Continued from Part I
Nelson begins his discussion of “occultism in general” by addressing some of the “very old ‘sciences,’ (if I may abuse this long-suffering word a little more in my dire extremity for a generalazation)” that modern Americans knew simply as “superstition,” namely, witchcraft, necromancy, astrology, and alchemy. Labeling the first two as “black magic” and comparing them to the secret combinations of the Book of Mormon, Nelson warns that “Latter-day Saints have no business meddling with this part of occultism.” Regarding the latter two, he identifies astrology and alchemy as relatively harmless but not necessarily fruitful. In light of current scientific knowledge, he determined that they are basically a waste of time. Hypnotism, the next object of his occultic wanderings, he did warn against however, as it entailed a surrender of agency. Far from harmless, this occultist reality brought the subject under the hypnotists will as a “psychical puppet” powerless to resist the commission of any crime or favor of the hypnotist’s bidding. It is thus not worthy of a Latter-day Saint’s attention other than to loathe it.
From these Nelson progresses to an “occultism” that was recognized by its practitioners not as an occult art at all but as a bona fide religion: Christian Science. Nelson justifies his classification by identifying the Christian Science doctrine that the only reality is spirit and that “all things corporeal [Christian scientists might say material], including our bodies, are base illusions” as an occult doctrine. In describing Christian Science scripture–the writings of Mary Baker Eddy–Nelson waxes satirical and sarcastic in the extreme. “Volubility spouts unrestrained,” he writes. “Alas, alas, it is as if she had written with her tongue instead of her hand–and what a tongue for disjointed movement!” With jabs that make Mark Twain’s treatment of the Book of Mormon seem itself chloroform, Nelson ridicules Eddy’s “hopelessly garrulous books” as a jumble of hopeless incomprehensibility: “Every paragraph might serve for a beginning just as it might equally serve for an end,” he writes. “Indeed, the pages might be cut loose, stirred up with a pitchfork, then bound together again as they should happen to come, and Mrs. Eddy’s thoughts not suffer seriously thereby.”
If he was perhaps a bit uncharitable in assessing Eddy’s prose, Nelson pulled out all stops when it came to lambasting her doctrines, particularly the idea that mind is the only reality and all material simply illusion. “A cannon ball–an illusion in motion–carries off a soldier’s leg,” Nelson writes in mock scenario. “He loses this useful illusion, not because the cannon ball is anything or the leg anything, but because he changes his mind.” “Now, how long think you,” Nelson queries, “can a man escape the asylum and yet persist in trying to apperceive thoughts like these?”
Lambasting aside, Nelson does recognize some truths in Christian Science, i.e., the idea that mind controls matter, as well as some beneficent praxis, namely, the art of faith healing. But, as Nelson points out regarding the former, “this is by no means a new revelation” but is simply a central theme of all revealed scripture. And as for the latter, they simply reap the rewards of processes they do not understand–processes Latter-day Saints are capable of both performing and understanding. Eddy, therefore, has nothing to offer Latter-day Saints, in Nelson’s estimation, but some delusions to mix with the truths they already have. In short, Christian Science is but a few golden (but by no means novel) truths jumbled together with a lot of meaningless “thistledown.” Christian Scientists can perform a few good functions, sure, but nothing Mormons can’t already do anyhow without all the unnecessary fluff. Thus, Latter-day Saints, who can go directly to the source–the pure fountain–ought to have no interest in drinking from the stream “after it has reached the gutters and sloughs.” “Beware!” Nelson warns his young readers, “Whoever drinks from the Devil’s cup will get wigglers.”
Latter-day Saints were thus wont to view Metaphysical religions in a manner very similar to that with which they tended to view most other religions: as institutions containing partial truths mixed in among many falsehoods and corruptions. Any recognition of truth in such traditions was also typically qualified by a recognition of the limitations and falsehoods that attend it. Occasionally, though cautiously, Latter-day Saints would refer to these truths in order to utilize them. In a letter to her missionary son, Brigham Young’s daughter Susa Young Gates borrowed from Christian Science and New Thought to instruct her son in a way to overcome his homesickness: “The modern Christian Science, called now the ‘New Thought,’ has for its sole religious structure the exercise of the will in bringing about peaceful conditions of both mind and body. They teach you to say, ‘I am love, I am peace, I am health,’ until the actual condition, more or less, surrounds you.” After utilizing this doctrine for a practical end, however, Young Gates was careful to also point out the flaws inherent in the New Thought, lest, perhaps, her son be led astray unwittingly: “They have one end of a great truth; but the other end rests in the mists of spiritualism and mysticism, and the soul who follows this ignis fatuus will find itself some day wandering alone and desolate crying peace, peace, when there is no peace.” Young Gates is generous enough, however, to recognize a shared truth at the core of each religion: “the central truth, that of faith, hope and trust, that abides.” As Young Gates’s letter indicates, Latter-day Saints typically (and not altogether inaccurately) conflated the related Christian Science and its disowned offspring, New Thought.
to be continued… next up: spiritualism, a class issue.
 Nelson, “Theosophy and Mormonism,” 426-28. Ibid., 428-29. Ibid., 430. Ibid., 431. Susa Young Gates, “A Mother’s Letters to her Missionary Son; IV. Arrival in Liverpool,” Improvement Era 8, no. 7 (May, 1905): 39.