Studying “the Occult” in Colonial America

John L. Crow

It is unlikely I have to tell the readers of this blog about the significance of Jon Butler’s Awash in a Sea of Faith (Harvard 1992) or David Hall’s Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment (Harvard 1990). Both books were important in examining the way the occult manifested in the religious practices of early colonialists. Less known is Herbert Leventhal’s In the Shadow of the Enlightenment: Occultism and Renaissance Science in Eighteenth-Century America (NYU 1976). Whereas Butler and Hall make a division between orthodox religion and so-called “popular religion,” Leventhal does not erect such boundaries noting that everyone in the eighteenth-century had a cosmological view that permitted the existence of spirits and asserted the connection between human health and the position of the stars. It was not the commoners casting astrological charts and making diagnoses, it was the court physicians. This is a point that Walter W. Woodward makes in his recent Prospero's America: John Winthrop, Jr., Alchemy, and the Creation of New England Culture, 1606-1676 (UNC 2010). Though Woodward does perform some contortions to maintain some divisions between elite and popular religiosity, he squarely identifies alchemy as a practice for the elite, and that there was an active network of alchemists communicating throughout Europe and the British Colonies. It was Winthrop, Jr. along with others, according to Woodward, who resisted claims of witchcraft, not because he said that witchcraft was false, but because it was complex and beyond the abilities of the most uneducated. It seems alchemy and witchcraft were the purview of the elite!

Returning to Leventhal, he reminds his readers that the worldview of the early colonialists was not North American but wholly imported from Europe. He writes, “for the purposes of studying colonial culture, it suffices to say that the doctrine of astrology, for example, entered colonial thought simply as part of its general heritage from Elizabethan England” (5). Thus to talk about colonial cosmology is to not identify anything particularly American, but instead to track the influences from Europe, especially England. This view is, in part, the direction of the forthcoming book from Paul Kleber Monod, Solomon's Secret Arts: The Occult in the Age of Enlightenment (Yale 2013). Monod looks at the seventeenth and eighteenth century “occult thinking,” noting that previous historians have tried to emphasize the differences between those who claim natural explanations versus supernatural, distinctions that are, he states, “less precise or obvious than we might wish it to be” (5). Many historians argue that it was “occult thinking” that had to be abandoned in the Age or Reason for society to advance, but Monod asserts it is the opposite. “The suggestion that alchemists, astrologers, ritual magicians, magnetic healers and occult Freemasons could have something to do with this triumphant procession towards modernity is not one that has occurred to British historians. Yet, […] this book will argue, such was the case” (18).

So many of our categories in American religious history have been inherited from our theological predecessors, much like the early colonialists in North America. Some of the baggage from this inheritance is theological boundary work. In perpetuating these boundaries, we often obscure connections or fail to look at historical facts that challenge our inheritance. While speaking directly about Britain, Monod’s book might help shed more light on the constructs we maintain that may no longer serve our discipline. The boundaries between orthodox religion and illicit occultism may be more porous than some would like. Yet, this scholarship is expanding and is not going away. For instance, WW Norton is also publishing a book this summer about this time period and the connections between occultism and the Age of Reason: John V. Fleming’s The Dark Side of the Enlightenment: Wizards, Alchemists, and Spiritual Seekers in the Age of Reason (WW Norton 2013). It would seem that involvement with the occult is no longer something that can just be assigned to the popular religion leaving the elite orthodox and pristine. Instead it would seem that as more research emerges, in the early colonial period at least, there was little difference between elite and popular religion.


Charlie McCrary said…
Good stuff, John. I think you're right about the problem here being, at least partially, our inherited categories. We have "occult" = "popular" = "non-elite" = "superstition" already etched into our historiography. But it obscures some thing that actually happened. This could be said for some other subfields, I think, but this is a really good example.
It's heartening to see good scholarship being done that takes both occultism and occultists seriously.