Rufus Jones and Mysticism for the Masses

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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Rufus Jones
and Mysticism for the Masses

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