Patrick D. Bowen, K. Paul Johnson, Thomas Moore Johnson, Johnson correspondence, Theosophy, Theosophical Society, Platonism, Neo-Platonism, Occult Platonism, Occult Philosophy
Letters to the Sagecomprises the first volume of correspondence to the nineteenth-century American Platonist Thomas M. Johnson (TMJ), who was also active in the contemporary occult revival. The volume consists of letters from occultists, American and foreign, some of them famous. It also provides some clues to the status and nature of his Platonic activities, and recounts conversions from orthodox Christian denominations to religious syncretism, occult thought, and Neoplatonism (e.g. "I finally exchanged my faith in Jesus Christ for … spiritualist freethinking," S. H. Randall, Oct. 29, 1883, 371).
Bowen's introduction and notes provide a useful overview of the occult revival and the individuals corresponding with TMJ (including useful comparative schematic diagrams of courses of study and texts). The Introduction attempts to make sense of the maze of relationships, and helps out by highlighting some important passages in the letters, with some analysis. It presents "the sage of the Osage" not only as the translator and missionary of Neoplatonism who edited the Platonistand an American Thomas Taylor (the great English Neoplatonist, who most influenced him), but also as a person of "many hats" (9): attorney, mayor, school board president of Osceola, Missouri, and a leader in the American esoteric community. There are two hundred eighty-six letters from forty-eight correspondents (most of them to [End Page 250]Johnson). 1 Collectively they offer "a clear glimpse into the previously little understood rebirth of organized American esotericism in the 1880's" (10). The letters are organized by correspondent to better highlight insight into specific developments.
Some letters provide an intimate look into the dynamics of the 1880s US rebirth of Theosophy; others from obscure figures help fill in the in gaps of the spread of esoteric movements and their offshoots nationwide. Thus they advance our knowledge of "American Metaphysical Religion." The correspondence with the first American Muslim convert, A. R. Webb, involved with Johnson's Theosophical Society Lodge, speaks to the history of Islam in America. In one letter from an Indian Muslim Sufi, "Ruswa" correctly states that Ishraq ("Illuminationism") is the Persian form of Neoplatonism. TMJ also published Sufi material in the Platonist.
The letters of General Abner Doubleday, the alleged (contested) inventor of baseball, record the influence of Tarot on the occult community. Doubleday translated influential French occultist Eliphas Levi's works on high magic into English, and sections of Levi's La science des éspritswere published in the Platonistas "Kabbalistic Doctrine of the Spirits." The correspondence is replete with the mundane difficulties, conflicts, and scandals of occult organizations. Some light is shed on the careers of leading Theosophists, including Madame Blavatsky, William Q. Judge, and Colonel H. S. Olcott; letters from the latter two are included herein.
It was the spiritualist journalist H. S. Olcott who, with H. P. Blavatsky, co-founded the first Theosophical Society in New York City in 1875. Blavatsky had travelled to America just the year before. In 1877 Blavatsky published Isis Unveiledwhich presented a comprehensive theory of esoteric religious history. Despite the fact that the book was successful, however, her practical occultism was not. When the chapter of the Theosophical Society founded by her became inactive, she went to India and studied with gurus, after which she eventually gained a large following and published the influential periodical the Theosophist. A section on pre-1880s US esotericism in the Introduction to the present book notes the influence on theosophy of Swedenborg and Mesmerism, which "posited that humans had the ability to receive information through an unseen universal ether" (14). Influential also was Spiritualism, with its attempts at channeled communication with the [End Page 251]deceased. Spiritualists developed a basic Hermetic/Neoplatonic "chain of being" hierarchy, a "pop" form of "garbled Platonism." 2
The 1880s witnessed a slow revival of the Theosophical Society. TMJ published the Platonist, and Alexander Wilder joined him...