Oneida Community


1768:  Essay Concerning Human Understanding by John Locke was published.

1769:  Dartmouth College was founded as a school of Christian Congregationalist theology and the liberal arts in Hanover, New Hampshire.

1776:  Propertied colonialists cited Locke’s “natural rights” philosophy in their Declaration of Independence, asserting their inalienable right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” and to combine as the United States of America.

1790-1840:  A “Second Great Awakening” of Protestant religious revivalism pulsed through the outlying Anglo-Scottish settlements in the new United States, particularly New York state and the Ohio River valley.

1784-1830:  Following the 1783 Treaty of Paris, many Oneida and other Haudenosaunee people were driven out of New York state.

1822:  Yale Theological Seminary, with a curriculum of Congregationalist Christian theology, was established by Yale College in New Haven Connecticut.

1830:  The Indian Removal Act was adopted as law by the United States government.

1831:  Charles Finney and others led Christian revival meetings throughout New York state and the northeastern United States.

1831:  A revivalist religious meeting was held at the Noyes home at Putney, Vermont. Shortly thereafter, the recent Dartmouth College graduate John H. Noyes decided to study theology at Andover Theological Seminary.

1832:  Noyes transferred from Andover to the Yale Theological School.

1833:  Noyes professed Christian Perfectionism, citing Paulist and other early Christian communalist practices. He was subsequently suspended as a Congregationalist minister and asked to withdraw from Yale Theological School.

1841:  Noyes, John Skinner, George Cragin, Mary Cragin, John Miller and others formed the Society of Inquiry at Putney, based on a theology of Perfectionism.

1843:  The Society of Inquiry members, now numbering thirty-five persons, re-characterized themselves as the Putney Corporation with pooled resources totaling $38,000, including funds inherited by Noyes and his siblings from their late father.

1844: Explanatory Notes upon the New Testament by John Wesley was published.

1846:  A Statement of Principles was drafted for the Putney Community. George Cragin, Harriet Noyes, Charlotte Miller, Harriet Skinner, Mary Cragin, John Skinner, and John Miller, pledged “to John H. Noyes as such we submit ourselves in all things spiritual and temporal, appealing from his decisions only to the spirit of God.”

1847:  Perfectionist conventions were held in upstate New York (Lairdsville and Genoa) and attended by individuals and groups from New England, New Jersey and New York. Some attendees, including the Putney Community, reconstituted themselves as the communal Oneida Association and took up residence on land obtained by Jonathan and Lorlinda Burt, formerly part of the Oneida tribal Reserve in central New York state.

1848:  The State of New York adopted the Married Women’s Property Act that provided limited rights to real property but not to wages.

1850:  The original Italianate “Mansion House” was built at Oneida.

1852 (March):  Oneida Community rescinded its practice of complex marriage.

1852 (December):  Oneida Community resumed its practice of complex marriage.

1855:  The Commonwealth of Massachusetts adopted a limited Married Women’s Property Act.

1860:  The Oneida Community borrowed $30,000 to construct a large brick water-powered factory along Sconondoa Creek.

1861:  The United States descended into civil war. No one from the Oneida Community was drafted into the Union army, but at least one member, Edwin Nash, enlisted.

1863: On Liberty by John Stuart Mill was published.

1865:  Noyes renounced “free love” and asserted “permanent union” in marriage.

1877:  A “new house” was designed for the Mansion House site to accommodate the Wallingford branch, but it was not completed due to lack of funds.

1879 (August):  Oneida Community abandoned complex marriage. Female members of commune were encouraged to assume the surnames of their monogamous partners.

1880:  The Oneida Community voted to transfer its communal property to a joint-stock corporation owned by shareholders.

1881 (January 1):  Oneida Community Limited assumed control of communal assets, formally ending the commune; many members dispersed.


Christian Perfectionism has a complex history of development. Modern conceptualizations draw from the teachings of John Wesley (and Methodism), who proposed that “instantaneous deliverance from all sin” was possible by living in accordance with the “ordinances of God.” Thereby, the Wesleyan could live a sinless life. Wesley grounded his theology in epistles of the Christian apostle Paul (Wesley 1827, 1844, 1847).

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the worldview that asserted the “natural rights” of human agency that acted in accordance with divine law proliferated in Europe and its North American colonies. The writings of notable “natural rights” theorists, such as John Locke and John Stuart Mill, were kept in the Oneida Community reading room and discussed in their newsletter (Locke 1768a, 1768b; Mill 1863, 1866; Circular 1869:375-76).

John Humphrey Noyes (1811-1886) [Image at right] is generally acknowledged as the principal leader of the Oneida Community. He was born in Brattleboro, Vermont, to John Noyes and Polly Hayes. The elder Noyes was a moderately prosperous capitalist and one-time Congressional representative for the state. John H. Noyes attended Dartmouth College and after graduation attended Andover Seminary and then the Yale College divinity school. Following expulsion from Yale College, ostensibly for his Perfectionist beliefs, Noyes returned to the family home in Putney, Vermont. There, three of his siblings (Harriett, Charlotte, and George), as well as his mother Polly, joined him in Perfectionist belief and, using funds inherited from the late father, formed the Putney Association. In 1847, that group decamped to central New York, in part to avoid prosecution. Noyes resided at Oneida, New York until 1878 when he reportedly fled during the night of June 27 for Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada, to escape possible prosecution for polygamy. Noyes remained  at Niagara from 1878 until his death in April 1886. His body was returned to Oneida and is buried in the Community cemetery (Teeple 1985:2-3; G. W. Noyes 1931:25-33, 46-62).

As the Second Great Awakening pulsed during the early decades of the nineteenth century, Wesleyan thought found sympathetic minds in New England and upstate New York. Thereby a youthful John Humphrey Noyes (who had studied at Congregationalist-led Dartmouth and Yale colleges and Andover Seminary) encountered Perfectionism and was soon enthralled by it. That enthusiasm interrupted his divinity studies at Yale Seminary, specifically when he incorporated Perfectionist theology in his sermons to a Free Church congregation at North Salem, Connecticut. Noyes’s Perfectionist preaching drew the ire of some Free Church congregants and then of the Association of the Western District of New Haven County, which rescinded his license to preach. Noyes left New Haven for New York City where he attempted to meet with but was rebuffed by Charles Finny, one of the principal agents of the Great Awakening. Noyes knocked about New York for a time, becoming increasingly desolate, until he was rescued back to his father’s home in Vermont by a family friend (Parker 1973:22-29).

During this same period, and following a series of Perfectionist meetings held in central New York state, in 1847, Jonathan Burt, Lorlinda Burt, Daniel Nash, Sophia Nash, Joseph Ackley, Julia Ackley, and Hial Waters, formed the Oneida Association on land obtained by Burt from the State of New York. Joseph Ackley later recalled thinking that they had been “called of God …to build up a society where the love of God would be the prevailing spirit.” (Teeple 1985:xv)

In fact, the land had been a part of the Oneida Nation (Haudenosaunee) Reserve in central New York and near the site of the historic Oneida village of Kanonwalohale (now named Oneida Castle). The property included woodland, cultivated land, and a saw mill that Oneida nationals had built along Oneida Creek. During the 1790s and first decades of the 1800s, the Oneida people were compelled to concede their land in central New York to the state government, which intended to provide it to European settlers (OIN 2019).

In 1848, the Perfectionist Oneida group invited co-religionists living in Vermont to join them in central New York. The Vermont group included John H. Noyes, Harriet Holton Noyes, George Cragin, Mary Cragin, John Skinner, and Harriet Noyes Skinner. The merged groups renamed themselves the Oneida Community.

Although official histories written or commissioned by his son Pierrepont Burt Noyes and nephew George Wallingford Noyes, present John Humphrey Noyes as founder and leader of the Oneida Community, the documentary record suggests that he was one of several acknowledged leaders who only later was asserted (or asserted himself) to be first among equals.

During its first five years (1848-1853), the Community grew to include 134 adults. [Image at right] In 1868, they reported 280 members at Oneida; thirty-five at their Willow Place site; eighty-eight in the branch at Wallingford, Connecticut; and ten in New York City, where they kept a business office on lower Broadway. By 1872, membership at Oneida had declined to 205 at Oneida; nineteen at Willow Place; and forty-five in Wallingford. By the late 1870s, they had relocated all members to Oneida and group population hovered around 200. From 1850 through 1879, more than 150 members left the commune (Circular 1868:24; Oneida Circular 1872:9; “Ledger Showing Settlement, November–December 1880;” “Receipts and settlements with seceders” 1855-1892).

Members were primarily societal refugees from other parts of the northeast United States (Nordhoff 1875:263-64). The commune lived as an extended cooperative family, sharing property and affections with each other. Their polyamorous relationships were characterized as “Complex Marriage” and promoted as a means to civil equality and explicitly to free women from the slave-like conditions of coverture, which was law in many northeastern American states.

H. Noyes was a regular contributor to the Community’s newsletters and, according to those publications, wrote about theology and current affairs and presented weekly talks meetings in the great hall of their Oneida residence (c.f. every issue of The Circular and Oneida Circular). [Image at right]

Initial efforts in subsistence farming were unsuccessful, and the commune turned its economic focus to market horticulture and light manufacturing. They produced and sold preserved fruits and vegetables, silk thread, and iron-jawed animal traps (c.f. Oneida Circular 1868:8).

As their manufacturing operations expanded, the Community became a significant regional employer, especially of young women, hiring year-round and seasonal workers in the Community silk factory, cannery, sawmill, and metalworking shop. Most operations were conducted at a water-powered Willow Place mill complex built along the Sconondoa Creek. These market-driven operations became the central activity of the commune and were cited as proof of the theological righteousness of the “business communism” and espoused by Noyes and others throughout the 1860s and 1870s (Circular 1864:52; Oneida Circular 1872:242; Oneida Circular 1873:14).

The Community’s dependence upon waged employees and market exchange of manufactures was undermined by the same stressors affecting the rest of the nineteenth century capitalist world. Especially influential was the great depression of 1873-1880. The collapse of markets and increase in debt incurred before, during, and as a result of the collapse left the Community insolvent. That insolvency exacerbated the growing social inequities within the Community and prompted the leaders (who held the legal title to the Community’s property) to propose transferring all assets to a joint-stock company, which would be sold as shares to former members. The Oneida Community formally dissolved on December 31, 1880 (“Record of the proceedings of the Commission” 1880)

The failure of the Community’s “business communism” prompted many members to leave Oneida. Some attempted to reconstitute the commune in southern California. Others stayed on in Oneida as employees or managers of the company’s remaining metalworking operation. A few leaders of the commune became major shareholders, and J.H. Noyes’s son P.B. Noyes ultimately became chief executive of Oneida Community Ltd.

The principal residential buildings and the 1860 factory have remained extant at Oneida. The residential Mansion House complex is used as rental apartments and listed as a National Historical Landmark.


 Central to the Oneida Community’s belief system was the premise that persons were capable of living in a Perfect state of sinlessness, with proscribed behaviors obviated by Christian communal practices. This Perfectionist belief system was their interpretation of early Christian communities depicted in Pauline New Testament epistles. In this, they drew directly from the writings of John Wesley. Perfectionists believe that if persons follow the perceived “ordinances of God” they can lead sinless, “perfect” lives. This belief arose in contradistinction to other Protestant Christian beliefs, namely that human beings were inherently fallible and capable of sin.

Upon their foundational belief in sinlessness, the Oneida Community constructed a series of associated beliefs, which they conceptualized as following from divine “ordinances” and specifically practices described in various epistles written by the Christian apostle Paul (c.f. Hinds 1908:154-207; Parker 1973:89-119). First among those was living in community as civil and economic equals. That equality required full and equal participation of women in all aspects of communal life, whose economic and political equality in the outside world was constrained by law. Actualizing that sexual equality was the practice of “complex marriage” and the abolition of monogamous “special love.” Further enabling the full participation of women in the community, men were expected to practice a form of birth control they called “male continence” (Parker 1973:177-89).

In time, Noyes conceptualized the social stratification of “ascending fellowship” within the Community. Noyes himself claimed to be in regular communication with divine predecessors, specifically the apostle Paul, and thereby most perfect of the group.  As the Community matured in the late 1860s and early 1870s, it further articulated “ascending fellowship” as an inherited trait. Following on that biological determinism, the Community embarked on a eugenic program they described as “stirpiculture,” through which the more perfect among them would breed new Perfectionists. A committee of Community leaders received applications from prospective couples and either approved or denied requests to procreate. Fifty-eight children were born out of this process, including thirteen by Noyes with thirteen different women members (Parker 1973:253-64).

Mainline Christians denounced the Oneida Community’s practice of complex marriage as simply “free love” by another name. In practice, complex marriage was a communal life in which all men and all women acted as partners. Complex marriage effectively abolished the unequal property relationships then normative in nineteenth century law between men and women by abolishing the nuclear family as a basic economic unit. Individuals were discouraged from developing “special love” (pair bond) relationships with each other, but were not dissuaded from polyamorous relationships. Reportedly, sexual relationships in the Community were consensual, and combined with the birth control practice known as male continence to effectively limit child births. Complex marriage thereby enabled more equitable participation by women in communal affairs (Noyes 1849 [1931], 116-22; New York Times, August 10 1878; American Socialist 1879:282).

More importantly, however, the framework of “complex marriage” was the premise of the entire set of communitarian lifeways, and challenges to complex marriage threatened to undermine those practices, too. At several points in the Community’s existence, it voted to rescind the practice and to follow traditional marriage practices. In each of those instances, except the last instance in 1879, the Community recognized the existential threat that traditional marriage posed to their commune and subsequently decided to reverse itself and reinstitute “complex marriage” and the shared economy it enabled.

Fundamental to achieving Perfection was the Community’s conduct as an economic unit within the larger societal frame of industrial production and market exchange. Noyes and other Community leaders viewed financial success of the Community as an important proof of their theological probity, which Noyes and some others eventually described as “business communism.” The prolonged economic decline and especially the Great Depression of 1873-1880 greatly undermined that assertion and exacerbated internal tensions, leading to the Community’s dissolution in 1880 (Coffee 2019:8-12).


“I believe this is the gospel method of saving people from sin, and the old Primitive Church way. In respect to marriage Paul did not forbid it, but claimed the right of controlling and checking it by moderate measures, and set the standard of the resurrection, ‘where they neither marry nor are given in marriage’ as the ultimate state” (John Humphrey Noyes, “Tobacco Reform, Home Talk, 1853,” Circular, March 28 1868).

Complex Marriage sanctioned episodic polyamorous heterosexual relationships among members, ostensibly as an equitable alternative to the “special love” of monogamy in which women were subordinate to men. Although this non-monogamous love was officially advocated, the specific sexual activity of members was monitored by commune elders, who sanctioned liaisons and sometimes “initiated” the sexual activity of adolescent youth. [Image at right]

Weekly community meetings in the main hall of their Mansion House were venues for readings or sermons by John Humphrey Noyes and other leaders and for the discussion of communal business and individual duties (c.f. any issue of The Circular or Oneida Circular).

Community bonds and discipline were maintained through the practice of public and holistic “mutual criticism” meetings, during which individuals and practices perceived as transgressing Community principles were critiqued. Transgressors were addressed by their fellow members and especially by most-perfect elders, thereby reinforcing proper behavior and thinking. In a pamphlet about mutual criticism, they wrote that “our object being self-improvement, we have found by much experience that free criticism – faithful, honest, sharp, truth-telling – is one of the best exercises for the attainment of that object” (Mutual Criticism 1876:19).  Conversely and perhaps instead revealing its own Whiggish perspective, the August 11, 1878 New York Times reported “that Noyes could bind his followers together by the bond of mutual hate stamps him as a man of real, if perverted, genius.”

We are in suffering, but it is not caused by quarreling among ourselves; the Community is not hell in that respect. Everybody sees that we live in peace with one another, to a very remarkable extent. The tribulations that we have, are that deep kind of discipline of spirit by which God is refining, purifying and perfecting our characters. It would be very pleasant if we could hold up to the world a picture of unalloyed happiness; but until we are perfected it is a great deal better for us to have hard times. We ought not to wish to deceive people with the idea that it is nothing but child’s play to save our souls and go to heaven.” (John Humphrey Noyes, “The Helmet, Home Talk, March 14, 1868.” Circular March 30, 1868).

Thus, while residing at Oneida, J.H. Noyes fathered at least thirteen children with as many women members. Between 1848 and 1880, approximately 104 children were born into the commune (Teeple 1985:209). [Image at right]

Real property and money became joint property of the Community upon membership. However, legal title to real property, bank deposits, and debt was held by a small group of male leaders, including Noyes, Erastus Hamilton, William Woolworth, and Charles Kellogg (Charles A. Burt v. Oneida Community Ltd. 1889:195, 357).

Work was to be shared equally by commune members.  Episodically and increasingly in later years, some members were critical of perceived evasion of duties by other members, and of the unequal distribution of property when the Community was liquidated. Most productive work was performed by scores of waged workers, in service at the Mansion House or as industrial labor in a modern water-powered factory adjacent to the Seneca Turnpike and the rail line connecting Utica and Syracuse. All waged workers were overseen by commune managers.

Community operations were sufficiently profitable in the 1850s and 1860s to support more than 300 individuals. Among other endeavors, revenue was used to enroll several male children in Yale University for advanced education in medicine, law, and biochemistry. Ostentatiously, between 1850 and 1877, the Community commissioned construction of three large Italianate and one Victorian Gothic residential buildings near the site of Burt’s original landholding. Eventually comprising 90,000 square feet, this Mansion House [Image at right] featured some of the latest conveniences including indoor plumbing and steam heat. Waged employees prepared meals and maintained living quarters and grounds.


The avowed structure of the Oneida Community was as an extended family that shared all work and its results. The Community’s “bible communism” took its inspiration from the Christian apostle Paul and Noyes’s interpretation of early Christian communities (Handbook 1867).

J.H. Noyes and close confidants considered him to be prime theologian and “spiritual father” of the commune, more perfect than others and in communication with divinity. Noyes sermonized during meetings and in essays published in Community newsletters. His exalted position was further actualized by his selection of community women as “stirpicultural” sexual partners.

Noyes was at the center of an inner circle of older men and women who had participated in the establishment of the Community in 1847. These included his sister, Jonathan Burt, George Cragin, Erastus Hamilton, William Hinds, John Miller, and a few others. In the 1860s, the central core group was Noyes, Hamilton, Burt, Cragin, with an orbiting group of supervisors responsible for specific operations. With the crash of 1873, the Community reorganized under a Business Board whose membership morphed as operations were started or stopped (Nordhoff 1875:278-80).

Community organizational coherence was reproduced in part through the practice of “mutual criticism,” whereby individual members behavior was collectively examined and critiqued. Mutual criticism reinforced conformity as well as recognized abnormalities within the commune, according to the guiding ideologies of commune leaders.

By the late 1850s, most of the productive work at the Oneida Community was performed by scores of waged workers, overseen by commune foremen and managers. Workers were recruited from surrounding subsistence farms and, as elsewhere in the industrializing northeast, were predominantly young women. Waged employees also serviced the living quarters and grounds of the Mansion House.

No existing records indicate whether members questioned the egality or fraternity of living off the waged labor of others, although narrators do describe an occasional paternalistic act as the beneficence of the Community bestowed upon one or another domestic worker, such as providing time off to get married, or scheduling work breaks so that the “mill girls” could bathe in the mill pond.


The Oneida Community shared some of the characteristics of other American nineteenth century communitarian experiments. The unity of will expressed by the ideology of Perfectionism was repeatedly challenged by internal and external stressors.

Internally, divergent perceptions and rationalizations of daily operations-as-politics and of strategic objectives-as-ideologies were bound to arise. The Community’s efforts to resolve those contradictions via the forum of “mutual criticism” were only intermittently successful. During the life of the commune, at least one-third of all adult joiners quit. Included in that group were several young adults born into the commune, suggesting that dissension was not solely imported from “the world” or an expression of prior understandings (“Ledger Showing Settlement, November–December 1880;” “Receipts and settlements with seceders 1855-1892;” Burt v. Oneida Community Ltd. 1889).

Externally, the commune was pushed and pulled by social forces (subsistence agriculture, industrialization, debt finance, plantation slave labor) and was increasingly at odds with those social forces. The sweeping change to industrialization brought about by U.S. civil war, the subsequent period of Reconstruction, and then the Great Depression of 1873-1880, undermined political and economic relationships in America, including those that had engendered communitarian experiments such as the Oneida Community. The “business communism” espoused by the leaders of the Community was undermined by dramatic changes in finance and debt, by newly capitalized competitors in industrial centers with better access to labor and capital, and by evolving public attitudes about class and gender roles. Thereby, the fundamental challenge to the communitarian premise of the Oneida Community was its operation as a capitalist enterprise. The Oneida Community attempted to coexist with the subsistence farmsteads that surrounded it but in unequal relationships: as a major buyer of farm produce and as a major employer of waged labor (Coffee 2019).

Especially after the Civil War transformed the U.S. economy, the Community faced an increasingly industrial and finance capitalist society. The Community simultaneously competed with and depended upon other actors in the regional, national and trans-oceanic economy. The equation by Noyes and other leaders of financial success with blessedness was subverted by those transformations and most dramatically so when the larger economy collapsed in the 1870s.

However, several alternate explanatory analyses have been presented since 1880 with which to frame our understanding of the Oneida Community’s dissolution.


Dominant among those is the official history written by Pierrepont Burt Noyes, one of J. H. Noyes’s “stirpiculture” children who became chief executive of the Oneida Community Limited corporation. Leaning heavily on his own class prejudice to undergird his father’s premise of a theological elite, the younger Noyes wrote several memoirs that glorified that legacy (e.g. Noyes 1937). As head of the OCL company, P. B. Noyes also commissioned an “official history” written by historical fiction writer Walter Edmonds (1948). Edmonds has been taken as given by many subsequent scholars. Most notable of Noyes’s and Edmond’s histories is the assertion that the joint-stock company (eventually a silverware manufacturer) was the logical continuation of the commune’s Perfectionist beliefs. Adding to the irony of that assertion is the fact that the Oneida Limited company became insolvent in the late 1990s and its trademark was sold to a competitor.

A second thread of inquiry traces a renewed interest among historians and social theorists in the internal dynamics of intentional communities as key events in nineteenth and twentieth century United States history. This thread was partly animated by later twentieth century social movements for equality in the United States and throughout the world. Robert S. Fogarty (1990) especially situates the Oneida Community within a continuum of intentional and counter-cultural communal experiments. Fogarty (Miller and Fogarty 2000) and Lawrence Foster (1992) have also explored the lives of women in the Oneida Community, complex marriage, and consensual adult sexual practices. Important in this examination is Fogarty’s edited publication of the dairy of female commune member Tirzah Miller (Miller and Fogarty 2000).

A third thread of examination is more specifically focused on the sexual practices of the Community, especially intergenerational relationships. Important contributors to that thread are, separately, Spencer Klaw (1993) and Ellen Wayland-Smith (2016). Although importantly distinct from each other, these authors each focus on sexual practices as personal psychologies. Wayland-Smith specifically situates the Community’s demise in its subordination of the individual personalities of Community youth.

Those who formed or joined the Oneida Community in its first years sought to escape the chaos of trans-Atlantic capitalist society, and they were attracted to John Humphrey Noyes’s charismatic profession of the alternative based on an extended cooperative family, the validity of which was taken from readings of the New Testament. The Noyesians sought to build a regime of reason and eternal justice out of their own theology, which explicitly linked religious fidelity with economic profit. Viewed through that lens, the commune’s economic decline complicated the distinction between good and evil, between perfect and imperfect souls. A theocracy that equated blessedness with wealth turned in on itself. Fellowship dissolved, pitting member against member.


Image #1: John Humphrey Noyes.
Image #2:  Oneida community members circa 1860.
Image #3: An issue of the Oneida Circular.
Image #4: Front cover of Sexual Relations in the Oneida Community.
Image #5: John H. Noyes with his children.
Image #6: Mansion House


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Coffee, Kevin. 2019. “The Oneida Community and the utility of liberal capitalism.” Radical Americas 4:122.

Cooper, Matthew. 1987. “Relations of Modes of Production in Nineteenth Century America: The Shakers and Oneida.” Ethnology 26:1-16.

Edmonds, Walter D. 1948. The First Hundred Years. Oneida: OCL.

Miller, Tirzah and Robert S. Fogarty.  2000. Desire & Duty at Oneida. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Foster, Lawrence. 1992. Women, Family, and Utopia. Syracuse NY: Syracuse University Press.

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Locke, John. 1768b. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding: Vol. 2. London: Woodfall.

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Publication Date:
17 April 2021



Healthy, Happy, Holy (3HO)


1929 (August 26):  Harbhajan Singh Puri (Yogi Bhajan) was born.

1968 (September):  Yogi Bhajan arrived in Canada from India.

1969-1970:  Bhajan settled in Los Angeles and briefly taught yoga at the YMCA and the East West Cultural Center. He and students then founded the Healthy Happy Holy Organization.  Bhajan spoke and taught yoga at solstice celebrations and music festivals.

1971:  Bhajan and eighty-four students traveled to India. They originally stayed with Virsa Singh, who Bhajan referred to as his yoga teacher, but then left his center and began to visit Sikh sites, including the Golden Temple and Akal Takht, where Bhajan was received by authorities.

1972-1973:  Bhajan’s students increasingly embraced Sikhism, and Sikh prayers were added to an already established morning yoga and meditation practice. The Sikh Dharma Brotherhood was incorporated and the Guru Ram Das gurdwara was established in Los Angeles.

1972-1974:  Students established ashrams/teaching centers beyond Los Angeles, many quite small. Approximately ninety-four ashrams created.

1974:  The Khalsa Council was established as an administrative body for Sikh Dharma. Some of Bhajan’s students participated in the European Yoga Festival.

1976:  The Golden Temple of Oregon Inc., a bakery and distribution business, was established, combining previously existing smaller businesses.

1977:  3HO celebrated its first Summer Solstice, beginning a lasting tradition of solstice events.

1980:  Akal Security was created. It began by providing security to local businesses and later grew to become a major national security business.

1980s:  Ashrams consolidated as many adherents established families and moved to the suburbs from urban areas. Bhajan had arranged many of the marriages.

1983-1984:  The Yogi Tea Company was established. It grew into a successful national company.

1984:  Many leaders at the Espanola ashram left the organization complaining of intense discipline and excessive structure.

1985:  The head of the Washington ashram was arrested and indicted on drug smuggling charges. Many individuals left the ashram.

1986:  Two women ex-members brought a suit against Bhajan, the 3HO Foundation, Sikh Dharma Brotherhood and the Siri Singh Sahib of Sikh Dharma (a business holding company) on a number of counts.

1994:  The International Kundalini Yoga Teachers Association was formed as 3HO began to focus increasingly on training yoga teachers.

1996:  Sikhnet, a digital resource for Sikhs worldwide, was launched.

1997:  The Miri Piri Academy was established in Amritsar, India,  the most recent of several Indian boarding schools to which many members sent their children.

2003:  As his health deteriorated, Bhajan centralized control of the profit and non-profit businesses.

2004:  Yogi Bhajan died of heart failure.

2007:  Management sold the bakery business.

2010:  The first Kundalini Yoga and Music Festival was held in the fall. It was renamed in 2011 as the Sat Nam Fest and became a regular event.

2011:  Members of Sikh Dharma International reacted to the restructuring of the businesses by bringing suit in  Sardarni Guru Amrit Kaur Khalsa, et al v Kartar Singh Khalsa et al and State of Oregon v Siri Singh Sahib Corporation et al.

2012:  A court settlement was made final, and the Bhajan-related organizations began to restructure and plan for the future.

2019:  An ex-member, and a central figure in the early years of 3HO and Sikh Dharma, Pamela Saharah Dyson (who was named Premka by Yogi Bhajan), published her memoir.

2020:  In  reaction to Premka’s memoir, members and ex-members revealed incidents of abuse. An organization was hired to investigate accusations.

2020-2021   The investigation found reason to believe that Bhajan engaged in sexual abuse and harassment. Leadership hired consultants to advise on a process of “compassionate reconciliation.” Akal Security ceased operations.


As was the case for many of the alternative religions that originated in the 1960s and 1970s in the United States, the Healthy Happy Holy Organization (3HO) grew up around a central charismatic figure. Harbhajan Singh Puri was born on August 26, 1929 in modern-day Pakistan. His mother was Hindu, his father was Sikh, and his schooling was Catholic. In 1947, the partitioning of India resulted in the family becoming refugees and fleeing to to New Delhi. In 1954, he married Inderjit Kaur Uppal, and the couple subsequently had three children. In New Delhi he attended college, and 3HO accounts report that he obtained a degree in Economics at Punjab University and then was employed as a customs and security officer at Delhi airport.  He also pursued an interest in yoga.  Accounts of his early life and of the circumstances under which he came to North America vary, but most agree that he arrived in Toronto in 1968, expecting to take up a position teaching yoga. A 3HO history website states that Harbhajan taught yoga to James George, Canadian High Commissioner to India at the time, and that the Commissioner encouraged him to consider teaching yoga at Toronto University.  When Harbhajan arrived in Canada, however, the teaching position failed to materialize. The would-be yogi was aided by acquaintances and relatives and was finally invited to Los Angeles. There he began to teach yoga at a YMCA and at the East-West Cultural Center (Khalsa, Hari Singh Bird and Khalsa, Hari Kaur Bird n.d.).

His arrival coincided with a surge of interest in eastern religions as youth who had been active in the countercultural and political movements of the time increasingly embraced spiritual pursuits.  Thus, while many of his original students at the East-West Center were residual, older, students of yoga, Bhajan’s classes soon were joined by young hip students. Some of his early students belonged to communal groups: the Juke (or Jook) Savage performance group, the Hog Farm commune, and The Committee, a comedy collective, all significant in counterculture history.

Harbhajan’s stay at the East-West Cultural Center was brief, but one of his students, Jules Buccieri, and a number of figures in the Los Angeles music and countercultural worlds, offered support and a place to teach. They dubbed him “Yogi Bhajan” the name by which he is best known.  A building known as “the Castle” served as a gathering place for members of various communal groups, some of whom took yoga classes with Bhajan (Law 2000:93). Also, at the time, rock music festivals were becoming a significant cultural phenomenon, and various Eastern spiritual figures attended these festivals and related events such as Solstice celebrations and an event called “The Holy Man Jam” in June 1970 in Boulder Colorado. The spiritual teachers would speak or offer yoga classes. 3HO members locate Bhajan at a number of these early festivals (see Khalsa, H.S.B and Khalsa, K.B no date; Law 2000; Mankin 2012; Barrett 2007). [Image at right] Some of the attendees became his students.  One, for example, named Dawson, met Bhajan at a Solstice celebration. Dawson evidently wanted to try communal living and had purchased land for that purpose.  As soo[n as he met Bhajan he offered his twelve acres as an ashram site (Gardner 1978:123-28).

Thus Bhajan gathered many of his first students in a rather haphazard way, at such events or through contacts with his yoga students, but a certain amount of order and planning soon followed.  Both he and the students were disposed to create communities, and they quickly established centers which they referred to as ashrams. At first, their centers resembled the communes that were a hallmark of counterculture life, although the routines that residents followed within them were strict compared to the lifestyles of many of the communes formed at the time.  Bhajan advocated early morning yoga, meditation, and a vegetarian diet.  He trained students as yoga teachers and then sent them out to establish teaching centers, evidently intending to create a network of ashrams, just as other spiritual teachers were doing. He formed 3HO as an umbrella organization.

Bhajan led a group of eighty of his students to India in 1970. The original purpose of the visit was evidently to visit Maharaj Virsa Singh, who Bhajan referred to as his teacher or master. But there appears to have been a falling out between the two when Bhajan and his students arrived, and the group left Virsa Singh’s compound, Gobind Sadan, and went instead to visit a number of Sikh gurdwaras (See, Deslippe 2012:369-87). They eventually went to Amritsar and the Golden Temple where Bhajan and his students were recognized at an official reception, and some students took Amrit (initiation into the Khalsa, a community created by the tenth Guru, Gobind Singh).  After that visit Bhajan and his students claimed that Bhajan had been named as the Siri Singh Sahib, which they rendered as Chief Sikh Religious Authority for the Western Hemisphere. The actual nature of the recognition has, however, been an occasional source of contention (See, Issues/Challenges).

After the visit to India, 3HO ashram residents who evinced an interest in Bhajan’s religion were encouraged to learn about it and even to become Sikhs. Slowly but steadily the numbers who adopted a Sikh identity, or at least increasingly oriented their behavior and outlook towards India, increased. Students began to adopt Indian clothing and soon to “tie turbans.” The organization had attracted a number of skilled musicians, and some of them began to learn to play and sing Sikh kirtan. In 1972, they opened their first gurdwara (Sikh temple) at the Guru Ram Das Ashram, in Los Angeles, and in 1973 they created a new organization, the Sikh Dharma Brotherhood (later renamed as Sikh Dharma International). Ashram residents were increasingly encouraged to convert to Sikhism. 3HO and Sikh Dharma remained separate legal entities, with 3HO dedicated primarily to yoga and Sikh Dharma to the religious faith, but in daily life their membership, beliefs and practices were often entwined.

Bhajan toured the country teaching at the different centers. He also served as a spiritual advisor and leader and soon began to arrange, or approve, marriages for ashram residents.  He encouraged them to settle down and become “householders,” saying that good Sikhs should not withdraw from the world, but rather live ethically within it. His adherents turned their attention to adapting to their new lifestyle, raising children, and finding ways to earn a living. As the 1970s ended, a recession made this more difficult, and practical matters loomed large. Ashrams were consolidated as students left center cities, seeking better places to raise children.

Although this was a time of establishing a lifestyle and legitimizing the organization in the eyes of the public, and in the eyes of Punjabi Sikhs, the 1980s were also a time of considerable stress. The organization showed signs of fragmentation. Much of the leadership of the Espanola ashram left in the mid-1980s, complaining of “intense discipline” (Lewis 1998:113). 3HO and Sikh Dharma were embroiled in a number of legal cases. For Bhajan, upheaval in Punjab compounded the strain.

Nonetheless, businesses grew slowly and steadily through the 1980s and then surged in the 1990s. Yogi Tea, today one of the nation’s largest natural tea companies, originated with an entrepreneurial idea to market Bhajan’s version of spiced Indian tea. Similarly, a small bakery, Golden Temple Bakery, grew slowly through the 1980s and then began to expand along with a growing market for health foods in the U.S. A security company, Akal Security, began as a local business in New Mexico, then grew in the wake of the September 11 attacks and became a major U.S. security company before closing in February 2021. With the growth of successful companies and an intensifying interest in yoga in North America and Europe, 3HO and related organizations slowly changed.

By the 1990s, there was a culture shift. There were few communal businesses left, and rising early and overtly being a Sikh was considered more of an option than an implied directive. This period also saw an increased interest in yoga world-wide. To serve the changing times, Yogi Bhajan created the International Kundalini Yoga Teachers Association, dedicated to setting standards for teachers and the propagation of the teachings” (Sikhi Wiki n.d.).

Multiple centers of activity had arisen around Bhajan. But Bhajan’s health was failing, and he died of heart failure and related problems in 2004. Before his death he made plans for the future, laying out the nature of a future leadership structure. Rather than name a successor he divided leadership responsibilities among a number of roles. He also consolidated the for-profit businesses under a holding company. With several leadership roles and centers of activity it is probably not surprising that tensions surfaced, particularly when the management of one of the businesses, Golden Temple Inc., sold that company without consulting with the other related organizations and leaders. This led to a trial in 2011 that pitted different parts of the 3HO/Sikh Dharma family of organizations against each other as Sikh Dharma International (joined by the state of Oregon) took the managers to court and prevailed. (See, Issues/Challenges)

Early members strongly critiqued North American culture, depicting it largely as a wasteland, but, in spite of their critiques and roots in the counterculture, it is striking how closely 3HO and Sikh Dharma have followed broader cultural trends. The organizations grew out of the counterculture, music festivals, communalism, and experimentation of the 1960s and early 1970s.Then members grew more conservative, religious, family oriented, and entrepreneurial as did the country in the later 1970s and the 1980s. Their companies rode the wave when the natural food business grew dramatically in the late 1980s and in the 1990s. They also became larger and more assertive, as did corporations around the world. The recent discussions of abuse parallel the current revelations of the Me Too Movement, and the Sikh Dharma International website features a “mantra…for healing and support during this time of COVID-19.”


Bhajan and his students adopted what they called a “technology for living.” It consisted primarily of yoga, meditation, a vegetarian (mostly Ayurvedic) “yogic diet” and a variety of healthy routines. 3HO was created as a vehicle for sharing and elaborating on the lifestyle. As the website describes it:

There’s a yogic art and science to all aspects of human life. There’s a yogic way to get up in the morning, to go to sleep at night, to eat, to breathe, to brush your teeth, to take a shower, to communicate, to raise children. Every aspect of life has an enlightened, efficient, and effective way to do it. Yogi Bhajan studied and mastered this technical and spiritual knowledge in India, and brought this gift to the West (Healthy Happy Holy website n.d. “The Healthy Happy Holy Lifestyle”).

One of Bhajan’s particular skills as a leader was his ability to connect his students’ backgrounds to his own and to integrate a variety of values, beliefs and orientations. For example, as many early members brought countercultural and New Age values to their new life in 3HO, Bhajan borrowed from the New Age Movement and referred to the current time period as the Piscean, a time marked by greed, inequality, materialism and insecurity. He told his students that he would prepare them for the new age, the Aquarian.  This would be a better time, but the transition would be difficult and so they must strengthen and purify themselves to withstand the passage by following the lifestyle that he prescribed.

Values his students brought from the counterculture to 3HO included a holistic approach to life, a desire for community, a distrust of large-scale corporations and of bureaucracy and materialism, a commitment to social change, a willingness to experiment with lifestyles and individual consciousness, and a hunger for meaning, They also sought empowerment in the face of a culture they found at the least unsatisfying, or, at worst, oppressive and destructive. (Elsberg 2003:55-72; Miller 1991; Tipton 1982) Many of Bhajan’s teachings addressed these values and concerns.

Bhajan taught classes that he referred to as kundalini yoga classes, and others that he called “White Tantric.” The Kundalini yoga, he said, was suitable for daily practice, but White Tantric required his presence. Although Bhajan spoke about the two types of yoga as if they were separate entities, in fact, Tantra traditionally is the broader term that encompasses kundalini yoga. Bhajan taught that his yoga would eventually lead to individual enlightenment and to an experience of oneness with the universal consciousness. He taught that Kundalini energy, said to lie at the base of the spine, rose through the invisible “subtle body” with its channels and nodes (chakras) until it was finally united with pure consciousness. In addition to leading to eventual enlightenment, in 3HO the yoga was said to cleanse and heal, especially by strengthening the nervous system and balancing the glandular systems. Many physical positions and movements were also said to perform various practical functions such as easing stress, enhancing stamina, and improving digestion. These practices addressed his students’ interest in consciousness and change, their desire to create congruence in all arenas of life including mind and body, and their need for personal empowerment.

The early growth of 3HO coincided with the burgeoning women’s movement, and so gender roles were significant and even more so given the significance of Tantra in 3HO life.  In Tantra,  the divine is said to have both a male and a female aspect, and the feminine energy is sometimes referred to as a goddess or Shakti. Bhajan drew on such Tantric beliefs, sometimes referring to women as shaktis and as “the grace of God.”  He also favored traditional male and female roles, seemingly justifying them in part by referencing Tantra. He complained that women in North America had become “imitation men.”  A woman, he said, should be “a living tranquility, peace, harmony, grace and sophistication” (Bhajan 1986: 30).A woman was able to “change every negative thing around her to be positive” (Bhajan 1979:211).

Women, however, have to use their powers wisely. If they do not  then they can, and often do, cause great trouble. In fact, he often criticized women students, and women in general. He attributed some of what he perceived as bad behavior to exploitation and insecurity created by western society, and some to a failure to yield to men and simply be pleasant and womanly (Bhajan 1986:30, “Women in Training series”).

In its earliest manifestation, 3HO was influenced primarily by yogic and Hindu traditions.  But Bhajan soon added another layer of Sikh beliefs and practices and integrated those with the earlier teachings. Some adherents took organizationally specific vows which combined aspects of Bhajan’s “technology” with Sikh beliefs.  Some took actual Sikh vows (amrit).  They established Sikh gurdwaras (places of worship) and many began to wear the Sikh markers of identity. In fact, there was much to appeal to a countercultural sensibility and to the need to find a meaningful way to live in the world. Not only did the students gain through Sikhism an additional set of beliefs and practices that could structure their lives and provide meaning, they also learned to perform beautiful music (kirtan), and gained access to another continent and another culture with its traditions and stories, to a whole new identity in fact. They were told that yoga would awaken their spiritual energies, and empower them as individuals, and the Sikh teachings and practices would channel the unleashed energies in positive directions. Sikh values would foster “group consciousness” and piety (Kundalini Research Institute. 1978:18). And Bhajan clearly benefited as well, gaining increased stature and authority as he became not only a yoga teacher but a representative of a major religion.

In spite of the appeal of many Sikh principles and practices, there were difficulties implicit in taking a new and religious direction. The counterculture was not friendly to organized religion, valuing self-expression and improvisation over piety or submission. In fact, many members left when Sikhism was introduced. Bhajan had to take some care to continue to frame Sikhism in such a way that the remaining members could accept it and align it with their pasts and his yoga teachings.

One way that Bhajan did this was to offer a vision in which he and they created a western Khalsa (The Khalsa translates as “the pure ones” and refers to all initiated Sikhs. It is sometimes referred to as a brotherhood). Thus they would still be part of a movement, as they were in the counterculture and New Age circles, and could still bring about social change, but it would be embedded in the Sikh religion: “We will have our own industries, our own businesses, and we will provide our own jobs and our own culture. We will grow to be a nation of 960,000,000 Sikhs in fulfillment of the prophecy of Guru Gobind Singh” (Khalsa 1972:343).

Bhajan also maintained that yoga and Sikhism were historically entwined (a claim with which many Sikhs would disagree), and he merged Sikh and yogic traditions with his emphasis on “sound currents.”  From the earliest days, Bhajan included phrases from Sikh prayers and scripture into some of the yoga sets that he taught. Students chanted these although they did not know then that Bhajan was incorporating the Sikh Shabd Guru (the songs and words of the Guru). He emphasized the sounds and sound patterns of the prayers as much as the actual words. Also central is the idea that the Shabad Guru is another “technology” that enables users to cope with the rapid change associated with transitioning to the Aquarian age.

According to Bhajan’s predictions, November 11, 2011 marked the start of the transition to the New Age, and adaptation during the transition has remained a central concept. [Image at right] In his later years, Bhajan spoke more frequently about the coming pace of change and its impact on the “sensory system.”  He predicted that people would be “more perturbed, not able to bear enough, not having much tolerance, and very argumentative” (Bhajan n.d. 3HO website), and now 3HO yoga teachers talk about managing in the new environment and “beginning to evolve a sensory system that allows them to live as intuitive, multi-faceted beings” (Healthy Happy Holy Organization website n.d. “The Sensory Human”).

Given the growth of public interest in yoga, kundalini has increased its reach, and there are numerous teachers and teacher training courses. These courses have been taught with the requirement that all teachers carefully follow Bhajan’s instructions. Recently, however, accusations against Bhajan and some teachers have surfaced, and there are yoga teachers who no longer feel they should follow in Bhajan’s footsteps. There is considerable internal questioning and division, and the future outlines of the belief system are difficult to discern (See, Issues/Challenges).


3HO and Sikh Dharma offer a varied ritual life. Major rituals and practices include performing kundalini and white tantric yoga, Aquarian Sadhana, and attendance at Solstice celebrations. Specifically Indian or Sikh practices include wearing Indian clothing and Sikh markers of identity, including turbans, accepting arranged marriages, singing of kirtan, the celebration of Sikh holidays and rites of passage, and visits to the Golden Temple in India.

Bhajan told his first students that he was teaching them Kundalini yoga because it was a particularly powerful form of yoga, a practice that would answer the needs of youth as they faced rapid social change. Kundalini yoga, as Bhajan taught it, is physically vigorous, combining controlled deep breathing with a variety of yoga postures and mantra recitations, some of which may be maintained for long periods of time.

If Bhajan taught that Kundalini yoga would enable people to navigate the new Aquarian Age, he also taught that the yoga would empower each practitioner so that he or she was less at the mercy of personal needs and emotions and better able to shape the world, rather than simply respond to it. His students would be able to not only weather the changes wrought by the transition to the Aquarian Age but also to guide others who found the transition difficult.

All of these benefits were said to apply to white tantric yoga, along with other benefits as well. Tantric thought assumes an ultimate Oneness that has dual aspects: matter and spirit, formless consciousness and the natural world.  Spirit is identified with the male principle and matter with the female, with the feminine giving form to infinite consciousness (Pintchman 1994:110). “White Tantric” appears to build on these ideas, but with Bhajan’s distinctive additions. The classes include many of the same movements and chants that are used in a kundalini yoga session. One difference, however, is that white tantric is performed in rows, men facing women, each with a partner. [Image at right] Additionally, the anticipated effects are different. Tantra is said to “balance” male and female energies and to “cleanse” the individual.   Each person’s experience is said to be different, but each “gets what he or she needs at that point in their journey along the path. It is a very deep and transformational cleansing process…” (Khalsa 1996:180). Bhajan was said to take on the karma of participants so that leading a session was a difficult and painful process for him. Bhajan claimed to have inherited the title “Mahan Tantric,” which, he said, made him the only person who could officially teach White Tantric.  Originally, his presence was said to be necessary so that he could internalize and alleviate the pain and subconscious struggles of the individuals participating (Elsberg 2003:44-53) Later, he videotaped his classes, and the videos are said to have the same effects as Bhajan’s physical presence. Music also became an important part of the practice and Bhajan asked musicians to record chants and mantras. (Sikh Dharma website “50 Years of Music”)

Yoga and Sikhism are brought together in the practice of Aquarian Sadhana, which includes prayer, meditation, yoga and Sikh worship. Evidently Bhajan originally varied the format every year and then finally settled on a specific version that is continued today (Khalsa, Nirvair Singh n.d. Sikh Dharma website). As officially described, “Morning Sadhana is the daily practice of waking up in the amrit vela time (two-and-one-half hours before the sun rises) to meditate and chant God’s Name….”  (Sikh Dharma .org website). It begins with Japji, the Sikh morning prayer composed by Guru Nanak. That is followed by Sikh prayers, Kundalini yoga sets, and then by specific “Aquarian Meditations.” These meditations are short songs of praise which are performed for a designated period of time. They are said to accomplish specific purposes such as “protection against all negative forces, inner and outer, which are blocking us on our true path” (Aquarian Sadhana 3HO organization website). Sadhana may be performed individually or in a group and may last for two-and-one-half hours (See, Har Nal Kaur n.d. ). The recommendation to rise early and meditate during the “amrit vela” is a Sikh universal. The Aquarian Sadhana is the distinctive 3HO and Sikh Dharma version (See, Elsberg 2003: xiii-xvi, 174-77).

Kirtan refers to devotional chanting and song, and it has long been an essential part of Sikh practice and important in 3HO and Sikh Dharma. There is also a broader spiritual kirtan movement which appeals to practitioners from several religious traditions, including Sikh Dharma. Chants and mantras may be set to New Age or blues forms, or may reflect other musical genres and may be accompanied by dancing. Sites include yoga studios and yoga festivals, concerts, and gurdwaras. The tone may be devotional, or may tilt toward entertainment. A 3HO-related business called Spirit Voyage sells recordings of kirtan and organizes some events, and 3HO holds “Sat Nam Fests” in different parts of the country  (Khalsa, N.K. 2012:438).

Members of Sikh Dharma also participate in more traditional Sikh events. They may choose initiation into the Khalsa (amrit sanskar). They attend Sikh festivals, such as gurpurbs (celebrations marking historical events such as the births of gurus) and hold Sikh weddings [Image at right] and other rites of passage. They may join an Akhand Path, a continuous reading of the Guru Granth Sahib from beginning to end, to mark a gurpurb, a wedding, birth, death, or a move to a new home.

Sikh Dharma also helps to coordinate Baisakhi Day celebrations in Los Angeles.  This major festival marks the birth of the Khalsa (and is a harvest festival as well in Punjab). The Guru Granth Sahib (Sikh scripture) is escorted to the Los Angeles Convention Center where kirtan is performed by major musical groups, there are speakers, langar (free meals), and a parade through downtown Los Angeles.

3HO was originally a syncretic form, blending a number of traditions.  It required some emotional and intellectual agility to maneuver between varied perspectives, and required considerable perseverance to follow the required discipline. Early adherents rose early, attended sadhana, worked a full day, and tried to maintain positive relationships in an ashram. They adopted Indian clothing and Sikh names and turbans and were sometimes mocked for their garb. Many had their marriages arranged by Yogi Bhajan. They aimed to reach enlightenment and to be constantly aware of a higher reality, yet had to live everyday lives and support families and an organization. Sadhana, kirtan, special clothing, and Sikh symbols have been aids in their effort to connect higher and everyday realities and to create a meaningful spiritual life. For those whose attachment is primarily as yoga teachers and students (not as Sikhs), there is perhaps less need to blend traditions, but the vision of the body as a series of energy channels and chakras, of the self-evolving towards a higher consciousness via diet, yoga, kirtan and discipline, and of the group as dedicated to the task of guiding people through the changing times still apply.  The symbolism, imagery and actions associated with their ritual life provide a means to tie self and organization, past and present, imagination and practical life.


Over the years, the original 3HO Foundation was joined by a number of related organizations as members converted to Sikhism, established businesses, and expanded the number of ashrams within and beyond North America. Indeed, 3HO members have evinced a propensity for creating organizations.  Bhajan encouraged his first students to become teachers and to establish ashrams, which they did, so that by 1972 there were ninety-four official ashrams, (albeit many quite small), as well as a number of teaching centers. There were over 200 3HO Kundalini Yoga centers in twenty-eight countries by 1995 (Stoeber 2012:351-68).  As they began to adopt Sikhism, the students also opened gurdwaras and created the Sikh Dharma Brotherhood (later Sikh Dharma and then Sikh Dharma International) to oversee and administer them. Bhajan and some students founded the Kundalini Research Institute (KRI) in 1972 to research the impacts of yoga, to publish yoga instruction manuals, and, later, to oversee the training and certification of yoga teachers. Today, the KRI website says its mission is to “uphold and preserve the authenticity, integrity, and accuracy of the Teachings of Yogi Bhajan through trainings, research, publishing and resources(Kundalini Research Institute website. 2020 “About”). Its Aquarian Trainer Academy lists 530 yoga teachers/trainers and 414 teacher training programs worldwide.  (Kundalini Research Institute Trainer and Program Directory 2020) There is also IKYTA, the International Kundalini Yoga Teachers Association created originally “to oversee teaching standards and propagate the practice,” and now also serving to provide resources and support to KRI certified teachers (See, IKYTA website 2020  “About;” Stoeber 2012:351–68).  As the women’s movement spread in the U.S. and Canada in the 1970s, 3HO women established the International Women’s Camp, also known as the Khalsa Women’s Training Camp, which has continued. As their families grew, they also organized camps for the children as well, and soon their parents began to send them to boarding schools in India. The most recent is the Miri Piri Academy in Amritsar.

Bhajan encouraged his students to start businesses, and in many cases these newly-minted  entrepreneurs hired fellow yoga students or contributed some of their earnings to local ashrams or to the 3HO Foundation or to Sikh Dharma. These were known as “family businesses.”

3HO Foundation members are found nationwide in many professional and technical fields.  Some have started manufacturing businesses such as health food products, furniture, and massage tools; others have become very successful in sales and distribution of products such as insurance, health food, shoes, and school supplies; and 3HO Foundation restaurants can be found in many cities in the country….” (Khalsa, Kirpal Singh 1986:236). Other businesses have provided services such as counseling and therapy and treatment for drug addiction based on yoga.  (See, Mooney 2012:427)

The largest of the businesses have been Golden Temple Bakery, Yogi Tea (affiliated with East-West Tea Company), and, until recently, Akal Security.  The Bakery at one point was providing products for Trader Joes and Pepperidge Farm, as well as selling its own brands. Its managers, however, sold their cereal division to Hearthside Foods Solutions for $71,000,000 million in 2010, a deal which was followed by protracted internal legal disputes (See, Issues/Challenges). Yogi Tea is blended and packaged in Oregon and also overseas in Italy and Germany. The company describes the teas as ayurvedic, and many are intended to accomplish specific healing purposes (stress relief, digestive support, etc.). These teas are sold by Whole Foods, Giant, Trader Joes and CVS, among others.  Akal provided airport security and screening, facility security, and security for DHS Federal Protective Services (See, Issues/Challenges).  Through a subsidiary, Coastal International Security, it also worked overseas, providing security for consulates under construction, protective services consulting, and emergency response services.  (see Akal Global; Elsberg 2019:89-111;  Khalsa International Industries and Trade; Siri Singh Sahib Corporation; Yogi Tea Official Site.)

As the number and scope of businesses grew, Bhajan established organizations to train and support managers and oversee the businesses. He created an entity called the Core Management Team which consisted of individuals with business knowledge and experience.  Their task was to spot talent, provide guidance and advice, weed out ineffective managers, and report to Bhajan.

There were also charities established by people associated with 3HO/Sikh Dharma, to which the businesses contributed.  At the time of Bhajan’s death there was an entity called the Charitable Contributions Committee tasked with deciding how to allocate funds given by the for-profit businesses to the nonprofits, including 3HO.

As his health failed, he created holding companies for all of the businesses and left fairly complicated instructions for the governance of 3HO and related entities after his death. Administrative authority went to one of the boards he created, Unto Infinity LLC. The boards of directors and CEOs of the corporations were to continue in their positions.  Bhajan’s wife already held the title of “Bhai Sahiba for Sikh Dharma of the Western Hemisphere.” Upon her husband’s death she was given the responsibility to advise Unto Infinity and the Khalsa Council (an advisory council made up of Sikh ministers) on religious matters and made “responsible for the perpetuation and standardization of the teachings on the practice of Sikh Dharma as taught by the Siri Singh Sahib.”

The various entities were all to be overseen by the Siri Singh Sahib Corporation (SSSC), which would be activated upon Bhajan’s death. Because of the trial, it was not actually functioning until 2012. It is described as “the highest governance authority for the Sikh Dharma-3HO Family of constituent organizations.” It is tasked with integrating the affairs of the profits and non-profits, managing assets, and serving an oversight role.

These arrangements appear to place significant power in the hands of Sikh Dharma personnel, perhaps because it was members of the Khalsa Council and Sikh Dharma International who prevailed in the lawsuit. The Khalsa Council, created in the 1970s and originally an organization of ministers appointed by Bhajan, seems, along with the SSSC, to have taken on new and broader responsibilities. The Khalsa Council did not meet during the 2011 trial and its aftermath.  Since then it has been trying to define a new role for itself and to addressed divisions between organizations, generations, and overseas and U.S. groups. In 2017, Gurujodha Singh, as president of the Siri Singh Sahib Corporation, reported to the Khalsa council and spoke on “Aquarian Leadership and group consciousness.” Agenda items reveal a number of concerns at the time: a desire to integrate Kundalini Yoga and Sikh Dharma, to update organizational practices, to clarify ethical standards, to improve oversight of boards, to better include and empower members of the millennial generation, to respond to younger people’s desires for efficient use of technology, and to find ways to work better with overseas constituents (Khalsa Council 2017).  At a 2015 meeting younger speakers said that they would like “the legacy generation and millennial generation to move forward with efficiency and purpose,” and “create an online showcase of the diverse programs and services being offered by our global sangat.”


Those of Bhajan’s students who embraced the Sikh religion found that they were required to position themselves within the wider world of Sikhism. The syncretic quality of 3HO life may have been at the heart of its appeal to many of its practitioners, but it also offended some ethnic Sikhs who thought that Bhajan’s teachings violated Sikh orthodoxy and basic principles. Criticism was particularly strong when 3HO and Sikh Dharma were first founded. Sikhs of Punjabi descent living in the United States criticized Bhajan for teaching yoga, for awarding a number of titles that do not exist in other Sikh communities, and for encouraging devotion to himself as if he were a guru (the only Sikh guru is the holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib), among other criticisms.  Members of Sikh Dharma, in turn, criticized ethnic Sikhs for being insufficiently devout and for not always adhering to the dress and behavior standards of the Khalsa. They did not appear to recognize, or accept, the varying degrees of devotion and adherence that exist within the ethnic Sikh community or the extent to which identity has been rooted not only in the Sikh religion but in Punjabi culture. Bhajan and his adherents claimed that Bhajan had been appointed as “Chief Religious and Administrative Authority of Sikh Dharma of the Western Hemisphere,” and viewed this title as equivalent to appointing him as the leader of all Sikhs in the West, while ethnic Sikhs saw the title as being relevant only to Bhajan’s organizations. Such criticisms are muted now as 3HO/Sikh Dharma has been established for some time and has taken its place among many Sikh groupings that are not entirely orthodox. However, Bhajan’s tendency to draw on multiple sources when it suited his purposes remains an issue for scholars and many ex-members (Dusenbery 2012:335-48; Dusenbery 2008:15-45; Nesbitt 2005; Dusenbery 1990:117-35; Dusenbery 1989:90-119; Dusenbery 1988:13-24). Indeed, Philip Deslippe finds that in Bhajan’s spiritual narratives “there lies a progression of forgotten and abandoned teachers, figures invented and introduced, and a process of narration and mythologizing born out of cultural context, temporal events, and pragmatic necessity” (Deslippe 2012:370).

Initially, Bhajan spoke of his teacher, Maharaj Virsa Singh, and said that he had become enlightened as Virsa Singh’s student. But Bhajan appears to have broken with this mentor in the course of the visit to India in 1971. Bhajan later claimed to have studied with a different teacher, Sant Hazara Singh.  He said that Hazara Singh had anointed him as the “Mahan Tantric,” the only person in the world who had approval to teach Tantric yoga. This is the version of Bhajan’s yoga background that can be found today on the 3HO website, but it has been called into question.

A potentially serious issue is that of safety.  Sikhs of Punjabi descent living in the United States have been attacked by white nationalists and by individuals who evidently view them as potential terrorists or as unwelcome Muslims. The best known incident is the tragic shooting at the Oak Creek gurdwara in Wisconsin in 2012, but there has been other incidents of violence directed at Sikhs.

Sikhs worldwide are known for their entrepreneurship, and people in Sikh Dharma International have embraced that heritage. The results have included some impressive corporate successes (See, Organization/Leadership), but there have also been problems. In the 1980s, the then head of the Washington ashram and an associate were accused of “the importation of multi-ton quantities of marijuana during the 1983-1987 time period.”  (Elsberg 2003:211; United States of America v. Gurujot Singh Khalsa 1988) Several telemarketing scams have been prosecuted.

On a larger scale are the events that led to a trial which took place in 2011. Sikh Dharma International was directly involved, but the conflict reverberated throughout the various organizations related to Sikh Dharma and suggested tensions between different centers of power. In this case, the managers of the Golden Temple Bakery, working with one of the holding companies that Bhajan had established, Khalsa International Industries and Trades Company, created a joint venture, one which enabled them to sell the bakery for $71,000,000  and keep a considerable share of the profits. A final settlement in 2012 required the board members to step down, although they received settlements. It was a costly trial.

Another business, Akal Security, was a source of concern from time to time over the years and ceased doing business in February 2021. In 2007, the Department of Justice announced that Akal Security “will pay the United States $18,000,000 to resolve allegations that it violated the terms of it contract to provide trained civilian guards at eight U.S. Army bases” (Department of Justice: July 13, 2007). There have also been several filings citing alleged violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act (Shaak March 20, 2017).

Bhajan’s teachings about women reveal, at best, considerable ambivalence.  Although he referred to women as “shaktis” having great creative power, he also criticized them for being manipulative, sensual, loud-mouthed, changeable, shallow and even “obnoxious.” (Elsberg 2010:310-13) These attitudes, and Bhajan’s behavior towards women, appear to have had significant long-term consequences. In 1986, two female ex-members accused Bhajan of assault and battery and other charges. The case was settled out of court (Felt, Katherine v. Harbhajan Singh Khalsa Yogiji et al; Khalsa, S. Premka Kaur v. Harbhajan Singh Khalsa Yogiji et al). Recently, one of the Plaintiffs (then known as Premka, now as Pamela Saharah Dyson) published an account of her association with Bhajan. Her description of his manipulation of her own and others’ lives and his sexual relationships with his “secretaries” (Dyson 2019) has led to an outpouring of allegations and bitterness.  Members and ex-members have accused Bhajan of sexual harassment and abuse. The leadership sponsored a number of listening sessions (SSSC “Listening tour” 2020; “Committees and Commissions”). This led to the SSSC hiring a private firm to investigate, to whom thirty six individuals reported abuses. The firm also interviewed individuals who wished to defend Bhajan’s record and speak of the good that he had done. The resulting report finds that, more likely than not, “Yogi Bhajan engaged in sexual battery and other sexual abuse, sexual harassment and conduct that violates Sikh vows and ethical standards.” (An Olive Branch 2020:6) The report also finds instances of Bhajan, and some of his associates, using threats, slander and even armed guards to control members’ behavior.

These troubling allegations have led many to question their loyalty to 3HO and associated organizations. Some argue that the practices that Bhajan taught are valuable and can be separated from his personal behavior, others that all he touched is tainted and that it is unconscionable to continue as before. This is of immediate concern to Kundalini yoga teachers who are deciding whether to continue to instruct students in a practice so closely tied to Bhajan’s name and version of yoga. There is considerable polarization, distrust, and anger, along with a desire to find a way forward. Given the findings of the report and the loss of income from Akal Inc., 3HO and associated organizations are likely to face significant challenges in the months ahead. As the report concludes, “A key question for the community will be how to identify, restore, preserve, and take forward what is of value to the community as a whole.” (An Olive Branch 2020:71)

Image #1: Yogi Bhajan (Harbhajan Singh Puri).
Image #2: Bhajan at the pop festival in Palm Beach.
Image #3: 3HO Solstice class “Carrying Us into the Aquarian Age.”
Image #4: White tantric yoga ritual.
Image #5: Preparations for a wedding.


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Publication Date:
11 April 2021



Oom the Omnipotent


1876 (October 31):  Pierre Bernard was born as Perry Arnold Baker in Leon, Iowa.
1889:  Bernard met his yoga teacher, Sylvais Hamati.
1893:  Bernard and Hamati traveled to California.
1898:  Bernard ran the San Francisco College for Suggestive Sciences. He performed the “Kali Mudra” stunt to advertise the power of yoga.
1902:  Bernard was arrested for practicing medicine illegally.
1906:  Bernard published Vira Sadhana: The International Journal of the Tantrik Order of America
1906:  Bernard left San Francisco, traveling to Seattle and then New York City.
1910:  Bernard was arrested in New York City on charges of abduction. The charges were subsequently dropped.
1918:  Bernard and Blanche DeVries married.
1919:  Bernard created the Braeburn Country Club in Nyack, New York, with funding provided by Anne Vanderbilt.
1919:  State police raided the Braeburn Country Club
1924:  Bernard expanded the Braeburn Country Club to become the Clarkstown Country Club.
1933:  Bernard created the Clarkstown Country Club Sports Centre, with a baseball diamond and a football field.
1939:  Boxer Lou Nova trained under Bernard for his bout against Max Baer.
1941:  DeVries resigned from the Clarkstown Country Club, formalizing her separation from Bernard.
1955:  Bernard died.
1956:  DeVries sold the Clarkstown Country Club to the Missionary Training Institute.


Pierre Bernard, sometimes referred to as “Oom the Omnipotent,” was an early advocate of postural yoga in America. He created a number of short-lived organizations to promote yoga, Sanskri, and tantric teachings, including San Francisco College for Suggestive Therapeutics, The Tantrik Order of America, and the New York Sanskrit College. He finally found success in the Clarkstown Country Club, where he popularized postural yoga by training the wealthy, athletes, and celebrities.

Bernard demonstrated some genuine knowledge of hatha yoga, Vedic philosophy, and even tantric practices. However, he embellished this training with a good measure of charlatanism, especially in the first part of his career. After meeting his wife, Blanche DeVries, Bernard was able to make postural yoga acceptable to Americans by re-branding it as “physical culture” and a technique for achieving health, beauty, and athleticism. Prior to this, many Americans associated yoga and Hinduism with sexual deviance, primitivism, and white slavery. At their country club in Nyack New York, they trained heiresses, athletes, and celebrities, who further popularized yoga. For better or worse, Bernard pioneered an American movement that separated postural yoga from its Hindu roots, transforming it into a secular exercise form.

Pierre Bernard’s biography[Image at right]  is challenging because he used numerous aliases and provided false details about his origins. The most authoritative sources record that he was born in 1876 as Perry Arnold Baker in Leon, Iowa (Love 2010:9). Bernard often claimed he had travelled in India, although this seems implausible. He did, however, meet a man named Sylvais Hamati in 1889 in Lincoln, Nebraska, who taught him hatha yoga and Vedic philosophy. Hamati’s background is also murky. He had come to America from Calcutta and may have worked as a performer prior to meeting Bernard. Bernard began studying under Hamati for three hours a day and, in 1893, they travelled to California (Love 2010:12-13). In San Francisco, Bernard was able to meet some early representatives of Hinduism in America, including Swami Vivekananda and Swami Ram Tirath (Laycock 2013:104).

With help from his uncle, Dr. Clarence Baker, Bernard established a business using his yogic training as a sort of holistic medicine. By 1898, Bernard had established a business called the San Francisco College for Suggestive Therapeutics. That year, he performed a stunt called “the Kali Mudra” [Image at right] as a public demonstration of the power of yoga: Bernard entered a death-like trance and doctors were invited to probe or cut him in an attempt to elicit a response. In 1902, Bernard was arrested for practicing medicine illegally. This was the first of many obstacles as Bernard sought a way to earn a livelihood training Americans in yoga (Laycock 2013:104).

Bernard and Hamati were also experimenting with an esoteric group called The Tantrik Order of America. This group drew bohemians, actors, and artists, and offered training in Vedic philosophy, yoga, and tantra. Bernard had plans to create a network of Tantrik lodges in different cities; however, it remains unclear if significant groups were ever formed outside of San Francisco. In 1906, Bernard published the first and only volume of Vira Sadhana: The International Journal of the Tantrik Order of America.  [Image at right] Bernard also created a social club known as “The Bacchante Club,” where men dressed in Oriental-inspired robes, smoked hookahs, and watched women perform Oriental dances. The San Francisco police monitored The Bacchante Club, even sending in officers undercover (Love 2010:40). The police may have been motivated by sensationalized media stories about Hindu gurus mesmerizing and enslaving white women.

Bernard left San Francisco in 1906, possibly hoping to avoid police scrutiny. He and a few followers travelled to Seattle before re-locating to New Yo rk City. By 1910, Bernard had created a new Tantrik Order lodge on 74th Street in Manhattan. Once again, Bernard’s operation presented both an esoteric and an exoteric face: The lodge offered yoga classes to promote health and vigor as well as initiation into the secrets of the Tantrik Order (Laycock 2013:105).

Many of Bernard’s students were young women who had become interested in yoga after watching vaudeville performances of Oriental dancing. Bernard had a number of romantic relationships with his female students. One such student was Gertrude Leo, who had met Bernard in and followed him to New York. Bernard also had a relationship with Zelia Hopp. Hopp suffered from health problems and Bernard had approached her under the alias “Dr. Warren” and offered to help. On May 2, 1910, Hopp, along with Leo’s Sister, Jennie Miller, led detectives to Bernard’s school whereupon Bernard was arrested for abduction (Laycock 2013:105-06).

1910 was the same year that the Mann Act, also known as the White-Slave Traffic Act, was passed. Hopp and Leo’s story seemed to confirm many Americans’ worst fears about women being trafficked, and Bernard’s trial became a media coup. It was covered not only in New York City’s forty daily newspapers, but also in Seattle and San Francisco. Leo and Hopp reported that Bernard sometimes referred to himself as “the Great Om,” and by the afternoon after his arrest, headlines were calling him “Oom the Omnipotent.” They also claimed that Bernard had kept them in captivity using a combination of threats and hypnotic power. Bernard spent more than three months awaiting trial in the infamous Manhattan jail known as “The Tombs.” The case collapsed after Bernard’s lawyer was able to get Leo disqualified as a witness, and Hopp dropped all charges and fled New York City. With no witnesses, Bernard was released (Laycock 2013:107).

Bernard seems to have learned from this episode that Orientalist fantasies about yoga were a double-edged sword: They could attract clients in search of adventure, but they also played into a moral panic about gurus using nefarious forms of mind control to prey on women. During the trial Bernard insisted that yoga was merely “physical culture,” a talking point that he would continue to raise in the face of criticism.

Upon his release from The Tombs, Bernard moved to Leonia, New Jersey. When he returned to New York, he set up a new school, but this time he branded his teachings as academic, rather than esoteric. He called his new business the New York Sanskrit College and took the alias Homer Stansbury Leeds. He hired faculty from India to teach courses in Sanskrit, Vedic philosophy, Ayurvedic medicine, and Indian music. Unfortunately, the New York Sanskrit College was immediately the subject of rumors by neighbors and media in search of stories. The State Board of Education sent police to arrest him for running a “college” without any license or academic credentials. This time, Bernard evaded arrest end returned to Leonia (Laycock 2013:107-08).

In Leonia, Bernard began a new romance with the woman who would change his fortunes: Dace Shannon Charlot. Charlot had come to New York after leaving her abusive husband. Her divorce attorney also represented Bernard. Charlot’s divorce had attracted some media attention, which she hoped to use to launch a career in vaudeville. She changed her name to Blanche DeVries and studied dance at the New York Sanskrit College. [Image at right] Bernard and DeVries married in 1918, and in their letters the two refer to each other as “Shiva” and “Shakti,” respectively. DeVries understood how to find the right market for Bernard’s teachings. Bernard ceased fleeing police, holding “Bacchante Club” meetings, or using aliases. With DeVries’s guidance, Bernard opened several yoga studios around New York aimed exclusively at women (Laycock 2013:108).

One of Bernard’s new students was Margaret Rutherford, daughter of Anne Vanderbilt. In 1919, Mrs. Vanderbilt funded the Braeburn Country Club in Nyack, New York (Laycock 2013:108). The Club attracted wealthy aristocrats who sought to improve their health and relieve their boredom by studying yoga. The town was initially hostile to Bernard. There were rumors that Bernard ran “a love cult” and that he performed abortions. In its first year, mounted state police raided the club (Randall 1995:83). But Bernard soon became an important taxpayer and even a pillar of the community. In 1922, the New York Times wrote of him, “The ‘‘Omnipotent Oom’ . . . is known here simply as Mr. Bernard, one of the most active and patriotic townspeople of Nyack.”

In 1924, Bernard spent $200,000 purchasing and developing an additional seventy-six acres for his estate, renaming it the Clarkstown Country Club (Laycock 2013:108). This was followed by the creation of the massive Clarkstown Country Club Sports Centre in 1933, which featured a baseball diamond, a football field, and impressive electric lights (Love 2010:250). At the height of his career, Bernard owned $12,000,000 in real estate. He was the president of a county bank, owned a mortgage company, a reconstruction corporation, and a large realty company, and was the treasurer of the Rockland County Chamber of Commerce (Clarkstown Country Club 1935:124).

However, Bernard never shed his flamboyant style completely, which attracted more patrons to his club. He purchased a troupe of elephants as well as several apes and other exotic animals. The elephants were featured in an annual circus in which students performed as acrobats. Bernard also invented the sport of “donkey ball,” a variant of baseball with all players (save the catcher and pitcher) mounted on donkeys (Love 2010:274).

The club became a hub for Americans who were integrating Asian religions into American culture. Bernard’s nephew, Theos Bernard, travelled to Tibet before receiving his doctorate from Columbia University and publishing a classical text on hatha yoga. Bernard’s half-sister married Hazra Inayat Khan, the founder of The Sufi Order International (Ward 1991:40). The biochemist Ida Rolf studied under Bernard, and her physical therapy technique of structural integration or “rolfing” has similarities to the scientific approach to yoga advocated by Bernard (Stirling and Snyder 2006:8). In her youth, Ruth Fuller Sasaki spent time at the Clarkstown Country Club as therapy for her asthma (Stirling and Snynder 2006:6). She went on to be instrumental in importing Zen Buddhism to America, translating important several important texts into English.

In 1939, heavyweight boxer Lou Nova arrived at the country club to study yoga. The training had been conceived as a stunt to promote his upcoming fight with Max Baer. Nova learned headstands, meditation, and boxed with one of Bernard’s elephants, which had been trained to wear one oversized glove on its trunk. Newspapers reported that Nova had mastered “the cosmic punch” under Bernard’s training. Later, Nova patented a device called the “yogi nova” to assist practice with headstands (Laycock 2013:125). Figures like Nova helped to broadcast the idea to Americans that yoga could give athletes an edge.

By the end of the 1930s the Clarkstown Country Club had started a slow decline. Bernard also became estranged from DeVries, and in 1941 she resigned from the Club, formalizing her separation from Bernard (Love 2010:304). Bernard died in 1955. The following year, the nearby Missionary Training Institute purchased the land. Today, Nyack College stands on the former site of the Clarkstown Country Club. The campus folklore includes stories about paranormal phenomena left behind by the strange rituals allegedly performed by Pierre Bernard (Swope 2008).


 The Clarkstown Country Club had a sizeable library and Bernard lectured on a wide variety of topics. However, little is known about his actual beliefs regarding yoga and tantra. This problem is rendered more difficult by the fact that he catered his teachings to his audience, presenting himself as an esoteric master in some contexts, a holistic healer in others, and an athletic trainer in still others. There is no record of Bernard discussing doctrines of Hinduism such as karma, reincarnation, or moksha (liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth). Perhaps Bernard was most honest in a 1939 interview for American Weekly when he stated, “Yoga’s my bug, that’s all. Like another guy will go in for gardening or collecting stamps” (Love 2010:296).

There is some evidence that while he was running The Tantrik Order Bernard understood himself to be a traditional tantric guru and expected his initiates to regard him as having a quasi-divine status. This may be how Bernard regarded his own teacher, Sylvais Hamati. Intriguingly, Bernard’s publication Vira Sadhana contains an illustration of the Greek god Bacchus holding a staff and states that he came from India (Tantrik Order of America 1906:49). There are, of course, legends tying Bacchus’s Greek counterpart, Dionysus, to Asia. Bernard’s Bacchante club was named after Bacchus and Bernard may have believed that the Greek mystery schools were, in fact, a form of tantra imported from India.



Little is known about the Tantrik Order of America. [Image at right] It apparently had seven degrees of initiation, each of which required a blood oath. Women were allowed to join, as was revealed by testimony during Bernard’s 1910 trial for abduction. The Order seemed loosely modeled on Freemasonry, and its chapters were called “lodges.”

In New York City, we have some descriptions of Bernard’s yoga classes, which seem to have added elements of the exotic. A detective testifying at Bernard’s trial described students tumbling on a mat with “strange figures” on it while Bernard stood near a crystal ball (Laycock 2013:106). These esoteric elements were largely dropped by the time Bernard was running a country club. Bernard does seem to have pioneered important material aspects of American postural yoga, such as having specialized mats and having students wear tights while training.

The Clarkstown Country Club emphasized physical culture and adult education with a heavy dose of play and whimsy. A stone pediment at the gate stated, “HERE THE PHILOSOPHER MAY DANCE AND THE FOOL MAY WEAR A THINKING CAP” (Boswell 1965). In addition to yoga classes, Bernard would lecture on a wide range of topics and maintained a large library. The Club forbade sex, liquor, and smoking, at least officially. Bernard still consumed cigars, and skinny-dipping was reported to be a popular activity.


Bernard seems to have regarded Sylvais Hamati as his guru. During his time in New York there were rumors that Bernard encouraged his students to think of him as a god. While this behavior disturbed Americans, it makes more sense in the context of tantra where gurus are understood as having a divine status. Bernard was also rumored to sometimes be deliberately off-putting around new students, doing things like chomping cigars and spitting near their feet, to test whether they were worthy to study under him (Watts 2007:120).

DeVries seems to have been essential in helping Bernard to rebrand himself. However, she does not seem to have been an equal partner in teaching yoga or running the finances of the Clarkstown Country Club. Despite their estrangement, she was left as Bernard’s sole heir and executress upon his death.


Bernard’s lifelong challenge was getting Americans to overcome their negative attitudes toward yoga, which were rooted in bigoted fear of Hinduism, racist attitudes toward Asians, Victorian attitudes about the body and sexuality, and a moral panic over white slavery. Of course, many Americans were interested in yoga because of Orientalist fantasies about beautiful dancing harem girls and athletic, savage men. Bernard was not above catering to these fantasies, which caused many to perceive him as a charlatan. He was ultimately able to strike a balance in which he made yoga appealing to those seeking beauty and athleticism without seeming scandalous.

Since Bernard, many Americans now associate yoga not with mysticism but with posh yoga supplies and vain people sculpting their bodies. Groups such as the Hindu American Foundation have expressed frustration that Americans have divorced yoga from its roots in Hinduism and turned it into a form of secular exercise (Vitello 2010). Bernard was clearly interested in Vedanta philosophy and would likely have taught a less secular form of yoga, if only Americans been ready for this in the first decades of the twentieth century.

Image #1: Pierre Bernard.
Image #2: Bernard performing the Kali Mudra.

Image #3: Vira Sadhana: The International Journal of the Tantrik Order of America.
Image #4: Blan.che DeVries.
Image #5: Clarkstown Country Club.
Image #6: Tantric Order of America charter document.


Boswell, Charles. 1965. “The Great Fuss and Fume Over the Omnipotent Oom.” True: The Man’s
 Magazine, January. Accessed from on 22 November 2008.

Clarkstown Country Club. 1935. Life at the Clarkstown Country Club. Nyack, NY: The Club.

Laycock, Joseph. 2013. “Yoga for the New Woman and the New Man The Role of Pierre Bernard and Blanche DeVries in the Creation of Modern Postural Yoga.” Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation 23:101-36.

Love, Robert. 2010. The Great Oom: The Improbable Birth of Yoga in America. New York: Viking.

Randall, Monica. 1995. Phantoms of the Hudson Valley: the Glorious Estates of Lost Era. New York: Overlook Press.

Stirling, Isabel and Gary Snyder. 2006. Ruth Fuller Sasaki: Zen Pioneer. New York: Shoemaker and Hoard Publishers.

Swope, Robin S. 2008. “The Specters of Oom” The Paranormal Pastor, July 1. Accessed from on 3 March 2021.

Tantrik Order of America. 1906. Vira Sadhana: International Tantrik Order vol 1: issue 1. New York: Tantrik Press.

Ward, Gary L. 1991. “Bernard, Pierre Arnold.” Pp. 39-40 in Religious Leaders of America, edited by J. Gordon Melton. New York: Gale.

Watts, Alan. 2007. In My Own Way: An Autobiography 1915-1965. New York: New World Library.

Vitello, Paul. 2010. “Hindu Group Stirs a Debate Over Yoga’s Soul” New York Times, November 27. Accessed from on 3 March 2021.

Publication Date:
9 April 2021


Santa Muerte


850:  Zapotecs built Lyobaa, City of the Dead, later called Mitla (the Aztec appellation for it as it they saw it as linked to Mictlan, their name for the underworld). This was the most important religious center for the Zapotec where they worshiped their primary deities, two death deities, consisting of a couple who were sacrificed to and propitiated for healing. This was also where they honored their deceased ancestors.

1019:  Beneath the city of Chichen Itza, the Mayans built a series of cave chambers that represent Xibalba, the underworld. They held rituals to death deities such as Cizen, Ah Puch, among others.

1375:  Aztecs established their capital at Tenochtitlan (the site of modern Mexico City). Their empired dominates central Mexico culturally and politically until 1519. The Aztec belief system included Mictecacihuatl, the Aztec goddess of death traditionally represented as a human skeleton or carnal body with a skull for a head.

1519-1521:  The Spanish conquest of the Aztecs, Zapotecs, Mayans and other groups who worshipped death deities such as the Mixtec took place, driving traditional Indigenous beliefs and devotions underground as the colonial era commenced. The Spanish brought in the figure of the Grim Reaper who was interpreted by some Indigenous groups to be a death deity and locals began to worship the figure.

1700’s:  Spanish Inquisition documents recorded that clergy castigated locals for worship of figures of the Grim Reaper and for conducting rituals in her honor, in some cases this figure was documented as being called “Santa Muerte.” The practice remained occult as those who practiced such worship were accused of heresy and punished; the deathly figures were destroyed by the clergy.

1860s:  On the northern frontier of what had been until recently the Viceroy of New Spain, in New Mexico and southern Colorado, a group of mestizo Penitentes were discovered worshiping death. The figure was venerated and referred to interchangeably as Santa Muerte and Comadre (co-godmother) Sebastiana.

1870s-1900:  There was virtually no mention of Santa Muerte in the traditional written historical record.

1940’s:  Santa Muerte reappeared in ethnographies penned by Mexican and North American anthropologists, primarily as a folk saint being appealed to by women seeking the saint’s help to bring back errant husbands and boyfriends.

2001:  On All Saints Day, Enriqueta Romero Romero placed her Santa Muerte statue outside the shop where she sold quesadillas. She thereby established the first public shrine dedicated to the devotion of death in the downtown Mexico City neighborhood of Tepito.

2003:  Self-declared “Archbishop” David Romo’s temple, the Traditional Holy Catholic Apostolic Church, Mex-USA was granted official recognition by the Mexican government. On August 15, the feast day of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, the church celebrated the inclusion of Santa Muerte in its set of beliefs and practices.

2003:  The Santuario Universal de Santa Muerte (Universal Sanctuary of Santa Muerte) was founded by “Professor” Santiago Guadalupe, a Mexican immigrant from the state of Veracruz, in Los Angeles.

2004:  One of Romo’s disgruntled priests filed a formal complaint over the church’s inclusion of the Santa Muerte in its devotional paradigm.

2005:  The Mexican government stripped the Traditional Holy Catholic Apostolic Church, Mex-USA of its official recognition. However, Mexican law did not require such sanctions, and the incident provoked political controversy.

2008:  After the death of her son, Jonathan Legaria Vargas, who had erected the largest effigy of Santa Muerte in Tultitlan Mexico City, his mother Enriqueta Vargas established the largest Santa Muerte network of transnational churches to honor Santa Muerte.

2009:  A growing number of people, in particular women, started establishing shrines to Santa Muerte across Mexico.


Santa Muerte’s name reveals much about her identity. La Muerte means death in Spanish and is a feminine noun (denoted by the feminine article “la”) as it is in all Romance languages. “Santa” is the feminine version of “santo,” which can be translated as “saint” or “holy,” depending on the usage. Santa Muerte is a folk saint, that is to say a saint of the folk, who is not recognized by the Catholic Church. Unlike official saints, who have been canonized by the Catholic Church, folk saints are spirits of the dead.[Image at right] They are considered holy for their miracle working powers by the local populace, to whom they are linked by locality and culture. Generally, they are local people who died tragic deaths and who thereafter were believed to listen to prayers and answer them with miracles. In Mexico and Latin America in general, folk saints command widespread devotion and are often more popular than the official saints. Where Santa Muerte differs from other folk saints is that for most devotees, she is the personification of death itself and not of a deceased human being.

The folk saint was created by the folk from an admixture of Indigenous death deities and the Grim Reaper during the colonial era when the Spanish introduced Catholicism.  The most common version of the story of the saint’s indigenous identity in Northern Mexico gives her Aztec origins but others give her Purepecha, Mayan or even Zapotec origins. For those in Northern Mexico, Santa Muerte is thought to have originated as Mictecacihuatl, the Aztec goddess of death who, along with her husband Mictlantecuhtli, ruled over the underworld, Mictlan. Like Santa Muerte, the deathly couple was traditionally represented as human skeletons or carnal bodies with skulls for heads. Aztecs believed that those who died of natural causes ended up in Mictlan, and they also invoked the gods’ supernatural powers for earthly causes.

When Spanish clergy came as part of the colonial conquest of the “New World,” they brought with them the figures of Mary, Jesus, the saints and the Grim Reaper to teach catechism during their conversion mission. While for the Spanish the Grim Reaper was but a representation of death, Indigenous people, following on from their devotion to death deities, took the Grim Reaper as a saint of death to be venerated for favors just like other saints, and Jesus. Drawing on traditions of sacred ancestral bones, worship of death deities and interpreting Christianity through their own cultural lens, they took the church’s skeletal figure of death for a saint in its own right. She was worshiped covertly for hundreds of years in total secrecy, due to punishment by the Spanish when they discovered Indigenous worshipers supplicating Santa Muerte.

Spanish colonial documents from 1793 and 1797 housed in the archives of the Inquisition describe local devotion to Santa Muerte in the present-day Mexican states of Querétaro and Guanajuato. The inquisitorial documents describe separate cases of “Indian idolatry” revolving around skeletal figures of death petitioned by Indigenous citizens for political favors and justice. [Image at right] Neither Mexican nor foreign observers recorded her presence again until the 1940s.

The first written references to the skeleton saint in the twentieth century mention her in the context of acting as a supernatural love doctor summoned by a red candle. Saint Death of the crimson candle comes to the aid of women and girls who feel betrayed by the men in their lives. Three anthropologists, one Mexican and two American, mentioned her role as a love sorceress in their research conducted in the 1940s and 1950s.

From the 1790s until 2001, Santa Muerte was venerated clandestinely. Altars were kept in private homes, out of public sight, and medallions and scapulars of the skeleton saint were hidden underneath the shirts of devotees, unlike today when many proudly display them, along with T-shirts, tattoos, and even tennis shoes as badges of their belief.

The folk saint emerged publicly when Enriqueta Romero, a quesadilla-seller in Tepito, Mexico City placed her statue outside her modest home in 2001 in thanks to the folk saint for her son’s manumission from gaol. After this, devotion to death exploded, with many becoming devotees or declaring their faith publicly. Following in the footsteps of Romero, men and women began opening temples to the saint of death. Jonathan Legaria Vargas, aka Commandante Pantera, started a temple which was later expanded by his mother, Enriqueta Vargas, upon his death by gunfire. She established the largest transnational ministry to the skeleton saint in 2008, and many others followed suit, opening their own churches to the saint of death.

It is female leaders who have been at the forefront of this movement, given its focus on the female folk saint of death. Unlike the Catholic Church, which precludes women from accessing positions of power, Santa Muerte considers all equal before death, and that includes all genders. This has allowed women to emerge as prestigious and powerful spiritual leaders from Yuri Mendez in Cancun, who established the largest shrine in the city, and perhaps even in Quintana Roo. Over a decade ago Elena Martinez Perez established the largest shrine to the folk saint in the region of Oaxaca. A prayer to Santa Muerte for women, originally written by Yuri Mendez, reveals the importance of women not only in spreading devotion but also in the many needs they have, their desires, their fears and why they turn to the female folk saint of death who they believe will treat them as an equal.

Santa Muerte, I, your fervent servant, ask you for me and for all those women who work hard every day to bring sustenance to the home, that we do not lack prosperity, that the doors of success be opened, I also ask for those who are studying, help them to fulfill their objectives satisfactorily.
“Protect our path, remove all evil and danger that surrounded us.
Drive away any man who wants to harm us, bless our marriage or our courtship.
Ensure that love is not lacking in our lives.
Santa Muerte, whatever my problems are, I trust you and I know that you will not leave me alone and you will help me (here the devotee should make their request as per the problem that they are going through)
I am a woman, I am your devotee, and I will be until the last day of my life, my life is in your hands, and I will walk calmly because I know that you are with me and you will not leave me all alone.
Bless and protect my family, my friends, keep all falsehood and hypocrisy away from me.
I thank you, I know that you listen to me and that always will listen to whatever I have to say. Give me much wisdom and sufficient temperance to walk within this society.
And I ask for nothing but respect, because I am a woman and I have the same rights as anyone else.
You are fair, and you will not allow me to suffer any humiliation from anyone.
I am a woman, I am your devotee and I will be until the last day of my life, may my requests will be heard

Several notable men have also established churches, but these have been fleeting. For example, David Romo who established the Traditional Holy Catholic Apostolic Church, Mex-USA was arrested in 2011 on various charges, including kidnapping, and his Church abruptly closed. Jonathan Legaria Vargas, also known as “Comandante Pantera” (Commander Panther) and “Padrino (Godfather) Endoque,” was a charismatically outspoken leader in the growing public devotional tradition surrounding Santa Muerte. He had built a towering seventy-five foot-tall effigy of Santa Muerte in Tultitlan on the gritty outskirts of Mexico City, and was on his way to becoming a centralizing figure in the loose knit community of Santa Muertistas.  However, in 2008 he was gunned down in his car as assailants sprayed it with 150 bullets, killing him instantly. His mother, Enriqueta Vargas however, made Santa Muerte spread transnationally by opening churches in Colombia, Costa Rica and across Mexico.

Trans figures have also been drawn to the folk saint. Since death judges no one since death comes to us all, the saint has a large LGBTQ+ following. One such trans leader in New York is Arely Vasquez who opened a shrine to Santa Muerte in Queens about a decade ago.

Santa Muerte is prayed to by a motley crew of followers from businesswomen and men, housewives to  lawyers to politicians and nurses. She is known above all for her appeal to those living at the margins of society and close to death. Indeed, much of the Saint’s popularity comes from a context of heightened awareness of death in Mexico, given the tragic amount of violence, death and destruction caused by the ongoing drug war which has been raging across Mexico for many decades and is only escalating under the current president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, whose policy of “abrazos no balazos,” (“hugs not bullets”) has proved ineffectual and only worsened the lives of those who must face narcoviolence on their doorstep daily. Femicide is also a major issue in Mexico with ten women murdered daily and a woman is raped every twenty seconds. Such gendered violence is treated with impunity. In such an environment, many rather than fearing death have forged a relationship with a saint of death, whom they ask for life and for protection from the heinous violence on the streets on Mexico.

Santa Muerte provides miracles to devotees, granting them love, luck, health, wealth, protection, well-being and much more. Santa Muerte is the only female saint of death in the Americas. She is most often depicted as a female Grim Reaper outfitted with a scythe and wearing a shroud. [Image at right] Often, she holds a set of scales representing her ability to deliver justice to those in trouble with the law, or who require revenge. Santa Muerte sometimes holds a globe that symbolizes her global dominion over the world as death herself. She typically appears with an owl perched at her feet. In Western iconography, the owl symbolizes wisdom, and some Mexicans view this nocturnal bird similarly. However, the Mexican interpretation relates much more to death. Indigenous death deities, the underworld and night were often linked to owls in precolonial times. Owls and their linkage as a harbinger of death are encapsulated in the popular Mexican proverb: “When the owl screeches, the Indian dies.”

The Pope and many bishops have decried Santa Muerte as a narco-saint and those who follow her as heretical. Even the government has followed this tack, especially under Calderon, who destroyed thousands of shrines on the US-Mexico border in a futile attempt to expunge the drug trade. Sometimes exorcisms are even carried out by Catholic Clergy to expunge apostates of her spirit. However, most Santa Muertistas (followers of Santa Muerte) view devotion to the folk saint as complementary to their Catholic faith or even a part of it, despite condemnation.

Santa Muerte has many familiar nicknames. She is known variously as the Skinny Lady, the Bony Lady, White Sister, Godmother, co-Godmother, Powerful Lady, White Girl, and Pretty Girl, among others. As godmother and sister, and often described as a mother, the saint becomes a supernatural family member, approached with the same type of intimacy Mexicans would typically accord their relatives. She is seen as caring, kind but also like any woman who is scorned, may also be wrathful. As part of their offerings, devotees may share their meals, alcoholic beverages, and tobacco, as well as marijuana products, with her.

In some ways adherents view her as a supernatural version of themselves. One of the main attractions of folk saints is their similarities with devotees and often a favorite offering, such as a particular brand of beer is also the devotee’s favorite. For this very reason people feel closer to folk saints and believe they can establish stronger bonds as they typically share the same nationality and social class with their folk saint. This is much the case with Santa Muerte, who is said to understand the needs of her devotees. Additionally, many devotees are attracted by the leveling effect of Santa Muerte’s scythe, which obliterates divisions of race, class and gender. One of the most oft-repeated acclamations is that the Bony Lady “doesn’t discriminate.”

Herein lies one of Santa Muerte’s great advantages in the increasingly competitive religious marketplace of Mexico and in the greatest faith economy on earth here in the United States. Much more than Jesus, the canonized saints, and the myriad advocations of Mary, Saint Death’s present identity is highly flexible. It is largely dependent on how individual devotees perceive her. Despite her skeletal form, which suggests death and dormancy to the uninitiated, the Bony Lady is a supernatural action figure who heals, provides, and punishes, among other things.

It has been estimated that 5,000,000 to 7,000,000 Mexicans venerate Santa Muerte, but numbers are hard to gauge and no official polls exist to date. The folk saint appeals to a motley crew that includes high school students, nurses, housewives, taxi drivers, drug traffickers, politicians, musicians, doctors, teachers, farmers and lawyers. Because of her condemnation by both Catholic and Protestant churches, more affluent believers tend to keep their devotion to the saint of death private, adding to the difficulty of quantifying just how many individuals are devoted to the skeleton saint. The saint has a huge following among the most marginalized and those whose professions entail that death is always at their door. This could be drug dealers, but also policemen, prostitutes, prisoners, delivery drivers, taxi drivers, firefighters, or miners. In Mexico, many occupations we consider safe in the U.S. are perilous. For example, delivery drivers are at high risk of being held at gunpoint by criminals and having their merchandise and van stolen, they may not live to tell the tale. Poverty is also high in Mexico, over Sixty-two percent of people live on very low income and forty-two percent below the poverty line. Given lack of income, precarious living conditions and narco-violence, death is never far away, and so many poor feature among the Bony Lady’s faithful. Women are also very drawn to the folk saint because, as pointed out, the religion proffers them opportunities in leadership roles. But women also join as they are a high-risk group in Mexico given that femicide is a severe; over ten women murdered daily and many more kidnapped to be raped, killed or sold into prostitution. Narcos do not only peddle drugs, they also work in the sex trade, the slave trade and the organs trafficking trade, among other iniquitous industries.  Many women ask the Bone Mother to proffer protection to them from such nefarious characters, and to keep their families safe from them too.

In terms of regions, the saint is most popular in the following five areas:  Guerrero, San Luis Potosi, Chiapas, Veracruz, Oaxaca and Mexico City. Guerrero, home to Acapulco has a fervent following due to high criminality in the area. However, the saint is venerated across the country where she occupies more shelf and floor space than any other saint in dozens of shops and market stalls specializing in the sale of religious and devotional items throughout Mexico. Her candles are often sold in mainstream supermarkets, especially in areas where many worship her. Votive candles are the best selling of all the Santa Muerte products. Costing only a dollar or two, they afford believers a relatively cheap way of thanking or petitioning the saint, but some unable to afford them may use any candle they can find.

Santa Muerte, as a new religious movement, is generally informal and unorganized and only recently became widespread in 2001. Because of this and the lack of any official body overseeing the faith, it has absorbed many influences from other religions such as Palo Mayombe and Santeria (in Veracruz and other places where Cubans interact with Mexicans, especially in such regions in the U.S.). New Age influences have also become integral to Santa Muerte, with the most obvious example of this being the use of the seven colors corresponding to the seven chakras being integrated into the faith as Santa Muerte’s seven powers.

Over the last two decades, the Bony Lady has been accompanying her devotees in their crossings into the United States, establishing herself along the 2,000 mile-long border and in U.S. cities with Mexican immigrant communities. It is in the border states where she is most popular: Texas, New Mexico, Nevada, California, and Arizona. The faith as practised by Latino/as, although similar, tends to differ in some respects, especially in second generation devotees whose praxis changes from that of their parents who brought with them more Mexican traditions. In the younger generations, praxis becomes especially syncretic, absorbing influences from other Hispanic faiths as well as incorporating Heavy Metal elements popular in the U.S. Beyond these border states, devotion to Santa Muerte has spread to cities and towns deeper within the U.S., as indicated by the increasing availability of her devotional paraphernalia.

Los Angeles is the American mecca of the skeleton saint. It has two religious article stores bearing her name (Botanica Santa Muerte and Botanica De La Santa Muerte), and most botanicas stock many shelves of Santa Muerte paraphernalia. The City of Angels offers devotees three places of worship where they can thank the Angel of Death for miracles granted or petition her for assistance: Casa de Oracion de la Santisima Muerte (Most Holy Death House of Prayer) and Templo Santa Muerte (Saint Death Temple) and one of the largest shrines to the folk saint, La Basilica de la Santa Muerte. These are three of the first temples dedicated to her in the United States.

In Mexican, Texan, and Californian penitentiaries, worship of the Bony Lady is so widespread that in many she is the leading object of devotion and even prison guards may worship her. In less than a decade the folk saint has become the matron saint of the Mexican penal system and is also popular in American prisons. Almost all TV news coverage of her rapidly increasing folk faith in the United States has been provided by local stations in border cities. These news reports tend to be sensationalistic, playing up Saint Death’s alleged ties to drug trafficking, murder, and even human sacrifice, but these fail to portray the more commonplace devotion among the many other groups who worship the folk saint. The mushrooming devotional base is a heterogeneous group with various afflictions and aspirations who turn to her for a range of favors the most popular of which tend to be love, health and wealth.

The media portray the skeleton saint as a dark deity turned to for dirty deeds, since like most folk saints she is amoral she can be asked for anything, including to bless criminal activities. Nevertheless, Santa Muerte as worshiped by most believers is neither the morally pure virgin nor the amoral spiritual mercenary who perpetrates all kinds of dark deeds but a flexible supernatural figure who can be called on for all manner of miracles and it is precisely her multifaceted miracle-working that has ensured her flourishing follower among devotees from all walks of life.

Much more than an object of contemplation, [Image at right] the Bony Lady is a saint of action. Santa Muerte’s popularity as a folk saint also derives from her unique control over life and death. This is especially appealing in spaces of violence, such as prisons or drug-riddled neighborhoods; however, this does not mean only narcos worship her, for their violence puts many other populations at risk, including children who also feature among her followers. Devotion, as I have noted in my fieldwork, can start very young. Children fearing danger for themselves or their parents may turn to the folk saint and although unable to buy her lavish offerings they may express their faith in other ways, such as cleaning an altar, gifting a candy they got to her or saying a novena (a nine-day prayer) to the folk saint. [Image at right]

Her reputation as the most powerful and fastest acting saint is above all what attracts results-oriented believers to her altar. Most devotees perceive her as ranking higher than other saints, martyrs, and even the Virgin Mary in the celestial hierarchy. Saint Death is sometimes conceived of as an archangel (of death) who only takes orders from God himself. At other times she may be even considered more powerful than God since death is the ultimate power and become Goddess-like in her omnipotence and omniscience.


The logic of reciprocity underlies the way in which rank and file believers seek divine intervention. Much as in Christian contexts, the request for a miracle begins with a vow or promise. Thus, devotees request miracles from Saint Death in the same way they would from other saints, both folk and official, they then promise to repay her, often with offerings of victuals or libations, but they might also offer to change their ways, such as to stop gambling, taking drugs, drinking or driving recklessly.

Since many devotees are extremely poor even the smallest offering can be of significance, such as a bottle of water, especially in a country where clean water is a precious commodity. What distinguishes contracts with Santa Muerte is their binding power. If she is considered by many to be the most potent miracle worker on the religious landscape, she also has a reputation as a harsh punisher of those who disrespect her. Santa Muerte is said to bring revenge on those who break their promises, [Image at right] this could be by causing minor misfortunes or even visiting death upon their family or friends.

Most devotees visit shrines to pay their respects to the folk saint and give her offerings; this is also where they say prayers and light candles. However, most largely practice the faith within the privacy of their own homes, at ad hoc altars that they have assembled. These may be simple or ornate, depending on the income of the devotee and the space they have. They might consist of nothing but a small statue of Santa Muerte or even just a votive with offerings to the folk saint, or the altar could contain many large and lavish statues of the saint and figurines, such as owls and other items related to the folk saint, like skulls. Offerings at altars and chapels often consist of alcohol, sometimes tequila or other hard liquors, such as mezcal and whisky for the more affluent and beer for the impecunious. Devotees also love to offer flowers, the colors of which general correspond to the favor being asked; the more lavish and larger the bouquet the better. They also gift her foods; these may be homemade items such as tamales, or they may be fruits. Apples are a favorite offering. They may also provide nuts, bread rolls chocolate and candy, among other foods. In Mexico cigarettes are typically offered, while taking from the Cuban influence in the U.S. cigars are also frequently offered. The Bony Lady is always offered glasses or bottles of water as, like her forebear la Parca, she is said to be perpetually parched.

Prayers, novenas, rosaries, and even “masses” for Santa Muerte generally preserve Catholic form and structure if not content. In this way, the new religious movement offers neophytes the familiarity of Mexican Catholicism along with the novelty of venerating an emerging folk saint. Most shrines and chapels hold a rosary once a month in the honor of the folk saint. However, witchcraft and folk medicine beliefs are also central to the faith. Devotees believe in hexes and the need to seek protection from the folk saint to break them. They also often believe in folk medicine and the importance of spiritual cleansing.


Drawing heavily on Catholic modes of worship, devotees employ a colorful range of rituals, however, they also practice witchcraft, and, as detailed, the rituals also incorporate elements from New Age spirituality. The general lack of formal doctrine and organization means that adherents are free to communicate with Saint Death in whatever manner suits them, and so there is tremendous heteropraxy, with some devotees using tarot, dreams or other methods to “talk” to their saint. Prayers are sometimes impromptu and designed ad hoc for the purpose. However, as chap books and other tomes, such as the Biblia de la Santa Muerte (a prayer book featuring petitions to the folk saint featured on amazon) circulate, a certain amount of orthopraxy is emerging.

One such typical prayer that has emerged was pioneered by the godmother of the new religious movement, Enriqueta Romero Romero (affectionately known as Doña Queta). She created the rosary to Santa Muerte (el rosario) by adapting a Catholic series of prayers dedicated to the Virgin. She took these prayers and largely swapped the Virgin’s name for Santa Muerte’s to honor the folk saint within a Catholic framework. Doña Queta organized the first public rosaries at her Tepito shrine in 2002, and since then the practice has proliferated throughout Mexico and in the United States. The monthly worship service at Doña Queta’s altar regularly attracts several thousand faithful.

Among the most common ways to petition Santa Muerte is through votive candles, often color coded for the specific type of intervention desired. Santa Muertistas may employ votive candles in the traditional Catholic way or they may add to this ritual with witchcraft rites. Spell books circulate which often advise devotees to recite prayers, light candles, but also use items as used in witchcraft during rituals. For example, a love spell may feature the use of a red Santa Muerte image, [Image at right] a red Santa Muerte statue but also a lock of hair or piece of clothing from a loved on that will need to be used in a specific way for the spell to be cast.

Most devotees use votive candles as mainline Catholics would, offering these wax lights as symbols of vows, for thanks or prayers. In addition to candles, devotees make offerings that correspond to things they desire. For example, red roses may be given for a petition for love, or money may be offered for good fortune. The main colors used in Santa Muerte rituals are red, white and black. This trio dominated in the earlier stages, but many have been added since then. Red has typically been for favors related to love and passion. White has been for cleansing, healing and harmony. Black has notoriously been said to be the color of black magic, hexing and for narcos and criminals seeking blessings and help with their nefarious activities. However, this is an incorrect portrayal; many use black for protection and safety and more recently, since COVID-19, this color is being used for protection and healing from the virus.

Votive candles, flowers and statue colors correspond to the favors being asked:

red: love, romance, passion, petitions of a sexual nature
black: vengeance, harm; protection and safety from coronavirus
white: purity, protection, gratitude, consecration, health, cleansing
blue: focus, insight and concentration; popular with students
brown: enlightenment, discernment, wisdom
gold: money, prosperity, abundance
purple: supernatural healing, for working magic, access to spiritual realms
green: justice, equality before the law
yellow: overcoming addiction
yellow, white and blue: road opener
yellow and green: business prosperity and money
black and red: reversing black magic and ill fortune, sending hexes back to sender
multicolored: multiple interventions


The long period of furtive devotion ended on All Saints Day, 2001. Doña Queta, [Image at right] who at the time worked as a quesadilla vendor, publicly displayed her life-size Santa Muerte effigy outside her home in Tepito, Mexico City’s most notoriously dangerous barrio. In the decade since then, her historic shrine has become the new religious movement’s most popular in Mexico. More than any other devotional leader, Doña Queta has played the starring role in transforming occult veneration of the saint into a very public new religious movement.

Just a few miles away, self-declared “Archbishop” David Romo founded the first church dedicated to the Santa Muerte. Borrowing heavily from Roman Catholic liturgy and doctrine, the Traditional Holy Catholic Apostolic Church Mex-USA offered “masses,” weddings, baptisms, exorcisms, and other services commonly found at most Catholic churches in Latin America, but it was closed down in 2011 when Romo was arrested for multiple criminal charges, including kidnapping.

In the United States, the Los Angeles based Templo Santa Muerte offers a full range of Catholic-like sacraments and services, including weddings, baptisms, and monthly rosaries. The Templo’s website hosts a chat room and streams music and podcasts of masses to those who cannot make it to the services offered by “Professors” Sahara and Sisyphus, founders of the Templo. Both leaders emigrated to the United States from Mexico. The latter’s training included an apprenticeship with two Mexican shamans, one of whom “taught him to speak to Most Holy Death.” Their rituals are very much influenced by New Age rites and are highly syncretic due to the U.S. influence.

A few miles across town is the Santuario Universal de Santa Muerte (Saint Death Universal Sanctuary). The Sanctuary is located in the heart of LA’s Mexican and Central American immigrant community. “Professor” Santiago Guadalupe, originally from Catemaco, Veracruz, a town famous for witchcraft, is the Santa Muerte shaman who presides over this storefront church. Faithful believers visit the Sanctuary for baptisms, weddings, rosaries, novenas, exorcisms, cleansings, and individual spiritual counseling.

Enriqueta Vargas [Image at right] was one of the most famous leaders. She started The SMI (Santa Muerte Internacional) temple in Tultitlan in 2008, beneath the feet of the largest statue of Santa Muerte in the world, which her son had built before his murder. She established a network of shrines across Mexico and into other Latin American countries, such as Costa Rica, spreading the faith. Through her innovative use of social media platforms and digital communication tools, along with her charismatic Evangelical-style leadership, the organization has become a popular source for information on Santa Muerte. It is built upon a strong global community of devotees connected through live video coverage of regular worship services at the shrine and digital outreach on Facebook. When she died in 2018 from cancer, her daughter took over and continues her mother’s work.

Aside from these most famous shrines, innumerable chapels have been started across Mexico, with men and women spreading the faith. In large part it has been women who have established the most shrines to the Saint of Death, creating prestige and power for themselves and guiding community relations. Other famous female shrine owners and Santa Muerte leaders include Yuri Mendez, who over a decade ago established the largest shrine to Santa Muerte in Cancun; it is also the most prominent in the region of Quintana Roo.  The chapel features innumerable statues of the female folk saint of death, and some have Mayan-derived names, such as Yuritzia, the most important and powerful statue in the shrine with whom Mendez has a special bond. Mendez is considered a guide within her community. As a self-identified witch, shaman and healer, she offers services of healing, magic and curanderismo (curing through plant medicines). As a “bruja de la 3 virtudes” (witch of the three virtues), she offers red, black and white magic to devotes. Her rosary every second day of the month attracts hundreds of devotees. Mendez has a distinctly feminist outlook on devotion to death, using her prestige and social capital as a Santa Muerte leader to highlight women’s issues. These include femicide, and aiding women with distinctly feminine issues, such as domestic violence or men who do not pay for child support.

Elena Martinez Perez [Image at right] is another notorious Santa Muerte figure in the region of Oaxaca. The Indigenous Zapotec sabia (wise woman) established her shrine in Oaxaca to thank Santa Muerte for a miracle of healing in c. 2002. It has expanded from a small makeshift structure and has been rebuilt several times; it is now a large and renowned chapel that receives hundreds of weekly visits. Her family, largely the female members, help her run, clean and decorate it, while her sons and grandsons play a lesser but  still important role in construction and other tasks that require heavy lifting. Her daughter-in-law and daughter more recently opened a shop by the shrine where they sell candles to the many devotees who come to pray. The shrine is famous in the region for its incredible celebrations honoring Santa Muerte during Day of the Dead in November. This includes two days of rituals, music and festivities during which the shrine is decorated sumptuously. These celebrations are uniquely Oaxacan and influenced by Indigenous culture.

Other notable female shrine owners are Adriana Llubere who became a devotee in the year 2000 and in 2010 erected a chapel featuring a statue which she calls Canitas, in San Mateo Atenco. [Image at right] Measuring one meter eighty centimeters high, Canitas is perhaps the only representation of Santa Muerte that is capable of standing or sitting, as required for different times or circumstances. Llubere is known for rolling her statue around in a wheelchair, especially during special occasions. The statue is the unofficial matron saint of those who have been falsely incarcerated. After being freed from jail for what she claims was bogus charges, Llubere commissioned the prisoners of Almoloya de Juárez to make the statue for her. To this day the prisoners there, in penitentiaries across Mexico, and even in the U.S., have a special attachment to this effigy, especially those who believe they were innocent. Upon their release, many make a pilgrimage to thank Canitas, whose name means little inmate, as being “en cana” (slang for being in jail).

Other notable shrine owners are Sorraya Arredondo who owns a large chapel called “Angel Alas Negras” (Angel with Black Wings) in Tula in Hidalgo that is dedicated uniquely to Santa Muerte in her black form and features a large befeathered statue known as La Guerrera Azteca, the Aztec Warrior. It honors the folk saint as of Nahua origin. About an hour and a half away in Tizayuca Hidalgo, Maria Dolores Hernández owns a shrine known as La Niña Blanca de Tizayuca, the White Girl of Tizayuca where she offers tarot and other spiritual services. Michelle Aguilar Espinoza and her family own a famous shrine in San Juan Aragon called la Capilla de Alondra since its wooden effigy of Santa Muerte is called Alondra. It wields a wooden scythe that has been passed down for generations and is believed to have special powers.


The Catholic Church in Mexico has taken a decisive stance against Santa Muerte, denouncing the new religious movement on the grounds that the veneration of death is tantamout to honoring an enemy of Christ. [Image at right] The Church argues that Christ defeated death through resurrection; therefore, his followers must align themselves against death and its representatives, including Santa Muerte. The previous Mexican president, Felipe Calderon, was a member of the National Action Party (PAN), founded by conservative Roman Catholics in 1939. Calderon’s administration declared Santa Muerte religious enemy number one of the Mexican state. In March 2009 the Mexican army bulldozed dozens of roadside shrines dedicated to the folk saint along the US-Mexico border. However, under the current president, AMLO, there has been less pressure to destroy shrines.

A number of high-profile drug kingpins and individuals affiliated with kidnapping organizations are Santa Muertistas. The prevalence of Santa Muerte altars at crime scenes and in the cells of those imprisoned has created the impression that she is a narco-saint; however, this is due to press sensationalism. Many narcos worship St. Jude, Jesus, the Virgin of Guadalupe, El Nino de Atocha (an advocation of the Christ Child), these figures have not attracted the same media attention. Many of her devotees are members of society who have been marginalized by the prevailing socio-order. This could be due to their sexual orientation or due to their class, since the working class is typically looked down upon. In either event, because of their low status in the eyes of the upper classes and the powerful, they and their faith are often dismissed as deviant.

** All photos contained herein are the intellectual property of Kate Kingsbury or R. Andrew Chesnut. They are featured in the profile as part of a one-time licensing agreement with the World Religions and Spirituality Project. Reproduction or other use is prohibited.

Image #1: A volcanic rock statue of Santa Muerte in the temple to the folk saint in Morelia, Michoacan with votive candles burning.
Image #2: An Indigenous depiction of Santa Muerte replete with Aztec plumed headdress.
Image #3: Santa Muerte depicted as she who delivers justice, holding the scales in her hand.
Image #4: Devotee of Santa Muerte holding his two statues, which he has brought to Tepito to be blessed at the Rosary held at Doña Queta’s famous shrine.
Image #5: Young female devotee of Santa Muerte clutching her statue of the Saint of Death just as she clutches onto life living in the dangerous neighbourhood of Tepito.
Image #6: A Santa Muerte Addiction card on which a devotee makes a pledge to the folk saint to stop drinking or taking drugs or engaging in other vices for a specific period of time.
Image #7: Santa Muerte Votive Candle burning brightly with the deepest desires of a Santa Muerte devotee who has lit it to supplicate the saint for a special favour.
Image #8: Doña Queta blessing a child in her shop in Tepito that abuts the world famous shrine she established to Santa Muerte.
Image #9: Enriqueta Vargas, the other major devotional pioneer, who established a transnational network of churches known as SMI (Santa Muerte Internacional) that extends across the Americas and even into the U.K.
Image #10: Yuri  Mendez, leader of the largest shrine to Santa Muerte in Quintana Roo, She self-identifies as a bruja (witch), curandera (healer) and shaman of Santa Muerte.
Image #11: Doña Elena, leader of the first and most important chapel to Santa Muerte in the region of Oaxaca. The  Zapotec leader stands before a statue of Santa Muerte depicted as Indigenous.
Image #12: Poster denouncing Santa Muerte as satanic.


** The material in this profile is drawn from the following papers and book: Kingsbury, Kate and Andrew Chesnut. 2020. “Mexican Folk Saint Santa Muerte: The Fastest Growing New Religious Movement in the West,” The Global Catholic Review;  Kingsbury, Kate and Andrew Chesnut. 2021. “Syncretic Santa Muerte: Holy Death and Religious Bricolage.” Religions 12:212-32; and R. Andrew Chesnut, Devoted to Death (Oxford 2012).


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Chesnut, R. Andrew. 2012. “Santa Muerte: Mexico’s Devotion to the Saint of Death.” Huffington Post, January 7. Accessed from
on 25 March 2021.

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Kingsbury, Kate 2021. “Danger, Distress and Death: Female Followers of Santa Muerte.” In A Global Vision of Violence: Persecution, Media, and Martyrdom in World Christianity, edited by D. Kirkpatrick and J. Bruner. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

Kingsbury, Kate. 2021.”Death in Cancun: Sun, Sea and Santa Muerte.”’Anthropology and Humanism Quarterly 46:1-16

Kingsbury, Kate. 2020. “At Death`s Door in Cancun:  Meeting Santa Muerte Witch Yuri Mendez.” Skeleton Saint. Accessed from on 25 March 2021.

Kingsbury, Kate. 2020. “Death is Women’s Work: the Female Followers of Santa Muerte.”’ International Journal of Latin American Religions 5:1-23.

Kingsbury, Kate. 2020. “Doctor Death and Coronavirus.” Anthropologica 63:311-21.

Kingsbury, Kate. 2018. “Mighty Mexican Mothers: Santa Muerte as Female Empowerment in Oaxaca.” Skeleton Saint. Accessed from  on 25 March 2021.

Kingsbury, Kate and Andrew Chesnut. 2021. “Syncretic Santa Muerte: Holy Death and Religious Bricolage.” Religions 12:212-32.

Kingsbury, Kate and Andrew Chesnut. 2020. “Holy Death in Times of Coronavirus: Santa Muerte, the Salubrious Saint of Mexico.” International Journal of Latin American Religions 4:194-217.

Kingsbury, Kate and Andrew Chesnut. 2020. “Life and Death in the Time of Coronavirus: Santa Muerte, the ‘Holy Healer’,” The Global Catholic Review. Accessed from on 25 March 2021.

Kingsbury, Kate and Andrew Chesnut. 2020. “Mexican Folk Saint Santa Muerte: The Fastest Growing New Religious Movement in the West,” The Global Catholic Review. Accessed from on 25 March 2021.

Kingsbury, Kate and Andrew Chesnut. 2020. “Not Just a Narcosaint: Santa Muerte as Matron Saint of the Mexican Drug War.” International Journal of Latin American Religions 4:25-47.

Kingsbury, Kate and Chesnut, Andrew. 2020. “Santa Muerte: Sainte Matronne de l’amour et de la mort.” Anthropologica 62:380-93.

Kingsbury, Kate and Andrew Chesnut. 2020. “The Materiality of Mother Muerte in Michoacan: The Tangibility of Devotion to Saint Death.” Skeleton Saint. Accessed from on 25 March 2021.

La Biblia de la Santa Muerte. 2008. Mexico City: Editores Mexicanos Unidos.

Lewis, Oscar. 1961. The Children of Sánchez: Autobiography of a Mexican Family. New York: Random House.

Lomnitz, Claudio. 2008. Death and the Idea of Mexico. New York: Zone Books.

Martínez Gil, Fernando. 1993. Muerte y sociedad en la España de los Austrias. Mexico: Siglo Veintiuno Editores.

Navarrete, Carlos. 1982. San Pascualito Rey y el culto a la muerte en Chiapas. Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Instituto de Investigaciones Antropológicas.

Olavarrieta Marenco, Marcela. 1977. Magia en los Tuxtlas, Veracruz. Mexico City: Instituto Nacional Indigenista.

Perdigón Castañeda, J. Katia. 2008. La Santa Muerte: Protectora de los hombres. Mexico City: Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia.

Thompson, John. 1998. “Santísima Muerte: On the Origin and Development of a Mexican Occult Image.” Journal of the Southwest 40:405-436.

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Villarreal, Mario. “Mexican Elections: The Candidates.” American Enterprise Institute. Accessed from on 20 February 2012.

Publication Date:
26 March 2021




Glastonbury Goddess Religion


1983:  Glastonbury Goddess group founders participated in the anti-nuclear protests at Greenham Common Peace Camp, Berkshire, England.

1996:  The first Glastonbury Goddess Conference was held, co-organised by Kathy Jones and Tyna Redpath. First procession.

2000:  The Glastonbury Goddess Temple was created in the form of a “pop up” Temple at several locations around Glastonbury. It was said to the be the first Temple dedicated to a Goddess in the British Isles in over 1,500 years.

2002 (February 1- 2):  The Temple was opened at Imbolc.

2003:  The Glastonbury Goddess Temple became the first officially registered Goddess Temple in England and recognized as a place of worship.

2008:  The Temple changed from an Association to being a “Not-for-Profit” Social Enterprise, enabling the group to purchase the Goddess Hall.


As a local organisation, the Glastonbury Goddess religion’s history is complex and varied, and can be situated within the wider spiritual feminist movements that began in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, and gained popularity throughout the United States, Europe and Australasia. Influential to these movements were the writings of authors such as Monica Sjöö, Maria Gambutas, Lynn White, Starhawk, and many more, all of whom lead to a variety of political and spiritual critiques of mainstream Western society and its style of thinking) that highlight the ecological, social, and personal damages done by a perceived patriarchy responsible for modern neoliberalism, capitalism, and industrialization. At the heart of many, but not all, of these critiques rests the thesis of a perceived pre-Christian past where the monotheistic male God replaced, by way of force and domination, female Goddesses at different sites throughout Europe and beyond.

The wider feminist eco-spiritual wider movement within which the Glastonbury Goddess movement sits is significant to understanding the motivations of the founders and foundation of the Glastonbury Goddess religion for two main reasons:  First, the origins of the Glastonbury Goddess movement can be traced to the anti-nuclear protests that took place at a site called Greenham Common in Berkshire, England, in the early 1980’s protest and to Kathy Jones’ involvement in the protests. According to Christina Welch: “At Greenham common there existed among the protestors the ‘not uncontroversial existence of an ancient matriarchal religion was, and still is, understood as important in reclaiming both the land, and the power of women, as well as the Goddess (Mother Earth) as a signifier for the importance of both’” (Welch 2010:240-41). “Healing” the land and emotional wounds inflicted by perceived patriarchy-colonisers is also a significant part of this movement and drives much of the reason for its foundation.

Second, in line with eco-feminist movements in Europe, the Americas, and the Antipodes, the Glastonbury Goddess religion is motivated by acts of “reclaiming.” This reclamation focusses on the land in and around Glastonbury, female bodies, and the historical (or herstorical) and mythical narratives that surround Glastonbury. The Glastonbury Goddess group actively challenges neoliberal attitudes toward the planet’s natural resources. This has led to the development of their corresponding, localised eco-matriarchal spirituality that recognizes the Glastonbury Goddess as both the land itself around Glastonbury, and Mother Goddess who takes the place of a monotheistic God.

Although there are many significant figures and events in the creation, success, and continuation of the movement, the more recognizable origins of the religion as it manifests contemporarily in Glastonbury can be traced to three main elements: one particular person, Kathy Jones; one successful event, the first Goddess Conference held in Glastonbury in 1996; and the establishment of a fixed Goddess Temple in 2002.

Kathy Jones has been hugely significant throughout the movement. Marion Bowman tells us that “Kathy Jones has been particularly influential in promoting the vision of Glastonbury as an important pre-Christian site of Goddess devotion, and is extremely keen to help others ‘rediscover’ and promote the Goddess in their own locations” (2009:165). Jones has written several works based on the Glastonbury Goddess. She has also written books such as The Ancient British Goddess (2001) where she acknowledges a few of her sources of inspiration. These include Robert Graves’ The White Goddess, Marija Gimbutas’ Language of the Goddess and Civilisation of the Goddess, Caitlin and John Matthews’ Ladies of the Lake, and ‘Michael Dames for his Goddess inspired views of landscape in The Avebury Cycle and Silbury Treasure’ (2001:ii).

The first Goddess Conference was co-organised and founded by Jones and Tyna Redpath, owner of one of Glastonbury’s hallmark High Street shops, “The Goddess and The Greenman.” First held in 1996, the Goddess Conference has become an annual event in Glastonbury that brings people from all over the world to experience a host of events that include a variety of workshops involving ritual making, the production of Goddess religious material cultures, healing ceremonies, and priestess trainings. These events culminate in the colour and vibrant event of a statue of the Glastonbury Goddess being processed through Glastonbury’s High Street, around different significant sites, and up to the Glastonbury Tor. According to Marion Bowman, the Goddess Conference:

has not only been important in the consolidation and celebration of Goddess spirituality in the town itself, it has become influential in Europe, the USA, the Antipodes and elsewhere. Speakers, writers and figures inspirational to the nation and international Goddess movement, such as Starhawk, come to Glastonbury for the conference. The conference has created a number of ‘traditions’, and has proved a great forum for creativity in relation to Goddess-related music, drama and material culture, as well as ritual and myth, which then gets disseminated by attendees (Bowman 2009:165).

The Goddess Conference is a hugely significant for the group’s foundation and current success. As Bowman suggests, this is the site where people, who come from different parts of the planet, are able to experience and take away a localised and specific form of Goddess devotion with clear instruction on how to erect temples and bring back the Goddess of attendees’ own lands, thus inspiring movements in other parts of the world.

From the time of the first Goddess Conference in 1996, a few “pop up” Goddess temples could soon be found around Glastonbury. This eventually led to the opening of the Glastonbury Goddess Temple in a prime location off Glastonbury’s High Street in 2002 and served to root the temple to Glastonbury itself. [Image at right] The Glastonbury Goddess Temple is currently a “welcome to all” fixed site within which to attend group events and gatherings, make offerings at an altar, seek healing services, and meditate.

It was, therefore, the combination of the initiatives of a core group of founders, the efforts of Kathy Jones and her particular vision, and the opening of the Glastonbury Goddess Temple that has led to the group being what it is today. It is a successful, localised new religious movement that is both situated in its place while being a powerful inspiration for the growth of a wider emergence of similar movements, all of whom creatively interpret ancient links to the past while firmly rooting themselves as active participants in their localised present.


The Glastonbury Goddess Temple religion is a materially rich, colourful, and vibrant, traditionally non-doctrinal, new religious movement. It has claims on Britain’s ancient past whose beliefs, narratives and practices are bound up explicitly with the land/landscape features, historical, mythical and newly creative narratives. Glastonbury’s specific interpretations of the contemporary Pagan ritual “wheel of the year” mean that festivals and events are organised around equinoxes, solstices, Imboc, Beltane, Lammas, and Samhain. The Glastonbury Goddess movement is not, however, a ‘native faith’ movement as neither ethnic connections with Glastonbury nor Somerset are sought or claimed. In fact, the devotees themselves do not necessarily claim to be indigenous but focus outwardly on the Goddess who is claimed to be indigenous to Glastonbury, and devotees report a sense or feeling of “coming home” to Glastonbury.

On the whole, the Glastonbury Goddess group tends to distance itself from Wicca and practice forms of spirituality that are found most commonly within the “holistic milieu” (Heelas and Woodhead 2005:1, 31). The primary emphasis tends to be on healing, as well as psychic and personal development, only here the focus is on healing from patriarchal damage and “male-inflicted” wounds. Cynthia Eller says,

In spiritual feminist thought, it is a given that all women need healing: if not from specific illnesses or infirmities, then from the pains suffered as a result of growing up female in a patriarchal world. Spiritual feminists aspire to healing themselves and their sisters through a variety of less than medically and psychotherapeutically orthodox techniques, including homeopathy, chakra balancing, massage, Bach flower remedies, acupressure, and so on (Eller 1995:1096).

The Glastonbury Goddess group employs these methods, but believe that the damage is personal, as well as social and cultural, and is a result of the wider, damaging effects of Christianity. The group carries out cultural work whereby new Goddess oriented traditions are created and ritually maintained. A significant aspect of the work rests on the establishment of the Glastonbury Goddess Temple, which claimed to be the first Temple dedicated to an indigenous Goddess in Britain, indeed in Europe, in over 1,500 years. At the heart of this community lies the belief/understanding that both women and the Goddess of the land have been suppressed and oppressed by the onset of Christianity, and it is their mission to restore Her, not only to Glastonbury, but to all parts of the world.

Locally, however, Glastonbury itself is a small town in the South West of England with a population of around 9,000 people, but with many names: the “Isle of Apples,” the “Isle of Glass,” the “Isle of the Dead,” and most famously, “Isle of Avalon” (Glastonbury’s mythical counterpart). Glastonbury Goddess group members assert that there are certain sacred places in the world where the upwelling of Goddess energy can be felt strongly. One of these places is Glastonbury, which is a gateway to the mythical Isle of Avalon (Glastonbury Goddess Temple 2019). The word “isle” is used due to the prominence of the Glastonbury Tor mound which, along with Chalice Hill, Wearyall Hill, Windmill Hill and Stone Down, stands out amongst an otherwise flat range of levels that were once covered by water.

The Glastonbury Tor is the most iconic feature in Glastonbury; it sits atop a large mound with naturally occurring spiral-shaped tiered pathways that lead to its summit. The Tor itself is the tower remnant of a Catholic chapel that was burned down during King Henry VIII’s desolation of the monasteries. Dominating the Somerset Levels, it can been seen from as far as South Wales on a clear day, and has served as a visible land marker for those making religious pilgrimages to Glastonbury for centuries. The Tor is both a famous visitor’s attraction, and the focus for many of Glastonbury’s alternative religious activities, including that of the Glastonbury Goddess religion. However, according to Bowman, for the Goddess religion the Tor mound forms part of the larger body of the Goddess that devotees discern in the land (Bowman 2004:273). Therefore, if it were to have a doctrine per se, the doctrine would be carved into the landscape where the body of the Goddess is discerned in its features. When asked in an interview with the BBC: “How does the Goddess relate to Glastonbury in particular?” Kathy Jones reported that the Goddess is found

through the shapes of the hills and valleys. Glastonbury is a town situated on a small group of hills, composed of Glastonbury Tor, the Chalice Hill, Wearyall Hill, Windmill Hill, and Stone Down. These hills rise out of the flat lands surrounding Glastonbury, and when you look at the shape of them, you can see different outlines from the contours of the hills. One of the forms that we see is the shape of a giant woman lying on her back on the land. She is the mother Goddess in the landscape (interview with Kathy Jones, BBC 2005).

A further indication is revealed by a priestess of Avalon who states: ‘Our Lady of Avalon, keeper of the mysteries, and Lady of the Mists of Avalon presides over the lands from which the Tor is visible to the naked eye’ (Anonymous 2010).

As for the mythic narratives that inspire the beliefs of Goddess devotees, the links with “Celtic Christianity” and stories connected with St Bride also play large roles in the current construction of the movement (Bowman 2007). We might, therefore, begin to learn about the beliefs of the group with a story of St Bridget. Bowman writes: “It is said that St Bridget visited Glastonbury in 488 and spent time at Beckery or Bride’s Mound, an area on the edge of Glastonbury where there seems to have been a chapel dedicated to St Mary Magdalene” (2007:24). And, “In the late nineteenth century John Arthur Goodchild claimed that there had been in Glastonbury the survival of an ancient Irish cult venerating the female aspect of the deity which became attached to the figure of St Bride (Benham 1993; Bowman 2007: 25). Kathy Jones, one of the group’s founders, along with a core group of other devotees, such as Tyna Redpath, adopted this idea of a surviving “cult” dedicated to the feminine divine as the foundation upon which the contemporary Goddess movement in Glastonbury was created. Jones claims, for example, that “Where we find St Bridget we know that the goddess Bridie was once honoured” (Bowman 2004: 281, citing Jones 2000:16). This forms a kind of Glastonbury Goddess mission statement that underpin strategies of reclamation and restoration of the Goddess to the land, as well as to the adaptation of the narratives found in Glastonbury’s history, legends and mythologies in an attempt to re-present “Herstory.” Kathy Jones writes,

The Lady of these islands who was lost in the mists of history is being rediscovered and brought back into the light of day, wearing new clothes, shining with renewed radiance. She is whispering in our ears, appearing in our visions, calling to us across time to remember Her and we are responding. All over Britain thousands of women and men now celebrate the Goddesses of this land in ways which probably haven’t happened for a thousand years or more (2001:i).

Indication of the word “strategy” above is deliberate. I have argued elsewhere (Whitehead 2019) that the Glastonbury Goddess religion employs the use of a series of strategies intended to restore the Goddess the land, and to missionize about Her “return” and Her healing benefits for Mother Earth, communities, and to women and men generally. As outlined above, there is an activist element to the group that is not only politically and socially engaged but is fully active in its efforts in spreading the religion worldwide. Therefore, actions such as the establishment of the Goddess Temple, the annual Goddess Conference, the Goddess processions, [Image at right] the crafting of its material cultures and rituals, the training of priestesses in a particular fashion, performances, healing events, and more are created in such a way as to set an active example to people from different parts of the globe. They exemplify how Goddess religions (starting with temples) might be established and take root and grow in relation to their own land and localised female deities who may have also been suppressed or mostly forgotten.

These local actions with deliberate global consequence can be understood through what Gilles Deleuze and Pierre-Felix Guattari (1972) refer to as “reterritorialisation.” Kellie Jones builds on this, saying: “Reterritorialisation includes recapturing one’s (combined and various) history, much of which has been dismissed as an insignificant footnote to the dominant culture” (Kellie Jones 2007). In the case of the Glastonbury Goddess religion, “reterritorialization” is part of an initiative to “reclaim” the land from the patriarchy, i.e. male dominated Christianity and oppression where the Goddess is perceived to have been deliberately suppressed and destroyed. To Glastonbury Goddess devotees, reterritorialisation also takes the form of “re-membering” their ancestral heritage, and “re-turning” to the Goddess’ “loving embrace” (Glastonbury Goddess Temple 2019).

Reterritorialisation also takes place through belief in claims to authenticity, i.e. Christianity is the later arrival to Glastonbury, and the Goddess was “there first.” “For the Goddess religion, a link to the past has been created that establishes a valid, authentic claim to Glastonbury where the Lady of Avalon can be championed and restored to her rightful place. This reclamation of the feminine satisfies the need to celebrate that which had been previously overlooked, forgotten and/or oppressed” (Whitehead 2013:71).

A sub-set of the strategy of reterritorialization in the Glastonbury Goddess movement is that of “indigenizing.” Building on Paul C. Johnson’s assertion that “indigenizing” is a style of relating (Johnson 2002), I wrote: “Indigeneity is used as a central identifier from which clear relationships with Glastonbury as a geographical site are claimed, expressed, and stylized, communities are “imagined” and built, and the movement’s religious material cultures are crafted” (Whitehead 2019:215-16). Belief that the group are indigenizing, reterritorializing, re-inventing and restoring the Goddess to the land manifests materially through the purchase of several properties in town (See, Timeline), the preference for the use of indigenous materials to make the statues the Temple, and the visibility of colourful vibrancy with which the religion is expressed. Jones says, “Together we are bringing the Goddess alive once again through our worship of Her, through spiritual practice, ceremonies, actions, creative expression, study, writing, artwork, music, dance and in our daily lives’ (Jones 2001:i, in Whitehead 2013:70).

For most Glastonbury Goddess devotees, the Goddess is “everywhere and in all things.” Therefore, in terms of analytic categories, locating the Goddess is a complex undertaking. Accounts from group members reveal that the Goddess can be framed as monotheistic, duo-theistic, polytheistic, and animist, and can be all of these things at once, or none of them at all. She is also known by many names and through a variety of different manifestations, locally, and in different locations globally. She is represented in Her Temple through a variety of female deities that have associations with specific aspects of Glastonbury’s surrounding landscape (springs, wells, groves, hills, the Tor mound). These are all “aspects” of the “one.” It can be suggested that when one refers to “the Goddess” in Glastonbury, either one is referring to all of them as one, a particular face” of the Goddess that “resonates” with an individual devotee, or with the goddess that is being celebrated at that particular point in the wheel of the year.

However, the main sources for “who the Goddess is” within the Goddess religion at Glastonbury come from founding member, Kathy Jones. According to an online article from the BBC titled “Goddess Spirituality in Glastonbury” (BBC 2008), Jones states that the main Goddesses worshipped are the Lady of Avalon (who is Morgen la Fey), the Nine Morgens, Brigit or Bridie of the Sacred Flame, Modron who is Great Mother of the lineage of Avallach, Our Lady Mary of Glastonbury, the Crone of Avalon, the Tor Goddess, Lady of the Hollow Hills, Lady of the Lake and the Lady of the Holy Springs and Wells. The roles of the Nine Morgens specifically can be best described as healing Goddesses who are connected to different parts of the landscape around the town such as springs, mounds, and groves. Kathy Jones says that the Nine Morgens are a ninefold Sisterhood who “rule over the Isle of Avalon surrounded by the Lake of Mysts” (2001:213). The names were recorded by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the Vita Merlini in the twelfth century as Moronoe, Mazoe, Gliton ea, Gliten, Cliton, Tyrone, Thitis, Thetis and Morgen La Fey’. There were also nine legendary ladies of the lake named by John and Caitlin Matthews as ‘Igraine, Guinevere, Morgan, Argant, Nimue or Vivienne, Enit, Kundry, Dindraine and Ragness, who derive their powers from the Otherworld (Jones 2001:213). The Nine Morgens play a significant role in Temple life (See, Rituals/Practices).

“MotherWorld” is a vision that is held by the Glastonbury Goddess group that mobilises its members into social justice activism and sums up the group’s beliefs and motivations. According to the Glastonbury Goddess Temple website, the primary values for the MotherWorld vision are:

Honouring Mother Earth as a living being. Taking care of Her world. Love for each other, kindness, support, respect, care and compassion. Honoouring all forms of mother, honouring fathers, and the celebration and nurture of children and young people. Protecting and taking care of the earth, water, fire, air and space in Her world’ (Glastonbury Goddess Temple 2019).

In addition to the values found in the MotherWorld initiative, the Glastonbury Goddess movements’ situatedness within wider eco-matriarchal feminist movements in North America, Europe and Australasia can be gleaned through this statement:

MotherWorld is the society where the patriarchal structures and values of dominance, power-over control and coercion, greed, excessive profit, destructive competition, violence, rape, war, slavery, suffering, hunger, poverty and the pollution of Mother Earth and Her atmosphere, are recognized as shadow expressions of humanity, which need to be challenged, deconstructed, transformed and healed. In MotherWorld healing practices for individuals, communities and for the Earth Herself are encouraged and made readily available to all (Glastonbury Goddess Temple 2019).

This statement both reflects the anti-nuclear sentiments of earlier Greenham Common protestors in Berkshire, England in the 1980’s, one of whom was Kathy Jones, and signals a continuation of such sentiments into the beliefs, practices, mission, and motivations of the movement in its current form.


Ritual creativity sits at the heart of Glastonbury Goddess ritual practice, and ritual practices are entangled with belief, as well as with the strategies of reterritorialization and indigenizing outlined in the previous section. As change, renovation, innovation and devotion are encouraged, countless forms of volatile, votive expressions, ad hoc rituals are continually carried out. Outlined here are a selection of two such “ritual zones” where different rituals take place: the annual Goddess procession that takes place during the Goddess Conference and the veneration of the Goddess figures (and the Nine Morgens, see below).

In order to gain ground and prominence, the Glastonbury Goddess religion has established itself as a visible and active force in Glastonbury. This is most visibly performed in the Goddess processions that take place once a year, around Lammas (August 1), and during the time of the annual Goddess conference, the first of which set both the Goddess and the movement in motion in Glastonbury in 1996. This first procession is significant because it ritually marked off territory and re-staked a claim on the land that is Glastonbury, publicly signalling that the Glastonbury Goddess movement was back in the running.

To this day, the procession continues to be a beautifully colourful, loud, and joyful event, involving the use of flags, banners, candles, costumes, drumming, singing, and shouting to express devotion. The Goddess is processed up Glastonbury’s High Street to the Chalice Well, through the Victorian Well House that houses the White Spring, then up the hill to Glastonbury Tor, and then back down again. Bowman suggests that the procession mirrors Christian Pilgrimage processions that begin from the Tor and proceed to the Abbey (2004:283). The Goddess procession is, however, far more colourful, loud and vibrant than that of the Anglican and Catholic processions. Arguably, Goddess material culture and performances are bright, colourful, and eye-catching for this very reason. As noted by Bowman (2004), the more material and performance cultures are created in relation to the Goddess movement, the more visible the Goddess religiosity becomes in Glastonbury.

The Glastonbury Goddess Temple sits just off the Glastonbury High Street and serves as a hub of more highly ritualized activity, as well daily devotional practice. When I have visited the Temple, I have found that it is usually dimly lit and candles and incense create a mood of tranquillity and calm. Soothing, devotional “Goddess music” is usually playing softly in the background. I have also noted how the materials are in a continual state of flux and change (in keeping with the cyclic nature of this religion), and how the many of the materials used to decorate and facilitate the temple aesthetic often come either from the land, or from the homes of devotees.

In the centre of the Temple there is a main altar, on which I have documented bones, acorns, flowers, feathers, leaves, and stones. Daily ritual offerings are the source of these natural objects and are indicative of what is “acceptable” to the Goddess in terms of spiritual currency. Small clay and bronze goddess figures, such as the Venus of Willendorf, are also often seen. Plastics and artificial materials are, however, also present within the temple, despite the understanding that “things indigenous” to the land around Glastonbury are preferred (and more ecologically friendly). Further, the Goddess takes the form of different willow wickerwork statues who are venerated, spoken with, petitioned, ritually implored, and understood to “embody” Her.

The figures of the Nine Morgens [Image at right] are permanent residents in the Goddess Temple. The Nine Morgens form a protective circle around a small space in the Temple that is, according to a conversation with one of the Temple Melissas (See, Organization/Leadership), dedicated to those who want or need healing. Ritual healing is available daily in the Temple. All one needs to do is to enter the Temple and request it, and the circle is opened in order to allow access. Once the person requesting the healing is inside, the circle of statues is closed so that they can begin to do their work on the person in need.


The organisation and leadership of the Temple, although shaped primarily by the vision of Kathy Jones, now presents itself as a collective group akin to a board of directors. According to the Glastonbury Goddess Temple website, the Glastonbury Goddess Temple “is a social enterprise, a not for profit company limited by guarantee. All profits are reinvested in the Temple’s work. No profits are taken out of the Temple by any individuals” (Glastonbury Goddess Temple 2019c). The structure is complex, but the group members have organised themselves into “three overlapping circles” that both manage the Temple’s activity, and play key roles in Temple life: First, there are Temple Directors who ensure that the integrity of the vision of the Temple is maintained and who oversee major decisions, especially regarding finance. Second, there are Temple Tinglers who “are the circle of Temple staff and tutors…responsible for the everyday running of all Temple venues and activities, as well as Temple teachings.” Third, there are the Temple Weavers who form the “wider circle of all Temple directors, staff and volunteers that are involved in serving the local Temple community.” This group organises Temple seasonal ceremonies and online activities (Glastonbury Goddess Temple 2019c).

Three further groups support the inner workings of the Temple. These are the Temple Melissas who “serve regularly in the Glastonbury Goddess Temple” and hold “the space open to the public each day” (Glastonbury Goddess Temple 2019c). Melissas are likened to “worker bees” who work for the “queen bee” (i.e. the Goddess of Glastonbury). In order to become a Melissa, one must go through a period of training, including how to ritually open and close the Temple daily. The Melissas are also in charge of making sure that visitors receive information, and they facilitate the Nine Morgens to do their healing upon request. Melissas will also cleanse and purify Temple goers through smudging, if asked.

The second group of individuals is known as Temple Madrons. The word “madron” is used deliberately instead of “patron” to indicate those who make regular supportive donations to the Temple. The third group is comprised of trained Priestesses and Priests of Avalon, along with other Temple students and graduates. These members forma global network of people and are bringing Goddess alive in a myriad of ways all over Her world” (Glastonbury Goddess Temple 2019c).

The Glastonbury Goddess Temple can be considered the “parent temple to the ones affiliated in England (Kent, Norfolk, Sheffield, Nottingham), Austria, Italy, the U.S. (California, Oregon, Utah), and Australia (New South Wales, Victoria) since the Glastonbury Goddess Temple has ‘trained’ many of the founding members of these temples (Glastonbury Goddess Temple 2019d). Training Priestesses and Priests in Avalon helps ensure that appropriate inspiration has been given that will continue to shape the materiality, terminology, ethos, and rituals of the movement as it goes beyond the scope of Somerset, England.


The Glastonbury Goddess religion faces a number of issues and challenges, including charges of spiritual materialism, the “whiteness” of members of the movement, and “class.” According to Bowman:

…issues related to race, class and elitism, due to the mainly white, middle class attendance of the conference, reflecting the charge that the Goddess spirituality movement is a predominantly white, middle-class, middle-aged, European/North American phenomenon, neither representative of nor involved with the less privileged women of the world (Bowman, 2005:176).

Similarly, this has been observed by other scholars such as Kavita Maya, who states that

Race has long been a contentious undercurrent in the movement: as British feminist theologian Melissa Raphael noted, ‘the perceived lack of an ethnic mix in Goddess feminism is something of a vexed issue’ (Raphael 1999:25–26 in Maya, 2019:53).

The “whiteness,” middle-age, and middle-classness of members of the group is somewhat of a shared phenomenon among similar ways of thinking, believing, and practicing in the North America and Australasia. Similar to what was observed by Eller in her observation of feminist Goddess movements in North America, the disproportionate numbers of white, middle-class, middle-aged entrepreneurs that form part of the Glastonbury Goddess movement disrupts the MotherWorld vision (outlined in the Doctrine/Beliefs section) whereby the movement aims to be globally encompassing (and economically) encompassing. Additionally, since the Goddess conference invites speakers and attendees from all over the world, many eco-feminists have argued that air travel and other forms of spiritual tourism (Bowman 2005:177) belittle the religion’s emphasis on environmental sustainability.

Following from the criticism of the predominant “whiteness” found in the movement, other criticisms involve the group’s claims to indigeneity. Arguably, use of the term “indigenous” demonstrates a recklessness or lack of awareness of the way in which the term has become politicised, the power dynamics, and struggles that many indigenous groups (for example, in Latin America, Native North America, Australia, and even Northern Europe, among many others) continue to undergo. As many aspects of Goddess spirituality form part of the holistic milieu where appropriation of different cultures forms part of a valid critique, it can be argued that those who form new religious movements in Western Europe could better problematise how indigeneity is constructed or imagined. However, movements such as these can also be seen in the more positive light of cultural and religious creativity, especially since much of the aim is to redress a cultural imbalance of injustice and marginalisation of both nature and the feminine. Kathryn Rountree writes (citing Barnard) ‘while anthropologists hotly debate “the indigenous” as an anthropological concept, the concept is “defined intuitively by ordinary people – indigenous and non-indigenous alike – around the world, it does have meaning” (Barnard in Rountree 2015:8).

Rountree has further outlined the challenges that spiritual feminist movements like the Glastonbury Goddess Temple face, which supports observations that Goddess worship is both structurally similar to and a substitute for the worship of a monotheistic male God (Rountree 1999:138). Local backlashes against the movement in Glastonbury itself have included the opening of a shop dedicated to phalluses, a reclamation of “Hern the Hunter” by male (and some female) contemporary Pagans, and Beltane (May 1 / May Day) celebrations that heavily feature phallic symbols in order to counter what is perceived by some to be an imbalance of femininity in Glastonbury.


Image 1: The Glastonbury Goddess Temple.
Image 2: The Glastonbury Tor with the Goddess during the Goddess Conference Procession, 2010.
Image 3: The Nine Morgens in the Glastonbury Goddess Temple.


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Bowman, Marion. 2007. “Arthur and Bridget in Avalon: Celtic Myth, Vernacular Religion and Contemporary Spirituality in Glastonbury” Fabula 48:16-32.

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Welch, Christina. 2010. “The Spirituality of, and at, Greenham Common Peace Camp.” Feminist Theology 18:230-48.

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Whitehead, Amy. 2013. Religious Statues and Personhood: Testing the Role of Materiality. London: Bloomsbury.

Publication Date:
26 March 2021






Janet Farrar


1950 (June 24):  Janet Owen was born in Leyton, Essex, United Kingdom.

1970:  Owen was initiated into Alex and Maxine Sanders’ Alexandrian Wiccan coven in West London; later that year she was upgraded to the second degree in its tripartite ritual system.

1971:  Janet Owen and Stewart Farrar “hived off” of the Sanders’ coven to form their own, which met in Leyton and Wood Green. Owen left the group later that year and started working with a Qabalist ceremonial magic group.

1972 (January 1):  Janet Owen married Victor Ewer. She broke from the Qabalist group and re-joined Farrar’s coven in June.

1974 (January 31):  Janet Owen and Stewart Farrar entered a handfasting, a Wiccan marriage ceremony.

1975 (July 19):  Owen and Farrar were legally married, both having divorced their previous spouses.

1976: Janet and Stewart Farrar relocated to County Wexford in Ireland, where they established a Wiccan coven.

1978:  Janet and Stewart Farrar moved to County Mayo.

1980:  Janet and Stewart Farrar moved to County Dublin.

1981:  Eight Sabbats for Witches published, co-written by Janet and Stewart Farrar.

1982:  Janet and Stewart Farrar moved to County Louth.

1984:  The Witches’ Way was published, co-written by Farrar and Farrar.

1985:  Janet and Stewart Farrar moved to County Meath.

1987:  The Witches’ Goddess: The Feminine Principle of Divinity was published, co-written by Farrar and Farrar.

1989:  The Witches’ God: Lord of the Dance was published, co-written by Farrar and Farrar.

1990:  Spells and How They Work was published, co-written by Farrar and Farrar.

1992:  The Magical History of the Horse was published, co-written by Janet Farrar and Stewart Farrar with Virginia Russell, although Stewart’s name was not included as author

1995:  The Pagan Path: The Wiccan Way of Life was published, co-written by Janet Farrar, Stewart Farrar, and Gavin Bone. That year Janet and Stewart joined the Church of All Worlds.

1999:  The Healing Craft: Healing Practices for Witches and Pagans was published, co-written by Janet Farrar, Stewart Farrar, and Gavin Bone.

2000 (February 7):  Stewart Farrar died.

2000:  The Complete Dictionary of European Gods and Goddesses was published, co-written by Janet Farrar, Stewart Farrar, and Gavin Bone.

2001:  Janet Farrar and Gavin Bone were handfasted. That year they established a new coven, the Coven Na Callaighe.

2004:  Progressive Witchcraft: Spirituality, the Mysteries and Training in Modern Wicca was published, co-written by Janet Farrar and Gavin Bone.

2008:  Janet Farrar and Gavin Bone were made honorary elders by a group of sangoma in South Africa.

2013:  A second edition of Progressive Witchcraft was published, retitled The Inner Mysteries: Progressive Witchcraft and Connection with the Divine.

2014:  Janet Farrar and Gavin Bone were legally married.

2016:  Lifting the Veil: A Witches’ Guide to Trance-Prophesy, Drawing Down the Moon, and Ecstatic Ritual was published, co-written by Janet Farrar and Gavin Bone.


Janet Farrar [Image at right] is one of the most significant figures among the third generation of Wiccans. Through a series of books co-written with her second husband, Stewart Farrar, during the 1980s, she played a prominent role in popularizing this Pagan new religious movement across a wider, international audience. With Stewart, she was also responsible for establishing what is probably the first Wiccan coven in the Republic of Ireland. Through her writing and later her public speaking, she became a key voice for reform within the Wiccan movement, arguing for its democratization and urging its practitioners not to blindly follow the ritual liturgies and systems set forth by the religion’s founders. Through her publications, she also became one of the earliest figures to promote historical scrutiny of Wicca’s origins. Probably the most famous British Wiccan alive today, she is an internationally known and well-respected figure in Pagan circles.

Janet Mary Owen was born June 24, 1950 in Leyton, Essex, an area that would be absorbed into Greater London during the following decade. Her father, Ron Owen, was from a working-class English background and was then employed as a care assistant at the Royal Free Hospital in London. Her mother, Ivy Owen (née Craddock), was of Scottish ancestry; she died in 1955, leaving Janet with very few memories of her (Guerra 2008:73–76). Ron Owen was a practicing Protestant but was tolerant and interested in religions other than his own, adopting something of a universalist attitude that all religions ultimately led to the same God. His own father, who played a major role in Janet’s upbringing, took a similar attitude (Guerra 2008:76–77). After her earliest years in Essex, Janet was sent to a state-funded boarding school, the Royal Wanstead School in Hertfordshire (Guerra 2008:79–80). On graduating at the age of sixteen, she returned to Greater London to secure work, initially in a furrier’s shop and then for a succession of music companies, supplementing this with occasional modeling work.

It was at this point in her life that she became involved in Wicca. One of Janet’s friends had read King of the Witches, a book by the journalist June Johns. Published in 1969, it provided a biography of the prominent Wiccan high priest Alex Sanders (1926–1988). With his wife Maxine (b. 1946), Sanders had moved from Manchester to the Bayswater area of West London in 1967, where they established a coven of practitioners. Intrigued, Janet’s friend decided to go along and meet the Sanders. Janet was concerned about this and decided to accompany her friend, largely to try and keep her safe. To her surprise, Janet was attracted to Alex Sanders’ ideas and decided to start attending his twice-weekly classes (Guerra 2008:90).

Sanders was the founder of the Alexandrian tradition, now one of the best-known forms of Wicca. A new religious movement that had arisen in the early to mid-twentieth century, Wicca drew on the (since discredited) claims of the Egyptologist Margaret Murray (and others) that the alleged witches of early modern Christendom had been members of a secretive pre-Christian religion revolving around the worship of a horned god. Although there is much diversity among Wiccans, most practitioners call themselves witches and Pagans, venerate deities whose names and identities are (at least partly) drawn from those of pre-Christian Europe, celebrate seasonal festivals known as Sabbats, and cast spells utilizing what they regard as magic (Doyle White 2016). Sanders appears to have been initiated into an older form of Wicca, the Gardnerian tradition, in 1963. He had subsequently used its liturgies and ritual structure as the basis for his own, Alexandrian system, which he then falsely claimed had been passed down to him by his grandmother (Hutton 1999:320–24; Di Fiosa 2010:51–64).

Sanders was very keen to attract as many new recruits as he could. A running joke emerged among his followers that even the milkman would get initiated into Wicca if he stood on Sanders’ doorstep for too long (Farrar and Bone 2004:31). Janet was initiated into his coven early in 1970 (Guerra 2008:97). In the coven she met Stewart Farrar (1916–2000), a journalist, novelist, and television scriptwriter who had been initiated into the Alexandrian tradition not long prior, and they began working together in a ritual capacity. On October 17, 1970, in a house in Sydenham, South London, Sanders oversaw a rite during which both Janet and Stewart were upgraded to the second degree. This was a step up in the Masonic-derived threefold initiatory structure used in both Gardnerian and Alexandrian Wicca (Guerra 2008:103).

Janet Owen and Stewart Farrar [Image at right] then “hived off” of Sanders’ coven to form their own group, of which they served as the presiding high priestess and high priest. This initially held its meetings at both Janet’s home in Leyton and the Wood Green home of two of their initiates, Barbara and Don Pleasance (Guerra 2008:103). Not long after, on April 24, 1971, Sanders oversaw a rite to upgrade both Janet and Stewart to the third and final degree of his tradition. At the time, both Janet and Stewart were in relationships with other people, but Stewart began to develop romantic feelings towards his high priestess, who was thirty-four years his junior. Learning of this, Janet decided to leave the coven in September; she then married her fiancé, Victor Ewer, in January 1972 (Guerra 2008:110–12).

No longer working with her Wiccan coven, Janet began conducting rituals with an occultist group in London that mixed Qabalah with a system of ceremonial magic drawing on the imagery of ancient Egypt. It was run by Walter Johns, who regarded Janet as a gifted spirit medium whose powers could assist his activities. Janet and her husband Victor moved in to live in the lower half of Johns’ house. However, Janet’s relationship with Johns grew strained and after the latter tried to ritually invoke an “Angel of Death” against Stewart Farrar, she cut all contact with her new mentor (Guerra 2008:111–12, 114–15).  In June 1972 she re-joined the coven she had founded with Stewart, resuming her role as its high priestess.

Much as Sanders had sought to attract publicity for his tradition (and himself), so Janet and Stewart Farrar began engaging with the media, giving a number of television and radio interviews about Wicca, as well as several public lectures on the topic. Their approach, however, tended to be less overtly sensationalistic than that of their initiator. As the historian Ronald Hutton later commented, Janet and Stewart demonstrated themselves to be “the most articulate” of the Sanders’ initiates (Hutton 1999:338; Hutton 2019:351). Stewart also began drawing on Wicca for his novels; one such example was his 1973 book, The Twelve Maidens, which he dedicated to Janet.

In December 1973, Janet and her husband Victor agreed to a divorce. Soon after, in January 1974, Stewart moved in with Janet and her father in Leyton; it was at this point that the relationship between the two friends took on a romantic dimension (Guerra 2008:117). On January 31, their initiates Don and Barbara Pleasance oversaw a “handfasting” ritual (a form of Wiccan wedding ceremony) between Stewart and Janet. After their respective divorces were formally confirmed, they legally married on July 19, 1975. To please Christian relatives, they also had a nuptial mass overseen by a friend who was a priest of the Liberal Catholic Church and an occultist. Their honeymoon was then spent in Egypt, where they believed that they had both previously lived in past lives. There they met Olivia Robertson (1917-2013), the co-founder of a Goddess-worshipping occult order called the Fellowship of Isis (Guerra 2008:118, 120–21).

Growing dissatisfaction with Sanders’ behavior led the Farrars to increasingly distance themselves from him and by 1974 they were no longer referring to themselves as “Alexandrians.” They decided to move away from London, relocating to Ireland in May 1976 and bringing Janet’s father with them. Initially settling near Ferns in County Wexford, it was here that they launched a new coven, the first known Wiccan group to be established in the republic (Guerra 2008:122, 125–27). They were not Ireland’s only modern Pagans, however, and in the 1970s and 1980s they regularly visited the Fellowship of Isis’ headquarters in Clonegal Castle, County Carlow, becoming members of the group (Farrar and Bone, personal communication). Reflecting a growing divergence from more dominant views in the Wiccan community, the Farrars began initiating gay individuals into their coven, something strictly prohibited by many other groups (Farrar and Farrar 1984:170; Farrar and Bone 2012:25). In December 1978, they relocated again, this time to Ballycroy in County Mayo, where they lived with their friend Virginia “Ginny” Russell and her mother. Their economic situation became strained; Janet contributed to the group’s finances with occasional tarot readings. They faced some local opposition, and in April 1980 they moved near Swords in County Dublin (Guerra 2008:130, 133).

In March 1978, Stewart first began corresponding with Doreen Valiente (1922–1999), [Image at right] a prominent Wiccan who had played an important role in editing and expanding the Gardnerian liturgy. As well as becoming a friend of the Farrars, she confirmed Stewart’s suspicions that much of what Sanders had presented as his own family tradition was simply taken largely wholesale from the Gardnerians (Guerra 2008:130–32). In 1981, the publisher Robert Hale released Eight Sabbats for Witches, co-written by Janet and Stewart. In this book, the Farrars highlighted that the traditional Book of Shadows used in Gardnerian and Alexandrian covens gave little detail regarding how to celebrate the eight seasonal festivals known in Wicca as “Sabbats” and so set out to provide ritual exemplars that the Farrars had largely devised themselves (Farrar and Farrar 1981:15).

The Farrars continued to move around Ireland, in 1982 settling in Beltichburne, County Louth, and in 1985 in Ethelstown, County Meath. Janet’s father, Ron, lived with them until his death in 1987. In 1984, the Farrars’ second co-written book, The Witches’ Way, was published. This incorporated much of the Gardnerian-Alexandrian Book of Shadows, discussed its chronological development, and then outlined the Farrars’ own thoughts on a wide range of issues, from reincarnation to the practicalities of running a coven. Next came The Witches’ Goddess (1987) and The Witches’ God (1989), perhaps the earliest concerted explorations of Wiccan theology. They followed this with Spells and How They Work (1990), which was one of the earliest focused studies of magic from a Wiccan perspective. With Stewart, Janet then co-wrote The Magical History of the Horse (1992). Janet had originally planned to write the book with Virginia Russell, who had a great deal of experience with horses, and the latter’s name remains on the cover despite the fact she did not involve herself heavily in the project (Guerra 2008:142–43).

The Farrars accompanied these literary projects with personal appearances, lecturing in various parts of Europe and speaking to the media. In September 1989, they lectured at the first open Pagan Festival to be held in Britain, the Link Up ’89 near Leicester, and in 1991 they embarked on a four-month lecture tour of the United States. There, they first met Oberon Zell-Ravenheart (b. 1942), one of the founders of the Church of All Worlds, an influential American Pagan group established in 1962. They would subsequently join his Church in 1995 (Guerra 2008:190–91). Although they would be listed as one of the Church’s “nests,” they took little active role in its activities (Farrar and Bone personal communication). Another U.S. organization that the Farrars engaged with was the Aquarian Tabernacle Church (ATC), a Wiccan group based in Index, Washington that had been established in 1979 and which was known for its attempts to secure legal recognition for Wicca. They attended its Rites of Spring in 1991 and 1993 and later that decade were appointed third-level clergy in its hierarchy. Through the ATC, they were later able to help secure legal recognition for Wicca in Ireland (Farrar and Bone personal communication).

The Farrars had struck up a friendship with Gavin Bone (b. 1964), an English Pagan who visited them in Ireland on several occasions. Aware that he was entering his own twilight years and would be unable to care for his wife, Stewart encouraged Janet and Bone to establish a romantic relationship, a situation he called “Pan Fidelity.” A trained nurse, Bone moved in with the couple and helped to care for Stewart, while Janet slept with each of them on alternating nights (Guerra 2008:150–51). The trio embarked on U.S. lecture tours in 1993, 1995, and 1996, meanwhile co-authoring The Pagan Path: The Wiccan Way of Life (1995), and then The Healing Craft: Healing Practices for Witches and Pagans (1999). In deteriorating health, Stewart died on February 7, 2000. The Complete Dictionary of European Gods and Goddesses, the final book co-written by Bone and the two Farrars, appeared that year.

Janet Farrar handfasted Gavin Bone in 2001 and they legally married in 2014. The same year as their handfasting, they established a new coven, the Coven Na Callaighe, around which was also established an “outer court” group with a broader membership, the Teampall Na Callaighe (Farrar and Bone, pers. comm.). Through this group they focused on the development of what they called “Progressive Wicca,” viewing this not as a distinct tradition (akin to Alexandrian, Gardnerian, Dianic, etc.) but as a general ethos or approach to the religion. Their co-written book, Progressive Witchcraft: Spirituality, the Mysteries and Training in Modern Wicca, came out in 2004, with a retitled second edition in 2013. With other Wiccan groups that shared their perspective, they launched the Alliance of Progressive Covens, although this proved short-lived (Farrar and Bone, personal communication).

Farrar and Bone [Image at right] placed an increasing focus on practical workshops as a means of disseminating their ideas and experience throughout the international Pagan community. By the latter part of the 2000s this included online courses that they were teaching through the College of the Sacred Mists (Farrar, Bone, and Pitzl-Waters 2008). One of their workshops, The Inner Mysteries, was launched in 2002, subsequently taking place in various parts of Europe as well as in the United States and Australia (Farrar and Bone 2004:14). In 2008, they started undertaking intensive workshops in Italy, with some of their Italian followers subsequently establishing the Tempio di Callaighe, named in honor of the Irish group that Farrar and Bone had established several years prior (Farrar and Bone, personal communication). The duo’s travels took them to new parts of the world, including Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, where they participated in ceremonies conducted by a range of indigenous communities (Guerra 2008:164; Farrar and Bone personal communication). While in South Africa in 2008 they were made honorary elders by several Transki-Lesotho sangoma (traditional healing) elders as part of a two-day ceremony. During their travels in North America, they participated in rituals by practitioners of African diasporic traditions such as Santería and Vodou (Farrar and Bone personal communication). Informed by these encounters, they took a growing interest in the role of trance, the process by which gods or spirits are perceived to possess a human in order to impart messages to practitioners. Their book Lifting the Veil: A Witches’ Guide to Trance-Prophesy, Drawing Down the Moon, and Ecstatic Ritual (2016) reflects this influence.


Janet Farrar was originally initiated into Alexandrian Wicca, a variant of the religion developed primarily by Alex Sanders in the 1960s. Sanders was probably an initiate of the Gardnerian tradition of Wicca, and Alexandrianism largely used Gardnerianism as a basis, although added further elements drawn from the ceremonial magical systems in which Sanders was interested. As the Farrar couple established their own coven, they used the Alexandrian system as a basis but also introduced their own innovations and alterations. By 1974, they were no longer comfortable referring to themselves as Alexandrians (Guerra 2008:118–19), although they continued to do so, for instance in their first book Eight Sabbats for Witches. They nevertheless noted that some had referred to them as “reformed” Alexandrians, a description “which has some truth,” but that more importantly they were “unsectarian by temperament” and preferred to simply be called “witches” (Farrar and Farrar 1981:17).

By the early twenty-first century, Janet Farrar and Gavin Bone were describing their approach to Wicca as “Progressive.” In their understanding, this did not designate a distinct tradition in its own right, but rather characterized “a way of seeing the spiritual truths that underlie all nature based religions, especially the truth that they must be able to adapt if they would cater to the spiritual needs of the individual” (Farrar and Bone 2004:10). For them, the “Progressive Witch puts spirituality and therefore divinity at the centre of their practice.” Thus, in their view, Wicca’s future lay more in “a spiritual rather than a magical direction” (Guerra 2008:166). In this sense, Janet Farrar emphasized Wicca as a theologically-oriented tradition rather than as a system of operative magic. Janet and Stewart Farrar believed that the purpose of Wicca was to “put the individual and the group in harmony with the Divine creative principle of the Cosmos, and its manifestations, at all levels” (Farrar and Farrar 1981:12). Janet Farrar and Gavin Bone affirmed that at “the core” of Wicca is “reverence for Nature and the belief that we are not separate from it” (Farrar and Bone 2004:43), underscoring Janet’s view that Wicca was “above all a natural religion” (Farrar and Farrar 1981:154). This idea of Wicca, and modern Paganism more widely, as a form of “nature religion” or “earth religion” was one that had emerged in the United States during the 1970s before spreading rapidly to Western Europe (Clifton 2008).

While expressing a belief in a singular, “ultimate Creator” (Farrar and Farrar 1989:51) or “Ultimate Divine” (Farrar and Bone 2004:86), Janet Farrar has argued that this is an entity so complex that we cannot possibly comprehend it. To attempt to do so, humans must turn to “aspects of Divinity” (Farrar and Farrar 1987:52), such as the various deities found in the world’s many mythologies. In her 1980s writings, Farrar highlighted a gendered polarity with a division between a Goddess and a God, the standard duotheistic system found in Gardnerian and Alexandrian Wicca. Following the example set by the influential British occultist Dion Fortune (1890–1946), Farrar took the view that different deities of the same gender are ultimately reflections of the same entity; that “All Gods are one God, all Goddesses are one Goddess” (Farrar and Farrar 1989:67). Drawing on ideas that were prevalent in various occultist and feminist circles in the twentieth century, she claimed that humanity originally worshipped a Goddess, with veneration of the God coming later (Farrar and Farrar 1987:7–8). While European and European-derived societies have long been patriarchal and focused on a male God monotheism, she held the view that they are increasingly restoring the gendered balance by embracing a Goddess as part of their worldview (Farrar and Farrar 1987:1–2).

By the twenty-first century her approach to theology had shifted. Janet now criticized the duotheism she had formerly adhered to as exhibiting the same problems as God-oriented monotheism: “It tries to make a faceless God and Goddess” that was simply not relatable for most humans (Farrar and Bone 2004:87). Instead, she and Bone embraced a more “polytheistic/animistic” approach to their deities, for instance by affirming the importance of honoring the “spirits of the place” where one is performing ritual (Farrar, Bone, and DF 2019). This was informed by increasing knowledge of living polytheistic traditions around the world, such as Hinduism, Shinto, and African diasporic traditions like Vodou, accompanied by an awareness that these religions probably better capture the attitude to deity that would have been present across pre-Christian Europe than the traditional Gardnerian/Alexandrian duotheistic system (Farrar and Bone 2004:82–83). While engaging with a broad range of deities from various different cultural and geographical backgrounds, Farrar and Bone have described Freya, the goddess drawn from Norse mythology, as their “principal deity” (Farrar and Bone 2004:78). Although very interested in the idea of Jungian archetypes, Janet Farrar has maintained that these entities nevertheless have an independent, objective existence of their own (Farrar and Bone 2004:87).

Adopting the attitude of universalism and religious pluralism that she inherited from her father, Farrar has argued that Wicca and modern Paganism should not be seen as some sort of one true religion. Rather, with Stewart she has written that “all religions are different ways of expressing the same truths” (Farrar and Farrar 1981:154). This tolerance has facilitated various friendships and close relationships with practicing Christians, although it has not stopped her from being highly critical of certain tendencies within Christian thought. References to Christianity in her writing are often negative, connecting it with misogyny (Farrar and Farrar 1981:74; Farrar and Farrar 1987:18–19; Farrar and Bone 2004:17–18, 20), the suppression of sexuality (Farrar and Farrar 1981:74), and the rejection of science (Farrar and Bone 2004:42–43). She has nevertheless spoken positively of Jesus himself, suggesting that he might be a bodhisattva (Farrar and Farrar 1984:121–22), an interesting syncretization of Christianity, Mahayana Buddhism, and Wicca.

Janet Farrar, along with her second and third husbands, has never been a figure to accentuate tradition for the sake of tradition when it comes to Wicca. Opening their book on Progressive Witchcraft, Farrar and Bone stress Wicca’s capacity “to change with the times, to evolve and adapt culturally and socially” (Farrar and Bone 2004:9). Perhaps not surprisingly, they describe how as time went on they found themselves drawing greater inspiration not from the evidence for Europe’s pre-Christian past (the traditional storehouse of imagery which gave birth to modern Paganism) but from living traditions elsewhere in the world, such as Santería and Vodou (Farrar and Bone 2004:12).

In part, this willingness to adapt the tradition stems from Farrar’s longstanding acknowledgement that a great deal of Wicca was created in the mid-twentieth century by Gerald Gardner (1884–1964) and Doreen Valiente. Initially, she retained a belief that Gardner had inherited a core of genuinely traditional material passed down by Wiccans through the centuries. In The Witches’ Way, she and Stewart wrote that the Gardnerian initiation rites represented something that had been “carefully preserved, probably for centuries,” before Gardner received them in 1939 (Farrar and Farrar 1984:3). As belief in the historic witch-cult has eroded in much of the Wiccan community, in large part due to the popularity of Professor Ronald Hutton’s 1999 work The Triumph of the Moon, Farrar has come to reject this belief. In more recent writings, she has acknowledged Wicca as a new religion rather than as the survival of any pre-Christian witches’ cult (Farrar and Bone 2004:13). Linkages with the pre-Christian past nevertheless remain important for her, as for virtually all Pagans, and more recently she has characterized Wicca as “the reconstructed remnants of Western European Shamanism” (Farrar and Bone 2012:27).


Just as Janet Farrar and her working partners have been open to shifting away from the beliefs that she inherited from their Alexandrian initiators, so they were also interested in developing new rituals. [Image at right] One of the central rites within the Alexandrian tradition, as in the Gardnerian tradition before it, is that known as “drawing down the moon.” This entails the high priestess invoking the Goddess to come down and enter her (Doyle White in press). The Farrars developed a counterpart to this rite that they called “drawing down the sun,” which involved the God then being invoked into the body of the high priest (Farrar and Farrar 1984, 68–70). This new addition demonstrates the importance that they placed on a gendered polarity in their theology at that time.

While innovating, Farrar has nevertheless  maintained many core elements of Wiccan practice. She has for instance observed and celebrated eight festivals throughout the year, known as Sabbats, which are collectively termed the Wheel of the Year. The idea of witches celebrating “sabbaths” was one that derived from early modern stereotypes and was subsequently absorbed into Margaret Murray’s argument that the witch-cult was a pre-Christian survival. Gardner had drawn this system of seasonal festivals into his Gardnerian tradition, celebrating the four cross-quarter days (May Eve, August Eve, November Eve, and February Eve). In 1958, members of his Bricket Wood coven decided to add the equinoxes and solstices to this list, creating the eightfold system that has since proved popular not just among Wiccans but also various other Pagan groups (Hutton 2008). In Eight Sabbats for Witches, Janet and Stewart drew upon folkloric associations linked with the changing seasons in Irish and British folklore so as to flesh out the rites that can take place at these Sabbats (Farrar and Farrar 1981).

Janet Farrar has also stressed that Wiccans should not follow the ritual liturgies for the sake of form alone. Arguing that the Book of Shadows, a liturgical collection deriving from Gardnerianism, should not be blindly followed as if it were a sacred text, she has declared: “We’re not People of the Book—we’re free thinkers!” (Farrar and Bone 2015).


Although it is as a writer that she has exerted the greatest impact on the wider Wiccan community, Janet Farrar has been involved in running a coven since the 1970s. In this capacity she has served as a high priestess, a role initially operating parallel to her husband Stewart as high priest. As noted above, this was based on the Alexandrian model, itself based on the older Gardnerian model, although Janet and her respective high priests have introduced changes to the way that the coven operates.

Both Gardnerianism and Alexandrianism traditionally operate on a three-degree system, with each degree conferring greater knowledge and responsibilities on the initiate. This tripartite system can be traced to Gardner’s borrowings from Freemasonry, although it also parallels the multi-degree system evident in those ceremonial magic orders (such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and Ordo Templi Orientis) which influenced the formation of early Wicca. Deeming this system to be excessively hierarchical, in the 1990s Janet Farrar and her partners tried to do away with the three-degree system although found that many of their coven members continued to think of themselves along these traditional lines (Farrar and Bone 2004:50).

While it is not difficult to find accolades proclaiming her importance within the modern Wiccan community, Janet Farrar has typically responded to such adulation with modesty. Unlike Wiccans such as Alex Sanders, she has not sought any title such as “Queen of the Witches.” She has stressed that like all practitioners, there is still a great deal that she has to learn (Farrar, Bone, and d’Este 2019). The lack of arrogance or self-importance on Farrar’s part, coupled with her significant and influential publication output, has earned her a considerable amount of respect within Wiccan circles. It has also perhaps ensured that, although sometimes adopting perspectives and reforms that some practitioners dislike, she has escaped the levels of lasting internal vitriol that sectors of the community directed toward both Gardner and Sanders.


During the 1970s, a major area of dispute within the Wiccan community focused on how the religion should correctly be transmitted to new converts. Gardnerian Wicca, and subsequently Alexandrian Wicca, were initiatory traditions. One could only become a member by undergoing an initiation ritual overseen by a pre-existing initiate, usually (although not always) by joining the latter’s coven. This system was never going to adequately cater to the growing number of people who wanted to be Wiccans, geographically dispersed and isolated from existing groups as they often were. The only way to reach this broader pool of interested persons was to give them the material through which they could self-initiate (or self-dedicate) and establish their own covens from scratch. To this end, various books were published in the 1970s that outlined how readers could set themselves up as Wiccans.

Some, like Raymond Buckland’s The Tree (1974), promulgated altogether new traditions distinct from Gardnerianism and Alexandrianism. Others, most notably The Book of Shadows (1971) of Lady Sheba (Jessie Bell), just published much Gardnerian ritual liturgy wholesale, albeit concealing its true pedigree. Many members of the established initiatory traditions were incensed by this new trend. They felt that this sullied the religion and encouraged disturbed or inexperienced individuals to dabble in things that could prove dangerous. Along with her husband Stewart, Janet Farrar was among those who disagreed with such an exclusionary approach and argued in favor of allowing anyone to set themselves up as a Wiccan should they wish to do so. Their view was in some respects pragmatic. As they noted in their 1980s publications, most of the Gardnerian-Alexandrian ritual liturgy had already been “leaked, plagiarized . . . or distorted either deliberately or by careless copying” (Farrar and Farrar 1984:1) in books like Lady Sheba’s Book of Shadows, the latter of which they called “garbled, illiterate and better ignored” (Farrar and Farrar 1981:179).

They went beyond this and provided a self-initiation rite for any readers who wanted to begin practicing Wicca without access to an existing coven (Farrar and Farrar 1984:248–50). Like their friend Doreen Valiente, they were advocates of the idea that anyone should be able to set themselves up as a Wiccan if they wanted to become one and that Gardnerians and Alexandrians should not claim that they were the only “true” Wiccans. Farrar and Bone later described themselves as being among those who “have challenged whether lineage, which is of Christian origin, has any place in modern witchcraft” (Farrar and Bone 2004:32). In a sense, Janet Farrar and her partners were aligning themselves with the inevitable. Books teaching the reader how to become a Wiccan would proliferate in increasing numbers over subsequent decades, having a huge impact on the demographics of the Wiccan community. By the early twenty-first century, the majority of Wiccans were self-initiated solitary practitioners (Berger 2019).

Janet Farrar represents an interesting case study for scholars exploring the role of women in religions. It is significant that all of her books have been co-written with a male partner, even when (as in the case of The Magical Hero of the Horse), this was not publicly declared at the time. In certain respects, this is an unusual position to be in, at least within the remit of Wicca and related forms of modern Paganism. In Wicca, women have tended to either establish themselves as prominent authors in their own right (for example, Sybil Leek, Starhawk, Silver RavenWolf) or have had their contributions to literary projects overlooked in favor of their male co-author (as with Doreen Valiente’s contribution to The Meaning of Witchcraft, which was published only under Gerald Gardner’s name). Janet’s role in co-authoring books with her male partners has thus demonstrated a collaborative ethos and clear message of gender equity, one which is in accordance with the traditional gendered duotheism of Wiccan theology.


Image #1: Janet Farrar, photographed in the 1970s or early 1980s.
Image #2: Janet Farrar with her second husband, Stewart.
Image # 3: Janet with her second husband Stewart and Doreen Valiente (left), circa 1989.
Image #4: Janet Farrar with her third husband, Gavin Bone.
Image # 5: Janet at a ritual overseen by Alex Sanders (right), probably performed for publicity purposes.


Berger, Helen. 2019. Solitary Pagans: Contemporary Witches, Wiccans and Others Who Practice Alone. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press.

Clifton, Chas S. 2008. “Earth Day and Afterwards: American Paganism’s Appropriation of ‘Nature Religion.’” Pp. 109–18 In Handbook of Contemporary Paganism, edited by Murphy Pizza and James R. Lewis. Leiden: Brill.

Di Fiosa, Jimahl. 2010. A Coin for the Ferryman: The Death and Life of Alex Sanders. N.p.: Logios.

Doyle White, Ethan. Personal Communication with Janet Farrar and Gavin Bone. 14 December 2020.

Doyle White, Ethan. 2016. Wicca: History, Belief, and Community in Modern Pagan Witchcraft. Brighton: Sussex Academic Press.

Doyle White, Ethan. In press. “Drawing Down the Moon: From Classical Greece to Modern Wicca?” In Fictional Practice: Magic, Narration, and the Power of Imagination, edited by Bernd-Christian Otto and Dirk Johannsen. Leiden: Brill.

Farrar, Janet, and Stewart Farrar. 1990. Spells and How They Work. London: Robert Hale.

Farrar, Janet, and Stewart Farrar. 1989. The Witches’ God: Lord of the Dance. London: Robert Hale.

Farrar, Janet, and Stewart Farrar. 1987. The Witches’ Goddess: The Feminine Principle of Divinity. London: Robert Hale.

Farrar, Janet, and Stewart Farrar. 1984. The Witches’ Way. London: Robert Hale.

Farrar, Janet, and Stewart Farrar. 1981. Eight Sabbats for Witches. London: Robert Hale.

Farrar, Janet, and Gavin Bone. 2016. Lifting the Veil: A Witches’ Guide to Trance-Prophesy, Drawing Down the Moon, and Ecstatic Ritual. Portland, OR: Marion Street Press.

Farrar, Janet, and Gavin Bone. 2015. “TWIH Episode 29: The Evolution of Progressive Witchcraft with Janet Farrar and Gavin Bone.” This Week in Heresy. January 31. Accessed from on 15 March 2021.

Farrar, Janet, and Gavin Bone. 2012. “Witchcraft and Sexuality: The Last Taboos.” Pp. 25–28 in Gender and Transgender in Modern Paganism, edited by Calyxa Omphalos, Jacobo Polanshek, Gina Pond, Philip Tanner, and Sarah Thompson. Cupertino, CA: Circle of Cerridwen Press.

Farrar, Janet, and Gavin Bone. 2004. Progressive Witchcraft: Spirituality, Mysteries, and Training in Modern Wicca. Franklin Lakes, NJ: New Page Books.

Farrar, Janet, Stewart Farrar, and Gavin Bone. 2000. The Complete Dictionary of European Gods and Goddesses. Chieveley, U.K.: Capall Bann.

Farrar, Janet, Stewart Farrar, and Gavin Bone. 1999. The Healing Craft: Healing Practices for Witches and Pagans. Blaine, WA: Phoenix.

Farrar, Janet, Stewart Farrar, and Gavin Bone. 1995. The Pagan Path: The Wiccan Way of Life. London: Robert Hale.

Farrar, Janet, Gavin Bone, and DF. 2019. “Interview with Janet Farrar And Gavin Bone.” AnimaMonday, February 20. Accessed from on 15 March 2021.

Farrar, Janet, Gavin Bone, and Sorita d’Este. 2019. “Janet Farrar & Gavin Bone – Children of Earth Interviews.” Patheos, June 10. Accessed from on 15 March 2021.

Farrar, Janet, Gavin Bone, and Jason Pitzl-Waters. 2008. “Interview with Janet Farrar and Gavin Bone.” The Wild Hunt, March 30. Accessed from on 15 March 2021.

Farrar, Janet, and Virginia Russell. 1992. The Magical History of the Horse. Chieveley, U.K.: Capall Bann.

Guerra, Elizabeth, with Janet Farrar. 2008. Stewart Farrar: Writer on a Broomstick. Arcata, CA: R J Stewart Books.

Hutton, Ronald. 2019. The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft. New edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hutton, Ronald. 2008. “Modern Pagan Festivals: A Study in the Nature of Tradition.” Folklore 11, no. 3: 251–73.

Hutton, Ronald. 1999. The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Buckland, Raymond. 1974. The Tree: The Complete Book of Saxon Witchcraft. York Beach, ME: Samuel Weiser.

Lady Sheba [Jessie Bell] 1971. The Book of Shadows. St Paul: Llewellyn.

Farrar, Stewart, 1973. The Twelve Maidens. London: St Martin’s Press.

Teampall Na Callaighe: The Website of Janet Farrar and Gavin Bone. Accessed from on 23 February 2021.

Publication Date:
18 March 2021




1858:  St. Bernadette reported a series of apparitions in Lourdes, France.

1868:  Margaretha Kunz, Katharina Hubertus and Susanna Leist were born in Marpingen.

1870-18/71:  The French-German War took place and the German Empire was established.

1875:  The first organized pilgrimage from Germany to Lourdes took place.

1876 (July 3):  At Lourdes, a statue in honor of the Virgin was consecrated.

1876 (July 3):  Margaretha, Katharina and Susanne saw a figure in white in the forest.

1876 July):  There was an imitation of the Marpingen apparition by children in Poznan (Prussia).

1877:  An apparition of Mary in a medicine bottle was discovered close to Koblenz.

1877 (September 3):  The apparitions stopped abruptly.

1878 (January 16):  A debate about Marpingen was held in the Prussian lower house.

1879:  A trial against nineteen individuals took place in Saarbrücken.

1883:  Elisa Recktenwald claimed a new apparition.

1889:  Margaretha revealed the apparitions were “one big lie.”

1932:  A chapel was built at the site where Mary appeared.

1999:  New apparitions occurred in Marpingen.

2005:  The bishop of Trier declared that the supposed apparitions of 1876-1877 and 1999 were not confirmed by the church.


The apparitions of Mother Mary in the German village Marpingen originated with three girls and their families. On Monday, July 3, 1876, the adult population of the village was engaged in haymaking. Since this work was too difficult for children, the eight year-old girls, Margaretha Kunz (1868-1905), Katharina Hubertus (1868-1904) and Susanna Leist (1868-1884) were sent out to pick berries in the nearby forest, called Härtelwald. [Image at right] As they were turning to go home, after the Angelus sounded before dawn, one of the three saw a white figure, which was confirmed by the two others. At home they shared their experience with their parents, who were skeptical initially. They might have seen a woman from the village, the father of Susanna Leist suggested. His wife ordered the girls: “Go back into the woods tomorrow, pray, and if you see her again ask who she is; if she says she is the Immaculately Conceived, then she is the Blessed Virgin.” The girls did what they were asked, and they soon the figure was identified as the Virgin Mary. Families and neighbours became more and more convinced, all the more as Mary began to appear more often to the girls.

There were some miraculous cures, and the visionaries invited the villagers to follow them to the place in the Härtel-forest and to touch the feet of the Mother of God in order to be cured. The pride of the girls, who suddenly stood in the centre of the community’s interest, and the Marian piety of the villagers went hand in hand to broaden interest in the events. Within days, Catholics from neighbouring locations were attracted, and pilgrims from the Saarland and even places much further away visited Marpingen. Some estimated 20,000 visitors in the first week, exceeding the numbers of Lourdes in 1876. July and August of 1877 saw between 600 and 1,200 believers daily taking communion in the parish church. Finally, the apparitions stopped on September 3, 1877. The three visionaries and their families were removed from Marpingen in May 1878, and they were required to stay in the Convent of the Poor Child Jesus in Echternach, Luxembourg.

Social, social-psychological, cultural and other context are critical to understanding the Marian apparitions at Marpingen. In the 1870s, Marpingen was a poor, small village of 1,600 inhabitants in the Saarland, the western part of Germany. Located twenty-five kilometers north of Saarbrücken, the secluded place became the center of Marian interest in 1876. [Image at right]

Economically, Germany experienced a Great Depression beginning in 1873 (Gründerkrach), which didn’t leave Marpingen untouched. The village was impoverished enough and could not live on its own agrarian products. Most farmers were poor goat peasants. During the week, the men had to earn extra wages in the mines outside the village. The farmer-miners were complaining about low wages in these years, since the mines also paid a price for the economic depression. The economic crisis was accompanied by a serious religious and political crisis: The culture war (Kulturkampf) between state and church reached its peak in the mid-1870s. Marpingen was close to the border of France, which longed for revenge for the lost war and Alsace-Lorraine. [Image at right] This was not the only transnational aspect of the story, since Lourdes and the tendencies toward standardization of Marian devotion in the wake of ultramontanism turned out to be crucial for the apparitions in Marpingen. Thus, there were plenty of reasons for villagers to be fearful, to complain and to imitate role models which were successful abroad.

The apparitions met the expectation that in times of crisis the Blessed Virgin would give comfort. Her appearance also made villagers hope to profit from the positive commercial effects of becoming a prominent place of pilgrimage. Marpingen hoped to become the “German Lourdes.”

The apparitions at Marpingen also had an important gender dimension. Because most able-bodied men worked in the mines during the week, the population of Marpingen on those days predominantly consisted of women, children, and old men. Wives were left alone to run the village. Marian apparitions fell on fruitful ground in this female context. This was the situation when the first apparitions started on Monday, July 3, 1876. Until the next Friday there were five days in which the situation dramatized without the working men. The first supporters of the apparitions were women like Katharina Leist, while her husband, who was sick and retired and thus in Marpingen, wiped the thing away as some misconception. On the second evening, twenty children and six women, from the families or neighbours, gathered in the Härtel-forest. Men only appeared on July 5. They included the father of Katharina Hubertus, the publican, the schoolteacher, and later that evening Nikolaus Recktenwald, an unemployed miner suffering from rheumatism. After the children told him to touch Mary’s foot, he felt that he had been cured. This miracle was of considerable importance in shaping the opinion of the villagers as was the fact that men of reputation on that evening approved the apparition claims of the three children. Nevertheless, the role of the local women in nursing the cult remained central. Women also comprised the vast majority of the pilgrims, which can be understood in the wider context of the feminization of Catholic piety during the nineteenth century.

The situation in Marpingen had many collateral effects. The wish to profit from adult attention drove some other children in 1877 to claim Our Lady has also appeared to them. These “rival children,” though, were unable to gain any of the prominence of the three original seers. The satirical journals took full advantage of the events. Apparitions of the Holy Virgin were imitated in other places like in Poznan (Prussia), where in 1877 Polish children claimed to have seen her. Variations of Marpingen became popular. For example, people saw an apparition of Mary in a medicine bottle filled with water from Marpingen that was located in the window of a house. This attracted more than 5.000 pilgrims in the area close to the city of Koblenz.

In the years and decades after 1877, the number of pilgrims fell to a handful daily. Even the claim of Elisa Recktenwald in 1883 (one of the “rival children” of 1877) that Our Lady had appeared to her could not slow the downturn. The complaint and message from Mary to her was “Have I not appeared already to so many children? Yet so few have believed.” There was a new peak of pilgrims in the early years under Adolf Hitler and another one in the post-war years. A visitors-book of 1947 shows that the average number of visitors to the chapel was as high as twenty-two a day.

Another brief revival of Marian apparition claims emerged in the late 1990s. Between May and October 1999, three women again claimed to have had contact to Mary, although they reported different experiences. Marion Guttmann, a thirty year-old housewife, reported seeing her; Christine Ney, who was twenty-four and learning musical education, reported hearing her; and Judith Hiber, who was thirty-five and an assistant in law, reported to badly hear and badly see her. None of them was from Marpingen, however, and community inhabitants were skeptical about the “humbug.”


The apparitions in Marpingen lacked any kind of special doctrine or belief, rather they were a typical manifestation of the pious fashion concerning Our Lady in the nineteenth century, one which incorporated all the typical ingredients which had emerged since the beginning of the century. Earlier Marian phenomena were reported by men, mostly priests, while in the nineteenth century it was women and children who dominated the scene. Classic Marian cults like Guadalupe in Spain or Czestochowa in Poland, both originating in the fourteenth century, dealt with miraculous objects attracting adoration.

The rejuvenated cultic activity in the nineteenth century was centred around apparitions of the Virgin Mary herself, often revealing messages or admonitions, such as to pray more frequently. After these sorts of apparitions happened to Cathérine Labouré in a cloister in Paris (1830/1831) and to two young cowherds in La Salette (1846) during a famine, the most famous event involved Bernardette Soubirous in Lourdes (1858). Finally, all the necessary elements of the modern Marian apparition were complete: the simplicity of the female, young visionary, a message, miraculous cures, the sceptical reactions of the parish priest and over-reacting civil authorities. The new type of Marian apparitions in the nineteenth century was “a French creation” (Blackbourn 1995:4). The apparitions of the Blessed Virgin in Lourdes provided a transnational text to refer to from different angles: for Catholics as a blueprint, for national liberals as a sign of lacking national loyalty. Catholics explicitly hoped to establish a “German Lourdes” in Marpingen. The international charisma of Lourdes appeared infectious. But how could Margaretha, Katharina and Susanne know about this blueprint? How could eight year-old girls contribute to the standardization of Marian devotion in Europe? Their parents and older sisters (one of them wanted to become a nun) and the teacher in primary school were dwelling in Marian piety, and the local priest Jakob Neureuter preached about the apparitions in Lourdes. The French events were a major topic in the media during these years, especially since the first organized German pilgrimage to Lourdes in 1875. The whole village was deeply immersed in Marian adoration. Soon after the apparitions, Catholic newspapers discussed the “German Lourdes,” the “Rhenish Lourdes,” the “second Lourdes,” or the “Bethlehem of Germany.”

Part of the standardization of Marian cult was that most messages delivered by her were quite similar to those uttered in Lourdes and other places: To pray more. Prophecies of the girls were hardly touching major issues like war or starvation, but rather local situations. One of the visionaries later confessed: the people asked for miracles and so we gave them some. Some messages were adapted to Marpingen if the situation required it. The priest, who went after the girls in order to observe them, was informed that the Virgin did not want him to follow the girls. Another message addressed the commercial interests of Catholic merchants. The Blessed Virgin, as a rumor in Marpingen went round, instructed people, “not to shop any longer with the Jews,” some of whom were traders and lived in the neighboring Tholey.

Another part of this standardization was that Mary no longer appeared in colourful clothes anymore but rather in white or blue. After the three girls have learned that they met the Immaculately Conceived, the visions were constantly “improved” and “corrected” by the parents. It was the parents, not the children, who reported a blue sash that Mary was wearing, a detail known from the role model in Lourdes. Many ideas were simply proposed to the children who just agreed to the suggestions. When the children were asked whether the Virgin was carrying a golden Crown and Jesus in her arm, the children readily agreed. The Marpingen Mary more and more resembled the one in Lourdes.

The messages of Our Lady in 1999 were given to the three female seers, who recorded them, and when Mary was gone, the cassette was played to the excited audience. One of the messages was: “It is all in my plan for this place to grow together. Do not be afraid, my children. Trust, trust with all your heart; and place your fears and needs in my Immaculate Heart.” Though the messages were quite minor (to pray along the rosary, to stop abortion and to obey the pope), thousands came to participate in the events, which happened only on weekends. Church services were offered for the public in the chapel, which was built in 1932, and thousands went to the near-by dwell which they believed to contain holy water. Hermann-Joseph Spital, the bishop of Trier, forbade talk about “apparitions” and about the “visionaries.” Instead, acceptable discussion should be about “events in the Härtel-forest.” Marpingen is a place where Mary continues to be worshiped.


Soon after the initial apparitions, women from the village went to the place of the apparitions in the forest to place flowers. People came from near and far to participate in the phenomenon. The most compelling reason to go there was the prospect of miraculous healing. People who were blind, deaf, rheumatic, arthritic, or who suffered from the consequences of typhoid or smallpox, went to the site of the apparitions. They repeated the prescribed prayers while their hands were guided to the spot where the Virgin supposedly appeared. Some were disabled and arrived in wheelchairs, hoping for grace and cure. Many visitors were welcomed to stay overnight in private rooms, since Marpingen was hard to reach. The nearest train station was located in St. Wendel, seven kilometers away. The business of quartering boomed, and the taverns were full.

In the first days after July 3, 1876 about 4,000 people visited the site; in the second week of the apparitions 20,000 people came to Marpingen. Since that time, people came more frequently on weekends or for Marian festivals. They received communion and went to the site of the apparitions in order to pray. There was a final wave of pilgrims in the phase between July and September 1877, sometimes reaching 9,000 pilgrims a day, because the Holy Virgin had announced that she was ending her visits. Especially on the predicted last days of the apparitions during the first three days of September 1877, there were 30,000 visitors. In her last appearance Our Mary reportedly said: “I will be back in hard times”.

Most also drank the miraculous water in the Härtel-forest. The water from the dwell near the apparitions was believed to have miraculous potential and was sold for consumption by the needy. A pilgrim from Trier filled a twelve liter jug and carried it home by foot in February 1877. Not only the villagers profited. Retailers from outside Marpingen opened ambulant shops in order to sell devotional objects.


Many famous sites of pilgrimage in the nineteenth century were gathering places, such as the pilgrimage to the Holy Robe in Trier 1844 or Lourdes since 1858. Many organizations formed or were involved in bringing the pilgrims in such places. Marpingen is an example of the opposite. The movement came from below. There was no ecclesiastical architecture which supported the events and no hierarchical institution which could evaluate the evidence of the apparitions. Marpingen belonged to the diocese of Trier. During the culture war between state and church (Kulturkampf), which raged between 1871 and 1878, the bishop of Trier, Matthias Eberhard, was arrested in 1874. Thus, the diocese was left without a bishop. Eberhard died in May 1876, shortly before the apparitions in Marpingen began. It was not until 1881 before a new bishop was elected, Michael Felix Korum. Also, there was no dean in St. Wendel, the deanary responsible for Marpingen. The church suffered losses not only on the top level but also on the level of ordinary staff. Many priests were arrested or, if they had died, were not replaced by a new one because, among other things, the state asked for an official state exam in higher education (Kulturexamen), which the church refused. Of the 731 parishes of the diocese, 230 were without leadership.

The position of Jakob Neureuter, the parish-priest who supervised his flock in Marpingen since 1864, was particularly stressful. He personally believed in the apparitions but was ecclesiastically required to be cautious until an official investigation approved them. But without a bishop there was no official investigation of the type that the bishop of Regensburg could initiate for the apparitions in Mettenbuch (1876). Neureuter was left alone in keeping the collective emotions under control, standing between the emphatic expectations of his flock, the regulations of the church, and the hostility challenging his village from outside.

In the absence of a bishop in Trier, Johann Theodor Laurent (1804-1884), Apostolic Vicar in Luxembourg and titular bishop of Chersones, was asked to write a report on the apparitions. He uttered serious doubts about them, about Mary’s “frequent changes of dress,” and of her words, which often were only a “mere aping” of Lourdes. He suggested that perhaps everything was a diabolical delusion, since the visionaries also met Lucifer sometimes. The bishop played a crucial role in the fact that the apparitions at Trier were never approved.

The pilgrims, who flooded Marpingen, represented lower social status groups; the bourgeoisie, such as academics (Bildungsbürger) and upper status businessmen (Wirtschaftsbürger) was missing. Some wives of the Catholic nobility were committed, most prominent among them: Princess Helene of Thurn und Taxis, and in 1877 the mother of the Bavarian King and the sister of the Austrian Kaiser.

The apparitions and religious worship in Marpingen, as in many places, were part of a strong wave of Marian apparitions that occurred during the Italian and German unification wars in the decade between 1866 (Philippsdorf) and 1877, with a peak around 1870 in Italy and in Alsace. The events and their consequences were not isolated phenomena but rather were national and transnational. Embedded in European texts and contexts, Marpingen both resulted from previous apparitions in other places in other countries and also inspired new apparitions in different places. Marian apparitions were communicated beyond borders and sparked off new events. For example, when a statue in honour of the Virgin was consecrated in Lourdes, 100,000 Catholics were present, among them thirty-five bishops and 5,000 priests. This event happened on July 3, 1876, the very same day when 894 kilometres away from Lourdes three girls in the Härtel-forest reported seeing a white figure during early evening.

The (missing) church hierarchy in Trier and the centre of ultramontane adoration, Rome, played a minor role in the events in Marpingen. A correspondent from the Berlin Catholic newspaper “Germania” wrote an article in the “Civiltà Cattolica,” promulgating the consecration of a chapel at the place of the apparitions. It was not until 1932 that private initiative lead to the erection of a Marian chapel for pilgrims at the site of the apparitions. [Image at right] All of this occurred during years that saw dramatic unemployment in the region. The authorities of the church in Trier refused to consecrate the chapel because they didn’t want to encourage superstition. Some elderly women in 1934, 1935 and 1937 tried to move the situation forward by claiming to have seen Mother Mary. While the church labeled them “hysterical women,” the flow of pilgrims to Marpingen grew again during the regime of National-Sozialism. In the post-war years and through the 1950s, there was pressure from pious agitators who tried to convince the ecclesiastical hierarchy to consecrate the chapel but they failed. A consecration, which would have been an official approval of the visions, has never happened.


Ten days after the first apparition, armed infantry invaded the village expelling the pilgrims with means of force. Some people were seriously injured, and access to the forest was closed. But neither the army nor the additional gendarmes, who were sent to Marpingen to control the situation and to seal the area where the pilgrims gathered, could stop the Holy Virgin. Now she appeared in barns and houses within the village. The army occupied the village for a couple of weeks. Authorities interviewed the people involved. Among those examined were the parish-priest Jakob Neureuter and the visionaries.

Catholic and liberal newspapers across Germany reported the events from different angles. While Catholic newspapers emphasized the status of the villagers as victims, the liberal position surmised a clerical complot behind the events. For them Catholics were superstitious and nationally not reliable. They considered the gathering of thousands of people as a case of breach of the public peace. The parish priest and several villagers were arrested and put on trial. The three girls, who started it all, were the subjects of intense interrogations. Nevertheless, the events extended into the year 1877.

Marpingen had to pay a high price for wishing to become a “German Lourdes” and to improve the low community income by means of becoming a centre for pilgrims. The events had a serious aftermath. The penalties included that the village was liable to pay 4,000 marks for hosting troops it never asked for, and also that the investigations involved hundreds of people, villagers and priests. On January 16, 1878, the conduct of the army and bureaucracy in Marpingen was discussed prominently in the Prussian lower house. Members of the Centre party had tabled a motion, calling for reimbursement of the 4,000 marks, the rescinding or the ban to enter the Härtel-forest, and disciplinary measures against the officials involved.

The most serious cases against agitators involved led to a legal tribunal. In the beginning, the investigations concentrated on sedition, riotous assembly, and breach of the peace. After realizing that these accusations were untenable, investigators moved to accuse individuals of fraud and deception. The trial against nineteen individuals started in March 1879 in Saarbrücken with 170 witnesses against the defendants and only twenty-six supporting them.

In both cases, before trial and in parliament, the prominent attorney Julius Bachem was one of the fiercest defenders of the Catholic case, not in the sense that he believed in the apparitions of the Virgin Mary in Marpingen, but in the social and legal sense and because he belonged to the same Catholic milieu. At the end, the motion in Parliament was denied, but in court none of the nineteen people charged was convicted.

Later avowals of Margaretha Kunz reveal that they probably only had seen stacked-up wood with the white side pointing outwards. But it was half-dark, and Susanna Leist’s outcry “Grechten, Kätchen, look, over there is a women in white” frightened them and created a collective suggestion. The “great mistake” had been “to believe us immediately instead of calming us down.” It was all “one big lie,” Margaretha confessed in 1889. But as they were climbing in the hierarchy of respect among the villagers, as reporters and priests idolized them, they enjoyed their growing prominence and kept playing the role expected from them.

Marpingen continues to attract some individual pilgrims who worship Mother Mary. After some years of investigation, the bishop of Trier, Reinhard Marx, declared in 2005 that neither the supposed apparitions of 1876 nor those of 1999 were confirmed by the church. The chapel was never consecrated. Marpingen never made it to become the “German Lourdes.” But the Marpingen-Mary of 1999 made it at least into a quartet with the topic Marian apparitions (“the most glamorous appearances of the Holy Virgin in 32 playing cards”), even if only in the category: “not approved.”


Image #1: The three seers of 1876 (photo: Stiftung Marpinger Kulturbesitz).
Image #2: Stielers Karte von Deutschland in 25 Blatt, Gotha 1875.
Image #3: Section of the Map containing Marpingen.
Image #4: Gregor Hinsberger, Marien-Verehrungsstätte Härtelwald Marpingen, Marpingen, 2003.
Image #5: Marpingen and Lourdes in the quartet of Weltquartett, Hamburg.


Blackbourn, David. 1995. Marpingen. Apparitions of the Virgin Mary in a Nineteenth-Century German Village. New York: Vintage.

Blackbourn, David. 2007. Marpingen. Das deutsche Lourdes in der Bismarckzeit. Saarbrücken: Association for the Promotion of the Saarbrücken State Archive.

Blaschke, Olaf. 2020. “Vom ‘Kulturkampf‘ an der Saar bis zum ‘Burgfrieden‘ (1870–1918).” Pp. 255-86 in Reformation, Religion und Konfession an der Saar (1517–2017), edited by Gabriele Clemens and Stephan Laux. Saarbrücken.

Blaschke, Olaf. 2020. “Pilgrimages, Modernity, and Ultramontanism in Germany.” Pp. 166-89 in Nineteenth-Century European Pilgrimages: A New Golden Age, edited by Antón M. Pazos. Abingdon.

Blaschke, Olaf. 2016. “Marpingen: A Remote Village and its Virgin in a Transnational Context.” Pp. 83-107 in Roberto di Stefano and Francisco Javier Ramón Solans (Hg.), Marian Devotions, Political Mobilization, and Nationalism in Europe and America. Houndmills: Palgrave MacMillan.

Rebbert, Joseph. 1877. Marpingen und seine Gegner. Apologetische Zugabe zu den Schriften und Berichten über Marpingen, Metenbuch und Dittrichswalde. Ein Schutz- und Trutzbüchlein für das katholische Volk. Paderborn.

Schneider, Bernhard. 2008. Ein “deutsches Lourdes”? Der “Fall” Marpingen (1876 und 1999) und die Elemente eines kirchlichen Prüfungsverfahrens. Pp. 178-99 in Maria und Lourdes. Wunder und Marienerscheinungen in theologischer und kulturwissenschaftlicher Perspektive, edited by Bernhard Schneider. Münster.

Publication Date:
15 March 2021


Eddy Family



1842:  Horatio Eddy was born.

1841 (or 1842):  William Eddy was born.

1844:  Mary Eddy was born.

1848: Two young teenage sisters, Kate and Maggie Fox of Hydesville, New York, claimed to be in communication with a spirit through “rappings.”

1849 (November 14):  Kate and Maggie Fox, along with sister Leah, billed as “The Fox Sisters;” demonstrated their spirit communications at Rochester, New York’s Corinthian Hall.

1862 (July 13):  Zephania Eddy died.

1864:  William, Horatio, and Mary Eddy began their career performing public séances, staged and managed by the “magnetic practitioner” William Fitzgibbons.

1865:  After a time staging public séances in Chittenden, Vermont, the three siblings become a traveling act managed by J.H. Randall.

1866 (December):  William and Mary toured with Ira Davenport, founder of the Davenport Brothers.

1872 (December 29):  Julia Eddy died.

1873 (September):  Increasingly elaborate séances staged both indoors and outdoors drew increasingly large audiences to the Eddy farm in Chittenden.

1874 (August):  Journalist Henry Steel Olcott visited the Spirit Vale for five days, on assignment from the New York Sun. He published a letter in the Sun the following week, describing his experience. He returned shortly afterward as an investigator for the Daily Graphic, stayed for twelve weeks, and reported his experiences in a series of articles.

1874 (November):  Shaker Elder Frederick Evans witnessed a series of séances at the Eddy farm, reporting that over thirty spirits materialized in one session.

1875 (March):  An Eddy-trained assistant confessed to fraud after a highly public exposure, claiming that he was performing as the Eddys taught him.

1875 (April):  Olcott published People from the Other World.

1875 (July):  Mary Eddy no longer was involved in family performances, instead giving séances solo, in Chittenden.

1875 (November 26):  The New York Sun published a detailed expose of fraudulent practices at the Eddy Homestead. Operations in the house ceased, and the family scattered, taking up separate careers.

1910 (December 31):  Mary Eddy died.

1922 (September 8):  Horatio Eddy died.

1932 (October 25):  William Eddy died.


Simultaneously a religion, a focus of scientific study, and a highly popular form of public entertainment, Spiritualism, and the practice of public mediumship that purportedly validated it, perfectly exemplified the confluence of religious enthusiasm, empirical inquiry, and popular entertainment that characterized American culture in the mid-nineteenth century. When the teenage sisters, Kate, Maggie, and Leah Fox of Hydesville, New York launched the Spiritualist movement in 1949 by performances in front of fascinated Rochester audiences in which they claimed to be communicating with spirits, their resultant fame inspired any number of similar performances. The Eddy Family were among the most famous, and most notorious, of the many public medium entertainment acts that rose up in the wake of the Fox Sisters’ celebrity.

In their 1870s heyday, the spectacular séances the Eddy Family conducted on their family farm in Chittenden, Vermont [Image at right] brought them international attention in the form of newspaper coverage and thousands of visitors who believed they were truly witnessing spirit materializations. Factual information concerning the history or background of the Eddys, however, is scarce. The parents Zephaniah (1804-1862) and his wife Julia (1813-1872), made a living as farmers, supplemented their income by taking boarders and travelers into their home, and together had eleven children. Of the siblings, Horatio, William, and Mary were the most active, first performing public séances as spiritual and physical mediums on a traveling circuit, and eventually in their own home and on the family land.

The most extensive account of the Eddys, Henry Steel Olcott’s People From the Other World, contains enough unverifiable information as to not be fully credible, despite the author’s solid journalistic credentials. According to him, the children inherited from their Scottish mother Julia the power of “foreseeing,” which was passed down the female line of her family, and Julia identified as a Spiritualist, over her husband’s objections. The epitaph on Julia’s tomb, “Entered the World of Spirits Dec 29, 1972” does suggest genuine Spiritualist inclinations [Image at right]. No historical record exists, however, to support Olcott’s additional assertion that Julia’s great-great-great grandmother was tried and sentenced to death at Salem for witchcraft in 1692, and neighbors cited in newspaper accounts dispute it. Olcott’s claim that Zephaniah hired out several of the children as a traveling act, during which time they suffered various forms of physical and emotional abuse, is often repeated in stories about the family circulated in popular media. No record of any public performance by any member of the family is available before William, Mary, and Horatio’s debut in 1864, however, which was two years after Zephaniah’s death, when the siblings were all well into their early twenties. Such elements of the family’s backstory, their mother’s hereditary gifts, the early childhood communication with spirits, and ill-treatment and physical abuse in the hands of cruel family members or over-enthusiastic skeptics, are in fact typical of the genre of Spiritualist origin narratives.

For many believers, their apparently spectacular performances summoning and interacting with spirits justified the validity of Spiritualism. Perhaps in order to lend credence to the veracity of spirit encounters, the earliest public séances that William, Horatio, and Mary endeavored were billed as scientific exhibitions rather than religious experiences. William Fitzgibbons, who managed their first traveling exhibition, had previously advertised himself as a magnetic practitioner. For whatever reason, this framing failed to attract audiences. An early performance, staged in Fitzgibbons’ home as a scientific exhibition of “Human Magnetism and Human Electricity,” was pronounced “tedious” by a visiting reporter, and the Eddys “homely and awkward and badly dressed.” Appearing with the Eddys at this same exhibition was professional medium Jennie Ferris, described by the same reporter as “more intelligent and attractive.” Shortly thereafter, the three Eddys and Mrs. Ferris toured as a troupe under Fitzgibbons, very likely learning more professional staging methods and manners during that time. The troupe apparently disbanded in January 1865.

After a few months during which the family conducted public séances in Chittenden, Mary, William, and Horatio resumed traveling performances under the management of J.H. Randall for the remainder of 1865. Probably in response to an exposure scandal as well as an apparent falling-out among the siblings (both notably frequent occurrences in their career), the Eddys retreated from public performances until about December 1866. At that time, William and Mary began traveling (without Horatio) with Ira Davenport on a well-established Spiritualist circuit.

Ira Davenport was father and manager of the Davenport Brothers. Ira and William, the eponymous brothers, were among the first and most famous of the big-name traveling medium acts. Stage magicians by training, their séances featured a piece of stage furniture called a spirit cabinet, a long, narrow box just large enough for two mediums to sit opposite each other within, with holes in various locations that allowed assistants to tie their hands with ropes to prevent trickery, and through which the spirits could emerge to interact with the audience. [Image at right] Another feature of their act was a variety of musical instruments arranged on the cabinet floor that spirits supposedly picked up and played (badly, according to some reports). When some years later the Eddys began conducting séances on their family farm, they notably adapted both of these staging elements.

William and Mary Eddy continued touring with Davenport until January 1867, when they were arrested in Syracuse for performing without a license. After several more exposure scandals, including quarreling siblings exposing each other mid-séance, William, Mary, and Horatio toured separately until approximately 1869.

After a three-year hiatus, during which their mother and an older sister died, the Eddys began to hold daily séances, with increasingly spectacular manifestations. The séances were held on their family farm, which came to be known as The Spirit Vale. Thousands of visitors came to witness these performances, often staying for days or even weeks at a time in the family home, run as a separate business called The Green Tavern. Visitors paid only a modest fee for room and board; the daily séances were conducted free of charge.

The spectacular, seemingly authentic, and apparently convincing Spirit Vale performances soon attracted high-profile attention. On August 28, 1874, the highly respected lawyer, journalist, and military officer Col. Henry Steel Olcott, visited the Spirit Vale, on assignment from the New York Sun. After publishing a letter in the Sun on September 5 describing his experience, Olcott returned as an investigative correspondent for the Daily Graphic. During his stay, he published a lengthy series of letters, detailing the various phenomena he witnessed and relating the history of the Eddy family. He provided detailed drawings of the house and its architecture, the indoor séance room, and the outdoor site, along with his own eyewitness account, as evidence of the authenticity of the manifestations.

During Olcott’s stay, two other important figures also visited the Spirit Vale. One was Helena Blavatsky, who became Olcott’s life partner and co-founder of the Theosophical Society. The other was Elder Frederick Evans, one of the pre-eminent public figures of the Shaker movement. For Evans and other like-minded Shakers, the Eddy séances justified and reinforced the role of Spiritualism in Shaker belief, a position by no means universally held within the movement itself.

Although Olcott’s publication in 1875 of People from the Other World, his book-length account of his experience with the Eddys, brought them greater fame, their reputation precipitously declined near the end of that year. The Eddys, famously intolerant of skeptics and unhappy with what they perceived as Olcott’s failure to fully authenticate their performances, began banning journalists from their séances altogether. While rumors of fraud and the ill-will of the Eddy’s Chittenden neighbors had been a recurrent theme in various newspaper accounts, negative reporting intensified after an incident in March. When D.F. Westcott, a Spiritualist from nearby Fair Haven, hired an Eddy assistant named Chaplin for one of his own séances, the performance at first was disappointing. After a tall spirit emerged and did nothing in particular, soon “a little, dumpy” one appeared and “began to mope about in the darkness, whereupon a skeptic in the audience “made a spring and landed square on the back of the supposed spirit.” Thus literally caught in blatant fakery, Chaplin not only “acknowledged that the whole thing was a humbug,” but asserted that he was performing as the Eddy’s taught him.

On November 26, 1875, The New York Sun ran a spectacular expose providing detailed evidence of the Eddy’s fraudulent practices. Their account and that of other major east coast newspapers that quickly picked up the story suggest that the evidence was provided by one of the sisters, and allude as well to violent quarreling among the siblings. The account included a description of the secret passage that ran between the chimney of the home and the spirit cabinet [Image at right] where family members sat during their sessions, with siblings not typically seen during the sessions donning an array of costumes for the performances.

In the aftermath of the sustained negative publicity, most of the family went their separate ways. According to one account, William had moved out just before the scandal, leaving the house to Horatio. After a short time in Moravia, New York then Ancora, New Jersey with some other siblings, William resumed life as a traveling medium. After another arrest in February 1878, when family members were arrested in Albany for practicing Spiritualism without an entertainer’s license, the sympathetic Shaker Elder Evans invited William and the other family members who had been traveling with them to come to his community in Mt. Lebanon. William and unnamed other sibling  resumed conducting séances there in a Shaker-built spirit cabinet.  Horatio remained in the house, and by June was practicing spirit photography.  Mary continued to work as a medium until the 1800s. Her death in December 1910 permanently ended her long career. Horatio lived until 1922, and William until 1932. [Image at right]


Little available evidence suggests that the Eddys were practicing Spiritualists, or that their performances originated out of any specific religious beliefs. Henry Olcott’s account describes their father, and most of the families of the region, as strict Methodists but that their mother Julia had Spiritualist affiliation.  The epitaph “Passed to Spirit Life” on William’s gravestone suggests that he at least took some spiritualist tenets seriously. Nonetheless, the influence, the Eddy séances exerted a remarkable influence on other important religious movements of the time. Helena Blavatsky apparently traveled to Chittenden in October 1874 on behest of her Master. Had she not done so and not met Olcott, Theosophy, one of the foundations of twentieth-century Western occultism, may not have developed. Marc Demarest asserts: “Henry Steel Olcott’s People from the Other World, as much as any document, marks the beginning of Spiritualism’s declension, and the first tentative constructions of the modern occult.” In his study of the relationship between the Eddys and the Mt. Lebanon Shakers, Christian Goodwillie concludes that despite the evident fraudulence of the Eddy performances, their mutual association furthered “the broader goals of Shakerism in concert with the global explosion of Spiritualism as a practical religion.” Even the most scathing and skeptical of the many newspaper exposes published during their career were hesitant to conclude that the fraudulence of the Eddys meant that Spiritualism itself was fraudulent.


Little available evidence suggests that the Eddys were practicing Spiritualists, or that their performances originated out of any specific religious beliefs.Once the family had stopped traveling and settled down at the Spirit Vale, séances took place in the Circle Room, a large, long loft above the main family quarters,with the spirit cabinet placed at one end and the audience in rows some distance away. A rail separated the audience from the mediums. During a day’s session, the Eddys typically offered three types of séances: light (held in daylight), dark (at night or in darkness), and outdoors. The favored locale for the outdoor sessions was a rock formation known as Honto’s Cave, so named for the spirit of a Native American woman who was supposed to reside there, and who was a favorite manifestation. [Image at right] The Eddys specialized in multiple manifestations, several spirits at a time and/or large numbers (twenty or fifty or so) in one session. Sometimes the spirits would appear as loved ones of audience members and converse with them; at other times the spirits took the form of local Native people. During Madame Blavatsky’s visit, many of the spirits were European, and the Shaker audiences found themselves communicating with the spirits of their departed elders. [Image at right]


The three primary mediums in the Eddy performances were William, Horatio, and Mary. Their career underwent three phases: traveling as part of a performing troupe between 1864 and 1869 under various managers, the Spirit Vale period between 1873 and 1875, during which the entire family participated in séances, and after 1875, when the family scattered. William and some other siblings lived among the Shakers, and other siblings took up solo careers as mediums, spirit photographers, and the like. The most significant period of traveling troupe performances began in December 1866 when William and Mary began traveling with The Davenport Brothers who innovated much of the stagecraft the Eddy’s and other acts successfully appropriated. The Spirit Vale sessions apparently involved the entire family, with William, Mary, and Horatio as primary mediums and other siblings assisting behind the scenes. After these sessions ended, the family went their separate ways in different groupings.


Unlike the Fox Sisters, who themselves confessed to the fraudulence of their spirit communications, the similarly and repeatedly discredited Eddys were clearly more focused on mediumship as money-making entertainment than as a spiritual practice. Threats of exposure were part and parcel of any mediumistic exhibition, if for no other reason than any failure of skeptics to prove fraud enhanced the reputation of the mediums. Thus skeptics as well as true believers made up a significant portion of any public séance audience, and the tone of the many newspaper accounts of mediumistic performances alternated between celebratory affirmation of the existence of an afterlife and ironic mockery of audience credulity. Although the Eddy séances were celebrated for their seeming authenticity and their Spirit Vale performances drew the attention of intelligent scholars and religious leaders, the self-evident fraudulence of their performances undermined not only their credibility, but the credibility of serious and authentic practicing Spiritualists.

Numerous other factors besides the perennial issue of authenticity led to a general erosion of Spiritualism in the early twentieth century. Nonetheless, some other forms of Spiritualism have persevered in the United States, such as Spiritualist churches and camps, and Spiritualist practice within Black communities that finds current expression in cultural, African-centered practices.


Image #1: The Eddy Homestead.
Image #2: Julia Eddy’s gravestone.
Image #3: Davenport Poster.
Image #4: The Eddy’s Cabinet.
Image #5: William and Horario Eddy.
Image #7: Honto’s Cave.
Image #8: Spirits Visitation.


“An Evening with the Spirits.” 1864. Brooklyn Daily Eagle, November 11.

Benoit, Brian. 2020. “Ghosted: The Eddy Family’s Questionable Claims to Occult Powers in Nineteenth Century Vermont.” Readex Blog. Accessed from on 8 March 2021.

Demarest, Marc. 2015, “Honto’s Cave: Some Notes on the Mediumship of the Eddy Family.” Chasing Down Emma: Resolving the Contradictions of, and Filling the Gaps in, the Live, Work and World of Emma Hardinge Britten. Accessed from on 8 March 2021.

Goodwillie, Christian. 2015. “Light and Dark Sides of Spiritualism: The Eddy Brothers and the Shakers.” Communal Societies Quarterly 9:200-22.

“The Eddy Brothers.” 1875. Boston Globe, February 2.

“The Eddy’s Humbug Exposed.” 1875. The Albany Times, March 23.

“The Latest Performance of the Eddys.” 1876. Rutland Daily Globe, June 22.

The Theosophist. 1908. 29:9.

Land, Grebory R. 2020. Spiritualism in the American Civil War. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company.

Olcott, Henry Steel. 1875. People from the Other World. Hartford, CT: American Publishing Company. 1875.

Publication Date:
15 March 2021






Catholic Charismatic Renewal



1967:  The Catholic Charismatic Renewal (CCR) was founded.

1967–1980s (early):  Protestant expansion and acculturation took place.

1975 (May 18-19):  The first world Charismatic Renewal gathering took place in the presence of Pope Paul VI in St Peter’s Square, Rome.

1978:  The International Catholic Charismatic Renewal Services (ICCRS) was founded.

1980s-1990s:  The Catholic Charismatic Renewal integrated within the Catholic matrix.

1981:  The International Catholic Charismatic Renewal Offices (ICCRO) were created.

1998 (May 27-29):  The founders and leaders of fifty-seven ecclesial movements and new communities met with Pope John Paul II in St Peter’s Square, Rome.

1990s (late)-2020:  Rapprochement with neo-Pentecostals was achieved.

2000s:  Evangelical and Pentecostal elements were introduced into the wider Catholicism, going beyond the Charismatic Renewal in the strict sense of the term.

2017 (June 3):  A CCR gathering celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in the presence of Pope Francis in Circus Maximus, Rome.

2018:  The Catholic Charismatic Renewal International Service (CHARIS) was founded.


The Charismatic Renewal was born in January 1967 when four lay teachers from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, experienced baptism in the Holy Spirit in a group of Episcopalian Pentecostals. Their experience quickly spread outside student circles and the United States, giving rise to a multitude of Catholic assemblies gathering to pray “the Pentecostal way.” In less than ten years, the movement became established on all continents: in 1969 thirteen countries hosted charismatic prayer groups, and by 1975,  ninety-three countries were involved. In Africa it was so successful that the anthropologist and Jesuit Meinrad Hebga spoke of a “veritable tidal wave” (Hebga 1995:67).

Currently the Charismatic Renewal comprises 19,000,000, representing around ten percent of all Catholics (Barrett and Johnson 2006). The movement has 148,000 prayer groups in 238 countries. Group sizes vary from two to one thousand participants. These groups bring together 13,400,000 people every week. 10,600 priests and 450 bishops around the world are charismatic. But the Charismatic Renewal is mainly a lay movement. After an initial exponential growth (more than twenty percent per year until the 1980s), the advance of the Catholic charismatic movement slowed down considerably. It has nevertheless continued at a rate of 2.7 percent per year since the beginning of the twenty-first century (Barrett and Johnson 2006). It is in the South that growth is currently at its highest, where the charismatic movement particularly resonates with traditional cultures (Aubourg 2014a; Bouchard 2010; Massé 2014; Hoenes del Pinal 2017) while encouraging the rise of leaders such as the Congolese Mama Régine (Fabian 2015), the Cameroonian Meinrad Hebga (Lado 2017), the Beninese Jean Pliya, the Indian James Manjackal, etc.

Four phases can be distinguished in the development of the Charismatic Renewal. The first corresponds to the years of its emergence (1972-1982) during which the Pentecostal experience entered Catholicism. Both sides of the Atlantic saw what the Canadians Pauline Côté and Jacques Zylberberg (1990) called “a Protestant expansion and acculturation.” All over the world prayer groups were formed, some of which gave rise to so-called “new” communities (Landron 2004). These include The Word of God  in the United States (1969); Sodalitium Vita Christianae in Peru (1969); Canção Nova (1978) and Shalom (1982) in Brazil; Emmanuel (1972), Théophanie (1972), Chemin Neuf (1973), Rocher (1975), Pain de vie (1976), and Puits de Jacob (1977) in France; etc. Prayer groups and communities regularly organized large common gatherings conducive to ecumenical relations. It is worth pointing out that links were established not only between Catholic charismatics and Pentecostals, but also with Lutheran and Reformed circles caught up in the “charismatic wave” (Veldhuizen 1995:40).

The initial opening up to Pentecostalism was followed by a phase of withdrawal during which the Charismatic Renewal refocused on its Catholic identity (1982-1997). The Roman institution took care to control it by strengthening its affiliation to the church community as a whole. It sought to contain its effervescence by normalizing its rites and practices. The Renewal also took root within the Catholic matrix out of a conscious desire on the part of the movement itself. Having initially represented an “implicit protest” (Seguy 1979) against the Roman institution, it then made a number of pledges: to use emblematic figures (saints, mystics, popes), reappropriate the history of church tradition, and revive practices that were no longer in use (adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, individual confessions, pilgrimages, Marian devotion, etc.). As expressed by Michel de Certeau, in the Catholic charismatic movements “charisma becomes part of the institution it both upholds and wraps itself in” (De Certeau 1976:12). In some dioceses the Renewal found itself under leaders who imposed prudence and reserve with regard to charismatic expressions. This led to a very clericalized Renewal, which gradually lost its vigor. Emotional expressions became less exuberant. The idea of conversion associated with baptism in the Holy Spirit was euphemized.  Groups such as the Emmanuel community replaced it with the term “outpouring of the Spirit” in order to distance themselves from the experience lived in Protestant circles and diminish its importance in relation to the sacrament of baptism. There were fewer, less spectacular healings. Prayer meetings were conducted in an increasingly repetitive way, becoming veritable paraliturgical assemblies. The regulation of the Renewal eventually led to what sociologist Max Weber describes as the “routinization of charisma” and the “Catholic resocialization of emotions” (Cohen 2001), which was coupled with a decrease in its attractiveness among young people and especially in Western countries. 

The third period is that of rapprochement with the neo-Pentecostals in an effort to revive the Renewal (since 1997). As prayer groups were running out of steam, steps were taken to rekindle the charismatic emotion. They took the form of training courses, prayer meetings, evangelization days, individualized welcome cells, and large gatherings. All these initiatives mobilized elements of the third neo-Pentecostal wave which is characterized by its encouragement of extraordinary divine manifestations under the effect of “Power Evangelism.” The phenomenon spread thanks to specialized preachers who operated within interfaith and international networks and sparked a new religious effervescence that the church institution tried very hard to control.

The fourth so-called “post-charismatic” phase began in the early 2000s.  It corresponds to the introduction of evangelical and Pentecostal elements into Catholicism, going beyond the Charismatic Renewal in the strict sense of the term (Aubourg 2020). This introduction could happen “quietly,” in a capillary fashion, without the faithful necessarily being aware of it, using music (e.g. the pop rock songs of the Australian megachurch Hillsong), books (e.g. The Purpose Driven Church by Californian pastor Rick Warren), discursive practices (e.g. real-life testimony), body techniques (e.g. the prayer of the brothers), objects (e.g. the baptistery for adults), and so on. Prayer groups were also created which were linked to the Charismatic Renewal but did not see themselves as belonging to it, their members coming from a wider range of categories than just Catholic charismatics. This was the case of the Mother’s Prayer groups founded by the Englishwoman Veronica Williams which are now present in ninety-five countries. So-called “missionary” parishes also took their inspiration from evangelical megachurches fully consciously but without being affiliated to the Charismatic Renewal. In doing so, Catholicism borrowed powerful tools from evangelical churches in order to revitalize Catholic practice and slow down the rising curve of religious disaffiliation. In this process of borrowing from the evangelical and Pentecostal world it is worth noting the importance of one particular approach: the Alpha Courses (Rigou Chemin 2011; Labarbe, 2007; Stout and Dein 2013). This evangelizing tool, which is characterized by the conviviality it tries to foster and its well-honed logistical organization, is similar to Pentecostalism in that it focuses its message on developing a personal relationship with Christ, reading the Bible, and “acquiring” the Holy Spirit. Having started in the London Anglican parish of Holy Trinity Brampton (HTB) in 1977, its success has spread throughout the world and in different Christian communities. It has played a key role at three levels: disseminating evangelical practices and tools in the Catholic world, building an international interfaith network of leaders, and implementing a new parish organization model.


“A child of Pentecostalism” in the words of Christine Pina (2001:26), the charismatic movement was initially very directly linked to this branch of evangelical Protestantism since it focused first of all on the practice of charisms: glossolalia (Aubourg 2014b), prophecy (McGuire 1977), healing (Csordas 1983; Charuty 1990; Ugeux 2002). It then emphasized the centrality of the biblical text, conversion (or reconversion), and the explicit proclamation of the kerygma (a message centered on “Jesus Christ having died on the cross for the salvation of humankind”).  Moreover, in the wake of Pentecostalism, the charismatic movement revived the confession of the existence of Satan and his demonic manifestations. It dealt with requests for exorcisms and presented itself as a means to fight against threats of witchcraft (Sagne 1994).

However, from the outset the connection with Pentecostalism raised questions, and Catholics were not content to simply copy its ways. The church institution took care to channel them by setting aside certain elements, such as the insistence on apocalyptic discourse, in favor of others such as respect for hierarchical and governing bodies.


The Charismatic Renewal includes many diverse individuals from all over the world who occasionally take part in various groups and activities: prayer assemblies, conferences, conventions, spiritual retreats, evangelization schools, publishing houses, new communities, etc. However, the Catholic charismatic landscape is organized around two main types of religious groups: communities and prayer groups (Vetö 2012). [Image at right]

Prayer groups do not require intensive commitment from their members and tend to blend in with local church life. Even though their audience is fluid and mobile, prayer groups nevertheless have made an effort at structuring themselves by setting up national coordinating bodies. Prayer groups are led by a shepherd surrounded by a core. In the vast majority of cases, these are lay individuals elected by the other group members. Like Pentecostal assemblies, prayer groups started by Catholics encourage new forms of warm, close-knit sociability. Charismatic prayer puts a lot of emphasis on religious emotions, real-life testimonies, and free expressions of faith. The body plays a central role through rhythmic songs, dances, and numerous gestures and postures such as clapping hands or raising arms.

While spontaneity is the essential feature of charismatic prayer, the latter nevertheless follows a pattern that is repeated every week: the session begins with prayers of praise followed by one or more biblical readings. It ends with collective prayers of intercession and the laying of hands on those individual participants who wish it. Hymns and charismatic manifestations punctuate the meetings (Parasie 2005).

Communities are more visible and better organized than prayer groups. They assert their specific features in relation to each other. Competitive relationships develop among them but also in relation to autonomous prayer groups. Some offer an intense communal life (such as The Word of God in the United States, Béatitudes and Pain de Vie in France) while others (such as Emmanuel) offer a less restrictive way of life. Two processes are at work in these religious groups, which Thomas Csordas describes in terms of “ritualization and radicalization of charisma” (Csordas 2012:100-30). From an administrative point of view they have led to the acquisition of canonical statutes (religious institutes; private or public associations of worshippers governed by diocesan or pontifical law). These communities offer new ways of living together since some are mixed (men and women / priests and lay people / Catholics and Protestants) while others welcome married couples with their children. Most of them encourage their members to wear distinctive clothing or signs: specific shape and color of clothing, stylized cross worn around the neck, sandals, etc. Having gradually taken their place within the Church, the new communities are today entrusted with parishes, abbeys, and ecclesial responsibilities (Dolbeau 2019).

Apart from Pentecostal practices and beliefs, most communities emerging from the Charismatic Renewal have adopted a rigorous orthopraxy, which is characteristic of evangelical milieux. These include strict condemnation of behavior deemed immoral, such as adultery; prohibition of the use of tobacco; mistrust of music, and in particular rock music; prohibition of gambling; and condemnation of yoga, divinatory astrology, or spiritualism (there is, however, a gradation between communities that strongly condemn such practices and those that are less critical of them). Over and above the strictly religious sphere, the changes brought by the experience of being baptized in the Holy Spirit are meant to affect the whole life of a converted Catholic, from their social relations to their daily attitude and representation of society. This ethical dimension also affects gender relations.


After first calling itself “Catholic Pentecostalism,” “neo-Pentecostalism,” or “the Pentecostal movement in the Catholic Church” (O’Connor 1975:18), the charismatic movement came to be referred to as the “Charismatic Renewal.” Very often it is simply called the “Renewal.” Its name aside, there is an ongoing debate between scholars, such as Thomas Csordas, who believe that the Catholic Charismatic Renewal could be characterized as a movement (in the sociological sense of the term), and the leaders of this religious grouping, who refuse to be associated with this theoretical category (Csordas 2012:43).

Initially, the Roman Catholic Church viewed this “Renewal” in a largely skeptical, even negative light. It was deemed uncontrollable and its innovations seemed potentially destabilizing for the institutional system. The movement was also discredited because of its tendency towards an emotional Christianity that seemed to devalue engagement in society and of the perceived arrogant attitude of these newconverts who presented themselves as “the future of the Church.” On May 18 and 19, 1975, on the feast of Pentecost, 12,000 people from over sixty countries took part in the 3rd International Congress of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal held in Rome. [Image at right] Pope Paul VI asked them this question, which would go down in the annals of the Renewal: “How could this Renewal not be an opportunity for the Church and for the world? And how, in this case, could one not take all steps necessary to ensure that it remains so?” By calling the Renewal an “opportunity,” the Pope not only gave the charismatic movement the legitimacy it had hoped for, he also encouraged the development of this “new spring for the Church.” Nevertheless, this support for the Charismatic Renewal has, since 1974, been accompanied by an ecclesial control closely interwoven with the endogenous structuring of the Charismatic Renewal. A series of documents were produced with the aim of regulating charismatic practice, such as those written by Léon-Joseph Suenens, Cardinal of Mechelen-Brussels. Subsequent popes have continued to support the Charismatic Renewal whilst constantly enjoining it to safeguard its Catholic identity. [Image at right]

At an international level, whilst refusing to set up an international governing structure, the Charismatic Renewal did acquire a world coordination office, which in 1981 became known as ICCRO (International Catholic Charismatic Renewal Offices). Originally based in Ann Arbor where Ralph Martin was in charge of a liaison and information bulletin, in 1975 the office was transferred to the bishopric of Mechelen-Brussels, and in 1982 to Rome, in the building that housed the Pontifical Council for the Laity (to be replaced by a dicastery in 2016). The latter recognized it in 1983 (as a private association of worshippers endowed with legal status). The organization was renamed ICCRS (International Catholic Charismatic Renewal Services), its aim being to promote relations between Catholic charismatic entities as well as liaise with the Holy See. In 2018, CHARIS (Catholic Charismatic Renewal International Service) replaced ICCRS. It presents itself as “a communion service and not a governing body,” reaffirming its ecumenical scope. [Image at right]

Locally, bishops designate “diocesan delegates” in their dioceses: priests, deacons, or laypersons whose role is to accompany the Charismatic Renewal groups.

As for the larger communities, the relations of authority within them have given rise to debates and analyses (Plet 1990).


Ultimately, two challenges seem to be facing the CCR and having an impact on its development, if not survival. The first challenge concerns its denominational positioning. From its origin to the present day, the CCR has been navigating between Protestant waters on one side and Catholic waters on the other. It has borrowed from the former (Pentecostalism) the elements that give it its originality and ensure its dynamism, and at the same time it has kept its place within the latter (Catholicism), thus ensuring its durability. This tension between the two denominational worlds (Protestantism and Catholicism) largely overlaps with the tension between charisma and institution which has classically been brought to light in the sociology of religions.

The second challenge relates to its sociographic make-up. In Europe the middle and upper classes have deserted the diocesan prayer groups which, conversely, have increasingly been welcoming members from migrant and diaspora backgrounds. As for new communities, they attract the upper classes with a strong “traditional” sensibility. Generally speaking, Western interest in the CCR has been declining. This evolution is in line with a major trend in contemporary Catholicism which has seen its growth in emerging countries gather pace, while a decline can be observed in the West.

Several important observations may be made concerning the sociocultural profile of the members of the Catholic charismatic movement:

According to Jacques Zylberberg and Pauline Côté, the charismatic movement in Quebec attracted a largely female, middle-aged, single population at first. They further noted the crucial role played by monks and nuns within the movement, as well as the prevalence of the middle classes and the primacy of cultural rationales over economic ones (Côté and Zylberberg 1990:82). In the United States, the Charismatic Renewal primarily involved white urban middle-class individuals (McGuire 1982). It should be stressed that, according to Bernard Ugeux, the Renewal was born in North America at the same time and in the same sociocultural environment as a number of new religious movements that were later identified with the New Age. In France, at first the Charismatic Renewal reached people from extremely varied social backgrounds and in particular two opposite population groups: the middle and upper strata, and the marginalized (the homeless, psychiatric patients, backpackers, former drug addicts, conscientious objectors). Most of the Renewal leaders, however, were from the upper and middle classes.

Over time the type of population joining the Renewal has changed. Nowadays migrants from Latin America and Haiti are strongly involved in the charismatic movement in Quebec (Boucher 2021) and the United States (Pérez 2015:196). In France, migrants from Creole and African societies as well as the lower strata are increasingly present in prayer groups alongside the middle classes. The Renewal has virtually disappeared from the rural world and the upper strata dominate the larger charismatic communities (Emmanuel and Chemin Neuf). The history of the Charismatic Renewal in the Mascarene Islands (Mauritius, Réunion) [Image at right] shows a very similar evolution: the “white” middle class who started the charismatic movement is now virtually absent from the Renewal groups, with the latter recruiting most of their members from the African and Malagasy Creoles who come from much more disadvantaged social backgrounds (Aubourg 2014a). In Africa and Latin America, the Charismatic Renewal is present in the same social circles as Pentecostalism; it involves the middle class but above all simple ordinary people.

Do members of the Charismatic Renewal represent a traditionalist and politically conservative current within the Church? In the United States the answer to this question is generally yes. The charismatic movement saw its ranks grow, for example, with the arrival of Nicaraguan refugees, who opposed to the Sandinista regime, and Lebanese, who held traditionalist views on marital and sexual morality. As for the founders of The Word of God community, they were far from belonging to the hippie movement. In France, the answer to this question is more nuanced as there is greater heterogeneity (Champion and Cohen 1993; Pina 2001:30). Most community founders subscribed to the ideals of May 1968 (aspiring to self-management, non-violence, denouncing the consumer society) and the choices made by Vatican II (valuing the laity, ecumenism, fairly non-hierarchical organization). On the other hand, communities developed which strongly defended traditional Catholic positions on sexual and family morality, distancing themselves from Protestantism, whose members’ political voting leaned to the right. The Emmanuel community is an example of this (Itzhak 2014). As for the autonomous prayer groups, their main characteristic is a lack of political involvement. Like first-wave Pentecostals, these charismatic Catholics favor prayer over engaging in “the world,”


Image #1: France, prayer group, 2019.
Image #2: Rome, first charismatic international gathering, 1975,
Image #3: Paul VI with Ralph Martin, Steve Clark and  Renewal Leaders, 1973.
Image #4: CHARIS, 2020.


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Publication Date:
3 March 2021



Sacred Living Movement


1970:  Anni Daulter was born.

2005:  Anni Daulter founded Bohemian Baby.

2012 (May):  Sacred Pregnancy: A Loving Guide and Journal for Expectant Moms was published.

2012 (November):  The first Sacred Pregnancy retreat was held in California.

2015 (June):  A campaign was initiated on the Go Fund Me crowd fundraising platform to raise money for a Retreat Center for the Sacred Living Movement.

2016 (July):  Anni Daulter and Niki Dewart published Sacred Motherhood: An Inspirational Guide and Journal for Mindfully Mothering Children of All Ages.

2017 (January):  Anni Daulter, Jessica Booth and Jessica Smithson published Sacred Medicine Cupboard: A Holistic Guide and Journal for Caring for Your Family Naturally.

2017 (August):  Anni Daulter published Sacred Pregnancy Journey Deck: Inspirational Guidance for Your Pregnancy

2017 (September):  Anni and Tim Daulter published Sacred Relationship: Heart Work for Couples: Daily Practices and Inspirations for a Deeper Connection


Anni Daulter was born in 1970. [Image at right] She attributes her early interest in storytelling to her mother, who she has described as unusually adept at making space for and encouraging others to tell their stories to her (Ramakrishna n.d.). She pursued her education at the University of Southern California and received a Masters Degree in Social Work.

Anni’s husband, Tim Daulter, earned a PhD in Chemical Engineering from the University of Delaware and in 2001 a MBA in Business Management from Pepperdine University. In addition to co-founding Sacred Relationship with Anni, Tim is Founder of Sacred Men. [Image at right] The couple has had four children (Zoë, Lotus Sunshine, Bodhi Ocean and River Love).

It was after the birth of their first child that Anni Daulter began a writing career, authoring four books on organic and healthy living lifestyles. She was founder and owner of Bohemian Baby, an organic baby food company, between 2005 and 2008. It was her fourth book, Sacred Pregnancy, published in 2012, that led her to shift her career emphasis and form the Sacred Living Movement with her husband.

As Anni Daulter describes, the Sacred Living Movement was born out of a need Daulter herself sensed as she negotiated the world of pregnancy, birth and early childhood as a young mother. Attending a prenatal yoga class, she noticed that the most meaningful experiences women enjoyed were the connections made around the water cooler or over tea after class. It was the connections, the story telling and community that women craved and that Daulter then strove to create. What began with a single Sacred Pregnancy Retreat in Ojai, California in November 2012 has grown to a movement that has held retreats in over ten countries and has trained hundreds of women to be instructors and practitioners in their own communities. While the movement began with small scale retreats focused primarily on pregnancy and birth, the movement has since grown to include retreats and trainings for rites of passage from girl’s first menstruation to breastfeeding to pregnancy loss, infertility, menopause and themes such as relationships, brotherhood, and financial success. In each of these retreats, the focus is to bring the sacred to the mundane and to infuse community into what has become individualized and isolated.

When Daulter talks about her hope for the movement and her motivations for creating it, she reflects on a return to primordial religion and to paradigms of the divine feminine, before patriarchy worked its way in, before society created barriers to religious and spiritual expression. In her retreats and communities, she hopes to create space where women (and occasionally men) can access the divine within them and connect with the sacred within themselves but also within the rites of passage in their own lives and in their connections to other women and men in their families and communities. She is not creating a new religion and does not seek exclusive commitment or a particular label. Her movement, her retreats, books, trainings are meant to help supplement, deepen, enrich whatever path people are already on just as they might chart a path for someone searching for a path anew.


The Sacred Living Movement does not profess any institutional doctrines or beliefs that its members, attendees, leaders, must adhere to or affirm. Instead, the movement welcomes participants from any religious tradition and does not suggest nor require that any participants renounce or replace any of those religious doctrines with those of the movement. As such, the books, websites and other publications of the movement do not contain belief statements or membership guidelines. The Movement instead is meant to supplement, enrich, and enhance the religious and spiritual life of the participant, whether that fits within an institutional religious tradition or not. In interviews, Daulter describes how this works in practice. Recognizing that some of the particular rituals or practices of the movement might conflict with the doctrines or practices of an individual participant, she encourages people to change the words, the meanings, abstain or reorient as they desire. The emphasis is not on conformity to a doctrine or orthodoxy or orthopraxy but rather to a deepening of experience and a sense of the sacred for the individual. In order for that to be authentic and true, it might look different for each and every person.

With these caveats in mind, a general philosophy can be gleaned from the offerings of the Sacred Living University website, from the various books published by Anni Daulter and her co-authors, from the content of the trainings, and from descriptions of the retreats themselves. The term “sacred” infuses the entire movement and belies a sense that all aspects of the immanent realm, from the mundane tasks of everyday life to the very basic of bodily functions and abilities, have the potential to be carried out with elevated focus and reverence. To see the sacred in the mundane but also in the less mundane (the rites of passage that mark the lives of women, in particular) those rites of passage that have been, of late, medicalized, isolated, and made impersonal, is both a radical and transformative move in the eyes of the movement. To elevate not just pregnancy and birth but menstruation, breastfeeding, menopause, sexuality to the level of the sacred means to embrace the human, the divine feminine, and life in new and powerful ways. [Image at right] The rituals practiced at retreats and suggested in the books all help to infuse the reader or attendees life with these new sensibilities. To do these rituals in connection with other people, either in a community at a retreat or with the support of a trained practitioner, deepens the experience of connection as well.

And it is this focus on infusing sacrality into life that is the most central belief of the movement. The wide spectrum of religions, spiritual and cultural traditions that influence the rituals and practices that the movement utilizes to achieve that goal demonstrate that the focus is on the goal more than on any commitment to orthodoxy or orthopraxy. The movement makes no attempt to define ultimate reality or even define the “sacred” but rather is a collective effort to elevate the human experience to greater connection, greater beauty and reverence. And it is this broad and intentionally vague language that makes the movement potentially accessible to a broad range of people. Participants range from devout practitioners of institutional religions that demand exclusive commitments but who are seeking something to supplement what they find in their religious community to the Spiritual but not Religious for whom this might be their only spiritual practice and community.


The Sacred Living Movement would have little meaning without ritual. Each of the retreats and trainings center around carefully designed rituals meant to build community, [Image at right] encourage reflection, and bring a sense of the sacred to the rite of passage. The rituals and practices of the Sacred Living Movement differ based upon the particular retreat and/or training but all borrow freely from a variety of traditions and cultures. Anni Daulter herself ascribes to a mix of Buddhist and Pagan traditions and has recently begun to integrate a variety of Wiccan traditions into the Movement’s offerings.

The rituals used are very much dependent on the focus of a particular training or retreat. For example, if a retreat or training is focused on a particular aspect of pregnancy, birth or postpartum care, the rituals will be a combination of emotional, spiritual, and physical focus. For a women taking part in a postpartum retreat, there might be opportunities for journaling and processing of the birth experience, recording of the story in a beautiful journal as a keepsake as well as sharing the story with other women for affirmation and community formation. Women might also take part in rituals that involve holistic care for the body, the use of herbal and traditional remedies to heal traumatized parts of the body as well as floral baths and tinctures to elevate the woman’s spirit and bring about a re-connection with her physical self. Rituals provide opportunities to recognize the power and beauty of the mother, encourage bonding with the baby, and care for and heal the body. Each ritual is performed with attention to the psychological effects of the dramatic and life-altering experience of giving birth and transitioning into motherhood, thus elevating even the most basic aspects of postpartum care to the level of spiritual ritual and sacred practice.


The Sacred Living Movement [Image at right] is now organized online under the title “Sacred Living University” as a means of emphasizing the use of retreats and online forum for training and community building. Anni Daulter is listed as the founder and creator and she is joined in the leadership team by her husband Tim Daulter and nine women. Each of these eleven individuals is connected to one, two, or three of the specific programs on offer. These individuals usually coordinate the specific trainings under their purview and lead in-person retreats when offered.

The movement now holds retreats throughout the world though its primary focus remains in the continental United States. Moreover, local groups often meet regularly, sometimes without direct connection to the national movement. The online presence of the movement has increased and now includes several avenues for training that enable trainees to use the skills and techniques gained to lead spiritual communities or to provide paid services to people in their communities. In recent years, the movement’s internet presence has evolved from advertising upcoming retreats to focusing on online trainings. Designed by Jessica Rose Booth, the website displays these offerings in the characteristic style of the movement.

What is now called “Sacred Living University” is a series of online trainings to enable individuals to gain training and certification in a variety of rituals and services that they might then offer to individuals and groups in their community. These trainings are grouped into three categories. The first, “Rites of Passage” focus on bringing “mindfulness, ceremony and beauty to life’s milestones & transitions” (Sacred Living University. n.d. “Rites of Passage”). These include Sacred Menarche, Sacred Blood Mysteries, Conscious Conception, Sacred Fertility, Sacred Mother Blessing, Sacred Pregnancy, Sacred Birth Journey, The Art of Sacred Postpartum, Sacred Belly Bind, Sacred Milk Tent, Sacred V Steams & Teas, and Sacred Menopause. In all cases, these classes are “grounded in heart work, and include practical skills, ceremony, intentional rituals and holistic wellness” (Sacred Living University n.d. “Rites of Passage”). The second category, “Intentional Living,” promises “approaches to life that help you thrive in all ways” but does not yet have any classes listed (Sacred Living University n.d. “Online Classes”). The third category of classes is “Touching Your Magic.” The track has two pathways: “Claiming Your Power” classes, which “focus on claiming your strength, your unfolding truths and your potent visions” and “Practical Magic” Classes, which offer guidance on specific daily practice of magic (Sacred Living University. n.d. “Touching Your Magic”). Among the offerings for “Claiming Your Power” are “I Am Sisterhood, Priestess Path and Sacred Brotherhood. For “Practical Magic,” they offer Intro to Spell Craft, Potions, Rebel Rose Reiki, Sacred Crystals, Sacred Elements, Sacred Money Manifestation, Sacred Ritual Dance, Sacred Ritual Dream, Sacred Sex Magick, Sacred Goddess Red Drum, Sacred Cacao Ceremony and Sacred Year.

As Daulter describes it, the movement has grown organically as the need for new and different retreats and trainings has arisen. Different members of the organization have been tapped to take on the leadership of these new initiative based on their expertise. The women and few men who now oversee particular aspects of the movement have expertise in those areas and thus have authority to develop the particular curriculum for trainings and agenda for retreats. All areas of the movement operate within the general philosophy of the movement, and all are influenced by the “beauty way” that Daulter infuses throughout the movement.

Though not listed anywhere formally on the Sacred Living Movement’s website, there exist a number of local affiliates of the movement that offer local retreats and community connections that build on the philosophy and model of the Sacred Living Movement. Often started by women who have attended Sacred Living Movement retreats and participated in trainings, these local affiliates have varying levels of conformity to the national movement and go by a variety of names.


The challenges facing the Sacred Living Movement are those shared by many similar movements that are loosely organized, relatively new, and geographically dispersed. Some of these challenges have also enabled the movement to pivot and grow in ways that are difficult for more established and institutionalized religious organizations and has also allowed the movement to continue its work in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic of 2020-2021.

One challenge to movement integration is that the Sacred Living Movement does not have a central location and so any community gatherings that happen would be in varied locals or even only in cyberspace. The movement did undertake a fundraising campaign to raise money for a central retreat center (Crowder n.d.). This does not seem to have come to fruition. While the fundraising effort was begun in June of 2015 with a goal of raising $300,000 to establish a space for live retreats and a tiny house village for year-round living, the site has currently raised less than $5,000 and does not appear to be active. The last donation was made fifty-six months prior to this writing. Interestingly, the virtual focus of the movement and the transitory nature of the retreats has made the movement able to weather the financial strains of the Covid-19 pandemic in ways that other more geographically-fixed movements have not. While other movements have had to learn how to create community online or to complete instruction and trainings through the internet, this was already the model on which this movement operates.

A second challenge is the movement’s cultural appropriation of ideas and practices. A spiritual movement without ties to a particular religious tradition, the Sacred Living Movement frequently adapts and applies practices and ideas from a variety of religious and spiritual traditions as well as cultures from throughout the world. While attribution is sometimes given in the books that spell out particular rituals or in training manuals and materials, this is not always the case in the midst of a retreat or community gathering. This issue of potential cultural appropriation has brought some conflict or tension between the national and local movements. A predominantly white leadership and difficulty in diversifying participation in retreats and trainings have exacerbated these tensions. Local affiliates have been able to tailor their activities to cast a wider net and potentially to offer a more palatable experience to a broader cross-section of women.

The Sacred Living Movement is still in its organizational infancy and has evolved and changed substantially over its short history. It clearly has resonated, primarily with women, who are seeking to connect with the divine feminine they understand to reside within them. [Image at right] It has adopted easily to online presence. At the same time, though Anni Daulter provides strong creative leadership to the movement, the movement does not possess a number of the integrative mechanisms commonly found in emerging spiritual and religious movements: a clear set of doctrines and practices that define movement identity and boundaries, mechanisms for producing membership growth and a successor generation, and a geographic base. Though such challenges might affect the continued success and growth of the movement, its focus on sacralizing and elevating rites of passage and bringing the sacred to pregnancy and birth in particular, are likely to continue to have significant cultural relevance for years to come.


Image #1: Anni Daulter.
Image #2: Tim Daulter
Image #3: The cover of Sacred Pregnancy: A Loving Guide and Journal for Expectant Moms by Anni Daulter.
Image #4: Sacred Living Movement ritual gathering.
Image #5: Sacred Living Movement logo.
Image #6: Sacred Living Movement symbolism.

** Unless otherwise noted, the material in this profile is drawn from Ann Duncan.
“Sacred Pregnancy in the Age of the ‘Nones’.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 85:4 (December 2017): 1089-1115.

Crowder, Sue. n.d. “Sacred Living Center.” Gofundme. Accessed from on 15 January 2021.

Duncan, Ann. 2017. “Sacred Pregnancy in the Age of the ‘Nones,.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 85:1089-1115.

Ramakrishna, Asha D. n.d. “Claiming Sacred Witch in Modern Times with Anni Daulter.” Women on Purpose. Accessed from on 15 January 2021.

Sacred Living University. n.d. “Online Classes.” Accessed from on 15 January 2021.

Sacred Living University. n.d. “Rites of Passage.” Accessed from on 15 January 2021.

Sacred Living University. n.d. “Touching Your Magic.” Accessed from on 15 January 2021.


Blumberg, Antonia. 2014. “A Woman’s Quest to Reinvigorate the Sacred Nature of Pregnancy,” HuffPost Religion, November 5. Accessed from on 23 April 2020.

Daulter, Anni. 2017. Sacred Pregnancy Journey Deck: Inspirational Guidance for Your Pregnancy. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.

Daulter, Anni. 2012. Sacred Pregnancy: A Loving Guide and Journal for Expectant Moms. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.

Daulter, Anni. n.d. “Sacred Manifesto.” Sacred Pregnancy: The Deep Drink. Accessed from on 20 April 2020.

Daulter, Anni, Jessica Booth and Jessica Smithson. 2017. Sacred Medicine Cupboard: A Holistic Guide and Journal for Caring for Your Family Naturally. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.

Daulter, Anni and Niki Dewart. 2016. Sacred Motherhood: An Inspirational Guide and Journal for Mindfully Mothering Children of All Ages. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.

Daulter, Anni and Tim Daulter. 2017. Sacred Relationship: Heart Work for Couples – Daily Practices and Inspirations for a Deeper Connection. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.

Publication Date:
29 January 2021