Upstate Cauldron: Eccentric Spiritual Movements in Early New York State

Upstate Cauldron: Eccentric Spiritual Movements in Early New York State

Albany: State University of New York Press, 2015, viii + 375 pages, paper, $29.95.

I have long been fascinated with the eruption of religious enthusiasms, new religions, and reformist movements that took place in the nineteenth century in upstate New York, in an area that has been dubbed “the burned-over district” — so called not for physical fires, but for the fiery evangelical revivals and messianic utopian schemes that burnt their way through the region. The Mormons, Seventh Day Adventists, Oneida utopians, the women’s movement, and spiritualism all arose on New York soil, and that hardly exhausts the list.

Who better to provide an overview of these sects than Joscelyn Godwin, whose earlier book The Theosophical Enlightenment masterfully surveyed the origins and influences of the esoteric and occult currents in the nineteenth century English-speaking world? Despite its much tighter geographical focus, Upstate Cauldron can fairly be considered a companion volume to the earlier book, as Godwin’s thorough approach and wry bemusement are evident in both surveys.

While some figures treated here are likely familiar, such as H.P. Blavatsky, Joseph Smith, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and possibly the self-proclaimed Rosicrucian Paschal Beverly Randolph, many others have been waiting to be rescued from obscurity by Godwin. These would include Jemima Wilkinson, the Universal Friend; Handsome Lake, the prophet of a Native American religion; Thomas Lake Harris, founder of the Brotherhood of the New Life; Robert Ingersoll, crusading freethinker and atheist; and Cyrus Reed Teed, founder of Koreshanity and exponent of the view that we are living within a hollow earth, all scientific evidence to the contrary. Some of these worthies were famous in their day, but most have fallen from present awareness.

Another in this vein is Elbert Hubbard, a pop philosopher of uplift whose prolific works were read by hundreds of thousands of readers a century ago, but who passed from view after he and his wife went down with the Lusitania when it was sunk by the Germans in 1915.

Theosophists appear several times in this history, not just HPB and Henry Steel Olcott, but others less known, notably Matilda Joslyn Gage, who coauthored the History of Woman Suffrage with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Mrs. Gage was to become the mother-in-law of L. Frank Baum, passing along her interest in Theosophy to him. Baum would go on to author the Oz series of children’s books, which Godwin notes have both Theosophical and Gnostic elements.

Godwin also reminds us that it was Josephine Cables, a Theosophist in Rochester, New York, who helped rouse the Theosophical Society in America out of the dormancy it had fallen into after the departure of HPB and Olcott for India in 1878. In 1882 she applied to the Adyar headquarters for a charter for a Rochester branch. It was the first American branch to be chartered since the TS’s founding in 1875.

As might be expected, spiritualism — perhaps the most prominent new religious movement to catch fire from the 1840s on — is a constant presence in Upstate Cauldron. Its participants overlap with nearly every reform movement of the era: abolitionism, free thought, women’s suffrage, utopian socialism, communalism, free love, and temperance. As spiritualism became more formalized, with some wings becoming quasi-Christian denominations, it also split into competing camps with ever-shifting alliances. Godwin covers some of this in passing here, but I’d love to see him devote a whole book to the spiritualist saga.

An unexpected chapter towards the end treats the Arts and Crafts movement’s manifestations in New York. This initially struck me as an incongruous addition to the book, but through his examination of participants such as Gustav Stickley, who published The Craftsman magazine, championed “simplicity” as a spiritual and aesthetic ideal, and founded a quasi-utopian company town for his furniture factory, I came to see the connection.

Upstate Cauldron’s final chapter delves into more recent manifestations of eccentric spirituality in upstate New York. These include “Father Francis” (Archbishop William Henry Francis Brothers), a latter-day “wandering bishop” who shepherded an eclectic congregation in Woodstock; Peter Lamborn Wilson, esoteric anarcho-scalliwag whose series of “poetic actions” in the region are seemingly performed with a tongue-in-cheek attitude wholly absent from the book’s other figures; Anthony Damiani, proprietor of the American Brahman bookstore in Ithaca and a disciple of author Paul Brunton who attracted his own circle of devoted followers; and Jane Roberts, channeler of Seth and author of Seth Speaks and The Seth Material.

In parting, Godwin provides maps and a gazetteer of some 150 sites in upstate New York that the reader can visit. Given that Godwin’s photos of such sites are peppered throughout the book, he clearly devoted years to visiting them himself and wishes to encourage others to do so as well. As he notes, these are a historical legacy waiting to be recognized.

Jay Kinney

Jay Kinney was founder and publisher of Gnosis: A Journal of the Western Inner Traditions and is a frequent contributor to Quest.