Inside Occult America
Q: Occult America traces the ways in which occult and magical movements shaped our nation—politically, intellectually, religiously, culturally, and even commercially. Why did the U.S. prove to be such fertile ground for occult movements? What are some primary examples of how the occult influenced American identity and vice versa?
Mitch: Alternative religious movements were entwined with America from its earliest days. In the mid-1600s, just as Europe was experiencing a backlash against occult and esoteric spiritual movements, the American colonies were developing a reputation for religious liberalism. When the town of Philadelphia was a cluster of only a few hundred houses, it hosted faiths ranging from Quakerism to the Mennonites to mystical offshoots of the Lutheran church. The year 1694 marked a turning point for the colonies (and, in many ways, the modern spiritual world) through what initially appeared a very modest event: At that time the first intentional mystical community reached North America when the esoteric scholar Johannes Kelpius led a small sect out of Central Germany to the Wissahickon Creek near Philadelphia. His magical brotherhood practiced its own forms of astrology, alchemy, numerology, Kabala, and esoteric Christianity. News of their “Tabernacle in the Forest” spread back to the Old World and served as a magnet for other occult and esoteric movements. By the early 1700s, admirers of Kelpius formed a new and larger commune at Ephrata, Pennsylvania. In 1776, the Shakers – who were once considered a very mysterious sect – broke ground on a settlement outside Albany, New York. That same year the nation’s first “spirit channeler,” a 24-year-old woman who called herself the Publick Universal Friend, began to preach across New England. Beginning in the early 1800s, a region of Central New York called the “Burned-Over District” became suffused with Spiritualism, Mesmerism, and various occult experiments. These movements helped solidify early America’s role as a safe harbor for religious innovation and eventually made the nation into a launching pad for the revolutions in alternative spirituality that swept the globe in the twentieth century.