A very good intellectual history of the New Age / metaphysical religious currents in the USA. At 516 pages of small type, there's a lot in here, but she confidently handles discussion of a variety of influences and combinations over several hundred years. I'm finding it interesting learning more about the origin of various New Age notions, fads, and fashions. Attention is paid to cross-fertilization between European, Indigenous, and African ideas, a clear understanding of how racism shaped these movements (both discussions that were weak or absent in her previous book "Nature Religion in America").
Albanese begins by outlining the familiar story of ancient and medieval magical traditions, the emergence of Christian magic in the Renaissance with Pico, Agrippa, and Paracelsus, Elizabethan magic with Dee, the Freemasons and then the idea of the Rosicrucian Fellowship. The Hermetic tradition embedded in these influences was transported across the Atlantic with the first European settlers.
She then outlines influences in combination in the colonies – the Indigenous peoples, traditions from Africa that enslaved people brought, and the various strains of mysticism from the German settlers in Pennsylvania, and four separate waves of settlement from England which brought different cultural baggage and notions to different parts of the colonies. She develops in this second section the dominant theme of her narrative throughout – combination and hybridization of ideas to create a broad-based and pervasive set of metaphysical notions which is expressed through various forms but remains a constant undertone in American popular culture and religious thought.
The next section takes the story into the 19th Century and talks about Freemasonry, Mormonism, Universalism, Unitarianism, Transcendentalism, and the Shaker movement. The Shakers’ spiritualism, trance channelling, and ritual are demonstrated as the foundation of the later mass movement of Spiritualism in the immediately pre-Civil War period and its aftermath until the 20th century.
A substantial and thorough discussion of the Spiritualist movement follows, beginning with Mesmerism and the concept of magnetic energy (another theme that persists to the present in the New Age movement) and the mystical Christianity of Swedenborg, plus the socialist communalism of Fourier. A complex mix of influences and ideas that Albanese discusses quite effectively, centered on key notions of immanence and energy.
Growing out of this soup of influences is the New Thought movements with Mary Baker Eddy and Christian Science as the largest segment.
Then metaphysical Asia (with an Orientalist sheen) is taken up with the Theosophical Society of Blavatsky, Olcott, and Judge and many fellow-travellers. She notes and discusses the importance of the first World Parliament of Religions in 1893, dominated by Theosophists and fellow-travellers, and the Perennial Philosophy that they promoted. The Theosophical and esoteric Buddhism and Hinduism which they promoted, and which missionaries from India like Yogendra and Vivekananda and popularizers like William Atkinson (“Yogi Ramacharaka”) and tantric popularizers like Theos Bernard, was not much like the practices of most Indians but was much more palatable to Americans because of the emphasis on individualism over community and the whitewashing away of austerity and ordeal.
The hybridization which painted Gautama the Buddha as the same as Jesus the Christ and the unitarian perennial philosophy were distortions which took hold in this period and have continued in the metaphysical and New Age.
The final sections of the book give history and genealogy for many New Thought, New Age, and metaphysical groups currently active in America, brief bibliographies of founders and the like. She demonstrates that they are building on an older foundation of Hermetic ideas and that the habit of combination and hybridization is the key to understanding the movement.
Her discussion of the neo-Pagan movement as a New Age phenomenon is not exceptionally insightful. From inside the movement, I can see sharp distinctions (at least between the Inner Court and Initiated and the NA) although there is a great deal of overlap at the fringes. Overall, this is an excellent general primer on the intellectual history of American metaphysical religion, with scholarly chops and very good notes for follow-up.
~review by Samuel Wagar
Author: Catherine Albanese
Yale University Press, 2007