The History and Philosophy of the Metaphysical Movements in America

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews The History and Philosophy of the Metaphysical Movements in America by J Stillson Judah.

J Stillson Judah The History and Philosophy of the Metaphysical Movements in America

Writing in the 1990s, Wouter Hanegraaff refers to this book as a “standard work” on the topic, and notes that Judah coined the term “metaphysical movements.” (See Judah, p. 7) The volume treats a set of “religious philosophies” in the United States, beginning in the 1840s, and progressing up until the date that the book was written. Although Judah provided no evidence for the claim, he asserted that these religions were growing in popularity at the time of his writing. (p. 12) He characterized these metaphysical movements by family resemblance, with a set of fifteen chief features, including: gnostic anthropology, divine monism, pragmatism, psychological interpretation, optimism, mental or spiritual healing, and preferring “principles” to creed. Even when explicitly Christian, these groups tended to view Jesus as a teacher, rather than as the unique human incarnation of God.

Judah’s first chapter is devoted to inventorying some aspects of the germinal milieu of the American metaphysical movements. Besides the transcendentalist school and its effects, which he remarks as their foremost precedent and influence, he observes the importance of American religious pluralism, revivalism, deism, Swedenborgianism, Puritan utilitarianism, and occultism (i.e. hermeticism and kabbalah). He then goes on to provide historical sketches, with representations of doctrines and practices, for each of the following metaphysical movements: Spiritualism (with its various institutions and sects), Theosophy “and its allies” (i.e. the Arcane School and the Astara Foundation), New Thought (with the precedent teachings of Quimby and Evans, and the progeny of the Divine Science Church and the Church of Religious Science), the Unity School of Christianity, and Christian Science. A closing chapter treats the effect of the metaphysical movements on Protestantism, especially through the avenue of notions of health and mental healing.

Judah repeatedly cites Frank Podmore’s history of Spiritualism, Charles J. Ryan on Theosophy, Horatio Dresser on New Thought, and several secondary sources on Christian Science. For all of the movements surveyed, he makes extensive use of their own doctrinal literature, and in several cases he has interviewed key leaders or their families. Perhaps it is significant that no secondary sources appear in different sections of the book, since Judah appears to have been the first to tie these various groups and teachings into a coherent tradition.

Judah’s theory of religion is partly formulated in his closing chapter, where he insists that all religions can be analyzed in terms of three chief components: mental/philosophical, conative (relating to aspiration and conduct), and emotional. He insists that the conative component, the religious will as such, must be powered by an emotional experience, and he suggests that the historical transformations in American religion have resulted from the waxing and waning of emphasis on emotional experience. He points to the metaphysical movements as offering an orientation to the religious experiences of the individual during periods when mainline Protestantism has become abstracted into concerns about social justice. (pp. 291-2)

A significant part of Judah’s methodology in The Metaphysical Movements might be best characterized as comparative theology, even though that term has not been in vogue since the mid-20th century. He consistently attends to comparing the theological elements in the various metaphysical movements against each other, and against an implicitly normative mainline American Protestantism. But he has no evident chip on his shoulder, and his foreword includes an accounting of his own past engagements in the study and practice of Theosophy, yoga, New Thought, Spiritualism, and other “metaphysical” systems. The frankness of this passage shows a sort of scholarly reflexivity that is admirable in the early and mid-1960’s when Judah was writing. He cautions that any seemingly negative evaluations of the religions in his book “should be considered as constructive criticism offered in the same spirit in which the writer has also criticized the Protestant churches.” (p. 9) He does in the end refrain from offering either praise or condemnation of the metaphysical movements as a whole, but he opines that there would be ample justification for different parties to view them as revolutionary, restorative, or subversive of more customary institutional religions in America. [via]