389: Conversation With Mitch Horowitz on Restoring America’s Spiritual History

itch Horowitz knows more about the truly fascinating history of American mystical movements than you’d begin to encounter in a typical class on religious history. In fact, here’s the most helpful religious tip you’ll receive today: Right now, mark September 15 on your calendar — the publication date for Mitch’s newest book, “Occult America: The Secret History of How Mysticism Shaped Our Nation.”

    I haven’t even seen a galley of this book yet — but I know from the scope of Mitch’s work that I’m going have trouble putting down the book to get to sleep at night.
    Meanwhile, start exploring the marvelous, mysterious — and in many cases downright quirky — array of titles Mitch is republishing in smartly designed new editions through the Tarcher-Penguin publishing house where he is Editor in Chief in New York. You’ll find some of those Tarcher titles sprinkled through today’s Conversation With Mitch.
    In addition: He’s so deeply immersed in this field of religious history and reflection that his own Web site is one of the best online sources for overviews of some of our most unusual — yet, today, little known — religious figures.

    Why spend time peering into these strange corners of American spirituality?
    Even if you’re a lifelong, orthodox member of a particular faith, this is important stuff to consider because American culture, once again, is splintering into countless corners. Millions of Americans are embracing our nation’s religious diversity — that’s the big headline of the new American Religious Identification Survey. If we’re headed off in myriad spiritual directions, again, then we need to understand just how diverse our religious expressions can become!
    To help illustrate this point, Mitch gave us permission to reprint one of the best interesting pieces on his own Web site: “The Secret Teachings Reborn …” Check out that story today as a taste of the kind of history Mitch helps us to explore — and the further treasures waiting for you on his own Web site.


    DAVID: The books you’re producing in these new Tarcher Cornerstone Editions have been out there for many years in various other editions. If you look around used bookstores, in particular, you’ll find various editions still on sale. Even on the Kindle, there are several editions of the “Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ,” which you’ve just re-released in your series.
    So, why buy yours?
    MITCH: People are continually hungry for spiritual classics like this book, provided they’re produced well. The problem is that a lot of the editions weren’t produced well over the years. On the new Amazon Kindle, for example, I’m proud that we didn’t just throw the book up there like some other people did. If you start using the Kindle, you’ll discover that a lot of people took older books that are in the public domain and just threw them onto the Kindle. The quality of digitization is just abysmal in a lot of cases. The links don’t work. The text doesn’t look right. Some of the unusual grammatical marks and foreign words are rendered incorrectly.
    We have skilled editors working on our paperback editions and on our editions for the Kindle. You can see the quality if you just compare the different versions.

    DAVID: I’d say there’s even more to it than the quality in the editing. You do more than that in your editions. You frame these books in helpful ways. For example, the “Aquarian Gospel,” which dates from 1908, is a pretty puzzling book if you don’t have at least a little frame of reference. The book is a visionary re-imagining of the gospel accounts of Jesus that includes claiming Jesus traveled to India — a popular idea in some spiritual circles to this day, including the latest work by Deepak Chopra.
    We should point out that most contemporary Bible scholars — university-based scholars especially — would take issue with that interpretation of Jesus taking side trips to Asia. But, when I open up my Tarcher edition of the “Aquarian Gospel,” I immediately realize that there’s more going on in this book than meets the eye. You write about the author this way: “Levi H. Dowling (1844-1911) … was a Church of Christ pastor, a Civil War chaplain for the Union Army, a practitioner of homeopathic medicine, a New Thought lecturer, and a religious publisher with an extraordinary vision of unity at the heart of the world’s historic religions.”
    Again and again, as you introduce these unusual writers and their often fairly esoteric spiritual works, you remind us that these figures were moved by enduring themes in American religious life — like trying to figure out a way to unify what appear to be competing religious claims. That’s what Dowling really was trying to do. He may have included some pretty obvious errors in his book, but he was pointing us toward the important idea of finding common ground among major faiths.

    MITCH:  I’m deeply touched by something Gandhi said: “I came to the conclusion long ago … that all religions are true — and all have some flaw in them.” That represents the nature of my own religious search. I don’t have a specific religious affiliation to any doctrine or church but I’m deeply interested in religious ideas that seem to speak to universal questions. If those ideas come from the tradition of Judaism or Catholicism or from some other religious movement, then they get my attention. I do think there is some universal thread that runs through religious traditions.
    I sometimes use the phrase “one-spirit culture” to describe it.
    DAVID: Well, the latest data on American religious affiliation show most Americans still do have traditional religious affiliations. Most are Christian. One in four Americans still says, “Catholic,” when asked for religious affiliation — and so on. But the new data also show that millions are turning away from organized religion and millions simply reject traditional religious labels.
    We’ve published conversations with various writers and filmmakers who are pursuing unusual pathways to truth. In terms of “one-spirit culture,” I’m thinking of the filmmakers behind the movie “One,” who I’ve known for a number of years and are attracting audiences around the world with their vision of unity through faith.

    MITCH: Yes. There’s great interest in these ideas today. I’m interested in radical ecumenism. I’m interested in delving into questions of religion and spirituality and psychology and focusing our conversation on what makes a good life. There’s a very deep mystery in that.
    Then, I’m also very interested in questions of technique. What practices can we learn from various spiritual philosophies that can help us lead better lives?
    DAVID: Very interesting. You’re sounding very much like Barbara Brown Taylor, who we just featured on our site here, talking about her new book, “An Altar in the World.”
    MITCH: I do think it’s the same search. Certainly, ethically it’s the same search to connect people through their spiritual journeys.
    Levi Dowling died in 1911, so he really belonged to the culture of the 19th century. He claimed to have channeled his work. If you look at the background story of his book, it’s easy to dismiss his work as total fantasy. But if you actually read the book and give it a chance — it’s got a beautiful, simple, ethical-moral voice that runs through it.
    Levy Dowling’s real project was to argue on behalf of the commonality of the world’s faiths. He used the novelty of the lost years of Christ as his instrument for exploring this. I’m not challenging or arguing about his back-story but I am saying to people who haven’t encountered this book before: There’s this moral voice here that’s still worth reading.
    We’re all involved in the same search for spiritual meaning. He just used a novel vehicle to make that same point.

    DAVID: I spend a lot of time talking to groups, these days — classes, small groups, congregations — and I don’t think most Americans have much sense of our own distinctive religious history. Dr. Wayne Baker, who produces the OurValues.org Web site for us from the University of Michigan, talks about how distinctively American it is to be both deeply religious — and extremely expressive of our personal opinions.
    That’s a recipe for remarkable religious innovation. America was the home base of Joseph Smith and the birthplace of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, one of the world’s fastest growing younger faith traditions.
    MITCH: It’s interesting you mention Joseph Smith. I write quite a bit about him in my book, “Occult America,” which is coming out in September. As a young man, Smith was immersed in ideas that come out of occult and folkore traditions. As an older man — and, of course, he died young — but as he got older he used spiritual methods that are very similar to techniques used by Levi Dowling.

    DAVID: You’re opening our eyes to figures who most of us didn’t even know existed in the U.S. I’ve been writing about and researching American religious life for decades and it was only through your work that I came across Frank B. Robinson! (That’s Frank at left.)
    What an amazing guy. You write about Robinson:
    From the onset of the Great Depression to the years immediately following World War II, a solidly built Idaho druggist named Frank B. Robinson used ads in newspapers, magazines, and on radio to create one of the most unusual religious movements in American history. He called it Psychiana and its ideas were bedrock New Thought, packaged and sold to an audience of unprecedented proportions. Indeed, by Robinson’s death, he had signed on enough subscriber-based members – estimates went as high as 2 million – to be able to claim stewardship over the eighth-largest religion on the planet.
     “And the best thing about it,” as he liked to say, “is that we guarantee results or your money refunded. I guess it’s about the only ‘money-back’ religion in the world.”
    Today, however, Robinson and Psychiana are completely forgotten. The names appear in no major work of American religious history from the last forty years. And the college town of Moscow, Idaho, where Robinson began his short-lived rise to religious fame and ran his mail-order empire, now marks his memory only on the sign of a park he donated to the county.

    I love that story! A guy founds a major religion in grassroots America by mail — more than half a century before the Internet. How American is that?!

    MITCH: Yes, he’s amazing! There’s quite a bit about him in this new book, “Occult America.” I love the man!
    He’s the best embodiment of do-it-yourself American religion in the 20th century. I didn’t discover him until I was reading this massive almanac-like history of New Thought in America and there’s this mention — just a couple of paragraphs long — of this guy named Frank Robinson who lived in Idaho and had this massive New Thought religion in the Great Depression.
    A light bulb went off when I read this. Who was this guy? He had one of the world’s largest religions — by mail — in the 1930s? The more I looked into his life, the more I fell in love with this self-made man. He promulgated this positive-thinking philosophy that was very important in his followers’ lives.
    Imagine all those Americans who grew up on fire-and-brimstone preaching discovering this man of hope who was doing all of this in the Great Depression. People experienced revolutionary conversion experiences with him through his preaching of positive thinking and hope. He was a genuinely good man, I think.
    DAVID: How “American” to offer a money-back guarantee with your faith!
    MITCH: Isn’t that something? You have to love that. He had the guile of a pitchman — a lack of embarrassment at what he was doing and saying. This was P.T. Barnum combined with Huck Finn. A great American story.

    DAVID: It’s easy to dismiss some of these stories we’re describing as eccentric, I guess. Until they read your book, most Americans won’t have known much about Frank Robinson.
    But these many individual streams become quite a wide river in American life. Everybody has a soft spot for the Shakers these days, for instance. We hear “Simple Gifts” everywhere — even advertising luxury cars. Yet, the Shakers were part of these alternative religious movements. They believed passionately in a spirit world just beyond the reach of this world. And sometimes they believed the spirit world could cross over.
    And L. Frank Baum, the beloved author of the Wizard of Oz novels? Baum was an early follower of world religions and, in his later novels especially, he explored all kinds of spiritual themes. He created a character called the Hungry Tiger, who was an exploration of Buddhist themes. The Hungry Tiger knows he has desires — for eating humans, among other things — that he must resist in order to live a good life.
I think perhaps it was that period, some decades ago, when all of these alternative spiritual voices were shrouded in a cloud of incense and became part of 1960s culture — I think perhaps it was that period that sort of short-circuited some of our appreciation for these voices.
    MITCH: There was a time that a lot of these books we’re talking about where associated with incense and the psychedelic. There was a revival of them in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. A lot of the voices that resurfaced at that time were packaged to appeal to the psychedelic mood of the times.
    Then, in the 1980s, this all became New Age. And now we’re past the psychedelic era and we’re past the flowering of the New Age era.
    But these voices endure. If we turn to them again, we can find these electrifying expressions of a religious search that runs like a thread through so many faiths, so many traditions and so many centuries.

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