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I stumbled across a USA Today headline last week that made me pause for a moment: “More U.S. Christians mix in ‘Eastern’ New Age beliefs.” I wondered, was the author, Cathy Lynn Grossman, attempting to insinuate that this is becoming a new phenomenon in the United States?
If so, she would’ve been mistaken, for this has been going on for decades, and was indeed very prevalent in the 19th century.
It was not uncommon at the turn of the last century for people to learn yoga, pay attention to their horoscope, communicate with spirits and go to traditional churches at the same time. Way before there was a telegraph or a telephone, people gathered at their town greens to hear lectures on clairvoyance and hypnosis. One of the most popular books in the late 1800s was a book on comparative religions titled, “Ten Great Religions,” written by Unitarian Minister James Freeman Clark in 1871. A “World Parliament of Religions” took place at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, and a conference facility called “Green Acre” was set up in Eliot, Maine, to serve as a forum for the comparative study of religions. One of the most popular self-help writers at the time, William Walker Atkinson, used the name of Yogi Ramacharaka so he could sell more books!
What is surprising about a survey released this week by the Pew Research Center Forum on Religion and Public Life is how many people not only have these beliefs, but also actually attend church at other religious institutions. According to the survey, 24 percent of people actually attend services at multiple places not associated with their own faith. This number does not include weddings, funerals, etc. This means that a whopping one in four people go to multiple religious institutions. When you consider the fact that 28 percent of people say they seldom or never attend services, it means that half of those that go to some kind of services go to religious services other than their church. A full 39 percent who attend services weekly attend services in other places and denominations.
These numbers amaze the “experts” who think religion is stagnant and unilateral in our country. Twenty-two percent of Christians believe in reincarnation, and nearly half the public says it has had a religious or mystical experience, which the study defines as “a moment of sudden religious insight or awakening.” Almost 30 percent say they have felt in touch with someone who died. Again, this is not surprising given that, in the mid-1800s, Spiritualism took the nation by storm. At one point in Boston during the late 1800s, there were more than 200 Spiritualist circles taking place weekly so that people could contact deceased loved ones. Although the Pew survey found that the number of people who have had religious or mystical experiences is higher than surveys taken in 1962, it may be due to the fact that people are more willing to admit those experiences to a stranger than before.
William James detailed these experiences in his turn–of–the–20th–century book, “The Varieties of Religious Experience.” Bill Wilson, founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, read James’ book for confirmation of what he had experienced when he saw the white light in his hospital room after his last drink.
Most people are unaware that American icon Johnny Appleseed was a devoted student of Emanuel Swedenborg, who not only believed in extrasensory experiences, but wrote a book on heaven and hell, expounding on it being not a place, but a state of mind that continued after death. Swedenborg was read widely in the 1800s, and there is evidence that Abraham Lincoln was familiar with his work.
On the Christian side, there were huge camp meetings – one was reported to have been attended by 50,000 people – where people would go to pray and take part in healings. They were definitely not part of the mainstream churches at the time.
Daniel David Palmer, founder of chiropractic medicine, considered himself a magnetic healer, and the founder of osteopathic medicine, Andrew Still, was known to have experimented with Spiritualism.
Mary Baker Eddy, who repudiated it later in life, was also known to have had contact with the Spiritualists.
So what eventually became mainstream was often founded on the edge of religious experience early on.
It is rather eye-opening that this recent study by the Pew Center seems to conclude that this is all “new information.”
In reality, Americans have been sampling other cultural experiences brought here from visitors, slaves and the builders of the early railroads from Asia. Native American culture also contributed to religious experimentation.
Religious melding and blending has been a part of America since its inception. It is as American as apple pie.