Among the numerous communications that Banner of Light medium Mary Theresa Shelhamer reportedly received from Spirit Violet said that "Emerson will delight to frequent this place when he comes over to our side of life." There were also "scores of other places" for "such teachers as Theodore Parker, Channing, and hundreds of like noble souls," who would be occupied in "earnest utterance for the lifting up and sanctification of the people." 1
Continuing where we left of with our research about Spirit mediums, for Shelhamer and her spirit friends in the 1880s, metaphysics meant Transcendentalists and their kind-engaged in a higher calling that was somewhat obscure and somewhat intimidating. Yet it was eminently worthy since it was for the benefit and blessing of ordinary people. The purified atmosphere of the Hall of Metaphysics seemed a far cry from the reported excesses and vaudeville antics of the spirits who came calling in many of the seance rooms. If the air remained a little dry in the Hall of Metaphysics, the spirits themselves apparently honored it and thoroughly recognized its worth. By the post-Civil War period, a number of Americans on the earthly side of the divide were also beginning to prefer the purer, drier air of a more detached metaphysics. The heirs and progeny, perhaps, of the harmonialism of Andrew Jackson Davis, they parsed their metaphysics differently from Spirit Violet, including in it much more than Transcendentalist-style discourse. Still, many of them looked to the Transcendentalists as founders of their tribe. More than that, the emergent metaphysicians-carried the reformed spirit championed by Davis and other harmonialists into new expressions. The reform began, first, in a spiritualism that looked to the world and saw, in numerous intellectual and social sites, an overwhelming need and demand for change. Reformed became synonymous with "progress," the great buzzword of the age, and progress came through "science."
Meanwhile, science was an enterprise in which spiritualists delighted since they regarded their own spirit communications as its cutting edge. Reform came also, and most of all, through the transformation of social life as, among other things, slavery and the oppression of women fell away. A new era of equality and justice was dawning that would also be an era of social tranquility and love. At a certain point, however, the reform spirit turned inward to what constituted spiritualism itself, and spiritualists began to part company with their former practice and to turn to new venues and concerns. We have already seen the beginnings of the process in the flamboyant Pascal Beverly Randolph who moved noisily out of the spiritualist fold and on to other metaphysical pastures. By the 1870s and 1880s he had plenty of company. Individuals as diverse as Madame Helena Blavatsky and Henry Steel Olcott (who founded the Theosophical Society), Phineas Parkhurst Quimby and Warren Felt Evans (who pointed the way toward New Thought), and Mary Baker Eddy (who established Christian Science) moved past a spiritualism that they knew at least partially and felt they understood. These reformers turned instead to what they considered more sophisticated expressions of their metaphysical inclinations, and in so doing they turned in essentially two directions. All of them harvested the ambience of the world of spirits in works of directed imagination. For some the work continued in material symbols -like Renaissance magicians or later Continental and English practitioners-in a new, mostly Anglo-American, form of "angel-summoning" that became, properly speaking, the occult. For others the work went forward mostly on a mental plane, although they expected that its effects would not remain there. Among this second group, some aimed consciously to banish matter in an exercise of denial that both diminished and exalted the physical. They invoked divine "Principle" or "Truth" to master a sin-filled, mortal body and to bestow upon the chastened physical self the goods of a kingdom of health and well-being. Still others found the ingredients for Self-transformation in a "Spirit" immanent in matter, so that-like the Hermeticists of old and the worldwide spiritual teachers they admired-they could be as gods, identified with a power of "Good" that kept on giving.
Along a spectrum from occultism to mind cure and the transformation of the Self, we can spot the familiar signature of correspondence, the drawing down of energies of Mind and Spirit, and the strong intent to heal. In the terms of this narrative, too, we can watch the easy glide from a (material) magic resonating, however unconventionally, with the magical practice of a past Hermeticism to a newer, mental magic characterizing Christian Science and New Thought. Here a simpler work of mind and imagination prevailed; and the esoteric turned-as in spiritualism-exoteric. The new metaphysical religion that flowered in these expressions and related ones, however, began with the reform principle that so much preoccupied the spiritualists.
From the time of the early manifestations of mass spiritualism in the 1840s, the so-called "Law of Progression" reigned unchallenged among believers and their spirit visitors. One way to explain the connection could be in terms of happenstance. The early alliance of the Fox sisters with Isaac and Amy Post and their formerly Hicksite radical Quaker associates began a train of associations in which reform functioned centrally and spiritualism became but one expression of the grand principle of progress. Similarly, for the men and women who turned, with Andrew Jackson Davis, to harmonialism, Fourierist enthusiasm guaranteed that ideas about reform and progress would be uppermost. No doubt happenstance was involved here, too, but once Davis elaborated his spiritualist cosmology the Law of Progression stood at the heart of the spiritualist vision. It became, in effect, the core principle of a spiritualist theology that refused to go away even in the face of a small army of defrauding mediums and their disruptive spirit companions.
Davis had begun the turn to progress as early as the trance productions that were published as The Principles of Nature (1847). There, as we have seen, he revised the received Swedenborgian account of the afterworld. Its three hells were transmuted into the lower three spheres of the spirit abode, beginning with the closest to earth, which came to be called the Summerland, and continuing with the former Swedenborgian heavens, which now became the outer spheres. For Davis, in accord with his planetary travels, there were other earths beside this one, but "all earths and their inhabitants" constituted the first sphere. When inhabitants died and left it, they progressed through succeeding spheres, so that the eternity he and other spiritualists envisioned meant pilgrimage through landscapes of ever-increasing perfection rather than eternal rest. Meanwhile, on earth, it was already incumbent on inhabitants to refine and perfect their minds. When this was "properly accomplished," the "social world" would be "correspondingly elevated, and thus be advanced to honor, goodness, and universal peace".2
But this was not all. As Davis's grand vision developed, he began to explain that when all spirits reached the second sphere, the "various earths and planets" would be "depopulated," and only Spirit would remain. The spirits would not stay there, however, but would continue to progress to the sixth sphere, arriving "as near the great Positive Mind as spirits can ever locally or physically approach." (Davis's spirits, remember, were highly refined matter and thus retained a certain physicality.) When all the spirits had come to the sixth sphere and "not a single atom of life" was "wandering from home in the fields and forests of immensity," the Deity contracted inward, and the "boundless vortex" was "convulsed with a new manifestation of Motion ... passing to and from center to circumference, like mighty tides of Infinite Power." The cataclysmic contraction, in turn, brought the "law of Association or gravitation" to bear, so that "new suns, new planets, and new earths" appeared. Once again, the "law of progression or refinement" could be applied, and so could the "law of Development." Thus God created "a new Universe" and opened "new spheres of spiritual existences." "These spheres," Davis prophesied, "will be as much superior to the present unspeakable glories of the sixth sphere, as the sixth sphere is now above the second sphere; because the highest sphere in the present order of the Universe will constitute the second sphere in the new order which is to be developed." And, we may surmise, the process would continue through countless eons of earth time in a vision not unlike that of the yugas, or great years, in a vastly expansive Hindu theology that Helena Blavatsky would later invoke (see the next chapter). Davis clinched his case with the observation that the spirit would have "no 'final home;" since "to an immortal being, rest would be intolerable," "next to annihilation," and worse than "the miseries of the fabled hell" "The spirit," he proclaimed, "will progress eternally!"3
Davis's pronouncements found echoes seemingly everywhere within the huge spiritualist community, and revered texts reiterated for their readers the canonicity of the Law of Progression. Judge Edmonds, for example, found space in his well-known work to hail the "grand doctrine of progression, whereby we learn that as the soul of man is an emanation from the germ of the great First Cause, so its destiny is to return toward the source whence it sprang." His co-author and medium George Dexter, the doctor, left no doubts that he agreed. After his own account of spirit visits, he proclaimed as grandly, "I see progress stamped on every aspiration of the human mind, as it is on every part of God's universe - progress from the animal to the intellectual- from the material to the spiritual, and bestowed on the spirit ... as the highest boon of its Almighty Creator." And in his introduction to Charles Linton's Healing of the Nations, Nathaniel Tallmadge was as effusive. "The great doctrine derived from spiritual communications," he testified, "is that of everlasting progression." In his reading, too, not only did nature teach the doctrine, but it was also eminently biblical. "The Bible teaches Progression," he affirmed, and it showed "different gradations of the progressed and progressing spirit to that of the spirit of the just man made perfect."4
Summarizing the beliefs of mid-nineteenth-century spiritualists, R. Laurence Moore pointed to four unwavering "principles." Spiritualists rejected supernaturalism, hailed natural law as inviolable, put their premium on external occurrences rather than inward states, and saw knowledge as progressively developing and unfolding.5 Arguably, the last of these subsumed the first three, since the seance sitters of the era saw their practice as the living demonstration of natural and scientific process. Moreover, the process was neither secret nor "occult" but -as they saw it - clearly visible and testable for right-minded, rational observers. That they, the seance sitters, had broken from centuries of superstition and mystification was paramount evidence of the law of progression and their own place at the very edge of its enfoldment. Indeed, spiritualist practice represented the prior reform of knowledge now being corroborated in the reform of life and society.
Moore, in fact, identifies the "rhetoric of denial" that spiritualists, at least by the 1970s, employed in their rejection of their ancestry. "Spiritualist publications in the last quarter of the nineteenth century," he says, "systematically repudiated black magic, white magic, Rosicrucianism, and Cabalism. They further attacked the 'musty tomes' of such individuals as Paracelsus, Cornelius Agrippa, Raymond Tully, Nostradamus, Albertus Magnus, Eugenius Philalithes, Girolamo Cardano, Robert Fludd, and Eliphas Levi." Hermeticism, decidedly, was out, as spiritualists reformed esotericism. Ironically, among the first wave of reformers of spiritualism would be the Theosophists, who self-consciously embraced the "occult" in a global version. Spiritualists themselves, however, were livid in their declamations against "crude speculations," "spurious philosophies," and "pseudoscience." 6 And if Hermeticism was out, true science, spiritualist science, was in.
With "science" as their second buzzword alongside "progress," spiritualists used the term in various ways that were ambiguous and also sometimes contradictory. They thought that spiritualism itself was scientific, that it followed certain universal laws and represented a sure body of knowledge. We have already seen the eagerness with which those in the seance circles embraced mesmerism, phrenomagnetism, electricity, odic force, and the like to explain the spirits. The notion of spirit matter itself was not unlike the vaguely formulated concept of the "ether" that pervaded the conventional science of the period. And when the purported spirit raps were first sorted, with spirit cooperation, into alphabetical letters and, thus, verbal communication, the language of the "spiritual telegraph" was immediately born;-only four years after the famous Morse wire of 1844. Work with the spiritual telegraph, spiritualists insisted, was repeatable like a science. Moreover, even as they sought to open the secrets of ancient Hermetic wisdom to the bright light of day; their ambivalence toward the Hermetic past was clear: Overlying their Hermes was a positivism that expressed itself in frequent preoccupation with demonstration and empirical testing. As Ann Braude observes, it was the "interpretations of investigators;' rather than seance manifestations by themselves, that "provided the content of the new religion."7
Spiritualist positivism became a game of challenge played with anyone bearing proper scientific credentials. And believers did get noticed. Ernest Isaacs wrote that "at first as curious individuals, later in groups and commissions, still - later in research societies;' scientists paid attention, even if most were "repelled by the purported messages of spirits and the actions of mediums." For the Fox sisters scientific investigation turned into a daytime nightmare. By 1851, after their spectacular sojourn in New York City, Margaret and Leah Fox visited Buffalo and became the subject of an investigation by three faculty members from the School of Medicine at the university there. Writing in the Buffalo Commercial Advertiser, the trio announced that it was by skeletal manipulation that the notorious raps were produced. Dislocated knee joints, not dislocated spirits, had caused the noises. When Leah Fox responded with a heated challenge to the professors, the examination grew more serious and extensive. The sisters were intimidated; there were tears and very few raps; and the doctors held publicly to their theory - although they owned that they could not find the "precise mechanism" that triggered the knee-joint dislocations.8
If respected scientists disdained the spirits, spiritualists themselves continued to display their own version of scientific positivism. Representative of widespread spiritualist attitudes, for example, was the memorial that Nathaniel Tallmadge persuaded General James Shields to present to the United States Senate on behalf of Tallmadge himself and 13,000 others. With Samuel B. Brittan involved in its composition, according to Tallmadge, the memorial requested that Congress appoint a commission of scientists for the purpose of investigating "Spiritual Manifestations." Invoking evidence of an "occult force" that could disturb "numerous ponderable bodies," of unexplained lights in dark rooms, of ubiquitous rappings and other sounds as from musical instruments, and of the entranced states of some in the presence of the "mysterious agency," the petitioners sought congressional aid. They believed, they declared, "that the process of Science and the true interests of mankind will be greatly promoted by the proposed investigation."9 The fact that Congress tabled the memorial suggests that many in high places, like most in the scientific community, remained unconvinced. Spiritualists, however, liked to point to the convicted. Just as Judge Edmonds and Governor and ex-Senator Tallmadge epitomized those involved in public and political life who had been persuaded, the chemist Robert Hare (1781-1858) was regularly exhibited as the converted scientist from 1819 to 1847 a professor of chemistry at the medical college of the University of Pennsylvania, Hare engaged in important work on salts and produced novel inventions such as an oxyhydrogen blowpipe and an electric furnace. His articles appeared frequently in the American Journal of Science, and in 1839 the Rumford Medal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences had been awarded him. By 1852, however, well after his retirement from the university and his election as a lifetime member of the Smithsonian Institution, Hare turned his investigative skills to spiritualist phenomena.
His interest had begun innocently enough, when he was invited to a seance circle in an affluent Philadelphia home and heard the familiar rappings. Puzzled and intrigued, he tried to find their source in this and other circles, to no avail. He could not accept the conclusion that all of the mediums were frauds, but neither could he by conventional means explain the raps. Hence Hare constructed what he would call a "spiritoscope" to pursue his investigation. A disk with a random alphabet inscribed on it, an arrow that could point to one of the alphabet letters, and a rod passing through it and connecting it to the seance table, Hare's instrument had pulleys and weights attached so that it would turn should the table move. A screen separated it from the medium, assuring that it could not be directly seen as Hare questioned her and the disk, correspondingly, revolved and so spelled out answers to the questions asked. Rejecting electrical theories to explain the movement and also similar postulates such as Reichenbach's odic force and an argument regarding mechanical pressure by British scientist Michael Faraday, he became convinced that his device - built to debunk spiritualist explanations-proved them instead. The spirits were real and were visiting.10
As he continued his investigative pursuits, Hare built several versions of his spiritoscope. In so doing, he embodied in his rational positivism and empirical meticulousness the requirements for the Baconian scientist so much in vogue during his nineteenth-century time (recall the spirit of Lord Bacon whom John Edmonds and George Dexter hailed as their frequent visitor). It had taken Hare a good three months to arrive at his conclusions, he told readers in his first-person Experimental Investigation of the Spirit Manifestations (1855)' "I did not yield the ground undisputed, and was vanquished only by the facts and reasons which, when understood or admitted, must produce in others the conviction which they created in me." His publishers were not difficult to persuade. Partridge and Brittan were none other than the well-known spiritualists Charles Partridge and Samuel B. Brittan, whom we have met before. Hare's publication overnight guaranteed his celebrity in the spiritualist community, even as it also accorded him a dubious status among his scientific colleagues then and critics thereafter. For example, historian R. Laurence Moore'4eflecting a common opinion, judges that Hare "demonstrated the mental infirmities of advanced age when he turned to spiritualism." Moore observes that even the erstwhile scientist's spiritualist publishers found him "extremely difficult to handle"; they complained that in letters to the periodical Spiritual Telegraph Hare failed to address the scientific dimensions of spiritualist phenomena. Still, his procedural rigor needs to be noticed. If-with Edmonds, Dexter, and Tallmadge-he made the leap offaith that rendered criticism obsolete beyond a certain point, he worked to arrive at the point by using methods similar to those that he had employed in his earlier scientific studies.11
Hare, despite the chagrin of his former colleagues, continued to see himself as a scientist among scientists. In fact, one of the strongest reasons he was drawn to the spirits was that he believed them to be sources of advanced knowledge - well beyond what he and other earthbound mortals had discovered on their own. In both 1854 and 1855, he brought his spiritualist research to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, permitted to read his paper out of deference to his age and long scientific career in the first case and omitted from the program in the second because of his subject. Significantly, his 1854 paper did not appear in the proceedings of the association. More to the point here, in their elation at the presence of Hare in their midst, the spiritualist community was announcing in the strongest of terms how important scientifically proven spirits remained to spiritualist self-understanding. Samuel B. Brittan began a promotional campaign, drafting Hare himself to lecture and exhibit his spiritoscope in New York City to a crowded, standing audience of more than three thousand. In a lecture that must have been memorable, the Baconian gave way to the believer, and Hare testified to the theology of progress in the seven spheres, six of them beyond the earth-those "concentric bands surrounding the earth, commencing sixty miles above this earth and reaching out for one hundred and twenty miles." The positivism was unmitigating, even as the aging scientist confessed the truth of life in the seventh sphere to which all mortals should aspire.12
For Hare and other spiritualists, seventh-sphere life represented their horizon of aspiration toward the reformed life, the millennial goal they longingly sought.
Hence the third shibboleth of this spiritualist universe of perpetual improvement was reform. Spiritualist preoccupation with reform came with its roots, both through Andrew Jackson Davis and through the Fox sisters and other seance spiritualists. For Davis, Fourierism had formed the basis for the practical application of his grand spiritualist vision in his Principles of Nature, and he continued throughout his professional career to provide a role model of the spiritualist who was also and preeminently a reformer. Campaigning for the reform of marriage and divorce law and for equal rights for women, Davis worked to instantiate his vision of eternal progress here on earth. He also wrote toward the same end, and his five-volume Great Harmonia was predicated on a Fourierist scheme.13 Meanwhile, the Quaker ambience in which early mass spiritualism flourished guaranteed its alliance with reform activism from the first. By 1859, for example, well-known abolitionist Gerrit Smith - who also affirmed the reality of spirit communication -could comment on the dual identity of other reformer spiritualists, assessing that "in proportion to their numbers, Spiritualists cast tenfold as many votes for the Abolition and Temperance tickets, as did others." Nearly all of the well-known abolitionists believed in the spirit manifestations, and so did a series of other reformers. As R. Laurence Moore has summarized the antebellum situation, those who counted themselves spiritualists "gained their most influential defenders from men and women who managed to support the rappers with the same enthusiasm they supported Fourierism, temperance, antislavery, health reform, and women's rights."14
In the specific case of women's rights, Ann Braude has demonstrated that spirtualism provided the training ground for later reform activism. A cadre of well known female trance speakers learned to deliver messages in public as mouthpieces for purported spirits and then moved on in later years to speak publicly in their own name and for the causes about which they themselves passionately cared. "Woman suffrage benefited more than any other movement from the self-confidence women gained in Spiritualism," Braude writes. When the suffrage campaign took off in the post-Civil War period, spiritualist women were there to support it. In the California of 1870, for example, Braude found that of the nine women identified as holding suffrage meetings only one could not be linked to spiritualism, while six were listed as lecturers in the Banner of Light. On the basis of what she discovered in the spiritualist and reform communities, Braude argues for the role of spiritualism in giving voice to a "crucial generation" of American women. By the postbellum time, an earlier millennialism and insistence on instant societal perfection-with the spirits as prophetic messengers of an imminent new age-had given way to a social gradualism influenced by notions derived from the Darwinian concept of evolution. With social improvement coming slowly and not all at once, spiritualists dug in during the 1870S and 1880s, supporting the cause of equal rights for women and other crusades as varied as American Indian rights, prison reform and an end to capital punishment, and the rights of labor.13
An intrinsic connection between reform practice and spiritualist cosmology reflector in the writings of Andrew Jackson Davis and other key spiritualists meant that, from the mid-nineteenth century, the alliance of spiritualists and reformers was hardly coincidental. The spiritualism built on a theology of eternal progress could hardly fail to desire the early implementation of unending betterment in the first sphere-the sphere of earth. R. Laurence Moore has, it is true, raised provocative questions about estimating spiritualist reform activism too highly, since by the early twentieth century both practically and substantively the spiritualist connection with social reform was, in effect, dead.16 Indeed, the evidence for the grand fizzle of spiritualist hopes and dreams for social reform is hard to avoid in the period when the nineteenth century became the twentieth. The flamboyant spiritualism of the 185os, which had enjoyed a noticeable resurgence in the 1880s, gave way to a spate of fragile organizations and sedate renditions of spiritualism that were themselves so many ghosts of the formerly vibrant movement.
Besides, judgments about a substantive connection between spiritualism and reform need to be probed more. Visions of progress in the heavenly spheres existed side by side with a spiritualist theology of sinlessness. The God that spiritualists honored was not a God of vengeance, nor did he preside over an earth in which evil held out as a concrete reality. "If there exists an Evil principle, would not that principle be an integral element in the constitution of the Divine Mind?" Davis had asked rhetorically. "God is all-in-all. ... There is no principle, antagonistic to God; no empire at war with Heaven!"17 Instead, the God of love welcomed a prepared people who were already innately good and, with free will and the spirits to guide them, getting better all the time. The moral progress of the human soul was, in such a universe, inevitable-all spirits, remember, would at some point, arrive at the second sphere and then go on to the sixth-which would then implode and be reconstituted as a new universe to be progressed through. What, then, was a reformer to do? How or why was a reformer, after all, necessary? Coupled with social Darwinian ideas of gradual amelioration, spiritualist reform principles possessed, seemingly, little intellectual ballast. Why rush to make the good better when, at its own pace, it would all get better anyway?18
Still, the long light of millennialism tempered the determinist implications of the cosmology. Even if the excitement of arriving spirits could not be maintained as the decade of the 1850s gave way to more troubled Civil War times and then an era of fraud and excess in a vaudeville of the spirits, the literature of the older movement had shaped the minds of leaders. So had a history of reform associations among spiritualists. Hence a linked spiritualist-reform ideology continued to operate even as its foundations began to crumble. The heirs to the reform legacy would become those who, as we shall see, would reform spiritualism itself. In the mean time for a movement predicated on the widespread individualism of small-time religious entrepreneurs and their informal followings, spiritualism displayed a surprising quest for - not solitary talks with spirits - but encompassing communities. Bret Carroll has pointed to the seance circles as incipient communities, even as he has noticed the communal republican yearnings of spiritualists themselves, epitomized in Andrew Jackson Davis's vision of a republic of spirit.19 The Fourierist underpinnings of spiritualism, of course, represent a utopian ideal of community writ large in social relations. Likewise, the repeated spiritualist depictions of life in the heavenly spheres always show existence there as social-organized ubiquitously in cities and institutions and social processes. Mary Theresa Shelhamer's Spirit Violet and her accounts of spirit life were not exceptional.
More than that, beyond the dreams of Fourierist community-as evinced, for example, in the entire third section of Davis's Principles of Nature,20 intentional community life often encouraged spiritualism, even as spiritualist practice generated community. For the former, George Ripley's Brook Farm and Adin Ballou's Hopedale Community were cases in point. In the era before mass spiritualism, so were the Shaker communities of the Northeast and Midwest. In the spiritualist heyday of the 1850s, communitarians such as Robert Owen, Robert Dale Owen, and-with free-love reputations- Josiah Warren, Mary Gove Nichols, and Stephen Pearl Andrews were all hospitable to spiritualism. And by the 1870S, John Humphrey Noyes's Oneida Community of Perfectionists in upstate New York provided still another instance. Indeed, Noyes himself owned that spiritualist practice was, as Maren Lockwood Carden summarized, "consistent with his lifelong teaching about the possibility of communication with members of the primitive church."21
Beyond these, spiritualists formed self-conscious communities in which the theology of spiritualism could take tangible form. The earliest, on the site of the failed Clermont Phalanx in Ohio, began in 1847 through the efforts of John o. Wattles, a Fourierist converted to spiritualism, but lasted only nineteen months. By 1851, Andrew Jackson Davis was at least considering plans for a "Harmonial Brotherhood," while more concretely, the Harmonia near Battle Creek, Michigan, in which Sojourner Truth dwelled for a time from 1857, existed as a spiritualist commune. Meanwhile, in western New York state, near Kiantone Creek on the border of Pennsylvania, John Murray Spear had established his own Harmonia Community. Located close to a muddy mineral spring that, it was claimed, the spirits had revealed for its healing powers, the community began at Spear's (spirit) direction with a charter for the "City of Harmonia." The government would be one of "love with innocence as its only protector," and it would exalt the-sovereignty of each individual member. Crime was a disease that was treatable; marriage was a union easily entered and left, in a sexuality of mutual consent; equality between the sexes was mandatory; and private real estate holdings were to be replaced by octagonal houses as promoted by Lorenzo Fowler, one of the fabled phrenological Fowlers of the period. Spear built Harmonia on a site claimed (by the spirits, he said) to be a prehistoric city of utopian proportions. Now it would be the place where his spirit-inspired perpetual motion machine called the New Motive Power-already the subject of a failed experiment-might flourish again because of the "peculiarly favorable electrical emanations" of the site. But fortune did not smile. Spear spent twenty thousand dollars-a gift to him by an area businessman-to dig for the buried city without success, even as his New Motive Power after being brought to New York was trashed by an unfriendly mob. Although Harmonia hosted a National Spiritualist Convention in 1858 and promoted an expedition to New Orleans in 1859 and 1860, the community succumbed in 1863, a victim of financial losses, internal divisiveness, and outward opposition to its sexual permissiveness.22
The most noticed spiritualist community, however, flourished for a time at Mountain Cove, in western Virginia (now West Virginia), after beginnings in Auburn, New York, a site of early spiritualist excitement connected with the Fox sisters in 1848 and 1849. The Auburn Circle there, under the mediumship of Ann Benedict, believed itself to be visited by spirit communications from Apostles and Prophets, among them Paul the Apostle, who through Benedict called the minister of the Seventh Day Baptist Church in Brooklyn, New York, to Auburn. The Reverend James L. Scott arrived as directed, and then - also called by the Apostle - Thomas Lake Harris (1823-1906) joined him as the so-called Apostolic movement grew. Harris, a follower of Andrew Jackson Davis and his harmonialism, had already been dubbed the "Poet" within the group that edited and promoted the Univercoelum, the early spiritualist paper published by Samuel B. Brittan. A former Universalist minister, like so many others within spiritualist ranks, he was speedily outgrowing Davis. By early 1851, Scott and Harris had launched a (spirit) newspaper of their own. The movement grew as Scott continued to hold forth in Auburn and Harris traveled to New York City to evangelize on its behalf. By the summer, Scott claimed to be experiencing visions directing him to seek an earthly center for the "unfolding" of the "heavenly kingdom" and a "refuge" for God's "obedient people." In due course, the "Holy Mountain" was recognized by Scott and the others at Mountain Cove in the mountains of western Virginia.23
The community that formed there lasted from 1851 to 1853, some one hundred or so persons believing themselves to be established on the site of the original garden of Eden and speaking the language of Christian scripture in an illuminist version that stressed the nearness of the endtime. Roots in the Millerite movement of the 1840S, with its expectation of the Second Coming of Jesus in 1843 and then in 1844, gave the Mountain Cove communitarians a premillennial vision of impending catastrophe that only heightened their spiritualist belief. Leaders and members were imbued ever more strongly with a sense that the spirits who were aiding them required obedience and that, without spirit help, in the short time that remained social perfection could not be attained. With or without the spirits, though, Mountain Cove did not prosper. Unwelcome to its Virginia neighbors for its northern doctrines of radical reform and its theological heterodoxies, it experienced persistent internal discord. As early as the close of 1851, sexual allegations against Scott for "licentiousness and adultery" orchestrated the dissension to come, even as Scott's dismissal of Benedict and her mediumship in order to claim himself as "medium absolute" increased it. When Harris joined Scott in the spring of 1852, the two assumed co-leadership in a patriarchal ism that manifested first in Scott's suppression of Benedict's authority in favor of his own, and as the Scott-Harris claims escalated, many in the community chafed. The pair announced themselves the two "witnesses" in Revelation 11: 3-6, divinely chosen to prophesy - with fire emanating from their mouths, power to turn water into blood, and power, as well, to visit the earth with plagues; with authority, in short, to kill. Amid these threats of blood authority and grossly inflated claims, the community came apart.24
For the larger spiritualist community, Mountain Cove had gone beyond the pale. The subject of extended vitriolic narrative by spiritualist historians Emma Hardinge and Eliab W. Capron, it elicited heated condemnations and a rhetoric of thoroughgoing refusal to own it. Hardinge found Mountain Cove to be "notorious" -one of the "follies and fanaticisms" that deformed "the sacred name of Spiritualism, under the pretence of 'reforms.''' She objected strenuously to the apostolic authority and divine insight that Scott claimed, and she noticed negatively his "unquestionable authority" in matters financial. Harris fared no better with his own claims to semi-divine status. "In one of his prayers, uttered about this time [the fall of 1852 J," Hardinge decried, "Harris said: 'Oh Lord, thou knowest we do not wish to destroy man with fire from our mouths! ,,, Nor did Eliab Capron mince words in his earlier account, commenting on the absolutist leadership of Scott and Harris and the gullibility of their followers. The Mountain Cove episode, he thought, exposed "spiritual excitement" as a "convenient hobby for men who had graduated through the old forms of theological mysticism, until there was nothing new in that field to feed their love of leadership and pretence to special calls and inspiration."25
Yet despite the graduation ceremonies for older forms of mysticism and the embarrassment of many spiritualists at other spiritualists, the Mountain Cove episode exposed a longing for an authoritarian society at least embryonic in the seance circles. With all the talk of individualism and radical overthrow of social constraint among spiritualists, believers who sat in the circles gave over their authority to the direction of spirits. Their form of spiritual surrender was only writ large in the social experiment that was Mountain Cove, not contradicted by it. Still more, the kind of community that Mountain Cove attempted seemed to replicate, to some extent, the visions of utopian harmony and bliss on spirit landscapes that mediums like Mary Theresa Shelhamer gave eager listeners from the Spirit Violets of their trances. Visionary metaphors like these urged toward social enactment; spiritualist communities arose as the result, themselves a "natural byproduct and a legitimate expression of Spiritualist religion;' as Bret Carroll has assessed.26
Both Spear's Harmonia and the Scott-Harris Mountain Cove, then, uncovered within the structure of spiritualist devotionalism not hardy individualism and American self-made spiritualizers but instead spirit-hungry men and women ready to efface themselves before something bigger and grander than themselves and to do it in community. By two decades later, in the 1870S, however, part of what was bigger and grander was the melodramatic ritual of spirit presentation. Here mediums and seance sitters mutually surrendered in outlaw episodes in which spirits seemingly vied with one another to be bolder, more obstreperous, and more outrageous than their spirit neighbors. The mediums who brought them in were likewise, by this time, skillful adepts in the art of deception. But by this time, too, self-prostrations to spirit were giving way before a discontent that would bring not the end of spiritualism but its revision and reformation in a series of new religious movements. The reconstituted spiritualism of the era brought a mysticizing past together with an inventive present. In its unflagging combinativeness, it inaugurated ever more, and more creative, forms of American metaphysical religion.
Among the investigations of spiritualism that came from American publishing houses in the 1870s, one appeared in 1875 called simply People from the Other World. Its title page bore what in the rational-believer tradition of Judge Edmonds, Governor Tallmadge, and scientist Hare could only be called a devout inscription, attributed to "Lord Bacon": "We have set it down as a law to ourselves to examine things to the bottom and not to receive upon credit, or reject upon improbabilities, until there hath passed a due examination." In the volume's preface, its author announced himself unconcerned with moral questions but intent on examining spiritualist phenomena "only as involving a scientific question which presses upon us for instant attention." Complaining that twenty-seven years after the Rochester rapping’s, "we are apparently not much nearer a scientific demonstration of their cause than we were then," he wanted to spur the scientific community to proper attention to spiritualism. Rather than studying tumble-bugs and pitcher-plants in "nonsensical debates," scientists needed to address "the astounding phenomenon of 'materialization.'" 27 If the rhetoric was unexceptional given the tradition of rational inquiry that characterized the Enlightenment side of spiritualism, what followed - in the book and in life - marked a decisive break with seance spiritualism.
The author of the lengthy work was Henry Steel Olcott (1832-1907), who in the same year that the book appeared co-founded the Theosophical Society. The major occasion for the book was also the occasion that brought the Olcott and Helena Blavatsky together-the investigation of the flamboyant spiritual mediumship of two brothers, William and Horatio Eddy (and especially the former), on their family farm and homestead in Chittenden, Vermont. Olcott appeared at the farm with a long and varied background. He had been an agriculturalist, journalist, signals officer in the Union army, civil service reformer in government employ, and lawyer. In his youth he had seen Andrew Jackson Davis demonstrating clairvoyance, and by the time Olcott was twenty he had himself become a spiritualist. He achieved notice, in 1853, as a founding member of the New York Conference of Spiritualists, an organization formed to investigate spiritualism and to give it some intellectual ballast. But now, in his early forties and among the new urban gentry in New York City, Olcott had for years been distant from spiritualism, until one day, with a sudden thought of his neglect, he purchased a copy of the Banner of Light and read of "certain incredible phenomena" at the Eddy farm. "I saw at once," he later recalled, "that, if it were true that visitors could see, even touch and converse with, deceased relatives who had found means to reconstruct their bodies and clothing so as to be temporarily solid, visible, and tangible, this was the most important fact in modern physical science. I determined to go and see for myself."28
Olcott produced an account of his visit to the farm for the New York Sun and was promptly asked to return to Vermont by the New York Daily Graphic to investigate more thoroughly, this time accompanied by an artist who would make sketches. One of the readers of the original Sun article had been Blavatsky, a decidedly unconventional Russian immigrant, newly arrived from Paris with a mysteriousi'ast and a long involvement with certain forms of spiritualism. Born Helena Petrovna von Hahn, at Ekaterinoslav in the Ukraine, the daughter of a Russian army officer who had descended from German petty nobility and his Russian aristocrat wife who was a novelist, she married the forty-year-old Nikifor Blavatsky, the newly appointed vice-governor of Yerivan province in Armenia, just after her seventeenth birthday. She left him after only a short time to live with her grandfather, but when he tried to send her to her father she set out for Constantinople. So began a period of over twenty years for which only conflicting accounts of Blavatsky's whereabouts and activities exist.
From childhood, she had believed in the presence of invisible companions, and that belief seems not to have deserted her during this obscure time. In a judicious summary of what may be known about the period, Bruce Campbell underlines the unconventional ("Bohemian") character of her life and points to evidence for her lengthy liaison with the opera singer Agardi Metrovitch and the possibility that she may have given birth to one or two children, fathered respectively by Metrovitch and one other person. Finally, evidence suggests that, already during this period, Blavatsky was imbued with a sense of mission, feeling herself called to a great work to come.29
When 0lcott appeared at the Eddy homestead for his second visit, he met Blavatsky there on an investigative mission of her own. The two became fast friends, both of them identifying themselves as discontented spiritualists and Blavatsky especially decrying the materialism of American spiritualism. Meanwhile, she gradually led Olcott to believe that she could produce "spirit" manifestations and other occult phenomena far in advance of the ones he was witnessing. From the perspective of the study of American metaphysical religion, Olcott's expressed concerns were even more striking (they would later be argued far more exhaustively by Blavatsky herself). Chafing under the refusal of the spirits to allow as thorough an investigation as he wanted, Olcott in People from the Other World noted Horatio Eddy's written admission that he and his family were "the slaves of the powers behind the phenomena." Olcott went on to inveigh against mediumistic slavery. When mediums operated" 'under control,''' they lost their free will, and "their actions, their speech, and their very consciousness" were "directed by that of another." They were as helpless as mesmeric subjects to "do, or say, or think, or see what they desire[d]." Still worse, the materialization medium was even required, it appeared, to "lend from the more ethereal portions of his frame, some of the matter that goes to form the evanescent materialized shapes of the departed."30
By contrast, in Blavatsky Olcott believed he had found something different. In the second part of a book that detailed the appearance of Blavatsky at Chittenden and then addressed another mediumistic episode in Philadelphia involving apparent fraud, Olcott was ready to own that Blavatsky was "one of the most remarkable mediums in the world." "Instead of being controlled by spirits to do their will," Olcott enthused, "it is she who seems to control them to do her bidding." What was the secret, and how did she gain mastery? He did not know all the answers. But he told readers that "many years of her life have been passed in Oriental lands." There what Americans called spiritualism had "for years been regarded as the mere rudimental developments of a system." In it, relationships had been set up "between mortals and the immortals as to enable certain of the former to have dominion over many of the latter." Not willing to accept an ancient priestly "knowledge of the natural sciences" as an explanation for Blavatsky's powers, he referred instead to "those higher branches of that so-called White Magic, which has been practised for countless centuries by the initiated."31 Olcott, in short, was turning for explanation not to science, as practiced in the nineteenth century, but to Hermeticism.
As performed by Blavatsky, the older model represented humans as powerful beings possessing divine or semi divine agency, co-creators with God of the universal order and able to manifest that order at will. "There are hidden powers in man," Olcott testified, "which are capable of making a god of him on earth." Meanwhile, the so-called spirits on the Eddy farm and elsewhere in the American spiritualist universe were "humbugging elemental [ s]." The elementals, whom or which Blavatsky controlled, were one of "two unlike classes of phenomena-working agents." They were "sub-human nature-spirits," or they were joined at times by "earth-bound ex-human elementaries." As someone with a knowledge of magic, he thought, Blavatsky could work them to her liking. Olcott duly noted that when she appeared at the Eddy farm, the numerous American Indian spirits (and some Europeans) who were materializing out of William Eddy's cabinet gave place before new arrivals of multinational provenance. "There was;' he reported, "a Georgian servant boy from the Caucasus; a Mussulman merchant from Tiflis; a Russian peasant girl, a Kourdish cavalier armed with scimitar, pistols and lance; a hideously ugly and devilish-looking negro sorcerer from Africa ... and a European gentleman wearing the cross and collar of St. Anne, who was recognised by Madame Blavatsky as her uncle."32
At the other end of the theosophical universe that Olcott was coming to accept, however, were the "Masters." "Little by little;' he confided, "H. P. B. let me know of the existence of Eastern adepts and their powers." If she controlled "the occult forces of nature; in a self-invented manner, she also did the bidding of "these Elder Brothers of humanity." They were "indispensable for the spiritual welfare of mankind;' and "their combined divine energy" was "maintained from age to age;' forever refreshing "the pilgrim of Earth, who struggles on toward the Divine Reality." Blavatsky, he said, had seen the Masters in visionary episodes from her youth. She was a "faithful servant of theirs;' and she had come to New York from Paris at the behest of one of the Masters, receiving a "peremptory order" and the next day dropping everything to board a ship.33 Apparently, there were some beings before whom Blavatsky was willing to bow. Mastery could still allow taking orders from Elder Brothers.
Situated between the elementals and the Masters, the Theosophical Society in 1875 would invent itself. In effect, Olcott, the rational investigator, had become convinced that the phenomena produced at the Eddy homestead, despite the limited testing that he was allowed to undertake, could not be "accounted for on the hypothesis of fraud." The manifestations were "not trickery;' but neither were they "supernatural" nor "miracles." What remained for him was to investigate in a larger theater and still more seriously, not through the continued application of scientific tests (the scientists could and should do that) but in terms of a new vision of power - of Masters and elementals and other occult phenomena -that Blavatsky had opened to him. The Theosophical Society would do just that-expanding its compass to include a host of anomalous occurrences and phenomena that the "scientific" nineteenth century had disallowed. In this context, the new society would function as a restoration movement, gliding back past the collective silence in the mass spiritualist interlude to the Hermetic tradition of the West. (See our case study Rosicrucianism and the early T.S.)
At the same time, the restoration would also be a revitalization and a movement forward, because the contemporary science that Olcott and fellow travelers often disdained could also tool them to expand on the past in a new age of occult and, in their view, scientific progress. In this post-Civil War period, members of the Theosophical Society would excavate the secrets of human power and mastery that for them seemed truer and more lasting.34
In May of 1875, Olcott formed a secret "Miracle Club" with spiritualist seances as its apparent major activity and Blavatsky a participant, but David Dana, the medium of choice, proved unsuccessful at summoning spirits, and the New York club fizzled. Still, Blavatsky was in the habit of hosting Sunday evening sessions in her apartment for a small group of people interested in occultism. Among them were Emma Hardinge (in private life, Hardinge-Britten), the well-known spiritualist medium and historian, and her husband Dr. William Britten. Present, too, was a youthful William Quan Judge - Irish immigrant and lawyer - who would later play so large a role in theosophical affairs. In early September of 1875, the group heard the Freemason and Kabbalist George Felt speak on ancient Egyptian lore, finding the key to art and architecture in an occult reading of "The Lost Canon of Proportion of the Egyptians." Olcott spontaneously scribbled a note about starting a society for occult research and passed it to Judge, who handed it to Blavatsky. With her nod, Olcott stood up and invited those present to form a society to "diffuse information concerning those secret laws of Nature which were so familiar to the Chaldeans and Egyptians, but are totally unknown by our modern world of science."35
By the next evening, sixteen persons joined the group, and by ten days later, on September 18, they decided to call themselves the Theosophical Society. The president was Olcott, with Blavatsky corresponding secretary, and Judge the council to the society. Bruce Campbell has pointed to the fact that the new Theosophists were people of privilege, "solidly" middle class with "a large proportion professionals;' and among them "several lawyers, doctors, and journalists, and an industrialist." All seemed to share an interest in religion and spirituality of a nontraditional sort. The society, in fact, was bringing a New York City subculture with European ties into clearer visibility. While Olcott and Blavatsky moved in a generally spiritualist context, it was, clearly, already an expanded one. Indeed, Theosophist Alvin Boyd Kuhn, who concurred in 1930 that the pair had "launched the Society from within the ranks of the [spiritualist] cult," also addressed the issue of in-betweenness. While the general public classified Theosophy with "Spiritualism, New Thought, Unity and Christian Science;' it was not "modern," as they were, but instead "a summation and synthesis of many cults of all times."36
For all the enthusiasm of its beginnings, the society during its first three years did not continue to fare well. Blavatsky and Olcott together formed the soul of the organization, and it was they who would keep the group going, with some prodding from Judge. Eventually the pair would transform Theosophy into a vehicle for the synthesis of Western and Eastern metaphysical categories (with a strong tilt toward the Eastern) intending to enhance the powers of an elite and spiritually advanced cadre of humans. The Theosophical Society, in other words, would be sophisticated and for sophisticates. Yet from the first it displayed, as Stephen Prothero argues, the existence of "two theosophies." Blavatsky thrived on spontaneity and upset, Olcott on order. Blavatsky spun convoluted and highly elaborated theoretical works that made her to Theosophy what Andrew Jackson Davis had been to spiritualism (although, to be sure, her enthusiasm for phenomena set her distinctly apart from the spiritualist seer). Olcott, by contrast, brought the moralism of an American Protestant-and specifically Presbyterian and Calvinist - background to bear on his theosophical vision. Blavatsky loved interior spaces and secrets; Olcott carried over from the American democratic ethos and from mass spiritualism an impulse toward public exposition in a Theosophy that was exoteric. Thus Olcott's version of Theosophy favored the discovery of occult laws-something in which rational individuals could democratically engaged even as Blavatsky, more hierarchically, would foster their unveiling. Meanwhile, Blavatsky, the woman magus who functioned as a shaman-in-civilization, enhanced the role of women; Olcott, with his dismissal of (largely female) mediums as the dupes of elementals and as licentious persons given to free love and similar practices, promoted patriarchy. Ever the aristocrat in the midst of Bohemianism, Blavatsky brought a social consciousness far different from Olcott's with his middle-class gentry past. For him, the reform of spiritualism was part of the universal reform program intimately bound to spiritualism itself and to his own biographical trajectory. For Blavatsky, social reform programs were a matter of indifference.37
Together, though, the
two brought a sizable legacy with them from seance spiritualism and the harmonial philosophy that was its sometime partner. As
Stephen Prothero has summarized:
Most of the liberal elements in spiritualism - its critique of Calvinist predestination in the name of individual liberty, its anticlericalism and emphasis on vernacular preaching by the laity, its anti-dogmatism and exaltation of individual conscience, its attempt to improve the role of women in society, and, finally, its hope of fashioning something akin to the kingdom of God on earth -survived in the theosophies of both Olcott and Blavatsky. What did not survive the transmigration were certain supposed spiritualist crudities-the preoccupation with spirits of the dead, tendencies toward communalism and free love, seemingly excessive reliance on female spiritual intermediaries, etc, that would not appeal to genteel and aristocratic markets.38
The communalism would make a comeback later in selected portions of theosophical history, as we will see. Moreover, the sheer combinativeness of theosophical doctrine, "thickly populated," as Robert Ellwood notes, "with hidden Masters and the lore of many ancient cultures," could already be read as a theoretical expression of "communitas." In this visionary community of the spirit, however, what drew many to spiritualism and then Theosophy was residence in a middle place between a credulous religious past and an agnostic and positivist present. Olcott hailed "a reasonable and philosophical spiritualistic belief" and thought it "as far removed from the superstition of the Seventeenth; and Eighteenth Centuries, as it is from the degrading materialism of the last quarter of the Nineteenth." The late nineteenth century, he complained, "blots God out of the Universe, strips the soul of its aspirations for a higher existence beyond the grave, and bounds the life of man" by animal limits.39
Beyond the riddle of rational religious belief, however, lay the riddle of mind.
Tellingly, Olcott acknowledged that "especially Mind, active as WILL, was a great problem for us." Used mutually by "Eastern magus" and "Western mesmerist and psychopath;' it could bring acclaim as a "hero" to one who developed it or spiritual mediumship to another who paralyzed it. Close beside mind, for Olcott, came the active imagination and the power of thought to fashion actual things. When, along with mind, "imagination is simultaneously active," he declared, "it creates, by giving objectivity to just-formed mind-images."40 In his series of observations Olcott had stated the terms for the combinative metaphysical religion of the late nineteenth century and beyond. Theosophy, Christian Science, New Thought, and a series of interrelated and entangled movements-even to the New Age and the new spirituality of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century-would agree to the contract.
Meanwhile, the Theosophical Society passed through a Western-oriented era of three years until 1878. At the apex of this earlier, Western period stood Blavatsky's publication, in 1877, of her monumental first book, Isis Unveiled.41 There she claimed direct dictation by the Masters - especially one with whom she most closely identified - and she incorporated virtually all of the occult corpus of the nineteenth century (nearly one hundred volumes) into a huge work of nearly thirteen hundred pages. The text was divided between a first volume devoted to "Science" and a second to "Theology," suggesting the ongoing problematic of Theosophy as it aimed to bring the two together. From the first, however, the Blavatsky synthesis was controversial. Bruce Campbell has detailed how the spiritualist (and former Theosophist) William Emmette Coleman-a member of the American Oriental Society, the Pali Text Society, and similar organizations claimed to have uncovered some two thousand instances of serious plagiarism. Coleman also declared that he had uncovered a series of other quotations taken not from original sources but from secondary ones without acknowledgment.42
If so-and the evidence was there to see-Blavatsky likewise stood in the tradition of spiritualist mediumship, with its own flamboyant fraudulence, and-with the mediums - in a quasi-shamanic tradition in which sacred tricksterism had consistently been part of the religious game. Now, though, in the Blavatsky innovation, the trickery came not merely through act and gesture but also through words. More than that, a straightforward reading of Isis Unveiled and later work by Blavatsky that focuses on the external event of plagiarism may oversimplify. Even if we discount the loose nineteenth-century standards of textual attribution, it may be argued that Blavatsky's tricks counted, essentially, as religious phenomena. Sacred trickery has been predicated on the assumption that unless humans see "sign and wonders""(as in John 4:48), they will not believe and that believing is good for them. Trickery compensates for the nonproduction of magical events on demand, even in a culture of affirmation in which devotees insist that magic does happen. Trickery, however, acknowledges that it happens only some of the time, not always, and not predictably.
Attention needs to be paid, too, to the complex psychological universe in which Blavatsky's "creative" writing occurred. Robert Ellwood has pointed to the "other order" in which Blavatsky apparently spent much of her time, a place where the "universe itself" became simultaneously "subjectivity" and a "cosmic mind animated by other subjectivities, later called the Masters and the Hierarchy." According to Ellwood, evidence suggests that the key to the enigmatic Blavatsky's marginality and liminality may have been "a mild case of dissociation or multiple personality, a condition in which each personality may operate by quite different values and have different goals from the others, and may not even be aware of everything the other does." Moreover the idea of Masters on which she drew had a long history in both East and West. It is easy to point, for example, to Hindu rishis and Buddhist bodhisattvas on Asian soil. For the West, Masters had been evoked both in Neoplatonist and Rosicrucian writings. In the nineteenth century, they were acknowledged by individuals such as Eliphas Levi [A.-L. Constant], the French magus who named Mesmer's magnetic fluid the "astral light," and the English novelist and member of the occult Golden Dawn Edward Bulwer-Lytton, whom Blavatsky so much admired.43
Blavatsky's Masters, however - become Mahatmas after she and Olcott left for India in 1878-brought her over the edge when they ever more plentifully supplied her associates with materialized letters. The Anglo-Indian journalist A. P. Sinnett by 1883 had published both The Occult World and Esoteric Buddhism in touch, he believed, with the Mahatmas, the former volume describing his receipt of a series of letters from them and the latter drawn from the mysteriously materialized letters themselves. Nevertheless, by the following year Emma Cutting Coulomb, a staff member in Blavatsky's household at Adyar, India, with her husband, charged in a series of articles in the local Christian College Magazine that the Mahatma letters had been produced by Blavatsky, with her housekeeper as assistant. Especially damaging was the revelation of sliding back panels in a cabinet in Blavatsky's shrine room adjoining her bedroom (thus enabling letters or other objects to "materialize," as if from nowhere, within the shrine). When Australian Richard Hodgson of the Society for Psychical Research came to Adyar on behalf of a society committee, evidence of fraud mounted. Hodgson concluded that Emma Coulomb's allegations stood up to scrutiny, that all the phenomena that he could unravel were contrived, and that Blavatsky herself had written the large bulk of the Mahatma letters:' with a few by someone else. His published report for the society's Committee of Investigation extended to roughly two hundred pages.44
In 1877, however, the full mysteries of the Mahatma letters were still waiting to be manifested from what Blavatsky would in Isis Unveiled call the "ether" or the "astral light." Moreover, with all of the problems associated with its composition, Isis emerged, arguably, as a trance production, a latter-day labor in the tradition of such works among American spiritualists. As Campbell notes, its Western occultism reflects a subculture in which belief in adepts, "white" and "black" magic, "astral light," and "elemental races or nature spirits" all flourished. The Blavatsky who spoke through these pages recounted in a grand synthesis the Hermetic tradition of the West and its nineteenth-century resonances in, for example, spiritualism, mesmerism, and psychic phenomena. Along the way came forays into modern science and ancient Kabbalah, denunciations of official Christianity and expositions of the longtime Christian wisdom tradition, and in the most Eastern-turning materials-comparisons of Christianity to Hinduism and Buddhism. Even amid the plagiarism-beyond, but perhaps related to, issues of trance production-the extent of Blavatsky's synthesis needs to be noticed. Whatever the sources of its parts and whatever the Herculean efforts (and they were) of Olcott and others to organize the manuscript for her, Blavatsky's product had become a creation in its own right. The work sold a thousand copies in ten days, and by a year later its two reprints had also sold out. Among Theosophists and sympathizers, it continued to achieve impressive sales.45
Behind the massive work lay Blavatsky's conviction: "Spiritualism, in the hands of an adept, becomes Magic, for he is learned in the art of blending together the laws of the Universe, without breaking any of them and thereby violating Nature." By contrast, "in the hands of an inexperienced medium," spiritualism became "unconscious sorcery." Such a medium opened "unknown to himself, a door of communication between the two worlds through which emerge the blind forces of Nature lurking in the astral Light, as well as good and bad spirits." Blavatsky minced no words for readers as she called spiritual-posited a "regular science of the soul" that taught "how to force the invisible to become visible." It taught, too, "the existence of elementary spirits; the nature and magical properties of the astral light; the power of living men to bring themselves into communication with the former through the latter."48
Invoking a universal spirit or world soul operative everywhere, Blavatsky turned her attention to matters of sickness and healing. Again, her remarks arose out of the discourse world of spiritualism, its healing practices, and her mission to correct the "abuses of mesmeric and magnetic powers in some healing mediums." In a statement that, with a shift, became the New Thought faith of the late nineteenth century, she declared that "with expectency [sic] supplemented by faith, one can cure himself of almost any morbific condition." With the "influence of mind over the body ... so powerful that it has effected miracles at all ages," Blavatsky was now but a short step away from the "mind-cure" metaphysician. If we follow the implicit logic of her exposition, the individual, as a reconstituted magus, would wrest power from the medium to use his or her own (divine) Mind as a magical instrument of healing. Meanwhile, Blavatsky instructed readers at length in the history and structure of the human species. She announced the existence of pre-Ada mite races and charted the descent of spirit into matter, emanating ultimately from a "central, spiritual, and Invisible sun" (Gnostic and Kabbalistic in her reading but also echoing, in some respects, the occult formulation of Andrew Jackson Davis). Clearly, she testified, Charles Darwin had gotten his directions wrong- "evolution having originally begun from above and proceeded downward." Beyond that, the human task was one of "upward progress," an ascent to the "divine parent" and source from which it had come.49
In an anthropology that would be parsed differently in her later Secret Doctrine (1888), Blavatsky used the Western Hermetic tradition to articulate a testimony to the existence of subtle bodies. Nature was "triune" (visible, invisible, and spiritually sourced), and so were humans. Each person possessed "his objective, physical body; his vitalizing astral body (or soul), the real man." These two, in turn, were "brooded over and illuminated by the third-the sovereign, the immortal spirit." The success of the "real man" in the task of "merging himself" with spirit rendered him an "immortal entity." In this context, magic meant knowledge concerning all of this, and it also became the means by which control of nature's forces could be gained and applied "by the individual while still in the body." Always, magic existed in the service of mastery. The reform of spiritualism that Olcott had demanded took shape in unmistakable terms in Blavatsky's vision. Just as he had noticed that she, unlike the Chittenden mediums, could not be enslaved by the seance productions, so she proclaimed mediumship to be "the opposite of adepts hip" and announced liberation for the adept who "actively controls himself and all inferior potencies." In this there was "no miracle." All that happened was "the result of law-eternal, immutable, ever active."50
Here, in sum, was the Western magus at the height of dominion over the secret powers of nature. Despite all the deference to Asia, despite the attestation that India was the "cradle of the race" and "Mother" to "philosophy, religion, arts and sciences:' here lay no easy belief in reincarnation (a later fundamental in Blavatsky's Theosophy). "Not a rule in nature:' but an "exception," reincarnation occurred for this earlier Blavatsky only if "preceded by a violation of the laws of harmony of nature." To be sure, the work was hardly friendly to Christianity, a religion that for her bore at best a derivative status. Yet Blavatsky's reading of the Pauline indwelling Christ (see, for example, 2 Cor. 5:17 and Gal. 2:20) as an "embodied idea" and "the abstract ideal of the personal divinity indwelling in man" would be echoed (and from various sources) in a continuing American metaphysical religion.51
Already, though, even as Isis was being published and read, the personal odysseys and external circumstances of Blavatsky and Olcott were beckoning them and their flagging Theosophical Society in an Asian direction. Olcott had turned over the idea of attaching the society to the Masonic order to give it stability; and, more seriously, there had been work toward a merger with the Arya Samaj, a Hindu reform movement that sought the restoration of the ancient teaching of the scriptural Vedas. But even though the society's council formally resolved to unite with the Indian organization in May 1878, further exploration suggested an Arya Samaj that looked too sectarian for theosophical tastes. It was in this context that the Theosophical Society began to discover its reconstructed self. In Old Diary Leaves, Olcott remembered the process and the joint circular that he and Blavatsky drafted. Within the circular's "categorical declaration of principles," he observed, were "three Declared Objects." The first was "the study of occult science"; the second, "the formation of a nucleus of universal brotherhood"; the third, "the revival of Oriental literature and philosophy." 52
Meanwhile, internal distinctions were being set up. The New York City circular acknowledged three theosophical sections-new members who still shared "worldly interests," intermediate students "who had withdrawn from the same or were ready to do so;' and the Masters, or "adepts ... who, without being actually members, were at least connected with us and concerned in our work as a potential agency for the doing of spiritual good to the world." It would, however, be a decade later-in the context of a power struggle between Olcott and Blavatsky before he, as president, format created the Esoteric Section of the society.53
Three months after the
appearance of the New York circular, in December 1878, Blavatsky and Olcott set
sail for India. In the three years since the inception of their society, themes
of spiritualiSm and its reform gradually faded before
a transformed sense of mission. Still, as we will see in the next chapter,
spiritualism had set the terms for the new mission, and the reconstructed
Theosophy of 1878 and after answered the questions that spiritualism raised. At
the edge of the rational material world, who would be in charge? When the
myriad landscapes of the mind were visited, who would drive the chariot? Were
humans in their day-to-day lives captive specimens to be operated by their own
unconscious psyches, by the mental powers of their fellows, or by the high
commands of spirits? Or were they, could they be, after all secretly-and then
openly and spectacularly-in charge? Was the American spiritualist interlude a
heterodox episode in the grand Hermetic scheme of things? Or was it a
preparation, designed by masterful adepts, for a higher, better spiritual
vision? All of the late-nineteenth century metaphysicians would find themselves
compelled by this series of questions, and all of them would find answers on
the side of human mastery and command (even if, at least in the case of Mary
Baker Eddy's Christian Science, hedged about with testimonies to the
transcendent power of God). Metaphysicians, for the most part, would chart a
course through a spiritual universe in which humans were meant to dwell as
1. M[ ary]. T[heresa]. Shelhamer, Life and Labor in the Spirit World (Boston: Colby and Rich, 1885), 54-55, 57.
2. Andrew Jackson Davis, The Principles of Nature, Her Divine Revelations, and a Voice to Mankind, 34th ed. (Boston: Colby and Rich, 1881), 674-77 (upper case in original; see ch. 4, n79 for evidence that this was actually the seventeenth edition).
3. Andrew Jackson Davis, "Concerning the Spirit's Destiny," in Andrew Jackson Davis, The Great Harmonia, vol. 2, The Teacher (1851; rpt., Boston: Bela Marsh, 1862),25254 (emphases in original).
4. Hohn. W. Edmonds, "Introduction," in John W.
Edmonds and George T. Dexter,
Spiritualism, 5th ed. (New York: Partridge and Brittan, 1853), 64-65 (upper case in original); George T. Dexter, "Introduction," in Edmonds and Dexter, Spiritualism, 99 (emphasis in original); Nathaniel P. Tallmadge, "Introduction;' in Charles Linton, The Healing of the Nations, 2d ed. (New York: Society for the Diffusion of Spiritual Knowledge, 1855), 66-67 (upper case in original).
5. R. Laurence Moore, In Search of White Crows: Spiritualism, Parapsychology, and American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), 19.
6. R. Laurence Moore, "The Occult Connection? Mormonism, Christian Science, and Spiritualism;' in Howard Kerr and Charles L. Crow, eds., The Occult in America: New Historical Perspectives (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983), 151; "Preface," in William Emmette Coleman, Practical Occultism: A Course of Lectures through the Trance Mediumship of James Johnson Morse (San Francisco: Carrier-Dove, 1888), as quoted in Moore, "The Occult Connection?" 151.
7. Ernest Isaacs, "A History of Nineteenth-Century American Spiritualism as a Religious and Social Movement" (Ph.D. diss., University of Wisconsin, 1975), 167; Moore, In Search of White Crows, 36; Ann Braude, Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women's Rights in Nineteenth-Century America, 2d ed. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001),19.
8. Isaacs, "History of Nineteenth-Century American Spiritualism," 202-3; Slater Brown, The Heyday of Spiritualism (1970; rpt., New York: Pocket Books, 1972), 135-37.
9. See [Nathaniel P. Tallmadge] "Appendix-D" and "Appendix-O;' in Linton, Healing of the Nations, 467-74, 534-37.
10. Isaacs, "History of Nineteenth-Century American Spiritualism;' 203-5; Craig James Hazen, The Village Enlightenment in America: Popular Religion and Science in the Nineteenth Century (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000),86-88.
11. Robert Hare, Experimental Investigation of the Spirit Manifestations, Demonstrating the Existence of Spirits and Their Communion with Mortals; Doctrine of the Spirit World respecting Heaven, Hell, Morality, and God. Also, the Influence of Scripture on the Morals of Christians (New York: Partridge and Brittan, 1855), 131, as quoted in Hazen, Village Enlightenment, 84; Moore, In Search of White Crows, 32; Hazen, Village Enlightenment, 73. On Baconianism, see Theodore Dwight Bozeman, Protestants in an Age of Science: The Baconian Ideal and Antebellum American Religious Thought (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977); Herbert Hovenkamp, Science and Religion in America, 1800-1860 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1978); and Walter H. Conser Jr., God and the Natural World: Religion and Science in Antebellum America (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1993).
12. On Hare, the spirits, his fellow scientists, and his fellow spiritualists, see the account in Hazen, Village Enlightenment, 91, 74, 76; Robert Hare, as quoted in Isaacs, "History of Nineteenth-Century American Spiritualism;' 208 (emphasis in Isaacs).
13. Andrew Jackson Davis, The Great Harmonia, 5 vols. (Boston: Benjamin B. Mussey, 1850-59). Individual volumes carry different subtitles, and there are short titles foreach volume as well: vol. 1, The Physician; vol. 2, The Teacher; vol. 3, The Seer; vol. 4, The Reformer; vol. 5, The Thinker.
14- Gerrit Smith, Lectures on the Religion of Reason, as quoted in Moore, In Search of White Crows, 70; Moore, In Search of White Crows, 70.
15. Braude, Radical Spirits, 192,193,201; Moore, In Search of White Crows, 71-73,77-78.
16. Moore, In Search of White Crows, 83-87.
17. Andrew Jackson Davis, "What and Where Is God?" in Davis, The Great Harmonia, vol. 2, The Teacher, 289 (emphasis in original).
18. See the discussion in Moore, In Search of White Crows, 74-87.
19. Bret E. Carroll, Spiritualism in Antebellum America (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997), 120-23, 35-39; Andrew Jackson Davis, Beyond the Valley; A Sequel to "The Magic Staff" An Autobiography (Boston: Colby and Rich, 1885), 64, 326.
20. Davis, "Part III: The Application; or, A Voice to Mankind;' in Principles of Nature, 679-782.
21. Moore, In Search of White Crows, 97; Maren Lockwood Carden, Oneida: Utopian Community to Modem Corporation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1969),122.
22. Isaacs, "History of Nineteenth-Century American Spiritualism;' 243, 250-54 (with quotations from original document in Isaacs); Moore, In Search of White Crows, 94; Brown, Heyday of Spiritualism, 188.
23. Isaacs, "History of Nineteenth-Century American Spiritualism;' 243-46 (with quotations from original document in Isaacs).
24. For the most perceptive account of the community from a religious-studies perspective, see Carroll, Spiritualism in Antebellum America, 162-76, 169-70.
25. Emma Hardinge, Modem American Spiritualism: A Twenty Years' Record of the Communion between Earth and the World of Spirits (New York: The Author, 1870), 20717,208,2°9,212 (emphasis in original); E[liab]. W[ilkinson]. Capron, Modem Spiritualism: Its Facts and Fantasies, Its Consistencies and Contradictions (Boston: Bela Marsh, 1855), 116-31, 131.
26. See Carroll, Spiritualism in Antebellum America, 164-65.
27. Henry S. Olcott, People from the Other World (Hartford, Conn.: American, 1875), title page (emphasis in original), iv-vii.
28. Henry Steel Olcott, Old Diary Leaves: The True History of the Theosophical Society (1895), reprinted as Inside the Occult: The True Story of Madame H. P. Blavatsky (Philadelphia: Running Press, 1975), 2.
29. Bruce F. Campbell, Ancient Wisdom Revived: A History of the Theosophical Movement (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980),4-6.
30. Olcott, People from the Other World, x.
31. Ibid., 453.
32. Olcott, Old Diary Leaves, 14 (emphasis in original), 11, 72, 8.
33. Ibid., 6, 17-20.
People from the Other World, 4°6, 341; Mark Twain's and Charles Dudley Warner's
novel The Gilded Age: A Tale of To-day was first published in 1873-74, giving
historians and cultural critics a convenient label to characterize the uneasy
period from after the Civil War until 1873, or-in some accounts-until roughly
1890' The period was castigated for its currency inflation and financial
speculation, loose morals
in business and politics, and excessive materialism in the wake of northern victory in the Civil War.
35. Campbell, Ancient Wisdom Revived, 26-27.
36. Ibid., 27; Alvin Boyd Kuhn, Theosophy: A Modern Revival of Ancient Wisdom (New York: Henry Holt, 1930), 90, 1.
37. See the discussion in Stephen Prothero, The White vvvvvvvvvvvvvvvv 15), 351; 2: 574.
52. Campbell, Ancient Wisdom Revived, 77-78; Olcott, Old Diary Leaves, 401.
53. Olcott, Old Diary Leaves, 401 (emphasis in original), 399-400; Campbell, Ancient Wisdom Revived, 97-98.