The New Age and Gnosticism
The needs of today’s New Agers echo those of our ancient ancestors
The term “gnosticism” exists today in the eye of the beholder. I repeatedly have to correct the auto-spell function that capitalizes the word, because gnosticism, in my view, can no longer sustain a strict historical and religious meaning. This reflects its innate quality as a heterodox, syncretic, and questioning spirituality.
Indeed, gnosticism is a frustrating term for many scholars today due to the sometimes diffuse manner in which it is simultaneously used to describe practices in early church history and various modern mystical pursuits. For the purposes of this paper, I define gnosticism as a late-ancient religious attitude that regards spiritual traditions, practices, and liturgy as largely combinative, flexible, and open to broad reinterpretation and realignment. Gnosticism is, in a sense, a tradition of anti-tradition and, historically, a collection of loosely encamped seekers and syncretic movements stemming from the early Christian era and drawing upon Hellenic, Jewish, Persian, and Eastern religious currents.
In that regard, the gnostic thread has much in common with the recent culture of New Age spirituality. New Age is another term that has become largely amorphous but, in my view, can be defined very simply as a radically ecumenical late-twentieth and early twenty-first culture of therapeutic spirituality. I continue to capitalize New Age because of its specific meaning and relation to our time. Some scholars and critics deride the New Age as “cafeteria religion,” which, to my mind, does not necessarily signify a disingenuous or unserious quality, but rather suggests New Age’s appeal and suitability to the lives of contemporary people facing variegated religious and psychological needs, and for whom a wide array of spiritual and religious options are available. I should note that the term gnosticism, at its scholarly inception in the seventeenth century, was also used pejoratively.
Because of how New Age is often meant to connote a fickle, shallow, and trendy spiritual outlook, one of the oddities of the current New Age movement is that, popular as it is — media expressions range from the blockbuster movie The Secret to bestselling books by Deepak Chopra and Wayne Dyer — almost no one wants to be defined by title. I am in touch with many people who follow various occult, mystical, and psycho-spiritual teachings, whose homes and offices are overrun with crystals, Buddha statues, astrology charts, and motivational posters, but who immediately clarify: “I’m not New Age.” For my part, I purposely use the term New Age, and freely describe myself by it, because I do not believe that the term, or any term that is useful and historically pertinent, should be defined solely by its critics, or by those who flee from its connotations.
In this paper, in which I explore three separate episodes of recent alternative spiritual history, I argue that variants of New Age spirituality, which include mystical, psycho-spiritual, and physical methods, are, in many ways, indirect but not wholly unaligned descendants of late-ancient gnostic attitudes and thought. To demonstrate this I start with an occult and mysteriously titled book from the early twentieth century, The Kybalion, for how it illustrates the New Age’s proclivity to associate its ideas with the ancient past — not always accurately but not always inaccurately, as I explore. Second, I look at the work of a little-known but increasingly popular mystic, Neville Goddard (1905–1972), in order to consider what his career reveals about the New Age’s fascination with charismatic and alluring teachers — and in his case a teacher of greater than usual intellectual depth who embodied the gnostic and Hermetic ideal of the mind’s transformative power. And finally, I explore the life of widely read psychic Edgar Cayce (1877–1945), who probably did more than any other figure of the twentieth century to popularize the key themes of New Age spirituality, particularly mind-body healing, channeling, and clairvoyance, all couched within an ideal of human attainment of gnosis, or higher awareness.
It is not always easy to find a family tree of connection between ancient and modern religious ideas. This is particularly true of gnostic movements. Due to their anti-traditional nature, lack of canonical literature and liturgy, and general outsider status, gnostic, like occult movements, usually follow very jagged and disjointed ancestries — they change, morph, vanish (for a time), to reemerge in different ways. Hence, any scholar, historian, or observer who wants to trace the lineage of gnostic or occultic movements from antiquity to the present, especially in the outcropping of the New Age, is on shaky ground.
There are, however, authentic threads of connection, in ideas and thought style, rather than organizations or specific methods, between today’s alternative spiritual scene and some of the attitudes and strivings of the late-ancient past. One such connection can be detected between the New Thought movement — popularly associated with the “law of the attraction” or the “power of positive thinking” — and Hermeticism, which scholar of religion April D. DeConick has persuasively grouped under the banner of gnosticism. The connection is perhaps on clearest display in an enduringly popular 1908 occult book, The Kybalion, which purports to be a commentary by three unnamed seekers on an ancient Hermetic mystery book. Several observers, myself included, once dismissed the short work as a novelty of early twentieth-century occultism; yet today it is the subject of new and serious scrutiny as a modern Hermetic adaptation.
Now, I sometimes suspect that many modern seekers loosely deploy the word Hermetic — a term for late ancient Greek-Egyptian mystical texts attributed to the mythical man-god Hermes Trismegistus, or thrice-greatest Hermes — as a kind of marker, intended to connote a venerable ancestor to modern mysticism, and thus giving contemporary spiritual pursuits the weight of historical gravitas. But, affectations and exaggerations aside, the Hermetic texts or Hermetica, chiefly comprising the seventeen dialogues found in the Corpus Hermeticum as well as the work called Asclepius, coalesce with some of the key needs and expressions of a twenty-first century person seeking metaphysical insight and clarity.
This is vividly seen in The Kybalion, which may be the most widely read occult book of the twentieth century. As a former publisher at a division of Penguin Random House specializing in metaphysical literature, I have personally tracked the book’s sales of hundreds of thousands of copies across myriad editions; although still an “underground” book, largely off the mainstream radar, its popularity is rivaled by few other occult works. Pseudonymously published under the provocative byline “Three Initiates” (about which more will be said), The Kybalion has also, I think, earned its posterity as something reasonably close to what it claims to be: a “Great Reconciler” of contemporary metaphysical, New Age, and New Thought philosophies, however one judges the efficacy and personal usefulness of those ideas.
Although many of The Kybalion’s reference points and formulations are plainly modern, the book can be defended as an authentic retention of certain ancient Hermetic ideas. Its author drew upon elements of the Hermetica, the aforementioned late-ancient collection of Greek-Egyptian writings. The various and unnamed authors of the Hermetica, not always agreeing among themselves, codified fragments of immeasurably old oral precepts from Ancient Egypt, which were highly treasured by Egypt’s Hellenic ruling and literary class in the centuries following Christ; these writings reemerged, to great sensation, in Latin translation during the Renaissance. It should be immediately noted that some historical scholars dispute the notion that the Hermetic writings possess Ancient Egyptian roots, and posit the Hermetica strictly as an expression of late-Greek philosophy with an Egyptian overlay as window dressing. Today’s consensus view, however, tends toward the Hermetica as a syncretic work, intermingling Hellenic and authentic Egyptian thought.
Before saying more about the value of The Kybalion, and its relation to gnosticism, let me briefly address the question of its authorship. The identity of the “Three Initiates” has long been a source of speculation and drama; this can serve to distract from the book’s greater significance. The Kybalion was written by New Thought philosopher and publisher William Walker Atkinson (1862– 1932), a remarkably energetic Chicago publisher, writer, lawyer, and spiritual seeker, who was one of the most incisive New Thought voices of the twentieth century.
Among the many pieces of evidence, both literary and documentary, that demonstrate Atkinson’s authorship, he acknowledged himself as the sole writer in a 1912 entry in Who’s Who In America. Historical scholars, including Philip Deslippe and Richard Smoley (I also take up the matter in my Occult America), have amply demonstrated that there is no reason to argue with him. This prolific figure was the Three Initiates. It should also be noted that in the traditional literature, Hermes Trismegistus addresses himself to three disciples: Tat, Ammon, and Asclepius, which may have been a source of inspiration for Atkinson’s byline. Atkinson’s title, The Kybalion, has no obvious meaning, but may be a Hellenized play on kabbalah.
Atkinson was also the book’s original publisher at his Chicago-based Yogi Publication Society. The press published its owner’s many influential and not infrequently pseudonymous works, including books under the names of Yogi Ramacharaka and Theron Q. Dumont, as well as Atkinson’s self-bylined works. For generations, the writer-publisher’s diminutive blue hardcovers were a well-loved mainstay of New Age bookstores, and served to influence a wide range of occult and metaphysical seekers.
More important to our purposes than The Kybalion’s backstory, is how some of the book’s concepts about mind, matter, and thought-creativity demonstrate genuine resonance with the ideas of Hermetic antiquity. This is not a small matter. The Kybalion is not merely, or at least not only, modern New Thought clothed in ancient garb; rather, the book connects modern seekers, however tenuously, to concepts that once motivated acolytes from a vastly removed era.
Deslippe and Smoley have admirably tracked some of Atkinson’s sources; to their work I would add only that Atkinson was a capable surveyor of Victorian-era and Theosophically based translations of Hermetic literature, which is how the corpus was available to early twentieth-century readers. In particular, he would have encountered the translations of G. R. S. Mead (1863–1933), a scholar of ancient mysticism and one-time secretary to Madame H. P. Blavatsky (1831–1891), a figure whom Atkinson revered. The influence of Blavatsky’s 1888 occult opus The Secret Doctrine is evident at several points in Atkinson’s writings. Mead’s three-volume 1906 translation of the Hermetica, Thrice-Greatest Hermes, published two years before Atkinson’s effort, while turgidly worded in late-Victorian prose, and sometimes almost purposely written as if to assume an antique affect, was then one of the few sources of Hermetic ideas in English. With a skilled and discerning eye, Atkinson identified and distilled insights that corresponded to the sturdiest aspects of New Thought, or what William James had contemporaneously called “the religion of healthy-mindedness,” a field in which Atkinson was deeply steeped. The seeker-writer used his considerable curatorial abilities to produce a marriage of ancient and modern psychological insights.
Atkinson focused primarily on the authentic Hermetic principle that Mind is the Great Creator. According to Hermetic literature, a supreme Mind or Nous, uses as its vehicle a threefold process consisting of: 1) subordinate mind (demiurgos-nous); 2) word (logos); and 3) spirit (anthropos), concepts that echo, albeit distantly, in Atkinson’s work. The Kybalion is structured around “Seven Hermetic Principles,” which follow from the Hermetic concept of “seven rulers” of nature. Man, we are told in book I of the Corpus Hermeticum, the body of work translated during the Renaissance, “had in himself all the energy of the rulers, who marveled at him, and each gave him a share of his own nature.” (I quote from a 1977 translation by Far West Undertakings.)
Atkinson is particularly supple in adapting the Hermetic conception of gender, in which the masculine (conscious mind, in Atkinson’s terms, and original man in the Hermetica) impregnates the feminine (subconscious mind to Atkinson, and nature in the Hermetica), to create the physical world.
Further still — and this is vital to the book’s appeal for its seeking reader — The Kybalion ably ventures a theory of mind causality. The book explains why, from the perspective of metaphysical belief, our minds are said to possess formative, creative abilities, and yet, even as we evince powers of causation, we are also subject to limits of physicality, mortality, and daily mechanics. As articulated in Atkinson’s chapter “‘The All’ in All,” the individual may wield traits of a higher manifesting Force, but that does not make the individual synonymous with that Force. Man, the book counsels, may accomplish a great deal within given parameters, including transcendence of commonly presumed limitations, influence over the minds of others, and co-creation of certain circumstances; but the book reminds the enthusiast that we bump against physical parameters even as we are granted the capacity, within a given framework, to imitate the Power that set those parameters. In this, The Kybalion honors the views of the ancients.
Atkinson offers philosophical definitions of concepts of rhythm, polarity, paradox, compensation, and “Mental Gender.” In a sense, the philosophy found in The Kybalion is a modern application of Hermeticism, Neo-Platonism, Transcendentalism, and New Thought. The book also attempts, however fitfully, to correspond its ideas to the early-twentieth century’s nascent insights into quantum mechanics and the “new physics,” which gained currency in the decades immediately following its publication. In this sense, the author exaggerates only slightly when he writes: “We do not come expounding a new philosophy, but rather furnishing the outlines of a great world-old teaching which will make clear the teachings of others — which will serve as a Great Reconciler of differing theories, and opposing doctrines.”
In its scope and ambitions, The Kybalion captured the mood and aspirations of the dawning New Age culture, which it also helped shape. The overall spirit of The Kybalion can be traced to book XI of the Corpus Hermeticum, in which Hermes is told by Supreme Mind that through the uses of imagination he can discover the workings of Higher Creation: “If you do not make yourself equal to God you cannot understand Him. Like is understood by like.” (I quote from a 1999 translation by Clement Salaman, et al, The Way of Hermes.) This echoes the famous Hermetic dictum as above, so below enunciated in the text called the Emerald Tablet. (For a useful historical analysis of the Emerald Tablet see Meditations on the Tarot by Anonymous aka Valentin Tomberg.) Hermes is told to use his mind to travel to all places, to unite opposites, to know all things, to transcend time and distance: “Become eternity and thus you will understand God. Suppose nothing to be impossible for yourself.” Hermeticism teaches that we are granted a Divine birthright of boundless creativity and expansion within the imagination. This teaching is central to the Hermetic philosophy, and its modern re-sounding in The Kybalion.
For all that, I must note that Hermeticism is not the religious ancestor to New Thought. The paucity of translations and the rural surroundings of most of America’s New Thought pioneers in the mid-to-late nineteenth century placed these ideas off their path. Early New Thoughters were largely independent investigators who arrived at their insights about the mind’s causative abilities chiefly through self-experiment, a topic I explore in my One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life.
But aspects of Hermeticism do represent a distant historical parallel to New Thought, especially Hermeticism’s core idea that a Great Mind of Creation brought all things into being, and that this same creative mental faculty dwells in all men, beings the Higher Mind created not only in its own image but to function in its own likeness. In book I of the Corpus Hermeticum, sometimes called the Divine Pymander of Hermes Trismegistus, we hear specifically of the mind’s causative abilities: “… your mind is god the father; they are not divided from one another for their union is life.” (I quote here from an invaluable 1992 translation by Brian P. Copenhaver, Hermetica.) As we come to realize our creative capacities, the author of the Pymander reasons, we grow closer in nature and perspective to the Eternal: “… he who has understood himself advances toward god.”20 This outlook is at home in nearly every New Thought book of the last century.
Were it somehow possible for contemporary metaphysical seekers to reach back in time and have an exchange with the ancient Hermeticists, something like The Kybalion is probably as good an estimation as we can venture of what would appear.
Modern Gnostic: Neville Goddard
Recent to this writing, I received an ebullient letter from a barbershop owner in Lafayette, Georgia, who loves the work of twentieth-century mystic Neville Goddard. As a historian of the occult, I receive few fan letters from Lafayette — this one made me take special notice.
The metaphysical teacher Neville, who wrote and spoke under his first name, has been growing in popularity since his death, in 1972, and particularly in the past decade or so, when a wide range of New Age writers, including Rhonda Byrne and Wayne Dyer, named him as an influence. A historical profile of Neville that I wrote in 2005 has become one of my most widely read and reprinted pieces. Neville’s books are entering multiple editions, and his lectures, preserved digitally from recordings that he freely allowed during his lifetime, receive hits numbering in the hundreds of thousands.
This is an unlikely renaissance for a British-Barbadian metaphysical lecturer who died in near-obscurity, and whose ten books and thousands of lectures center on one theme: your imagination is God. This is a radical re-sounding of a Hermetic principle. Everything that you see and experience, Neville wrote, are your emotionalized thoughts and mental images pushed out into the world. The God of the Old and New Testaments, he taught, is simply a metaphor of your own creative faculties, and your surrounding world is self-formed in the most literal sense. In his heterodox reading of Scripture, Neville is among the most alluring gnostics of the New Age.
From a modern perspective, Neville promulgated ideas that serious people immediately want to argue with or wave off — but this is where Neville differs from most of the mystical thinkers of the previous century. In his books, pamphlets, and lectures, Neville argued for his radical thesis with extraordinary precision, vividness, and persuasiveness. With his appealing Mid-Atlantic accent, encyclopedic command of Scripture, and gentle yet grand speaking style, Neville could, in the space of a 20-minute lecture, upend an eager listener’s view of life. Humanity, he taught, does not respond to circumstances — rather, it creates them and reacts after the fact without knowing the true origin of events.
Neville’s method of mind causation is simplicity itself. It can be reduced to a three-step formula. First, form an absolutely clear sense of what you want — be starkly honest with yourself about an accomplishment, possession, or relationship that you desire with all your heart and intellect. “Feeling is the secret,” Neville wrote. Second, enter into a state of restful physical immobility, such as what you experience just before drifting off to sleep at night (this is sometimes called the hypnagogic state) — and you are free to do this step at that time. When the mind and body are blissfully relaxed, your intellect is unusually supple and suggestible. Third, from this state of physical stillness, picture a short, emotionally satisfying scene that implies the fulfillment of your desire, such as someone shaking your hand in congratulations, or feeling the weight and density of an award in your hands or a wedding ring on your finger. Do not witness the scene as if you’re passively watching it on a movie screen, but feel yourself in it. Run this scene through your mind for as long as it remains vivid and satisfying. You can allow yourself to fall asleep after doing this.
The simple yet bold scale of Neville’s methods, and his own charismatic and disarming intellectual and personal style, earned him unusual loyalty among post-war seekers, and a burgeoning new audience in our time.
Neville was not traditionally educated. The mystic grew up in an era when young people were expected to venture out into the world at an early age. Born in 1905 to an English family in the West Indies, the island-raised teenager, hungry to experience more of life, migrated to New York City in the early 1920s, at age 17, to study theater.24 Neville’s ambition for the stage eventually faded as he encountered various mystical and occult philosophies. By the early 1930s, Neville embarked on his new and unforeseen career as a lecturer and writer of mind-power metaphysics. In his lectures, Neville often referred to an enigmatic, turbaned, black-Jewish man named Abdullah, whom Neville said tutored him in Scripture, number mysticism, Kabbalah, and Hebrew.
Whatever the source of Neville’s education — a topic I consider more fully in my One Simple Idea — I want to locate the ancestry of some of his ideas in metaphysical history. I have come across phrasing in his early writing that suggests influences from French mind theorist Emile Coué and American psychical researcher Thomson Jay Hudson, whose 1893 book The Law of Psychic Phenomena was influential in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Hudson attempted to demonstrate that mediumistic phenomena resulted from natural laws of clairvoyance rather than spirits or the supernatural.
Although Neville took his ideas in a bracingly original direction, the basics of his system were New Thought, which rejects materialism as the foundation of life, and sees reality based primarily in spiritual rather than physical laws. Modern positive-mind philosophy is a distinctly American phenomenon, and, as alluded earlier, is a largely homegrown thought school, the roots of which are traceable to the Transcendentalist culture of New England in the mid-nineteenth century, and the mental-healing movement that grew in its wake.
Those are the modern points of reference. But when tracking the history of ideas, one learns (or ought to) that virtually every thought in currency has been encountered and articulated in varying ways at diffuse points of his- tory. And here, concepts about the causative nature of thought return us to Hermeticism. Another of the key ideas in Hermetic philosophy is that through proper preparation, including diet, meditation, and prayer, the individual is permeated by divine forces, and gains higher powers of mind. This approach is also suggested in Neville’s three-step method.
Some Hermetic ideas and concepts about the divinity of the mind reentered modern culture through the influence of individual philosophers and artists, including British poet and mystic William Blake (1757–1827). Blake’s thought made a direct impact on Neville. Blake believed that our limited perceptions imprison us in a fortress of illusions. But the one True Mind, the great Creative Imagination or God, can permeate us. “If the doors of perception were cleansed,” Blake wrote in his 1790 The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, “every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite.” In states of higher sensitivity, the visionary poet reasoned, we can feel the effects of this Great Mind coursing through us.
Neville was also influenced, as noted, by Emile Coué, the self-trained French hypnotherapist famous for his mantra, “Day by day, in every way, I am getting better and better.” Coué died in 1926, but shortly before his death he lectured on two tours to the United States. Coué was, for a time, hugely popular in the US and Europe. It was Coué who first spread the idea of using the drowsy, hypnagogic state for mental reconditioning. Another of Coué’s ideas that figured into Neville’s thought — you can find the language in Neville’s 1945 book Prayer: The Art of Believing — is that each of us contains two competing forces: will and imagination. The will is our self-determinative and decision-making apparatus. The imagination is the mental pictures that govern us, particularly with regard to self-image and emotional judgments we hold about others and ourselves. Coué said that when will and imagination are in conflict, the imagination invariably wins. The emotional state always overcomes the intellect.
As an example, Coué said, place a wooden plank on the floor and ask some- one to walk across it. He’ll have no problem. But if you raise that same wooden plank twenty feet from the ground, the subject will likely be petrified, even though there is no difference in the physical act. He is capable of crossing the plank; the risk of falling is minimal. But the change in conditions makes him imagine falling; this fosters an emotional state of nervousness (which also makes him more accident-prone). Coué reasoned that we must cultivate new self-images — but we cannot do so through the intellect. We must do so by suggesting new ideas to ourselves while in the subtle hypnagogic state. He called his method autosuggestion. It was essentially self-hypnosis. I find some hint of that in Neville — though his outlook far surpassed it.
The purpose of human existence, Neville taught, is not to recondition your imagination, but be reborn from within your imagination. You experience your imagination — your true self — as physically lodged in your skull, which functions as a kind of womb. Neville, in the culmination of his mystical vision, believed that you must be reborn from within your skull, and that you will have that actual physical experience, maybe in the form of a dream, but nonetheless a vivid, tactile experience of actual rebirth from the base of your skull. You will know in that moment that you are fulfilling your central purpose. This echoes the variegated gnostic view of humanity’s capacity to attain self-divinity and higher realization.
Neville described all this vividly. He had the experience himself in New York City in 1959. He told of the tangibly real dream of being reborn from his skull. Minerva was said to be reborn from the skull of Zeus or Jupiter. Christ was crucified at Golgotha, the place of the skull. You and I, Neville said, will be reborn from within our skulls. Later in Neville’s career, a speaking agent warned him to stop emphasizing this kind of esoteric material in his talks — he had to return to more familiar themes, like the wealth-building powers of the mind, or he would lose he audience. “Then I’ll tell it to the bare walls,” Neville replied. Although he drew smaller crowds, Neville continued to speak of this mystical rebirth for the rest of his career, until his death in Los Angeles in 1972.
Neville was not widely known when he died, but his popularity has recently surged. His books have probably sold more copies over the past decade than they did throughout his lifetime. In a modern culture rife with metaphysical voices, Neville’s was not only the most radical, but also among the most integral and infectious. This gnostic visionary reimagined the divine as very nature of the individual.
Messenger of the New Age: Edgar Cayce
In autumn of 1910, The New York Times brought the first major national attention to the name of Edgar Cayce, a young man who later became widely regarded as the forefather of holistic medicine and the founding voice of alternative spirituality in the twentieth century.
The Sunday Times of October 9, 1910 profiled the Christian mystic and medical clairvoyant in an extensive article and photo spread: Illiterate Man Becomes a Doctor When Hypnotized.30 At the time Cayce (pronounced “Casey”), then 33, was struggling to make his way as a commercial photographer in his hometown of Hopkinsville, Kentucky, while delivering daily trance-based medical “readings” in which he would diagnose and prescribe natural cures for the illnesses of people he had never met.
Cayce’s method was to recline on a sofa or day bed, loosen his tie, belt, cuffs, and shoelaces, and enter a sleep-like trance; then, given only the name and location of a subject, the “sleeping prophet” was said to gain insight into the person’s body and psychology. By the time of his death in January 1945, Cayce had amassed a record of more than 14,300 clairvoyant readings for people across the nation, many of the sessions captured by stenographer Gladys Davis.
In the 1920s, Cayce’s trance readings expanded beyond medicine (which nonetheless remained at the core of his work) to include “life readings,” in which he explored a person’s inner conflicts and needs. In these sessions Cayce employed references to astrology, karma, reincarnation, and number symbolism. Other times, he expounded on global prophecies, climate or geological changes, and the lost history of mythical cultures, such as Atlantis and Lemuria. Cayce had no recollection of any of this when he awoke, though as a devout Christian the esotericism of such material made him wince when he read the transcripts.
Contrary to news coverage, Cayce was not illiterate, but neither was he well educated. Although he taught Sunday school at his Disciples of Christ church — and read through the King James Bible at least once every year — he had never made it past the eighth grade of a rural schoolhouse. While his knowledge of Scripture was encyclopedic, Cayce’s reading tastes were otherwise limited. Aside from spending a few on-and-off years in Texas unsuccessfully trying to use his psychical abilities to strike oil — he had hoped to raise money to open a hospital based on his clairvoyant cures — Cayce rarely ventured beyond the Bible Belt environs of his childhood.
Since the tale of Jonah fleeing from the word of God, prophets have been characterized as reluctant, ordinary folk plucked from reasonably satisfying lives to embark on missions that they never originally sought. In this sense, if the impending New Age — the vast culture of Eastern, gnostic, and therapeutic spirituality that exploded on the national scene in the 1960s and 70s — was seeking a founding prophet, Cayce could hardly be viewed as an unusual choice, but, historically, as a perfect one.
The Messenger’s Scribe
It was this Edgar Cayce — an everyday man, dedicated Christian, and uneasy mystic — whom New England college student and future biographer Thomas Sugrue encountered in 1927, and later brought serious national attention in his 1942 biography, There Is a River. The book informed how Cayce has been viewed ever since, and the Sugrue-Cayce collaboration hugely impacted the development of alternative spirituality.
When Sugrue met Cayce, the twenty-year-old journalism student said he rolled his eyes at paranormal claims or talk of ESP. (This is typical of the “background story” of twentieth-century seekers: the inquirer begins as a skeptic.) Yet Sugrue had also met a new friend at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, who challenged his perceptions: the psychic’s eldest son, Hugh Lynn Cayce.
Hugh Lynn had planned to attend Columbia but his father’s clairvoyant readings directed him instead to the old-line Virginia school. Sugrue grew intrigued by his new friend’s stories about his father — in particular the elder Cayce’s theory that one person’s subconscious mind could communicate with another’s. The two freshmen enjoyed sparring intellectually and became roommates. While still cautious, Sugrue wanted to meet the agrarian seer.
Edgar and his wife Gertrude, meanwhile, were laying new roots about 250 miles east of Lexington in Virginia Beach, a location the readings had also selected. The psychic spent the remainder of his life in the Atlantic coastal town, delivering twice-daily readings and developing the Association for Research and Enlightenment (A.R.E.), a spiritual learning center that remains active there today.
Accompanying Hugh Lynn home in June 1927, Sugrue received a “life reading” from Cayce. In these psychological readings, Cayce was said to peer into a subject’s “past life” incarnations and influences, analyze his character through astrology and other esoteric methods, and view his personal struggles and aptitudes. Cayce correctly identified the young writer’s interest in the Middle East, a region where Sugrue later issued news reports on the founding of the modern state of Israel. But it wasn’t until Christmas of that year that Sugrue, upon receiving an intimate and uncannily accurate medical reading, became an all-out convert to Cayce’s psychical abilities.
Sugrue went on to fulfill his aim of becoming a journalist, writing from different parts of the world for publications including the New York Herald Tribune and The American Magazine. But his life remained interwoven with Cayce’s. Stricken by debilitating arthritis in the late 1930s, Sugrue sought help through Cayce’s medical readings. From 1939 to 1941, the ailing Sugrue lived with the Cayce family in Virginia Beach, writing and convalescing. During these years of close access to Cayce — while struggling with painful joints and limited mobility — Sugrue completed There Is a River, the sole biography written of Cayce during his lifetime. When the book appeared in 1942, it brought Cayce national attention that surpassed even the earlier Times coverage.
Sugrue was not Cayce’s only enthusiast within the world of American letters. There Is a River broke through the skeptical wall of New York publishing thanks to a reputable editor, William Sloane, of Holt, Rinehart & Winston, who experienced his own brush with the Cayce readings.
In 1940, Sloane agreed to consider the manuscript for There Is a River. He knew the biography was highly sympathetic, a fact that did not endear him to it. Sloane’s wariness faded after Cayce’s clairvoyant diagnosis helped one of the editor’s children. Novelist and screenwriter Nora Ephron recounted the episode in a 1968 New York Times article.
“I read it,” Sloane told Ephron. “Now there isn’t any way to test a manuscript like this. So I did the only thing I could do.” He went on:
A member of my family, one of my children, had been in great and continuing pain. We’d been to all the doctors and dentists in the area and all the tests were negative and the pain was still there. I wrote Cayce, told him my child was in pain and would be at a certain place at such-and- such a time, and enclosed a check for $25. He wrote back that there was an infection in the jaw behind a particular tooth. So I took the child to the dentist and told him to pull the tooth. The dentist refused — he said his professional ethics prevented him from pulling sound teeth. Finally, I told him he would have to pull it. One tooth more or less didn’t matter, I said — I couldn’t live with the child in such pain. So he pulled the tooth and the infection was there and the pain went away. I was a little shook. I’m the kind of man who believes in X-rays. About this time, a member of my staff who thought I was nuts to get involved with this took even more precautions in writing to Cayce than I did, and he sent her back facts about her own body only she could have known. So I published Sugrue’s book.
There exist many other works on Cayce — it would take several paragraphs to appreciate the best of them. But it was Sugrue, an accomplished print journalist who worked and convalesced with Cayce for several years, who fully captured Cayce’s personal warmth and earnestness; this made his mystical and gnostic visions palatable to a broad public.
Sugrue’s historical Edgar Cayce is the man who grew from being an awkward, soft-voiced adolescent to a national figure who never quite knew how to manage his fame — and less so how to manage money, often foregoing or deferring his usual $20 fee for readings, leaving himself and his family in a perpetual state of financial precariousness. In a typical letter from 1940, Cayce replied to a blind laborer who asked about paying in installments: “You may take care of the [fee] any way convenient to your self — please know one is not prohibited from having a reading … because they haven’t money. If this information is of a divine source it can’t be sold, if it isn’t then it isn’t worth any thing.”
Sugrue also captured Cayce as a figure of deep Christian faith struggling to come to terms with the occult concepts that ran through his readings beginning in the early 1920s. This material extended to numerology, astrology, auras, crystal gazing, modern prophecies, reincarnation, karma, and the story of mythical civilizations, including Atlantis and prehistoric Egypt. People who sought readings were intrigued and emotionally impacted by this material as much as by Cayce’s medical diagnoses. What’s more, in readings that dealt with spiritual and esoteric topics — along with the more familiar readings that focused on holistic remedies, massage, meditation, and natural foods — there began to emerge the range of subjects that formed the parameters of New Age spirituality.
Licking his wounds after his failed oil ventures in the early 1920s, Cayce had resettled his family in Selma where he planned to resume his career as a commercial photographer. He and Gertrude, who had long suffered her husband’s absences and unsteady finances, enrolled their son Hugh Lynn, then sixteen, in Selma High School. The family, now including five-year-old Edgar Evans, settled into a new home and appeared headed for some measure of domestic normalcy. All this got upturned in September 1923, however, when a wealthy printer and Theosophist named Arthur Lammers visited from Dayton, Ohio. Lammers had learned of Cayce during the psychic’s oil-prospecting days. He showed up at Cayce’s photo studio with an intriguing proposition.
Lammers was both a hard-driving businessman and an avid seeker in ancient religions and the occult. He impressed upon Cayce that the seer could use his psychical powers for more than medical diagnoses. Lammers wanted Cayce to probe the secrets of the ages: What happens after death? Is there soul? Why are we alive? Lammers yearned to understand the meaning of the pyramids, astrology, alchemy, the “Etheric World,” reincarnation, and the mystery religions of ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome. He felt certain that Cayce’s readings could part the veil shrouding the ageless wisdom.
After years of stalled progress in his personal life, Cayce was enticed by this new sense of mission. Lammers urged Cayce to return with him to Dayton, where he promised to place the Cayce family in a new home and financially care for them. Cayce agreed, and uprooted Gertrude and their younger son, Edgar Evans. Hugh Lynn remained behind with friends in Selma to finish out the school term. Lammers’ financial promises later proved elusive and Cayce’s Dayton years, which preceded his move to Virginia Beach, turned into a period of financial despair. Nonetheless, for Cayce, if not his loved ones, Dayton also marked a stage of unprecedented discovery — and a pivotal gnostic encounter.
Cayce and Lammers began their explorations at a downtown hotel on October 11, 1923. In the presence of several onlookers, Lammers arranged for Cayce to enter a trance and to give the printer an astrological reading. Whatever hesitancies the waking Cayce evinced over arcane subjects vanished while he was in his trance state. Cayce expounded on the validity of astrology even as “the Source” — what Cayce called the ethereal intelligence behind his readings — alluded to misconceptions in the Western model. Toward the end of the reading, Cayce almost casually tossed off that it was Lammers’ “third appearance on this [earthly] plane. He was once a monk.” It was an unmistakable reference to reincarnation — just the type of insight Lammers had been seeking.
In the weeks ahead, the men continued their readings, probing into Hermetic and esoteric spirituality. From a trance state on October 18, Cayce laid out for Lammers a whole philosophy of life, dealing with karmic rebirth, man’s role in the cosmic order, and the hidden meaning of existence. It was a modern gnostic vision (quoted from Sugrue’s account):
In this we see the plan of development of those individuals set upon this plane, meaning the ability (as would be manifested from the physical) to enter again into the presence of the Creator and become a full part of that creation. Insofar as this entity is concerned, this is the third appearance on this plane, and before this one, as the monk. We see glimpses in the life of the entity now as were shown in the monk, in his mode of living. The body is only the vehicle ever of that spirit and soul that waft through all times and ever remain the same.
These phrases were, for Lammers, the golden key to the mysteries: a theory of eternal recurrence, or reincarnation, which identified man’s destiny as inner refinement through karmic cycles of rebirth, then reintegration with the source of Creation. This, the printer believed, was the hidden truth behind the Scriptural injunction to be “born again” so as to “enter the kingdom of Heaven.”
“It opens up the door,” Lammers told Cayce in Sugrue’s account. “It’s like finding the secret chamber of the Great Pyramid.” He insisted that the doctrine that came through the readings synchronized the great wisdom traditions: “It’s Hermetic, it’s Pythagorean, it’s Jewish, it’s Christian!” To him, it was a revelation of universal gnostic spirituality. Cayce himself wasn’t sure what to believe. “The important thing,” Lammers reassured him, “is that the basic system which runs through all the mystery traditions, whether they come from Tibet or the pyramids of Egypt, is backed up by you. It’s actually the right system…. It not only agrees with the best ethics of religion and society, it is the source of them.”
Lammers’ enthusiasms aside, the religious ideas that emerged from Cayce’s readings did articulate a syncretic and compelling theology. Cayce’s teachings sought to marry a Christian moral outlook with the cycles of karma and reincarnation central to Hindu and Buddhist ways of thought, as well as the Hermetic concept of man as an extension of the Divine. Cayce’s references elsewhere to the causative powers of the mind — “the spiritual is the LIFE; the mental is the BUILDER; the physical is the RESULT” — melded his cosmic philosophy with tenets of New Thought, Christian Science, and mental healing. If there was an inner philosophy unifying the world’s religions, Cayce came as close as any modern person in defining it.
Religious traditionalists could rightly object: Just where are Cayce’s “insights” coming from? Are they the product of a higher vision or merely the overactive imagination of a religious outlier? Or, worse, the type of muddle-fuddle produced at sleepover-party Ouija sessions?
Cayce himself wrestled with these questions. His response was that all of his ideas, whatever their source, had to square with gospel ethics in order to be judged vital and valid, which is a principle found, sometimes indirectly, in gnostic writings. Cayce addressed this in a talk that he delivered in his normal waking state in Norfolk, Virginia, in February of 1933, just before he turned fifty-six:
Many people ask me how I prevent undesirable influences entering into the work I do. In order to answer that question let me relate an experience I had as a child. When I was between eleven and twelve years of age I had read the Bible through three times. I have now read it fifty-six times. No doubt many people have read it more times than that, but I have tried to read it through once for each year of my life. Well, as a child I prayed that I might be able to do something for the other fellow, to aid others in understanding themselves, and especially to aid children in their ills. I had a vision one day which convinced me that my prayer had been heard and answered.
Cayce’s “vision” is described differently by different biographers. Sugrue recounts the episode occurring when Cayce was about twelve in the woods outside his home in western Kentucky. Cayce himself places it in his bedroom at age thirteen or fourteen. One night, this adolescent boy who had spoken of childhood conversations with “hidden friends,” and who hungrily read through Scripture, knelt by his bed and prayed for the ability to help others.
Just before drifting to sleep, Cayce recalled, a glorious light filled the room and a feminine apparition appeared at the foot of his bed telling him: “Thy prayers are heard. You will have your wish. Remain faithful. Be true to yourself. Help the sick, the afflicted.”
Cayce did not realize until years later what form his answered prayers would take — and even in his twenties it took him years to adjust to being a medical clairvoyant. As his new activities took shape he labored to use Scripture as his moral vetting mechanism. Yet he consistently attributed his information to the “Source” — another subject on which he expanded at Norfolk:
As a matter of fact, there would seem to be not only one, but several sources of information that I tap when in this sleep condition. One source is, apparently, the recording that an individual or entity makes in all its experiences through what we call time. The sum-total of the experiences of that soul is “written,” so to speak, in the subconscious of that individual as well as in what is known as the Akashic records. Anyone may read these records if he can attune himself properly.
Cayce’s notion of the “Akashic records” — today a core part of New Age spirituality — derives from ancient Vedic writings, in which akasha is a kind of universal ether. This idea of universal records was popularized to Westerners in the late nineteenth-century through the work of occult philosopher, world traveller, and Theosophy co-founder Madame H. P. Blavatsky, who we briefly met earlier. A generation before Cayce, Blavatsky told of a hidden philosophy at the core of the historic faiths — and of a cosmic record bank that catalogs all human events. In Blavatsky’s 1877 study of occult philosophy, Isis Unveiled, the Theosophist described an all-pervasive magnetic ether that “keeps an un- mutilated record of all that was, that is, or ever will be.” These astral records, wrote Blavatsky, preserve “a vivid picture for the eye of the seer and prophet to follow.” Blavatsky equated this archival ether with the “Book of Life” from Revelation.
Returning to the topic in her massive 1888 study of occult history, The Secret Doctrine, Blavatsky depicted these etheric records in more explicitly Vedic terms (having spent several preceding years in India). In the first of her two- volume study, Blavatsky referred to “Akâsic or astral-photographs” — inching closer to the term “Akashic records” as used by Cayce.
Cayce was not the first channeler to credit the “Akashic records” as his source of data. In 1908, a retired Civil War chaplain and Church of Christ pastor named Levi H. Dowling said that he clairvoyantly channeled an alternative history of Christ in The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ. In Dowling’s influential account, the Son of man travels and studies throughout the religious cultures of the East before dispensing a message of universal, gnostic faith that encompasses all the world’s traditions. Dowling, too, attributed his insights to the “Akashic records,” accessed while in a trance state in his Los Angeles living room.
Cayce, like Blavatsky, equated akasha with the Scriptural Book of Life. This was an example of how Cayce harmonized the exotic and unfamiliar themes of his readings with his Christian worldview. In a similar act of gnosis, he reinterpreted the ninth chapter of the Book of John, in which Christ heals a man who had been blind from birth, to validate ideas of karma and reincarnation. When the disciples ask Christ whether it was the man’s sins or those of his parents that caused his affliction, the Master replies enigmatically: “Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him” (John 9:3). In Cayce’s reasoning, since the blind man was born with his disorder, and Christ exonerates both the man and his parents, his disability must be karmic baggage from a previous incarnation.
In another effort to unite the poles of different traditions, Cayce elsewhere associated his esoteric search with Madame Blavatsky’s. On four occasions he reported being visited by a mysterious, turbaned spiritual master from the East — one of the mahatmas, or great souls, whom Blavatsky said had guided her. You’ll recall that Neville also claimed tutelage under a mysterious teacher, a recurrent theme of New Age spirituality.
Gnostic Legacy, New Age Legacy
Neither Cayce nor Sugrue lived long enough to witness the full reach of Cayce’s ideas. The psychic died at age sixty-seven in Virginia Beach on January 3, 1945, less than three years after There Is a River first appeared. Sugrue updated the book that year. After struggling with years of illness, the biographer died at age forty-five on January 6, 1953, at the Hospital for Joint Diseases in New York.
The first popularizations of Cayce’s work began to appear in 1950 with the publication of Many Mansions, an enduring work on reincarnation by Gina Cerminara, a longtime Cayce devotee. But it wasn’t until 1956 that Cayce’s name took full flight across the culture with the appearance of the sensationally popular The Search for Bridey Murphy by Morey Bernstein. Sugrue’s editor Sloane, having since warmed to parapsychology, published both Cerminara and Bernstein.
Bernstein was an iconic figure. A Coloradan of Jewish descent and an Ivy League-educated dealer in heavy machinery and scrap metal, he grew inspired by Cayce’s career — partly through the influence of Sugrue’s book — and became an amateur hypnotist. In the early 1950s, Bernstein conducted a series of experiments with a Pueblo, Colorado, housewife who, while under a hypnotic trance, appeared to regress into a past-life persona: an early nineteenth- century Irish country girl named Bridey Murphy. The entranced homemaker spoke in an Irish brogue and recounted to Bernstein comprehensive details of her life more than a century earlier.
Suddenly, reincarnation — an ancient Vedic concept about which Americans had heard little before World War II — was the latest craze, ignited by Bernstein, an avowed admirer of Cayce, to whom the hypnotist devoted two chapters in his book.
In the following decade, California journalist Jess Stearn further ramped up interest in Cayce with his 1967 bestseller, Edgar Cayce, The Sleeping Prophet. With the mystic sixties in full swing, and the youth culture embracing all forms of alternative or Eastern spirituality — from Zen to yoga to psychedelics — Cayce, while not explicitly tied to any of this, rode the new vogue in alternative spirituality. During this time, Hugh Lynn Cayce reemerged as a formidable custodian of his father’s legacy, presiding over the expansion of the Virginia Beach-based Association for Research and Enlightenment, and shepherding to market a new wave of instructional guides based on the Cayce teachings, from dream interpretation to drug-free methods of relaxation to the spiritual uses of colors, crystals, and numbers. Cayce’s name became a permanent fixture on the cultural landscape.
The 1960s and 70s also saw a new generation of channeled literature — Cayce himself originated the spiritual use of the term channel — from higher intelligences such as Seth, Ramtha, and even the figure of Christ in A Course in Miracles. The last was a profound and enduring lesson series, channeled beginning in 1965 by Columbia University research psychiatrist Helen Schucman.
A concordance of tone and values existed between Cayce’s readings and A Course in Miracles. Cayce’s devotees and the Course’s wide array of readers discovered that they had a lot in common; members of both cultures blended seamlessly, attending many of the same seminars, growth centers, and metaphysical churches.
Likewise, a congruency emerged between Cayce’s world and followers of the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. Starting in the 1970s, twelve-steppers of various stripes became a familiar presence at Cayce conferences and events in Virginia Beach.
Cayce’s universalistic religious message dovetailed with the purposefully flexible references to a Higher Power in the “Big Book,” Alcoholics Anonymous, written in 1939.
AA cofounder Bill Wilson, his wife Lois, his confidant Bob Smith, and several other early AAs were deeply versed in mystical and mediumistic teachings. Whether they viewed Cayce as an influence is unclear. But all three works — the Cayce readings, A Course in Miracles, and Alcoholics Anonymous — demonstrated a shared sense of religious liberalism, an encouragement that all individuals seek their own conception of a Higher Power, and a permeability intended to accommodate the broadest expression of religious outlooks and backgrounds.
The free-flowing tone of the therapeutic spiritual movements of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries had a shared antecedent, if not a direct ancestry, in the Cayce readings. Cayce’s readings themselves re-sounded ancient themes of gnosticism. In all of the figures and movements we’ve encountered, we see episodes of gnosis that shaped the spiritual culture of New Age, and united some of the ideals and hopes of ancient and modern seekers.
Other than the presumed consistency of human nature across millennia, we possess relatively little sense of psychological or intimate connection to spiritual movements of the ancient past. But within the New Age’s qualities of syncretic search, transcendental yearning, and belief in expanded human awareness, it is possible to detect an indirect retention of attitudes prevalent among the gnostics. New Age is often seen as a kind of flimflam movement. But if viewed in the proper context, and without exaggeration, this intersection provides greater historical and spiritual insight into perennial qualities found within the New Age spiritual search today.
(This article originally appeared in Gnosis: Journal of Gnostic Studies 4, 2019, 191–215, Brill, where the complete footnotes and bibliography can be found.)