Occultism in America

The following column was syndicated through the Religion News Service (www.religionnews.comon Halloween 2006.

The Occult Isn’t Just a
Batty Idea in America’s Attic

By Mich Horrowit

It was a moment made for C-SPAN, though television sets would not reach American living rooms for another century. During a Washington spring day in 1854, Senator James Shields of Illinois, one of the most respected voices in the Senate and the chairman of the Committee on Military Affairs, rose on the Senate floor to present his colleagues with the strangest petition in American history.

Holding a document signed by 15,000 enthusiasts of Spiritualism, and expounding on the work of medieval alchemists and occult philosophers, Shields begged his colleagues to take seriously the request to fund a government commission to study the possibility of talking to the dead – perhaps even looking into “establishing a spiritual telegraph.”

Within moments senators hooted him down, one jokingly referring the matter to the Committee on Foreign Relations.

This Halloween – when faced with the all-too-real specters of terrorism and global conflict – it is tempting to dismiss such episodes as nothing other than a bat or two flying around the attic of America’s history. But that kind of dismissal would be a misreading of the occult’s significance in America, and of America’s significance in recent religious history.

The arcane practices grouped under the name of occultism – from Spiritualism to divination to witchery – represent an unheralded thought movement in our national life. It not only placed horoscopes in nearly every daily newspaper, but transformed a young nation into the launching pad for the revolutions in alternative spirituality that marked religious culture in the twentieth century.

The public’s historic willingness to probe the unknown, and the unprecedented Constitutional protection given every variety of spiritual pursuit, have long made America a safe harbor for magical ideas – often with surprising results. Practices that had once seemed mysterious or even sinister in the Old World – such as Mesmerism, divination, and telepathy – morphed into a bevy of friendlier-sounding philosophies in America, some involving positive visualization, personal affirmations, and think-and-grow-rich techniques. Such approaches came to form the core of the therapeutic spiritual principles that today we call New Age. 

This was no triumph of illogic. More than any other society, America historically married modern rationality to spiritual innovation. Throughout the country’s first century of existence, Freemasons, Transcendentalists, and Spiritualists developed a pastiche of mythical and arcane ideas on American soil, nourishing the young nation’s spiritual and intellectual culture:

  • The magico-Egyptian symbols of Freemasonry – such as the pyramids and obelisks that mark our currency and our capital – conveyed an ideal of religious universality, associating the new republic with the search for truth as it has existed in cultures throughout history.
  • Transcendentalists expanded America’s religious horizons, exposing readers to esoteric Hermetic philosophy and the mystical ideas of Hinduism.
  • And Spiritualism – yes, poor, discredited Spiritualism – born in upstate New York in the mid-nineteenth century and exported around the world, became the first modern movement in which women were elevated to positions of religious authority, in this case as mediumistic guides to the beyond. 

The social opening created by Spiritualism encouraged the emergence of a generation of early suffragettes, including the first female presidential candidate, Victoria Woodhull. An avowed trance medium, Woodhull insisted that a guardian spirit in a dream dictated her pioneering congressional testimony on behalf of voting rights in 1871.

Indeed, arcane philosophy in America often trafficked with rebellion against the status quo. A century after Woodhull, student activists combined social and spiritual rebellion, exposing America to the religions of the East and contributing to a revival of shamanism and Native American mysticism. Feminism and Wicca found common embrace as the movement toward “goddess-based” spirituality grew in the 1970s and 80s.

Earlier this year, the Supreme Court established an important precedent for minority religions – and surprisingly bucked conservative trends in narcotics enforcement – when it granted legal protection to a Brazilian Spiritualist sect whose mystic rituals involve ingesting psychedelics. 

More recently, a consortium of Wiccan families – in a core test of First Amendment liberties – filed a federal suit against the Department of Veterans Affairs over the right to display pentagrams on the gravestones of service members who called Wicca their religion.  (The military currently counts more than 1,800 such enlistees.)

Wherever they may be, Senator Shields and his fellow petitioners should take heart this Halloween. Today, as then, their unconventional ideas are as American as religious freedom.

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