Catherine Albanese, “Republic of Mind and Spirit: A Cultural History of American Metaphysical Religion” (2008)

Catherine Albanese, A Republic of Mind and Spirit: A Cultural History of American Metaphysical Religion (Yale, 2008).

Albanese’s ambitious tome attempts to establish “metaphysical religion” as a major force in American religious history. Allow me to repeat: Albanese discovers (or invents) a movement hitherto unknown to the historiography, discerns its roots and tracks development from the pre-colonial era to the present, and argues that it has exerted major influence on the evolution of American religion writ large. If you are willing to go along for the ride, this is the kind of book that can dramatically alter the way you see the field.

Four features characterize “metaphysical religion.” First, it shows a deep concern with the mind and its powers. Whether in the secret knowledge of the early freemasons or the healing powers of mind in Christian Science, Albanese argues that the tradition understand and harness the mind’s capabilities. Second, the tradition takes interest in the correspondences between worlds—between this world and the other world, the spirit world and the physical world, etc. Thus, its practices have often taken the form of “magic,” a manipulation of this world to make contact with the other. Third, the tradition focuses on movements and action. The spirits move, the dead appear and vanish, energies flow, forces pass through us, and thus the tradition is not terribly interested in rigid codification or fixity. The metaphysical tradition reveals itself through its combinative character, its networks of action. Fourth, the tradition emphasizes salvation as solace, comfort, therapy, and healing. Despite the accusations of otherworldliness others fling at it, the metaphysical tradition seeks change in embodied life—from the transformative power of positive thinking to the comfort of a séance with a lost love.

Albanese attempts to recover the grand story of religion in America from “perspectives and data deployed to protect and promote the role of Christianity in the nation’s history” (4). She first takes aim at the “evangelical thesis,” which locates the distinctive Americanness of American religion in the evangelical tradition. Traipsing from Edwards through Finney through Moody to Graham, this narrative finds evangelicalism’s influence present in American religious individualism, religion’s focus on the heart, and in the USA’s evangelicalized national culture (see my review of Noll). According to Albanese, this thesis received its antithesis from Jon Butler, who declared that the rise of evangelicalism only told part of the story of religion in America. Insofar as religious unity and symmetry existed in America, he contended, it confirmed the triumph of “mainstream denominationalism” modeled on the state churches of Europe over “popular occultism.” Albanese holds this “occultism” to the light. Rather than seeing occultism as lowbrow, quasi-religious doings doomed to folklorization at the hands of “mainstream” churches (à la Butler), she considers it part of a robust metaphysical tradition that reached its mature form around the time of the Civil War. To recover this tradition from the dustbins of history, she posits the “metaphysical thesis.” According to the metaphysical thesis, the distinctive Americanness of American religion developed under the influence of all three forces, often in combination with each other: evangelical, mainstream denominational, and metaphysical. More importantly, she considers the metaphysical tradition to be at least as influential as the evangelical tradition in guiding that development.

As someone who works on a tradition usually linked to the “evangelical” thesis, I’m excited by the possibilities this book opens. Albanese demonstrates the value of the odd combinations, the evanescent networks, the loose associations of religion in America. As a youngster, I remember being terrified when I first saw a Ouija board in a toy store. I had always been told that demons pushed the planchette in that particular game, and I couldn’t imagine why such an item sat so innocently on a shelf near Hungry Hungry Hippos. The plural of anecdote isn’t evidence, but Albanese’s thesis looms large over such seemingly trivial, everyday happenings. At the very least, it seems probable that the metaphysical tradition exerted some influence over 20th-century fundamentalism. But even if one wants to deny the existence of the “metaphysical tradition” altogether (which I don’t), Albanese challenges us to see the connections between religious practices, institutions, and individuals. We have to explain why Ouija boards even registered on conservative evangelical radar, why both stoned teenagers and fastidious pastors would assert the spiritual powers of a board game. Albanese shakes up the comfortable, respectable portraits we have created of what counts as “religion” in America.  

Review by A.T. Coates