Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

A Republic of Mind and Spirit:
A Cultural History of American Metaphysical Religion

by catherine l. albanese
yale university press, 640 pages, $40

If one is looking for a fascinating tour of the many sideshows of the carnival that is religion in America, Catherine L. Albanese is the guide you want. She is head of religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and has a big new book from Yale University Press, A Republic of Mind and Spirit: A Cultural History of American Metaphysical Religion. She would not be happy, however, to be described as a tour guide of religious sideshows, never mind freak shows. She intends to propose a very different way of understanding American religious history as a whole. 

The most useful single volume on the subject, in my judgment, is still Sydney Ahlstrom’s magisterial A Religious History of the American People, first published in 1972. But it is in the nature of scholarly guilds that classics are there to be challenged and displaced, and—since historians are not going to stop practicing their craft—there is little point in fighting it, except to keep in mind that newer is not necessarily better. 

The newer to which Albanese aspires to be yet newer is represented by William McLoughlin and Jon Butler. In his 1980 Revivals, Awakenings, and Reform, McLoughlin cast American religious history in terms of dynamics that are “individualistic, pietistic, perfectionist, millenarian.” Like the history of America itself, McLoughlin contended, religion in America is “best understood as a millenarian movement.” In his 1990 Awash in a Sea of Faith, Jon Butler took a different tack, arguing for a “catholic” reading of American religious history. Not uppercase Catholic, mind you, but catholic in the sense that the inherited state-church tradition of Anglo-Protestant America was transformed by the American experiment into a denominational establishmentarianism comparable to the role of Catholicism in some European nations. 

Albanese’s interest, however, is in the “occult” forms of religion that other historians have tended to place at the margins of the story. For McLoughlin, the central narrative is the triumph of evangelical awakenings in sundry forms. And, Albanese writes, “In the Butler historiography the center to which occultism made its way was one that did not hold—a center that became a theater of conflict in which Christianity, through its ‘catholic’ denominational forms, gradually prevailed.” (One notes, as an aside, that Butler highly praises the Albanese book in his dust-jacket endorsement.) 

The McLoughlin evangelical thesis and the Butler catholic alternative, claims Albanese, result in a telling of the American religious story that “has been seriously skewed by perspectives and data deployed to protect and promote the role of Christianity in the nation’s history.” At one level, Albanese is making the case that America is not and never was as Christian as other histories have suggested. This is not to be confused with the familiar and dubious line that America is becoming ever more “religiously pluralistic.” Her point, rather, is that the evangelical story and the denominational-establishment story are only two-thirds of the tale, and “there remains a large and missing third.” The ambition of her book is put this way: “Hence, in what follows I argue a metaphysical thesis about American religious history, understanding metaphysical religion, both in Christian and non-Christian forms, as key to making sense of the nation’s religiosity. Metaphysical religion, I hope to show, is at least as important as evangelicalism in fathoming the shape and scope of American religious history and in identifying what makes it distinctive—the sign, in religious terms, of an emergent American ethnicity.”

The task Prof. Albanese sets herself is indeed ambitious. Through six hundred pages, one keeps an eye on her use of such terms as “metaphysical” and “occult,” and wonders at times what happened to the claim about “an emergent American ethnicity.” She singles out four characteristics of what she calls metaphysical religion: “First and most obvious is a preoccupation with mind and its powers.” This preoccupation is manifested in trances, apparitions, altered states of consciousness, mental telepathy, kinesthetic experiments, and the such. Second, metaphysical religion continues, in various forms, an ancient cosmological theory of different worlds in mysterious correspondence. Third, this correspondence is not fixed or static but is understood in terms of movement and energy. And fourth, American metaphysical religion is driven by “a yearning for salvation understood as solace, comfort, therapy, and healing. . . . All American magic comes down to salvation, and salvation means healing and therapy. Who in America needed such salvation and healing through mystical and magical means? The answer is practically everyone.” 

This large magical or metaphysical third of American religion, she contends in great detail, goes back in antiquity to the mysterious Egyptian figure Hermes Trismegistus (thus the word hermetic), whose teachings were rediscovered and much celebrated during the Renaissance. Throughout her narrative, Albanese is at pains to link movements and doctrines to the hermetic, metaphysical, occult, and gnostic—the terms are often used interchangeably—traditions in all their maddening diversity. Hermes taught: “Unless you make yourself equal to god, you cannot understand god; like is understood by like. Go higher than every height and lower than every depth. Collect in yourself all the sensations of what has been made, of fire and water, dry and wet; be everywhere at once, on the land, in the sea, in heaven; be not yet born, be in the womb, be young, old, dead, beyond death. And when you have understood all these at once—times, places, things, qualities, quantities—then you can understand god.” 

The world of witches, wizards, magicians, and “cunning ones” found fertile ground in northern Europe, says Albanese, where the sixteenth-century Reformation liberated spiritual impulses from Catholicism. Rosicrucianism and “a general efflorescence that is best described as Christian theosophy” were importantly shaped by Jacob Boehme, the prolific seventeenth-century German shoemaker who radically recast his Lutheran beliefs according to mystical experiences. Transported to England, and later to America, these impulses would be embodied in secret societies of occult knowledge and elaborate ritual, most dramatically in the case of Freemasonry. (Philip Hamburger, author of the valuable book Separation of Church and State, underscores the influence of Freemasonry in the American judiciary, which helps to explain much of the Religion Clause jurisprudence in our history, especially in its anti-Catholic aspects.) 

Albanese casts a very wide net and draws into it a surprising array of strange fish. She notes, for instance, that in colonial Pennsylvania the Quakers frowned on popular practices such as divination, geomancy, and astrology but had their own “magic” of the Inner Light. Seventeenth-century Quakers in England were known for their attempts to interact with the dead, including efforts to raise them from the grave. Also, in America the Society of Friends, usually perceived as quite sedate, had their wild side of occult and spiritualist experimentation. 

There were related groups, such as the Society of the Woman in the Wilderness, led by Johannes Kelpius and centered in Germantown, Pennsylvania, that added biblical millennialism to a mix of pagan and Jewish elements in an esoteric religion of nature. “With their forty-foot-square log tabernacle with telescope on top (to read the celestial signs of the impending millennium), their astrological amulets, their incantatory healing rites, their alchemical paraphernalia, and the learned texts that grounded their practice, they brought Hermeticism, Rosicrucianism, Kabbalism, Lutheran Pietism, and Boehmian mysticism together.” Religious freedom in America has been from the beginning friendly to the effulgence of the spiritual imagination.

Albanese attends closely to the contributions of African slaves and Indian Americans to the wondrous concatenation of spiritualities and spiritualisms in the New World. Among early New Englanders, there was widespread fascination with the magic of the natives, who were seen as both brutish and mysteriously wise. Among the more genteel leaders of society, Masonry had by the late eighteenth century been transformed from the esotericism of the hermetic way into “the exotericism of an upright Protestant moralism that countenanced being ‘square’ and ‘on the square.’” Nine of the fifty-six signers of the Declaration of Independence definitely belonged to the order, and the Masons claimed about two dozen more. By this time, the dark, mysterious, and theosophical aspects of hermetic Masonry had given way to the bright light of Enlightenment deism: “One turned confidently toward a just deity who functioned as a kind of upper-end counting-house manager, rewarding virtue and punishing vice after death, and encouraging benevolence and good works before that.”

Of particular interest is Albanese’s attention to the hermetic background of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and other founding figures of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The idea of buried plates of revelation requiring magic to be discovered and understood is derived, she believes, from Native American beliefs, and other key Mormon teachings are heavily indebted to the strains that flowed into the tradition of Hermes, notably the enormous influence of Emanuel Swedenborg, an eighteenth-century Swede of Lutheran background who impressively joined undoubted scientific learning to prodigious flights of metaphysical imagination. Mormon concepts such as the coequality of matter and spirit, the eternal covenant of celestial marriage, and the ultimate destiny of human godhood, she suggests, are all drawn from the fusion of Hermes and Christianity going back to the Italian Renaissance. 

There is no doubt, she contends, that Joseph Smith and others in the nineteenth-century religious world of upstate New York were intimately familiar with, and engaged by, this centuries-long history of hermeticism. “Swedenborg, in effect, had articulated in one form or another a number of the major tenets of Mormon theology as Joseph Smith put it forward through his revelations.” Joseph Smith’s heavenly realm “was inhabited by a God suspiciously similar to Swedenborg’s Divine Human and to the Hermetic vision in general.” 

Mormonism was of a piece, says Albanese, with other movements that were not so much post-Christian as moving Christianity in strange directions. Universalism, for instance, “evoked the mystical boundary where Christianity touched Hermeticism and where, in its 19th century embodiment, a progressivist Romantic vision came to dominate numbers of American spiritual quests. The God who loved humans and sought to ‘happify’ them was also the God who beckoned along a road to ever-increasing perfection and so ever-greater spiritual power.” A vast and colorful array of inspired leaders played their own riffs on familiar themes, dallying along the way with phrenology, mesmerism, mental telepathy, communications with “the other side,” and utopian socialist experiments. Sometimes the differences were subtle. For example, between Universalists and Unitarians, both now almost institutionally extinct, Universalists “believed that God was too good to damn them forever,” while Unitarians believed that “they were too good to be damned.” 

Throw into this extraordinary mix New England Transcendentalism and the inestimable influence of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who had his own version of Joseph Smith’s teaching about human beings meant to be gods. Then there were the Shakers, remembered today mainly for their austere furniture, folk songs, and communal way of life that, not surprisingly, died out as the result of a principled decision not to have children. As a former Shaker sister explained in the 1840s, “The dual God, male and female, called Heavenly Father and Holy Mother Wisdom, Christ being the son and Ann Lee the daughter in the new creation, were to come among us and draw a dividing line between the precious and the vile.” The Shaker experiment, one notes in passing, is today viewed as a precious artifact of a lost past, but key teachings are vibrantly alive in various feminist ideologies that, oddly enough, have forgotten their history and believe they are drawing directly on “pagan” sources of wisdom. 

Albanese writes that “from its beginning the mass spiritualist movement presents the first major case in which women became acknowledged leaders in a religious milieu. The metaphysical religion of the later 19th century and thereafter would continue to valorize the role of women. Indeed, one reason why American metaphysical religion has been understudied and sometimes flatly disdained by scholars has arguably been its strong female presence and leadership.” 

In this connection, Albanese offers an extended and interesting commentary on Mary Baker Eddy and Christian Science. Unlike Madame Blavatsky, Annie Besant, and a host of others who promoted their theosophical turns on occultism, of both the West and the East, Eddy really was a Christian, says Albanese, although of a peculiar kind. “The healing role of the Christian Science practitioner,” writes Albanese, “was meant not so much to provide compassionate care as to demonstrate Truth in an ideal order that reduced the physical to the nothing that it was, an order that proved the claims of the Christian gospel as Eddy herself understood them. Like the utterly sovereign, utterly transcendent God of Calvinism . . . Truth brooked no compromise and demonstrated its reality by vanquishing the appearance of disease and disorder.” Mary Baker Eddy as Calvinist is an idea that charms by its unfamiliarity. 

And so the story moves along, including the spiritual narcissism of Thoreau, the East-West mishmash of the gaudy circus that was the 1893 World Parliament of Religions in Chicago, William James and his fascination with séances, Father Divine and his Peace Mission Movement, and the continuing occult exploitation of quantum theory in physics as confirmation of the immateriality of the material. Not to mention the occult dimensions of D.D. Palmer’s founding of modern chiropractic medicine, the appeal of Norman Vincent Peale, and the emergence in recent decades of very old New Age movements with their gurus, such as Shirley MacLaine and Deepak Chopra. 

Of Norman Vincent Peale, Albanese writes, “Yet for all his embrace of metaphysical discourse and his reiteration of what were essentially Hermetic and mesmeric metaphors, Peale was careful to circumscribe them to the pragmatics of method.” That description, I believe, is more than doubtful. Peale was emphatic in declaring himself to be an orthodox Christian, and a Calvinist at that. Liberal clergy and others subjected Peale to withering attacks, and while there was much in his feel-good message deserving of attack, there was also a snobbery at work in the criticisms. As Albanese writes, “Both Eddy and Peale, as theologians, had been distinctly low brow and [their success] manifestly trumped the learned of their respective times.” Adlai Stevenson, the intellectuals’ presidential candidate, famously quipped, “I find Paul appealing but Peale appalling.” There is little evidence that Stevenson read either St. Paul or the Reverend Peale. In fact, there is little evidence that Stevenson read much of anything. On his bed table when he died was only one book, The New York Social Register

Returning to the larger picture, Albanese writes that we are currently witnessing a “reenchantment of the world.” Summing up her long story, she says, “All the pieces of American metaphysical history came together in the New Age: Transcendentalism and spiritualism, mesmerism and Swedenborgianism, Christian Science and New Thought, Theosophy and its ubiquitous spin-offs, and especially metaphysical Asia. Quantum physics provided a horizon of discourse that could enable MacLaine and others to engage in mystical-scientific speculation about spiritual healing and psychic surgery. Parapsychology pushed the scientific argot toward the paranormal. Astrology—with its millennial expectation of the dawning of the Age of Aquarius—charted quasi-scientific star maps to explain, according to principles of correspondence, the relationship between personality, destiny, and an individual’s place in the universal scheme. Astrological dispensationalism, paralleling the Protestant fundamentalist [biblical dispensationalism], told of coming ages, or dispensations, and their character and consequence.” And all of this, says Catherine Albanese, is the missing third in the usual telling of the history of religion in America, the missing third to which she would draw attention with A Republic of Mind and Spirit.

Albanese is a member in high standing of the religious-studies guild: She is, among other distinctions, a former president of the American Academy of Religion. As Paul Griffiths has explained in these pages, religious studies, now more than a century old, is an academic discipline in search of a subject (see First Things, March 1997 and May 2000). In religious-studies departments, it is assumed that there is a genus called religion of which there are many species. But it turns out again and again that this approach begins with Christianity of one sort or another and by that standard determines whether other religions are religions. Among scholars of “religious studies,” the particular is subsumed by the general, and “theology” is carefully kept at arm’s length in order to sustain the appearance of “objectivity.” The result is that the particularities of belief, practice, and connectedness that make a phenomenon what it is are sacrificed to a predetermined idea of what counts as “religion.” 

Albanese, as is common in religious studies today, tries to avoid this problem by calling her book a “cultural history.” But of what culture is it the history? A culture that includes New England Transcendentalism, the tiny Vedanta Society, Norman Vincent Peale, various robed Illuminati, and body-mind chiropractics, as well as the twelve million members of the Latter-day Saints (six million in this country) is, to put it delicately, wildly amorphous and subject to almost infinite definitional expansion. The inevitable arbitrariness of definition tends to diffuse the subject at hand into everything or nothing. Except that, whatever it is, it is very strange and very unlike what most Americans mean by religion. And, by the end of the book, the author seems to have forgotten her opening promise to delineate “an emergent American ethnicity,” which is perhaps just as well, since relatively few Americans would identify with the cultural marginalia that she describes in such colorful detail. 

The very idea of “metaphysical religion” seems altogether too plastic. An interest in mind and powers, an awareness of worlds beyond matter in correspondence with this world, and the yearning for salvation understood as ultimate solace and healing—surely these characteristics, while variously described, are to be found in the dominant expressions of Christianity. Evangelicals, Pentecostals, and Catholics—especially the last, with miracles, apparitions, and the cult of the saints—are nothing if not metaphysical. Yet, in more than six hundred pages, Catholicism gets two or three sentences of incidental mention. In her search for the strangeness of the mystical, miraculous, and magical in metaphysical religion, even as she defines it, one might suggest that Prof. Albanese has overlooked the mother lode. One might further suggest that she overlooks or excludes it because in evangelicalism, Pentecostalism, and Catholicism it is indisputably Christian. 

The author is dismissive of Sydney Ahlstrom’s treatment of what he calls “harmonial religion,” but one may suggest that Ahlstrom covers in much briefer compass the phenomenon under discussion and, while acknowledging its maddening diversity of expression, has a firmer definitional grip on what the phenomenon is. “Harmonial religion,” writes Ahlstrom, “encompasses those forms of piety and belief in which spiritual composure, physical health, and even economic well-being are understood to flow from a person’s rapport with the cosmos . . . . Their fundamental claims involve a persistent reliance on allegedly rational argument, empirical demonstration, and (when applicable) a knowledge of the ‘secret’ meanings of authoritative scriptures.” Ahlstrom goes on to note that “even those of very recent origin show similarities with the syncretistic religions that were challenging Judaism and Christianity two millennia ago, and many claim an even more ancient lineage.” 

Writing in the early 1970s, Ahlstrom thought that the spiritual impulses evident in New Age thought were “an ascendent aspect of American religion.” It might be more accurate to say they were becoming more pervasive, insinuating themselves into what Americans continued to assume was their adherence to Christianity. This is the argument pressed by Harold Bloom in his eccentric but insightful book of 1993, The American Religion. Those spiritual impulses are essentially gnostic in the tradition of Emerson, Bloom contends, and most American Christians are, whether they know it or not, gnostics. As a disciple of Emerson, Bloom basically approves of this spiritual state of affairs. While Bloom vastly overstates his case, I believe that case contains a large and troubling measure of truth. 

In addition to the “large and missing third” of the story of American religion that Catherine Albanese wants to supply, there is another large and missing part that gets no mention. Ten years before Ahlstrom’s A Religious History of the American People, Sidney Mead published The Lively Experiment: The Shaping of Christianity in America. Mead’s story line is the transmogrification of historic Christianity into a “religion of the republic” and, in view of her title, it is surprising that Mead is ignored by Albanese. Mead’s thesis received wide attention when, in the late 1960s, Robert Bellah and others generated a national discussion of America’s “civil religion,” a discussion that is still with us, albeit in muted form. 

When Ahlstrom’s magnum opus appeared, I was editor at another magazine and asked Sidney Mead to review it. His review, titled “By Puritans Possessed,” was an all-out assault on Ahlstrom’s claim that the story of religion in America is, in the main, the story of Christianity in America. McLoughlin and Butler do not go so far as Mead in rejecting the nation’s Christian story. But Bloom, Bellah, and others—for no doubt diverse reasons—want to persuade us that, while 90 percent of Americans past and present may have thought and may now think they are Christians, most of them are adherents of another religion, variously described, and with only tenuous connections to Christianity. Catherine Albanese, too, is uneasy with the place of Christianity in American history. Recall her statement that the story “has been seriously skewed by perspectives and data deployed to protect and promote the role of Christianity in the nation’s history.” 

There are no doubt historians and other writers on the subject who have been influenced by a desire to protect and promote the role of Christianity. It would be very odd if that were not the case. The more striking thing is the number of writers who, like Albanese, seem determined to minimize or deny the role of Christianity in the lived experience and self-understanding of the American people. Such determination does not necessarily reflect hostility to Christianity. There are also devout Christians who want to protect and promote their preferred understanding of “authentic” Christianity, sharply distinguishing it from the bewildering muddle that is, they say, only putatively Christian America. 

Truth to tell, America is so vast and various that almost any generalization about it is supported by evidence, and that holds also for religion in America. In A Republic of Mind and Spirit, Catherine Albanese has provided a leisurely, informative, and frequently entertaining tour of spiritual flights, frauds, cults, enthusiasms, and experiments, ranging from the flaky to the admirable, along with mixtures of both, that have variously hovered around, fed off, and infused, in ways both subtle and garish, religion in America. 

Her book does not provide “the missing third” of our religious history but a useful account of some of the more fascinating products of the spiritual fecundity of a people who will likely continue to be, as it has been since the European settlement, confusedly and conflictedly Christian. At the end of the day, A Republic of Mind and Spirit is a tour of curiosities that most readers will not regret having taken. The wonders on display are a not unimportant part of what Sydney Ahlstrom calls the religious history of the American people.

Richard John Neuhaus is the editor in chief of First Things.