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Occult America: White House Seances, Ouija Circles, Masons, and the Secret Mystic History of Our Nation Paperback – October 5, 2010

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Book Description
It touched lives as disparate as those of Frederick Douglass, Franklin Roosevelt, and Mary Todd Lincoln--who once convinced her husband, Abe, to host a séance in the White House. Americans all, they were among the famous figures whose paths intertwined with the mystical and esoteric movement broadly known as the occult. Brought over from the Old World and spread throughout the New by some of the most obscure but gifted men and women of early U.S. history, this “hidden wisdom” transformed the spiritual life of the still-young nation and, through it, much of the Western world.

Yet the story of the American occult has remained largely untold. Now a leading writer on the subject of alternative spirituality brings it out of the shadows. Here is a rich, fascinating, and colorful history of a religious revolution and an epic of offbeat history.

From the meaning of the symbols on the one-dollar bill to the origins of the Ouija board, Occult America briskly sweeps from the nation’s earliest days to the birth of the New Age era and traces many people and episodes, including:

• The spirit medium who became America’s first female religious leader in 1776
• The supernatural passions that marked the career of Mormon prophet Joseph Smith
• The rural Sunday-school teacher whose clairvoyant visions instigated the dawn of the New Age
• The prominence of mind-power mysticism in the black-nationalist politics of Marcus Garvey
• The Idaho druggist whose mail-order mystical religion ranked as the eighth-largest faith in the world during the Great Depression

Here, too, are America’s homegrown religious movements, from transcendentalism to spiritualism to Christian Science to the positive-thinking philosophy that continues to exert such a powerful pull on the public today. A feast for believers in alternative spirituality, an eye-opener for anyone curious about the unknown byroads of American history, Occult America is an engaging, long-overdue portrait of one nation, under many gods, whose revolutionary influence is still being felt in every corner of the globe.

Amazon Exclusive: Mitch Horowitz on the Occult in American History

Scholars of American history have often dismissed occult traditions, such as Spiritualism, Mesmerism, divination, channeling, and mental-healing, as little more than oddball social trends to be analyzed, fretted over, and debunked. This is a mistake. To really grasp the religious development of our nation, its occult movements and believers must be understood for what they are: communities of belief, who left a profound impact on the culture of America and the modern world.

Early American history is entwined with esoteric spirituality. North America’s first intentional mystical community reached its shores in the summer of 1694. That year, the determined spiritual philosopher Johannes Kelpius led about forty pilgrims out of Central Germany--a region decimated by the Thirty Years’ War--and to the banks of the Wissahickon Creek, just beyond Philadelphia. The city then hosted only about 500 houses, but it represented a Mecca of freedom for the Kelpius circle, who longed for a new homeland where they could practice their brands of astrology, alchemy, numerology, and mystical Christianity without fear of harassment from church or government.

Soon more mystical thinkers from the Rhine Valley journeyed to America, building a larger commune at Ephrata, Pennsylvania. A young woman named Ann Lee fled persecution in her native Manchester, England and relocated her esoteric sect, the "Shaking Quakers"--or the Shakers--to upstate New York in 1776. That same year, a Rhode Island girl, Jemima Wilkinson, declared herself a spirit channeler, took the name Publick Universal Friend, and began to preach across the northeast. The trend was set: America became a destination for religious idealists, especially those of a supernatural bent.

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 Spiritualism, 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.

Indeed, the robust growth of occult and mystical movements in nineteenth-century America--aided by the influence of Freemasonry and Transcendentalism--helped transform the young nation into a laboratory for religious experiment and a launching pad for the revolutions in alternative and New Age spirituality that eventually swept the globe. In the early twentieth century, the new spiritual therapies--from meditation to mind-body healing to motivational thinking--began revolutionizing how religion was understood in contemporary times: not only as a source of salvation but as a means of healing. In this sense, occult America had changed our world. --Mitch Horowitz

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

America has provided fertile ground for alternative spirituality, particularly the form known as occult, whose American leaders, unlike their more grandiose European counterparts, sought to remake mystical ideas as tools of public good and self-help, says Horowitz, editor-in-chief at Tarcher. Looking back at the growth of the spiritualist and utopian movements, he introduces the reader to a parade of personalities, both familiar and obscure: dreamers and planners who flourished along the Psychic Highway. He begins with Shaker Mother Ann, who arrived in America in 1774 followed by, among many others, pioneer prophetess Jemima Wilkinson; Poughkeepsie Seer Andrew Jackson Davis; Madame Blavatsky, who founded the Theosophical Society in 1875 and popularized the word occultism; Frank B. Robinson, the Mail Order Messiah; and Edgar Cayce with his past-life readings. Horowitz covers a wide variety of topics, from voodoo to the tenets of the New Age, psychics in the White House, Rosicrucianism, Wicca, arcane Masonic imagery, Tarot cards, the controversial reincarnation of Bridey Murphy and the origin of the science fictional Shaver mystery. Employing extensive research while writing with an authoritative tone, Horowitz succeeds in showing how a new spiritual culture developed in America. (Sept. 15)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Bantam; Reprint edition (October 5, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0553385151
  • ISBN-13: 978-0553385151
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.6 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.5 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (64 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #362,941 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Kenneth Johnson on November 6, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Mitch Horowitz rescues many colorful characters from obscurity in this entertaining tour through the byways of American religious history. My favorite sections of the book were those describing individuals whose teachings flourished in the early twentieth century but are almost forgotten today. Psychiana was a successful mail-order religion that did not long survive the death of its founder Frank Robinson. Baird Spaulding concocted tall tales about encounters with Oriental spiritual Masters in books that were widely read in the 1930s and 40s. The Moorish Science Temple is a fascinating amalgamation of occult doctrines with black nationalism, whose founder Noble Drew Ali has been little studied by historians. Manly P. Hall authored an occult classic, The Secret Teachings of All Ages, in his twenties and led an organization that epitomized southern California eclecticism through most of the twentieth century. Benjamin Williams popularized astrology and Tarot under his pen name C.C. Zain, but like Hall was famous mainly in the Los Angeles area. All these individuals are given their place in the American religious landscape as pioneers of a movement Horowitz calls occultism or "the occult" which he concludes "resulted in a vast reworking of arcane practices and beliefs from the Old World and the creation of a new spiritual culture." The obscure characters are placed into historical context with exploration of occult ideas in better known movements like Mormonism and New Thought, which contributed to a new spiritual culture. Familiar but little-understood topics like Hoodoo and the history of the Ouija board are illuminated in new ways by Horowitz's groundbreaking research.Read more ›
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Format: Hardcover
Mitch Horowitz, as editor-in-chief at Tarcher/Penguin has brought forth many excellent volumes of esoteric and New Age books. The same depth of understanding of his material and outstanding research also contributes to this important historical account that he has delivered in "Occult America." In my opinion, this book is important because it ties together much of the esoteric history of the U.S. from a journalistic perspective, in a very readable manner. Horowitz knows his subject intellectually, historically, and as one who has cultivated the promotion of these ideas as his life work. His passion for, and depth of understanding of, his subject is obvious throughout this book. I found "Occult America" to be extremely interesting and entertaining, providing a view of the people and ideas that shaped the religious and philosophical life of the country, including Paul Foster Case, Manly Hall, Henry Steel Olcott, Ernest Holmes, Edgar Cayce, Joseph Smith, Henry A. Wallace, Frederick Douglass, Mary Baker Eddy, and the list goes on.

Among the profiles of religious seekers, prophets, teachers, and often colorful individuals, one important point Horowitz makes is that some of these "New Age" beliefs have become widely-accepted, including:

"1. Belief in the therapeutic value of spiritual or religious ideas.
2. Belief in a mind-body connection in health.
3. Belief that human consciousness is evolving to higher stages.
4. Belief that thoughts, in some greater or lesser measure, determine reality.
5. Belief that spiritual understanding is available without allegiance to a specific religion or doctrine.
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Format: Hardcover
This is a fascinating and long overdue look at a largely ignored side of American history. This is must-reading not just for history buffs and students of esotericism, but for anyone wanting to better understand the roots of the American character, since it's all-too-easily overlooked how profoundly these mystical undercurrents have shaped this nation's values, politics, and dreams. I knew a fair amount this topic before going in, but he's managed to unearth some facts and characters even I knew nothing about.

I notice some of the other reviews here mentioning what this book leaves out, but as an editor and writer myself, I can't agree with that. By focusing on the key characters and episodes that he does, Horowitz gives us a concise overview of a very complex subject, leaving the reader to pursue its many leads if they so choose--and in so doing will certainly reach a far wider audience than otherwise, in the respectable tradition of writers like Stephen Jay Gould. He's managed to take a potentially dry subject and make it extremely accessible--and that's no small feat. Kudos.
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Format: Hardcover
I found Occult America to be an absolutely engaging historical account of the spiritual leaders and movements that helped pave the way for Mysticism in the world today. Many people were brought to my attention that I had never before heard of, but have played such a pivotal role in the spiritual movements such as Johannes Kelpius, Ann Lee, and Jemima Wilkinson to name just a few.

Occult America also discusses well known historical figures such as Mary Todd Lincoln (Abraham Lincoln's wife) and her fascination with the occult and occult practices, often getting her husband involved in White House seances. Lincoln was well-known for her involvement in Occult matters, especially after the assassination of her husband, the President. Another interesting "celebrity" involved in the occult, so I have found through Occult America, is Sylvia Plath who used the Ouija board along with her husband, Ted Hughes. This is to believed to have been the inspiration for her poem, "Ouija". It is eerily said that the Ouija predicted fame for Plath, which would cost her both her life with her husband, and her own life. It is a little spooky, if you ask me.

Horowitz's brief history of the Ouija that both thrilled and terrified me. The account taken from an excerpt in the 2001 International Journal of Parapsychology of an 18 year old's experiences with the Ouija is enough to give you nightmares for a day or two.

Although Occult America is brief in the subjects it does introduce the reader to (and that is my only true complaint), Horowitz did a wonderful job of introducing subject matters not before heavily discussed. However, because of this - I really felt as if this was almost more of an introductory book about the history of the occult rather than any sort of true detailed literature.
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