Background on America's cultic milieu [Trenchant Edges for now]

Estimated reading time: 11 minutes, 40 seconds. Contains 2335 words

Welcome back to, well, it’s not quite the new thing. But it isn’t quite Trenchant Edges either.

I’ve been trying to reorganize from my malaise and a renewed back injury earlier this much (from sitting too much!). But we must endure.

I hope you’ve been taking your Infowars supplements.

I’d planned on two essays, but this will only be one because I’m pressed for time.

Let’s get to it.

1. The Long History of European Fringe Religious Movements in The United States

Common knowledge tells us the new age began in the 1960s.

As always, of course, common knowledge isn’t correct. The confluence of contrarian, intuitive, experiential, self-directed spirituality and fringe movements that exploded in popularity in reaction to the conformity and horror of the 1950s and the US’s global war on communism is loud and public but far from unannounced.

Just as it persists with us today.

The best thing you can say about it is there were a lot of good intentions.

We’ll get to the worst in another newsletter.

Some conditions afflict all seekers of truth whenever or wherever they are: Deciding who to trust is tricky, there are plenty of people happy to take advantage of you, and the loudest and most impressive parts of the fringe are rarely where any real work gets done.

Everyone who realizes they’ve believed in shadows on the cave wall has to choose from one of the self-destructive options or the tedious and quiet work of taking responsibility for understanding life and relationships and trying to find out how to live well.

Self-destruction is a lot more fun at first, which is why so many of us have to burn out on it long before we look for a better road. In a lot of cases, that’s just youth, which is fine until it’s not.

My friends and I often joke about how you can’t understand American (meaning USAian) culture without realizing that we got all the crazy and unruly religious people from Europe.

The Puritans, for example, were made with moral righteousness and often seemed thrilled to punish anyone who deviated from their rigid codes. Not my scene.

And they were far from alone.

To understand the New Age, we’ve got to realize New Thought and Christian Science, and Theosophy because they were the milieu that Buddhism, Hinduism, yoga, UFO cults, and the like all added their ideas to the melting pot.

At the beginning of the European colonization of North America, Europeans mostly came over as Catholics from Spain and France. The first protestant settlers came from the Netherlands but started a tradition of Calvinism that permeates American settler culture to this day.

The English came over a little later, bringing different religious influences to various colonies. Puritans in New England, Quakers in Pennsylvania, Anglicans in Jamestown, and so on.

We’d also be remiss if we didn’t mention not religious secret societies like the Freemasons, which we’re not going to get too deep into, but who have had a significant influence on various religious movements.

The important thing is by 1700, the eastern seaboard of North America had a staggering amount of religious diversity for an outpost of European culture. This is strange and astounding when you consider the bloody wars between Catholics and Protestants after the start of the Reformation.

Many fled Europe mainly to practice their kind of oppression on their fellows.

And while it’d be easy to try and lionize groups like the Quakers as coming with better ideals, it’s important to remember they often failed those ideals and many Quakers pulled the same shit as anyone else. The US’ only Quaker president, after all, is war criminal Richard Nixon.

Everyone involved was taking part in a settler colonialist project which added specific pressures to the situation. Many groups, like the Puritans, saw the “New World” as a chance for a fresh start, to get civilization right and establish a new City on The Hill, A New Jerusalem.

Such ideals still live in various Christian Identity, Reconstructionists, Dominionists, the Seven Mountains Mandate, and other related movements such as Qanon.

Many of these groups of original settlers were very millenarian in their views, awaiting the Second Coming of Christ to judge the sinners and saints alike.

In such an environment, united by a mix of idealism, greed, and an offensive “self-defense,” one might well expect many new religious innovations to spring up.

And one would be right down to the present day.

The First Great Awakening

The Great Awakenings are among the most important religious movements in the history of the United States. The first, from 1730-1755, created new connections between colonists and new networks of faith.

Religion always moves to answer the practical needs of the religious, and the First Great Awakening was a move to a more rough and tumble, intuitive, and evangelical Christianity, and the beginning of a movement away from the infighting-inducing world of European style Doctrine-based Churches to a more shared individualistic approach: What y’all need is salvation and only god can grant that.

So we’re going to glorify god until, unworthy though we are, we’re granted his grace.

In England, this would involve the founding of Methodism, but in the colonies, it created less a church and more a movement. The Evangelical culture with us to this day started here.

The First Awakening was also surprisingly egalitarian for outposts of a slave empire, welcoming people regardless of race or class. Not members of indigenous nations who wished to keep their ways, of course. Converts were welcome, but there could be no peerage between Christ’s friends and those who so willfully defied him.

I keep coming back to this point because it’s critical. The lines between colonial/European insider and colonized/outsider haven’t stopped shaping religious formations. We’ll see some examples in the 19th century with Spiritualism, but let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.

Many patriots would be influenced by the first Great Awakening, including John and Samuel Adams, Jams Madison, and John Witherspoon. Ben Franklin was friends with cofounder of Methodism, George Whitefield, though he was a Deist.

Actually, let’s speak of Deism for a moment as it’s very out of favor today and has kind of flipped reputation.

From the late 18th century through the late 19th century, Deism was a popular religious orientation among scholars and intellectuals. It held that the bible is true, but god no longer interferes in the affairs of the Earth.

At the time, it was seen as a somewhat socially acceptable alternative to Christianity. After Darwin’s theories of natural selection became widespread, Deism was attacked by Christians as being basically Atheism and by Atheists as being basically Christian, and the middle ground it provided stopped being quite so helpful.

We’ve not mentioned protestant supervillain John Calvin yet, because he doesn’t really fit in with our timeline as a 16th-century French theologian, but in the same way Marx wrote of Europe being Haunted by the specter of communism, USAian culture is Haunted by the rabid theology of John Calvin.

Calvin’s doctrines deserve their own treatment, and their impact is very complex, so we’re just going to touch on them. If you want an introduction, I recommend Jonathan Edward’s Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, a 1741 sermon that gets across the way Calvin’s ideas would be presented in certain parts of America down to the present.

There was plenty of opposition to John Calvin as well, with a surprising number of roughly modern cult figures appearing in and around this prerevolutionary period. The most interesting of whom is Herman Husband, a North Carolina pacifist, preacher, and politician who has eventually been accused of treason after the “Whiskey Rebellion.” Husband’s visions gave him the map for a theocratic government that would have lead these United States down a very different path. We’ll get to him at some point.

I hope this introduction gives a sense of the complexity, diversity, and tensions of early colonist religious thought.

We’re going to skip through the other Awakenings real quick before looking at the 19th century.

The Second Great Awakening started in 1790 with the new United States constitution and lasted until the tensions preceding the civil war tamped down on religious innovation.

The most significant thing that happened in this period was the invention of Dispensationalism by John Darby as well as several other prominent political movements such as Seventh Day Adventists and the Mormon Church of Latter-Day Saints.

The details of Dispensationalism are honestly too complicated to deal with here, but it’s a way to remix the bible, so the inconvenient parts don’t apply to you, and you can spend your time making a big deal about the second coming without having to worry about helping anyone. Or worse, having a mandate to forcefully impose a Theocracy on the rest of us to provoke Christ’s second coming.

Yeah, it’s rad. 10/10, no complaints.

The SGA is also notable for being the time period when Black Churches started to really come together as institutions. These provided a great deal of refuge and organization during and after slavery, and while their legacy is well worth covering, this isn’t the place for it.

The story of religion and slavery in these United States is complicated, with many religious motivations on both the pro-enslavement side and the abolition side.

At long last, we’re ready to start getting freaky with it.

Phineas Quimby

The first rule of New Thought Club is you have to have a great name. Familiar names will not do.

And Phineas Quimby is the goddamn president of New Thought Club.

Or at least he’s the founder, even though he’s forgotten chiefly for being kind of a crappy magician, clockmaker, and faith healer.

He was never FDA-approved because choosing a beard over mutton chops with this facial hair is murder.

Old Phin amalgamated a lot of ideas about hypnotism, mesmerism, and mentalism into a kind of quack medicine we’ve seen ever since. Channeling animal magnetism.

To make a long story short: Disease is caused by bad beliefs, and we can think differently to cure them.

With a bit of adaptation, this tiny seed would grow into a sizable chunk of the $9.9 Billion self-help industry (circa 2017) and $100.04 alternative medicine industry.

Cool, right?

No?

Yeah. It’s some bullshit.

We’re almost at some familiar names, but first, we’ve got to address a few emerging movements quickly.

See, one of Phineas’ patients was a woman named Mary Eddy Baker, and she went on to take many of his principles and create Christian Science, which describes itself as a “Metaphysical religion.” It’s more a branch of Christian Occultism, but all the cool occultists of this era were into blending science and religion.

Aleister Crowley, 20th-century British occultist, and entirely out of place here, had a fantastic couplet frequently think of:

We place no reliance on virgin or pigeon/

Our methods are science our aims are religion

The man was a lot of things, many not good, but he was a hell of a poet.

Anyway, Christian Science continues to be something of an influence on the world today as it has a pretty established infrastructure and about 400k members worldwide.

Also, a sick seal. However, I get suspicious when someone goes around talking about cleansing any lepers.

As an aside, all of this is why I wasn’t surprised when a lot of spiritual people went hard anti-vax in 2020. They swim in these anti-mainstream and anti-intellectual waters already.

Here’s a life hack if you haven’t figured it out: If someone tries to tell you quantum physics explains something, and they can’t point to the math, they don’t understand it.

You can’t do quantum physics by analogy.

Anyway.

And it’s with these early New Thought groups that we get adjacent to some of our earlier explorations of Terence McKenna, who wrote about indigenous shamans of South America being most successful at curing diseases of the heart and mind.

Indeed, you can undoubtedly knock someone out of the track they’re on in the right circumstances, and having potent psychedelic drugs can surely help.

So, let’s get back to two of the other movements growing in the latter 19th century.

Occultism and Spiritualism

I’m combining these because I know I technically need to mention Spiritualism, that extremely rad fad of fake seances to bilk grieving rich people out of their coins. But it was far more than that, even being a kind of potent reform movement in places.

But I don’t really care about Spiritualism, so all I’m really going to say about it is 1. It was about communicating with the dead, 2. It was trying real hard to be not racist in some really racist ways, and 3. It influenced Rifle Heiress Sarah Winchester to build a vast crazy house in California.

Sorry, just being honest.

Anyway, Occultism is much more enjoyable.

Initially, what we might call Hermeticism (after the Greek god Hermes), and originally in vogue for a while during the Italian Renaissance until they realized that the Hermetic Corpus was much younger than the bible.

By the end of the 19th century, such ideas were having a bit of revival, especially in England and the United States, and we’d get transitional figures like Paschal Beverly Randolph or Helena Blavatsky and her Theosophical Society.

Much of the revival came from increasing access to various religious texts from India, which would turn out to be something of a problem. By “something of a problem,” I mean, “synthesized ideas about a mythical Ayran race bridging Europe and India would later form the foundation of Nazi racial mythology and be a core driver of the holocaust.”

So… yeah. I buried the lede a bit.

And I just noticed we’ve hit about 2k words in this essay, so I think we’re going to have to do the 20th century next week.

Oh boy! We’ve got some people to go through. Napoleon Hill, Helena Blavatsky, Aleister Crowley, Therion Q Dumont, Dale Carnegie, Norman Vicent Peale, how we got to the seven chakra model, and who the hell knows what else I’ll stumble onto along the way.

Wrapping up

I had a second essay half-finished here, but it’s still unfinished.

Right now, I’m taking the view that getting something out more or less on time is better than getting everything perfect.

So I hope y’all enjoy this much.

I’ve got to run out and replace the lock on my apartment door ‘cause the spring broke and want to get this out before I leave.

See you next week.

-SF