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Religion Library: New Age


Written by: Benjamin E. Zeller

During its earliest phase, the inchoate New Age appealed to members of religious communities that had evolved from the previous century's new religions: New Thought, Spiritualism, and Theosophy. The emergent New Age movement drew inspiration from each of these movements, but even more importantly, drew its adherents from them. New Age speakers often spoke at New Thought and Theosophy centers, and in many cases Spiritualist mediums-persons who claimed communication with the spirits of the dead- transformed themselves into New Age channelers.

Remarkably, the New Age movement did not primarily spread through institutional growth or face-to-face proselytizing, but through the sale of New Age periodicals and books. The most influential of these texts were purported to be channeled. New Age practitioners believe that through channeling a person enters a form of alternate consciousness during which a higher being, often an angel, enlightened soul, or spirit, uses the person as a communication vessel. The channeler or a partner generally records the message brought by this higher power, resulting in a set of channeled teachings. During the first decade of the growth of the New Age, two sets of channeled content not only became best sellers in the New Age market, but provided common language and concepts within the community. They also introduced channeling to a broader audience of New Age practitioners, making it one of the most common beliefs and practices within the movement.

The first of these channeled texts derived from the being known as Seth, transcribed by Jane Roberts from 1970 to 1984, and published as The Seth Material (1970), Seth Speaks: The Eternal Validity of the Soul (1972), Conversations with Seth (1980), and approximately a dozen other books. Importantly, the mainstream publishing company Prentice-Hall published all of these texts as mass-market paperbacks, enabling their distribution to a broad market of readers. The Seth content focused on development of the inner self as well as calling for transforming the world through individual enlightenment. Helen Schucman's A Course in Miracles (1975), channeled from an unnamed being whom the author implied was Christ, had an even more important effect: this single text served a common element that allowed New Age practitioners to gather and discuss, utilizing the text's format as both channeled knowledge, workbook, and student/teacher guide. Like the Seth material, A Course in Miracles called for self-development, specifically removing the blocks of inner awareness.

Thanks to national and regional periodicals and the channeled texts, by the mid-1980s the New Age existed as an informal network of spiritual seekers who shared subscriptions to similar magazines, read similar books, and shopped at the burgeoning number of New Age stores. Few outsiders paid much attention to the movement, however, until 1987, when two events brought the New Age to wider prominence. These two events, the Harmonic Convergence gatherings and actress Shirley MacLaine's "Out on a Limb" television series, galvanized a common sense of purpose among the New Age community.