Inside Occult America

Mitch Horowitz is a writer and publisher of many years' experience, with a lifelong interest in man’s search for meaning. As the editor-in-chief of Tarcher/Penguin in New York, Mitch has published some of today’s leading titles in world religion, esoterica, and the metaphysical. He has now authored his own book, Occult America: The Secret History of How Mysticism Shaped Our Nation, (Amazon US and UK) "an engaging, long-overdue portrait of one nation, under many gods, whose revolutionary influence is still being felt in every corner of the globe." This short Q&A discusses a number of the topics covered in Occult America, including Ouija, the occult symbolism on the dollar bill, and the influence of occult and New Age thinking on some of the biggest personalities in US history. You can find more on Mitch and his work at mitchhorowitz.com.

 


 

Q: Occult America traces the ways in which occult and magical movements shaped our nation—politically, intellectually, religiously, culturally, and even commercially. Why did the U.S. prove to be such fertile ground for occult movements? What are some primary examples of how the occult influenced American identity and vice versa?

Mitch: Alternative religious movements were entwined with America from its earliest days. In the mid-1600s, just as Europe was experiencing a backlash against occult and esoteric spiritual movements, the American colonies were developing a reputation for religious liberalism. ImageWhen the town of Philadelphia was a cluster of only a few hundred houses, it hosted faiths ranging from Quakerism to the Mennonites to mystical offshoots of the Lutheran church. The year 1694 marked a turning point for the colonies (and, in many ways, the modern spiritual world) through what initially appeared a very modest event: At that time the first intentional mystical community reached North America when the esoteric scholar Johannes Kelpius led a small sect out of Central Germany to the Wissahickon Creek near Philadelphia. His magical brotherhood practiced its own forms of astrology, alchemy, numerology, Kabala, and esoteric Christianity. News of their “Tabernacle in the Forest” spread back to the Old World and served as a magnet for other occult and esoteric movements. By the early 1700s, admirers of Kelpius formed a new and larger commune at Ephrata, Pennsylvania. In 1776, the Shakers – who were once considered a very mysterious sect – broke ground on a settlement outside Albany, New York. That same year the nation’s first “spirit channeler,” a 24-year-old woman who called herself the Publick Universal Friend, began to preach across New England. Beginning in the early 1800s, a region of Central New York called the “Burned-Over District” became suffused with Spiritualism, Mesmerism, and various occult experiments. These movements helped solidify early America’s role as a safe harbor for religious innovation and eventually made the nation into a launching pad for the revolutions in alternative spirituality that swept the globe in the twentieth century.

Q: In Occult America, you show a strong link between Spiritualism, feminism and a particularly American brand of progressive liberalism. Why did that link exist, and what opportunities did the occult open up for American women and other disenfranchised groups?

Mitch: America’s earliest female religious leadership emerged from mystical or occult orders. The spirit medium called the Publick Universal Friend was, in effect, the nation’s first female religious leader. Likewise, the Shakers were led by the British migrant Mother Ann Lee, who had fled charges of sorcery in England. By the late 1840s, a pair of teenaged girls in Upstate New York popularized “spirit rapping,” which mushroomed into the massively popular movement called Spiritualism, or talking to the dead. Most of the trance mediums and channelers of nineteenth-century Spiritualism were women, with many active suffragists among them. This included Victoria Woodhull, a medium and voting-rights activist who became the nation’s first female presidential candidate in 1872. Spiritualism was probably the first religious movement in modern life in which women openly and routinely served as leaders. It created an indelible link between alternative spirituality and progressivism, which has continued to the present day.

Q: What is the African-American tradition called “hoodoo,” and what role did magic play in the lives of Frederick Douglass, Marcus Garvey and other black leaders?

Mitch: The entire idea of Africa as a cradle of world civilization – today very popular, but once very marginal – began to enter the American mindset through the migration of African magical and esoteric ideas to the New World. By the early 20th century, the African-American magical system called hoodoo (often confused with the related but very different Afro-Caribbean religion of Voodoo) produced a literature and a spiritual counter-culture that challenged the West’s misconception that Africa lacked a deep mythological past. African traditions later gained a voice in America through the work of figures like Marcus Garvey and Alex Haley. But it was the magical system of hoodoo that first awakened the nation, or at least parts of it, to African culture. In his classic memoirs, the abolitionist Frederick Douglass described the assistance he received from a trusted “root worker” – or a hoodoo medicine man – when Douglass was a teenaged slave. This relationship has been largely overlooked, with many readers or critics probably unaware of what Douglass was even describing when he referenced “magic roots.” A few generations later, Marcus Garvey not only helped call attention to African religious and cultural traditions but himself embraced American “mind power” metaphysics – or what we sometimes call “the power of positive thinking” – as a means to black political liberation. Mind-power metaphysics formed an unseen pillar of Garvey’s philosophy, and came to influence the Nation of Islam and other Black nationalist groups. This is one of the many ways in which political and magical movements intersected in America.

Q: Many of our Presidents and Vice-Presidents brought occult influences to the White House. One of the most fascinating examples is Henry A. Wallace. Can you tell us a bit about his beliefs and how they shaped his political aspirations?

Mitch: Henry A. Wallace was Franklin Roosevelt’s second vice-president, preceding Harry Truman. While Wallace is largely forgotten today, he was once considered a chief spokesman for the New Deal and a potential successor to Roosevelt himself. Wallace was also a great intellectual searcher, and his curiosity extended into the occult. This fact ultimately led to his public downfall. Wallace was born to a prominent Iowa farming and political family and was first tapped as FDR’s secretary of agriculture. In that role Wallace introduced a wide range of agricultural reforms that helped sustain American farming during the Great Depression. In this respect, he is considered perhaps the finest secretary of agriculture in American history. He also described himself as a “practical mystic” who was deeply interested in Theosophy, Freemasonry, astrology, Native American shamanism, Eastern faiths – and also in the work of a Russian mystic-artist, Nicholas Roerich. In short, Wallace wrote some very doting letters to Roerich, which fell into the hands of a Hearst newspaper columnist who used them to bury Wallace. Today, Truman is a household name while Wallace is obscure. Yet his legacy can be found on our dollar bill. It was Wallace who introduced the Masonic-influenced symbol of the eye-and-pyramid on the back of the US dollar in 1935.

Q: What is Freemasonry and what role did it play in American life?

Mitch: Freemasonry’s origin and the nature of its founders remain a historical mystery. Some historians trace Masonry’s inception to Rosicrucianism, a mystical movement in early seventeenth-century Europe. Others argue a connection between Masonry and the church-suppressed medieval Knights Templar. Freemasonry probably emerged as a radical thought movement from within the Reformation. Protestant intellects may have sought to build a civic and religious organization that could counteract papal authority. Some of our nation’s key founders, such as George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, were Freemasons. Early American Masons carried with them a strong sense of breaking with a European past in which one overarching religious order regulated the exchange of ideas and provided an intermediary between the individual and the spiritual search. Masonry’s penchant for occult and pagan symbolism suggests how it saw religious truth as emanating from a common source that could be found in different cultures throughout history, including those of a mystical and pre-Christian past. Freemasonry often drew upon arcane imagery – such as rising suns, luminous eyeballs, and pentagrams – as codes for personal and ethical development. As noted earlier, this practice influenced the enigmatic all-seeing eye and incomplete pyramid on the back of the dollar. That image is part of the Great Seal of the United States, commissioned by the Continental Congress in 1776. The Latin maxim that surrounds the unfinished pyramid – Annuit Coeptis Novus Ordo Seclorum – can be roughly translated as: “God Smiles on Our New Order of the Ages.” Masonry saw this “New Order” as requiring a break with the sectarianism of the Old World and a renewed search for universal truth as it existed in all the great civilizations. In a sense, Freemasonry helped influence some of the nation’s earliest principles of religious tolerance and liberty.

Q: Occult influences brought out the best in certain leaders, including Gandhi; but it occasionally brought out the darker side in others. Can you give an example? How have these instances influenced our views of occult movements more generally?

Mitch: One of the oddest episodes of twentieth-century occult history played out in the life of a Hollywood screenwriter named William Dudley Pelley. In the late 1920s and 1930s, Pelley popularized the idea of near-death experiences – in which a person visits the afterworld and returns to tell of it. After describing the truths he said were revealed to him during one of these mystical journeys, Pelley went on to found the first and most influential neo-Nazi movement in America, the Silver Shirts. It began in 1929, when the screenwriter enthralled readers with the first widely read article describing a near-death experience. In his magazine article, Pelley vividly recalled his visit to the spirit world where heavenly Mentors counseled him in the hidden truths of life. Unfortunately, in Pelley’s mind, these Mentors extolled the destiny of Adolf Hitler, and Pelley was inspired to form his own pro-Hitler, fascist paramilitary order. By the early 1930s, Pelley’s Silver Shirts set the mold – in ideas, style, and leadership – for the hate groups that would crop up in America for the rest of the twentieth century and into our own. Some of the nation’s most prominent hate leaders, including the founder of the Aryan Nations, got their start in Pelley’s organization. Pelley’s propaganda writings directly instigated the anti-Semitism of modernist poet Ezra Pound, who subscribed to Pelley’s magazine, Liberation. Occult ideas – like any religious ideas – have their highest and lowest iterations. And within Pelley’s angry mind, occult and mystical experiences translated into political activities of the grimmest sort.

Q: Where did the Ouija Board come from, and why do you think it became so popular?

Mitch:  The Ouija Board is the most enduring and influential occult tool – or toy, depending on how you see it – to reach us from nineteenth-century Spiritualism. By the late 1960s its sales rivaled Monopoly and, in an almost unbelievable wrinkle of modern religious history, its mysterious movements and communications inspired a mass supernatural religion practiced today in Vietnam. Ouija’s origins are continually debated. As a commercial product, the board was steeped in patent litigation throughout the early twentieth century. (It is now owned by the toy manufacturer Hasbro.) But as a homemade novelty, Ouija, or the “talking board,” was a sensation among American Spiritualists going back at least to the 1880s, when it was first mentioned in newspapers. Today, everyone of a certain generation seems to have a scary childhood story about Ouija. It became the method by which Spiritualist séances reached the living rooms, basements, and slumber parties of mainstream America. And it also became the tool through which Pulitzer-winning poet James Merrill “channeled” his most famous work, The Changing Light at Sandover. Whether as a toy or an object of fascination, Ouija seems to outlast every other occult trend.

Q:  What do you feel is the most enduring legacy of the occult in America today?

Mitch: Occult movements helped make America into a great laboratory for religious experiment. Today, as in the past, alternative and esoteric spiritual movements test and strengthen our nation’s capacity for religious innovation and toleration. In recent years, for example, the conservative, Bush-era Supreme Court affirmed the rights of a Brazilian-American Spiritualist sect to use psychedelic drugs in some of its religious ceremonies. And the Department of Veterans Affairs recently recognized Wicca, or witchcraft, as an official religion within the US military – its adherents are now entitled to full military honors and burial (including a pentagram on gravestones). This kind of religious liberty – and it’s very precious – allows America to continue to function as a social and civic laboratory, and also as a place that can help find solutions, not only to inner questions, but to ways in which different communities of faith can successfully live and function together.

Q: You’ll be conducting an “Occult America” walking tour of New York City this October. What sites do you plan to include?

Mitch: For one thing, we’ll look at a beautiful Swedenborgian Church – so-named for the Swedish mystic Emmanuel Swedenborg – which was a hub of mystical activity in the mid-nineteenth century. Its pastor was a Spiritualist adventurer named George Bush – the first-cousin, four generations removed, from the Bush presidential clan. We’ll see a Masonic Hall that in the 1870s hosted the first “pagan funeral” in America – it was actually a cremation service, a funerary choice that was so alien and controversial then that the police almost had to shut it down. And we’ll see the famed salon of the Theosophical Society, whose earliest members included inventor Thomas Edison, Major-General Abner Doubleday, and the mysterious Russian noblewoman (and one-time New Yorker) Madame Blavatsky.

Q: What’s next for Mitch Horowitz?

Mitch: I’m considering writing a history of the most influential psycho-spiritual idea of our age: positive thinking.

Occult America is available from Amazon US and UK.