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Yoga classes and Zen meditation, New-Age seminars and holistic workshops, The Oprah Winfrey Show and books by Deepak Chopra—all are part of the ongoing religious experimentation that has surprisingly deep roots in American history. By tracing our unique spiritual heritage along its many colorful highways and eccentric byways, Restless Souls profiles a rich spirituality that is distinctively American.
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About the Author
Leigh Eric Schmidt is professor of religion at Princeton University and the co-author with Edwin S. Gaustad of The Religious History of America. Widely published as a cultural historian, essayist, and reviewer, he has won book prizes from the American Studies Association, the American Society of Church History, and the American Academy of Religion.
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Restless SoulsThe Making of American Spirituality
By Leigh Schmidt
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2006 Leigh Schmidt
All right reserved.
A one-time spy for the Danish military, Carl H. A. Bjerregaard (1845-1922) hastily left Denmark in 1873, a twenty-eight-year-old lieutenant absent without leave, and headed for New York. In the United States Bjerregaard started a new life, first as a factory worker in New Jersey, and then through employment at the Astor Library (soon to form the core of the New York Public Library). In Denmark he had briefly helped curate a natural history museum, so his joining the library staff in 1879 to classify books and recatalog them was not wholly out of character. Soon his military service faded into the past; he spent the rest of his career with the New York Public, eventually heading up the main reading room. That was only his day job, though. In his spare time, with all the library's resources at his fingertips, Bjerregaard fashioned himself into a philosopher, artist, and mystic.
By the 1890s, he was lecturing widely on mysticism, nature worship, and kindred topics. "I address you as Pilgrims of the Infinite," Bjerregaard told an audience in Chicago in 1896, "for you are pilgrims; I can see that on your faces. You are not pilgrims either from or to the Infinite, but you areof the Infinite. From and to indicate space and time relations, but in the Infinite we recognize neither time nor space; there is no to-day and to-morrow; no here and no there. Eternity is no farther off from the Mystic, than the moment in which he speaks. You are Pilgrims OF the Infinite." Bjerregaard's summons to explore the "Mystic Life" was heady stuff. It was, among other things, an affirmation of the supreme freedom of spiritual aspirants to seek the truth for themselves and within themselves. The call seemed to resound everywhere: Bible passages, Taoist sayings, pine trees and cones, Jewish Kabbalah, Zoroastrian fire imagery, yoga, Sufi poetry, American Transcendentalism, and the Christian mythology of the Holy Grail.¹
Bjerregaard's spirituality, like the faith of Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), was especially in synchrony with the American lecture circuit. Bjerregaard's favorite place to speak was Greenacre, the summer community that the visionary Sarah Farmer (1847-1916) founded in Eliot, Maine, in 1894. He saw Farmer's experiment as a realization of his ideas about a universal mysticism and was lavish in his praise of its design. When he gave personal examples of his own exalted experiences, they almost always circled back to Greenacre, whether to a sunrise worship service led by the Zoroastrian Jehanghier Cola or to barefoot walks on the dew-drenched grass. "Greenacre is a revelation," Bjerregaard remarked. "When you rise from the cool waves of the Piscataqua [River], you rise out of the quiet place of your own soul." As a lecturer, Bjerregaard believed in presentations that were personal and experiential; like Emerson, he did not want to offer secondhand news or disinterested scholarship. Make lecturers, he said, "give their own experiences and not something they have read in books and only poorly digested.... In soul life no abstract teachings are worth much."²
His time at Greenacre in the 1890s provided him with that firsthand material. Of one glistening experience there in 1896, Bjerregaard was especially jubilant:
The first evening I spent at Greenacre, I watched the sunset from "Sunrise Camp," and it happened to me as it did to Wm. Blake, I did not see with my eyes, but through my eyes came to my soul the essence of that Golden Ball, and I heard it as "Glory to God on High"--"Peace on Earth"--"Good-will among Men." It was July 5th, 1896, never to be forgotten. It was a gorgeous sunset. All the heavens and the earth were still; the fleeting colors of roseate hues and ashen gray played in incalculable series of mutations. Behind the passing scenes, the glorious orb, incomparable emblem of Being, sank majestically down behind the distant White Hills, and before the scenes, as if in midair, I felt the Becoming. My reason could not arrest the movement, my understanding could not declare what it perceived. The glorious tints, the melting into one another, the lack of fixedness or duration, the deep, yet eloquent and sonorous silence spoke from Heaven and whispered Eternal Harmony.
His lone epiphanies at sunset converged with the corporate prayers of the gathered seekers as they all softly chanted together a newly minted mantra, "the now famous Greenacre Uplift": "Omnipresence manifest Thyself in me." There on the banks of the Piscataqua River in a tent village, surrounded by fellow Pilgrims of the Infinite, Bjerregaard found his spiritual element.³
Mysticism mattered in the 1890s, as Bjerregaard's eager audiences in Chicago and at Greenacre made plain. Across a wide swath of religious liberalism, mystical experience had become a hallmark of religion at its most awesome, profound, and desirable. The new universal mysticism (to which Bjerregaard gave representative expression) served, in turn, as the foundation upon which the contemporary love of spirituality would be constructed. "The mother sea and fountain head of all religions," the psychologist William James (1842-1910) wrote in a letter in June 1901, "lies in the mystical experiences of the individual, taking the word mystical in a very wide sense." Understanding how mysticism took on such a wide significance over the course of the nineteenth century is an important step in fathoming how spirituality became such an expansive part of America's religious vernacular in the twentieth century. As Bjerregaard concluded in another series of lectures on mysticism in 1896, "A study of the mystics will prove a key by which you can open the doors that lead to Universal Consciousness and Cosmic Emotion, to everything of the New Spirituality, revealed in our day." Bjerregaard's very nomenclature makes plain . . .
Excerpted from Restless Souls by Leigh Schmidt Copyright © 2006 by Leigh Schmidt. Excerpted by permission.
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