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American Metaphysical Religion

Esoteric and Mystical Traditions of the New World

Published by Inner Traditions
Distributed by Simon & Schuster



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About The Book

An in-depth exploration of four centuries of American occult and spiritual history, from colonial-era alchemists to 20th-century teachers

• Details how, from the very beginning, America was a vibrant blend of beliefs from all four corners of the world

• Looks at well-known figures such as Manly P. Hall and offers riveting portraits of many lesser known esoteric luminaries such as the Pagan Pilgrim, Tom Morton

• Reveals the Rosicrucians among the first settlers from England, the spiritual influence of enslaved people, the work of mystical abolitionists, and how Native Americans and Latinx people helped shape contemporary spirituality

Most Americans believe the United States was founded by pious Christians. However, as Ronnie Pontiac reveals, from the very beginning America was a vibrant blend of beliefs from all four corners of the world.

Based on the latest research, with the assistance of leading scholars, this in-depth exploration of four centuries of American occult and spiritual history looks at everything from colonial-era alchemists, astrologers, and early spiritual collectives to Edgar Cayce, the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor, and St. Germain on Mount Shasta. Pontiac shows that Rosicrucians were among the first settlers from England and explores how young women of the Shaker community fell into trances and gave messages from the dead. He details the spiritual influence of the African diaspora, the work of mystical abolitionists, and how Indigenous groups and Latinx people played a large role in the shaping of contemporary spirituality and healing practices.

The author looks at well-known figures such as Manly P. Hall and lesser known esoteric luminaries such as the Pagan Pilgrim, Tom Morton. He examines the Aquarian Gospel, the Sekhmet Revival, A Course in Miracles, the School of Ageless Wisdom, and mediumship in the early 20th century. He explores the profound influence of the Bodhi Tree Bookstore in Los Angeles and looks at the evolution of female roles in spirituality across the centuries. He also examines the right wing of American metaphysics from the Silver Legion to QAnon.

Revealing the diverse streams that run through America’s metaphysical landscape, Pontiac offers an encyclopedic examination of occult teachers, esotericists, and spiritual collectives almost no one has heard of but who were profoundly influential.


INTRODUCTION: A Heritage We Didn’t Know We Had

In the quiet of the Philosophical Research Society Library, surrounded by shelves of rare esoteric books, I found myself at a dead end. On that day the library was closed to visitors. The librarian and her assistants were busy upstairs. Manly Hall, a venerable mystic, sat at his desk holding a tome a few inches from his face. Meanwhile his secretary Edith, a white-haired World War II veteran, patiently waited for the next sentence of his dictation. Outside, the southern California sun ruled all with heat and glare. I had searched every shelf. I had asked the librarian, the assistants, and the old man himself, but to no avail. Trips to the libraries of Occidental College, UCLA, USC, and Loyola Marymount fared no better.

It all began when I first saw a large leather-bound volume inside the library vault where my job gave me access to Mr. Hall’s alchemical manuscripts and other rarities of rogue philosophy and religion through the ages. I opened it carefully. To my surprise it contained the first issues of a newspaper called the Platonist. I gently turned the fragile pages. I found translations of ancient Greek philosophical and religious texts, but also the work of the famous French occultist Eliphas Levi, rendered into English by Abner Doubleday, a retired general who fired the first shot in defense of Ft. Sumter at the beginning of the Civil War. Later Doubleday became vice-president of the Theosophical Society. In 1907 the Mills Commission declared that he had invented the game of baseball, but historians beg to differ.

Strange enough that any newspaper should be devoted to that kind of content, but even stranger that it was published in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1881—the year Wyatt Earp and his brothers battled Ike Clanton and his cowboys at the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. While the legendary cattle drives continued, St. Louis was becoming notorious for terrible smog caused by coal-burning factories. How in the world, I wondered, and why in the world, had this newspaper come to life at such a seemingly inhospitable time and place?

Eventually I found a little book called Platonism in the Midwest by Paul R. Anderson, published by Temple University Press in 1963. Some of my questions were answered. I gained a sense of the man behind the Platonist, but so many mysteries remained. As online search tools opened vast archives of academic work, I began looking for papers and books in my areas of interest. To my surprise I found a trickle of new research that with the arrival of the new millennium became a flood. A revolution in academia had opened the way for a new generation of scholars to explore and document what had been neglected and dismissed.

Unfortunately for amateur enthusiasts such as myself, these new books are prohibitively expensive, and people who do not move in academic circles could live their entire lives without any access to them, probably never knowing they exist. Since I have been fortunate to have friends in academia I hope this book will serve as a bridge, bringing some of the latest research to people who would like to know about it, making accessible the hard work of these historians. In the bibliography you’ll find a list of the books I consulted. Request them at your library if you want all the details.

Please understand, I am not an academic. I am not attempting to prove that American Metaphysical Religion is anything more than a catchall metaphor for the esoteric beliefs and practices that have found a home in the melting pot of America. Think of me instead as your tour guide to the rough and tumble world of spirituality American-style. Far more questions will be raised than answered. We will consider not only wild tales of metaphysical leaders and communities, scandals and gossip, but also many neglected gems of thought and action that sincere seekers may find inspiring.

This book is an introduction to four centuries of America’s metaphysical saints, grifters, misfits, revolutionaries, visionaries, eccentrics, and some important thinkers who were far ahead of their time. In some ways this is a guidebook to all the different ways spirituality can be used to cheat people, but we also find examples of the inexplicable and genuine.

It’s no surprise that the people who came to America to make a life, or who were brought here against their will, would have the daring to not only experiment with the occult but also to weave together their own approaches to spirituality. However, for generations well-meaning religiously motivated scholars deliberately ignored this rich, detailed, and influential history, including the fact that the majority of Founding Fathers, mostly Deists and Freemasons, had little respect for the superstitious factions of Christianity most eager to claim them.

Several centuries of denominational historians, scholars of Christian and Jewish history, were mostly interested in prominent people and the fates of institutions. They were eventually replaced by historians who were considered more liberal because they glanced at fundamentalists and Pentecostals. But the metaphysical tradition was kept alive by rogue scholars. In the various metaphysical organizations populated by enthusiasts, books survived that academia had wished into the cornfield. Finally, in the 1990s, professional researchers began exploring metaphysical religion. But it would take until the twenty-first century for the occult to become a legitimate subject of study for a new generation of historians and the academic presses that publish them. “Many of the studies of new religions have been polemical, apologetic, or inaccessible to the general reader,” Sarah M. Pike wrote in New Age and Pagan Religions in America (2004). “The field has often been polarized between scholars who are critical of new religions and those who are more sympathetic to them. . .”

American Metaphysical Religion has been treated as pseudo-religion, yet its influence is substantial. As Patrick Reeves wrote in personal correspondence of 2021 used by his permission, “Is it marginal or mainstream (or mainstream but we’ve been deluded into thinking it’s marginal)?” He also reminds us that religions don’t fit the categories scholars give them: “I think of definitions on religion not as something we discover but lenses we put on reality to make sense of it.”

Many well-educated people argue that the subject of this book doesn’t exist. At best they will allow American Metaphysical Religion (AMR) as an umbrella phrase for the collection of superstitions. However, some scholars believe that AMR is a real religion lacking only unifying institutions, and perhaps better for the lack of them. A few wonder if it might eventually evolve a new religion. All three of these perspectives on AMR have merit. Perhaps time will reveal its true definition, or it may remain a mysterious but ubiquitous influence for centuries, as it has since the earliest days of colonization.

However, we might consider the example of the Imperial Romans, who wrote about Christianity as a disorganized underground of bizarre cults. No Holy Bible existed then. Gnostic sects had at least a dozen gospels of their own; at least another dozen gospels would be lost. Some Christians believed in reincarnation. Others worshiped a Christian goddess, Sophia, the personification of pious wisdom. Some expected the world to end any day. Others thought the world a never-created and never-ending testing place for souls. Despite differences of beliefs, practices, and ethics all were forms of Christianity. Despite its chaotic countercultural beginnings, as Christianity matured it evolved empires.

A characteristic quality of AMR is its relentless optimism, which contributed greatly to American exceptionalism. This world can be so beautiful. Sunrises and sunsets paint the sky. Mosslike malachite grows in copper. An adored cat purrs contentedly. A lover smiles. A child’s innocent laughter rings like the chime of silver bells under the clear sky of a Sunday afternoon. And yet everything in this world that inspires wonder and appreciation can be, has been, and is exploited. We puny creatures with our cosmic minds have already foreseen the sun’s fate and that of our home world. Keep moving! That sign is everywhere in our universe.

And yet, American Metaphysical Religion reminds us, at times life can seem like paradise. If so shouldn’t we study how to make that happen more often or, even better, perpetually? The world may be full of suffering but it’s the responsibility of each of us to do everything we can to make our own little world a heaven. Throughout history such utopian ideas have been for the most part met with ridicule. But American Metaphysical Religion has never given up on this belief in a more perfect world, or at least a more prosperous and joyous life for believers.

While ambition and survival are common motives in the lives we are about to explore, most of these innovators hoped to heal the sick, enlighten the ignorant, and liberate the oppressed. Even the most fraudulent seemed to think they were doing some good, like a discredited medium pointing out that at least the grief-stricken were comforted. They all appreciated and made use of the opportunities for learning and action that freedom provides, as they attempted to understand the meaning of life and the purpose for which it exists. They didn’t just write about it. Most tried out their theories in their own lives, among their friends, and a few with large groups of followers. Most of these grand experiments are little known today. Their obscurity is not necessarily a measure of their value.

As for the influence of what we’re calling American Metaphysical Religion it goes far and wide in the United States. For example, America’s beloved poet Emily Dickinson studied Rosicrucianism, Theosophy, and alchemy. She was deeply interested in Spiritualism. “Spirit pen” was her nickname for her favorite writing instrument. One of Emily’s favorite books was Zanoni, by the British occultist Lord Bulwer-Lytton, a novel about an encounter with a Rosicrucian. Zanoni, Missouri, is an unincorporated town located in Ozark County. The post office and a watermill are all that’s left of this community founded in 1898 and named after Bulwer-Lytton’s book. Allegedly the town inspired an unincorporated community in Gloucester County, Virginia, to also name itself Zanoni.

William James, the father of American psychology, and the first to offer a psychology class, put his reputation as a scientist and a professor at Harvard University on the line when he, and other great intellects with as much to lose, including Alexander Graham Bell, formed the American Society for Psychical Research in 1884. Investigating poltergeists, haunted houses, psychic mediums, they found no proof of the supernatural until William James met a medium named Mrs. Piper. As James explained in his report on her, “If you wish to upset the law that all crows are black, you mustn’t seek to show that no crows are; it is enough if you prove one single crow to be white. My own white crow is Mrs. Piper. I cannot resist the conviction that knowledge appears which she has never gained by the waking use of her eyes and ears and wits. What the source of this knowledge may be I know not, and have not the glimmer of an explanatory suggestion to make; but from admitting the fact of such knowledge I can see no escape.”

Leonora Piper was a housewife from Boston. Many tested her after James dubbed her his white crow, but no one ever caught her committing fraud. The more tests she passed the higher the demand and the fees for her psychic services became. Some skeptics argued that like most of her ilk she was adept at fishing, reading body language, and other techniques of fraudulent mind readers.

Stories about her failures circulated. She told one client he would soon find a wife and would have children, but he never did. Another client had been told his son had died in Mexico. He refused to accept it, convincing himself his son had been kidnapped. Mrs. Piper concurred, describing the asylum where he was being held and the name of the crazed doctor behind the kidnapping. Investigations revealed no asylum, no doctor, and the accuracy of the death as reported by the authorities.

Mrs. Piper was also unable to distinguish sincere clients from skeptics testing her skills. Those tests she often failed. How could Uncle Louie be standing in spirit right behind his beloved nephew when he was actually a thousand miles away on a boat headed for Europe? Even more suspect, how could she not know that Uncle Louie was a made-up character?

Then there were the questions about Mrs. Piper’s controls, the spirits that communicated through her, such as the French physician who could not understand French. A control named Moses predicted a great war would happen soon. The Russians and French would go to war against the British. The Germans would stay out of it. So many mistakes in one prophecy.

We hope Mrs. Piper was equally wrong about the fate of Madame Blavatsky, whom she described as winding up “in the deepest part of hell.” Mrs. Piper is our first but not our last example of this ambiguous combination of genuine inexplicable experiences, such as William James described, and mistaken assertions. But was what James experienced really inexplicable? A maid in the James household was friends with a maid in Mrs. Piper’s house. She may have been the source of Mrs. Piper’s knowledge about the life of William James. Was the friendship between the maids unknown to James? Were both maids willing accomplices? Could his maid have known the details that Mrs. Piper related to James? As promised, we are left with more questions than answers.

As for Mrs. Piper, later in life she announced she never thought she was actually speaking to spirits. She considered her controls aspects of her own subconscious. She thought that what she had done was perhaps telepathy rather than channeling. Later the same year she issued a less decisive comment. She really didn’t know how to explain what had happened to her. She couldn’t be certain that it had nothing to do with spirits.
So many of the stories we will encounter in this chronicle of American Metaphysical Religion culminate in these dead ends where the street signs are all question marks. Is this book nothing but a guide to black crows? I believe we may have a white crow, or several, but we can never completely remove the shadow of doubt. But we can keep in mind a famous statement William James made about the nature of consciousness. In his classic The Varieties of Religious Experience he wrote: “One conclusion was forced upon my mind at that time, and my impression of its truth has ever since remained unshaken. It is our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the flimsiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. We may go through life without suspecting their existence; but apply the requisite stimulus, and at a touch they are there in all their completeness, definite types of mentality which probably somewhere have their field of application and adaptation. No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite discarded” (James 1936).

About The Author

Ronnie Pontiac worked as Manly P. Hall’s research assistant, screener, and designated substitute lecturer for seven years. He is an award-winning documentary producer, and has written for Invisible College Magazine, Newtopia, Metapsychosis, Occult of Personality, and Reality Sandwich. He lives in Los Angeles.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Inner Traditions (January 31, 2023)
  • Length: 608 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781644115589

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Raves and Reviews

“Ronnie Pontiac has produced one of the finest, most comprehensive works of independent scholarship that we possess on the mystical currents of American religion. Like a journey down a wild, winding, and uncharted river, this book takes us through byways and inlets that few historians know. Surprises emerge on nearly every page.”

– Mitch Horowitz, PEN Award–winning author of Uncertain Places

“A lucid tour through the Wild West of American-style spirituality. Pontiac drives us through landscapes peopled by odd characters that some have deemed ‘mad, bad, and dangerous to know’ but whose burning arrows have ignited things in our psyches whether we knew it or not. I was constantly delighted by the new, luminous insights into characters and events that I thought I knew everything about but clearly didn’t.”

– Alan Richardson, author of Aleister Crowley and Dion Fortune

“Scholarly yet eminently readable, this is a must for the bookshelf of any reader interested in the sociology of religion, the history of psychical development, and the psychology of sacred feeling. Highly recommended.”

– Tod Davies, author of The History of Arcadia visionary fiction series

“Ronnie Pontiac does his readers an inestimable service, surveying and summarizing an immense amount of academic material. Pontiac makes a strong argument that America has always had a religious consciousness, separation of church and state notwithstanding. Thomas Edison, William James, Timothy Leary, Carlos Castaneda, and Terence McKenna are only some of the figures Pontiac takes on in this detailed, thorough, and readable account of the often wildly disparate beliefs held by that ‘one nation under God.’”

– Gary Lachman, author of The Return of Holy Russia

“Ronnie Pontiac’s book is a full engagement with these deep currents and a wild map of the ocean they form. The reader sets the book down with a sense of the endless nature of those waters but also with the conviction that, below the waves, ‘America’ is fundamentally an esoteric idea and a mystical ideal and always has been.”

– Jeffrey J. Kripal, author of The Superhumanities: Historical Precedents, Moral Objections, New Reali

“The most fascinating book I have read in decades. Hollywood may have written its own history of cowboys and cattle, but kindly allow Ronnie Pontiac to enchant you with a different story. This is an especially long book, over 600 pages, but the work never loses pace, not a word is wasted, every sentence is packed with information. An illuminating journey into the eternal spiritual quest of human nature set free in a new land.”

– Naomi Ozaniec, author of Becoming a Garment of Isis

“This book is much closer to the mainstream psyche than academics would have us believe. Ronnie Pontiac’s book is a lively, engaging, thoughtful, and insightful introduction to this dazzling world.”

– Richard Smoley, author of A Theology of Love

“Pontiac’s ambitious and inclusive book is an important contribution to our understanding of the culturally and philosophically diverse influences that have, from the very beginning, impacted the character of American spiritual thought and experience. This book is a critical project that shows us the contours and multitudes of cultural and historical influence that converge to produce a uniquely American esotericism.”

– Amy Hale, author of Ithell Colquhoun

“I couldn’t put this book down. It’s a storybook concerning a multi-formed religion that lies just below the surface of American awareness yet plays a significant part in the beliefs and inspirations that characterize our psyche. Its ‘metaphysical’ ideas reach everyone, from presidents to heads of corporations as well as major figures in the arts and sciences and the average citizen. We can see them as people struggling to make sense of life, the world, and other realities. Prepare to be amazed.”

– Mary K. Greer, author of Women of the Golden Dawn

“Permanently unseats the lingering myth that the United States is (or was) an exclusively Christian nation. Read this book: I guarantee you will encounter a character who helps you locate your own lineage in the tangled skein of American metaphysical religion.”

– Thea Wirsching, author of The American Renaissance Tarot

“Especially valuable for me is the groundbreaking discussion of the Platonic enthusiasts Thomas Moore Johnson, Alexander Wilder, and Hiram K. Jones. Well researched, relevant, and revelatory.”

– K. Paul Johnson, author of Edgar Cayce in Context

“It’s a wild ride filled with so many familiar metaphysical names and intriguing connections and events to follow up on. Gems on every page. I didn’t want to put it down.”

– Normandi Ellis, author of The Ancient Tradition of Angels

“A never-ending gold-hearted gossip column and a vast erudite history of American arcana. Every page is filled with illuminating morsels—manna for the seeker, a feast for all.”

– Matt Marble, author of Buddhist Bubblegum

“Ronnie Pontiac has written a most useful and readable overview of American Metaphysical Religion from Colonial times to the present, including contributions of European immigrants; from the 18th century Enlightenment’s occult underground through the 19th century’s ‘occult explosion’ and right up to the present. He has consulted all the sources and scholarship. His own personal experiences and friendships with significant practitioners add a hands-on touch.”

– Jay Bregman, coeditor of Platonic Traditions in American Thought

“From the margins and the deeper streams of mainstream culture Pontiac pulls threads of history that are often left obscure. An able guide, this book opens the readers to the potentials that still lie waiting for those who seek more than a mega church initiation.”

– David Metcalfe, scholar in virtual residence at the Windbridge Institute

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