Western Sufism: From the Abbasids to the New Age

Oxford University Press consistently publishes cutting edge scholarship on esotericism and related movements and is the gold standard of academic writing in religious studies. November 16 was publication date for this book covering nearly two thousand years of history. As described by the publisher:

Sedgwick starts with the earliest origins of Western Sufism in late antique Neoplatonism and early Arab philosophy, and traces later origins in repeated intercultural transfers from the Muslim world to the West, in the thought of the European Renaissance and Enlightenment, and in the intellectual and religious ferment of the nineteenth century. He then follows the development of organized Sufism in the West from 1915 until 1968, the year in which the first Western Sufi order based on purely Islamic models was founded.

Highly relevant to my ongoing research is much of the material in chapter 8, “Transcendentalism, Theosophy, and Sufism.”  Three sections relate to the Thomas Moore Johnson correspondence.  “Transcendentalism and the Missouri Platonists” identifies Transcendentalism as a small intellectual movement of which the Missouri Platonists, were successors, another small intellectual movement. “Both the Transcendentalists and the Missouri Platonists were Neoplatonists, and both were universalists. Neoplatonism was more important to them than Sufism, but both included Sufism in their universalism.” Over two pages are devoted to a section on Thomas Moore Johnson and The Platonist, and Sedgwick draws on the research of Patrick Bowen about the Sufic Circle within the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor, first reported in his first volume of A History of Conversion to Islam in the U.S., and further developed in his introduction to Letters to the Sage on the connection between Johnson’s circle of acquaintances and Sufism. Other than Johnson, the person most discussed by Sedgwick and relevant to the Letters project is Carl-Henrik Bjerregaard, who belonged to both the Hermetic Brotherhood and the Theosophical Society and was later instrumental in the first Western Sufi movement focused on the teachings of Hazrat Inayat Khan.

This book is a mental feast for anyone with an interest in the diffusion of Sufism in the West. On subjects where I had a modest amount of knowledge, like Idries Shah, I found Sedgwick the fairest-minded commentor to date. It was most encouraging to see his judicious appraisal of Thomas Johnson and the Missouri Platonists, in whose world I am currently immersed.  In the first half of the book, the review of neoplatonic and myriad other influences on Sufism is thorough and engaging.  But my favorite parts of the book were the material almost completely new to me, concerning the Sufi Order in the West and Meher Baba’s Sufism Reoriented.  The intricate “family tree” relationships of these groups connect to both the Theosophical Society and the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor and hence to the Johnson letters.

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Treasures from Lily Dale

IAPSOP.com has announced the sixth release of the Standard Spiritualist and Occult Corpus (SSOC), the online archive of esoteric texts which has now grown to more than 6700 titles.  There are also more than fifty new or expanded periodicals holdings, thanks to the labors of Marc Demarest, John P. Deveney, and John B. Buescher at the Marion Skidmore Library in Lily Dale, New York, headquarters of the National Spiritualist Association of Churches (NSAC). Although I have yet to visit Lily Dale, reading the IAPSOP news was a trip down memory lane for me thanks to an excellent two part public radio documentary for which I was interviewed in late 1998. Part of Helen Borten’s series A Sense of Place, Madame Blavatsky and the Colonel (link to part one) made considerable use of my interview (link to part two) along with voice actor portrayals of Helena Blavatsky and Henry Olcott and associates in their own words. The environment in which the two met in 1874, a Spiritualist gathering in rural Vermont, inspired Borten to visit Lily Dale in western New York state, one of the few surviving enclaves for Spiritualists. Students of esoteric history have much to be grateful for with this upgrade, thanks to the generosity of Lily Dale in sharing its rare collections with the public, and the labors of the IAPSOP archival team. My appreciation for Ms. Borten’s documentary and my inclusion therein was renewed by this reminder of Lily Dale’s ongoing significance as home of the world’s largest Spiritualist library.

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Letters to the Sage, first Amazon review

It will probably be 2017 before any print reviews appear, but we now have our first Amazon review and it is very gratifying.  One correction: much as I would like to share credit for Patrick Bowen’s excellent introduction to Volume I, it is entirely his own work.  Hope that idealistreader will be pleased by Volume II which is almost entirely letters from Alexander Wilder and much more focused on Platonism than the first volume.

The “Sage” Thomas Moore Johnson truly was a giant in the field of Platonic thought and research in the midwest in the late 1880′s and early 1900′s. I learned about Johnson by reading Paul Anderson’s book Platonism in the Midwest and also Katherine Raine and George Mills Harper’s book on Thomas Taylor (the English Translator of Plato). I have also read several issues of Johnson’s journal The Platonist. So naturally, when I learned that a book with Thomas Moore Johnson’s correspondence was coming out I considered purchasing it. However, initially, I was reluctant because I noticed the first volume did not contain correspondence with such friends as William T. Harris, Alexander Wilder and Bronson Alcott. But despite my reservations, I made the purchase and I am very glad I did. Some of the correspondents are better known (G.R.S. Mead, Anna Kingsford) others obscure, but all the letters contain very interesting thoughts and observations of truth seekers.To think so much esoteric thought was going on over 100 years ago. Bowen and Johnson provide the reader with extremely well researched biographical sketches and in some cases pictures of Johnson’s correspondents. I am in awe at how they gathered all the biographical information. In addition, they give a very thorough biography of Thomas Moore Johnson in the introduction. I commend Patrick Bowen and K. Paul Johnson for the voluminous research they conducted to generate this book and I look forward to purchasing future volumes in this series.

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Norman Astley Handwriting

Five years ago, I gave a presentation to the biennial Church of Light convention in which I suggested that Norman Astley, who married Genevieve Stebbins in 1892 and with her was a major influence on Elbert Benjamine until her death in 1933, had been born as Thomas Henry D’Alton and then known as Thomas Henry Burgoyne from 1883 until becoming Astley and claiming that Burgoyne had died. We have found no photographs of Astley to compare with those of Burgoyne. But thanks to Ancestry.com, a North Carolina researcher made contact with Marc Demarest, publisher of the Typhon Press and IAPSOP.com, after discovering some letters from Norman Astley written in his time as a landowner in the mountains of Burke and Watauga counties. Having no expertise in forensic handwriting analysis, I am now reading a couple of textbooks to get background on the subject prior to contacting any specialists. When looking at entire letters, the general appearance of the Astley and Burgoyne handwritings seems similar, in terms of slant, size, and writing style, but this can be deceiving in that nineteenth century handwritings are often identifiable as specific styles taught by different penmanship methods.  Comparing specific words is the first step I have taken, as the formation of the most common word “the” seems similar in the Astley and Burgoyne handwritings.

More complicated is the similarity of words that I found in Astley’s letters and the same or similar words in Burgoyne’s. The examples I searched for were second, accepted, received, and number.  As with the examples of “the” the sepia writing is Burgoyne and the black and white is Astley; sometimes I could only find a similar word in Burgoyne. The results are below.

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Alexander Wilder’s Credo, 1882

The second volume of Letters to the Sage has reached a milestone this week with the completion of two arduous years of transcription and annotation. Almost all the letters in this volume are from Alexander Wilder (1823-1908) to Thomas Moore Johnson, and the majority of them deal with scholarly and publishing matters.Detailed discussions of the content, style, expense, etc. of The Platonist take up much of the period from 1881 through 1885, after which the letters become more sporadic. For the next task of writing a detailed chronological introduction to the letters, I will need to become thoroughly familiar with each issue of The Platonist, which was published in three and a half volumes over seven years. Explaining Wilder’s many asides referring to his medical career will require learning about the Eclectic school of medicine and the legal challenges it faced before becoming extinct in the 20th century. Wilder’s frequent references to the Concord School of Philosophy and the surviving Transcendentalists of the 1870s and 1880s bring in many names already encountered in my research on Sarah Stanley Grimke, but about whom much more will have to be learned to provide context for the letters. These two social networks– of Platonists/Transcendentalists, and Eclectic physicians– are all very long term involvements for Wilder, and understanding them more thoroughly is a necessary condition for writing an introduction of comparable quality to Patrick Bowen’s exemplary work for Volume I.

However, these networks do not provide a sufficient background for understanding Wilder. More continuity with the letters in Volume I is found in the frequent references to Spiritualism and Theosophy, about which he was far more ambivalent than he was about Platonism or Eclectic medicine. A striking change from Volume I is that the Wilder letters do not refer to the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor at all, and begin to decline in frequency just as Johnson was devoting vast energy to HBofL correspondence in 1885-6.

Wilder’s references to Theosophy are so voluminous that they will be covered in a subsequent blog post.  Here are excerpts giving his attitudes toward Spiritualism and mainstream Christianity:

So, therefore phenomena = seeking Spiritualism fails us. I have always fought shy of it. I was once duped & swindled, & held aloof.

The common Spiritualist notion is that old things are inferior & to be discarded.  Some believe in re-incarnation but are unwillling to read The Republic. Some weeks ago Dr. Buchanan denounced Plato. (2/4/1882)

I am lecturing hotly on psychical evolution. I insist on the emanation & divinity, & deny that man emerged from the creatures below.

Next Monday I speak in A.J. Davis’ Harmonial Association on the office of the Imagination.

I am inclined to train in that alliance. He is clean from the moonshine of mediumship &c &c. – only likes R.P. Journal qualifiedly & the Banner not at all.

I spoke yesterday on the Evolution of Morality – that it was service to God & love to the neighbor; but that immortality is the absolute condition.  If no immortality there is no standard of morality; we are beasts & love no neighbors more than wild beasts. (3/2/82)

I am rather chary in speaking much of the Christian question. I doubt whether such a man as Jesus ever existed. The Old-Testament Canon was established by the Pharisees [ Greek], under the Asmanean priest=kings, B. C. 180. The Sadducees or Sadokim — the sacerdotal party were like the men who put Sokrates to death.

The Essenes did not accept the Canon but had prophets & Scriptures of their own. The gospels of Matthew & Mark were from their Evangelion. Doubtless they used the name Jesus with “Je” being a prefix to denote a man’s name & [Greek - ESO] or [Greek-ASA] meaning Essene. A personification, not a person. The Essenes were Mithraists of the stricter order.

The Eleusinian (Greek, from, beggars, Jacquenè) were a sect of them. Twelve Apostles mean 12 signs of the Zodiac, Jesus being Mithras the Sun crucified every equinox. Procure & read the Keys of the Greeks (Putnam’s Sons.) Paul set out in his own bark. He studied this Gnôsîs, not with James, Kephas or John — but in Arabia with the Essenes. He preached Jesus not as a man but as the Dunamis and Sophia of God. That is Gnostic — not Christian. He also taught the anástasis – nirvana.

Now I have more than ever called myself pagan. I am as I understand it a Platonist, but I “call no man Master.”(4/4/82)

I believe in a “Personal God” as I understand it. Permanent Individual Identity a Will rather than a Law to uphold the Universe– charity as the Highest Good, & knowledge to be supreme as it is the kenosis with the highest.

I care little for their names & forms: then I should, seeking to enclose the Eternal Ideas in me & to approximate the Highest. (7/10/82)

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Collected Works of Thomas Moore Johnson

Wonderful news from the UK in the form of a publication of the works of TMJ by The Prometheus Trust with a scholarly introduction by Jay Bregman of the University of Maine.  This will be very helpful in editing the correspondence of Johnson with Alexander Wilder, as the discussions are largely about Platonism and related subjects.

The publisher’s website contains this summary of the book and table of contents.

The Collected Works of Thomas Moore Johnson

The Great American Platonist

With a Preface by Jay Bregman

Thomas Moore Johnson (1851-1919) can rightly be said to be a great American Platonist: he was one of a number of men and women of that period who sought to promulgate the philosophy of the Platonic tradition as a spiritual and intellectual discipline. Had not the tide of rationalist and sceptical thinking run so strongly in the last one hundred years, Johnson – along with his fellow philosophers such as Hiram K Jones, William Torrey Harris and Bronson Alcott – would today be recognised as a great contributor to the cause of true philosophy in the modern west.

Johnson edited two journals, The Platonist and Bibliotheca Platonica, between 1880 and 1890, as well as publishing three books in the following years. This book presents much of Johnson’s work during this time – translations of Iamblichus’ Exhortation to Philosophy, Proclus’ Elements of Metaphysics, many of his translations of the treatises of Plotinus (including three which had never before been translated into English), as well as several smaller translations of important Platonic fragments and many of his original writings.


Iamblichus’ Exhortation to Philosophy (or Protrepticus), 9781898910824fc2
Proclus’ Elements of Theology (or Metaphysics)
Fragments from the Epistles of Iamblichus
Fragments of Ammonias Saccas
Proclus on the Chaldean Oracles
Two Hymns of Synesius
Six treatises from Plotinus’ Enneads:-
On the Nature of Living Itself & on the Nature of Man I, i
On the Essence of the Soul (1) IV, i
On the Essence of the Soul (2) IV, ii
On the Descent into Body  IV, viii
Intelligibles not external to Mind, and on the Good V, v
Diverse Cogitations  III, ix
Original Writings:-
Plato’s Basic Concepts
Plato and his Writings
The Platonic Theory of Education
Plato and his Philosophy
Three Fundamental Ideas of the Human Mind

432pp Hardback £18  ISBN: 978-1898910-824

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Private Lessons and Teachings Archive expansion

The latest major expansion of the holdings of IAPSOP, the International Association for the Preservation of Spiritualist and Occult Periodicals, was announced by founder Marc Demarest this month.  He wrote:

Private lessons and teachings boomed after the mail order revolution of the 1880s and 1890s, but were related to far older practices like phrenological, astrological and psychometric readings-by-mail. Private lessons and teachings allowed a mage to develop an apparently more intimate relationship with his or her students, to reach sparse markets of students scattered, literally, all over the globe, and to monetize his or her teachings more effectively, by selling the same material, over and over again, in dozens, hundreds or thousands of transactions. Private lessons and teachings also had other beneficial effects, for the mage and the movement, promoting regular interchange between a student and the movement’s leader or headquarters, and reducing the cost of the production of materials (little more than paper, a typewriter and a method of duplication was required to produce lessons). Occult lessons-by-mail also opened up new suppression mechanisms for the State, making occult teachers subject to postal fraud regulations, and served as further evidence, in the hands of mail-order detractors, that the mail-order business model was a serious social ill that needed to be legislated out of existence.

This provides context for the authorial partnership that I was investigating when I learned of the Thomas Moore Johnson correspondence, the still-mysterious collaboration of Thomas H. Burgoyne and Sarah Stanley Grimke.  The Johnson letters reveal that within a few months of publishing her First Lessons in Reality and joining the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor in 1886, Grimke was being promoted by Burgoyne as required reading material for HBofL initiates.   Although details of their subsequent collaboration are unknown, it was plausibly reported by Elbert Benjamine that they were co-authors of The Light of Egypt, first published pseudonymously as the work of “Zanoni” in 1889.  Few of the 48 teachers included in the Private Lessons archive are remembered today, even to the small extent that Burgoyne and Grimke have been.  But the expanded holdings of IAPSOP may eventually change that, as increased accessibility of occult and Spiritiualist books and periodicals has already been useful to many scholars around the world.

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Kenneth R.H. Mackenzie

In The British Birth of the Occult Revival, 1869-1875, an article which he has posted on academia.edu, Patrick D. Bowen analyzes the implications of an 1869 series of articles by Kenneth R.H. Mackenzie, one of the correspondents of Thomas M. Johnson appearing in the new collection Letters to the Sage.

As a participant in the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia (SRIA) Mackenzie wrote  a series of “Papers on Masonry” for the newly-created Freemason magazine. About the series of articles, Bowen writes:

He explains, firstly, that myths and symbols are important, as they help convey deep truths that scientific language cannot. Next, he says that Masonry has worn out its usefulness in the world, and that the only way the Masonic ideals of world peace, justice, and equality (for all religions and races, by the way) can be achieved in the world is by introducing a new set of myths and symbols, one that embraces the teachings of both the East and West and scientific and ‘occult’ thought. Furthermore, he continues, a new prophet—a man who understands the truths of all the world’s sciences and knows how to communicate them via myths and symbols—must offer this new set of myths and symbols to the world. While he is explaining this, Mackenzie starts dropping clues that he is aware of a number of other Masonic-like orders in the world… ‘Papers’ is, basically, a rational justification for the invention of new occult doctrines. It seems that, after studying myths, religions, and cultures in the 1860s, Mackenzie had come to the conclusion that he might actually create the open and free world he had been envisioning since the 1850s by using Masonry as his organizational blueprint and Masons as the initial proselytes…

This is relevant to the origins of both the Theosophical Society and the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor, both of which used terminology from Mackenzie’s masterpiece:

At least partially driven by this view, between 1875 and 1877 Mackenzie published a multi-part work, the Royal Masonic Cyclopaedia, which presented as fact all the occult claims made by the SRIA members. This book quickly became seen by other influential Western occultists as an important sourcebook for modern occult ideas, thereby giving these individuals intellectual legitimization to start their own groups, some of which became extremely popular themselves.

Patrick’s blog includes this useful summary of highlights of Letters to the Sage:

Some highlights of the book’s contents:
  • Details about the organizational development of the TS and HB of L in the U.S.
  • The 1887 ‘ordinance’ Johnson sent out to establish the ‘Sufic Circle’ as a branch of the Hermetic Brotherhood.
  • Evidence for the earliest known organized practice of Yoga in the United States.
  • Information about previously unknown Rosicrucian groups and teachers in 19th c. America.
  • A full list of the HB of L’s teaching materials and details of the process of the distribution of the materials.
  • Letters from H.S. Olcott and Thomas Burgoyne.
  • 1880s discussions of the Tarot and Eliphas Levi.
  • Previously unknown HB of L practical occult teachings.
  • The names of dozens of HB of L members and their ‘pledge’ dates.
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Letters to the Sage published this week

Although my copy has not arrived yet, the book is available now in paperback on Amazon and will be out on Kindle by the end of the month.  I created a Facebook page for the book which includes several pages of previews and ordering information and does not require a Facebook account to read.

Patrick Bowen has posted longer excerpts on academia.edu, which does require an account to access but which is free of charge.  Another article posted there by Patrick features one of Thomas M. Johnson’s British correspondents and sheds new light on the Masonic roots of the the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor, Theosophical Society, and related groups.  It will be the focus on next month’s blog post.

Meanwhile, for the astrologically inclined here is the natal chart for the book:

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Letters to the Sage, a preview

As publication date approaches, I will share some general information about the forthcoming book from Typhon Press, the first of two volumes of the selected correspondence of Thomas Moore Johnson, the “Sage of the Osage.” The correspondence begins in the 1870s and continues into the twentieth century, but most of the letters were written during the short life of Johnson’s journal The Platonist in the 1880s. Over half the book consists of letters associated with the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor during Johnson’s brief period as its leader in the US. Three of the 48 authors shed more light on the HBofL than any of the rest: 1) Thomas H. Burgoyne, whose esoteric lessons are illuminated by his correspondence with Johnson, 2) Henry Wagner, who succeeded Johnson as leader and who became Burgoyne’s publisher, and 3) Silas H. Randall, a Cincinnati inventor who was Johnson’s chief assistant in management of HBofL affairs and wrote far more letters than any other correspondent. Randall is not only the most prolific of the letter writers, but in my judgment the most interesting and engaging. He was extremely well-read and an avid student of both philosophy and religion, sharing personal views and experiences with Johnson and commenting insightfully on the Brotherhood as well as the Theosophical Society.

The most prolific correspondent associated with the TS was Elliott B. Page of St. Louis, almost as closely involved with Johnson as Randall but writing largely about Theosophy rather than Hermeticism. More familiar names to Theosophists are those of Abner Doubleday, G.R.S. Mead, Henry S. Olcott, William Q. Judge, and Dr. J.D. Buck, each of whom wrote several detailed letters to Johnson. The world of Freemasonry is represented by letters from Kenneth Mackenzie and John Yarker, while Rosicrucianism was the preoccupation of Freeman B. Dowd and Richard Goodwin. Neo-Hermeticists unaffiliated with the HBofL are represented by letters from Anna Kingsford and Edward Maitland.

In conversations with Church of Light members, I have referred to the Nag Hammadi Library and Dead Sea Scrolls discoveries as akin to the finding of the Johnson letters by his descendants three years ago– completely unanticipated primary source material that drastically revises what we know of our origins. Working with these letters has pushed other projects into the background, and another volume of transcriptions and annotations lies ahead. Although I have two chapters in forthcoming multi-author collections, and two introductory essays for future reprints of 19th-century authors, the focus of this blog will be on the Johnson letters over the next two years. With 88 US members of the HBofL named in Johnson’s records, and 48 correspondents whose letters survive, there will be abundant opportunities to feature various of the little-known as well as the more famous of Johnson’s associates.

As a postscript to my series of posts about Chevalier Louis de B, I need to mention yet another candidate noticed by Marc Demarest who has written a blog post about the French Comte de Bullet. As for my promised comment on pseudonymity in the occult literature, suffice it to say that Britten is like a “stone rejected by the builders,” whose fictionalization of various acquaintances was an example followed by many after her, none of whom gave her any credit or respect as far as I can determine.

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