Upstate Cauldron by Joscelyn Godwin

Joscelyn Godwin’s new book is so entertaining and informative that I didn’t want to put it down and didn’t want it to end. With those conflicting desires, I read it slowly to savor all the wonderful eccentric characters and groups he describes in Upstate Cauldron. There are more than 40 according to the back cover, which includes a quotable endorsement from Mitch Horowitz who calls Godwin the “dean of alternative spiritual history” and concludes “This is both splendid history and a book of wonders in uncovering lost fragments of our world. Throw away your highlighter—because you won’t know where to stop.” The book succeeds equally as testimony to Godwin’s mastery of “alternative spirituality” chronicles and as a work of state and regional history. With abundant maps and photographs, and a gazetteer of sites of interest, it deserves a place on the bookshelves of history enthusiasts throughout the upstate region.

Two chapters are of particular interest to the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor. In chapter 14 Godwin gives an engaging summary of the life and works of Paschal Beverly Randolph, who influenced the HBofL teachings posthumously. Chapter 18 describes Josephine Cables Aldrich’s role in Rochester formation of both the first Theosophical Society branch in America and the first HBofL group.

At the end of the book I was left wishing for 49 more like it, one on each remaining state. But there is no other state like New York in terms of eccentric 19th century spiritual movements. In his thoughtful concluding chapter, Godwin calls on Charles Fort’s observation that “anomalous phenomena tend to cluster in time and place.” As one eerie example of this, he explains the geographical clustering of the origins of Mormonism, Spiritualism, and Adventism within a few square miles of Upstate New York:

Hiram Edson’s vision of Christ in the cornfield in 1844 (see chapter 8), which became the theological foundation of Adventism, happened between Clifton Springs and Port Gibson. That is about five miles from the Sacred Grove outside Palmyra, where in 1820 Joseph Smith met God the Father and Jesus Christ, and about four miles from Hydesville, where in 1848 the Fox sisters started talking to the dead. So three lasting religious movements—Adventism, Mormonism, and spiritualism, were all sparked off in that little triangle.