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The Spiritual Journey of Charles Fillmore
Discovering the Power Within
By Neal Vahle
Templeton Foundation PressCopyright © 2008 Neal Vahle
All rights reserved.
From Businessman to Spiritual Teacher
Growing Up in Rural Minnesota
Charles was born in 1854 on an Indian reservation near St. Cloud, Minnesota, to parents who came to the state as pioneers. During his youth, his father, Henry G. Fillmore, worked as a trader with the Chippewa Indians and as a farmer. His mother, Mary Georgiana Stone Fillmore, worked as a dressmaker. His parents separated when he was seven. The family was small by pioneer standards; his only sibling was a younger brother, Norton, who at age ten ran away from home.
Charles grew up in a society in which educational institutions were in their infancy. The little schooling available to him as a boy was interrupted by a physically disabling accident that had life-threatening consequences. A broken hip from an ice-skating accident and improper medical treatment left him disabled physically. He reported: "When I was ten my life was crossed by what the doctors pronounced a fatal illness. It began with what was at first diagnosed as rheumatism in the right leg, which gradually developed into tuberculosis of the hip." His problem was made worse by improper medical treatment from incompetent medical practitioners in a frontier community.
I was bled, leeched, cupped, lanced, seatoned, blistered and roweled. Six running sores were artificially produced on my leg to draw out the diseased condition which was presumed to be within. Physicians of different schools were employed and the last one always wondered how I ever pulled through alive under the treatment of the "quack" that preceded him; and as I look back at it now it's a miracle to me how I ever got away from them all the little bundle of bones and sinews which I found in my possession after they finished their experiments.
The doctors told Charles that by the time he was forty he would be a helpless cripple in a wheelchair. For several years Charles was so incapacitated that he could not lead a normal life. He explained:
I managed after years to get on my feet, although my right leg was several inches shorter than the left, and I was to all appearances destined to chronic invalidism. I managed to get about on crutches and cane and attend school in a desultory way until I was eighteen.
By the time Charles reached maturity, one leg was four inches shorter than the other and a leg brace to walk was required.
Religion or spirituality played practically no part in his upbringing or in his early adulthood. Though a relative on his father's side, the Reverend Glezen Fillmore, was one of the early Methodist bishops in upstate New York, his parents apparently took little or no interest in religion. Nothing in Fillmore's description of his early life indicates that he attended religious services. Indeed, he said, "I wasn't at all religious."
Business Interests in Texas and Colorado
As years passed, health improved, and, by the time he was twenty, he decided to leave Minnesota for Texas. Evidently, the move was in part because his parents maintained separate abodes: "As my mother and father were separated and without a permanent home, I became restless and wanted other surroundings." In 1874 he went to Paris, Texas (then Caddo in Indian territory and now in Oklahoma), where he had a cousin. Shortly thereafter, he moved to Denison, Texas, where he lived for five years, working as a clerk in the freight office of the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railway. His mother joined him in Denison and lived with him for most of the remaining fifty years of her life.
In 1879, Charles went to Leadville, Colorado, where he took a course in metallurgy, became a mining assayer, and settled in Gunnison City. Evidently, things did not work out in Colorado, as a letter written in 1880 to K. Murphy, a friend in Denison, indicated that life was better in Texas:
I have not struck anything yet, and the prospects are not good for doing so either. These gold mining camps are mighty uncertain, and this one especially so. With the exception of Leadville, I have not seen a place since leaving Texas where as much business was done as in Denison. This is the most desolate, barren region. Nothing grows but sage brush and cactus. Advise your friends to stay home if they wish to be happy.
In 1877, before leaving Denison for Colorado, Charles met Myrtle Page, the woman who was to become his wife and partner in spiritual work. Myrtle came to Denison in 1876 from Clinton, Missouri, where she had been teaching in the local schools. She chose Texas for reasons of health, hoping to find relief from recurring bouts of tuberculosis. The two struck up only a brief acquaintance before Charles left for Colorado.
Little information is available about his contact with Myrtle between his leaving Texas in 1879 and his returning to marry her in Clinton, Missouri, in the early spring of 1881. Without a doubt, they corresponded, though no copies remain of their letters. The couple left for Colorado after their marriage and settled in Gunnison. When the mining boom broke later in the year, they moved to Pueblo, where Charles engaged in real estate. It was there that Lowell and Rickert, their first two sons, were born.
Settling in Kansas City
Charles was not ready to settle permanently in Pueblo and, in 1884, moved the family to Omaha, Nebraska. They stayed there for one year before moving on in 1885 to Kansas City. Charles attributed the constant moving to his search for his true calling:
I never seemed satisfied with my surroundings nor at peace with my work, and the urge to go elsewhere was always with me. So I began looking for a location, without knowing exactly where to look. We broke our home in Pueblo in 1884, and we spent one winter in Omaha, Nebraska. However, there was a constant urge to go to Kansas City, and in the spring of that year we moved.
After settling in Kansas City, Charles engaged in what he called "real estate plunging," acknowledging that he was "quite successful." Though living in Kansas City, he continued to maintain a financial interest in the Zuni Mining Company, which operated silver mines in western Colorado, outside the town of Silverton. Charles traveled occasionally to Silverton to involve himself in the work. The investment was a valuable one, as in 1887 he was offered $75,000 for his share.
During the mid-1880s, Charles occupied himself with business affairs, having yet to develop an interest in religion. He indicated that his early religious education was "quite limited." He also said that he was "not biased on the God question by an orthodox education," and that until his mid-thirties "God was an unknown factor in my conscious mind." Nothing in Charles' background prior to 1889 indicated that he would give up his business career and devote his life to spiritual teaching and healing.
In 1886, he and Myrtle attended a series of lectures in Kansas City on spiritual healing given by a Christian Science practitioner from Chicago, Eugene B. Weeks. These lectures proved to be a turning point for Myrtle, who had suffered from tuberculosis since childhood. She began using healing practices learned in the lectures and, within a short time, recovered from the disease that had left her on death's door on a number of occasions. She then began using these healing principles in working with others. Charles reacted to the Weeks lectures in the way a busy Kansas City businessman might have been expected to react. "The doctrine," he said, "did not at first appeal to me."
"Our aim is to convert the world"
Nothing in Charles Fillmore's personal or professional background would indicate that, at age thirty-five, he had the ability to edit, write for, and publish spiritual magazines and, in the process, present a spiritual teaching that would make a major contribution to the developing nineteenth-century metaphysical healing movement. Nor would it have seemed possible that he would later write books that helped shape the course of religion in twentieth-century America.
Growing up in Minnesota, Charles received no formal education: he never completed grade school or high school. As an adult, he supported himself and his family in fields outside editing and publishing—work that presumably fully occupied his time.
It seemed likely that the contents of Modern Thought magazine, published monthly beginning in April 1889, would reflect the qualities of an untrained, uninformed, superficial mind, considering Charles' limited educational and professional background. Charles might be credited with being audacious but also faulted for being in over his head. Yet the range and depth of Charles Fillmore's knowledge is surprising, as revealed in the first issues of Modern Thought and then in the magazines that succeeded it—Christian Science Thought, Thought, and Unity. He demonstrated an amazing command of the literature, from the classics of Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates to the works of William Shakespeare, William Ellery Channing, Leo Tolstoy, and Mark Twain. He had read widely in the works of the major spiritual writers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, including Emanuel Swedenborg, Franz Anton Mesmer, Ralph Waldo Emerson, James Russell Lowell, Mary Baker Eddy, Warren Felt Evans, Emma Curtis Hopkins, and Ursula Gestefeld.
Charles had also delved into the literature of the occult, including hermetic philosophy, theosophy, Rosicrucianism, and spiritualism. He was well versed in the Bible as well as the works of John Wesley and John Calvin, and he was very familiar with traditional Christian teachings. In addition, he had read the Bhagavad Gita as well as writings on Buddhism.
How did Charles amass this knowledge? We can only surmise how he acquired it. During his boyhood, after being injured in a skating accident, he was housebound and unable to attend school. However, he was able to work with a tutor who lived in St. Cloud, Minnesota, a woman by the name of Caroline (Mrs. Edgar) Taylor. She was college-educated, which was unusual for that time, and noted for her interest in classical literature. Mrs. Taylor introduced him to classics, sparked his interest in reading, taught him the rules of grammar, and gave him writing exercises. Charles' phenomenal ability to synthesize, integrate, and retain the material he read can attributed to only one thing—a brilliant mind.
Charles indicated in a biographical sketch later in life that he was "self-taught." He must have been a voracious reader throughout his adult years to have amassed the information that was at his fingertips when he began publishing Modern Thought.
Charles believed he had a mission to present a new spiritual doctrine to humankind. He stated in the inaugural issue of Modern Thought that the magazine would be devoted "to the development of man's devotional nature." "Our aim," he said, "is to spread all over this Great West, the good which we know lies in wait for those willing to receive it." Men and women needed to have a better understanding of spiritual truth: "The world must be reformed; the work is ours and we must not shrink from it."
Charles told readers that the magazine would not be "an organ of any school of thought" or committed to any one doctrine, spiritual point of view, or religion. Rather, it would be of interest to "all honest souls earnestly seeking spiritual light." He believed the magazine would be of particular interest to "the independent Christian or any independent thinker on any line of spiritual philosophy or science."
Charles was convinced that the religious beliefs held by traditional Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, were in large measure erroneous and were in part responsible for humankind's lack of spiritual development. Fundamentalist ministers who preach "hell-fire" and "wail over the sins of the world" had done much to poison the minds of their listeners. Belief in Jesus as the Savior had caused many Christians to focus on the afterlife rather than living in the here and now. He wrote, "Thousands of so-called Christians are looking forward to death, when God is to save them into life ever lasting." Christians lacked self-responsibility and often saw themselves as victims. Charles observed that "Christians have leaned on others and are consequently like children in real spiritual power."
Charles saw an even bigger problem with people with no religion at all, people who had succumbed to the materialism that existed in nineteenth-century American society. He observed that, when people accumulated wealth, they tended to forget the needs of other less well-off members of society: "The moment man comes into earthly possessions his tendency is to selfishness, and that is the one great evil to be done away with." Materialists were not aware that manifesting the divine inner presence was a life-changing possibility. In their ignorance, they worshiped a false god. As he noted in Christian Science Thought, "The most devoted worshipers at the shrine of Materialism admit that their goddess is a melancholy, dark visaged dame, continually threatening them with her cruel and vindictive temper."
Charles recognized that the task he set before himself was large. "The question is," he indicated, "how can we best help humanity out of the darkness of mistaken concepts?" Rather than focus on human weakness, he wanted to address human strengths, particularly the divinity he saw in all of humanity. His task was "to save men from themselves by uncovering the possibilities for good latent in every human soul—possibilities grand beyond comprehension." His most bold statement regarding his mission was made in September 1891 in Thought magazine, where he wrote, "Our aim is to convert the world."CHAPTER 2
Co-Creator of the Basic Unity Teaching
By the time he was preparing the inaugural issue of Modern Thought for publication, Charles had already formulated many of the spiritual ideas that would ultimately become the Basic Unity Teaching. These teachings focused on spiritual truth, the nature of God, the laws of man's being, manifesting the Divine within, and the spiritual practices that facilitated it. These practices included the use of intuition; strong faith; powerful ideas, thoughts, and words; affirmations and denials; going into the silence, prayer, and divine love. In addition, the Basic Unity Teaching also contained doctrinal statements on bodily regeneration, human perfectibility, the afterlife, reincarnation, and the practice of metaphysical healing. Brief commentaries were made by Charles in these writings on the merits of political, social, and economic reform.
Charles ultimately came to characterize the Basic Unity Teaching as "Practical Christianity." In answering questions in 1895 of readers of Unity about the doctrine, Charles explained how the name was chosen:
We are frequently asked, "Is this doctrine you promulgate through your publications Christian Science, Divine Science, Mental Science or what?" To such inquiries we reply, "We are not attached to any School, and our teaching is not formulated. We are guided by the Spirit of Truth." We have readers among all the schools of thought and we find good in them all, yet we cannot say that we are an exponent of any. If our doctrine were nameable we should prefer to call it Practical Christianity.
The name "Unity" was ultimately chosen not only as the name of the magazine, but as the name of the movement he and Myrtle cofounded. The name came to him as an inspiration received while meditating. Charles and Myrtle and a few students had met one evening in 1891 to pray in the silence. Suddenly, the name Unity flashed across Charles' mind. "That's it!" he cried out. "Unity! That's the name for our work, the name we have been looking for."
The contents of Modern Thought and its successor magazines contained articles by well-known spiritual writers of the day. At the beginning or at the end of an article, Charles often included his own ideas or editorial comments. He also expressed his opinions in unsigned columns called "Notes and Comments" and "Questions and Answers." I was struck by the clarity with which these short pieces were written. Charles was specific, to the point, and did not ramble, as he did later in his articles and books. He did not equivocate and was forceful in putting forth his point of view.
Excerpted from The Spiritual Journey of Charles Fillmore by Neal Vahle. Copyright © 2008 Neal Vahle. Excerpted by permission of Templeton Foundation Press.
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