A month ago I recounted the story of Johannes Kelpius, the German occultist who crossed the Atlantic in 1694 with his fellow initiates of the Chapter of Perfection to make a new life for themselves in the woodlands of eastern Pennsylvania. That made a good starting point for the discussion I want to set in motion, not least because most people, when the subject of colonial American history comes to mind, don’t usually think about mysterious figures in brown hooded robes gathering to perform magical rituals in a temple in the forest.
That’s ironic, as it happens, because Kelpius and his fellow initiates were far from the only such group in the American colonies to find inspiration in the magical Christianity of Jakob Böhme and the original Rosicrucian manifestoes. About the time Kelpius’ community was winding up its affairs, a similar organization got started in Ephrata, PA, headed by the German mystic Conrad Beissel. His followers pledged themselves to celibacy, a vegetarian diet (except for Sundays, when lamb was permitted), and lives devoted to prayer, studying the scriptures, and choral singing. Like Kelpius, Beissel wrote his own hymns, and he also came up with a unique system of musical harmony he taught to members of the Ephrata community. People who visited the community and wrote about their experience described it as stunningly beautiful.
Beissel’s communal scheme proved just as transitory as Kelpius’, and lasted about as long after his death as the Chapter of Perfection did after Kelpius’ time. Beissel’s musical system didn’t survive, either, though some of his hymns are still in existence. The magical Christianity that crossed the Atlantic from Kelpius and Beissel, however, lived on in the Pennsylvania Dutch community and became an important ingredient in the bubbling cauldron of American magic. It was hardly the sole ingredient; on the contrary, that cauldron had plenty of other things bobbing around in it already.
Long before Kelpius’ time, for example, many Huguenots—that’s how you spell “Protestant” in French—fled to the American colonies to escape the persecution they faced back home in France. The first Huguenot community in what’s now the United States was near Jacksonville, Florida; it was founded in 1564, 54 years before the arrival of the Mayflower. It didn’t survive—the Spanish, who had even less tolerance for Protestants than the French government, sent an army and annihilated the colony—but later groups of Huguenots got the memo and sailed north to the parts of North America settled by English and Dutch colonists, where they were welcomed. That matters to our story, because a good many of the Huguenots who came to this country belonged to the same end of Reformation spirituality as Johannes Kelpius.
It’s crucial in this context to remember that the label “Protestant” applied to a much broader range of traditions in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries than it does nowadays. Broadly speaking, the new Christian denominations that came out of the Protestant Reformation went in one of two directions. On the one hand, you had churches and individuals that tried to establish the same kind of dogmatic uniformity that the Catholic church enforced, but with some other theology in place of Catholicism; historians call this end of the movement the Magisterial Reformation. On the other hand, you had churches and individuals that rejected the entire concept of officially established dogma and trusted instead in the personal quest for knowledge of God. Historians call this movement the Radical Reformation, and for good reason.
The Pilgrims we all heard about in school—the ones who sailed on the Mayflower, set up a repressive Puritan theocracy on Massachusetts Bay, and hanged witches at Salem—belonged to the Magisterial Reformation. Not all the colonists in those days were on their side of the line, though. Even in Massachusetts Bay Colony, a great many colonists were more interested in personal liberty and a better life for their families than in toeing the line of Congregational theology. Meanwhile, other areas of the eastern seaboard—especially Pennsylvania on the one hand, and on the other the southern end of New England, from Cape Cod west through Rhode Island to the Connecticut River—became a haven for the sects of the Radical Reformation. Rhode Island in particular, which established absolute religious liberty earlier than any other English colony, was a powerful magnet for believers in strange doctrines and practitioners of curious arts.
These sects have been erased from most accounts of American history just as thoroughly as the rest of this country’s weird heritage. I’ve seen people get very flustered on discovering that Roger Williams—the founder of the colony of Rhode Island, the fiery religious revolutionary who thundered “Forced worship stinks in the nostrils of God!”—was a Baptist. Of course they were thinking of today’s Southern Baptists, who have by and large swung most of the way over into the camp of the Magisterial Reformation, and not that long ago conducted a bona fide witch hunt against members of their denomination who happened to be Freemasons. Williams wasn’t that kind of Baptist; he was a General Six-Principle Baptist, and if you’ve heard of those, you’re a member of a small and well-informed minority.
The General Six-Principle Baptists believed that you shouldn’t be baptized until you were old enough to choose your religion for yourself. (That’s what’s behind the “Baptist” label, in case you didn’t know.) They held the six principles of Christian faith given in Hebrews 6:1-2, including conferring the priestly laying on of hands on every believer at baptism, and they taught that salvation was available to everyone, irrespective of creed—thus “General.” They held that faith in Christ is not the same thing as belief in a set of doctrines, focused on the former and didn’t worry very much about the latter, and made room for a great deal of diversity among their congregations. Interestingly, they’re still around—like a lot of colorful American traditions, they had a near-death experience in the 20th century but came out the other side. You can find their website here.
Unlike their Puritan neighbors to the north, the General Six-Principle Baptists of colonial Rhode Island weren’t interested in hanging people for being practitioners of magic. A significant number of them, in fact, were practitioners of magic. Since they and the other sects of the Radical Reformation embraced the idea of a personal quest for spiritual truth, it was inevitable that some of their members would take up the same sort of teachings and practices that Johannes Kelpius studied, and just as inevitable that Christian occultists who wanted to attend a congenial church would make a beeline for the sects of the Radical Reformation, the General Six-Principle Baptists among them. As a result, as historian of American magic John L. Brooke points out, “the sectarian culture in and around Rhode Island harbored a disproportionate share of the occult knowledge in eighteenth-century New England.”
That was the milieu in which Joseph Stafford, the astrologer of Narragansett Bay, lived out his long and active life. We know as much as we do about him only because his library and papers happened to be passed down intact in his family for more than two centuries, and were then donated to a historical society in Rhode Island. The preservation of his library was exceptional, but Stafford was not, and his life and career provides another vivid glimpse of the early days of American magic.
He was born around 1700 in the town of Tiverton near Newport—that was part of Massachusetts then, but the good Puritans in Boston finally got tired of trying in vain to force the folk of Tiverton to act like good Puritans, and handed the town over to Rhode Island in 1746. The son of a successful farmer, Stafford got an unusually good education by colonial standards, and like most intellectuals in early 18th-century America he became a jack of all trades—Ben Franklin is the example everyone thinks of, and for good reason. Unlike Franklin, who paid his bills by running a print shop, Stafford made most of his living as a physician, and his library was well stocked with the standard medical texts of the day, but he was also a surveyor, a writer of almanacs, and a professional astrologer.
Those of my readers whose knowledge of astrology is limited to newspaper sun-sign columns may not realize just what was involved in that last item on the list. Classical Western astrology is one of the four great mathematically based astrological traditions of our species—the others are Indian, Chinese, and Mesoamerican—and its roots reach back five thousand years to the mud-brick ziggurats of Sumeria, where priests noted down the movements of the planets on clay tablets and correlated the changes of the heavens to events on earth. As century followed century, tentative hypotheses gave way to well-tested rules; birth charts more or less like the ones astrologers use today came into common use before 500 BCE; improvements in mathematics and astronomy and the sheer accumulation of practical experience led to steady refinements in technique, and to experiments in applied astrology, some of which became established disciplines of their own.
By the time Joseph Stafford first turned the pages of William Lilly’s The Christian Astrologer—that was the standard English-language textbook of astrology in Stafford’s time, and for more than a century afterwards—astrology had thus sorted itself out into a series of applied disciplines that shared a common basis in theory and mathematics. Natal or genethliacal astrology was the branch that studied the birth charts of individuals to predict their character and destiny. Mundane astrology explored charts cast for the solstices and equinoxes at political capitals to gauge political trends. Electional astrology found appropriate times to begin important activities so they would be more likely to turn out as desired. Medical astrology used decumbitures—charts for the time and place a patient became ill—to guide diagnosis and treatment. Horary astrology read the skies the way a tarot reader studies a spread of cards, seeking answers to everyday questions: How is my uncle in England faring? Should I buy Goody Wright’s farm? Has my silver cup been stolen, or simply misplaced? All of these were part of the stock in trade of a working astrologer in Joseph Stafford’s time.
All this had been standard practice in European cultures, in fact, from the time that astrology returned to Europe from the Arab world in the 12th century straight through to the late 17th century. By the time Joseph Stafford began his astrological studies, though, astrology—like the rest of the Western esoteric tradition—was being shoved aside by new currents in intellectual life. Despite the usual rhetoric found in history books these days, the shoving wasn’t a matter of scientific rationalism overcoming the superstitions of the past. Something much more complex and much more political was going on.
The savage wars and social turmoil of 17th century Europe were driven in large part by conflicts between entrenched aristocratic elites, whose power rested on the old agricultural economy, and rising urban mercantile classes, whose power rested on the new economy of manufacture, trade, and investment. In religious terms, the aristocratic party supported whatever the established church was in their country, while the mercantile party tended to support one or more alternative sects produced by the Magisterial Reformation. In intellectual terms, the aristocratic party favored the old scholastic curriculum based on Aristotle and the classics, while the mercantile party favored what was then called the “mechanical philosophy” and we now call modern science.
There was, however, a third player in this game. The explosive growth of literacy in 17th-century Europe led to the rise of a class of self-educated skilled craftspeople who didn’t see any reason to support either of the two contending parties. In religious terms, this third class came to favor the independent-minded sects of the Radical Reformation, and in intellectual terms, they were eager students of the immense legacy of Renaissance occultism. Where they thrived—in western Germany and what is now the Czech Republic before the Thirty Years War, in Britain and the Netherlands straight through the century and beyond—religious alternatives and occult teachings flourished, and so did other ideas that the aristocratic and mercantile elites found intolerable. It was this third class, for example, that gave rise to the radical sects of the English Civil War era, the Diggers, Levellers, Fifth Monarchy Men and more, who proposed such unthinkable ideas as giving the vote to all adult men, abolishing the privileges of the aristocracy, and even—how shocking!—granting civil rights to women.
The final stages of this three-way poker game varied from one European country to another. In France, Austria, and the southern half or so of that vaguely defined region known as “Germany,” the aristocratic party won, both the other parties were crushed, and the result was a state of political repression and economic stagnation from which they did not emerge until after the French Revolution. In much of northern Europe—Britain, the Netherlands, the Scandinavian countries, and the northern half or so of Germany—the mercantile party won, the aristocrats accepted the inevitable and made peace with the victors, and the third party was crushed. The de facto alliance between Christian orthodoxy and materialist science that resulted from this tangled history in northern Europe remained in place until the publication of Darwin’s The Origin of Species, and its echoes remain live issues even today: fundamentalist Christians and rationalist atheists may not agree on much, for example, but bring up astrology or any other part of the occult traditions of the Renaissance and you can count on being denounced with equal heat by both sides.
There was, however, a way out for members of the third party who weren’t willing to accept total defeat, and it led straight to America. That was what led Johannes Kelpius and Conrad Beissel to venture across the ocean to make new homes in the American colonies, and it led tens of thousands of others who were followers of the sects of the Radical Reformation and students of various branches of Western occultism to do the same thing. Of course they weren’t alone; the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay weren’t the only sect of the Magisterial Reformation to head the same direction, and there was no shortage of people who crossed the Atlantic for reasons unrelated to spirituality and occultism. Even so, enough of Europe’s stray occultists headed this way to make a significant imprint on the culture of several of the original colonies.
That was why Joseph Stafford of Tiverton, practicing astrologer, could become a respected citizen of the colony of Rhode Island, a justice of the peace and a prominent local figure. As already noted, he was far from the only occultist to live in southern New England, and he was also far from the most prominent: to name only one example, John Winthrop Jr., the first governor of colonial Connecticut and a major figure in New England politics in the century before Stafford’s time, was a student of the entire range of Renaissance occult philosophy, with a library of occult classics many modern occultists would love to be able to afford. Winthrop lived during the last flowering of Renaissance occultism in Europe, however, and his occult activities in the colonies might best be seen as a reflection, in an American mirror, of the booming British occult scene of his time.
By contrast, Stafford lived at a time when astrology and occultism in general had stopped being socially acceptable in Britain and most of Europe—but not in Rhode Island, and not in several other colonies along the eastern seaboard. Each of the colonies that welcomed a significant number of occultists ended up with a different mix of teachings and traditions, largely for ethnic reasons. Pennsylvania got the largest contingent of German occultists, southern New England got occultists from the British Isles instead, while Huguenots settled all through the colonies from Virginia to Massachusetts but concentrated in coastal New York, with Manhattan and New Rochelle among their most important centers.
Joseph Stafford was a homegrown contribution to this process. When he died in 1773, a local diarist, the Rev. Ezra Styles, mentioned “Mr. Stafford of Tiverton lately dead who was wont to tell where lost things might be found and what day, hour, and minute was fortunate for vessels to sail.” (The fact that the sea captains of colonial Newport, as hardbitten a collection of ruthless pragmatists ever to pace a quarterdeck, timed their voyages with electional astrology is a good measure of just now widely accepted astrology still was in Rhode Island in Stafford’s time.) The same diarist, though, indulged in one of the common habits of the post-Renaissance west, the premature obituary for occultism: “In general the System is broken up, the Vessel of Sorcery shipwreckt, and only some scattered planks and pieces disjoyned floating and scattered on the Ocean of the human Activity and Bustle.”
Styles was quite wrong, of course, and so were all the others then and later who insisted that occultism was a thing of the past. The occult traditions that Johannes Kelpius and Joseph Stafford practiced had a lively history ahead of them—and so did a range of other traditions. As we’ll see in upcoming posts, the high magic of the Renaissance practiced by Kelpius, Stafford, and other educated colonists were only one part, if an important one, of the magical heritage that American occultists had to work with. Other elements of that heritage came across the sea in less prosperous company—and some of those who brought it, of course, did not come to America of their own free will. We’ll discuss that, and much more, in posts to come.