The Occult In American History: More Than Just Bumps In The Night

Whatever interests you at age eight or nine tells you who really are. It's a time when you are old enough to start thinking independently but young enough not to feel the full grip of peer pressure. Growing up in the 1970s in Queens, New York, my tender interest was the occult.

Paperbacks on ESP, Bigfoot, and " true" hauntings adorned the pages of the Arrow Book Club catalogues at my elementary school. Friends huddled in basements for séances and Ouija sessions. The Exorcist was the movie that no one on the block was allowed to see. On TV, Merv Griffin and Mike Douglas chatted with clairvoyants, astrologers, and robed gurus. Everything seemed to hint at a strange otherworld not so far away from our own.

My adult years were more occupied with politics than tea leaves. But a fortunate series of unplanned events led me to become the editor-in-chief of Tarcher/Penguin, the metaphysical division of Penguin Books - and to find my way back to material that first enthralled me as a kid.

While my discernment had increased, my childhood fascination remained (and, to be honest, I still side with the lines from Hamlet: " There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy." ) As an adult, I began to revisit a simple question I had back in Queens: Where did all this come from? The pursuit led to my book, Occult America: White House Séances, Ouija Circles, Masons, and the Secret Mystic History of Our Nation (Bantam 2009/2010).

In tracking the history of supernatural and mystical religions in America, I explore how occult spirituality travelled from the late-ancient world through Renaissance Europe to find an unlikely but fateful home in the American colonies. By the late seventeenth century, the colonies had developed a reputation for religious tolerance, as European mystics were reeling from the after-effects of the Thirty Years' War and a general backlash against the liberal spirituality of the Elizabethan age.

On American soil, influences from Freemasonry, Renaissance occultism, and Christian mysticism formed the wave of alternative spirituality that eventually swept the nation and the world. Esoteric figures and ideas also placed a real and long-range impact on the society' s culture and politics. The book tells the story of a spiritual revolution - and, like all such stories, it is driven by remarkable (and little-known) personas, such as:

•Johannes Kelpius, a young esoteric scholar who led a band of pilgrims out of the Rhine Valley to found a mystic colony on the banks of the Wissahickon Creek outside Philadelphia in 1694.

•Mother Ann Lee, a working-class girl from Manchester, England, who escaped charges of sorcery and brought her sect, the Shaking Quakers - later called the Shakers - to New York State in 1775, launching one of the first religious communes of the New World.

•Jemima Wilkinson, a Rhode Island Quaker girl who in 1776, at age twenty-four, claimed to have died and returned to life as a supernatural medium called the " Publick Universal Friend." She became the first American-born female religious leader.

•Andrew Jackson Davis, called the " Poughkeepsie Seer" after his Hudson Valley, New York, home, who enthralled nineteenth-century Americans with his visions of Heaven as a place that included all the world' s people - blacks, whites, Indians, slaves, and followers of every faith.

The spirit of tolerance and openness that suffused esoteric movements in early America forged a bond between the occult and liberalism. This was especially true in the nineteenth-century movement of Spiritualism - or contacting the dead - whose newspapers and followers were ardently abolitionist, reformist, and suffragist. Spiritualism became the first movement in modern life in which women could openly serve as religious leaders, at least of a sort. Most trance mediums were women - and for a generation in the late-nineteenth century the movements of Spiritualism and suffragism grew hand in hand, often sharing the same leadership.

For Americans who believed in liberal social and religious ideals, the messages emanating from occult movements - the equality of all religions and people, the right of ordinary people to devise their own spiritual path, the therapeutic properties of faith - were perhaps more enthralling than any supernatural claims.

The American occult was a vehicle that helped popularize today' s widespread ideals of religious universality. It also inspired wellness movements that exist across the mainstream, from positive-thinking and meditation, to 12-step programs and natural medicine. It is why your health insurance carrier is likely to pay for acupuncture and chiropractic.

But it is more than all that: Today's atmosphere of religious experiment and the live-and-let-live attitude that most Americans take toward their neighbor' s religion are rooted in this early, fervent period of spiritual adventure that made every person' s search for meaning seem like a birthright. In this way, occult America changed our world.