Think Again

Within a few blocks of my office is Midtown are at least three temples related to the New Thought movement. New Thought has been variously interpreted, but generally it is considered a religious movement, challenging, as it does, the very perceptions of reality itself. New Thought is usually traced back to Phineas Parkhurst Quimby, a nineteenth century American philosopher and inventor. A watchmaker by trade, Quimby came to believe that mind had ultimate reality and New Thought opined that the divine is true human selfhood, and what we call God is ubiquitous. One of the corollaries of this outlook is that the mind is capable of healing the body. A woman who was a patient of Quimby took his ideas and developed them further. Mary Baker Eddy would eventually found the Christian Science movement. Although the Mother Church of Christian Science is in Boston (and is a somewhat imposing building), over on East 43rd Street in New York stands the First Church of Christ, Scientist.

New Thought was noteworthy in that many of the leaders of the movement were women. Unburdened from traditional Judeo-Christi-Islamic ideas of paternal divinity, New Thought had no use for male-centeredness. One of the early leaders of the movement was Emma Curtis Hopkins. Originally a disciple of Mary Baker Eddy, Hopkins split off from Christian Science and began to organize the New Thought movement. One of her followers was Ernest Holmes, the founder of Religious Science. While based in Los Angeles, Religious Science had roots in New York where Holmes spent some of his younger years. Holmes would eventually write The Science of Mind and his followers would become recognized as another New Thought “church.” While on a lunchtime errand I came across the Religious Science center on East 58th Street, just a few blocks from its kin down by Grand Central.

Theosophy is probably better classified as an esoteric religion rather than New Thought. What ties them together is their beginnings in the late nineteenth century in the Northeast. Helena Blavatsky and Henry Steel Olcott began meeting in New York City and the movement grew out of their mutual interest in the religions of antiquity and the far east. The Theosophical Society moved its headquarters to India with a main US office in Wheaton, Illinois. Nestled between the Church of Christ, Scientist and Religious Science, an office of The Theosophical Society sits quietly on East 53rd Street.

One brief lunch hour will take you past all three. These New Religious Movements attest to the vitality of religious thought. Some of them continue to try to combine science with the world of the mysterious, spiritual universe in which we find ourselves. The obituary for religion was written long ago, but a stroll through Midtown on lunch hour will show it was certainly premature.

Home Grown

In a seedier neighborhood of Midtown stands a five-story apartment building that would be easily overlooked on an ordinary day. Back in the late nineteenth century an investigator of the Lincoln assassination, and lawyer, by the name of Henry Steel Olcott began to meet in this apartment with a Russian mystic who came to be known as Madame Blavatsky. Their base of operations was call the Lamasery. The “religion” that resulted from their collaboration came to be known as Theosophy.

I remember distinctly when I first learned of Theosophy. I was attending an academic conference and as I passed along the bookstalls I noticed the Theosophical Society with their table of wares. A newly minted doctor of philosophy, a nagging worry sprung up in my head: was this a form of philosophical thinking that I should’ve learned about? Had I somehow forgotten lessons on Theosophy? Should I rush back to the library (this was before the Internet, let alone Wikipedia) and find out what Theosophy was? Well, I did make the effort and soon learned that it was considered an occult group and therefore I need not concern myself any more.

What I hadn’t fully realized is that although Theosophy did indeed integrate some elements of the Spiritualist movement, it was in many ways America’s introduction to Buddhism and Hinduism. America in the nineteenth century had some experience of Islam, but generally the only religions that were widely recognized were Christianity and Judaism. Anything else sounded occultish and vaguely heathen. Olcott and Blavatsky raised awareness that religions elsewhere in the world did not necessarily conform to American tastes. There was more to religious belief than met the eye.

Theosophy never made it big in the New World, but it continues to survive to this day. America has become the premier place for new religions to emerge. Indeed, it would be difficult to imagine a religion like Mormonism—a distinctly American belief system—gaining an infant foothold anywhere else in the world. Although largely identifying ourselves amorphously as “Christian,” Americans are great religious experimenters. And Theosophy was a faith that grew out of experimental ideas in New York City with tendrils stretching all the way to India and China. The movement even bestowed upon Gandhi his famous epithet of Mahatma. The words inscribed on his Serbian monument would serve us all well to memorize: “non-violence is the essence of all religions.”