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Occult America: The Secret History of How Mysticism Shaped Our Nationby Mitch Horowitz
Synopses & Reviews
THE PSYCHIC HIGHWAY
Yet who knows but the institution of a new order of labourers in the great Spiritual vineyard, is to prove the signal for the outpouring of such blessings as have been hitherto unparalleled in the history of our American Israel.
—Western Recorder, 1825
The Age of Reason could seem anything but reasonable for people with unusual religious beliefs—or those accused of them. In 1782, Switzerland sanctioned one of the Western world’s last witch trials, which ended in the torture and beheading of a rural housemaid. In 1791, the Vatican sentenced the legendary Italian occultist called Cagliostro to death on charges of heresy and Freemasonry. Although his execution was stayed, the self-styled “High Priest of the Egyptian Mysteries” died of disease four years later in the dungeons of the Inquisition.
In eighteenth-century England, a young woman with the simple name of Ann Lee, living in the industrial town of Manchester on Toad Lane (where she was born in a leap year), told of magical visions and spoke of prophecies. The girl—who belonged to a radical Christian sect that would become known as the Shaking Quakers, or the Shakers—was hounded, beaten, and jailed on charges of sorcery and public disruption. Local authorities were aghast at the otherworldly possession that seemed to grip her and the other Shakers when they gyrated and shook in spirit trances. But she was not destined to become another casualty. Ann Lee escaped.
In 1774, the woman now called Mother Ann sailed from Liverpool to New York with eight followers and hangers-on. They included an unfaithful husband with whom she had already suffered through the birth and death of four infants. As the legend goes, the ship almost capsized in a storm. But Ann, in a state of eerie calm as waves crashed over the bow, told the captain that no harm would befall them. She reported seeing “two bright angels of God” on the mast. The ship survived.
After toiling at menial labor in New York City, the pilgrims—now twelve, minus Ann’s husband—scraped together enough resources in 1776 to form a tiny colony in the knotty, marshy fields of Niskayuna, near Albany in New York’s Hudson Valley. The twelve apostles, as they saw themselves, anointed the place Wisdom’s Valley. It was a punishing, swampy stretch of two hundred acres swept barren by icy winds in the winter and transformed into muddy, mosquito-infested fields in the summer. Their neighbors were no friendlier than the landscape. Angry rumors painted Mother Ann and the Shakers—all sworn pacifists—as British sympathizers or spies. Revolutionary authorities briefly jailed the religious leader in Albany on charges of sedition. During a Shaker missionary trip to Petersham, Massachusetts, a band of thirty townsmen seized Mother Ann and subjected the celibate woman to the humiliation of disrobing, ostensibly to determine whether she was an English agent in drag. Some accused her of witchcraft or heresy. (“There is no witchcraft but sin,” Mother Ann evenly countered.) But, oddly, the little sect—celibate, poor, steeped in a life of hard labor and little rest—began to grow.
Following a brutal upstate New York winter in 1780, two men from across the Hudson River in the far
Traces America's unique relationship with occult movements and thinkers, providing meticulously researched coverage of such topics as the Freemasonry, Spiritualism, and transcendentalism movements; the origins of the Ouija board; and the practices of famous historical figures.
From its earliest days, America served as an arena for the revolutions in alternative spirituality that eventually swept the globe. Esoteric philosophies and personas--from Freemasonry to Spiritualism, from Madame H. P. Blavatsky to Edgar Cayce--dramatically altered the nation's culture, politics, and religion. Yet the mystical roots of our identity are often ignored or overlooked. Opening a new windowon the past, Occult America presents a dramatic, pioneering study of the esoteric undercurrents of our history and their profound impact across modern life.
About the Author
Mitch Horowitz is the editor in chief of Tarcher/Penguin. He has written for Esopus, Parabola, Fortean Times, and Science of Mind. A well-known voice for occult and esoteric ideas, Horowitz lives in New York City with his wife and two children.
Table of Contents
Introduction: What is the occult? (and what is it doing in America?) — The psychic highway — Mystic Americans — Don't try this at home : Ouija and the selling of spiritualism — The science of right thinking — The mail-order prophet — Go tell pharaoh : the rise of magic in Afro-America — The return of the "secret teachings" — New deal of the ages : politics and the occult — The masters among us — Secrets for sale — "The greatest mystic who ever lived in America" — Epilogue: Aquarius rising : the new age dawns.
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