From a very early age we’re taught that the first colonists were seeking religious freedom when they arrived in America. That’s true, but what kind of religious freedom were they seeking?
Think of early American colonists and you’re bound to think of the Puritans, but according to Mitch Horowitz’s book Occult America, they were only one group of religious seekers among many. In the early days of American history other sects came to join them: Shakers, Quakers and other, smaller sects quickly followed them.
Some of these groups were founded around mysterious messianic figures, like Mother Ann Lee, a prophetess whose followers founded a utopian society that preached celibacy, women’s equality and the imminent return of Christ, and “The Publick Universal Friend”, an eccentric woman once known as Jemima Wilkinson. Wilkinson had survived a near-fatal illness as a young woman. After she recovered, she proclaimed that the girl known as Wilkinson had passed on, and that an emissary of God – “The Publick Universal Friend” – was now in possession of her body. The Friend, like Mother Ann Lee, preached women’s equality and abstinence, eventual founding a religious organization called the Universal Society of Friends.
Both Mother Ann Lee and The Friend had risen to prominence in an area of New York state known as the “Burned-over district”, so called because of the number of evangelical religious movements that had “burned” through the population and left no one to convert. Other groups to arise in the Burned-over district include the Latter Day Saint movement and the Oneida Society, another Utopian religious society that taught open marriage and other communal ideals.
Horowitz writes that these groups were early advocates of liberal ideals that helped create the foundation for the great American experiment. Other groups soon followed: the Rosicrucians, Freemasons, Theosophists and Spiritualists. The influence of these grew over time as prominent men and women joined their ranks. The Founding Fathers were Freemasons. Mary Todd Lincoln dabbled in Spiritualism. Thomas Edison was a member of the Theosophical Society. The Rosicrucians claimed Benjamin Franklin as a member of their order.
As the nation prospered, so did these occult (“hidden”) orders, which included its fair share of cranks, eccentrics and charlatans. Some of them grew to public prominence, others did not However, their ideals found fertile ground in popular culture, with fads like Tarot cards, Ouija boards, Astrology, channeling, the human potential movement and magic surfacing as elements of the New Age movement. These disparate traditions, much like the religious movements of the Burned-over district and secret societies like the Freemasons, influenced prominent people like First Lady Nancy Reagan, who consulted Astrologers while in the White House, and Oprah Winfrey, whose advocacy of The Secret brought the occult Law of Attraction to Middle America.
Apocalyptic and mystical beliefs not unlike those espoused by The Publick Universal Friend and other messianic figures continued to resurface in cults like the Branch Davidians, Process Church and People’s Temple. Less virulent forms of the same eschatological, charismatic belief systems influenced (and continue to influence) some evangelical churches throughout the South, and to a lesser extent, the rest of America.
It’s as easy to associate the occult with sinister, dagger-wielding men in black robes as it is to associate the pilgrims with no-nonsense, musket-wielding Puritans in funny hats. Horowitz’s book shows that the truth can be found somewhere between in the cracks of American history.