Occult America: The Secret History of How Mysticism Shaped Our NationBy Mitch Horowitz
Reviewed by Joseph Szimhart
On the day I finished reading this book, I saw the author Mitch Horowitz on the History Channel offering his insight into the Mayan Calendar and its purported prediction of the end of time in 2012. Horowitz has become something of a minor academic celebrity, appearing on several programs about mysterious religious ideas. His latest book, Occult America, sports back-cover endorsements from New Age guru Deepak Chopra, the liberal Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong, and the popular philosopher Jacob Needleman, who favors the teaching of G. I. Gurdjieff. Horowitz is the editor-in-chief of Tarcher/Penguin books.
This is the second book by this title to appear on my bookshelf, the first being Occult America by John Godwin (1972), which also surveys a number of occult and esoteric groups. There is some crossover into well-known occult territory in both books; for example, Madame Blavatsky and Theosophy’s influence on just about everything occult in America since the 19th century, the story of the 20th century’s “sleeping prophet” Edgar Cayce, and the foundation of the ubiquitous Ouija Board.
Godwin’s book reads easily, with a good index and glossary of terms, but later critics have found serious flaws in his biographical facts about certain witches and Satanists. Horowitz seems to have done his research better. His index is also good, as are his endnotes, and he covers some territory missed by Godwin. Horowitz, for example, discusses at length the influence of the Theosophist and self-made guru Nicholas Roerich on Henry Wallace and President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration from the late 1920s through 1935; but Godwin mentions nothing of Roerich and Wallace. Horowitz includes a fine chapter about African-Americans such as Marcus Garvey (Black Moses) and Wallace D. Wattles, who borrowed occult/metaphysical ideas from 19th century New Thought movements, the Bible, and Afro-Caribbean spiritualism; Godwin says nothing about Black mysticism in America. Then again, Godwin spends an entire, entertaining chapter on L. Ron Hubbard and his Scientology, whereas Horowitz mentions next to nothing of Hubbard’s religious enterprise. Horowitz reveals only that the term scientology appeared first in the writings of Stephen P. Andrews in the late 19th century. Horowitz reveals significant background on Joseph Smith, who infused his early occult ideas into the Mormon faith; but Godwin mentions Mormons in one sentence only. Does this mean that in our current litigious climate an author dare not mention certain groups that derive teachings from common occultism in a book that has “occult” in the title? I will give Horowitz the benefit of the doubt for one reason: Horowitz covers this vast and labyrinthine subject in only 290 pages (Godwin gave us 313), not to offer a complete history or pick on a new religion, but rather to argue that our culture is infused, for better or for worse, with various occult ideas.
Horowitz makes the bold claim that the occult as “mysticism” shaped America. He lays the groundwork for this idea by discussing the “Burned-Over District” along U.S. Route 20, a corridor that runs from New England across central New York. This territory was once the home of the Iroquois nation of tribes. New settlers arrived there after the Iroquois retreated because of government policies and other forces that included European diseases such as smallpox. The settlers brought and supported the great Christian revivals into the 19th century. Fiery preachers populated this corridor with spirit-filled visions, heavenly signs, and apocalyptic messages. Many, among them Joseph Smith (1805–44), felt the ghosts of ancient Indians reasserting their histories. The raw beginnings of what later would be called Spiritualism and channeling began. Horowitz writes, “The dreamers and planners who flourished along the Psychic Highway seemed to relish splitting apart orthodoxies, remaking Christianity as a new source of mystery and magic” (17). Out of the fringe ferment emerged movements that included the Millerites, the Shakers, and the Mormons. Horowitz documents how aspects of Freemasonry entered the crucible in groups such as Mormonism, creating a new alchemy of religious behavior until a disgruntled Mason, William Morgan, disappeared in 1826 after threatening to publish Masonic secrets. Rumors spread that he was murdered, which ignited a whirlwind of anti-Masonic activity that eventually spawned fifty-two anti-Masonic newspapers, and “dozens of anti-Masonic representatives were sent to state legislatures” (27). Freemasonry would rebound in later decades, but without the prestige it once enjoyed.
In tandem with the Psychic Highway or Burned-Over District’s influence, Horowitz points to the New England Transcendentalists as seeding occult America’s fields with European and Oriental magic. Transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Bronson Alcott introduced the Hermetic or “magico-Egyptian” teachings to the West. Quoting religious scholar Alvin Boyd Kuhn from his 1930 study Theosophy, we learn in Occult America that, “…seriously, without Emerson, Madame Blavatsky could hardly have launched her gospel when she did with equal hope of success” (50). The Transcendentalists enjoyed and helped spread the first English translations of the Hindu Vedas and Upanishads, as well as Buddhist scriptures and Zoroastrian writings. As Horowitz indicates, Blavatsky and her minions liberally referenced these ancient texts to bolster Theosophical versions of Western occultism.
Ignored in the Godwin book, the Horowitz version of Occult America addresses the lives of William Dudley Pelley and Baird T. Spalding, both significant influences on 20th century occultism and new movements. Horowitz calls Pelley “the rarest of political animals: a hatemonger with talent.” Pelley was a prolific author, screenwriter, and journalist who had a mystical, “out-of-body experience” in 1928. He published his interactions with “Spiritual Mentors” in The American Magazine in 1929 as “Seven Minutes in Eternity: The Amazing Experience that Made Me Over.” Pelley felt reenergized and even stopped smoking as a result of the experience. Pelley’s “Mentors” were emblematic of the huge interest in mysterious adepts and otherworldly beings introduced by 19th century occultists. Pelley endorsed Hitler and a form of American Nazism by creating his cult of Silver Shirts that later influenced Guy Ballard and his “I AM” Activity. Pelley was eventually arrested for anti-American activities, but his ideas continue to appear in many neo-Nazi and extremist groups.
Baird T. Spalding was a rather enigmatic mining engineer and spiritual seeker who died impoverished in 1953. His legacy rests with a six-volume series based on what was initially titled The Book of Gold but later was published as The Life and Teachings of the Masters of the Far East series. Spalding claimed to have traveled through the Himalayan region in 1894, where he encountered powerful Masters hidden in the mountains. These masters taught and initiated him into “the Light,” Buddhist mysticism, and a Christ-like consciousness. Spalding, in effect, is one of the key influences of the New Age movement. Eventually, Spalding’s claim was disproved and he admitted that he had those Himalayan experiences in his “astral body” only. His first physical visit to India was after 1930. In my experience with occultists since 1975, Spalding’s stories have been accepted as fact by members of Theosophy, Ramtha, Summit Lighthouse, Temple of the Ascension, and the “I AM” Activity, to name only a few. Horowitz exposes the fraud, mental illness, and criminal behavior that attended Spalding’s embattled life; yet he rescues the man by calling Spalding a “real phony.” Real phonies, of course, are folks who tell lies that purportedly enlighten us nevertheless. Horowitz seems to have a soft spot for real phonies.
The book also gives us significant information about Frank Robinson and his Psychiana as the first and widely successful “mail order religion.” The spiritualism of Andrew Jackson Davis and Mary Baker Eddy’s Christian Science receive due attention. The “Secrets for Sale” chapter covers characters who promoted astrology, the tarot, and spiritual magic. In that chapter, the author discusses the lives of Sydney Omarr and Aleister Crowley, and groups including the Order of the Golden Dawn, the Rosicrucians, and the Builders of the Adytum or B.O.T.A. He mentions many more, but I wish to end my review by answering this question: What does mysticism have to do with the extraordinary psychics, oddball founders of new religious movements, and occult beliefs addressed in Occult America?
Mysticism, as I understand it, covers a wide swath of human metaphysical activity, yet not all that activity is equally edifying or worthy of interest. Evelyn Underhill wrote her masterwork on this topic 100 years ago and published it in 1911. In Mysticism: A Study of the Nature and Development of Man’s Spiritual Consciousness, Underhill parses or ferrets out the difference between magical or psychic experience and what she views as a more rational and real connection to sacred states of being. She argues against William James and his seminal, 1902 study The Varieties of Religious Experience, dismissing his “marks” of the mystical state (ineffability, noetic quality, transience, and passivity). Horowitz informs us that Henry Wallace, “hungrily took in” James’s 1902 book. Horowitz also notes, correctly I think, on page 108: “In his classic study The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James found that a dramatic conversion could alter a person’s character, objectively changing the circumstances of his outer life.” Yes, indeed, and this newfound enthusiasm based on the reconstructed narcissistic self leads to a wide variety of cult formation; good, bad, and ridiculous. Only in a few instances in Horowitz’s narrative do we find the caliber of mystic Underhill endorses.
In her 1914 publication of Practical Mysticism: A Little Book for Normal People, Underhill states, “Mysticism is the art of union with Reality.” Note the capital R. The mystic’s union can come through art, spiritual experience, philosophy, science, or religious practice, for example, but in all cases the quality of the fruit of this union is born out historically. Underhill gives William Blake, Joan d’Arc, and Plotinus as examples; but, in the spirit of Underhill’s practical mysticism, let me point to Fr. Georges Lemaître (1894–1966) as a good example of what is missing in Horowitz’s idea of mysticism. Lemaître was a Catholic priest and a scientist who demonstrated through mathematics that the universe began from a singularity. His math, initially rejected by Einstein, was later endorsed by the famous physicist. Lemaître’s “singularity” was ridiculed in the press as the “Big Bang” theory. The label obviously stuck, as did Lemaître’s idea that the universe is expanding. Lemaître’s deep insight into physical reality was clearly separate from his belief in the Catholic view that God created the world out of nothing—he was quite adamant about that. Math at that level reaches the Reality that Underhill extolled. Furthermore, in contrast to Mary Baker Eddy and her overvalued beliefs in “scientific” healing as Christian Science, the practical, even mystical insight not to mix math with mysteries of faith underscored Lemaître’s proper sense of reality. Nothing and no one in Horowitz’s book comes close to that level of mysticism, yet we can easily see today how Lemaître helped shape us in America and the world, drawing from an “occult” [hidden from our awareness] yet real mathematics to reveal “Reality,” or, as occultists are inclined to say, to unveil a mystery.
What is missing, sorely missing, then, in Occult America, is that strong point of view about the value of mysticism and how to gauge it. Horowitz does not ignore the sins and shortfalls of the controversial mystics he covers (mystic Henry Wallace was duped by mystic Nicholas Roerich, and many a prediction by seer Edgar Cayce failed miserably), yet he suggests that mysticism in the guise of the New Age Movement positively infuses a “core set of beliefs” into national culture:
1. Belief in the therapeutic value of spiritual or religious ideas; 2. Belief in a mind-body connection in health; 3. Belief that human consciousness is evolving to higher stages; 4. Belief that thoughts, in some greater or lesser measure, determine reality; 5. Belief that spiritual understanding is available without allegiance to a specific religion or doctrine.
He goes on to say,
Most Americans, whatever their background, would probably agree with a majority of those statements…This new culture extolled religious egalitarianism and responded, perhaps more than any other movement in history, to the inner needs of the individual. At work and at church, on television and in bookstores, there was no avoiding it: Occult America had prevailed. (258)
Therefore, if I read Horowitz correctly, it is popular, quirky occultism and not sophisticated varieties of mysticism that prevail in America. Religious egalitarianism and an elevated narcissism in a burgeoning “new age” nation may feel comforting to the participants, but it should not be an excuse to absorb the antics of unhinged psychics and religious hucksters with “mystical” visions. Mysticism as I grasp it through Underhill is not dependent on “varieties of religious experience.” Underhill’s mysticism is not about individualism in spirituality or relativistic belief systems of one’s own design. No, there is something much more rigorous. No “real phony” qualifies in Underhill’s view as a mystic. Perhaps Horowitz’s book is better served with an edited subtitle: The Secret History of How Fringe and Faux Mysticism Shaped Our Nation. With that caution, I can recommend the book as a highly readable addition to an important if neglected aspect of our nation’s history.