Rufus Jones and Mysticism for the Masses

In 1948, A Quaker Mystic popularized mysticism in the United States

| October 7, 2004


The October 11, 1948 issue of Time magazine carried a short article in the 'Religion' section with the intriguing title 'Mystics Among Us.' Nestled between post-war ads for Frigidaire compressors and Kelvinator adding machines, the piece began: 'In two perceptive, quietly stirring books published this week, an old and a young American gave their testimony about mysticism.' The editors of Time, apparently, saw no need to explain what mysticism is or why Americans should care -- mysticism was in the air in postwar America. The article continued, 'Both men re-emphasize two facts often forgotten: the world still has millions of mystics, and the most mystical human beings are often among the most practical as well.' The young man in the article was the 33-year-old Catholic convert and Trappist monk Thomas Merton, whose celebrated autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, went on to become a surprise national bestseller. The old man, who had passed away the previous June at age 85, was the Quaker mystic and scholar Rufus Jones. How did religious mysticism become the matter-of-fact topic of a mainstream news magazine in post-war America?

To find the answer one must turn to the life of Rufus Jones. Jones was the seminal figure in making mysticism middlebrow in the interwar period ('middlebrow' is a term used by American Studies scholars to describe the process by which formerly 'highbrow' aristocratic culture was marketed to a socially anxious middle class that was hell bent on self-improvement). His willingness to market himself to the masses was a critical stimulus towards the popular embrace of a mystical emphasis in liberal Protestant spirituality, both because of his own direct influence and because of his influence on even more popular writers such as Howard Thurman and Harry Emerson Fosdick. This middlebrowing of mysticism paved the way for the success of a wide range of mystical writers to come, starting with Thomas Merton and lasting into the New Age.

Mysticism's appeal in these decades came from many sources. To liberal Protestants caught up in modernist/fundamentalist struggles, mysticism offered life-transforming religious experience not confined to the evangelical paradigm. And during decades of Depression and war, mystical experience provided the 'spiritual energy' to fuel social gospel endeavors to redeem a social order that may have seemed at times beyond redemption. But perhaps most critically, a newly emerging cultural space, the religious middlebrow, simply made writings on mysticism much more widely available.

Religious culture was an important component of the emerging middlebrow, and the consequences were far-reaching. By tying American religious culture ever more tightly to the consumer marketplace through the purchase not only of books but of also of 'wares,' middlebrow reading brought previously esoteric and academic ideas into the mainstream. Freer than ever to browse widely in the marketplace of ideas, millions of Americans in the 1920s, '30s, and '40s discovered mysticism.
-- Elizabeth Dwoskin



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