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Overrun with Messiahs: The Great (Esoteric) Awakening of the 1920s

Overrun with Messiahs: The Great (Esoteric) Awakening of the 1920s June 11, 2021

Chris Gehrz just did a blogpost that I found extremely rewarding, under the surprising title of The Religious History of Extraterrestrial Life. Not wishing to quibble with a word of his argument, I will use his post as a basis to explore some arguments that have long been floating in my mind.

Briefly, Chris described the work of British imperial administrator Sir Francis Younghusband, who in the 1920s became a leading advocate of Theosophy and “Oriental” mysticism. In 1927 – remember that year – he published a book entitled Life in the Stars – An Exposition of the View that on Some Planets of Some Star Exist Beings Higher than Ourselves, and on One a World-Leader, the Supreme Embodiment of the Eternal Spirit Which Animates the Whole. This messianic figure, this Cosmic Leader, “would be of an awful purity and unutterably holy. He would be Holiness itself made manifest; the very embodiment of the Holy Spirit of the World: a hallowed Presence in which all would bend the knee.” At the same time, he would embody “a redeeming love which would thoroughly purge and transfigure, and be of a sweetness none could resist.” Anyway, do read the whole of Chris’s illuminating post.

That resonated with me so much because I have long been interested in Theosophy and have posted on it. I have a special interest in this very period in the late 1920s, when explicitly messianic hopes were running very high indeed in the esoteric and New Age worlds, above all in North America. Understanding that mood helps us appreciate several seemingly unconnected phenomena.

From at least the 1880s, esoteric ideas of all kinds were very strong indeed in the United States, and by the 1920s they were in full flood. This was an era of multiple occult schools, with interests in Asian religion, Rosicrucianism, lost continents, and esoteric versions of Christianity. Theosophy, which possessed a widespread network of lodges in North America, deserves much of the credit for popularizing yoga and associated Hindu ideas, as well as terms like karma and mahatma, guru and chela. The Theosophical tradition disseminated ideas like reincarnation and the Ascended Masters, who were enormously powerful spiritual beings of near-godlike status.

One American strand of Theosophy was dominated by Katherine Tingley, who established her headquarters at Point Loma (near San Diego) in 1899, in her “White City in a Land of Gold beside a Sunset Sea.” This became a Xanadu dream-world, in which forty buildings represented a spectrum of architectural styles, with “Muslim domes, Hindu temples, Egyptian gates and Greek theaters.” It became a kind of capital of the American esoteric world, and partly through its influence, Theosophical-derived ideas became very widespread in the booming world of California sects. In 1924, another very influential center emerged at Ojai.

Boosting hopes of a coming new order was the notion of the Aquarian Age, a phrase used much in these years. At different historical eras, the sun is located in different houses of the Zodiac, each of which is believed by astrologers to determine the character of those particular centuries. Near the birth of Jesus, the sun entered the sign of Pisces, and the next two thousand years were dominated by the religion of Christianity, whose earliest symbol was a fish. During the twentieth century, the sun would enter a new house, that of Aquarius, and this event would be marked by a profound new spirituality, a time of mystical enlightenment and enhanced intuition, possibly symbolized by the appearance of a new messianic figure. Aquarian terminology was popularized by Levi H. Dowling’s 1907 book The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ, an esoteric account of Jesus’s life.

The Aquarian era would also be a New Age. This phrase appeared sporadically from the 1880s, but esoteric writers of the 1920s and 1930s regularly presented themselves as advocates of a New Age of occult enlightenment. Theosophist Alice Bailey did much to popularize the dual terms New Age and Aquarian.

Messiahs and messianic figures were, so to speak, in the air, and these ideas found a face in Jiddu Krishnamurti (1895-1986), who was identified as a leader of the coming New Age by the veteran Theosophists Annie Besant and C. W. Leadbeater. Or else, he was a “vehicle” for such an imminent World Leader. Krishnamurti was lionized on several American visits in the late 1920s, and expectations reached a frenzy between 1926 and 1929. And then the world changed, but not in the way the New Agers had hoped. In an astonishing (and noble) gesture in 1929, Krishnamurti repudiated both Besant and the messianic claims. As he said,

I maintain that truth is a pathless land, and you cannot approach it by any path whatsoever, by any religion, by any sect. That is my point of view, and I adhere to that absolutely and unconditionally. Truth, being limitless, unconditioned, unapproachable by any path whatsoever, cannot be organized; nor should any organization be formed to lead or coerce people along a particular path. … This is no magnificent deed, because I do not want followers, and I mean this. The moment you follow someone you cease to follow Truth. I am not concerned whether you pay attention to what I say or not. I want to do a certain thing in the world and I am going to do it with unwavering concentration. I am concerning myself with only one essential thing: to set man free. I desire to free him from all cages, from all fears, and not to found religions, new sects, nor to establish new theories and new philosophies.

Through his long life, he would warn listeners against all would-be messiahs and prophets.

That is of course a vastly oversimplified version of the story, but the point is that messiahs and new world orders were very much in the American news between 1926 and 1929, and the fervor surrounding them really was remarkable. If this had occurred in a Christian setting, then we would be speaking of a kind of Great Awakening, followed promptly by a Great Disappointment. Also as in the Christian setting, those feelings spanned denominations and sects, and manifested in surprising ways. Whenever we write the history of any sect in that time, Theosophical or other, we should always be conscious of that late 1920s explosion.

When Younghusband published his book in 1927, he was speaking to people very anxious to hear about this Leader. That Esoteric “Awakening” found many successors, in movements founded around 1930, and focused on messianic leaders, most of whom came out of that southern California “cult” scene. One was the Mighty I AM of Guy and Edna Ballard, which became hugely popular in the 1930s. (They claimed a million followers by 1938, but who knows?). Another was the Silver Legion of America (1933), the Silver Shirt movement of William Dudley Pelley, the ancestor of so many later White Supremacist sects. And also in the esoteric tradition was the Nation of Islam (1930), founded by the mysterious (and messianic) Wallace Fard Muhammad. The NOI, like its precursor in the Moorish Science Temple, was as deep into the esoteric as into any authentic form of Islam, and the MST grounded itself in Dowling’s The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ.

In his 1928 book The Confusion of Tongues, Charles W. Ferguson remarked accurately that “It should be obvious to any man who is not one himself that the land is overrun with messiahs.” I would only criticize his comment for the use of “man,” as there were plenty of equal opportunity female candidates and claimants for the role. In his 1927 satire Elmer Gantry, Sinclair Lewis suggested that both Katherine Tingley and Annie Besant were placing themselves in this category.

I can’t resist adding a couple of fictional illustrations here. In 1929, Dashiell Hammett published The Dain Curse, in which a detective investigates a bogus San Francisco cult intended to cash in on the wealthy and gullible. This  Temple of the Holy Grail is founded by a theatrical couple looking for a money-making angle. “Thinking in that direction meant pretty soon thinking about Aimee [Semple McPherson], [Frank] Buchman, Jeddu what’s-his-name [Krishnamurti], and the other headliners. And in the end, their thinking came to, why not us?” As I say, that is grossly unfair to Krishnamurti, but the book is a terrific source on cults and cult stereotypes.

In 1926, H. P. Lovecraft published his story “The Call of Cthulhu,” which portrayed secret cults as the conduits by which evil humans commune with malign alien intelligences, who will come to rule the world (and to destroy most of its human population). They are, in a sense, the organizational structures of an anti-messianic cause, with Cthulhu as a grim “coming Cosmic Leader” – an Antichrist. The evil Cthulhu Cult is related to other manifestations on the religious fringe, including “Voodoo orgies” in Haiti and “the wooded swamps south of New Orleans,” and “ominous mutterings” in parts of Africa, while in California, “a Theosophist colony” dons “white robes en masse for some glorious fulfillment which never arrives.” Lovecraft could be thinking here of either Point Loma or Ojai.

Lovecraft is responding to the occult “Awakening” of these amazing years – to the messianic moment.

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