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Occult America: The Secret History of How Mysticism Shaped Our Nationby Mitch Horowitz
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 farming community of New Lebanon took advantage of an early spring thaw to visit the Shaker settlement. The men were disappointed followers of one of the many Baptist revivals that had been sweeping the region, and they longed to see the woman whom followers called Christ returned in female form. When they located Mother Ann and her colony in the wilderness, they were astonished at the small group’s survival. They began asking Mother Ann about her mystical teachings and rumors of the sect’s practices, in which members spoke in prophecies, saw visions of the dead, and danced, jumped, and shouted in the thrall of the Holy Spirit. “We are the people who turn the world upside down,” Mother Ann enigmatically told them.
The men returned to New Lebanon to spread word of the people in the woods—and more curiosity seekers trekked to Niskayuna. Strange natural events drove newcomers into Mother Ann’s little world. On May 19, 1780, many parts of New England experienced “The Dark Day”—a period when the daytime skies mysteriously blackened and the sun’s rays were blotted out. The cause may have been a rash of local fires to clear fields, but the effect was panic over the coming of Armageddon. Mother Ann’s warnings about the debased nature of the world suddenly seemed prophetic—and new converts came to her. To the Shakers, it was all expected. The previous year, Mother Ann had told her followers to store up extra provisions: “We shall have company enough, before another year comes about, to consume it all.” Soon New Lebanon itself sprouted a much bigger colony, eventually sporting the immaculate whitewashed buildings, tidy yards, and brick meetinghouses for which the Shakers became famous.
Though Mother Ann died in 1784, her influence extended further in death than in life. The late 1830s saw the dawn of a feverish and profoundly influential period of Shaker activity called “Mother Ann’s Work.” The departed leader appeared as an otherworldly spirit guide directing a vast range of supernatural activity and instruction. Shaker villages—now spread as far south as Kentucky—recorded visits from spirits of historical figures and vanquished Indian tribes. The devout reported receiving ghostly visions and songs, which they turned into strangely beautiful paintings and haunting hymns (many of which still survive). Villagers spoke in foreign tongues, writhing and rolling on the floors in meetings that lasted all night—some even getting drunk on “spirit gifts” of unseen wine or Indian tobacco. In an America that had not yet experienced the Spiritualist wave of séances, table tilting, or conversing with the dead, the Shakers foretold that beings from the afterlife would soon “visit every city and hamlet, every palace and cottage in the land.” And events unfolding outside the manicured grounds of Shaker villages were already bringing that prophecy to life.
The Burned-Over District
The Shakers had laid down their roots in an area that would prove pivotal in American culture, its influence vastly surpassing its size. The region’s role is as central to the development of mystical religions in America as the sands of the Sinai are to Judaism, and no account of American religion is possible without taking stock of it. The twentieth-century historian Carl Carmer called this area “a broad psychic highway, a thoroughfare of the occult.” A snaking stretch of land in central New York State, it was a place of pristine lakes and rolling green hills, about twenty-five miles wide and three hundred miles long, extending from Albany in the east to Buffalo in the west. It became one of the main passages through which Americans flowed west. It remains so today as U.S. Route 20, an east–west highway that begins in New England, gently traversing the bends and slopes of Central New York’s farmland before heading across the expanse of the nation to the Pacific Northwest. It is the longest continuous road in the United States. As fate and geography would have it, this great corridor cuts directly across a part of Central New York that in the nineteenth century became so caught up in the fires of religious revival movements—the fires of the spirit—that it became known as the Burned-Over District.
Before the Revolutionary War, the Burned-Over District was home to the Iroquois nation, whose remnants the new American government pushed out, partly in retaliation for the tribe’s alliance with the British and partly to satisfy the land hunger of early settlers and speculators. And when settlers did arrive after the war, most of them unaware of the Indian lives that had been extinguished or hounded from the rich soil, the place seemed like an Eden of bountiful open land and vast lakes.
Throughout the first decades of the nineteenth century, itinerant ministers continually traveled the newly settled region, crisscrossing its hills and valleys with news of the Holy Spirit. The circuit-riding preachers and their tent revival meetings often left the area in a torrent of religious passion. For days afterward, without the prompting of ministers or revivalists, men and women would speak in tongues and writhe in religious ecstasy. Many would report visitations from angels or spirits.
Folklore told of the area once being home to a mysterious tribe—older than the oldest of Indian tribes, maybe even a lost tribe of Israel. These ancient beings, so the story went, had been wiped out in a confrontation with the Native Americans. Some believed their ghosts and messengers still walked, composing a world within a world amid the daily ?goings-?on of Burned-Over District life.
The Burned-Over District’s early religious communities thrived on a steady pool of migrants drawn to the region’s abundant land. This new breed of Yankee, streaming westward from New England, was spiritually curious, ready to listen and believe. In the starlit nights of pioneer life, many minds and hearts turned to the whispers of the cosmos and the mysteries of what-might-be.
If the Burned-Over District became a staging ground for a young nation’s foray into unconventional and alternative religious ideas, it was in the mood and mind-set of its residents that the journey took flight. The mental habits of the Burned-Over District can best be understood by looking at one of the great schisms of American religious history. It concerns an early-nineteenth-century sect called the Millerites, later known as the Seventh-day Adventists. This group of believers, which numbered in the thousands by the 1840s, followed the utopian–millenarian ideas of a Freemason and Baptist clergyman named William Miller. Born in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, Miller grew up estranged from his strict Baptist upbringing, more or less indifferent to religion. But after fighting in the War of 1812, he took up a common view among returning soldiers that his survival had somehow been divinely ordained. The former secularist came home with a deep interest in questions of immortality.
Convinced that the Bible was a record of literal truths, Miller undertook a comprehensive study to determine the time of Christ’s return—and the millennium of peace he believed it would bring. Though only moderately educated, Miller spent fourteen years poring over Scripture, organizing and cross-referencing all that he found, and endeavoring—in true Yankee fashion—to find an orderly blueprint to God’s plan. Miller’s data pointed to the end as falling somewhere between March 21, 1843, and March 21, 1844. He later recast the final call to October 22, 1844. By the early 1830s, he had begun to gain a serious audience, first as one of the Burned-Over District’s legion of itinerant religious speakers and later as a Baptist minister.
As Miller’s portentous dates neared, hundreds and then thousands of followers gathered at tent revival meetings throughout Central New York. They filled—and sometimes overflowed—the biggest tent the nation had ever seen, one that could seat three thousand people. Once, near Rochester, a wind squall snapped fifteen of its chains and several inch-thick ropes, violently ripping the tent from its moorings like the opening of a gigantic clamshell. Amazingly, no one was hurt—which deepened local belief that Miller’s movement was charmed. When an economic depression swept the Burned-Over District in the late 1830s and early 1840s, it served only to heighten the yearning for deliverance and the feeling that familiar institutions were slipping away.
A widely promulgated myth tells that as 1843 approached, the man the press called “Mad Miller” and his followers shed their last possessions, donned white “ascension robes,” and waited on hilltops for the new advent. Stories abound in popular histories and local tales that some ran amok, engaging in “free love” and throwing money to the wind in anticipation of a world without wants or demands. Not only is this portrait historically inaccurate—without any viable source material in newspapers of the day—but it misunderstands the unusual blend of magical beliefs and practical habits that marked so many lives in the Burned-Over District.
In fact, Miller’s followers never sold their belongings en masse, retreated to hilltops, or—except for rare cases—threw responsibility to the winds as they awaited their Savior. What few such episodes did occur were seized upon and exaggerated by those neighbors who mocked, and in some cases even physically attacked, the Millerites as they congregated in meeting halls and homes. Most evidence shows that these Yankee acolytes toiled right up to the point of Miller’s end-times, working at their jobs, maintaining their farms, and attending school. Barns were swept, haylofts loaded, and fireplaces stoked before the arrival of the “last days.” While followers believed in—and were passionate for—progress and perfection, they never abandoned the worldly. And this was the distinct habit of thought in the Burned-Over District: the ability to believe so deeply in the otherworld that it could be felt as a palpable presence but also to possess the soundness of mind and instinct to, in the Shaker formulation, keep hands to work even as hearts soared to God. It was a key facet of the occult and metaphysical mind-set being born in America.
The Universal Friend
The dreamers and planners who flourished along the Psychic Highway seemed to relish splitting apart orthodoxies, remaking Christianity as a new source of mystery and magic. One woman, in particular, today long forgotten, created in the mind of her followers a dramatically new idea of what a divine messenger could be. A New Englander by birth, she became the first American-born woman to found a spiritual order. Unlike Ann Lee, she wasn’t seen as a female return of Christ but rather as a medium or channel possessed of the Divine Spirit. Her name was Jemima Wilkinson.
Wilkinson was born in 1752 to a moderately prosperous farming household of Quakers in Cumberland, Rhode Island. She lost her mother at age twelve and grew up under the care of older sisters, riding horses, gardening, and reading the basics of Quaker theology. The girl grew into a young woman of “personal beauty” who “took pleasure in adding to her good appearance the graceful drapery of elegant apparel,” historian Stafford C. Cleveland wrote in his 1873 History and Directory of Yates County, which became the earliest biographical narrative of any repute of Wilkinson. Later in Wilkinson’s life, onlookers commented on her fresh complexion and gently tanned skin, the ringlets of chestnut-brown hair that draped her neck, and her flashing black eyes. The attractive young woman presented a strikingly different figure than Mother Ann Lee—that is, if testimony from the spirit world can be relied upon.
Although no images survive of Mother Ann, some of her nineteenth-century followers doted on a “psychometric portrait” of their founder. The portrait was created by a New York artist who, when handed an object, claimed to clairvoyantly summon the vision of its owner. Whatever his abilities, the “psychometrist” was not attempting flattery. The supernatural image of Ann Lee revealed a dark, straight-haired woman with an unusually large forehead, dull eyes, and thick masculine lips. To her followers, it accurately captured a degree of world-weariness in Ann Lee far different from anything that would have been known by Jemima Wilkinson, raised amid the relative comforts of a successful New England farm.
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