Part Five of the Urban Fervor series:
Many varieties of religious experience in Los Angeles focused on a heightened communion with the cosmos, drawing on spiritualist and New Thought philosophies and embracing the universal divine in all. This tradition falls under the name “harmonial”: “Harmonial religion encompasses those forms of piety and belief in which spiritual composure, physical health, and even economic well-being are understood to flow from a person’s rapport with the cosmos” (Ahlstrom 1019). Common features include charismatic leaders, complicated histories and rituals, and secret – or at least vague – spiritual doctrines. The nature of these harmonial religions struck a chord with the American public and in some ways, they came to represent the varied spiritual desires of the nation. Christian Science, Mormonism, Seventh-Day Adventism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Pentecostalism all “bear the stamp ‘made in America’”(Ahlstrom 1021). While only some of these religions play a part in the spiritual history of Los Angeles, some other, less enduring religions in the harmonial tradition were L.A. born and bred.
Possibly the most provocatively named alternative religion in Los Angeles, the Mighty I AM movement was started in 1930 by Guy and Edna Ballard. The couple had prolonged connections with occultism before Guy Ballard published Unveiled Mysteries in 1934, a book in which he claimed to have received revelations from Saint Germain, the “ascended master” who starred in the texts and public ceremonies of the Ballards. The real Comte de Saint-Germain was the alleged founder of freemasonry in eighteenth century France, but Ballard claimed to have met him in the form of a young man offering him a creamy drink during a mountain hike.
According to Ballard, Saint Germain had ascended to become a member of the Divine Spiritual Hierarchy which rules the life of the universe, and had been assigned the task of initiating the Seventh Golden Age, the permanent "I AM" Age of eternal perfection on this earth. He had searched Europe for several centuries to find someone in human embodiment through whom he could release the instructions of the Great Law of Life. Not finding anyone, he began a search in America, where he….subsequently designated Ballard, his wife Edna, and their son Donald as the only Accredited Messengers of the Ascended Masters (Institute for the Study of American Religion ¶ 5).
The Ballards and their special relationship with the master drew the public in hordes; there were theatrical meetings across the U.S. attended by an estimate of three million people. “Like Christian Science, their program emphasized healing; like the later New Thought, it stressed the vast powers latent in man by virtue of his unity with Being (I AM) and the aid to be received from ascended cosmic beings” (Ahlstrom 1043). Guy’s death in 1939 and subsequent lawsuits for fraudulent use of the mail system ended the movement.
Considering the number of spiritual and cinematic narratives being crafted in Los Angeles on a daily basis, it is somewhat surprising that only one Hollywood screenwriter ever took a shot at starting his own religion. In a March 1929 American Magazine article, Hollywood screenwriter and real estate promoter William Dudley Pelley claimed that he had died and been reborn after “seven minutes in Eternity” (Ahlstrom 1043). Subsequently, Pelley became a medium for the wisdom of the mahatmas and gathered his followers under the moniker, the Silver Legion (or the Legion of Silver Shirts). In a sign of the times, Pelley was convinced that Hitler was the leader “to whom his divine instructions pointed” (Ahlstrom 1043). Eventually, Pelley wound up in jail and many of his adherents turned to the Mighty I AM movement. After his release from prison in 1954, Pelley picked up where he left off and published messages he claimed to have received from Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy.
No contemporary discussion of alternative religion in Los Angeles could be complete without the secretive enclave popular among Hollywood celebrities, The Church of Scientology. However, the church has become a completely different institution than it was during the time period generally covered in this project. Originally, L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology and its philosophy Dianetics, was a struggling science fiction writer. According to R. Laurence Moore, Hubbard’s original intent was “to establish a new school of psychotherapy, one with its own language of ‘auditing,’ ‘reactive mind,’ engrams,’ and ‘clears’” (259). It wasn’t until 1953 that he decided to turn some of these ideas into a religion and increase the popularity of his opus, Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health. The book details how engrams (brain records of past experiences and lives) can be treated to free the reactive mind from destructive behavior through auditing and clearing of the engrammic effect:
In the 1960s Hubbard added to this basic therapy a more elaborate metaphysics that described the spiritual essence of the human being as a “thetan”….Scientologists strive to become not only “Clears” but also “Operating Thetans” (O.T.s). Freed from the ill effects of the “reactive mind,” O.T.s are thought by Hubbard to possess extraordinary powers, including the ability to being into existence MEST: Matter, Energy, Space, and Time (Marty EARH 596-7).
Such descriptions clearly harken back to Hubbard’s science fiction beginnings, but they are also elements in Scientology that evoke Freud, Eastern religions, Native American folklore, and Mormonism. “The French sociologist Regis Dericquebourg, an expert in comparative religions, explains Scientology's belief system as one of ‘regressive utopia,’ in which man seeks to return to a once-perfect state through a variety of meticulous, and rigorous, processes intended to put him in touch with his primordial spirit” (Reitman ¶ 5). Few reach the high plane where Operating Thetans return to this ideal state.
In 1967, the Church of Scientology suffered a blow when the IRS ruled that it was not a tax-exempt religious organization, its critics citing greed as the reason. The decision was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1988, and ten Scientology leaders were imprisoned in early 1980s for investigation interference. The Church was redeemed in 1993 when it was granted tax-exempt status after a vocal defense by celebrities and the American Civil Liberties Union. L. Ron Hubbard died in 1986, and the Church is now led by David Miscavige. While the Scientologists claim eight million members, critics say the number is closer to 50,000 (Marty EARH 597). What once began as an experiment by a speculative novelist is now an incredibly wealthy, clandestine institution whose participants are fiercely loyal and notoriously close-mouthed. This secrecy is possibly so customary because they don’t know enough to betray the organization. In a February 2006 exposé in Rolling Stone magazine, Janet Reitman reports that only the most exalted followers of Scientology ever learn the central tenets of its theology: “this would be akin to the Catholic Church refusing to tell all but a select number of the faithful that Jesus Christ died for their sins” (¶ 5). The fact that Scientology has grown to such an extent while providing little to no information on its theology, its finances, its rituals, or its history is a testament to the reactionary contagion behind any successful new religious movement.
Urban Fervor: The Quacks & Charlatans School
Urban Fervor: The Hollywood Novel
Urban Fervor: Ape & Essence
Urban Fervor: The Flutter of an Eyelid
Monday, March 20, 2006
Part Five of the Urban Fervor series: