A Republic of Mind and Spirit: A Cultural History of American Metaphysical Religion

A Republic of Mind and Spirit: A Cultural History of American Metaphysical Religion

Catherine L. Albanese
New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2007. Cloth $40.00, Paper $22.50, 628 pages.

Written by the chair of the religious studies department at the University of California, Santa Barbara, the work will doubtless remain a standard in the field of American religious history for many years to come. In the past, American religious history has often been seen as either the history of the various denominations or as a series of evangelical waves beginning with the first Great Awakening in the mid-eighteenth century. Albanese joins several other recent scholars (I think particularly of Leigh Eric Schmidt's Restless Souls and Richard Smoley and Jay Kinney's Hidden Wisdom) in looking at the American scene with very different eyes, charting the importance of what she calls "metaphysical religion" for the history of America.

Although Albanese offers a four-point definition of what she means by metaphysical religion, it turns out that the term includes virtually everything that is neither denominational nor evangelical. Thus, beginning with European religious roots and proceeding historically through American history, she deals with (among many other topics) Hermetic philosophy and alchemical traditions, the "cunning" people of seventeenth-century England and America, Native American religion, African obeah cults, the Shakers and other communal sects, Transcendentalism, mesmerism, spiritualism, faith healers, Christian Science, New Thought, the influence of Asian religions, and of course Theosophy.

Throughout, A Republic of Mind and Spirit exhibits an amazingly close reading of letters, diaries, and other texts. The work is a monument to prodigious scholarship, often bringing to light the importance of long-forgotten writers and movements. At the same time, the book is eminently readable and captivating in style. This reader had no temptation to skim or to skip a section. The history of so-called metaphysical religion in America is fascinating.

Nevertheless, some problems emerge as one proceeds. First of all, the term "metaphysical religion" is so broad that one sometimes wonders whether there is much connection at all among the various persons and movements examined. Do Norman Vincent Peale and Helena Petrovna Blavatsky really belong to the same general movement? If so, why not include Paul Tillich, a Lutheran theologian who was certainly interested in metaphysical ideas?

Secondly, it is far more difficult than this work implies to separate American religion from what was happening in Europe. For instance, Hegel's philosophy certainly influenced many American thinkers, including Mary Baker Eddy, but his name appears only once in the text. Carl Jung's psychology is also barely mentioned, even though he strongly influenced a variety of American thinkers as well. European occult figures such as Éliphas Lévi, A.E. Waite, Aleister Crowley, P. D. Ouspensky, and G. I. Gurdjieff were far more important for the development of American "metaphysics" than the author suggests. In other words, Europe influenced America not just at the beginning but continually.

Third, there are some strange omissions from the discussion. For instance, although the philosopher Paul Carus rates a short discussion, the author says almost nothing about D. T. Suzuki, who worked for Carus and who, almost single-handedly, popularized Zen in America. Perhaps Albanese does not regard Zen as "metaphysical," but given her very broad definition of that term, that seems difficult to imagine. Moreover, although she mentions Jiddu Krishnamurti, she never explores his very interesting philosophical position. Sufis are, by and large, overlooked, while American Taoists are treated rather cavalierly.

Fourth, Albanese discusses the New Age movement without explaining the precession of the equinoxes and why this time is believed to be the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. She also believes that New Age movement is dying. Perhaps it is, but if one surfs the Web or consults, for instance, the offerings of the Open Center in New York, it hardly seems moribund at all.

Finally, many Theosophists may be upset by Albanese's treatment of their movement. She devotes all of her attention to William Q. Judge and Katherine Tingley and their Theosophical Society (now headquartered in Pasadena, California) and says virtually nothing about the Theosophical Society in America, the society founded by Blavatsky and Henry Steel Olcott.

Overall, however, the author treats most traditions with an even hand, offering description without critique. Her aim is to right the balance of emphasis in the study of American religious history, and that she does with both erudition and grace. I recommend the book enthusiastically.

Jay G. Williams

This reviewer has served as chairman of the department of religion at Hamilton College. Formerly a Presbyterian minister, now a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church, he is author of the Quest Books publications Judaism and Yeshua Buddha.