Part of the rollout for Dan Brown’s new thriller is Mitch Horowitz’s factual history of unusual religious movements in the U.S., called “Occult America.” This is Part 2 of our interview with Mitch, showing you some of the fascinating stories and striking conclusions in Mitch’s new book. (Parts in this series: PART 1, PART 2, PART 3.)
In the opening of his history, Mitch shows how deeply rooted religious experimentation is in American history and culture. More than a long pedigree on our soil, these ideas and movements are wrapped up in the very concept of America as a can-do place of freedom and innovation, Mitch argues.
In these pages, you’ll meet some very successful religious innovators—famous people whose names you’ll recognize like Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Mary Baker Eddy, founder of the Church of Christ, Scientist. When they began their spiritually innovative work, they faced many critics, but their efforts now are regarded as part of mainstream religion in America. You’ll also meet pioneers like Dr. Frank B. Robinson—who rose to great fame for a time, but you’ve probably never heard his name until today. (That’s his famous advertisement above and that’s Frank playing the organ below.)
HIGHLIGHTS (Part 2) OF OUR CONVERSATION
WITH MITCH HOROWITZ
DAVID: One of the major themes that emerges in your book, Mitch, is that America’s religious pioneers for the most part were not secretive hermits. Some of them craved solitude for their work and in Part 1 of our interview we talked about one of those stories in your book—the monks in the forest in the 1600s.
Part of what makes this story so—well, so downright American is that a lot of these spiritual innovators were gung-ho entrepreneurs.
MITCH: Many occult or mystic movements in history were for educated and well-read people. And there were elements of secrecy in many of these groups. But in the 19th century in America, there were some radical responses to the social problems people encountered in their lives and the pioneers who worked out these systems were looking for a practical God.
They wanted religion to be useful.
Now, many people at the time and even today might find that idea to be almost obscene, but it was very popular with people.
DAVID: The idea does run counter to orthodox beliefs over many centuries in most of the world’s religions. But, this idea also has triumphed in American culture.
At the end of your book, you write about some of the ideas that originally arose in occult or mystic circles that today are widely held assumptions. The top two beliefs in your list are these:
“Belief in the therapeutic value of spiritual or religious ideas.” And, “Belief in a mind-body connection in health.”
Those are the ideas that brought great fame to Dr. Frank B. Robinson, the Idaho druggist who invented “Psychiana.”
MITCH: Frank B. Robinson spoke explicitly about a workable, practical God. In many ways, he was preaching the power of positive thinking, which had been on the American scene for a long time. But he had his own way of teaching this in the lessons he sent to people through the mail.
He taught that the human mind and what we call “God” are essentially the same force and if humans can conduct their thoughts in an affirmative way, then people can literally shape their outer circumstances in life.
Mainly, he thought spirituality should be healthful—and one of his famous promises was that he’d give you back the money you paid for his printed lessons, if you thought his system didn’t work for you.
DAVID: Let me share another little nugget from your book here, “From the onset of the Great Depression to the years immediately following World War II, this solidly built Idaho druggist used ads in newspapers, in magazines, and on the radio to craft nothing less than his own mail-order religious faith. He named it Psychiana, and its ideas were bedrock New Thought, packaged and sold to an audience of unprecedented proportions. ‘And the best thing about it,’ he bragged to a wire-service reporter, ‘is that we guarantee results or your money refunded. I guess it’s about the only money-back religion in the world.’”
At his peak, Robinson claimed to have the “eighth largest religion on the planet.” Amazing! Now, there doesn’t seem to be much of a doctrine to this new religion, except that one’s mind could reshape one’s life—and could reshape the world around us.
MITCH: This was right out of the New Thought movement, but Robinson claimed that while he was working as a pharmacist in Moscow, Idaho, he developed this system through religious experiments and his own philosophy. I think he was sincere about that.
DAVID: Most readers think of religious entrepreneurs as scam artists. We think of the infamous TV evangelists. And there were people, back in Robinson’s lifetime, who called him things like “a Mail Order Messiah.” But you’ve dug into his life’s story extensively and you explain in the book that, even at the peak of his movement, he didn’t earn more than a good white-collar salary. Mainly, he poured his revenue back into advertisements.
MITCH: I think he was a sincere religious experimenter. I’ve read a vast amount of material now about Frank B. Robinson, and I don’t believe he was cynical about what he was doing. You find a great freshness in his work.
He was a guy who had a very hard life as child. He was orphaned at an early age, bounced out of the Army because of drunkenness. He even was a hobo for part of his life, but he found his way successfully to stability and a good family life and he hit upon this philosophy that went along with it.
DAVID: And he taught America a major lesson about spiritual marketing. His advertisements headlined “I Talked With God”—over an article that said, “Hey, you can, too!”—were an absolute sensation.
MITCH: The story is remarkable. Advertising executives didn’t think it had a chance. When Robinson first wanted to place this ad in magazines, he went to an advertising agency in Spokane, Washington, and he had a few hundred dollars he wanted to spend.
They threw him out. They said: “Don’t waste your money!” They refused to help him.
DAVID: They didn’t know what they were refusing.
MITCH: Robinson was an absolute genius at communication. He knew how to reach people. He was a better ad man than the executives who wouldn’t take his money.
Readers didn’t make fun of his advertisement. They were intrigued. And they got in touch with him in enormous numbers.
DAVID: Say a little bit about the picture we’re going to show next. I think Robinson’s story is pretty sad at the end. He died in 1948 of a weak heart and his giant movement essentially fizzled when he was gone.
But, before he died, he lived through World War II and you call the period right around 1941, “the New Thought movement’s finest hour.”
MITCH: This is a rare joint photograph of Frank B. Robinson appearing with Science of Mind founder Ernest Holmes at the Philharmonic Auditorium in Los Angeles in 1941. Thousands of people came to this series of meetings they held.
DAVID: Eventually as the U.S. entered the war and the war years rolled along, Robinson, Holmes and others focused their movements on supporting the American war effort. They were in the patriotic vanguard at the time, we might say.
But this “finest hour” you describe is not the war itself.
You point out that, before the war became the main theme and then Robinson died shortly after the war, these movements were converging into a kind of powerful interfaith movement.
People came by the thousands to see Robinson and Holmes partly because of this idea they were preaching.
Here are a few of Holmes’ words from 1941 that you quote in your book. First, he told the huge crowd that his system and Robinson’s system were pretty much the same thing.
Then, Holmes told the crowd that their faiths, as well, should share a common ground: “Some of you may go to a Jewish Synagogue; you may be a Methodist, Baptist, Catholic, but there is but one God. We meet here today not on a theological background, but upon the foreground of a spiritual conception, the common meeting ground of every race, every creed, every color, every philosophy, and every religion on the face of the earth.”
TOMORROW: Part 3
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