Our rich cultural history is one of the unfortunate victims of the pathetic cultural battle between Creationist and Neo-Atheist cliques. Were the founders of the United States hardline Christians? Secular humanists? Just typing these questions, I’m bored already. Thankfully, there’s evidence they weren’t either, seems like a good number of them were Alchemists.
“Puritan alchemists founded America; sounds like bad fiction but it’s fact. As befits a young republic, the history of the earliest origins of American Metaphysical Religion amounts to a long list of extraordinary characters, daring experiments, and unlikely friendships. We’ll meet alchemists who persecuted witches, alchemists who were governors, and several alchemists who served as presidents of the first American colleges. The community of alchemists at home and abroad was in constant touch with each other, eagerly exchanging techniques, results, and useful writing published and unpublished. At the heart of this vital cosmopolitan movement for cultural evolution were the intelligencers, discerning men who were so respected they became gatekeepers. By exchanging letters (sometimes in secret codes), samples, and books with fellow seekers of knowledge across continents and oceans they became the Internet hubs of their day. If a valuable discovery was made in a far off land, news of it would soon be all over the world thanks to the intelligencers.
As Jon Butler wrote: “American colonists had an ambivalent relationship with Christian congregations. After about 1650 even in New England only about one-third of all adults ever belonged to a church. The rate was lower in the Middle and Southern colonies, and on the eve of the American Revolution only about 15 percent of all of the colonists probably belonged to any church. In 1687 New York Governor Thomas Dongan wrote that settlers there usually expressed no religious sentiment at all or, when they did, entertained wildly unorthodox religious opinions.” “Two years before the Salem trials, Cotton Mather was so concerned about the number of settlers who used occult techniques for curing illnesses and settling quarrels that he described the Christian defense against them in occult terms–as amulets–so readers could more readily understand him.” What were these wildly unorthodox beliefs? Jon Butler continues: “American colonists were indeed religious, but many resorted to occult and magical practices unacceptable to most Christian clergymen and lawmakers.”
Lewis Morris, a politician from New Jersey, wrote in 1702 about his constituents: “except in two or three towns there is no face of any public worship of any sort but people live mean like Indians.” The traveling Anglican minister Charles Woodmason reported that in the southern colonies the locals didn’t have a Bible among them. They didn’t want preachers or churches complicating their lives but they did ask to have their children baptized, just in case?
America, the spawn of England, reflected the mother country’s religious diversity. After all, Isaac Newton practiced alchemy. Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton littered their creations with astrological references. A small percentage of especially clever or daring nobles had always been fascinated with druids, alchemy, astrology, and the occult. The middle class regularly produced some paragon of independent scholarship like Thomas Taylor, the devoted translator of ancient Greek philosophical and religious works. Or theorists of grand spiritual unities like Godfrey Higgins who wrote The Celtic Druids to prove that the first druids were Asians who had traveled all the way to Great Britain. Or General James Furlong whose The Rivers of Life includes a room sized fold out map that attempts to graph a timeline of every religion and cult in history. These polyglot efforts to envision the entirety of the human experience of religion throughout history more than made up for their inaccuracy with their boundless and glorious flights of imagination. They can be enjoyed for their unintentional fictions as marvelous as the work of Borges, yet true gems of fact and interesting insight into history coexist with the accidental fantasies.”
Explore the rest of the unspoken history of United States and read The Intelligencers and the Fifth Moon of Jupiter: Alchemy in the American Colonies.