Occult America 1: Dan Brown is right—these roots run deep

Deep in the woods,
where the small river slid Snake-like in shade,
the … Mystic hid, Weird as a wizard—
over arts forbid …

American poet John Greenleaf Whittier, 1872

(Parts in this series: PART 1, PART 2, PART 3.)

When Dan “DaVinci Code” Brown’s latest blockbuster hits bookstores and Kindles next week, the one thing we know will be accurate is this: The roots of mysticism and alternative spiritual movements extend deep into the soil of America—all the way back to the 1600s.
Brown’s hotly awaited new thriller, “The Lost Symbol,” will roar into stores with a tidal wave of 5 million copies—and countless more copies will cascade into Kindles and other e-readers. We do know that this third religiously themed thriller is set in the U.S. and the mystery concerns freemasonry. But, Brown is infamous for flubbing or fabricating details in his books. He’s writing fiction to entertain us, after all.

However—and this is One Big However—we do know already about the accuracy of “Occult America.” Dan Brown’s publishing house (Knopf-Doubleday) also owns Mitch Horowitz’s publisher (Bantam) and ReadTheSpirit can confirm: Mitch’s history of little-known and long-forgotten religious movements in America is, indeed, painstakingly researched and accurate.
Overall, Mitch proves the central thesis in Dan Brown’s thriller: The roots of occult movements run deep in America. Beyond that, Mitch the historian and Dan the entertainer go their separate ways.
Here at ReadTheSpirit, this week, we’re pleased to bring you a three-day glimpse of the wonderful, real-life religious adventures you’ll find this week in Mitch’s new, “Occult America.”
The big news about Mitch’s new book is that religious experimentation is as American as Mom, apple pie and the stars and stripes.
In 258 pages, Mitch tells us dozens of amazing stories drawn from grassroots American life—many of which I can guarantee you’ve never heard before. Although some of the men and women in the book veer toward ideas that seem a little crazy, the overall message of this history is that America’s crowning glory still lies in its bold defense of religious freedom.
This is the kind of book you’ll love reading and, when you’re done, you’ll smile and feel just a little better about the values that have shaped this troubled old country we Americans still proudly call home.

Link to Buy the 2010 Paperback Edition of “Occult America”:

A new, more-affordable paperback edition is available as of October 2010 of Mitch Horowitz’s “Occult America: White House Seances, Ouija Circles, Masons, and the Secret Mystic History of Our Nation”


    DAVID: Mitch, one of the best things about your new book is that you connect all these stories with the very foundation of our nation. I’m pretty well read about our country’s religious history and I’d never heard the story about the Tabernacle in the Forest and the German mystics who settled in the wilderness outside Philadelphia way back in 1694.
MITCH: The idea of religious freedom is in the groundwater here in America.
Already in the 1600s, Europeans were hearing about this place. There were major backlashes in Europe that left people very interested in such a refuge.
In 1618, the Thirty Years War broke out—a brutal conflict that destroyed a great deal of central Europe and essentially pitted Protestant armies against Catholic armies. It was a violent spasm of reaction against the Reformation and to some of the religious liberalism and occult experimentation that arose from the Renaissance.
So, by the mid-1600s, large parts of Europe are in the midst of a big religious conflict. Simultaneously, in the American colonies, William Penn is founding Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love, where people of different faiths co-exist, including Quakers, Mennonites, people who belonged to radical offshoots of the Lutheran church and others.
Word spreads back to Europe to people fleeing religious persecution, the violence of the Thirty Years War, and other problems there. Folks pack their bags and head to New England, many of them to Philadelphia.
I open the book with the story of this mystical commune that was set up on the banks of Wissahickon Creek just outside of Philadelphia in 1694.

    DAVID: This group was led by the German mystic Johannes Kelpius, an amazing figure who I had never encountered until I read your book and then read more about Kelpius after that.
You describe Kelpius little group this way: “They lived a monastic existence, occupying caves.”
    With this interview, we’re publishing a photo (above at right) of one site in Pennsylvania that might have been the cave they used—and also (at right) one early artist’s idea of what Kelpius might have looked like with a candle in his cave. The John Greenleaf Whittier lines at the top also are envisioning Kelpius at work, although Whittier was envisioning an ominous figure rather than a pioneering man of metaphysics.
In your book, Mitch, these folks seem quite industrious in their experiments and studies. You write that they built “a forty-foot-square log tabernacle topped with a telescope, from which they scanned the stars for holy signs. By sunlight and hearth fire, they studied astrology, alchemy, number symbolism, esoteric Christianity, Kabala and other philosophies that once flowered back home. Newcomers journeyed to America to join their Tabernacle in the Forest.”
MITCH: It’s a part of America’s DNA that we’re a safe harbor for religious experimentation. These communes sometimes were successful and sometimes they failed. But, by and large, they left people with the impression that religious experimentation was permissible in America.

DAVID: This involved far more than secretive little sects. You write that many of the strongest spiritual roots connect with well-known, all-American heroes. We’ve already mentioned William Penn. A bit later in history—the early 1800s—you praise Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Transcendentalist movement.
This is a strong point in your book. You say that a figure like Madame Blavatsky, who many people credit as the matriarch of American interfaith movements in the 1870s, couldn’t have existed without a Ralph Waldo Emerson coming before her and preparing the American soil.
    MITCH: Yes. This can-do attitude toward exploring the world’s spiritual traditions was built into the very latticework of our nation.
Emerson wrote a magnificent essay in 1870 called Success that I think is very important and I recommend to anyone. He writes about how life favors enthusiasm.
DAVID: Toward the end of the Success essay, Emerson issues this call to his readers. He’s particularly interested in adults who can serve as models for the young. He says that he’s concerned about shaping the lives of the “joyful boy or the innocent girl buoyant with fine purposes of duty.” He warns that their eagerness to achieve noble goals can all-too-easily be snuffed out by cynical people.
Here’s the passage you’re pointing to, Mitch. Emerson writes: “To help the young soul—add energy, inspire, hope and blow the coals into a useful flame; to redeem defeat by new thought, by firm action—that is not easy, that is the work of divine men.” His word “men” here assumes in Emerson’s day that these adult models mostly would be men, although he does praise women’s talents elsewhere in the essay.
MITCH: This is Emerson’s call to affirmative thought—an idea that would become so important in American spiritual movements. Emerson was very explicitly against using magical thinking and he was against using prayer for private ends. Nevertheless, he writes about the importance of an enthusiastic approach to life.
And right there in that essay, he uses the phrase “new thought,” which would become so important. I think that’s where the phrase enters the literature that flows through so many of these movements.
To most American readers, this philosophy of affirmative thought feels like everyday common sense. It feels like it must have been there forever in human history—but it’s actually a new movement coming to life. The major threads are right there in the mid 19th century.
DAVID: And Emerson wasn’t simply inventing a new approach to spirituality out of some bright light in his own mind. He certainly was a brilliant thinker, but you point out that Emerson was a student of world religions. Long before Madame Blavatsky and all the other writers in the 20th century, Emerson was reading religious literature from around the world.
MITCH: Absolutely. Emerson was a unique figure. He was dealing with mystical and ancient philosophy much earlier than almost any other American writer. In Emerson’s journal you find references to Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, to the neo-Platonists. Some of the philosophies Emerson was referencing had just barely been translated into English. The first English translation of the Tao te ching was in 1838. So Emerson and Thoreau were imbibing these ideas earlier than any other American thinkers and to a very great extent they were responsible for introducing mystical philosophies into the thought stream of the educated classes.
DAVID: That’s what’s so exciting about the stories you tell in your book. These are pioneers—explorers and discoverers in spiritual realms.
MITCH: That’s right. For Emerson, there was no roadmap where he was traveling.
I think it shows us how powerfully America served as a magnet for religious experimentation—and that magnetic power seems to be working to this day.

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