The 1940s and America’s Proto-New Age

The 1940s and America’s Proto-New Age January 30, 2015

The decade of the 1940s represents a profoundly underappreciated era in American history, and that is especially true in matters of religion.

The period is of course dominated by the events of the Second World War and its immediate aftermath, together with debates over race, civil rights and desegregation. Oddly, though, in so many ways, these years foreshadow the radical changes of the 1960s. The impact of total war had a massive influence on issues of race, gender and family structure, while the mid- and late-1940s witness many of the debates and controversies that would characterize the next quarter-century. The Kinsey Report (1948) did much to ignite the sexual revolution. Modern environmentalism has its roots in these years, with the publication of Marjory Stoneman Douglas’s The Everglades (1947) and Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac (1949). Jack Kerouac’s On the Road records a road trip undertaken in 1948–1949, when the Ginsberg-Kerouac circle was already speaking in terms of a “Beat” movement.

These social upheavals were reflected in a passionate interest in religion of all forms. Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain became an enormous best-seller in 1948, while Billy Graham’s first great crusade was launched the following year. On the religious margins, moreover, we see most of the themes that so inspired alternative and New Age thinkers from the 1960s onwards – Asian and Native American obsessions, together with the familiar range of occult and esoteric movements.

The UFO scare that began in 1947 would become a major element of later New Age and esoteric speculation. So would the Jungian system of myths and archetypes popularized in Joseph Campbell’s 1949 book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Robert Graves’s White Goddess, a key source for later neo-pagan and feminist spirituality, appeared in 1948. Graves’s King Jesus (1946) popularized radical alternative views of the life of Christ, largely based on esoteric scriptures, lost gospels, and Gnostic texts.

Another very influential novel was The Man Who Killed The Deer (1942),  by Frank Waters. This integrated Native American religion, Kundalini yoga, Jungian psychology, and drug experiences (peyote) in a way that clearly foreshadows the 1960s.

I have written about this era’s religious context before, chiefly in my books Mystics and Messiahs (2000) and Dream Catchers (2004). Through the years, though, I have come across so many miscellaneous references and stories, and time and again I have to stop and ask myself “Is this 1948 or 1968?” My main point is that so much of what we assume to be radically novel in the 1960s-70s is in fact much older, and very often finds its roots in the 1940s, that odd and largely forgotten Proto-Sixties.

It is almost as if currents of thought welled up in the 1940s, went underground through the following decade, and then returned to full view in the mid-1960s

While I can cite no reliable statistics for fringe activity in these years, in my next couple of posts, I’ll offer some impressionistic case-studies of individuals will illustrate the breadth and intensity of this subculture, I make no claim that these are in any sense representative, but they do indicate the existence of a world that seems so very different from most stereotypes of the “Good War” years. In fact, they rather appear to have been misplaced time-travelers from 1970.

The most influential member of this group was Jack Parsons, a legendary rocket scientist based in Pasadena, and a principal founder of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Passionately interested in the darker side of the occult, he followed the controversial British magus Aleister Crowley, who made extensive use of sexual rituals and mind-altering drugs.

In 1935, Parsons established a lodge of Crowley’s Ordo Templi Orientis, and through the war years, the Pasadena police regularly had to deal with outlandish-sounding charges of the goings on at the Parsons residence. Had a pregnant woman really jumped nude through a fire nine times? (She probably had, though the police refused to believe it). Had a teenager been molested during a “Black Mass”? (Almost certainly not). Generally, the police took such accounts lightly, partly because they thought them beyond the bounds of possibility, but more because Parsons was such an important figure in American rocketry research. At the time, the joke was that JPL stood for Jack Parsons’ Laboratory, and articles in popular science magazines made him a popular folk-hero. Not surprisingly perhaps, Parsons has largely been written out of modern histories of the JPL.

By 1946, Parsons was deeply involved in a massively ambitious ritual that would involve a woman friend giving birth to a mystical being, the Moonchild, something like the classical notion of the Antichrist incarnate. One partner in these events was L. Ron Hubbard, later founder of Scientology – although Scientologist histories claim that Hubbard was involved only to rescue the deluded woman.

And to reiterate, this farrago of sex, drugs and black magic occurred in the mid-1940s, not in the Charles Manson era.

One would have needed to venture only a short distance from Pasadena to find another quite different strand of the contemporary New Age. In 1941, Alfred Ligon was one of the countless contemporary “seekers” exploring various metaphysical traditions, supporting his quest through his job as a waiter for the Southern Pacific Railroad. One major influence he encountered was the Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ, a 1907 book purporting to be a channeled account of Jesus’ career in Egypt, India, Tibet and the mystic East. The Aquarian Gospel was probably the single most influential book for America’s New Age milieu.

In 1941, Ligon settled in Los Angeles, where he established the Aquarian Book Shop and Aquarian Spiritual Center. Under Ligon and his wife Bernice, the Aquarian became a pivotal force in African-American culture in California and beyond, the spiritual home of countless Black writers and thinkers. By a horrible irony, the store perished during the Los Angeles riots of 1992.

By the way, you can find a wonderfully illuminating set of oral history interviews with Ligon online.

In terms of our images of the era, the picture of a railroad waiter devoting his life to the search for New Age truths is deeply strange – about as odd as America’s cutting-edge military devices being designed by a medieval sorcerer born out of his time.

Or perhaps I have my dating wrong. Do these ideas look forward to the 1960s, or back to the spiritual ferment of the 1840s?



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  • RoyMix

    I was recently thinking the same thought, but from a secular direction. I had just read Richard Farina’s “Been Down So Long it Looks Like Up to Me” which feels very much like the 1970s novel, right down to the language, but was written in 1957. It was clear that the author felt that everything had happened years before, but what made it so striking was all these things were the same.

    I have long felt that the 1950s were the most revolutionary in human history, all these men returned from war and depression and set out conciously to remake the world anew and discard the past. From ranch style houses with big picture windows, a very revolutionary thing that we have already abandoned, to the rise of therapeutic culture, and the genuine and widespread belief that there was something fundamentally wrong with tradition. The radicalism of the 1950s with its truly supreme cult of reason and technical expertise, was what the counter culture was renouncing.

  • philipjenkins

    You are so right about Farina!

  • John Turner

    So many fascinating ideas and people in one single post!

  • As a “neo-pagan” (most of us prefer to see it capitalized) blogger here at Patheos let me just say that this is a fantastic article. “The Anxious Bench” isn’t just the best Evangelical blog at Patheos, it’s one of the best blogs at Patheos.

    I think many of the ideas you reflect on here look back to the 19th Century. That was a fascinating decade for American religious history. The rise of Spiritualism, the influence of Blavatsky and Theosophy, Joseph Smith and the Latter Day Saints . . . all of them were either founders of the “New Age” or freely mixed occult ideas into their work.

    I look forward to this series.

  • I was going to post that “Gee, you should look further back”, but you dropped the hint that you had with that reference to the 1840s, and our good friend Jason Mankey has named some of the names I was going to drop, so I’m just going to say “me too!” to his comment.

  • philipjenkins

    Your comments are much appreciated!

    You are exactly right about those earlier predecessors, but as I say in the post, I talk about those at length in the two books of mine I reference here, MYSTICS AND MESSIAHS and DREAM CATCHERS.

  • Percy Gryce

    Well done. Great point about the place of UFOs in American esoteric thinking, beginning in the late 1940s. Douglas Curran’s In Advance of the Landing: Folk Concepts of Outer Space (1985; repr. 2001) is a great photo-archive of how UFOs and the New Age went hand in hand.

    Lawrence Wright’s recent Going Clear has some good material on the influence of Crowleyism (among many other sources) on Scientology. I came away from that book thinking not that Scientology is a business masked as a religion, but rather that it is a religion that is run like a business.