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Occult America: The Secret History of How Mysticism Shaped Our Nation
By Mitch Horowitz
U.S. Senator James Shields loved a good fight. A former general, he was known to challenge rivals - including future president Abraham Lincoln - to duels. But at the start of a Washington spring day in 1854, Shields startled his Senate colleagues with a gesture that seemed bold, even for him.
On April 17, the Illinois Democrat rose on the Senate floor to speak on behalf of one of the strangest petitions in American history. Signed by a reported 15,000 citizens, the document was, he acknowledged, of a "very singular and novel subject." At this moment his colleagues began to lean forward in their chairs; the hum of conversation on the Senate floor fell silent.
"The petitioners represent," Shields announced, "that certain physical and mental phenomena of a mysterious import have become so prevalent in this country and Europe as to engross a large share of public attention." Citing the neglected work of medieval alchemist Roger Bacon, occult philosopher Cornelius Agrippa, and Hermetic mathematician John Dee, Shields begged his colleagues to take seriously the request of his petitioners to fund a "scientific commission" to study the possibility of talking to the dead - perhaps, Shields offered, even "establishing a spiritual telegraph between the material and spiritual world."
In an era of sťances and table-rapping, one senator guffawed that "it would be better to allow the petition to lie on the table." "This is an important subject and should not be sneered away," Shields protested as laughter began to ring from the chamber. Another colleague suggested that the petition be dispatched to the Committee on Foreign Relations. More laughter erupted. Shields, red-faced, agreed to let the proposal drop.
But it was not the last time that Spiritualism had its day in the halls of Congress. In early 1871, the chamber invited the first woman to address a joint congressional committee. That winter day, it was a free-love advocate - and avowed trance medium - named Victoria Woodhull who took the floor (as pictured at left). Poised and handsome, Woodhull delivered a rousing brief in defense of women's suffrage, which she later said had been dictated to her in a dream by a ghostly, tunic-wearing Greek elder-a spirit guardian who had guided all of her public utterances ever since she was a young girl. By the time of Woodhall's appearance, Spiritualism could not be hooted down, even in the Senate. Its acolytes included Mary Todd Lincoln and a range of industrialists, congressmen, and figures from everyday life. The year following Woodhull's speech, suffragists nominated her as the first female candidate for president.
More than a century later, however, the word "occult" seems like a stranger in American life. Today it is tempting to dismiss occultism as no more than the crazy auntie tucked away in the attic of America's history. But that kind of dismissal would be a misreading of occultism's role in America, and of America's role in recent religious history. Indeed, the arcane philosophies grouped under the name of occultism represent an unheralded thought movement in America's national life, one that not only placed horoscopes into nearly every daily newspaper, but that transformed a young nation into the launching pad for the revolutions in alternative spirituality that traveled the globe in the twentieth century.
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