THEOSOPHY, Vol. 31, No. 8, June, 1943
(Pages 353-357; Size: 16K)
(Number 3 of a 10-part series)

[Compiler's Note: All 10 articles have the same name.]



EACH century of western history is marked by waves and outbursts of psychic experience and phenomena. The cycle has its premonitory symptoms during the early decades of the century, and usually flowers at the midpoint, continuing and spreading its influence for a time, then diminishing gradually until the beginning of the next cycle. An interesting illustration of this cycle is provided by the Shakers, an ascetic Christian sect of which scarcely a dozen members are today alive. The psychological history of the Shakers really begins with George Fox, founder of the Society of Friends, who in 1647 became filled with the conviction that he was a chosen instrument of Providence. He felt that the voice of God spoke within him. The religious reforms accomplished by the Quakers are well known, and the theosophist has nothing but respect and admiration for the nobility of purpose which animated George Fox and so many of his self-sacrificing followers. But we are presently concerned with the fact that his inspiration, whatever its origin, took the coloring of the emotional nature of George Fox -- was filtered through his psyche --and the significance of the moving force he felt in his heart was given an interpretation he thought to be the true one. George Fox made no impartial comparison of his psychological experience with the psychological experiences of other men. Instead, he interpreted what he felt according to the prevailing religious beliefs of his times. This fact identifies his experience as essentially psychic in character.

So it was with Ann Lee, the "Mother Ann" of the Shakers. She was a member of "The United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing," a small Quaker sect which was led by James and Jane Wardley in England at the middle of the eighteenth century. This group of religious enthusiasts had been formed under the inspiration of some Camisards, French Huguenots, who, years before, had fled to England to escape the persecutions which followed the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. Like so many who suffer for their beliefs, the Camisards believed they had clairvoyant inspiration. Mrs. Wardley was subject to seizures of "the spirit," bringing her, as she thought, special illumination, and she predicted the second coming of Christ in the form of a woman. Ann Lee, who joined the Wardleys in 1758, was born of poor Manchester parents and in her girlhood suffered from hysteria and convulsions. She preached in the streets of Manchester, accompanying her moving exhortations with shouting, the unintelligible "speaking in tongues," and other physical manifestation. Hence the name of "Shaking Quakers," which later became simply "Shakers." Imprisoned for this behavior, Ann Lee claimed that Jesus appeared to her in her cell and became one with her "in form and person," which led the Wardleys and their followers to recognize in her the female Christ -- the Bride of the Lamb. Persecutions only excited her to another revelation -- that America would be the scene of Christ's Kingdom on Earth. Emigrating to the New World in 1774 with a handful of followers, "Mother Ann" established the first Shaker community near Albany. A few years later they were joined by a number of Baptist converts living in Lebanon, and from that time the community grew and branched out in Massachusetts and Connecticut.

The Shakers were perfectionists, believing that they had established a veritable heaven on earth, and if their conduct is any criterion, this conviction was well founded. Some writers have likened them to the ancient Essenes. Their personal lives were models for a successful communistic enterprise. It is curious that as a sect, Shakerism survived and flourished for more than 100 years -- longer than any other attempt at a communistic society -- despite the rule of complete chastity established by Ann Lee. They lived on a simple fare, few of them eating meat, and were almost never ill. Celibates all, their numbers were augmented only by conversion, and by 1860 some 6,000 Shakers were in America, living in communities in New York and New England. Of peculiar interest is the Shaker community dance, which was a sort of shuffling march to one of their hymns, varied by occasional "whirling" for a considerable time.

Although the Shakers always professed to have intimate intercourse with the "spirit world," special intimations of the psychological upheaval which was to occur in America came to the Shakers in 1837. There were at that time sixty Shaker communities. The children of the Lebanon settlement were the first to experience the development of clairvoyant powers, and were seized with trances. It was not long before nearly all the members of the various Shaker settlements found themselves in communication with spirits. Much of their music they professed to have learned from "spirits." Realizing, however, that these manifestations would have marked them as insane in the eyes of a sceptical world, they maintained complete secrecy about their intercourse with spirits -- most of whom were Indians -- until after 1848. After the remarkable phenomena of the Fox sisters and other mediums had attracted widespread interest, an elder of the community, Frederick B. Evans, related the visitations experienced by the Shakers, which had begun eleven years earlier. He said that the spirits had told the Shakers that the phenomena were destined to spread throughout America and Europe. Nearly every Shaker was a medium, according to their own word, and for seven years after the first "invasion" of the spirits whole houses of Shakers were periodically obsessed by Indian "spirits."

The experiences of the Shakers were more or less unique in their collective anticipation of the psychic phenomena which flooded over America, marking the mid-century cycle of psychism. There were, however, several individuals to whom religious revelations of a spiritualistic character came during this earlier period. In 1830 Joseph Smith and six of his followers organized the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to spread the teachings which had been revealed to him in a series of visions. He was, he claimed, personally visited by two persons of the Holy Trinity, The Father and Son. Later it was made known to him that he had been selected to preach a new gospel, and an angel who appeared to him directed the discovery of the gold plates on which the Book of Mormon was engraved in an unknown language. Enabled to translate the scripture by means of glasses provided by the Lord, Joseph Smith became the prophet whose new revelation was regarded as of equal authority with the Jewish and Christian scriptures. In thirty years the Mormons were well established in Utah and elsewhere, their number totalling some 200,000. Today there are 750,000 Mormons, serious men and women who are universally respected for their honesty, industry and sobriety. The head of the Mormon Church is believed by the Mormons to receive revelations direct from God, obtained through dreams or waking visions, "by voices without visional appearance, or by actual manifestation of the Holy Presence before the eye."

Joseph Smith's first vision followed his attendance at a religious revival held in Wayne County, New York. These outbursts of religious psychism resulted in several such "inspirations." The fierce revival of 1831 began the moody meditations of John Humphrey Noyes, who was to found the community of "Bible Communists" at Oneida Creek. He abandoned law and took up the study of theology. Finding no light in his course in divinity at Andover, he went to Yale, and there he learned through dreams that God had a divine plan which he, Noyes, was to realize in its perfection on earth. There followed a re-interpretation of the Gospel of Paul, which led to the formation of the Perfectionists according to the program revealed to this prophet of Christian communism. Like the Mormons, the Noyes community suffered many vicissitudes, but due to the indefatigable labors so frequently exhibited by those who think themselves divinely inspired, it achieved a success in economic and social organization that is today well known. The Oneida Community is famous for the silverware produced in its factories. Both communities have held unconventional ideas on the subject of marriage -- the Mormons as part of their religious doctrines, the Oneida communists as practical eugenists attempting to improve the race physically as well as spiritually.

Another forerunner of the spiritualistic cycle of the nineteenth century was the famous seer of Poughkeepsie, Andrew Jackson Davis. Born in 1826, as a boy he heard voices which gave him advice and comfort. He developed clairvoyant powers and it was discovered that he could diagnose disease. His powers were studied and fostered by a travelling mesmerist, William Levingston, and in 1844 Davis began to report long flights of soul experience while in trance. He claimed to have two venerable instructors whom he later identified as Galen and Swedenborg. In his nineteenth year he began writing about his psychic experiences, the Rev. William Fishbough acting as his amanuensis, who took down the revelations declared by the young man after he had been placed in a trance condition. During the course of his life Davis wrote twenty books, including a remarkable autobiography giving account of his clairvoyance and his psychic adventures, and his visions of the meaning of death and the states after death. His Harmonial Philosophy comprised a series of volumes and became virtually the bible of the spiritualists, passing through forty editions. This work contains a remarkably coherent theory of cosmogony similar to that of Swedenborg, and a detailed description of the "spiritual world." It also expounds a theory of evolution. Davis predicted the coming cycle of spiritualism, writing in 1847 that "the world will hail with delight the ushering-in of that era when the interiors of men will be opened, and the spiritual communion will be established...." He should, however, be regarded as a seer rather than an ordinary medium, for he specifically renounced the idea of "control" by spirits, although admitting their aid.

It should be realized that the abnormal states of consciousness which had grown familiar to the people of Europe through the work of Mesmer and his disciples were not unknown in America. The doctrine of animal magnetism and its curative power first taught by the Viennese genius had various embodiments in America under other names. As early as 1830 John Bovee Dods lectured in New England on "Electrical Psychology," proclaiming electricity to be the connecting link between mind and matter. A Frenchman, Charles Poyen, began giving public demonstrations of Mesmerism in America in 1836. Wandering through New England in 1838, Poyen met Phineas Quimby, at Belfast, Maine. Quimby, who was then thirty-six, soon discovered that he, too, had unusual mesmeric power. Obtaining a sensitive, Quimby began to diagnose the ills of the people of the village, using the clairvoyant perception of his subject. He found by experiment that it made little difference what medicine he advised, becoming convinced that his cures were effected by mental influence. On the basis of such experience Quimby evolved the theory that all disease is a mental delusion which can be eradicated by thought. After years of successful practice at Portland, Maine, he received in 1861 a letter from a Dr. Patterson, asking that Quimby exercise his "wonderful power" to free Mrs. Patterson (later Mrs. Mary Baker Eddy) of her invalidism. The essential ideas of Dr. Quimby's therapy, which he began to record in 1859 in the now famous "Quimby Manuscripts," are best known to the world as Christian Science.

New Thought, too, derives principally from the doctrines of Phineas Quimby. In 1869 a Swedenborgian minister of New Hampshire, Warren Felt Evans, pupil and patient of Quimby, began the flow of New Thought literature with publication of The Mental Cure, which, it appears from comparison, was little more than a religious version of Quimby's understanding of what he had learned from his own practice of Mesmerism. Thus, what had originally been the scientific revelation of the eighteenth century, Mesmer's rediscovery of the nervous fluid of the human psyche, and its extraordinary curative power through the will of the adept-physician, slowly became, by filtering through the untutored and materialistic minds of the age, spread by wandering quacks, and interpreted by ignorant though honest enthusiasts, the source of a hundred and one psychic cults and sects, each cherishing a fragment of the truth, but more often misusing it than not.

Even modern clinical psychiatry traces indirectly to Mesmer. Janet and Charcot, both of whom exercised great influence over Sigmund Freud, developed their doctrines in the atmosphere of the decadent mesmerism practiced by the French schools of psychologists. There is little, of course, in modern psychoanalysis that Mesmer would recognize, but the basic principle of all psychoanalytical therapy, the influence wielded by analyst over the patient, remains as the shadow of Mesmer's great contribution. Modern hypnotism, too, is a limited adaptation of Mesmer's technique, shorn of its moral and metaphysical significance.

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