In Part 1 of our coverage of Christian D. Larson’s The Optimist Creed, we reported on several ways this long-forgotten writer was actually a visionary pioneer in American spirituality. Long before Oprah, he was writing about “attitude of gratitude.” Long before Eckhart Tolle, he was writing about “Christ consciousness.”
Today, ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm talks with Mitch Horowitz, head of the Tarcher publishing house and a historian of American religion himself. Here are …
HIGHLIGHTS OF INTERVIEW WITH TARCHER’S MITCH HOROWITZ
ON CHRISTIAN D. LARSON AND ‘THE OPTIMIST CREED’
DAVID: As a journalist, I’ve been reporting on religion and cross-cultural issues for more than 30 years. But I had never heard of Christian D. Larson until your new edition of his collected books arrived on my desk. How did you re-discover him, Mitch?
MITCH: That’s what’s so interesting about this. Larson is a name that can very easily fall between the cracks in the history of positive thinking and motivational thought in this country. He’s not a name that immediately pops to mind when people start compiling a short list of writers who shaped the positive-thinking movement: people like Ernest Holmes, and Napoleon Hill, and Norman Vincent Peale, and Dale Carnegie. You can dig even deeper in thinking of names for a list like this and still Christian Larson’s name is likely to be forgotten. I wasn’t familiar with him, either.
Then, one day I was in a colleague’s office and, on his desk, I saw a copy of an old Christian Larson book from 1910, The Pathway of Roses. I picked it up, began reading and I was struck by Larson’s writerly elegance. His books really stand out among positive-thinking literature.
DAVID: I agree. Even after more than 100 years, his prose is surprisingly compelling. It’s pitched perfectly for general readers. He has a practical way of explaining fairly sophisticated concepts—yet the prose flows smoothly. For example: I think I would get more out of a Christian Larson book than I would from a head-scratching Eckhart Tolle book. What do you think? Why was Larson so gifted?
MITCH: He had the advantage that he was not primarily occupied as a traveling speaker or mental healer. He didn’t speak in front of many audiences. He didn’t maintain a roster of patients. He didn’t sell a lot of mail-order products. He was chiefly occupied as a writer and a publisher and he was able to perfect those skills. He wrote more than 40 books. Particularly in the years just before the First World War, his output was extraordinary. He focused on the style of his writing and he was able to argue passionately for his ideas. What you find in Larson’s work is an easygoing writing style and a language that prefigures a lot of the New Age and alternative spiritual vocabulary that is so popular today.
He became the great literary figure in the early days of the new-thought movement. This was more than a century ago and he was using phrases like “Christ consciousness,” “live in the present only,” “live the simple life,” “make yourself over” and, of course, “attitude of gratitude.”
BUT WAS CHRISTIAN LARSON … ACTUALLY CHRISTIAN?
DAVID: We will give readers the text of a short “Christ consciousness” passage from Larson’s book (in Part 1 of our coverage). He drops all kinds of Christian references in his books—even quoting specific Bible passages by chapter and verse. But, here’s a question I can’t quite answer: If Larson were living today, would he call himself “a Christian writer”?
MITCH: That’s a wonderful, wonderful question! I think he would say: “Yes, I consider myself a Christian writer, but we have to overturn our conventional understanding of what Christianity is.” Larson saw Christianity as a universal world teaching, a wisdom tradition that was articulated through the figure of Christ but that echoes other world religions, too. The phrase he used, “Christ consciousness,” abounds today in New Age and alternative spirituality writing. It’s a term that recognizes Christ as a kind of universal world teacher—a figure that is a role model to which all people can aspire, almost as the figure of the Buddha can serve in that way within Buddhist tradition. So, I do think Larson would claim the word “Christian,” but he would want to expand the meaning of that term into a universal wisdom.
WHERE DID A GENIUS LIKE CHRISTIAN LARSON … COME FROM?
DAVID: There’s very little biographical information about Larson available online, so let me ask you to verify—based on your own research into his life—what we tell readers about the origins of this remarkable talent, OK? One website says he was born on February 1, 1874. His parents were recent immigrants from Norway who settled in what really was pioneer-era wilderness in Iowa. His mother had lots of talents. She was a weaver, a midwife and a self-styled home nurse. Sound right to you?
MITCH: Yes, I have seen some immigration and Census records on Christian Larson and he was, indeed, born in Iowa. In broad strokes, that kind of description of his upbringing is correct.
I’m not sure that I would over-emphasize these things about his mother. I don’t think that, in that era, it was surprising that a mother would be involved in home healing or helping other families as midwife or as what one might call a nurse. There were not a lot of well-trained doctors in America at that time. Most of the immigrants who arrived in the U.S. were from crafts, trades, farms and from the merchant class. European doctors rarely migrated to America. That situation encouraged home healing. Who else was going to take care of people? And it led to a lot of experimentation here with alternative healing. I don’t think that was particularly remarkable in his family or his community there in Iowa. Remember that the real milestone in training physicians in modern medicine was 1893 when the doors opened at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. So, even in the early 20th century, medical training and medical standards were just beginning to reach any real level of acceptance across the country.
DAVID: Key to Larson’s story is that he was heading by train to a Lutheran seminary, when he found a Unitarian book left behind by another passenger. It changed his life. Accurate?
MITCH: Yes, I’ve seen references in a number of sources to his finding this Unitarian book. There was an unfinished autobiography by Larson that hasn’t been published, but still exists. Based on various sources, we know that he was indeed headed for a career in mainline ministry and his vocation turned around dramatically after this new influence that started with the book he found. But, there’s also no question that he had great talents. By 1901, still in his 20s, he was in Cincinnati and had founded a very early and very high quality metaphysical magazine called Eternal Progress. He was combining Progressive Era values with metaphysics. I found copies of his magazine still existing in the New York Public Library from just before 1910. Side by side in an issue of his magazine there would be an article about the rebuilding of San Francisco after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, about development in the Pacific Northwest, about the construction of dams—along with articles on metaphysics and positive thinking.
DAVID: He wound up in California, though, because he had Hollywood friends like Will Rogers.
MITCH: Yes, he relocated to Los Angeles in around 1911 or 1912 and his magazine, by that time, was renamed Progress magazine. Issues of his magazine were filled with an awareness of all kinds of things going on across the U.S. He had articles about progressive social concerns, for example, articles about the reformation of methods to rehabilitate prisoners next to articles about the rise of skyscrapers in Chicago.
DAVID: It’s amazing that Larson was so completely forgotten. In preparing for this interview, Mitch, I went back to your own book: Occult America: White House Seances, Ouija Circles, Masons, and the Secret Mystic History of Our Nation (which is available from Amazon in paperback). You cover the waterfront of alternative spiritual movements in America, but there’s no mention of Larson.
MITCH: That’s correct, because I hadn’t heard of him when I finished Occult America. But, I will be writing about him in my next book, “One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life.” That book traces the history of this whole movement, which really is a serious spiritual and psychological movement whose impact has never been fully understood in religious histories. Innovators like Larson had an enormous impact on the way we commonly understand ourselves today.
Think about the notion of trying to be tough minded but also looking at the positive side of life. That sounds like an idea that’s always been with us, right? Sounds like common sense—the philosophy of refrigerator magnets. But, in fact, this idea is only about 150 years old. This kind of teaching is relatively new in historical terms. The ideas Larson wrote about wouldn’t have made any sense to most people 150 years ago. Most people wouldn’t have understood what he was talking about. My new book, “One Simple Idea,” will show readers the whole arc of this movement—and it will include Larson.
CONNECTING SPIRITUAL DOTS: FROM AA TO TANYA LUHRMANN
DAVID: Is Alcoholics Anonymous in your upcoming book? In our 2010 American Journey series, we visited the birthplace of AA’s co-founder in Vermont. Now, a lot of historians of religion argue that AA was a huge milestone in transforming organized religion into an array of personally expressive movements. AA moved millions of Americans from top-down hierarchies to grassroots spiritual self-expression.
MITCH: Absolutely AA is part of this movement. AA has, as its central idea, a belief that also animated the positive thinkers. The idea is that the individual, with proper preparation, can be a vehicle for higher purposes. We can re-arrange the outer world by using this connection, this channel to a Higher Power. This idea had roots in early writers like Emanuel Swedenborg. Today, you find this positive-thinking kind of personal approach to religion showing up in many Pentecostal and evangelical churches. This basic idea forms the backbone of all of our therapeutic spirituality from what we call New Age culture to a lot of contemporary evangelical culture. Yes, AA definitely was in the mix of that movement.
DAVID: We’ve come full circle this week, because you’re connecting us with the work of Dr. Tanya Lurhmann, whose new book “When God Talks Back” explores this kind of culture in an evangelical-Pentecostal denomination, Vineyard churches.
MITCH: That’s a fascinating observation and I agree with you. What we’re talking about is the real tone of American spirituality today. The whole focus of spirituality has moved toward healing—toward experiences that can help us now. That is the legacy of writers like Christian Larson. His name is not heard anywhere today in evangelical circles but listen to T.D. Jakes or Joel Osteen or Pat Robertson preaching about how to use insights from scripture to solve financial problems and health problems and relationship problems—that comes directly out of positive-thinking pioneers. Even if most Americans have never heard his name—that’s Christian Larson’s message still echoing in popular religious culture after all these years.
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Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.