Today I am going to discuss some material we were recently offered even though it probably will not end up in our collection.
Tom Goodwill in 2013 published a book on the churches of Jamestown. The earliest local historians saw Jamestown and Chautauqua County’s pre-Civil War population as composed religiously of two groups: Protestant Christians and others. The others ranged from people who attended church (and may even have been members of the legal “religious societies” associated with most churches at the time but not actual church members) to those who did not attend any church, conspicuous secularists, and maybe a few outright atheists. Mormons were a separate, strongly disliked group. By 1900 the situation was more complex. Catholics and Jews were acquiring social respectability. Orthodox Christians were not numerous enough to be strongly judged and Muslim Albanians and Turks were here in even smaller numbers.
In the 20th century there was a proliferation of small, religious and quasi-religious congregations and organizations, Christian, quasi-Christian, and non-Christian. They had a few 19th century predecessors, mainly Brocton’s Brotherhood of the New Life, Kiantone’s Harmonia, James Townsend’s Lakeside School of New Theology, and the more enduring Lilly Dale centered Spiritualists, but the hallmark of the 20th century was a muddling proliferation.
The 1960‘s saw the most tumultuous changes in American thought ever to that time, religious beliefs not excepted. The established churches lost members as science diminished the plausibility of biblical accounts and televised football co-opted His reserved day. But as Emile Cammaerts and G. K. Chesterton observed, people will not believe nothing. They will believe anything. In the case of baby boomers that meant anything except what their parents believed. Today we have the internet and social media which give anyone the opportunity of recruiting followers for any ideas, including religious ones.
I just finished reading a new book at the Prendergast Library that covers a multitude of religious sects that arose after World War II around the concept that UFOs are extraterrestrial spacecraft craft. Years ago, I read George Adamski’s 1953 Flying Saucers Have Landed. Adamski was the original contacted, although he didn’t pitch a religious angle. His books are full of good looking aliens and saucer joyrides to Venus and the far side of the moon. Adamski was a wonderfully imaginative hoaxer. He grew up in Dunkirk. Dunkirk could do much more to exploit this colorful element of its history.
One day recently a man brought in a three quarter inch stack of correspondence and pamphlets from the early 20th century. I explained as I often must that we do not purchase items for the museum, nor can we appraise or estimate their value. He left the material for me to examine but did not grant permission to copy.
The material apparently had belonged to Grace Barnes on Washington Street. She was vice president of the local chapter of the Theosophical Society. The Society receives a brief mention in Goodwill’s book. Our research volunteer, Al Johnson, confirmed the chapter existed in Jamestown actively only a few years either side of the turn of the 20th century. Someone should research the life of Mrs. Barnes and determine how active she was in Theosophy. The papers show considerable correspondence with Katherine Tingley and others at the headquarters of the American branch of the movement near San Diego, California.
Theosophy originated in Europe, mainly in the fertile imagination of Helena Blavatsky (1831-1891). I call Theosophy the grandmother of the New Age movement. New Age is a religion by my definition, though without any organization, without any consistent concept of deities, without any ethical or behavior code and very much without declaring itself a religion. “I’m not religious. I’m spiritual.” is the definitional cliché of baby boomers. Theosophy is the source of New Age interest in Tibet, far eastern (particularly Indian) religions; astral projection, trance states, Atlantis, karma, reincarnation, occultism, astrology, metaphysical “energy,” “vibrations,” “planes,” and countless other faith or imagination based ideas.
Historians should be objective and detached. They should investigate the who, when, how, and where of everything past, especially monumental transformations of thought and society. Of course they do no such thing. They are creatures of their time, caught up in the ideas of their society both conventional and trendy, noticing what they are supposed to notice and saying what they are supposed to say, be it Christian, patriotic, Marxist, or woke. Perhaps more to the point, especially for professional historians, he who pays the fiddler calls the tune and makes no exception for historians. Museums get most of their money from foundations and government. As George Orwell said, “he who controls the past controls the future.” Nobody knows that better than those who are out to control the future. People hired to control the future are called politicians. My version of it is that everything written about the past tells you more about the time it was written in than the time it was written about. With history, as with everything, be skeptical. Any historian who can not see the emperor’s new clothes or persistently talks about the elephants in the room finds mobs outside his door, unemployment, and the horrible awareness in his soul that history and the future are both comedy and tragedy.
Grace Barnes died in 1943, just one generation short of seeing many of the ideas espoused by her beleaguered little congregation adopted en masse by a whole generation in an historical instant. But nobody is asking how.