A mirror to our own time

Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality
By Leigh Eric Schmidt
Harper Collins
New York

Although it focuses on the American fascination with mysticism and churchless spirituality in 19 th century, many readers of Leigh Eric Schmidt's new book will undoubtedly see parallels to trends and events in our own time, and on a global level.

Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality is certainly fascinating enough in its own right. Dr. Schmidt, a respected professor of religion at Princeton University, charts the rise of religious pluralism and the shift from “old religions of authority” to “new religions of the spirit” in the United States, following a line that runs from Emerson and Thoreau to the New Age spirituality of television host Oprah Winfrey.

For Bahá'ís, moreover, the book is especially significant because of the way it highlights the impact and influence of Sarah Farmer, the founder of what is today the Green Acre Bahá'í School in Eliot, Maine.

Dr. Schmidt devotes a whole chapter to Ms. Farmer and Greenacre (as it was first known). As well, references to the influence of Greenacre are salted throughout the book — it seems that almost everyone who was anyone in the quest for enlightenment in the United States at the end of the 19 th century spoke at or visited Greenacre.

The theme Dr. Schmidt develops over the course of the volume is straightforward. As he explains it: “This book probes the way in which the very development of ‘spirituality' in American culture was inextricably tied to the rise and flourishing of liberal progressivism and a religious left.”

The discerning reader, however, is likely to find another theme as well: how a great spiritual ferment in the 1900s, stirred by a wide range of new ideas, from transcendentalism to theosophy, and coupled especially with the dawning age of religious pluralism, opened the door to a new acceptance of other religious traditions by mainstream society.

As Dr. Schmidt writes, a “growing liberal fascination with a globalized mysticism of universal brotherhood” motivated and inspired many of the leading religious thinkers of the late 1900s, culminating in events such as the 1893 World's Parliament of Religions, as well as numerous books, lectures, and pamphlets that explored the “perennial philosophy” and the commonality of all religions.

Certainly, this phenomenon is nowhere better exemplified than in the story of Ms. Farmer and Greenacre, which is undoubtedly why it occupies a central position in Restless Souls .

“Between its founding in 1894 and Farmer's death in 1916, Greenacre was among the greatest sources of religious innovation anywhere in the country,” writes Dr. Schmidt. “It was the last great bastion of Transcendentalism, a school of philosophy and art for Emersonians and Whitmanites; it was a New Thought proving ground for such leaders as Ralph Waldo Trine, Henry Wood, and Horatio Dresser; it was a hub for representatives of the Society of Ethical Culture, Theosophy, Buddhism, Reform Judaism, Vedanta, Zoroastrianism, Islam, and the Bahá'í Faith.”

The list of those who populated Ms. Farmer's circle and/or participated in the famous Greenacre conferences of the late 1800s and early 1900s reads like a Who's Who of prominent religious and philosophical thinkers and activists. They included Unitarian minister Edward Everett Hale, women's rights advocate Matilda Joslyn Gage, philosopher William James, Hindu guru Swami Vivekananda, Jain lecturer Virchand Gandhi, Buddhist monk Anagarika Dharmapala, and Black activist W.E.B. DuBois.

Dr. Schmidt focuses on Greenacre not only because of its influence but also because of the way in which its history illustrates the tension that existed between religious pluralists who accepted everything and nothing at the same time, using universalism as the justification for an endless individualistic quest, and those who, like Ms. Farmer, moved towards a more concrete expression of faith, based on a new sources of authority, in a quest for genuine unity.

For Ms. Farmer, this occurred with her embrace of the Bahá'í Faith. She founded Greenacre as a place in which all religious traditions might be explored and individual spirituality pursued. But then a fateful encounter aboard a ship bound for the Mediterranean in 1900 led her to Palestine, where she met ‘Abdu'l-Bahá — and subsequently declared herself a Bahá'í.

Upon her return, however, some acquaintances criticized her conversion, saying Ms. Farmer had betrayed the principles of “self-reliant individuality and boundary-crossing cosmopolitanism” that had previously exemplified the New Thought and related movements ensconced at Greenacre, a converted inn on the pine-forested shores of the Piscataqua River.

“[P]eople were supposed to keep seeking, to remain open to new perspectives and insights, not to settle on one path alone among many,” writes Dr. Schmidt.

But Ms. Farmer's embrace of the Bahá'í Faith was “the culmination of her grand vision of the unity of all religions.” In Ms. Farmer's mind, Greenacre became “less about an open door than a final realization, less about a quest than a fulfillment.”

Dr. Schmidt notes that her “evangelism” as a Bahá'í was never “heavy-handed,” and that a number of Greenacre seekers were also happy to embrace the Bahá'í Faith. Others, however, turned away, leading to a boardroom battle for control of the place, which Ms. Farmer eventually won — although at great cost to her peace of mind.

Eventually, Greenacre became the Green Acre Bahá'í School, which has remained committed to the exploration of new religious concepts and principles, under the unifying vision of the Bahá'í Faith.

As an object lesson for today, however, the story of Ms. Farmer and Greenacre — and indeed the entire book — offers many parallels to the kind of mixing and matching of religious traditions that we see at a global level, and the accompanying concerns over authority and authenticity.

Recent international interfaith conferences, such as the 2000 Millennium World Peace Summit of Religious and Spiritual Leaders at the United Nations, or the revived Parliament of the World's Religions in 1993, 1999, and 2004, reveal a landscape of increasing religious tolerance, pluralism, and universalist patterns of thought.

For Bahá'ís, then as now, the foment in humanity's collective consciousness can be explained as the spiritual influence that accompanies the coming of a new Revelation.

The themes Dr. Schmidt traces as so emergent in liberal 19 th century America — the commonality of religious teachings, the need for the independent investigation of truth, the breaking away from clergy, the equality of women and men, the growing perception of unity in all things — are, in the Bahá'í view, obvious elements of the new spiritual reality that marks humanity's entry into its long promised age of maturity.

Those themes recur today as traditions and traditional religious teachings are challenged by the forces of globalization, modernity, and individual inspiration — forces which are themselves understood by Bahá'ís to be the result of the fulfillment of prophesies for an age of peace and enlightenment that are found in all of the world's great religions.

“A new life is, in this age, stirring within all the peoples of the earth; and yet none hath discovered its cause or perceived its motive,” Bahá'u'lláh wrote in the mid-1800s. “It behoveth you to refresh and revive your souls through the gracious favors which in this Divine, this soul-stirring Springtime are being showered upon you.”

Restless Souls is a book whose sum is more than its parts. Interesting in its own right for the rich and complex picture it paints of a time when Americans began to free themselves from religious orthodoxy in a thousand different ways, it also holds up a mirror to our own time.