Islands of the Dawn: The Story of Alternative Spirituality in New Zealand

Islands of the Dawn: The Story of Alternative Spirituality in New Zealand

by Robert S. Ellwood; University of Hawaii Press, 1993; hardcover.

New Zealand is in many ways a conservative land, both politically and culturally, with a reputation for being more English than England. Yet since its settlement by the British in the 1850s and 1860s, it has -been a fertile breeding ground for religious movements that are alternatives to the conventional churches of European culture. For example, in proportion to the total population, Theosophists are about twenty-five times more numerous in New Zealand than they a re in the United States and have included such local worthies as Sir Harry Atkinson, Prime Minister of New Zealand.

Islands of the Dawn treats this anomaly of spiritual radicalism in a conservative land by describing alternative movements both historically and contemporarily in New Zealand and by analyzing the cultural and historical forces that have led to their prominence there. The author, Robert S. Ellwood, professor of religion at the University of Southern California, has written widely and authoritatively on alternative spirituality in such book s as Many People, Many Faiths and Alternative Altars. He also has the rare gift of combining objectivity with a sense of participation and sympathy, expressed in engaging prose.

The first chapter, “From Nineveh to New Zealand,” is a condensed but very readable overview of the history of alternative spirituality from its European backgrounds, focusing on Freemasonry, Swedenborg, Mesmer, Spiritualism, and the Theosophical Society. Thereafter separate Chapters treat Spiritualism with special attention to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; UFO-ism; Theosophy; other esoteric or Theosophically related groups (Co-Freemasonry, the Liberal Catholic Church, the Krishnamurti Foundation: Anthroposophy, Alice Bailey's Arcane School, I Am Activity, Summit lighthouse, a New Zealand movement called Beeville, and Builders of the Adytum); and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn with its offshoots.

An appendix deals with smaller, 1960s and later alternative groups of four types. First a re Western and Islamic initiatory bodies; next, Eastern , mainly Hindu and Buddhist , organizations; third, some politically active groups like the Moonies and British Israel, as well as apolitical New Thought groups; and finally, neopagan and women's spirituality groups.

The ferment of alternative spirituality in a small, culturally homogenous and conservative land like New Zealand begs for explanation. And Ellwood supplies it. By analyzing the reception of long-standing alternative-spirituality groups, like Spiritualism and Theosophy, in New Zealand, he arrives at a cultural profile that seems valid also for other times and places.

Like the United States, New Zealand is a “denominational society,” that is, in contrast to a monopolistic society like Spain or Iran, religion is the concern of a number of competing churches which minister primarily to the needs of their members and none of which has responsibility for or authority over the nation as a whole. Denominational societies are pluralistic and, willy-nilly, tolerant, thus allowing new groups to find a place in society and become part of the accepted establishment.

Unlike the United State s, whose eighteenth-century foundation gave it the birthmark of a rational, individualistic, empirical society, New Zealand was a mid-Victorian creation, reflecting Romanticism, nostalgia for the past, secular utopian ism and philanthropy, and populist reformism. The latter Zeitgeist is particularly open to mysticism and spiritual experimentation. It is notable that the area of the United States in which those characteristics are strongest is the Pacific Coast, settled heavily by Anglos at about the same time as New Zealand. Another difference is that, whereas parts of the United States were founded on religious motives and its population remains one of the church-goingest in the world, New Zealand was settled by working-class persons already alienated from the Church. They were culturally homogenous and faced no cultural threat in the new land from which they needed to be protected by the support of a church community. Their background was largely Anglican or Presbyterian, churches that did not play the same central role in the lives of their members as Baptist and early Congregational.

These factors-an open ness to new foundations, a penchant for spiritual experimentation, a hankering back to ancient forms, and a lack of vita l organized religion - inclined New Zealanders to embrace alternative forms of spirituality with an enthusiasm greater than that found in most other lands. Ellwood (pp. 198-99) has identified eleven factors from the time of New Zealand's settlement that have inclined its people to alternative spirituality. Most of them apply also to the western United States.

It is noteworthy that a similar spirituality has developed in Australasia and the Pacific coast of America, just those places where Theosophical tradition says a new stock of humanity, with a new culture and spiritual outlook, is destined to arise. New Zealand , the islands closest to the international dateline, where a new day first dawns, may therefore be also a paradigm of the dawn of a new humanity.


Autumn 1993