First academic review of Letters to the Sage

“Johnson has been a neglected figure, known only to scholars of Neoplatonism and esotericism. This most useful, well produced volume—and forthcoming volumes—will provide new source material for scholars and introduce him to a wider public.”– Jay Bregman, University of Maine, Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft, Vol. 12, No. 2, Summer 2017, pp. 250-253

https://muse.jhu.edu/article/668578/summary

Jay Bregman is Professor of History at the University of Maine. A preview is available through Project Muse that includes the entire first page, which covers the overall gist of the book. The review runs almost four pages. Later pages go into detail about specific correspondents in the collection, and provide more depth about their importance, but these first three paragraphs assess Johnson and his networks of acquaintances:

Letters to the Sage comprises the first volume of correspondence to the nineteenth-century American Platonist Thomas M. Johnson (TMJ), who was also active in the contemporary occult revival. The volume consists of letters from occultists, American and foreign, some of them famous. It also provides some clues to the status and nature of his Platonic activities, and recounts conversions from orthodox Christian denominations to religious syncretism, occult thought, and Neoplatonism (e.g. “I finally exchanged my faith in Jesus Christ for … spiritualist freethinking,” S. H. Randall, Oct. 29, 1883, 371).

Bowen’s introduction and notes provide a useful overview of the occult revival and the individuals corresponding with TMJ (including useful comparative schematic diagrams of courses of study and texts). The Introduction attempts to make sense of the maze of relationships, and helps out by highlighting some important passages in the letters, with some analysis. It presents “the sage of the Osage” not only as the translator and missionary of Neoplatonism who edited the Platonist and an American Thomas Taylor (the great English Neoplatonist, who most influenced him), but also as a person of “many hats” (9): attorney, mayor, school board president of Osceola, Missouri, and a leader in the American esoteric community. There are two hundred eighty-six letters from forty-eight correspondents (most of them to Johnson). 1 Collectively they offer “a clear glimpse into the previously little understood rebirth of organized American esotericism in the 1880’s” (10). The letters are organized by correspondent to better highlight insight into specific developments.

Some letters provide an intimate look into the dynamics of the 1880s US rebirth of Theosophy; others from obscure figures help fill in the in gaps of the spread of esoteric movements and their offshoots nationwide. Thus they advance our knowledge of “American Metaphysical Religion.” The correspondence with the first American Muslim convert, A. R. Webb, involved with Johnson’s Theosophical Society Lodge, speaks to the history of Islam in America. In one letter from an Indian Muslim Sufi, “Ruswa” correctly states that Ishraq (“Illuminationism”) is the Persian form of Neoplatonism. TMJ also published Sufi material in the Platonist.

(see linked article for footnotes and the rest of page 1)https://muse.jhu.edu/article/668578/summary

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Abijah Alley of Long Holler, Virginia

Barns at Union Village, 1916

The July 2017 edition of the American Communal Societies Quarterly  features a 40 page article which is the first investigation by academic scholars of a remarkable 19th century Virginian, Abijah Alley (1791-1866) of Long Hollow (aka holler) in Scott County. When I first learned of the research of Nancy Gray Schoonmaker on Alley’s role as a pioneer southern mystic, a Scott County connection jumped out at me: Abijah’s father Thomas Alley in the early 19thc had belonged to the Stony Creek Primitive Baptist Church, which is best known for its place in Melungeon history. The first known written appearance of the word Melungeon is in 1813 records of this church, and some families from the church soon migrated to what would become the 20th century “Melungeon heartland,” Blackwater Valley and Newman’s Ridge in nearby Hancock County, Tennessee. Joined by Shaker historian Christian Goodwillie, Dr. Schoonmaker tells Alley’s story in this new study. It opens with this description of its subject:

Abijah Alley had the gift of prophecy. He also wrote, painted, farmed, and traveled. Sources tell us his peregrinations took him to the Shaker community at Union Village, Ohio; later in Cincinnati and across the Ohio River to Covington, Kentucky; to visit the president in Washington; to Europe; in the Holy Land; to Texas. And that when he returned to his family’s Appalachian property he constructed a replica of King Solomon’s temple for his home.

A mercurial religious visionary, Alley blazed an irregular trail through the first half of nineteenth-century America. Despite his remarkable life he has thus far eluded biographers. This article attempts to bind together the disparate threads of his pilgrimage into a narrative telling of his spiritual journey.

Abijah Alley, with his claims to spirit communication, is a rare example of this phenomenon reaching the rural South, but the research of Schoonmaker and Goodwillie connect this to his long and complicated tenure among the Shakers of Union Village, Ohio. Prior to the new publication, all that was known of Abijah Alley involved his life in Scott County, where he built a replica of Solomon’s Temple in logs as his home, wrote a book containing the revelations from his visits to the spirit world, and acquired a group of followers called the “Little Band.” Abijah’s book, home, and followers are all now lost to history, making him a vivid example of what a 2011 book defines as “Lost Communities of Virginia.” I am currently preparing for a series of historic walks through lost communities in my own region a hundred miles east of Abijah’s family holdings. We have five Virginia destinations which range from “still there but totally transformed” to “gone but we know where it was located.” However, Abijah’s lost community of believers, his lost sacred book, and his lost homesite make his “Little Band” even more quintessentially an example of the phenomenon, since even their locations are yet to be determined.

The fact that the Cincinnati region was home to Shaker communities in an era when spirit communication was thriving is testimony to the pattern seen in Letters to the Sage, in which western migration in the mid-19thc produced a wild proliferation of “alternative spiritualities” such as Mormonism in Missouri and Utah.  Briefly, the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor tried to exemplify the communal impulse in 1886 but within weeks the scheme to form a colony in north Georgia collapsed. Two of the most prolific and significant of Moore Johnson’s correspondents (J.D. Buck and Silas Randall) were in the Cincinnati area, and a third (Helen Sumner) had spent the 1850s in northern Kentucky. Johnson’s most prolific and influential correspondent of all, Alexander Wilder, had spent several years of his youth in the now-lost spiritual community of John Humphrey Noyes in Oneida, NY.  Johnson and Wilder were both deeply influenced by Bronson Alcott whose own failed communal experiment is now memorialized in the Fruitlands Museum.

The most important message for me is that the southwestern VA mountains, despite their seeming isolation from national and international currents of religious change, were home to a man like Abijah Alley. A man whose (quoting Schoonmaker and Goodwillie)

charisma and religious fervor secured the attention and devotion of followers who recognized something of the prophet in him. Finally, Abijah Alley’s visionary work planted seeds of the nascent Spiritualist movement in the American South. They grew and bore fruit, just as the seeds Alley retrieved from the Holy Land bloomed for a time around his temple at Long Holler.

The July 2017 issue is Vol 11, no 3, published by Richard W. Couper Press, available for $10 per issue or $35 annually to: American Communal Societies Quarterly, Hamilton College Library, 198 College Hill Rd., Clinton NY, 13323, checks payable to Trustees of Hamilton College.

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Alice Barr Johnson in the Journal of the Johnson Library and Museum

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Troubled Emissaries

In 2016, Alexandria West, a non-profit based in Turlock, California, published Troubled Emissaries: How H.P. Blavatsky’s Successors Transformed the Theosophical Society from 1891 to 1895 by Brett Forray. The conflicts over spiritual authority leading to eventual breakup of the Theosophical Society discussed in this book shed light on Letters to the Sage and vice versa. In discussing the 1895 convention of U.S. Theosophists in Boston that formalized the secession of the former American Section, Forray quotes “Jasper Niemand,” pen name of Julia Keightley, arguing that this was the fourth transformation the organization had undergone in the U.S. in twenty years:

The T.S. took on a third form, and passed out of the Board of Control stage into that of the late American Section, and the fourth stage was reached at Boston Convention, 1895, when the original parent body [Aryan Lodge in New York City] and branches voted autonomy and became the Theosophical Society in America by an overwhelming majority. In each instance the society outgrew the old form and reincarnated anew in conditions more favorable to the work. (p. 289)

Here Niemand describes the original Theosophical Society of the 1870s as the first form or stage, the 1884-6 Board of Control as the second, the American Section established in 1886 as the third, and the 1895 autonomous Theosophical Society in America as the fourth. This helps to explain why both Alexander Wilder and Thomas Moore Johnson were much less involved in the TS in the 1890s than they had been in the 1870s and 1880s. Wilder was a very prominent figure in the first 1870s “incarnation,” having edited and written the introduction to Blavatsky’s Isis Unveiled and becoming a Vice President of the Society for a time. As part of the Board of Control, Johnson was deeply involved in the Society during the second phase which coincided with the rise of the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor in the mid-1880s.   During this phase, five of the seven original members of the T.S. American Board of Control (Buck, Cables, Johnson, Page, and Shelley) were also members of the HBofL.

Forray quotes a Canadian Theosophical editor, A.E.S. Smythe, in a 1939 explanation of why there was still a need to delve into the painful sectarian splits of the 1890s TS:

I have been arraigned from time to time for ever alluding to some of these past incidents. I have done so without malice and only as historically necessary in order to explain why some things are as they are. But if we import personal prejudices and hostile sentiment into historical study it will never get anywhere. Why mention these matters at all? I am asked. The psycho-analysts will tell you that as long as they lie concealed in the mind there can never be peace. Let us not be afraid to face either the past or the future in our present consideration of the life before and around us. Otherwise we may continue to make the same old mistakes that our predecessors made, and what is often worst of all, be proud to make them. (A.E.S. Smythe, Digging Up Old Bones, The Canadian Theosophist, Oct. 15, 1939)

Forray’s 2016 statement about the present need for a fresh consideration of the period suggests that little progress has been made in understanding the bitter controversies of the 1890s between partisans of Annie Besant and William Q. Judge:

What is especially missing in a discussion about the relationship between Judge and Besant is an objectivity to closely review and analyze, for example, their explanations about Mahatmic messages that is detached from the ideologies and apologies professed by the remaining Theosophical groups favoring either protagonist. It is one thing to recognize a person’s achievements; it is another as an extension of those achievements to idolize that person beyond the possibility of examination.(pp. 352-3)

By the early twentieth century, this tendency to idolize Theosophical leaders and engage in conflict over their competing claims was apparent to Alexander Wilder and became a source of frustration for him. Three letters from Wilder to Johnson in the forthcoming second volume of Letters to the Sage show that by the twentieth century the divisions among Theosophists had created a mine field for him as a writer and editor. On September 20, 1900, he wrote to Johnson about the fate of a translation he was working on:

Another matter is that of possible publication.  On that I am at sea. Col. Olcott of The Theosophist a year or more ago offered to print it at Madras and furnish me 500 copies. That was quite generous. Yet I apprehend it would appear in an unattractive form.

Mr. J.B. Fussell now of Point Loma (San Diego, California) wrote me that may be Mrs. Tingly, of the American Theosophists (illegible) might be induced to publish it; allowing me nothing for my work. As I have not undertaken it with any expectation of pay, that consideration does not influence me. Whether it would be advisable to publish it under these auspices is worth considering. I wish it to stand on its own merits, and not to entangle myself with any class of individuals.

On February 22, 1906, Wilder reported to Johnson that he had met H.W. Percival in October 1904, when he stated the intention to start a new magazine for which he wanted a series of papers on Plato’s dialogues, which Wilder agreed to provide. The new magazine, The Word, described itself as “Theosophical” but Wilder was unenthusiastic about the label.

Since the establishment of the Theosophical Society in 1875, it has split into several minor rival bodies. The American Society divided from those of the Eastern Continent; then the friends of Dr. Buck divided from those of Mrs. Tingley, and I apprehend that those at 244 Lennox Avenue [headquarters for Percival] are separate and apart from the others. I have taken no pains to ascertain, and I wish to hold aloof from their quarrels.

Two later letters indicate that the Plato series Wilder wrote for Percival’s Word continued until his death in 1908. In one of his last letters, dated August 1, 1907, he wrote to Johnson about his frustrations with G.R.S. Mead:

He visited me once, some 15 or more years ago. I was much pleased with him. But I have been diverted by his curious treatment of myself. When Lucifer was published and Theosophical Review, they sent me several volumes. But Mr. Hargrove desired me to write articles in the Later Platonists, etc. So the London men cut me off. Some seasons after, I was reinstated, and then again discarded. The fact, I apprehend is that with “Brotherhood” this resembles the Parisians of 1792 when the demand was to be a brother or be killed. I always found Mr. Mead a very instructive writer. Every man has a niche in which he is valuable, and so I thought of him. But with factional bickerings I will have nothing to do.

Several correspondents who appear in Volume I of Letters to the Sage figure prominently in Forray’s new book. Dr. J.D. Buck appears as a fanatical proponent of American secession from Adyar, and G.R.S. Mead as a passionate opponent thereof. James Pryse also plays a prominent role in pivotal events both in London and in the U.S.  Any readers of Letters to the Sage will find Troubled Emissaries a reliable, well-researched, and instructive guide to the 1890s experiences of American Theosophists.  As the above excerpts reveal, in the forthcoming second volume, Wilder’s last letters to Johnson give a twentieth century retrospective glance at the effects of the 1890s disruptions within the Theosophical Society.

 

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At Long Last Osceola

More than four years have elapsed since I began collaborating with Patrick Bowen on the transcription, annotation, and biographical sketches for Letters to the Sage. But only last week did I finally get to Osceola, Missouri where Thomas Moore Johnson, Sage of the Osage, was born and spent most of his life. This visit followed the biennial convention of the Church of Light in Albuquerque, where a three hour preconference was devoted to Johnson and his correspondents. That presentation will be the source of several future updates to this blog. After the conference and before the visit to Osceola, I was able to meet Patrick Bowen at last after four years of collaboration, while visiting friends in Colorado.

I am very grateful to Mary Ann Johnson Arnett, a great-granddaughter of Thomas Moore Johnson, and her husband Jim Arnett for welcoming me to their Kansas home where they have collected memorabilia of the Johnson family and St. Clair County that whetted my appetite for the next day’s visit to Osceola. Before visiting the Johnson Library and Museum, the Arnetts took me to the St. Clair County Historical Society Museum just off the quaint town square. Welcoming us to the museum was Osceola resident and author Meredith Anderson, who with his wife Linda has written more than a dozen books many of which focus on 19th century Missouri. Downstairs exhibit space is broken up into several rooms, one of which is devoted to the Johnson family of Osceola, which include the wedding dress of Alice Barr Johnson, wife of TMJ, and a top hat that he wore. The upstairs of the former church building contains a large meeting hall, and the picture above shows Jim Arnett in the meeting hall. On the way to the Johnson Library and Museum, we stopped at the cemetery where Thomas and Alice Johnson are buried, next to the gravesite of their son and his wife.

We then proceeded to the Johnson Library and Museum which overlooks the former Osage River which is now a branch of Truman Lake. I have previously posted a YouTube video of Tom Johnson’s tour of the building, but having him lead me through the buildings in person was a great honor and a memory I will keep the rest of my life. At the end of the tour we all had an unexpected surprise from Larry Lewis, whose collateral ancestor Edwin Lewis is mentioned in the Letters as the only Osceola friend of TMJ to follow him into both the Theosophical Society and the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor. Larry is author of a new history of Osceola, and just that morning he had learned by email that his book had been nominated to the State Historical Society of Missouri for best book of the year on Missouri history. I have just gotten back home and not yet begun the book, but Larry pointed out to me on page 90 he mentions Letters to the Sage, names Patrick and me as coeditors, and gives publishing information. This is a big milestone for us, the first new book in which LTS is mentioned. I would have expected it to be in some academic tome but being mentioned in a book about Osceola from someone intimately acquainted with the TM Johnson descendants is ten times more gratifying. Before heading back home I enjoyed lunch with Larry and his wife Ruth and the Arnetts within sight of Osceola’s town square, and learned even more about the town’s history. Here is a review of the new book.

Part 2: after arriving back in Virginia I read Larry Lewis’s book and added the following remarks:

Any small county seat would be fortunate to have its stories told by a native with Mr. Lewis’s qualifications. A descendant of the earliest settlers of St. Clair County, he spent ten years of childhood there before being relocated by his father’s wartime employment in Connecticut, and then spent most of his adult life elsewhere. Returning for good after retirement from the Episcopal ministry in 1997, he has been involved in many aspects of town life, including becoming a founding board member of the Johnson Library and Museum established in 1999. His accounts combine the nostalgic glow of family memories and objective description of disasters and decline following the 1861 burning of the town by Kansas Jayhawks and the creation of Truman Lake in the 1970s which ruined what had once been a lively waterfront district on the Osage River.

Chapter 6, “Emily’s Cat,” opens with a description of his first cousin Emily Johnson’s pet Iamblichius, a name with which Lewis was unfamiliar until decades later when he developed an interest in her grandfather Thomas Moore Johnson. Although TMJ was long gone by the time Larry arrived on the scene, “Miz Moore Johnson,” his widow Alice, survived until 1948 and is fondly remembered to this day. The chapter focuses largely on the life and work of TMJ, and includes a description of the varied scholars and writers who have taken an interest in him in recent years. These passages are excerpted from pages 89 and 90:

Word about Thomas Moore Johnson is getting around. Scholars on the east and west coasts and parts between are seeking information with a view to writing about the mystical phase of Johnson’s thinking. The scholar K. Paul Johnson in Virginia has documented Moore Johnson’s 1880s relation to the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor [in this blog-KPJ]…Far to the west, in southern California, poet and musician Ronnie Pontiac published a novella-length study of Thomas M. Johnson in the March 19, 2013 issue of Newtopia Magazine…Johnson is cast as a hero in an article by Patrick D. Bowen published the following year…for the journal Theosophical History…Here’s the opening sentence of Bowen’s conclusion: “This article has, hopefully, demonstrated that a number of key developments in American esotericism can be traced to Missouri in the 1880s and that Thomas M. Johnson was a key player in all of these.” Classicist Jay Bregman at the University of Maine, a specialist in the influence of Neoplatonism on the thought of New England Transcendentalism and its offshoots, in his article “Thomas M. Johnson the Platonist” explains the attraction of devotees of the esoteric for Johnson and his Neoplatonist friends…across the Atlantic in Great Britain..the Prometheus Trust published in 2015 the Collected Works of Thomas M. Johnson, the Great American Platonist…Near the beginning of 2016, Patrick Bowen and K. Paul Johnson published Letters to the Sage

In his book published later in 2016, Mr. Lewis brings the unique perspective of an Osceola resident with family lies to the Johnsons to his own work which combines memoir, Civil War history, ecological commentary, and thoughts about the present and future of his home town. I highly recommend the book to anyone who has taken an interest in Thomas Moore Johnson.

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Hermeticism in Expect Great Things by Kevin Dann


A new study of Henry David Thoreau sheds more light on the Hermetic underpinnings of Transcendentalism. In Expect Great Things, Kevin Dann notes that the figure in the Concord milieu most influential in promoting Hermetic ideas was Bronson Alcott, who was clearly the transcendentalist held in greatest esteem by Alexander Wilder– who in turn was the strongest influence on Thomas Moore Johnson. In the book’s second chapter, “Seeing the Unseen,” Dann writes:

Alcott’s Hermeticism today seems aberrant, but the esteem with which he was held by Thoreau, Emerson, and others suggests that behind the transcendentalist’s principal initiative of working out a practical ethos for living in the modern world was a vast cosmos of esoteric thought. (p67)

In the same chapter, Dann comments that

Whenever Thoreau turned his thoughts explicitly toward the question of destiny, stars appeared. “My fate is in some sense linked with that of the stars, and if they are to persevere to a great end, shall I die who could conjecture it? It surely is some encouragement to know that the stars are my fellow creatures, for I do not suspect but they are reserved for a high destiny.”(p82)

Reviewers have widely agreed that Dann brings a new and fresh perspective to Thoreau and finds esoteric themes throughout his life and work. The book was edited by the estimable Mitch Horowitz and published by Penguin/Random House late last year. The New York Times Book Review commented:

Far from the well-worn paths of academic scholarship, Dann acquaints his reader with a protagonist who is an American mystic, a new-age prophet, a cosmic explorer … Dann takes the road less traveled, leading a reader into out-of-the-way places, through hidden passages in Thoreau’s personal life … Expect Great Things is eccentric, strange, even far-fetched, but nonetheless admirable — a bit like Henry David Thoreau.” –John Kaag, New York Times Book Review

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Aphrodite's Daughters by Maureen Honey

This new study from Rutgers University Press provides the longest and most informative publication to date about Angelina Weld Grimké, one of three Harlem Renaissance poets discussed by Maureen Honey. Here is the summary from the publisher’s website:

The Harlem Renaissance was a watershed moment for racial uplift, poetic innovation, sexual liberation, and female empowerment. Aphrodite’s Daughters introduces us to three amazing women who were at the forefront of all these developments, poetic iconoclasts who pioneered new and candidly erotic forms of female self-expression.

Maureen Honey paints a vivid portrait of three African American women—Angelina Weld Grimké, Gwendolyn B. Bennett, and Mae V. Cowdery—who came from very different backgrounds but converged in late 1920s Harlem to leave a major mark on the literary landscape. She examines the varied ways these poets articulated female sexual desire, ranging from Grimké’s invocation of a Sapphic goddess figure to Cowdery’s frank depiction of bisexual erotics to Bennett’s risky exploration of the borders between sexual pleasure and pain. Yet Honey also considers how they were united in their commitment to the female body as a primary source of meaning, strength, and transcendence.

The product of extensive archival research, Aphrodite’s Daughters draws from Grimké, Bennett, and Cowdery’s published and unpublished poetry, along with rare periodicals and biographical materials, to immerse us in the lives of these remarkable women and the world in which they lived. It thus not only shows us how their artistic contributions and cultural interventions were vital to their own era, but also demonstrates how the poetic heart of their work keeps on beating.

Although it provides little new information about Angelina’s mother Sarah, it provides the most insightful discussion available about the impact of her abandonment of Angelina and her father Archibald.

The devastating effect on Archibald of Sarah’s abandonment and his inability to fashion another intimate relationship perhaps became for Angelina a model of failed lasting romance and a foundational template of unrequited love. Although Grimke’s poetry reflects failed relationships in her own life, the examples of her father’s romantic disappointments and her mother’s inability to form a stable intimate bond after she left her husband undoubtedly lurked at the back of her mind when as a young adult she contemplated the likelihood of ever establishing a permanent tie with anyone.

Five years ago when Marc Demarest and I first encountered Sarah’s only book, Esoteric Lessons, we contemplated publishing a reprint with scholarly annotations and a biographical introduction. But last year a photographic reprint was published without any new content, and I concluded that it would be best to publish my own edition as an IAPSOP monograph like those already available from John B. Buescher and John Patrick Deveney. I had considered it complete but find much new material about Angelina’s relationship with Sarah in Daughters of Aphrodite, so will revise the ending. The monograph will be a companion volume of sorts to the Typhon Press publication Letters to the Sage, the second volume of which should be completed next year.

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Fruitlands by Richard Francis

Bronson Alcott seems to lurk around every corner in my research into the New England Transcendentalist background of the Thomas Moore Johnson correspondence. His “Western tours” to Missouri and Illinois lit the flame of the movement called the “Missouri Platonists” in recent historical works, and Johnson met him in this context. Alexander Wilder, Johnson’s chief advisor during publication of his journal The Platonist (1881-1888), mentioned Alcott more frequently and admiringly than any other colleagues in the Concord School of Philosophy. Alcott met Sarah Stanley shortly before her marriage to Archibald Grimke, and both were admirers and acquaintances of Mary Baker Glover, soon to become Mrs. Eddy. The Alcotts’ family life was filled with twists and turns as Bronson’s idealism and enthusiasm led him into many far fetched schemes and failed projects. His family’s stay of less than one year at the Harvard, MA farm which is now the Fruitlands Museum was satirized in daughter Louisa’s 1873 semi-fictional Transcendental Wild Oats. In 2010 Yale University Press published a book by historian Richard Francis, author of previous studies of communities like Fruitlands, entirely devoted to that single failed venture.

The author’s blog provides this summary of what made the short-lived experiment so memorable and so worthy of a book length study:

The intention was no less than to create paradise on earth. The members believed that this would be achievable as long as they established the appropriate relationship with the environment. They were what we would call vegans, making no use of animal products and wearing only linen (cotton was forbidden because it was the product of slavery). Samuel Bower went one step further, advocating nudity as the way to be at one with your surroundings rather than insulated from them.

What makes the Fruitlanders’ ideas fascinating is their combination of anachronistic and forward-looking ways of thinking. They had a literal interpretation of the story of the Garden of Eden in Genesis; at the same time they were concerned with issues that worry us today – the exploitation of the natural world, the problem of pollution (and even climate change), the shortcomings of city life, the duty of civil disobedience. In some respects they were grim fundamentalists; in others, the ancestors of twentieth century hippies; and, even more relevantly, the precursors of today’s environmental activists.

The story of Fruitlands revolves round the conflict between family loyalty and social responsibility, the tension between the individual and the community. It is a tragic-comic tale of hapless blundering and high idealism, and my book tries to do justice to the strange texture of life in the community, its jealousies, antagonism and comedy, the austere values, the intellectual daring, and the glaring incompetence of the participants.

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Quest Magazine Review of Letters to the Sage vol. 1


The Winter 2017 issue of Quest, published by the Theosophical Society in America, includes a substantial review of Letters to the Sage by Jay Kinney. Full issues become available online after a year, but for now only subscribers can read the entire 12-paragraph review. Following guidelines for Fair Use, I share four paragraphs below:

One might think that at this late date the history of both the Theosophical Society and the wider milieu of the esoterically inclined during the late nineteenth century have been pretty well picked over. But new evidence keeps emerging that this is hardly the case. The book in hand, Letters to the Sage, offers remarkable evidence that there is still plenty to be dug up about this significant era.

Patrick Bowen’s 75-page introduction ably establishes Johnson’s significance: he edited and published The Platonist, a groundbreaking philosophical journal for a general, not academic, readership; he was a member of the Board of Control of the American TS in the wake of HPB and Olcott’s departure for India, establishing the first TS branch beyond New York at a time when the American survival of the TS was up in the air. In the pursuit of “practical occultism” he joined the HBL, [Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor– KPJ] became for a time its leader in the U.S., and assisted in the spread of interest in Tarot and astrology.

Letters to the Sage is an important contribution to our understanding of the early years of the TS and the HBL. Many of the correspondents collected here were members of both, hedging their bets on which group might deliver the most insightful goods. (The HBL soon faded from the scene, reincarnating later as C.C. Zain’s Church of Light, which survives to this day.)

Books such as Letters to the Sage are clearly the beneficiaries of the recent revolution in print on demand publishing, which allows small publishers such as Typhon Press to issue books for highly specialized audiences without having to commit to the expense of initial print runs in the thousands. This work may be of primary interest to students of Theosophical and occult history, but the fact that this material is now able to see the light of day is a gift to everyone who has even the slightest interest in the roots of modern esotericism.

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Deterritorialization and Reterritorialization

While working on the Alexander Wilder letters to Thomas Johnson, I was struck by a common trait the two men shared in the 1880s which reminds me of the New Age scene of the 1980s. In each case, deterritorialization beginning in the 70s accelerated in the 80s but was countered by reterritorialization trends in the 90s. Wilder and Johnson were both exemplars of deterritorialization who found themselves sidelined by the reterritorialization trends that inevitably ensued.

In A History of Conversion to Islam in the United States, Volume I, Patrick D. Bowen draws on the twin concepts of deterritorialization and reterritorialization as developed in the writings of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, who “conceptualize the modern era as being fundamentally characterized by its relative lack of traditional boundaries or `territories’– be they physical, political, cultural, intellectual, spiritual, and psychological. Deterritorialization does not imply, of course, that boundaries no longer exist; indeed, Deleuze and Guattari propose that the modern world is constantly undergoing both deterritorialization and reterritorialization. Nevertheless, reterritorialization is itself shaped by the same globalizing historical processes–such as the emergence of both modern commercial and print technology–that are responsible for deterritorialization.”

After citing Unitarian Transcendentalism as the most potent factor in mid-19th century deterritorialization of religion, Patrick comments about Spiritualism as another standard bearer of the same process: “The radically deterritorialized approach to religion of spiritualism, while immensely important for liberalizing US religious sentiment and allowing Americans to briefly take on non-Christian identities, because it was so strongly committed to the notion that religious truth can be observed in all religions and throughout the world, was necessarily going to preclude conversion to a single non-Christian religion.” Applying these concepts to Islamic conversion in the U.S., Bowen analyzes factors that also shed light on Alexander Wilder’s and Thomas Johnson’s embrace of Platonism in the 1880s, a decade when “the American occult revival diversified in various ways, but it was through Johnson’s efforts that one of the most important diversifying currents was able to flourish”– the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor.

Volume I of Letters to the Sage reveals the border between the American Theosophical Society and the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor as open and undefended until TS leaders, alarmed about subversion, treated all HBofL leaders as persona non grata by 1886. Wilder, never associated with the HBofL, maintained more Theosophical ties than Johnson but was ever more marginalized thereafter. In Boston I found comparable evidence of an open border between Christian Science and Unitarianism in the late 1870s and early 1880s, followed by increasing exclusivism within Christian Science and a more critical attitude by Unitarians. More surprising in the Johnson letters were the revelations of intertwined roots and open borders among Rosicrucianism, Sufism, Hermeticism, and Baha’i, with people wandering freely across vaguely defined boundaries in the 19th century that by the early 20thc were hardening into institutional enclaves. Spiritualism was perhaps the most amorphous of all such groups in the 19th century, but during the 20th became a distinct small sect without much cultural interchange compared to its origins.

Continued musings about the Wilder-Johnson correspondence…still in flux

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The Solitaire Platonist

The second volume of Letters to the Sage is a step nearer completion as of the beginning of 2017. Last month I completed a first draft of a chronology of the letters. This year, I will be completing the editing of the text of Wilder’s letters with assistance of academic specialists in Greek and Hebrew respectively, finishing up the transcription, transliteration, and translation of the terms in those languages. Publication is planned for early 2019; there are two related publications that will appear in 2017 and 2018 that I’ll post about when they are formally announced. The rest of this year’s blog entries will relate to the first volume of Letters to the Sage. But this month, fresh from completing a round of work on the Wilder letters, I would like to comment on the one that is by far most revealing of Wilder’s innermost thoughts and feelings and perhaps even Johnson’s. Normally the Wilder/Johnson letters refer constantly to publications, current events, acquaintances, etc.– events in the “outer” world. But occasionally Wilder reveals a deeper layer of himself, and in no letter more than that of October 20, 1888.

In May 1882, Wilder wrote to Johnson:

About that word solitaire. The real fact is, we want a word which shall denote a person still living among men yet not of them. I would have kept the French word gladly, if it would have been so understood. Emerson says: “It is easy to live after the world’s opinion, it is easy in solitude to live after your own; but the great man is he who, in the midst of the crowd, keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.” I apprehend that this “great man” is the solitaire of the Monist philosopher. I guess “individual” comes as near as any word.

The quote is from Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance,” and was introduced by Wilder to refer to editorial matters in The Platonist, but it also describes both Wilder and Johnson in their relationships to their public roles as doctor, lawyer, mayor, editor, Theosophist, member of the American Akademe of Philosophy, etc. Each was enmeshed in practical life and pursuing organizational alliances to promote their interests, and yet totally resistant to any curtailment of their individual freedom of thought and expression. Wilder was friendly with Spiritualists, Theosophists, Christian Platonists, and New Thought promoters, but his objective was always and forever the promotion of Plato not simply as a historic philosopher but as a pivotal figure in the spiritual evolution of humanity. In October 1888 he wrote to Johnson:

Whether we construe literally the old notion that souls live in the empyraeum beyond the orbit of Saturn, and descend thence by the Galaxy or sea of milk into the cosmos within that circle, _ or read the matter more esoterically as a passing from the interior world to the physical, we must realize that the advent of the great Sage was in some way a katabasis for him, while showing a way of emergence for us. Before him the Hellenic world, or rather the Ionic, aided by Magi and Egyptian hierophants had begun to guess at and explore the unseen and bring it to the scope of contemplation. Platô gave these surmises their true meaning and opened to our vision the concept of the One, the real, that which truly is. He made complete the work of those who preceded, he became the model, the quarry for those who came after. Hence, Emerson’s declaration: “We are all his men.”

This man knew the Perfective Rite as an hierophantes without the necessity for a formal esoteric initiation. He perceived what all symbology denoted; and the year of his birth ought to be made the Era of Philosophic Calendars. The Romans date their years from the supposed building of their city; and Christians make their enumeration from the suppositious reckoning of the birth of Jesus. Our Sage was “real man”, savant, stateman, idealist – or Divine Man. We may commensurate his appearance in this mundane region but in the true being we do more. He thus lives still.

In his lumen we see the Phôs. The Broad Philosopher made the Western world suitable for men to breathe in. He has given us a glint from the everlasting Home. In handling him we testify our own worth. We exhibit our own share in that epistemê or over-knowledge which interpenetrates all real science, and shows our human participation of the mind and intellect of God.

(to be continued)

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Western Sufism: From the Abbasids to the New Age

Oxford University Press consistently publishes cutting edge scholarship on esotericism and related movements and is the gold standard of academic writing in religious studies. November 16 was publication date for this book covering nearly two thousand years of history. As described by the publisher:

Sedgwick starts with the earliest origins of Western Sufism in late antique Neoplatonism and early Arab philosophy, and traces later origins in repeated intercultural transfers from the Muslim world to the West, in the thought of the European Renaissance and Enlightenment, and in the intellectual and religious ferment of the nineteenth century. He then follows the development of organized Sufism in the West from 1915 until 1968, the year in which the first Western Sufi order based on purely Islamic models was founded.

Highly relevant to my ongoing research is much of the material in chapter 8, “Transcendentalism, Theosophy, and Sufism.”  Three sections relate to the Thomas Moore Johnson correspondence.  “Transcendentalism and the Missouri Platonists” identifies Transcendentalism as a small intellectual movement of which the Missouri Platonists, were successors, another small intellectual movement. “Both the Transcendentalists and the Missouri Platonists were Neoplatonists, and both were universalists. Neoplatonism was more important to them than Sufism, but both included Sufism in their universalism.” Over two pages are devoted to a section on Thomas Moore Johnson and The Platonist, and Sedgwick draws on the research of Patrick Bowen about the Sufic Circle within the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor, first reported in his first volume of A History of Conversion to Islam in the U.S., and further developed in his introduction to Letters to the Sage on the connection between Johnson’s circle of acquaintances and Sufism. Other than Johnson, the person most discussed by Sedgwick and relevant to the Letters project is Carl-Henrik Bjerregaard, who belonged to both the Hermetic Brotherhood and the Theosophical Society and was later instrumental in the first Western Sufi movement focused on the teachings of Hazrat Inayat Khan.

This book is a mental feast for anyone with an interest in the diffusion of Sufism in the West. On subjects where I had a modest amount of knowledge, like Idries Shah, I found Sedgwick the fairest-minded commentor to date. It was most encouraging to see his judicious appraisal of Thomas Johnson and the Missouri Platonists, in whose world I am currently immersed.  In the first half of the book, the review of neoplatonic and myriad other influences on Sufism is thorough and engaging.  But my favorite parts of the book were the material almost completely new to me, concerning the Sufi Order in the West and Meher Baba’s Sufism Reoriented.  The intricate “family tree” relationships of these groups connect to both the Theosophical Society and the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor and hence to the Johnson letters.

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Treasures from Lily Dale

IAPSOP.com has announced the sixth release of the Standard Spiritualist and Occult Corpus (SSOC), the online archive of esoteric texts which has now grown to more than 6700 titles.  There are also more than fifty new or expanded periodicals holdings, thanks to the labors of Marc Demarest, John P. Deveney, and John B. Buescher at the Marion Skidmore Library in Lily Dale, New York, headquarters of the National Spiritualist Association of Churches (NSAC). Although I have yet to visit Lily Dale, reading the IAPSOP news was a trip down memory lane for me thanks to an excellent two part public radio documentary for which I was interviewed in late 1998. Part of Helen Borten’s series A Sense of Place, Madame Blavatsky and the Colonel (link to part one) made considerable use of my interview (link to part two) along with voice actor portrayals of Helena Blavatsky and Henry Olcott and associates in their own words. The environment in which the two met in 1874, a Spiritualist gathering in rural Vermont, inspired Borten to visit Lily Dale in western New York state, one of the few surviving enclaves for Spiritualists. Students of esoteric history have much to be grateful for with this upgrade, thanks to the generosity of Lily Dale in sharing its rare collections with the public, and the labors of the IAPSOP archival team. My appreciation for Ms. Borten’s documentary and my inclusion therein was renewed by this reminder of Lily Dale’s ongoing significance as home of the world’s largest Spiritualist library.

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Letters to the Sage, first Amazon review

It will probably be 2017 before any print reviews appear, but we now have our first Amazon review and it is very gratifying.  One correction: much as I would like to share credit for Patrick Bowen’s excellent introduction to Volume I, it is entirely his own work.  Hope that idealistreader will be pleased by Volume II which is almost entirely letters from Alexander Wilder and much more focused on Platonism than the first volume.

The “Sage” Thomas Moore Johnson truly was a giant in the field of Platonic thought and research in the midwest in the late 1880’s and early 1900’s. I learned about Johnson by reading Paul Anderson’s book Platonism in the Midwest and also Katherine Raine and George Mills Harper’s book on Thomas Taylor (the English Translator of Plato). I have also read several issues of Johnson’s journal The Platonist. So naturally, when I learned that a book with Thomas Moore Johnson’s correspondence was coming out I considered purchasing it. However, initially, I was reluctant because I noticed the first volume did not contain correspondence with such friends as William T. Harris, Alexander Wilder and Bronson Alcott. But despite my reservations, I made the purchase and I am very glad I did. Some of the correspondents are better known (G.R.S. Mead, Anna Kingsford) others obscure, but all the letters contain very interesting thoughts and observations of truth seekers.To think so much esoteric thought was going on over 100 years ago. Bowen and Johnson provide the reader with extremely well researched biographical sketches and in some cases pictures of Johnson’s correspondents. I am in awe at how they gathered all the biographical information. In addition, they give a very thorough biography of Thomas Moore Johnson in the introduction. I commend Patrick Bowen and K. Paul Johnson for the voluminous research they conducted to generate this book and I look forward to purchasing future volumes in this series.

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Norman Astley Handwriting

Five years ago, I gave a presentation to the biennial Church of Light convention in which I suggested that Norman Astley, who married Genevieve Stebbins in 1892 and with her was a major influence on Elbert Benjamine until her death in 1933, had been born as Thomas Henry D’Alton and then known as Thomas Henry Burgoyne from 1883 until becoming Astley and claiming that Burgoyne had died. We have found no photographs of Astley to compare with those of Burgoyne. But thanks to Ancestry.com, a North Carolina researcher made contact with Marc Demarest, publisher of the Typhon Press and IAPSOP.com, after discovering some letters from Norman Astley written in his time as a landowner in the mountains of Burke and Watauga counties. Having no expertise in forensic handwriting analysis, I am now reading a couple of textbooks to get background on the subject prior to contacting any specialists. When looking at entire letters, the general appearance of the Astley and Burgoyne handwritings seems similar, in terms of slant, size, and writing style, but this can be deceiving in that nineteenth century handwritings are often identifiable as specific styles taught by different penmanship methods.  Comparing specific words is the first step I have taken, as the formation of the most common word “the” seems similar in the Astley and Burgoyne handwritings.

More complicated is the similarity of words that I found in Astley’s letters and the same or similar words in Burgoyne’s. The examples I searched for were second, accepted, received, and number.  As with the examples of “the” the sepia writing is Burgoyne and the black and white is Astley; sometimes I could only find a similar word in Burgoyne. The results are below.

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