Is Spiritual but not Religious Really Occult Protestantism?

Is the spiritual but not religious (SBNR) movement just a radical form of Protestantism? The evidence suggests Protestantism played a significant role in grooming metaphysical—what some might call occult—philosophies for mainstream audiences.  Groups like The Toronto Theosophical Society and the Transcendentalists brought occult concepts and terminology into the North Americans’ doorstep, and liberal Protestant initiatives like Religious Book Week drew them into hearth and home.  In a certain sense SBNR is really “Protestant Occultism” in full bloom.

To be clear, the occult isn’t about black magic or devil worship. It is simply metaphysical speculation and includes things like belief in oneness (all is connected), mind-cure techniques (thought creates reality), astrology, communicating with nonphysical beings and divination. Pretty blasé by today’s standards—nothing you wouldn’t hear on Oprah. Maybe even in church.

The Case of the Toronto Theosophical Society

So how did Protestantism help metaphysical speculation go mainstream? Flash back to Canada in 1828. Around this time, Canadians were developing a taste for the occult. In response to this mood, a chapter of the Theosophical Society was established in Toronto.[1] Like the headquarters in London England, the Toronto branch of the Theosophical Society actively promoted discussion of alternative religions, tarot and astrology. It drew members from Canada’s social elite including intellectuals, political reformers and artists. It also had a permanent location with classrooms, a library, and lecture hall seating for 500, all of which helped to legitimize and spread its’ interests.

The TTS did not oppose Protestantism—the majority religion in Canada then as now. The founder, Albert Stafford, was himself a committed Protestant. He held regular scripture classes at the TTS in an effort to reinterpret Christianity in accordance with Theosophical principles. Through these and many other highly visible efforts, the TTS brought liberal Protestantism and the metaphysical underground together in a prominent display of social and religious cosmopolitanism.

The Case of Transcendentalism

The affair between Protestantism and the occult was even more visible in America. A small but influential group of radical Protestant ministers and intellectuals called the Transcendentalists focused attention on a new breed of spiritual teachings drawn from Hinduism, Native Americans, Romanticism, nature and natural health care, biblical criticism and feminism. As the name implies, their teachings intended to open access to the trans-personal realm, a place beyond the ordinary workings of mind and matter.[2]

Transcendentalists believed that mysticism was a basic human capacity accessible through contemplation, nature, dreams, creativity and intuition. It wasn’t strictly a matter of grace as taught in church history. The spiritual goal was a conscious experience of God, not theologies and creeds for their own sake.

The liberal Protestant embrace of Transcendentalism draped metaphysics in a mantle and respectability and ushered it towards the broader Protestant milieu. This action would hold the door open for a string of further developments and bring metaphysical spiritual inquiry to the masses.

The Case of Protestant Reading Culture

“Religious Book Week” was another way metaphysical speculation entered the mainstream. By the 1920s, liberal Protestants began to show interest in teaching with a mystical-metaphysical bent. It began innocently enough. Mainline church attendance was declining so a marketing scheme was hatched. Protestant leaders would join forces with publishers to promote a special week to celebrate religious reading. Religious Book Week organizers networked with book sellers, libraries, schools, clubs and congregations to guide readers to books that would build character, combat individualism and consumerism, and revitalize their faith.

When the Depression hit, audiences welcomed teachings designed to help them overcome their financial difficulties. Works that drew on the New Thought Movement’s idea that thought creates reality were especially popular in Protestant reading circles. Emmet Fox’s Power through Constructive Thinking (1932), for example, was vigorously promoted and went through eight printings. It entertained audiences with a new message about the power of faith, one quite different than the standard Christian message. Inadvertently, Religious Book Week encouraged a mass move towards do-it-yourself spiritual seeking. Through book lists chosen by liberal religious leaders and specialists, Americans were getting expert guidance along with Protestant permission to expand their spiritual horizons. [3]


So is SBNR a type of Protestant occultism? Since the early 19th century, metaphysical teachings have been inching toward social respectability. And it seems that much of this happened not in shadowy occult meetings, but in the broad daylight of liberal Protestantism.