Mitch Horowitz is the editor-in-chief of Tarcher/Penguin and responsible for the publication of such seminal esoterica books as Manly P. Hall's The Secret Teachings of All Ages: Reader's Edition, The Book of the Damned: The Collected Works of Charles Fort, and a slew of other contemporary and classic works of high weirdness. Mitch is also a great writer on the occult himself. His own new book, Occult America: The Secret History of How Mysticism Shaped Our Nation, went on sale today. I haven't read it yet, but Mitch wrote an overview of the book for Graham Hancock's site and it's terrific. I'm delighted that Mitch is going to guestblog on Boing Boing a few weeks from now too! I'm sure every post will be a gem from the equinox. From Mitch's essay, also titled Occult America:
By the 1830s and 40s, a region of central New York State called "the Burned-Over District" (so-named for its religious passions) became the magnetic center for the religious radicalism sweeping the young nation. Stretching from Albany to Buffalo, it was the Mt. Sinai of American mysticism, giving birth to new religions such as Mormonism and Seventh-Day Adventism, and also to the spread of Spiritualism, Mesmerism, mediumship, table-rapping, séances, and other occult sensations – many of which mirrored, and aided, the rise of Suffragism and related progressive movements.
The nation's occult culture gave women their first opportunity to openly serve as religious leaders – in this case as spirit mediums, seers, and channlers. America's social and spiritual radicals were becoming joined, and the partnership would never fade.
The robust growth of occult and mystical movements in nineteenth-century America was aided by the influence of three mighty social and spiritual movements: Freemasonry, Transcendentalism, and Spiritualism. Each helped transform the young nation into a laboratory for religious experiment and a springboard for the revolutions in nontraditional and therapeutic spirituality that eventually swept the globe. Consider:
• Freemasonry is, perhaps, a direct remnant of the most radical thought movement to emerge from the Reformation, and it instilled a strong anti-authoritarian streak in America's early religious culture. Masonry's penchant for occult and pagan symbolism suggests how some of the nation's Founders – many of whom were Masons – understood religious truth as emanating from a common source that could be found in different cultures throughout history, including those of a mystical and pre-Christian past. American Masonry emphasized religious tolerance, which its highly placed members, including George Washington (pictured in Masonic garb at left) and Benjamin Franklin, modeled and interwove throughout American life. Early in his presidency, Washington took matters a step further. In a letter to the congregation of a Rhode Island synagogue, the first president wrote: "It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent national gifts." In other words, minority religions were no longer guests of the new republic, but full members. Whatever Freemasonry's airs of secrecy and images of skulls, pyramids, and all-seeing eyes, it is in this principle where one finds the order's truly most radical, even dangerous, idea: the encouragement of different faiths within a single nation.