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Religion Library: New Age

Beginnings

Written by: Benjamin E. Zeller

The New Age movement comprises a loose collection of individuals and groups who employ a variety of religious practices such as channeling, crystal work, and alternative healing in order to transform both themselves and the wider world. Unlike most more established religious movements, the New Age possesses no central leadership, institutions, or creedal requirements. As a loosely formed network of modern spiritual seekers, most scholars have found the New Age difficult to characterize.

In her book A Republic of the Mind and Spirit: A Cultural History of American Metaphysical Religion (2007), historian of religion Catherine Albanese identifies American "metaphysical religion"-of which today's New Age movement is but the most recent manifestation-as displaying four themes: a concern with powers of the mind, reliance on ancient or supposedly ancient cosmologies, a concern with "energies," and a therapeutic concept of salvation that emphasizes physical and mental healing.

Metaphysical religions often include elements of European mysticism and occultism (including Freemasonry and Rosicrucian philosophy), concepts from Hinduism and Buddhism, and Native American legacies of shamanism and earth energies. Works on European esoteric philosophy circulated in colonial America, while ideas from Asian religion arrived via the early 19th-century Theosophical movement. Even more Americans learned of karma, astral bodies, reincarnation, "ascended masters," gurus, and invisible Himalayan kingdoms from the late 19th-century Theosophical movement. A 19th-century health food and "natural healing" movement contributed ideas of vegetarianism and healing through mental powers and "natural" therapies rather than conventional medicine. Another contributor to today's New Age movement was Spiritualism, which trained thousands of persons to be spirit mediums (now called "channelers") and taught a doctrine of spiritual progress after death.

The New Age movement's immediate predecessor was New Thought, likewise a loose grouping of spiritual teachers, healers, new religious denominations, and philosophers. New Thought emphasized the divinity within each person while teaching that God is "supreme, universal, and everlasting."Its most important concept-repeated by numerous New Age teachers-was that "thoughts are things."In other words, "right thinking" can cure illness as well as creating better conditions (wealth, love, etc.) in an individual's life.New Thought, which was at its height from the 1880s through the 1930s, produced three enduring religious denominations: the Unity Church (Unity School of Christianity), the Church of Divine Science, and Religious Science.

Today's New Age movement represents a revitalization of American metaphysical religion that began in the 1960s and 1970s. During this era the disparate groups that would eventually comprise the New Age began to develop connections with one another through mailing lists, conferences and conventions, and publications. For example, the East-West Journal, a leading New Age magazine, began publishing in 1971. Many national and regional periodicals followed. Journals such as these served as a common core for the emerging New Age movement, bringing together a readership that shared a vision for self- and world-transformation through religious practices outside the western Jewish-Christian mainstream, notably alternative healing methods, Asian meditation and yoga techniques, channeling of spirits, development of psychic powers, and learning of esoteric knowledge.