Marmee and Louisa (and Bronson, and the Unitarians)

Bronson Alcott has been mentioned in previous posts, and was one of the subjects of my research in Boston this summer. The Concord School of Philosophy was intertwined with the origins of the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor in ways I”m currently exploring. Reading about any of the Alcotts has been a pleasure, but Eve LaPlante’s acclaimed 2012 joint biography of Abigail May Alcott and her daughter Louisa May Alcott is the most enjoyable book I’ve read all year. There are so many glowing reviews available online that I will refrain from adding another, and just comment that having a “spiritual genius” as a husband or father is not a fate that I’d envy anyone. However much I admire Sarah Stanley Grimke as I pursue research on her life and works– influenced by Bronson Alcott and his circle– it is undeniable that her husband and daughter suffered as a result of her following her star. But at least she left Archibald and Angelina to pick up the pieces and go on with their lives, whereas Bronson Alcott drifted out of and back into the lives of his wife and children causing perpetual instability in the family circle. LaPlante’s book places Abigail in her proper place in history as the real mainstay of the Alcott family.

One of the unexpected boons of delving into the Grimke family legacy has been appreciating the role of Unitarianism and Universalism in giving birth to Spiritualism, Theosophy, Christian Science, and New Thought. And for me the literature of the Transcendentalists is far more alive and inspirational than that of any of these successor movements. This has recently led me back to attending occasional services at a Unitarian Universalist church for the first time in decades. Like the great majority of Church of Light members, I’m not geographically positioned to enjoy face-to-face contact with fellow members except on rare occasions. And as for finding any kind of spiritual community on a local basis (meaning within 50 miles of home) the options are limited. Spiritualism and Christian Science/New Thought are non-starters as disinterest in mediumship or the Bible are disqualifiers. Quakerism has great historical appeal, but in the present is as riven by liberal vs. conservative warfare as many mainstream churches. But I have been extremely favorably impressed by the UU Fellowship in Winston-Salem, its vitality and growth, openness to diverse points of view. It is a far more hospitable environment in which to explain what Hermeticism is and why one finds it appealing than any other organized religious group. And this of course has historic roots which are intertwined with those of the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor. Spiritual groups which are solidly rooted in the Abrahamic traditions may have some tolerance for those of pagan antiquity, e.g. first century Alexandria; so may those which lean strongly toward affiliation with Indic traditions. But those who find the Greek and Egyptian traditions of primary interest will always be on the margins in those groups. Unitarian Universalism by contrast has uprooted itself from its Christian origins and is now explicitly open to engaging Hellenistic spirituality on equal terms. This goes all the way back to the earliest Transcendentalists, for example Bronson Alcott, for whom Platonism was not just ancient philosophy but living spiritual truth. One special highlight of my Boston research was a trip to Andover Theological Seminary to do research in the records of Unitarian congregations to which members of the Grimke family belonged. Well before the emergence of Spiritualism, Theosophy, and Christian Science, Unitarians were engaging with pre-Christian and non-Christian spirituality in ways that influenced American culture for the better throughout the 19th century.