The Man Who Gave Us the ‘Law of Attraction’
George Bush, Edgar Allan Poe, and the strange origins of New Age spirituality
America in the 1840s was awash in liberal spiritual and social ideas — particularly the principle that the everyday person could forge his own relationship and communication with the Divine. Many Americans saw the young nation as a place provided by God — an “American Israel” where a new people was entitled to a new covenant.
Ralph Waldo Emerson signaled the tenor of the times in 1841 when he published his first series of essays, which extolled the power of ideas to shape a person’s life. “The ancestor of every action is a thought,” he wrote in “Spiritual Laws.” The Transcendentalist philosopher saw the touch of divine power in an active, sensitive mind.
By 1845, the mystical writings of eighteenth-century Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg became widely available in English for the first time. In a precursor to the work of American mediums, the Swedish seer wrote that he could enter trance states in which his astral body traveled to other realms, planets, and dimensions, including different levels of the afterlife.
Mysteries appeared in humble quarters. In March of 1848, a pair of teenage sisters outside Rochester, New York, told their Methodist parents that the rapping sounds heard throughout the family cabin were actually “spirit raps” — communiqués from the afterworld. Scientists and ministers, journalists and judges, descended on the cabin to evaluate, and often affirm, the Fox sisters’ claims. Newspapers spread word of the “Rochester rappings,” and soon people from Maine to Ohio organized into séance circles. By the middle of the next decade, about ten percent of Americans participated in the movement called Spiritualism.
All these currents culminated in the life of a young man who newspapers (somewhat teasingly) called the “Poughkeepsie Seer,” after his Hudson Valley, New York, hometown. His real name was Andrew Jackson Davis, so called for the populist hero Andrew Jackson. Davis united the threads of mediumship, Spiritualism, and social progress in a manner that converged with mental-healing experiments, and gave rise to the American belief in the practical potentials of the positive mind. He went on to give the positive-thinking movement its most enduring phrase and concept: Law of Attraction.
Davis’s beginnings hardly suggested a public career. In 1843, he was a seventeen-year-old cobbler’s apprentice in the Hudson Valley. His father’s alcoholism left the family near the poverty line, with Andrew, his mother, and older sister forced to work odd jobs to survive. He had no more than five months of classroom education. The bearded teen was considered polite and likeable, but showed little sign of rising beyond the circumstances of his household. Davis’s life took a strange turn, however, when he met J.S. Grimes, an area Mesmerist (what is today called a hypnotist) who visited Poughkeepsie that fall to deliver a series of lectures and demonstrations.
An instructor at Castleton Medical College in Vermont, Grimes was a well-established figure on the New England Mesmerist scene. When he appeared in Davis’s Hudson Valley town, Grimes proceeded, as had become common among traveling Mesmerists, to “magnetize” — or place in a trance — volunteers from the audience. Davis volunteered but Grimes failed to put him under. The failure may have been due to Davis’s instant dislike of Grimes, who he called “somewhat egotistic.” (Although Davis cultivated an image as uneducated farm boy he used surprisingly cosmopolitan expressions.) But in the failed episode, Davis’s destiny had been sealed.
A few days later a local tailor dropped by the shoemaking shop where Davis worked. The tailor, William Levingston, himself moonlighted as an amateur Mesmerist. “During a recital of many magnetic marvels he had himself performed, both at home and aboard,” Davis recalled, “he addressed himself to me and said: ‘Have you ever been mesmerized?’ In reply, I informed him of the unsuccessful experiment upon me by Mr. Grimes. Then he said: ‘Come to my house to-night. I’ll try you, if you don’t object…’”
Under Levingston’s control, Davis fell into a remarkably deep trance — he felt an incredible, and somewhat frightening, physical sensation of traveling out of his body and standing on a darkened shore, waiting, it seemed, for some kind of message. Davis began nightly sittings under Levingston’s hand. The teen claimed that from a magnetized state he could journey in his astral body to unseen dimensions, he said he could read books without opening the cover, and, like other American and French mediums, he reported the ability to gaze into the bodies of the sick, diagnosing diseases and ailments. Davis also described out-of-body travels to other planets and heavenly realms — accounts that echoed the experiences of Swedenborg.
After a particularly deep trance-session on a winter evening in 1844, Davis had difficulty returning to ordinary consciousness. He stumbled back to room where he was staying at the home of his tailor friend. In his third-floor bedroom Davis fell into a deep sleep. He recalled being awakened by a voice — it was his dead mother, urging him to go outside. He rushed downstairs and out onto Main Street where he encountered a vision of a flock of unruly sheep and a shepherd who seemed to need his help. The vision vanished in a “rosy light” and Davis, his mind illuminated and his body light, embarked on a psychical “flight through space,” which took him across the frozen landscape of the Catskill Mountains. Whether his journey was astral or physical wasn’t altogether clear, though it may have been both as he vanished until the following day.
His journey culminated inside the stone walls of a small country graveyard deep in the woods. There he said he met the spirit of Swedenborg himself. The Swedish healer told the boy, “By thee a new light will appear.” Davis also received a “Magic Staff,” which first seemed physical but he later deemed mental in nature. Afterwards an astral message revealed to him the true nature of its magic: “Behold! Here is Thy Magic Staff: UNDER ALL CIRCUMSTANCES KEEP AN EVEN MIND. Take it, Try it, Walk with it. Believe on it. FOR EVER.” The staff was not an object but a principle. Davis later called his autobiography The Magic Staff.
The next day Davis reappeared at the home of his tailor friend, and told of the “new directions” their work must take. The youth said he would continue to diagnose the sick but would no longer perform clairvoyant feats for local “wonder-seekers.” In the months ahead, Davis spoke of a “new mountain…looming in the distance,” summoning him to his true mission in life. The young seer began delivering metaphysical lectures from a trance state. Davis assumed the form of an American Swedenborg, using his “mental illumination” to explore cosmic visions and the mechanics of creation.
By spring of 1845 Davis quit working with the tailor Levingston. “He can’t carry me any higher in clairvoyance,” Davis complained. That fall, Davis departed Poughkeepsie for Manhattan and began working with a new pair of helpers. S.S. Lyon, a doctor of herbal remedies from Bridgeport, Connecticut, became Davis’s new Mesmerist control. William Fishbough, a Universalist minister from New Haven, became his “honored scribe,” transcribing the seer’s dispatches from the spirit world.*
Together, the three began a series of daily sittings. They had little money and bounced among a string of furnished rooms in lower Manhattan. Yet a drive and energy fueled their sessions, which could last for hours. The herbalist Lyon would place Davis into a trance in his “sleeping chair” while the minister Fishbough took dictation. Davis described visits to heaven, to other dimensions and planets, and, finally, to the heart of universal creation itself.
On January 13, 1846, Fishbough published a letter in the New York Tribune, outlining Davis’s philosophy — in particular, the powers of a universal “Positive Mind”:
At the back of all the visible operations of nature, however, there is a hidden cause, to which all mechanical and organic causes are but secondary and subordinate; and the admission of this undeniable fact should open our minds to conviction of well-attested phenomena, especially as connected with the mysterious economy of mind…that matter was original formed from a spiritual essence, and that in its progress of refinement, from the earth to the plant, from the plant to the animal, from the animal to man, it will finally form spirit individualized — and that this is endlessly progressive in knowledge and refinement, continually approaching nearer and nearer to the great eternal Positive Mind — the Foundation and Controller of all existence.
While Davis’s visions were partly drawn from the ideas of Swedenborg (a repeat criticism of his work) the correspondence did sketch out an excitingly fresh mental metaphysics. Davis stopped just short of calling the human mind a channel of the great “Positive Mind” of creation, or endowing man with the ability to harness this force for creative purposes. It would fall to another generation of seekers to close the circle that Davis had begun. Nonetheless, the Poughkeepsie Seer, having not yet published his first book, laid out the earliest language of the positive-thinking movement.
The Seer in season
By 1847, Davis and his collaborators were ready to share their visions with the world. The men assembled Davis’s 157 trance lectures into a metaphysical opus, The Principles of Nature, Her Divine Revelations and a Voice to Mankind. It was a massive, sprawling book that retold the story of creation: “The ever-controlling influence and active energies of the Divine Positive Mind brought all effects into being, as parts of one vast whole.”
While thickly worded and torturously long, The Principles of Nature sold a remarkable 900 copies in its first week of release. Davis’s references to the “Great Positive Mind,” or “Great Positive Power,” established the idea, at least for enthusiastic Americans, that all of creation was a mental act, emanating from a higher intelligence and concretizing all forms of reality.
Not everyone was impressed with Davis’s cosmology. Edgar Allan Poe, then a struggling journalist and short-story writer, sat in on some of Davis’s New York trance sittings. Poe came to regard Davis with a mixture of intrigue and contempt. In 1849 one of Poe’s last short stories, Mellonta Tauta, he poked fun at Davis by mangling his high-sounding name as “Martin Van Buren Mavis (sometimes called the ‘Tougkeepsie Seer’).” At the same time, Poe contributed to the popularity of Mesmerism by using themes from Davis’s trance sittings in one of his most popular stories, The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar. It told of a Mesmerist who keeps an ill man from slipping into death by holding him in a magnetic trance. Poe completed the story in New York the year he met Davis.
For his part, Davis also harbored mixed feelings toward Poe. In a January 1846 journal entry, Davis described seeing Poe’s personal aura in the form of a gloomy landscape of dark hills that always hung around the writer’s head — “a kind of blooming valley, surrounded by a high wall of craggy mountains.” Davis’s powers of perception, whatever their source, were psychologically astute when focused on Poe:
So high appear these mountains that the sun can scarcely shine over their summits during any portion of the twenty-four hours. There is, too, something unnatural in his voice, and something dispossessing in his manners…as he walked in through the hall, and again when he left, at the conclusion of his call, I saw a perfect shadow of himself in the air in front of him, as though the sun was constantly shining behind and casting shadows before him, causing the singular appearance of one walking into a dark fog produced by himself.
Poe ultimately had no patience for Davis’s vision of the “Divine Positive Mind.” He dismissed the medium in May 1849 in one of his last published works, “50 Suggestions” — a set of maxims satirizing the spiritual trends and experiments of the era. Of Davis, Poe concluded, “There surely cannot be ‘more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of’ (oh, Andrew Jackson Davis !) ‘in your philosophy.’”
Yet Davis was not without significant defenders. Among them was a Rev. George Bush — a first cousin, four and five times removed, to Presidents George H.W. and George W. Bush. While long-forgotten, the Rev. Bush was a respected religious scholar and speaker who shared podiums with Ralph Waldo Emerson. Bush stirred enormous controversy in 1845 when he left the Presbyterian pulpit to become a minister in the Church of the New Jerusalem, a congregation based on the mystical ideas of Swedenborg. Bush was one of the Swedenborgian faith’s most prominent converts — and a stalwart defender of Davis’s.
Bush had personally witnessed some of Davis’s New York trance sittings. Davis’s journals actually show Poe and Bush visiting together on January 19, 1846. The bible scholar believed that Davis’s statements reflected a genuine and mysterious form of genius. Bush said that the entranced Davis expounded on matters of ancient geology and archeology, and employed the Hebrew language, in a manner impossible for an unschooled cobbler’s apprentice.
“Indeed,” Bush wrote, “if he has acquired all the information he gives forth in these Lectures, not in the two years since he left the shoemaker’s bench, but in his whole life, with the most assiduous study, no prodigy of intellect of which the world has ever heard would be for a moment compared with him.”
Davis struck a special chord for Americans. He claimed that the mind could be awakened to a “superior condition;” and through the example his humble background, Davis reinforced the ideal that any ordinary person could attain this higher state. The connection between the awakened human mind and the creative powers of the “Great Positive Mind” was a key-turn away.
The giver of the law
In the mid-nineteenth century Davis coined a concept that has far outlasted his name. It was the Law of Attraction. But he imbued the term with a different meaning from the one later attached to it.
Never one for brevity, Davis in 1855 produced a six-volume treatise on metaphysical laws, The Great Harmonia. In volume four, he defined the Law of Attraction not as a principle of cause-and-effect thinking, nor as a method for using the mind to attract wealth, but, rather, as a cosmic law governing the cycles and maintenance of life. “The atoms in human souls,” Davis wrote, “are attracted together from the living elements of soil and atmosphere; and, when these atoms complete the organization or individuality, they then manifest the same law of Attraction in every personal relation, inward and outward, through all the countless avenues of existence!” He called this law “the fundamental principle of all Life, which is Attraction”
In Davis’s original rendering, the Law of Attraction was a gravitational force of affinities, one that was ever-present in all cosmic and human affairs. The law dictated where a person’s soul would dwell in the afterlife based on the traits he had displayed on earth. It explained human attraction (or its absence). The Law of Attraction governed the types of spirits that would be drawn to séances based on the character and intention of the people seated around the table.
Davis did allow that the Law of Attraction governed certain material and earthly goals: “A mysterious wand, termed the ‘Law of Attraction,’ guides the traveller.” He probably would have agreed with Joseph Campbell’s maxim “follow your bliss,” and seen the mythologist’s expression as a sound interpretation of the Law of Attraction. But it wasn’t until positive-thinking impresarios revised Davis’s ideas that the Law of Attraction connoted a direct bond between thought and object.
The remaking of Davis’s law began in 1892 in the final volume of journalist and spiritual explorer Prentice Mulford’s book Your Forces, And How to Use Them. Mulford, who died the previous year, had written: “Such a friend will come to you through the inevitable law of attraction if you desire him or her…” In 1897, Ralph Waldo Trine used the term as a mental law in in his bestselling In Tune with the Infinite, as did Helen Wilmans who invoked the Law of Attraction in her 1899 Conquest of Poverty.
In June of that year, New Thought leader Charles Brodie Patterson showcased the phrase in his influential article “The Law of Attraction,” published in his journal, Mind. Patterson celebrated the Law of Attraction as a metaphysical super-law that dictated everything around us is an out-picturing of what our thoughts dwell on. “Upon the recognition of this law depend health and happiness,” Patterson wrote, “because neither can ensue unless in our thought we give out both.” This became the point where the Law of Attraction assumed the form in which it is known today, becoming a catchphrase of The Secret, the Hicks-Abraham readings, and much of the New Age culture.
It’s not that Davis wouldn’t have recognized today’s use of the Law of Attraction, so much as its current iteration as a mental law of cause and effect reflects a narrower and more proscribed concept than what the Hudson Valley medium had in mind. Does that mean that today’s version of the Law of Attraction is wrong or corrupted? Not necessarily. Religion throughout human history is the story of borrowing, rephrasing, and revising ideas from other cultures and belief systems. This has been true from the biblical age up through our own. It has been famously remarked that laws are like sausages: one should never see them being made. The same might be said of religions.
*Davis’s long life — the seer lived until January 1910 — was marked by a willingness to discard old partners and helpmates in favor of new ones. In 1885, after thirty years of marriage and public collaboration with suffragist Mary Fenn Love, Davis divorced her, saying his spirit guardians told him that the couple’s “‘central temperaments’ do not harmonize.” Davis remarried (his third time), and left Mary to raise four grandchildren placed in her care by her deceased daughter. Mary died of cancer the following year in West Orange, New Jersey.
Mitch Horowitz is the author of One Simple Idea: How the Lessons of Positive Thinking can Transform your Life, a history and analysis of positive thinking, and Occult America: White House Seances, Ouija Circles, Masons, and the Secret Mystic History of Our Nation.
To discover more about the life of Andrew Jackson Davis, check out the documentary below: The Seer of Poughkeepsie.
This article is slightly revised from its original publication at www.harvbishop.com on September 21, 2016.