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From its very beginnings to today's crises, America has had spirituality as a core motivating value, if not officially recognized. Whereas religion may concentrate on theology, or belief systems, spirituality focuses on a person's experience of connecting with a higher power, however understood.
Two recent books delve into the spiritual history of America, and religion often plays a role counteractive to the American spiritual impulse. The first book, Founding Pathhers, Secret Societies: Freemasons, Illuminati, Rosicrucians, and the Decoding of the Great Seal (Destiny Books), by historian Robert Heironimus, tells the rarely discussed spiritual leanings of the founding fathers. As the title of the book suggests, the founding of the nation implied certain "occult" or "esoteric" assumptions about the potential significance of America. The terms "occult" and "esoteric" refer to those spiritual traditions that had to be kept apart from the mainstream religion of the time because of the heretical ideas they espoused.
While many Pilgrims were enforcing their view of religion upon themselves to maintain the homogeneity of their flock, another group of individuals, who bought with them their esoteric ideas and practices of secret societies (such as Freemasonry and Rosicrucianism), were plotting to make America a grand experiment in spirituality, or as a later observer would put it, they saw "an opportunity to make a religion out of the sacredness of the individual." Underlying their plan, which involved a great deal of study of the Iroquois League of Nations' "Great Law of Peace," was the assumption that the transformation of the individual into a consciously spiritual being was the basic goal of human life. It was believed that America could be designed to facilitate that transformation by granting sovereignty to the individual within the context of a community of souls. At an outer level, E Pluribus Unum mean unity among the sovereign states. On an inner level, however, it referred to the evolution of collective consciousness through the transformation of the individual psyche. The book focuses on the esoteric meaning of the reverse of the Great Seal of the United States, which libraries a pyramid with an eye at the top, proof of the secret spiritual ideal at the founding of the country.
Another book makes a similar case for the importance of the individual in the sparking of spirituality in America. In Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality (HarperCollins), Leigh Eric Schmidt, professor of religion at Princeton University, argues that liberalism, a frame of mind that honored the individual spirit and perspective, was an inherent part of the American ideal, and directed the spiritual experiment that over time relativized established religions. Few of the individuals named in the book, however, would be recognized by most readers. There are some exceptions. For example, the book describes an important event at the Transcendental Club, a gathering of liberal-minded ministers and intellectuals, which followed the suggestion of Ralph Waldo Emerson to explore mysticism at their meeting of May 20, 1838. The book declares that date the birthday of American spirituality, for as a result of their late-night discussions, Emerson and others abandoned the pulse for the lecture circuit and made it their ideal to share their personal experiences of spirit rather than expound on ideas from scriptures.
Among the transcendentalists was Henry David Thoreau, who in his writings about Walden Pond, nature and solitude, may have been the father of the meditation movement in America. Contention issued because of the negative connotations of being "monkish," while on the other hand, the individualism of the hermit was appealing – the enshrinement of Johnny Appleseed being a case in point. Solitude wave rise to altered states of consciousness, to revelations, and to new ideas about the role of the mind in our relationship to the divine. The "New Thought" movement, probably the one most familiar to our readers, had a lasting impact because of its practicality and a creative optimism that matched America's cheerful self-reliance.
Another theme in the American history of spirituality has been an ideal of caring for others, a practical spirituality of compassion and service. It is here that the effect of Quakers, Shakers, and other Christian mystics sects upon the spread of American spirituality has been very important. Through the hard work and outreach of these people, often helping to rescue from persecution or abandonment unwanted elements of society, the spiritual principle of brotherly love overshadowed a concern for theological doctrine. Martin Luther King is mentioned in this context as a modern example of this heritage. Creating a nation of equality, where each individual is valued, has overtones of both politics and spirituality. That is exactly the combination that was dearest to the esoteric hearts of our founders, and still represents the ideal of America.