John L. Crow
When reading Dr. Dennard’s book, I was struck with just how much he has in common with many of the 19th and 20th century esoteric groups and individuals I study. While it is true they frequently come to different conclusions about race, it is hard to miss the central focus on Egypt as a source of ancient wisdom (gnosis), the adoption of Egyptian language and symbolism, the focus on race and genetics as an indication of human advancement, discussions of astral and out-of-body traveling, Freemasonry (pro or con), conspiracy theories, and in later esoteric traditions, assertions of UFO and alien-human interaction. The unfortunate part, however, is that few scholars of religion are focusing on these traditions, although I will discuss a few who are below. Moreover, when scholars of religion do investigate some of the older forms of these traditions, such as Moorish Science, unfortunately they are unaware of the more recent research into occultism and esotericism which would help them better understand the traditions. For instance the Moorish Temple’s Circle Seven Koran is composed of excerpts from The Aquarian Age Gospel of Jesus, the Christ of the Piscean Age (1908), a text deriving from Theosophy and Guy Ballard’s I AM, and Sri Ramatherio’s (a pseudonym for Spencer Lewis), Unto Thee I Grant (1925), a Rosicrucian text written by the founder of AMORC (The Ancient Mystical Order Rosae Crucis). Probably the best scholar to investigate this subject is Susan Nance. While her efforts are admirable, it is clear that her research into these esoteric side of these traditions was limited. Exploring the depth of these connections and influences is all the more important when so many subsequent African American religious movements have been based on the Moorish Temple.
Moreover, Bailey is correct when he speaks of the importance of secrecy in the organization, something Palmer also encountered. Secrecy, however, is standard fare in esoteric organizations. Additionally, their inclusion of Black Freemasonry, magic amulets, a focus on the gnosis from Egypt (or Egipt as they spell it), assertions of astral travel derived from Edgar Cayce, modern conspiracy theories, and mystical Islam all place it squarely in the domain of Western Esotericism. Indeed, in the early 1990s, they purchased 476 acres of land for just under one million dollars and moved their organizational headquarters to their new Egyptian styled village called Tama Re located just outside Eatonton, Georgia. Here the Nuwaubians flourished, often hosting busloads of both faithful and visitors who were greeted by an environment where ancient Egypt was resurrected and the residents dressed in Egyptian costumes. All of this quite reminiscent of the occult orders of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, especially the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and Rosicrucians, groups which are still very prevalent in America and Europe today, and continue to construct places and costumes based on ancient Egypt. Tama Re continued until 2002 when was raided by government authorities and York arrested.
As I noted above, there are a handful of scholars beginning to look at African American religions, building on theories of esotericism. I mentioned Julius H. Bailey of the University of Redlands. While his research covers the AME church, it also looks at emergent black new religious movements. Stephen Finley, of LSU, is probably doing the most to spearhead the study of African American religious movements through the lens of esotericism. He is currently co-editing a collection of essays to be published by Brill tentatively entitled, ‘There Is a Mystery’: Esotericism, Gnosticism, and Mysticism in African American Religious Experience. He contributed to a panel regarding the volume at the AAR in Chicago 2012 and has presented at conferences focused on esotericism. ‘There is a mystery’ will also be co-edited by Margarita Guillory and Hugh Page. Contributions to the volume include Dr. Mary Ann Clark’s “Spirit is Universal: Development of Black Spiritualist Churches” and Yvonne P. Chireau’s “Esotericism, Gnosticism, and Mysticism in Haitian Vodou.”
As American religious history continues to reconfigure and redefine itself, there are more and more possibilities to opening the field to other methodologies and viewpoints that are also emerging, such as the academic field of Western Esotericism. Incorporating the two has been an ongoing call J. Gordon Melton and he is right. We see in the above traditions both the need to address unexplored areas of American religious history, particularly African American religious history, and how some scholars are heading the call. I, and I am sure others, look forward to seeing more of this kind of work in the future. It certainly opens our eyes to the depth and diversity in American religious history.