The Inner Light and the Focused Mind
(New York: Bantam Books, 2010, 290pp)
Mitch Horowitz tells in a lively way the American path to the New Age. As he writes “Most people, thought schools, or movements identified as New Age from the 1970s through the early twenty-first century shared these traits:
1) Belief in the therapeutic value of spiritual or religious ideas;
2) Belief in a mind-body connection in health.
3) Belief that human consciousness is evolving to higher stages;
4) Belief that thought, in some greater or lesser measure, determine reality.
5) Belief that spiritual understanding is available without allegiance to a specific religion or doctrine.
Most twenty-first century Americans, whatever their background, would probably agree with a majority of these statements. To a very great degree, occult movements and personalities had introduced those ideas, in some of their most popular variants into American life.”
Horowitz then traces the introduction and development of these ideas. However, there was never an “occult” movement in the United States. Unlike Europe, where the weight of the Catholic Church and its Inquisition made it dangerous to hold beliefs outside the orthodox framework, American was born, in part, so that ideas could be openly expressed. Not all ideas were welcomed with open arms — the death of Joseph Smith and the early years of the Mormon movement are an example of the difficulties. However the Mormons did find free space in Utah where they could express their ideas relatively openly and have since become an accepted part of the American religious scene.
Horowitz begins his story with the coming to America of the German Rhine Valley mystics with Johannes Kelpius to Philadelphia where the Quakers had established religious liberty and stressed the concept of the Inner Light within each person. Later an offshoot of the Quakers, the Shakers, established themselves in upper New York State and New England. The Shakers established a tradition of the equality of men and women in positions of leadership, both possessing the Inner Light. They also developed the concept of a Mother/Father God, later fully developed by Mary Baker Eddy in Christian Science.
The Inner Light in all — rich and poor, educated and uneducated, free and slave — was a core belief of the Quakers and many of those who left Europe for greater intellectual freedom in America. Although the Inner Light was in all, it was better to be educated, rich and free, and so a good deal of energy was put into the establishment of business and well-run agriculture, on creating schools and ultimately in freeing the slaves.
The Inner Light became a central aspect of American thought and was at the heart of the poetry and other writings of Walt Whitman, who came from a liberal Quaker background. Whitman embodied the spirit of America, and he remains the one poet that people in other countries think of when you mention “American poetry.”
The second theme of American thought leading to the New Age is what I would call “the focused mind”. The theme was made popular by the New England Transcendentalists — Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Bronson Alcott — and then influenced the Unitarian and Universalist churches, strong in New England. William James and his The Varieties of Religious Experience is the leading figure in the development of “New Thought” — some of which was structured into religious churches – Unity School, Science of Mind, Christian Science. The same ideas were expressed by clergy from more “mainline” groups — Peace of Mind by Rabbi Joshua Liebman and the best seller of the Protestant minister Norman Vincent Peale The Power of Positive Thinking. We find the same ideas expressed in non-religious terms by Dale Carnegie How to Win Friends and Influence People and Napoleon Hill Think and Grow Rich.
William James came to meet Sigmund Freud and C.G. Jung on their joint trip to America — a link to the next wave of interest in the power of the mind.
Especially around the New Thought tradition of the power of focused thought, there grew up many mail order lesson plans teaching thought focusing techniques and meditation. More recently, the practice of yoga combines mind and body techniques. Thus, what is characteristic of the USA is that all these activities are not “occult” but carried out in the open, in fact; using American techniques of advertising, mail ordering and now the Internet. You could join the Rosicrucians by sending in a coupon from popular magazines.
What at first may have seemed strange develops into “mainline” attitudes giving us the widely held New Age beliefs even among people who do not use an “Age of Aquarius” terminology. Many will profit from Horowitz’s portraits of individuals who helped to create New Age America.