From Hermes to New Thought in A Republic of Mind and Spirit

A Republic of Mind & Spirit (Yale University Press, 2007) by Catherine L. Albanese is the most valuable recent book on American religious history for background on the roots of the Church of Light.  The author is former president of the American Academy of Religion, currently professor and chair of Religious Studies at the University of California- Santa Barbara.  This book was hailed as “a monumental synthesis,” very well received by reviewers, which augurs well for “metaphysical religion” as a dimension appreciated by American historians.  I encountered it first as a source of detail about Elizabeth G. Stuart, a major influence on Sarah Stanley Grimke, and thereby on the Church of Light.   Albanese includes abundant material on Theosophy, Christian Science, and New Thought, but is especially valuable in tracing Hermetic elements through all these traditions.  Future posts will explore Stuart further, but here I will suggest four layers discernable in Sarah Stanley Grimke’s literary influences:

1) abolitionism from her own Stanley family heritage as well as her husband’s Grimke/Weld family history

2) transcendentalism from her education at Boston University, especially from Cyrus A. Bartol, her philosophy professor and the Unitarian clergyman who married her and Archibald Grimke in 1879

3) New Thought feminism in the entourage of Mrs. Stuart, Emma Austin Tolles, and others, starting in the early 1880s and continuing throughout her life

4) Hermetic astrology through her collaboration with Thomas H. Burgoyne and association with Dr. Henry Wagner, her publisher

Although Grimke reached Hermeticism as the final stage of her journey, Albanese’s account shows Hermeticism as an inspiration from the very beginnings of American metaphysical religion.  Here is the passage most succinct in summarizing that theme:

Along a spectrum from occultism to mind cure and the transformation of the Self, we can spot the familiar signature of correspondence, the drawing down of energies of Mind and Spirit, and the strong intent to heal.  In the terms of this narrative, too, we can watch the easy glide from a (material) magic, resonating, however unconventionally, with the magical practice of a past Hermeticism to a newer, mental Magic characterizing Christian Science and New Thought.  Here a simpler work of mind and imagination prevailed; and the esoteric turned—as in Spiritualism—exoteric.(p. 259)

 

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