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Occult America: The Secret History of How…

Occult America: The Secret History of How Mysticism Shaped Our Nation (2009)

by Mitch Horowitz

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  1. 00
    Alternative altars : unconventional and Eastern spirituality in America by Robert S. Jr. Ellwood (paradoxosalpha)
    paradoxosalpha: Ellwood provides more theoretical orientation than Horowitz does, and a better view of the social and cultural factors that are overshadowed by individual personalities in Horowitz's treatment. But there is considerable overlap in terms of the basic interest in "alternative spirituality" in American history.… (more)
  2. 00
    A Republic of Mind and Spirit: A Cultural History of American Metaphysical Religion by Catherine L. Albanese (paradoxosalpha)

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In 1774, Mother Ann Lee emigrated from England to New York and started a small but important movement in America: the Shakers. Their belief in a more mystical Christian God led to accusations of heresy from mainline believers. From this small band of radical believers sprang pockets on mysticism throughout America over the last 250 years. Mitch Horowitz’s Occult America takes a slightly off-center look at American history through the lens of those who believed, prayed, practiced, and lived a little differently from the rest of us.

One of the many sticky areas that this book stays away from is conspiracy theories. While many nutters use the symbols on various national icons to point towards a nefarious underbelly of our nation, Horowitz chooses to focus on broader religious history in America. There are tons of minor religious figures here to explore and the author tries desperately to take their work and beliefs at face value. They are a few times where falls into the judgment trap when it comes to some of the more fringe belief systems, but on the whole, Horowitz tends to favor sympathy over cynicism. He finds and explores leaders of fringe movements, including Henry Steel Olcott of the Theosophical Society and Christian Science’s Mary Baker Eddy, and gives them all equal footing.

Overall, there is a lot of interesting history here but at times seems like a mish-mash of people, dates, events, and stories. Because many of these movements were largely temporary and centered on their initial leader, there is no real story to connect them all except the broad theme under which they all fall. Horowitz’s writing clips along, but never makes any grand gestures. It’s amusing, sure, but in trying to capture more than 200 years of American religious history, there is only so much here. Each figure could probably merit their own biography. In the end, though, this book has a fair amount of research behind it to be useful to many readers. ( )
  NielsenGW | Dec 2, 2014 |
Occult. Not revealed; not easily apprehended or understood; hidden from view; not manifest or detectable by clinical methods alone. (Definition courtesy of Merriam-Webster.)

The occult, in short, is that which is hidden from view. The term is used to refer to the belief that there are powers in the world unknown or undetectable by peoples' earthly senses. Although unseen, the irony is that the occult is all around us. The pyramid and "all seeing eye" on the back of the dollar bill? You can thank Freemasons FDR and Henry Wallace for that; prior to their administration, paper money tended toward the more mundane eagle. Mitch Horowitz explores the vagaries of the American occult in Occult America: White House Seances, Ouija Circles, Masons, and the Secret Mystic History of Our Nation.

Horowitz defines the occult as "a wide array of mystical philosophies and mythical lore, particularly the belief in an 'unseen world' whose forces act upon us and through us." That's an ambiguous statement, and, given one's inclination, could be applied to mainstream religions, which Horowitz assumes exist in contradiction to the occult: "These religious radicals [i.e., practitioners of the occult], acting outside the folds of traditional churches..." The occult, then, may be said to exist in parallel, or in opposition to, mainstream religions, but even that is simplistic: The borders of both the occult and traditional religions are porous, and the two were often in dialogue with one another. Consider Christian Science, Christianity infused with "New Thought," or the occult notion that, in order to be cured of an illness, a sufferer must change her belief about the illness. It's easy for readers to see how "thinking makes it so" traversed from a marginal belief to one enshrined in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century's "prosperity gospel." It might be said that the occult is that which lacks legitimacy according to the majority of society.

Definition, or lack thereof, assigned, Horowitz sets himself the ambitious task of synthesizing several centuries of religious history in less than 300 pages. Horowitz gives short shrift to the eighteenth century and post-World War II era. In truth, his subject is the American occult in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Readers interested in the "New Age" movement, still developing today, will find a perfunctory chapter at the end of the book.

Horowitz treats his true scope, the nineteenth century American occult, extremely well. He devotes two early chapters, "The Psychic Highway" and "Mystic Americans" to the influential topics of the Burned-Over District (so-called) of upstate New York, and the founding of the Theosophical Society, both of which set the stage for the occult movements of the late 1800s. Some readers may be surprised to know that the Church of Latter Day Saints traces it origins to the Burned-Over District, of which Joseph Smith was a resident, and where he practiced "scrying" with a "peep stone" prior to his religious epiphany. Henry Steel Olcott and Madame Blavatsky founded the Theosophical Society, which primed America for an explosion of occult activity by insisting upon the equality of all religions and introducing Eastern beliefs to the West.

Subsequent chapters vary in quality. Topics range from the aforementioned New Thought, predecessor of The Secret and influence upon Norman Vincent Peale (The Power of Positive Thinking), to various mail order schemes, to the quasi-fascist occult ideologies of the 1920s and '30s. Of these, the strongest is, perhaps, "Go Tell Pharaoh," an exploration of African-American occult belief that touches upon hoodoo and the mysticism of Marcus Garvey.

Horowitz employs a certain formula that identifies the main movement of a particular period and sticking to that them, with some variation in terms of his discussion of historic personalities. Horowitz briefly sums up whatever occult system he's discussing. Some readers may wish for more detail, but Horowitz's brevity is probably a blessing, given the profound tendency toward minutiae of which all religions, occult or otherwise, are capable.

Horowitz is sympathetic toward his subject, perhaps too much so; he tells readers, halfway through the book, that he has arranged for the publication of various occult volumes long out of print. Still, it's refreshing to have a perspective that isn't snide or contemptuous of occult subject matter, and Horowitz seems to recognize that occult seekers are motivated by the quest for meaning and truth. The phonies and charlatans one finds in occult movements have their peers in other human enterprises, from religion, to business, to politics.

Some readers have criticized Occult America on the grounds they they expected more out of it, that its subject matter would point toward an enormous occult influence on American history. Horowitz takes pains to demonstrate the beliefs of Henry Wallace, one of FDR's vice presidents, and their effects both on his support for particular policies and his career: He was turned out of office, in part, because colleagues perceived him as too credulous. Likewise, Ronald Reagan was inaugurated at governor of California several minutes after midnight, a time chosen by his astrologer. And Horowitz cites on numerous occasions the circulations of various occult publications, which are doubtless low estimates, as the believers shared their books and pamphlets with friends and family. One is hard pressed to imagine how Horowitz might have better demonstrated the influence of his subject matter. Perhaps readers expect to learn that Kennedy's response to the Cuban Missile Crisis was guided by the stars?

Occult America is a fine introduction to subject little explored (until recently) by scholars. Horowitz is a sympathetic chronicler who makes accessible to readers the major themes of American occult history. Although Horowitz gives some topics short shrift, readers will find in Occult America a useful primer and a starting point for further exploration. Recommended for readers of nonfiction with an interest in American religious history. ( )
  LancasterWays | Mar 20, 2014 |
While factually comprehensive, the sloppy, meandering writing style distracts too much from the content to maintain reader interest. The author wanders back and forth haphazardly and frequently loses his threads. ( )
  whbiii | Feb 27, 2014 |
An interesting book giving an interesting history of this country. Starting at the in what is called "the burned over district," in upstate New York, this book goes on to trace the history of alternative spirituality and it's impact on both private and public lives. I found it incredibly interesting that Christian Scientists, Edgar Cayce, the "Secret, and Theosophy, all came from the same root. It seems that the ingrained spirituality of the and it's peoples, can effect the beliefs of millions. ( )
  burningtodd | Jun 11, 2013 |
Mitch Horowitz From the meaning of the symbols on the one-dollar bill to the origins of the Ouija board, Occult America briskly sweeps from the nation’s earliest days to the birth of the New Age era and traces the development of America’s homegrown occult movements, from transcendentalism to spiritualism to Christian Science to the positive-thinking philosophy.
  michaelgambill | Feb 5, 2011 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0553806750, Hardcover)

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It touched lives as disparate as those of Frederick Douglass, Franklin Roosevelt, and Mary Todd Lincoln--who once convinced her husband, Abe, to host a séance in the White House. Americans all, they were among the famous figures whose paths intertwined with the mystical and esoteric movement broadly known as the occult. Brought over from the Old World and spread throughout the New by some of the most obscure but gifted men and women of early U.S. history, this “hidden wisdom” transformed the spiritual life of the still-young nation and, through it, much of the Western world.

Yet the story of the American occult has remained largely untold. Now a leading writer on the subject of alternative spirituality brings it out of the shadows. Here is a rich, fascinating, and colorful history of a religious revolution and an epic of offbeat history.

From the meaning of the symbols on the one-dollar bill to the origins of the Ouija board, Occult America briskly sweeps from the nation’s earliest days to the birth of the New Age era and traces many people and episodes, including:

• The spirit medium who became America’s first female religious leader in 1776
• The supernatural passions that marked the career of Mormon prophet Joseph Smith
• The rural Sunday-school teacher whose clairvoyant visions instigated the dawn of the New Age
• The prominence of mind-power mysticism in the black-nationalist politics of Marcus Garvey
• The Idaho druggist whose mail-order mystical religion ranked as the eighth-largest faith in the world during the Great Depression

Here, too, are America’s homegrown religious movements, from transcendentalism to spiritualism to Christian Science to the positive-thinking philosophy that continues to exert such a powerful pull on the public today. A feast for believers in alternative spirituality, an eye-opener for anyone curious about the unknown byroads of American history, Occult America is an engaging, long-overdue portrait of one nation, under many gods, whose revolutionary influence is still being felt in every corner of the globe.

Amazon Exclusive: Mitch Horowitz on the Occult in American History

Scholars of American history have often dismissed occult traditions, such as Spiritualism, Mesmerism, divination, channeling, and mental-healing, as little more than oddball social trends to be analyzed, fretted over, and debunked. This is a mistake. To really grasp the religious development of our nation, its occult movements and believers must be understood for what they are: communities of belief, who left a profound impact on the culture of America and the modern world.

Early American history is entwined with esoteric spirituality. North America’s first intentional mystical community reached its shores in the summer of 1694. That year, the determined spiritual philosopher Johannes Kelpius led about forty pilgrims out of Central Germany--a region decimated by the Thirty Years’ War--and to the banks of the Wissahickon Creek, just beyond Philadelphia. The city then hosted only about 500 houses, but it represented a Mecca of freedom for the Kelpius circle, who longed for a new homeland where they could practice their brands of astrology, alchemy, numerology, and mystical Christianity without fear of harassment from church or government.

Soon more mystical thinkers from the Rhine Valley journeyed to America, building a larger commune at Ephrata, Pennsylvania. A young woman named Ann Lee fled persecution in her native Manchester, England and relocated her esoteric sect, the "Shaking Quakers"--or the Shakers--to upstate New York in 1776. That same year, a Rhode Island girl, Jemima Wilkinson, declared herself a spirit channeler, took the name Publick Universal Friend, and began to preach across the northeast. The trend was set: America became a destination for religious idealists, especially those of a supernatural bent.

By the 1830s and 40s, a region of central New York State called "the Burned-Over District" (so-named for its religious passions) became the magnetic center for the religious radicalism sweeping the young nation. Stretching from Albany to Buffalo, it was the Mt. Sinai of American mysticism, giving birth to new religions such as Mormonism and Seventh-Day Adventism, and also to Spiritualism, mediumship, table-rapping, séances, and other occult sensations--many of which mirrored, and aided, the rise of Suffragism and related progressive movements. The nation’s occult culture gave women their first opportunity to openly serve as religious leaders--in this case as spirit mediums, seers, and channlers. America’s social and spiritual radicals were becoming joined, and the partnership would never fade.

Indeed, the robust growth of occult and mystical movements in nineteenth-century America--aided by the influence of Freemasonry and Transcendentalism--helped transform the young nation into a laboratory for religious experiment and a launching pad for the revolutions in alternative and New Age spirituality that eventually swept the globe. In the early twentieth century, the new spiritual therapies--from meditation to mind-body healing to motivational thinking--began revolutionizing how religion was understood in contemporary times: not only as a source of salvation but as a means of healing. In this sense, occult America had changed our world. --Mitch Horowitz

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:21:53 -0400)

From the meaning of the symbols on the one-dollar bill to the origins of the Ouija board,"Occult America" briskly sweeps from the nation's earliest days of mystical and esoteric movements to the birth of the New Age era, tracing the many people and episodes that continue to exert such a powerful pull on the public today.… (more)

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