

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Postel, Charles (2009). The Populist Vision (Kindle Locations 5292-5356). Oxford University Press, USA. Kindle Edition.

As the secretary of the People’s party in Grimes County, Texas, John W. H. Davis devoted his public energies to enacting the Populist agenda of economic, financial, and political reform. In his private contemplations, however, these reforms were closely intertwined with questions of faith. He understood that religion as practiced was “dead.” Christianity ignored the here and now with its misplaced focus on “your dead carcass after death.” Yes, Davis conceded, a “pure undefiled Christianity,” combined with an honest ballot, would bring the necessary improvements. But he was troubled by the question of whether such a secular brotherhood could still be called Christianity at all. In search for answers he turned to non-Christian beliefs. He read across a range of spiritualist and other metaphysical literature, and carefully clipped and filed in his personal papers Charles C. Post’s article about the evolution of man, apes, and the irrationality of belief in God. For Davis, it made no sense to have “a political hell on earth” and a “religious heaven by the same person.” He searched for a unified vision of spiritual and material progress. The study of “mental science” was of a piece with his investigations into census data and national legislation, inseparable parts of a single quest for human improvement.59

Davis understood the controversial nature of his religious views and kept his studies of “mental science” to himself. Because of efforts to avoid public discord, it is difficult to quantify the number of Populists who believed in spiritualism, “mental science,” or similar metaphysical systems. The task is even more complex given that many other Americans—from faithful Christians to skeptical agnostics—entertained curiosity about communicating with the spirits of the dead and other metaphysical practices. In Texas, among the signs that the Populists showed interest in their movement, the Southern Mercury extended sympathy toward the spiritualists in the face of ostracism by “religious fanatics.” Texas spiritualist associations, although small in number, only organized in districts that also happened to be Populist strongholds. The impoverished cotton farmers of Davis’s Grimes County, for example, sustained a spiritualist organization with twenty-nine official members.60

The most prominent spiritualist in Texas, Eben LaFayette Dohoney, ran as the People’s party candidate for a state judgeship. Dohoney was also one of the leading prohibitionists in the state. Although most Populists sympathized with the temperance movement, the Texas People’s party preferred “local option” restrictions on alcohol sales rather than alienating German and other voters. This tolerant gesture was largely undone in the public mind by placing Dohoney on the Populist ticket as he was well-known for his strident prohibitionist views. The spiritualists did not view alcohol abuse as a sin, the work of the devil, or a ticket to eternal damnation. But it did threaten public health. And the spiritualists’ commitment to health and fitness made them uncompromising foes of the liquor industry.61

The tangible connections between spiritual reform, health reform, and social reform brought spiritualists into the Populist ranks. The spiritualists did not confine their attention to the séance. Their belief in progress—the “continuous progressive unfoldment” of the human condition—translated into social activism. A number of spiritualists embraced an “evolutionary revolution” toward the cooperative commonwealth. The spiritualist newspaper Carrier Dove popularized legislation making the federal government responsible for financing and regulating cooperative corporations “under comprehensive and uniform laws.” Although less specific than Charles Macune’s subtreasury plan, the proposal was premised on the same state-centered and cooperativist assumptions.62

The spiritualists rejected the framework of Christianity in favor of what they understood as a scientific outlook. Like the Swedenborgians, the spiritualists used the language of modern science and based their claims on empirical evidence rather than emotion or doctrine. They viewed the discovery of the ability to communicate with the spirits of the dead as a confirmation of reason and science in the struggle against the mysterious and supernatural, just as the harnessing of electricity confirmed the scientific age. Although spiritualism bore the brunt of intense hostility from the churches and the pious, it had a considerable public presence in late nineteenth-century life. Like other cultural movements of the era, the spiritualists made extensive use of the camp meeting. Crowds five thousand to ten thousand strong gathered under spiritualist tents to hear the speeches of famous mediums. Although some of the participants were city people enjoying a rural retreat, the movement had a broad rural following. The annual camp meetings of the Mississippi Valley Spiritualists Association lasted for a month and drew thousands of participants from Texas, Minnesota, and everywhere in between.63

Spiritualism provided an attractive alternative for women. The Christian churches, with their ordained clergy and scriptural proscriptions, placed obstacles to women’s expression and equality. “Spiritualism,” its practitioners stressed, “has no oracles, no priests, no leaders. The truth, wherever found, is all it seeks.” Women thus found opportunities as trance mediums and truth seekers. Victoria Woodhull, the best-known spiritualist of the 1870s, connected spiritualism in the public mind with free love and challenges to traditional gender roles. Although most spiritualists distanced themselves from Woodhull’s free love ideas, they campaigned for women’s progress, advocating dress and dietary reform, job protection, career opportunities, and the right to vote. The spiritualists played a prominent role in the national suffrage movement, and in California the trance medium Laura de Force Gordon led the state suffrage association.64

Given their ideas about reform, spiritualists often made good Populists. The editor Annie Diggs, the silver crusader George Bowen, and the novelist Hamlin Garland were among other prominent midwestern Populists involved with spiritualism. James Vincent Sr., father of the Vincent brothers, popularized spiritualist ideas in the pages of the Nonconformist. His wife had been a spiritualist, and after her death he grew dissatisfied with religious interpretations of the afterlife. “While for myself I have no faith in the teachings of the bible,” he conceded, “I cannot deny the doctrine of immortality.” He found the solution to otherwise unexplainable phenomena in spiritualism, which provided empirical proof that “the mind is active everywhere.” Only the scientific methods of the séance allowed for the perception of this electricity-like force.65

Spiritualism played a large role in California Populism. Marion Cannon, exercising his authority as president of the state Farmer’s Alliance, pointedly ruled against a candidate for membership who did not believe in a supreme being. This ruling, however, served to allay public fears, as both the Farmers’ Alliance and the People’s party in California owed a great deal to spiritualism and related movements that flourished in the state’s climate of religious tolerance and experimentation. Here it should be kept in mind that much of the California movement had a nonreligious character, marked more by a casual drift from religious concerns than commitment to alternative beliefs. Cannon himself showed disinterest in spiritual matters, and although his wife was a committed church member, the church was one of the few organizations in which he did not take part. At the same time, a section of the reform movement in California embraced non-Christian beliefs in which a supreme being played an ambiguous part or no part at all.66

The spiritualist colony at Summerland, south of Santa Barbara, served as an organizing center for Populism. James S. Barbee, a Confederate veteran authorized by the national Farmers’ Alliance to organize on the West Coast, was closely tied to Summerland and, with the assistance of Alliance organizer Anna Ferry Smith, made it a base of statewide organizing. Burdette Cornell, a recent arrival from the Midwest known by the Populists as “our Nebraska Farm Boy,” served as the secretary of the Summerland Spiritualist Association. He traveled extensively throughout the state as a Farmers’ Alliance organizer, setting up suballiances in remote rural districts. A spiritualist cadre, which included prominent women activists such as Mary A. White and Addie Ballou, similarly helped build the Nationalist clubs and the People’s party in California.67

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Postel, Charles (2009). The Populist Vision (Kindle Locations 5357-5398). Oxford University Press, USA. Kindle Edition.

Besides the spiritualists, adherents of the related belief system known as Theosophy were similarly attracted to Populism. Theosophists also approached spirituality from the modern standpoint of rational inquiry and scientific validation. However, instead of focusing on communication with the dead, they studied what they viewed as the advanced ideas of Buddhism, Hinduism, and other Asian belief systems. They also explored magic and the mystical, not out of belief in the supernatural, but in pursuit of “occult science,” that is, rational and scientific explanations for unexplained psychic phenomena. Founded by the Russian émigré Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, the Theosophist movement, with headquarters in Madras, India, established branches in forty-two countries, with more than one hundred American chapters. Its followers tended to be in self-conscious revolt against the confines of traditional belief, and saw themselves as innovators on the cutting edge of a new, modern, and scientific world outlook. Their British counterparts, historian Alex Owen writes, pursued “a thoroughly modern project” with “distinctively avant-garde themes and preoccupations.” The same pursuit brought American Theosophists to Populist reform.68

Inspired by Buddhist and related ideas about the unity of life, Theosophists came to similar conclusions as the social Christians about human solidarity and social reform. They found the doctrines of Bellamy’s Nationalism especially attractive. Although Edward Bellamy himself was a social Christian, several of his closest associates, including Cyrus Field Willard, Sylvester Baxter, and other founders of Nationalism were Theosophists. In California, the Theosophists played a major role in organizing Nationalist clubs up and down the state. The influence of “occult science” spread well beyond the organized Theosophist societies, as occult lecturers and practitioners formed part of the bohemian subculture of reform. The caustically skeptical and atheistic Anna Fader Haskell found their ideas “rather absurd.” Yet, much to her chagrin, her husband Burnette had a long-standing interest in magic and named their son after the mystical Chaldaic god Astoroth.69

Mystical religion remained in the shadows of the Populist movement. It had its moment of national attention, however, with Coxey’s Army and the prominent role played by Jacob Coxey’s coleader of the march, Carl Browne. During the 1870s, Browne had served as secretary to Denis Kearney in the California Workingmen’s party agitation for Chinese exclusion. He later joined the Theosophists, who, ironically, provided some of the clearest voices on the West Coast in favor of racial tolerance. In 1893 he met Jacob Coxey, the Ohio Populist. The Californian introduced the Ohioan to both Theosophy and to the idea of organizing “Industrial Armies” as a means to bring the plight of the unemployed to public attention. The result was the famous march on Washington. Along the way, they mixed their campaign for a “good roads bill” with Theosophist teachings about Jesus, Buddha, Krishna, and immortality.

Coxey and Browne dubbed their march “The Commonweal of Christ,” and announced to crowds of spectators that their march was a manifestation of the reincarnation of Jesus and other spiritual masters. This left many observers perplexed. The official chronicler of the march, Henry Vincent, received an inquiry as to what precisely was the nature of Coxey’s religious views. To this he replied that, as far as he understood it, Coxey’s religion “was to uplift humanity, relieve the oppressed and ‘let my people go free.’” As for Coxey’s church, Vincent described it as “the big one,” which “takes in all humanity irrespective of sect divisions.” Such an explanation made sense given the liberal and inclusive environment of Populist religiosity.70

Adherents of Theosophy saw themselves as the vanguard of a global unification of religious beliefs. They represented a small part of a much broader late nineteenth-century enthusiasm in America to learn from non-Christian belief systems. The wave of interest culminated in the 1893 World Parliament of Religions held in conjunction with the Chicago World’s Fair. The organizer of the event, John Henry Barrows, a liberal theologian and minister of Chicago’s First Presbyterian Church, promoted the Parliament as “the most phenomenal fact of the Columbian Exposition.” The Parliament drew over 150,000 people from across the nation and the globe to its sessions. Reform-minded participants welcomed the opportunity to learn “what God has wrought through Buddha and Zoroaster.” They saw the event as a turning point in the quest for understanding the universal “religion of humanity” and “science of religion.” The nation’s newspapers carried detailed reports. In North Carolina, the front-page headline of the Populist Caucasian saluted the “Unique Assembly” and provided its rural readers with an account of how the followers of Christianity, Buddhism, Confucianism, Islam, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, and “all religions” sought unity on the basis of “the golden rule.”71

Such liberal religious sentiments expressed in rural Populist newspapers help explain the clash over comparative religion in Dayton, Tennessee, so many years later. At the Scopes trial, Darrow queried Bryan about what he knew of Buddha and Zoroaster, of which Bryan claimed to have little familiarity. Darrow’s purpose in this line of questioning was not to ridicule Bryan for his ignorance of obscure subjects. Rather, he grilled Bryan about the existence of other belief systems for the same reason

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Lears, Jackson (2009). Rebirth of a Nation (Kindle Locations 4567-4607). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Despite the prominence of progressive cliché, the vitalist celebration of spontaneity did lead to a new, more fluid style of thought—a distrust of static formulas and unchanging traditions, a fascination with energy, growth, and process; a willingness to lay “hands upon the sacred ark of absolute permanency,” as John Dewey wrote in “The Influence of Darwinism on Philosophy” (1910), and recast truth-claims in more dynamic idioms. One can see this antiformalist tendency in everything from Holmes’s influential slogan about “the life of the law” (it “has not been logic; it has been experience”) to Dewey’s ideal school, whose aim was “not learning, but first living,” as a follower said in 1910, “and then learning through and in relation to this living.” Antiformalist urges energized the pragmatic turn in American philosophy, the insistence that ideas be evaluated with respect to their actual consequences in everyday life. Pragmatism was conceived by Charles Peirce, nurtured to adulthood by William James, and applied to politics and society by Dewey. It was the most influential philosophical consequence of the quest for immediate experience. The long-term results were anticlimactic. Among Dewey’s epigones, pragmatism never entirely escaped the utilitarian cast of mind; the pragmatic criterion of truth became “what works” and education for living became vocational training.

Yet the vitalist impulse itself had larger than utilitarian implications. Its significance, like its origin, was religious. It lay at the heart of a broad revolt against positivism, a rejection of a barren universe governed by inexorable laws, where everything was measurable and nothing mysterious. The real problem for many vitalists (and certainly for James) was the specter of a life (and death) without meaning. It is possible to see all the talk about “life” as a way of whistling past the graveyard of traditional Christianity. But the vitalist ferment was also a genuine attempt to explore new meanings for human existence amid the wreckage of collapsing dualities: body and soul, matter and spirit, this world and the next.

Educated Protestants, dissatisfied with desiccated theology, cast about for vital conceptions of cosmic meaning. Many explored medieval Catholic mysticism as an alternative to the banalities of the typical Sunday sermon, the sort of platitudes uttered by Henry Ward Beecher and other ministers who reduced the Protestant ethic to a mere prescription for worldly success. Buddhism and other Asian religions—discovered, imagined, and synthesized—also began to play a role in focusing popular longings. Vedanta, popularized at the Chicago World’s Fair and after by Swami Vivekenanda, and theosophy, preached by Madame Blavatsky and Annie Besant, were both synthetic expressions of spiritual ferment. Paul Carus founded the magazine Open Court to carry forward the work of the World’s Parliament of Religions, begun at the Chicago Fair, to create a common ground of ecumenical discussion, which might lead to a new synthesis—a “Religion of the Future” that might appeal to believer and skeptic alike.

The results were mixed. Contributors to Open Court asked questions like “What is Life?” and then stumbled about in a soupy haze of abstractions. “The truth is, there are, as there must be, original factors in the world…and life (or chemical activity and appetency) is like gravity, one of them,” William Salter announced in 1901. “If we wish to account for them, we have to go back to the maker of all things (if there is a Maker) not to any of the things that are made.” One thing was certain: “The only salvation for society as for the individual, is from within—it is more life.” The reverence for “life” could overcome death itself. “Who knows but that that greater death which sooner or later overtakes us all…starts energies into play deeper than we had known before—that it is the death of the body, and freedom, new birth, to the soul?’

The desire for regeneration led to death’s door and beyond. Yearnings for empirical proof of an afterlife and for communication with departed loved ones accelerated the appeal of spiritualism. Here was another example of fascination with invisible force, impossible to see but unmistakable (to believers) in its consequences—tables rising from the floor, sepulchral voices, mysterious music. Even William James was intrigued. While he remained skeptical of sweaty séances in darkened rooms, he joined the American Society for Psychical Research, providing legitimacy to the quest for connection with “discarnate spirits.” His interest in spiritualism reflected his openness to all manner of evidence, no matter how bizarre or apparently inexplicable—his radical empiricism, as he called it.

Radical empiricism was the most profound intellectual consequence of the vitalist impulse. It animated James’s attempt to imagine “a world of pure experience,” a “blooming buzzing confusion” of perceptions from which we select and fashion our concepts. It validated his (and his contemporaries’) probing of religious experiences and other extreme psychic states, explorations that underscored the revelatory power of the “unclassified residuum” in mental life and the tentative, provisional character of scientific claims about it. Here and elsewhere, James stood in the midst of the transatlantic maelstrom that became

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