Order of the Morning Star


1910 (January 8):  Madeleine Montalban was born as Madeleine Sylvia Royals in Blackpool, Lancashire,

1930:  Montalban moved to London.

1933: Montalban started writing for London Life.

1953:  Montalban started writing for Prediction.

1956:  The Order of the Morning Star was founded.

1961:  Alfred Douglas became a student of Montalban.

1967:  Michael Howard contacted Madeline Montalban.

1982:  Madeline Montalban died of lung cancer at seventy-two years old.

1982:  The rights to Montalban´s work was conferred to her daughter who gave the rights to continue the work of the Order of the Morning Star to Jo Sheridan and her husband Alfred Douglas.

2004:  Michael Howard’s The Book of Fallen Angels was published.

2012:  Jullia Phillips Madeleine Montalban, The Magus of St. Giles was published.


The Order of the Morning Star (OMS) was founded in 1956 by Madeline Montalban and Nicolas Heron who she had met in 1952. The Order was founded around their common interest in esotericism, astrology, and the angel Lucifer. Montalban was the driving force behind OMS and would also be its primary ideolog. When she later parted ways with Heron, there is no indication that he continued any activities connected to OMS.

Madeleine Montalban was born on January 8, 1910 in Blackpool, Lancashire, as Madeleine Sylvia Royals. She would later adopt several noms de plume (Dolores North, Madeline Alvarez,Madeline Montalban, and other names) that she used when publishing articles and pamphlets.

Based on what little is known about her childhood her parents do not seem to have had any interest in esoteric matters. According to Julia Phillips, if there was any form of spirituality present during her childhood it was Christianity (Phillips 2012:22). Montalban would later reinterpret central Biblical themes, often at odds with traditional forms of Christianity, and describe herself as a Pagan, but the Bible was central for her when growing up and would continue to play a central role for her. She would later claim that the Old Testament was a work of magic and the New Testament a work of mysticism (Howard 2016:55; Phillips 2012:26). Madeline moved in her early twenties to London, likely to pursue a career as a journalist. There are conflicting stories regarding Montalban´s move to London and her relationship with the London occult scene in the 1930´s. A rather fantastic story is that her father had sent her to London with a cheque to work for the well-known occult author Aleister Crowley (1875-1947), as her father was uncertain as to what to do with her (Phillips 2012:30). There is, however, no evidence that this story is true, and the likelihood that a person without any interest in the occult would send his daughter to live with Crowley is rather fantastic. Also, there are no mentions of Madeleine in Crowley’s diaries from the period. While the story that she was sent to work as Crowley’s secretary is amusing but mythological, there are some indications that she later got to know Crowley. Still, how close they where or how often they meet is debatable. Her stories regarding Crowley are based on later accounts to her friends and on a radio interview in the 1970´s. While the truth of these stories is open for debate, what is significant is how she would use Crowley as a contrast to present her own form of magical practice. Montalban considered Crowley to have failed to advance very far in his magical pursuits due to his lack of knowledge about astrology and the theatrical and bombastic rituals he put on to impress people. While this does not say much about Crowley´s system of Magick in itself, it does emphasize two aspects of Montalban’s teachings regarding magic. First, the importance of Astrology, which was central to everything she did, and second, her rejection of what she saw as the theatrical form of magic represented by occult orders like The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and its offshoots (Phillips 2012:32).

Living in London Montalban started to work for London Life as their astrology columnist in 1933, writing under different pseudonyms. In 1939, she married a fireman, George Edward North, with whom she had a daughter. The marriage did not last, and he later left her. In 1947, she had become a regular contributor to London Life writing their Astrology column. According to Book of Lumiel, around 1944 she started to develop a deeper interest in Lucifer and started to search for more information about the angel, but none of this is found in her public writings at the time (Phillips 2012:112).

While the extent of her relationship with Crowley is debatable Montalban did become more and more a part of the occult scene in London in the 1940s. She would get to know people like Gerald Gardner (1884-1964), Kenneth (1924-2011) and Steffi Grant (1923-2019) and Michael Houghton, who had established Atlantic Bookshop in 1922. She would later help Gerald Gardner with his novel High Magic´s Aid that was published through Atlantis in 1949, or according to some accounts she basically wrote the whole novel based on Gardner’s notes (Phillips 2012:75-77). The novel was the first where Gardner presented his ideas about Witchcraft, although in a fictional form. While it seems that Montalban and Gardner did work with each other and continued to meet socially sometime in the middle of the 1960s, there was some fallout, but the reason is unclear. As Gardner died in 1964, Montalban´s increasingly negative view of him and Wicca could have begun after Gardner’s death (Phillips 2012:77). Her former student Michael Howard (1948-2015) would later write that “she exhibited a hostility to Gardner and Wicca that bordered on hatred” Howard 2004:10). When Howard, who had made contact with Montalban in 1967, was initiated into Gardnerian Wicca in 1969, it lead to a complete break with Montalban who saw this as “treachery” (Howard 2004:11; Phillips 2012:77). Despite her negative view on Wicca, she later got to know Alex and Maxime Sanders in the late 1960s, and the Sanders also incorporated aspects of her Angelic teachings in their work (Sanders 2008:237).  Still Montalban was always clear that she was not a witch and her form of magic had nothing to do with Witchcraft. Through the later writings of Michael Howard her ideas have become incorporated into what can be defined as “Luciferian Witchcraft” (or “Luciferian Craft”), which was Howards original term (Howard 2004: 12, Gregorius 2013:244).

In 1953, she started working with the magazine Prediciton and would continue writing for them for the rest of her life. Most of her articles focused on astrology and her private beliefs are seldom evident in them.

In 1956, she founded the Order of the Morning Star with her partner Nicolas Heron. The Order was organized so that students could complete a correspondence course rather than the traditional Masonic forms of initiations found in the Golden Dawn, Society of Inner Light, or Ordo Templi Orientis, and there were no group rituals. While the majority of those interested would only do so through written instructions and work for themselves, a small number would later become private students of Montalban (Phillips 2012:97. In 1964, Montalban and Heron split up, but the OMS continued their workings.

Despite being a part of the occult community in London, there is no evidence that she ever entered a magical order or had any teachings from an outside source. There are descriptions, with varying reliability, of her working with other people, like Gardner and Grant, but she does not seem to have had any formal initiations. Instead, her knowledge was based on studying primary texts and, according to Howard, she seems to have started to get revelations from Lucifer in 1946 (Phillips 2012:85; Howard 2016:56).

Montalban died on January 11, 1982, and the rights to her work went to her daughter. After the funeral there was an agreement between her, Jo Sheridan, and Alfred Douglas that Sheridan and Douglas would continue offer the correspondence courses of OMS. Both Sheridan and Douglas had known Montalban in the 1960´s, and Douglas was one of the students living with her when she moved into her new flat on Grape Street in 1966 (Phillips 2012: 37).

Central for the continued interest in Montalban have been the writings of Michael Howard, [Image at right] who was a student of Montalban in the 1960´s. Despite the fact that their relationship ended due to his interest in Wicca, it has been through his efforts in The Cauldron, for which Howard was editor begween its founding in 1976 and his death, that an interest of Montalban has been kept alive. In the 1990s, he started to write articles under the nom de plume “Frater Ashtan” about Luciferianism (Howard 2004:13). While he kept his interest in Luciferianism a secret for almost thirty years, he would later become more open about it. In 2001, The Pillars of Tubal Cain was published, co-written with Nigel Jackson, and The Book of the Fallen Angels was published in 2004. [Image at right The latter gives a presentation of Montalban´s view of Lucifer and the esoteric tradition she created.


Montalban never published her esoteric teachings during her lifetime. While being a prolific writer, her public writings were mainly around astrology. Her only book, on the Tarot, was published after her death in 1983. To understand what was being taught in the OMS we must rely on recollections and interpretations from her students. The person who has written most extensively on Montalban is Michael Howard who was a student of hers in the 1960s. Howard integrates Montalban´s teachings with his own interpretation of Witchcraft and Luciferianism, but according to the current head of the OMS, Alfred Douglas, Howard’s presentation of Montalban is correct (Douglas, private correspondence, August 8, 2021).

Astrology plays a central role in the teachings of OMS, and Montalban argued that without a knowledge about astrology, magical workings were not possible. The organization also teaches that all people have their own special angels, and a central purpose of the workings within the OMS is to develop a relationship to these angels. How to approach and how to work with the angels are determined by an understanding of one’s personal birth chart. Astrology impacts everything within OMS, and like other esoteric orders there is a set of correspondences where different angels are also related to different zodiac signs and planets (Phillips 2012:98.

The most famous teaching of Montalban concerns her theology about Lucifer, or Lumiel as she preferred to label him (Howard 2016:56). Lumiel meant according to Montalban “The Light of God.” While many teachings found in OMS are based on the Bible, Montalban described herself as a Pagan and viewed Lumiel as based on a pre-Christian doctrine, referring to Chaldean religion as the origin (Phillips 2012:99; Howard 2004). Montalban was particularly found of the Chaldeans as she regarded their religious and magical systems to be based on astrology.

While Lumiel is a central figure in OMS teachings, he does not appear as a significant character until the twelfth course when the adept is given a copy of The Book of Lumiel that explains the history of Lumiel. Howard also refers to a manuscript called The Book of the Devil that has a similar narrative but is more focused on the figure Baphomet (Howard 2016:59). The Book of Lumiel is only twenty-one pages. Quoted from Phillips, it begins with a declaration that Montalban began her study on Lucifer in 1944. Based on Phillips and Howard, Lucifer is presented as a force for evolution of humanity, and the despair of Lucifer is connected to the ignorance of humanity. It is because of humanity´s ignorance that Lucifer is trapped, and the liberation of Lucifer is also the liberation of the human soul and its awakening.

The mythology presented in The Book of Lumiel is that the world was created by God, who is seen as ”dual natured, the perfection of male and female” (Howard 2004:27). God divides his power equally between himself and his female self, creating a division between Light and Intellect, and from this creating Lumiel, the first being. Further, out of this division comes the Ben Elohim, the sons, and daughters of God. These becomes the Archangels and are set to rule over the seven planets. The narrative that follows is a mixture of gnostic teachings mixed with Montalbans understanding of evolution, perhaps inspired by Helena Blavatsky. Life on Earth is guided to perfection by the angelic beings and above in Astral form are the “Ray People” that is the goal of humanities evolution. Rather than allowing evolution to take its course, Lumiel seeks to advance it by speeding it up. According to Howard:

According to the teachings of the OMS, Lucifer was frustrated at the slow evolution of the primitive human race, described as ´furless monkeys´, and therefore the angels ´mingled their vibrations´ with the ´daughters of earth´. Unfortunately humanity was not evolved enough to use the power they were given by this process and misused it leading to chaos and anarchy (Howard 2016:59).

This resulted in Lucifer being trapped in matter as a punishment and forced to reincarnate in the flesh throughout the ages to teach mankind the path to enlightenment and be the “Light of the World.” Montalban seems to have been influenced by Frazer, and the theory of the dying and resurrected god as he writes:

Not until mankind knew who and what I was should they know and understand, but my own sufferings, which must be physical, as the sufferings of mankind must be…these same sufferings and sacrifice should redeem mankind. I was a scapegoat, to be driven into the wilderness suffering shame and ignorance life after life, until that error that I had perpetrated had worked itself out by mankind becoming wise, and therefore wholly good, through experience (Motalban quoted in Howard 2004:123).

Even Christ was seen as an avatar of Lucifer in Montalbans teachings. The teachings of Montalban can be seen as a form of neo-Gnosticism where the spirit is trapped in matter and seeks liberation. The Garden of Eden is for example a place in the astral (Howard 2004:31). The image of Lucifer is based on the Bible and Book of Enoch but reinterpreted with Lucifer being a force for good that will in the end return to his former glory. Lucifer is not a Satanic figure, even if the mythology around him is a based on the fall of Lucifer and the rebel angels. The teaching of OMS can be seen as Luciferian but not Satanic. There is no conflict between God and Lucifer, rather Lucifer becomes, through his initial error, a guide for humanity. Howard compares Montalban´s views with those of Gurdjieff, in that she viewed most of humanity as being asleep.


Montalban was critical to what she saw as the theatrical form of ceremonial magic that she found in organizations like the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. The descriptions that exist of her performing rituals are often simple, using candles, tarot, and astrological timing. [Image at right] The rituals were based on the seven planets and correspondences between them and your own birth chart. The Seven planets and their ruling spirits, zodiac-sign and weekday are (Phillips 2012: 103):

Michael (Sun),               Sunday,                           Leo

Gabriel (Moon),            Monday,                         Cancer

Samael (Mars),             Tuesday,                       Aries and Scorpio

Raphael (Mercury),      Wednesday,                  Gemini and Virgo

Sachiel (Jupiter),          Thursday,                       Sagittarius and Pisces

Anael (Venus),               Friday,                           Taurus and Libra

Cassiel (Saturn),           Saturday,                       Capricorn and Aquarius

The rituals are designed to be performed individually. The teachings of OMS are themselves secret and only open for members, but in their presentation they refer primarily to renaissance magic as a source of inspiration:

The basis of her system was Hermetic magic, as developed during the Italian Renaissance and practiced by Marsilio Ficino, Pico della Mirandola, Cornelius Agrippa and John Dee amongst others. Her sources included the Picatrix and Corpus Hermeticum, The Heptameron of Peter d’Abano, the Key of Solomon, the Sacred Magic of Abramelin, and Agrippa’s Occult Philosophy (OMS n.d.).

The rituals were designed to be performed mainly by the student themselves as part of their own understanding of magic. A central part of this is the use of and construction of talismans under the correct astrological timing. Initially a horoscope was cast for new students that revealed the students Sun and Moon angels. The first course was also called The Occult Secrets of the Moon (Phillips 2012: 96) indicating the focus on the moon.


While a more informal order, OMS is still divided into different degrees based on how advanced the student has become. When Montalban was alive, she took in students that she taught in person who would form an inner circle. Still, there are no clear degrees, and the system is based on a rejection of the type of degree-based orders that where common in the 1950´s (Phillips 2012:96-98).

The initial leadership for OMS was Montalban and Heron. When their relationship ended in 1964, she continued herself. After Montalban´s death in 1982, the copyright to her work was given to her daughter who contacted Jo Sheridan and Alfred Douglas to continue the work with OMS. The OMS has remained active under the leadership of Alfred Douglas.


A primary issue regarding the OMS has been its emphasis on Lucifer, which has led to associations with Satanism. Based on the writings of Michael Howard, it seems that there were some challenges within the British Pagan scene to come out as a Luciferian due to the possibility of being associated with Satanism. OMS has emphasized that it regards Lucifer as a positive figure and does not promote Satanism. Instead, OMS sees Lucifer as “the bringer of Light” who opens human consciousness to higher awareness (Douglas, personal communication, August 13, 2021).

As with many esoteric teachers, there have been questions about the biography of Montalban and to what degree her stories about her relationship to other occultists of the time are factual. This is the case, as noted previously, regarding how she got to know Aleister Crowley. Apart from stories told by herself, there are also stories from other sources that are questionable. Gerald Gardner seems to imply Montalban had a close connection to Lord Mountbatten that is difficult to prove, as is Gardner’s claim that she really worked as a psychic adviser and “personal clairvoyant” (Heselton 2000:301). Equally fanciful is the description of a ritual performed by Montalban with Gerald Gardner and Kenneth Grant that is found in Grant´s Nightside of Eden (Grant 1977:122-24; Phillips 2012:83). These types of issues are rather common with most biographies, and further research on OMS and Montalban will probably yield a greater understanding of these stories. Still, according to Julia Phillips, who has written the only biography about Montalban, when conducting interviews with those who knew her, a rather homogenic picture of her emerged, and most stories seem consistent and are verified by multiple sources (Phillips, private correspondence August 13, 2021).

Montalban and the OMS were very early examples of Luciferianism, even if her interpretation is far from most contemporary forms. While she herself rejected Witchcraft, through the writings of Michael Howard she has become a significant source of inspiration for modern Luciferian Witchcraft.

Image #1: Michael Howard.
Image #2: Cover of  The Book of the Fallen Angels.
Image #3: Madeline Montalban from Man, Myth and Magic in the 1970s


Douglas, Alfred. 2021. Personal correspondence, August 13.

Grant, Kenneth. 1977. Nightside of Eden. London. Skoob Book Publishing.

Gregorius, Fredrik. 2013. “Luciferian Witchcraft: At the Crossroads between Paganism and Satanism.” Pp. 229-49 in The Devil’s Party: Satanism in Modernity, edited by Per Faxneld and Jesper Aa. Petersen. New York: Oxford University Press.

Heselton, Philip. 2003. Gerald Gardner and the Cauldron of Inspiration: An Investigation into the Sources of Gardnerian Witchcraft. Somerset. Capall Bann Publishing

Heselton, Philip. 2000. Wiccan Roots: Gerald Gardner and the Modern Witchcraft Revival. Berks. Capall Bann Publishing.

Howard, Michael. 2016. ”Teachings of the Light: Madeline Montalban and the Order of the Morgning Star.” Pp 55-65 in The Luminous Stone: Lucifer in Western Esotericism, edited by Michael Howard and Daniel A. Schulke. Richmond Vista: Three Hands Press.

Howard, Michael. 2004. The Book of Fallen Angels. Somerset: Capall Bann Publishing.

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

OMS. n.d. ”Madeline Montalban and the Order of the Morning Star.” Accessed from https://www.sheridandouglas.co.uk/oms/ on 15 August 2021.

Phillips, Julia. 2021. Personal correspondence, August 13.

Phillips, Julia. 2012. Madeline Montalban: The Magus of St Giles. London: Neptune Press

Phillips, Julia. 2009. ”Madeline Montalban, Elemental and Fallen Angels.” Pp 77-88 in Both Sides of Heaven: A collection of essays exploring the origins, history, nature and magical practices of Angels, Fallen Angels and Demons, edited by Sorita d´Este. London: Avalonia.

Sanders, Maxine. 2008. Firechild: The Life and Magic of Maxine Sanders. Oxford: Mandrake of Oxford.

Valiente, Doreen. 1989. The Rebirth of Witchcraft. London: Robert Hale. 

Publication Date:
19 August 2021








Prince Philip


1966:  Iounhanen villagers presented a pig to British Resident Commissioner Alexander Mair Wilkie during his visit to Tanna.  Wilkie died on August 13 of that year and did not reciprocate.

1971 (March):  Prince Philip briefly visited the New Hebrides, including Malakula island, on the Britannia.

1973-1974:  Freelance journalist Kal Müller filmed island life (kava drinking, dancing, circumcision ceremony) and John Frum rituals and convinced Iounhanen men to revive wearing penis wrappers and to consider establishing a kastom (custom) school for their children to attend.

1974 (February 15-17):  Prince Philip, Queen Elizabeth, and Princess Anne visited the New Hebrides on the royal yacht Britannia. They did not call at Tanna. Jack Naiva of Iounhanen claimed he canoed out to the Britannia in Port Vila harbor and saw the Prince in a white uniform.

1975 (November 10):  The first general election in the colonial New Hebrides took place. The anglophone New Hebrides National Party won seventeen seats.

1977 (November 29):  The second general election, boycotted by the Vanua’aku (National) Pati (Party), took place.  The Vanua’aku Pati declared a People’s Provisional Government in areas it controlled.

1977 (March):  The General Assembly was suspended after the Vanua’aku Pati boycott.

1978 (September 21):  British Resident Commissioner John Stuart Champion visited Iounhanen village and learned of the unreciprocated pig. He obtained a framed photograph of Prince Philip and five clay pipes and returned to Iounhanen to present these gifts.

1978:  Tuk Nauau carved a pig-killing club that British authorities sent to Buckingham Palace.  The Palace returned a second photograph of Prince Philip wielding the club and newly appointed British Resident Commissioner Andrew Stuart visited Iounhanen to present this second photograph.

1979 (November 14):  Third general elections in the New Hebrides. The Vanua’aka Pati won twenty-five out of thirty-nine seats.

1991:  Movement co-founder Tuk Nauau was featured in the 1991 documentary The Fantastic Invasion, filmed with a Prince Philip photograph hanging behind.

2000:  Buckingham Palace sent another photo of Prince Philip to Tanna

2007 (September):  Posen and four other men from Iakel village were featured in the television reality show Meet the Natives. Prince Philip welcomed them off camera to Buckingham Palace and gifts (including another photograph and a walking stick) were exchanged.

2009:  Other Iakel villagers were featured in the American version of Meet the Natives.

2009:  Movement co-founder Jack Naiva died.

2014 (October):  Princess Anne visited Port Vila.

2015:  Iakel villagers wearing penis wrappers and bark skirts, and Iakel village itself, starred in Tanna, a feature film nominated in 2017 for a Best Foreign Language Academy award.

2018 (April):  Prince Charles visited Port Vila. Jimmy Joseph, from Iounhanen, gave him a walking stick.

2021 (April 9):  Prince Philip died.


When Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, [Image at right] died on April 9, 2021, obituaries celebrated his long life, his faithful support of his wife Elizabeth, his military career, and his witty if sometimes gruff personality. They also noted that he was a “South Pacific Island God” (see Drury 2021; Morgan 2021; among many others), and was revered as such on Tanna Island in southern Vanuatu. This apotheosis was a journalistic exaggeration, a not untypical misunderstanding of island actuality. The Prince was not a god. Rather, he was an island brother, the son of Kalpwapen a powerful spirit who lives atop Tukusmera, the highest mountain on the island. Young Philip, somehow, had found his way to Europe to marry a queen. But he had returned several times to the islands and clever pundits from a few isolated villages were delighted to reestablish a relationship (or a “road,” in local parlance) with him. The renewed connection was marked with exchanges of gifts including photographs and clay pipes from the Prince, and clubs, walking sticks, and pigs from his island relatives. [See, Doctrines/Beliefs below]

Tanna island is appreciated by anthropologists, linguists, and tourists alike for both its rich cultural and linguistic traditions that have survived, if somewhat transformed, 250 years of culture contact and for remarkable religious and social innovations, the John Frum movement among the best known of these (Lindstrom 1993). The Duke fit usefully into island politics of the 1970s. France and Great Britain, in 1906, established the New Hebrides Condominium colony after neither would agree which power would occupy this island chain. By the 1970s, Southwest Pacific colonies were achieving independence, beginning with Fiji in 1970. By the mid-1970s it was clear that New Hebridean independence, too, was quickly approaching and this sparked much political competition between the two ruling powers, concerned to transfer authority to a friendly independent government, and confrontational dispute and debate among islanders themselves.

The colonial education system was never good, but more islanders had attended British funded schools, and spoke some English, than had matriculated in French schools. The French were particularly concerned to beef up support for francophone and French-leaning political parties that competed in several national elections: a first in 1975 for a new General Assembly; a second, failed election, in 1977; and a third in 1979 for what would become the rechristened Vanuatu’s first Parliament. In these years both the British and French sent operatives around the archipelago to discuss impending independence, explain voting procedures, and firm up political support (Gregory and Gregory 1984:79). The French especially cultivated John Frum movement supporters, headquartered at east Tanna’s Sulphur Bay, with a range of enticements. The British, in counterpoint, established relations with a few isolated villages in the west that, conveniently, had just rediscovered their lost brother, the Duke of Edinburgh. Then British Resident Commission Andrew Stuart denied any ulterior political motive in these dealings (Stuart 2002:497), but doubts justifiably persist.

West island Iounhanen village, and neighboring Iakel, located about five km up the mountainside from the colonial administrative headquarters although isolated by bad trails and tracks, had hosted in the early 1970s freelance photographer Kal Müller. Müller managed to convince villagers to doff their tattered shorts and skirts and resume wearing traditional men’s penis wrappers and women’s bark skirts. Villagers also discussed establishing a kastom (“custom”) school in which their children could learn island traditions (Baylis 2013:36). This exotically much improved an article that Müller published in the National Geographic (1974). It also boosted the villages’ attraction for a small, but growing number of tourists that came to Tanna. Bob Paul, an Australian trader resident on Tanna since 1952, had helped establish a small airline that connected Tanna with the main national airport on Efate Island, and built Tanna’s first tourist bungalows. He arranged for visitors to climb Iasur, the island’s active volcano, drive by a herd of “wild horses,” and tour Sulphur Bay, John Frum movement headquarters. Some tourists also began calling at Iounhanen to take part in traditional dance ceremony and hobnob with real kastom villagers, as signified by those penis wrappers and bark skirts.

Paul’s connections with Iounhanen were good, and he and British island agent Bob Wilson facilitated British Resident Commission John Champion’s visit to that village in September, 1978. People there, Champion wrote, unlike John Frum supporters were “basically well-disposed to the British” (2002:153). Villagers in 1966 had presented Alexander Wilkie, one of Champion’s predecessors, a pig and some kava (Piper methysticum). They now complained that Wilkie (who died soon after this visit) had never reciprocated these gifts. Leading men Jack Naiva and Tuk Nauau requested some return token, preferably from Champion’s London boss, the Prince. Naiva may have observed Philip, dressed in naval whites, on the Britannia during its royal visit to Port Vila in 1974. He claimed he had canoed out into Vila harbor to scrutinize the yacht (Baylis 2013:60). Gender relations on Tanna remain patriarchal and male princes trump female queens, particularly one in an impressive uniform. A return gift would square the exchange and promise enduring international connections after the British departed, which they did when the colony achieved independence in 1980.

The British Residency consulted Kirk Huffman, the Anglo-American curator of the New Hebrides Cultural Centre in Port Vila, who explained the cultural significance of reciprocal exchange and noted men’s continuing fondness for German-produced clay pipes, a popular nineteenth century trade item (Baylis 2013:56). Champion contacted Buckingham Palace which provided a signed photograph of the Duke. He then returned to Iounhanen with photograph and five clay pipes that Naiva and Nauau received “with great dignity and satisfaction, although one old man was heard to mutter that it would have been even better if HRH had come in person” (Champion 2002:154).

Nauau, in turn, gave Champion a pig-killing club that he had carved and asked that this be sent to the Prince and a photograph of Prince-with-club be taken. This was done and Andrew Stuart, who replaced Champion as British Resident Commission at the end of 1978, brought this second photograph down to Iounhanan (Gregory and Gregory 1978:80). The British, from the beginning of it all, were well-aware of the public relations potential of these exchanges and they recruited BBC photographer Jim Biddulph to film the gift exchange. (Biddulph missed the exchange itself but subsequently took the first, now famous, image of Naiva holding the picture of Philip with club (Stuart 2002:498)). [Image at right]

Photographs, books, and other paper material have short lives on Tanna given the island’s tropical climate and passing cyclones, and the Palace over the years continued to send along replacement photographs as earlier ones decayed, including one in 2000 accompanied by a Union Jack flag.

Iounhanen and Iakel in the 1970s were small, isolated, and sparsely populated places made remote by bad roads and mountain slopes. In the 1920s, the Presbyterian mission (the nearest mission station located at Ateni village (Athens)) had converted people; and in the 1940s, people abandoned the mission to join the resurgent John Frum movement. These villages, though, were on the margins of both Christian and John Frum organizations and people enjoyed little recognition or respect from their island neighbors, let alone from the wider world. They could, and did, however, boast their commitment to true island kastom. Naiva’s and Nauau’s brilliant idea, which has much elevated their fame and fortunes, and erased their marginality, was to create a kastom road to Prince Philip.


Most islanders, although largely Christian, maintain a firm belief in the presence of spirits, and they share a rich set of myth motifs with fellow Melanesians and with Polynesian neighbors in the central Pacific. One common motif concerns two brothers, one of whom leaves home while the other stays behind (Poignent 1967:96-97). A chain of myths along the northern coast of Papua New Guinea, for example, recount the stories of separated brothers Kilibob and Manup (Pompanio, Counts, and Harding 1994). The brothers are culture heroes who, with superhuman power, innovated or introduced important elements of culture. One is often credited with establishing local traditions, and the other, who disappeared beyond the horizon, with endowing colonizing Europeans with the technological and other powers they enjoy. Prince Philip, as a long-lost island brother, fits into this widespread Melanesian myth motif.

More particularly, the Duke also served island and colonial politicking in the 1970s as a British counterweight to the French-leaning John Frum movement, and as a well-placed brother who might elevate Iounhanen’s local renown. Tanna, with its oral culture, is an island of competing and overlapping stories. Sacred texts are not codified in print. People are inspired constantly with messages that they receive in dreams, or when slightly intoxicated by kava, infusions of which men drink together every evening (when supplies permit) at village dance/kava-drinking grounds (Lebot, Merlin, and Lindstrom 1992). Since the 1970s, many variant Prince Philip tales have circulated about Tanna and have been spread widely by international journalists delighted to recount the Duke’s delicious, if incorrect, apotheosis.

Resident Commission Champion heard some early stories in 1978, although these no doubt were warped through British ears: The Duke is a son of mountain spirit Kalpwapen; John Frum is his brother; he

had flown across the sea, where he married a white lady, and would one day return in his nambas [penis wrapper] to live on the volcano and rule over them in perpetual bliss—when old men would lose their wrinkles, become young and strong again, and be able to enjoy the favours of innumerable women without restraint (2002:153-154).

Andrew Stuart, his successor, added that “Some said that, in his white naval uniform, he must be the pilot of John Frum’s aeroplane” (2002:497). Other early stories promised Philip several nubile young wives when he came home to Tanna.

These accounts correlate with Western appreciation of the John Frum movement as a “cargo cult” (Lindstrom 1993).  These were social movements, widespread in Melanesia, that erupted after the Pacific War  Prophets instructed followers to improve their behavior and repair their social relationships so as to invite ancestral spirits, or American cargo planes and ships, to return with material wealth, political salvation, better health, and even immortality.

Tuk Nauau is a better source for island stories. Huffman, when photographs were first exchanged in 1978, interviewed Nauau and others to provide background intelligence to the Palace. In Fantastic Invasion Nauau lauds the creation of new roads, new connections as with the Prince, that will ensure peace and prosperity. His stories connect Tanna to the wider world which the Prince represents (Baylis 2013:17). Nauau holds up a cupro-nickel coin, silver joined with copper, or in island eyes black with white. The coin, like the Duke, symbolizes happy relationships that profitably conjoin families together (Baylis 2013:122-23).

The label “cargo cult,” which most anthropologists began to avoid by the 1970s, shaded and simplified diverse post-war Melanesian social movements. Prince Philip’s Tanna following was not a cargo cult despite journalistic unquenchable fondness for the term. A 2017 television series that commemorated James Cook’s Pacific voyages showcased “The Prince Philip Cargo Cult” (Lewis 2018; see also Davies 2021 and many others). Instead, the Prince from afar looks after his island relatives, enhancing their lives on Tanna. Islanders looked forward to an eventual reunion with their roving brother, and not so much to the treasure or cargo that he might bring home. They expected his homecoming which has, with his passing, indeed occurred. Philip’s spirit is back on Tanna.


Innovative Philip stories did not spark much new ritual in either Iounhanen or Iakel. Instead, followers incorporated recognition of the Prince within the normal round of island ceremony. This includes daily communion with spirits during evening kava consumption, and standard circle dances (nupu) that mark important events (marriages, the circumcision of sons, and annual exchanges of first-fruit yams and taro). Iounhanen and Iakel hosted a large regional pig-killing festival (nekoviar or nakwiari) in the 1970s and they might do so again in some future commemoration of the Duke.

Baylis, who visited Iouhanen for a month in 2005, was disappointed not to discover specific celebratory rites. Naiva explained “We don’t sing songs to Prince Philip. We don’t go into a special house. We don’t have . . . sticks like this”—he made the sign of the cross with his hands—“or dances or anything like that” (2013:235). That sort of ostentatious ritual, Naiva explained, was something that Christians and John Frum followers did and it merely “blocks the road.” Philip’s island brothers instead,

…walk slowly.  We work in the gardens.  We drink kava.  We keep it in our hearts.  And what happens?  Prince Philip sends us photographs and letters.  We have built a road, and because we continue to do it our way, the kastom way, and not the way of the Christians and the John people, one day men from Tanna will meet him” (2013:236).

Naiva stored his two Philip photographs in a structure raised off the ground, out of reach of pigs and floods (Baylis 2013:200), and he curated a small collection of Philip letters and published articles inside his house.

Ongoing journalistic attention and tourist arrivals (before Covid19 disrupted these) recently have encouraged innovation of ceremonial occasions, including the Duke’s June 10 birthday, although Islanders are fitful time-keepers. Iakel supporters, when informed of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding, reportedly raised one of their British flags, drank kava, and danced nupu (Lagan 2018). Followers also gathered to kill and share pigs, and drink kava, to mourn Philip’s death when they heard the news. Traditionally, male relatives of a dead kinsman grow their beards out for about a year and then organize a mortuary feast to mark shaving these off. Such celebrations are ad hoc and irregular, sparked largely by passing external attention.


Leadership on Tanna is diffuse and contextual (Lindstrom 2021). Men occupy managerial positions insofar as others are willing to follow. At the village level, numbers of men claim one or the other of two sorts of traditional chiefly titles (ianineteta “spokesman of the canoe” and ierumanu “ruler”) although in practice age, experience, and ability determine who effectively serves as “chief.” Regional organizations (the many Christian denominations active on the island; John Frum; previous groups including “Four Corner” and various Kastom churches; and now the Prince Philip movement) operate similarly. Able, typically older, men (particularly those who receive innovative messages from spirits or the wider world) command followings.

Jack Naiva and Tuk Nauau, along these lines, were two principal innovators of Prince Philip stories. They took advantage of the politically troubled 1970s, an unreciprocated pig, a fortunate encounter with the Britannia during its 1974 royal visit to Port Vila, and a community unhappy with its marginality to evoke a hidden princely connection. Nauau, who suffered from filariasis, died in the 1990s and Naiva in 2009. Movement leadership has passed to a second generation, but even before Naiva died serious conflict had erupted between the Duke’s followers in Iounhanen village and those in Iakel, located a few hundred yards down the road and led by Johnson Kouia, Posen, and others. Such denominational conflict is typical on the island as communities and organizations dispute and split over resources. In this case, the Prince and the global attention he commanded, and a growing tourist business, were the main points of conflict.


Philip is dead. What might islanders do next? Much journalistic speculation focused on whether Prince Charles might take his father’s place in the hearts of the Tannese (e.g., Squires 2021). No firm story, however, has yet appeared that Charles will supplant Philip. Philip’s spirit, after all, is now back home on Tanna [Image at right] and he continues to offer roads that lead out into the wider world.

A bigger challenge comes from the movement’s remarkable success. This precipitated a split between Iounhanen and Iakel, which deepened when the latter captured much of the tourist trade. Although Iounhanen, in the 1970s, was first to offer itself to the world as a kastom village tourist attraction (and villagers could hurry to don their penis wrappers and bark skirts when a truck could be heard grinding up the mountain trail), Iakel by the 2000s had captured much of the trade (Connell 2008). Iakel men also starred in both the British (2007) and American (2009) versions of the reality television show Meet the Natives. This carried five villages to the U.K. and the U.S. where they met new friends and encountered exotic Western social conditions (homeless people, for example). The Duke, in the British version (episode three, part five), entertained the five Iakel men in Buckingham Palace, although off camera. They gave Philip several gifts including another walking stick, and apparently asked him “Is the pawpaw ripe yet or not?” If ripe, his return to Tanna was imminent. One wonders about the Duke’s willingness to hobnob with his followers although this did enhance international relations as is his assigned island duty.

In 2015, Iakel villagers in their penis-wrappers and bark skirts starred in an Australian-produced feature film, Tanna (Lindstrom 2015). This film, in 2017, was nominated for an Academy Award Best Foreign Language Film, and it won other awards including one from the African-American Film Critics Association. Its young stars traveled widely to international film festivals. The Prince, too, popped up in the film as village elders commend his arranged marriage with Elizabeth as an essential model for island marriages which are also still mostly arranged by a couple’s parents (Jolly 2019).

Tourist visits to Tanna increased significantly in the 2000s, before Covid-19 closed borders. Vanuatu’s National Statistics Office reported that over 11,000 international visitors came to Tanna in 2018. Most arrived to tour Iasur, the island’s volcano, but increasing numbers also paid to experience and photograph kastom life in Iakel, or in several competing villages hawking island traditionalism. A few, especially wide-eyed journalists, come to follow Prince Philip’s trail. When international tourism resumes, this growing outlandish attention promises to deepen island conflict as Philip’s followers clash over the money and other resources that visitors offer.

Philip has indeed served as the road along which villagers have, like him, left Tanna to travel far. Now that his spirit is back home on the island, his road may one day become overgrown and impassable, replaced by new connections and new global relationships that islanders crave. But, for now, his stories still circulate, and his light which shines on Tanna continues to attract the world to this remote and fascinating island.

Image #1: Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburugh.
Image #2: Jack Naiva with Philip’s photograph (a post-1978 retake).
Image #3: Map of Tanna.


Baylis, Matthew. 2013. Man Belong Mrs Queen: Adventures with the Philip Worshippers. London: Old Street Publishing.

Champion, John. 2002. John S. Champion CMG, OBE.  Pp. pp.142-54 in Brian J. Bresnihan and Keith Woodward, eds. Tufala Gavman: Reminiscences from the Anglo-French Condominium of the New Hebrides. Suva: Institute of Pacific Studies, University of the South Pacific.

Connell, John. 2008. “The Continuity of Custom? Tourist Perceptions of Authenticity in Yakel Village, Tanna, Vanuatu.” Journal of Tourism and Cultural Change 5:71-86.

Davies, Caroline. 2021. “Prince Philip: The unlikely but willing Pacific deity.” The Guardian, April 10. Accessed from https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2021/apr/10/prince-philip-south-sea-island-god-duke-of-edinburgh on 1 August 2021.

Drury, Colin. 2021. “Prince Philip: Tribe Who Worshipped Due as God Will Wail to Mark His Death.” Independent, April 10. Accessed from https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/royal-family/prince-philip-death-island-tribe-b1829458.html on 1 August 2021.

Gregory, Robert J. and Janet E. Gregory. 1984. “John Frum: An Indigenous Strategy of Reaction to Mission Rule and the Colonial Order.” Pacific Studies 7:68-90.

Jolly, Margaret. 2019. Tanna: Romancing Kastom, Eluding Exoticism? Journal de la Societe des Oceanistes 148:97-112.

Lagan, Bernard. 2018. “Royal wedding: Duke cult islanders celebrate with a feast.” The Times, May  21. Accessed from https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/duke-cult-islanders-celebrate-with-a-feast-kmxjbkxqb on 1 August 2021.

Lebot, Vincent, Mark Merlin, and Lamont Lindstrom. 1992. Kava: The Pacific Drug. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Lewis, Robert. 2018. The Pacific in the wake of Captain Cook with Sam Neill. (study guide). St Kilda: Australian Teachers of Media.

Lindstrom, Lamont. 2021. Tanna Times: Islanders in the World. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Lindstrom, Lamont. 2015. Award-winning film Tanna sets Romeo and Juliet in the south Pacific.” The Conversation, November 4. Accessed from http://theconversation.com/award-winning-film- tanna-sets-romeo-and-juliet-in-the-south-pacific-49874 on 1 August 2021.

Lindstrom, Lamont. 1993. Cargo Cult: Strange Stories of Desire from Melanesia and Beyond. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Morgan, Chloe. 2021. “South Pacific Yaohnanen tribe who worship Prince Philip as a God believe his spirit is ready to return to their island to bring ‘peace and harmony to the world’—and say Prince Charles will ‘keep their faith alive’.” Daily Mail, April 20. Accessed from https://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-9487967/Vanuata-island-tribe-worship-Prince-Philip-God-believe-spirit-ready-return-home.html on 1 August 2021.

Müller, Kal. 1974.  “A Pacific Island Awaits Its Messiah.” National Geographic 145:706-15.

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Pompanio, Alice, David R. Counts, and Thomas G. Harding, eds.1994. Children of Kilibob: Creation, Costom and Culture in Northeast New Guinea.  Pacific Studies (special issue) 17:4.

Squires, Nick. 2021. “Spiritual secession: Vanuatu tribe who worshipped Prince Philip as a god will now deify Charles.” The Telegraph, April 9. Accessed from https://www.telegraph.co.uk/royal-family/2021/04/09/spiritual-succession-islanders-worshipped-prince-philip-god/ on 1 August 2021.

Stuart, Andrew. 2002. “Andrew Stuart CMG CPM.” Pp. 588-506 in Brian J. Bresnihan and Keith Woodward, eds. Tufala Gavman: Reminiscences from the Anglo-French Condominium of the New Hebrides. Suva: Institute of Pacific Studies, University of the South Pacific.

Publication Date:
4 August 2021



Fairfield, Iowa (Transcendental Meditation Enclave)


1970:  UCLA graduate student Robert Keith Wallace, a devotee of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in California, published a version of his doctoral thesis, showing helpful effects of meditation, in Science magazine.

1971-1972:  Maharishi developed the Science of Creative Intelligence, planning at first to teach it as a supplementary course at universities worldwide. Followers launched the course at Yale and Stanford, among other schools.

1973-1974:  After switching gears to develop its own university, the movement opened Maharishi International University (MIU) in rented space in Goleta, California. Crammed for space, the movement bought the campus of bankrupt Parsons College in Fairfield, Iowa, for $2,500,000. Students and faculty arrived in the summer of 1974. R.K. Wallace headed the school.

1975:  Popular TV host Merv Griffin, a TM practitioner, broadcast two shows interviewing the guru, and initiations grew by nearly 300,000, part of what followers call “the Merv wave.” This represented the movement’s peak and the beginning of Fairfield’s ascension.

1975:  Practitioners set up the Maharishi School of the Age of Enlightenment in Fairfield, an elementary school mainly for children of faculty and staff at MIU.

1976-1979:  Parents of public school students in New Jersey and clergy sued to shut down TM programs launched in the schools, contending they were religious in nature. New initiations plunged. A federal judge, ruling for the parents, stopped the public school TM programs in New Jersey in 1977 and his decision was upheld on appeal in 1979, driving the movement inward toward Fairfield.

1977:  Maharishi introduced the TM-Sidhi program, involving hours of meditation daily and promises of levitation, so-called “Yogic Flying.” The claims of flying and invisibility, which drew ridicule, were based on a classic text of Hindu philosophy.

1979:  After being rebuked in the federal court decision against teaching TM in public schools, the guru issued a call for meditators to come to Fairfield and more than 1,000 heeded it. The movement began work on two giant meditation domes on the MIU campus, one for men and one for women, intended for daily meditation by thousands.

1981:  Practitioners added a high school to the Maharishi School of the Age of Enlightenment in Fairfield, giving students the chance to pursue “consciousness-based” education from preschool to the doctoral level.

1986:  A TM practitioner was elected to the city council in Fairfield, the first time a meditator won such a post in the town. Others followed.

1992:  TM practitioners in the U.S. founded the Natural Law Party, running candidates for state and national offices from Fairfield, including three runs at the U.S. Presidency by leading movement figure John Hagelin through 2000. The presidential campaigns drew headlines across the U.S.

1995:  Maharishi International University in Fairfield changed its name to Maharishi University of Management.

1997:  Fairfield voters turned out in large numbers to defeat TM practitioners running for a school board seat and the mayoralty. Mayoral candidate Democrat Ed Malloy, who served on the city council beginning in 1992, was defeated.

2001:  Making another run, Malloy was elected mayor of Fairfield, Iowa, after serving on the city council until 1998. He defeated an incumbent who had served for twenty-eight years.

2001:  TM practitioners chartered a new city, Maharishi Vedic City, a few miles outside of Fairfield. The small city featured a couple of hotels, including a luxury spa-hotel resembling a French chalet, the headquarters of the headquarters of the Global Country of World Peace, a few residential developments and a city council dominated by developers active in the movement.

2002:  Connie Boyer, a TM practitioner, Republican and lifelong Fairfield resident, was narrowly defeated in a bid for an Iowa state house seat.

2003:  Boyer was appointed to the Fairfield City Council and in the fall won an election to keep the spot, serving until declining to run again in 2007.

2004:  Levi Andelin Butler, a student at MUM, was stabbed to death by a disturbed fellow student on the campus. The event triggered criticism of safety practices and crime-free claims about the campus, as well as consideration of TM’s limits in mental health matters.

2005:  Filmmaker and TM enthusiast David Lynch set up an eponymous foundation to back efforts to teach TM in troubled schools, in veterans programs, prisons and other stressed environments nationwide. Over time, the foundation’s fundraising events included appearances by former Beatle Paul McCartney, comedian Jerry Seinfeld and other TM enthusiasts.

2006:  Meditator Becky Schmitz, a Democrat from Fairfield, was elected to the Iowa State Senate, where she served until 2011.

2008:  Maharishi died in Vlodrop, the Netherlands

2011:  Boyer won election to the Fairfield City Council.

2012:  Schmitz was elected to the Board of Supervisors for Jefferson County, Iowa, whose county seat is  Fairfield.

2019:  Boyer was elected mayor of Fairfield after Malloy declined to run again, and a tie in a runoff was decided by a blind drawing. Boyer’s runoff opponent was also a TM practitioner.

2019:  Maharishi University of Management changed its name back to Maharishi International University, reflecting its mostly international makeup of students.


The Transcendental Meditation movement, created by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in the 1950s in India and expanded in California in the 1960s, opened a university near Santa Barbara in 1973 to provide a “consciousness-based education.” Then, crammed for space, in 1974 the movement acquired a college campus in southeastern Iowa, in Fairfield, after a local mainstay, Parsons College, went bankrupt. The TM movement moved its university to Iowa and launched a program that granted undergraduate through Ph.D. degrees with courses infused with the guru’s teachings. It also opened an elementary and high school in Fairfield with all courses similarly infused with Maharishi’s teachings and, over time, welcomed hundreds of meditators.

The arrival of the meditators transformed Fairfield, turning it from a sleepy farm town whose biggest events were a county fair and performances by the 34th Army Iowa National Guard Band into a place where spiritualists of various stripes visited regularly. [Image at right] Over time, the meditators also brought celebrities from distant Hollywood to town. They introduced vegetarian restaurants and shops of all sorts, including some selling mystical gems. Entrepreneurs among the practitioners developed substantial businesses, employing non-meditators and meditators alike; some businesses thrived while others faded. Across the university and in scattered residential areas, even the architecture was altered over the years by TM-influenced doctrines.

Founded in the mid-1830s, Fairfield grew through the century as the county seat of Jefferson County. Mainly a retailing center for area farmers and home to the first state fair in Iowa, in 1854, the town got a boost in 1875 when Parsons College opened its doors. The sons of a wealthy New York merchant who had died in 1855, Lewis B. Parsons, provided the funds to create a Christian school in Iowa in their father’s name (Jefferson County Online n.d.). Fairfield’s population swelled from about 2,200 in 1870 to nearly 3,100 in 1880, as the college drove growth in the local economy, a pattern that endured over the decades (Population.us 2016). As Fairfield grew, notable buildings rose across the town. Among them: the Jefferson County Courthouse and the Carnegie Library, ornate red-brick buildings completed in 1893. On the campus, one of the most prominent structures, the Barhydt Memorial Chapel, rose in 1909 (Fairfield Convention and Visitors Bureau 2021).

But the college fell on bad times by the 1960s, driven into disrepute as a “second-chance” school for students who had flunked out elsewhere and as a haven for draft-dodgers. Meanwhile, as the school was declining, the TM movement was growing. It stretched its influence across the country in the 1970s, and bought the Parsons campus out of bankruptcy for $2,500,000 in 1974. During the summer of that year, young meditators and faculty flocked into town, surprising residents who feared that they would be invaded by wild-haired counter-culturists. “In an era of ‘hippies’ with torn and patched jeans, scraggly hair and bare feet, the newcomers were neat in dresses and suits; their hair was trim and their feet were shod,” Fairfield historian Susan Fulton Welty wrote. The TM leaders were determined to make a good impression on their new national home (Welty 1968).

The TM movement then gave Fairfield another boost in the late 1970s, stemming from an unlikely source, an unfriendly court decision in New Jersey. The movement had been teaching meditation techniques in public schools, denying as it did so that its practices were religious. Some parents disagreed, seeing the Hindu-based practices as an unconstitutional promotion of religion in schools, and they sued. Even as the movement insisted it was a not a religion and its practices not religious, a federal judge in 1977 sided with the parents, barred the movement from teaching TM in public schools; his decision was upheld on appeal in 1979. In the wake of the decision, the Maharishi issued a call for meditators to flock to Fairfield to embrace a new set of practices he was initiating, driving a surge of newcomers into the town. The population overall in the town jumped from about 8,700 in 1970 to more than 9,400 in 1980 and to just under 10,000 in 1990 (U.S. Census Bureau 2019).

In response to the guru’s 1979 call, meditators who flocked to Fairfield took on innovative practices Maharishi developed. Some engaged in “Yogic Flying,” for instance, hopping on mattresses while reciting silent mantras to themselves. The practice was based on Hindu scripture referring to meditation-induced levitation. The movement also built a pair of giant domes [Image at right] on the MIU campus (capable of handling up to 1,000 people each) in hopes of drawing enough meditators each day to create “the Maharishi Effect,” a belief that practicing TM in sufficient numbers could bring peace. Practitioners sought enough meditators to spread the Maharishi Effect nationwide from its nearly central U.S. location. Men gathered in one dome at MIU, while women gathered in another. While building and operating its sprawling meditation domes, the campus’s officials let the Barhydt chapel fall into disrepair, and they ultimately razed the historic structure in 2001, symbolically destroying the original Christian ties of the school and irking some Fairfield locals who had married in the building or had other deep ties to it.

While they were shut out of public schools nationwide in the late 1970s and 1980s, TM supporters sought to broaden the movement’s influence by moving into politics; several Fairfielders sought public office locally and beyond. In 1986, the first practitioner was elected to a city council seat in Fairfield, and many followed over the years, assuring that the interests of the university and movement were addressed in local government. Practitioners set up their own political party, the Natural Law Party, in 1992 and one top movement official, John Hagelin, made quixotic runs three times for president of the United States, the last time in 2000. Meditators fared better at the local level, with two meditators serving as mayors of Fairfield from 2001 through at least 2021, and one practitioner served in the Iowa State Senate until 2011, later winning a seat on the Board of Supervisors in Jefferson County, based in Fairfield.

Their rise in local politics reflected the acceptance, or at least tolerance, that most Fairfield locals developed for the meditators. In the early years, some locals derided the newcomers as “roos,” short for followers of the guru. But for the most part meditators who made Fairfield their home for over four decades fit in. Some joined local churches (although a few conservative churches still barred them), and they became active in community cultural and arts groups. They worked hand in hand with elected officials who are not meditators. While their practices were not embraced by most of their neighbors, and socializing still tended to be within the group, most of the meditators grew comfortable in the community. The TM practitioners avoided proselytizing among the locals, and the positive effects they had on the economy helped build tolerance.

In the years leading up to and after the guru’s death, in 2008, TM proselytization efforts around the world were led by filmmaker David Lynch, a Maharishi enthusiast who created the David Lynch Foundation for Consciousness-Based Education and World Peace to deliver TM programming in schools (trying again across the country, despite the federal court decision), in prisons and in other areas of high stress across the country. The foundation based itself legally in Fairfield, as well as having offices in Los Angeles and New York. Consistent with the publicity-generating techniques of the movement’s early day in California, the foundation enlisted celebrities to help in fundraising events. Among them were former Beatles Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, radio shock-jock Howard Stern and comedian Jerry Seinfeld.

Other celebrities who supported TM efforts over the years included Clint Eastwood, Mary Tyler Moore, Gwyneth Paltrow, Laura Dern, Hugh Jackman and Ellen DeGeneres. Hedge fund magnate Ray Dalio brought TM trainers into his Bridgewater Associates firm to teach the technique to employees, and other business leaders who supported TM included designer Donna Karan. Supportive media figures included former CNN journalist Candy Crowley, who cohosted a Lynch foundation gala in 2010 and spoke at the Maharishi university commencement in Fairfield in 2012, and others who brought TM enthusiasts onto their programs, such as former CNN anchor Soledad O’Brien and ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, as well as Merv Griffin in the movement’s early days.

Some of the celebrities accepted invitations to visit Fairfield. Paul McCartney’s son James, for instance, brought his band, Light, to the town in 2009. Oprah visited, meditated and did a program on the meditating community in and around the town in 2012. Rubber-faced comedian Jim Carrey spoke at the TM university commencement there in 2014, one of several prominent Lynch foundation supporters to do so.

As many other rural Iowa towns saw declines in population, Fairfield’s grew. It was estimated at 10,600 in 2021, according to the World Population Review. The entrepreneurial efforts of the meditators helped significantly, as they spawned substantial businesses in telecommunications, food and food-related areas, finance, and environmental areas, employing both TM practitioners and non-meditators alike. Some executives credited TM with giving them the focus they needed to build their businesses, ranging from colorful small shops to sprawling operations. Some executives credited their successes to the focus that meditation helped them bring to bear on business issues. (Weber 2014).


Practitioners espouse a mantra-based meditation, conducted at least twice a day for twenty minutes each time. Based on studies conducted by TM practitioners, they point to many health and psychological benefits from the practice. The movement’s official view is that such meditation is non-religious and can be done by individuals who belong to any religion. Its teachers deliver meditation training to individuals in person, giving each practitioner a mantra that is said to be unique but which may be drawn from lists provided to teachers. There is controversy over whether the mantras are based on the names of gods or on laws of nature.

Beyond that, some TM adherents study or hold with various teachings by the late guru. He drew some of his teachings, based in Hinduism, from those of his personal guru, the late Swami Brachmananda Saraswati Jagadguru. Maharishi also offered innovations in what he called his Science of Creative Intelligence. The teachings, reflected in curriculum provided in the Maharishi pre-K-12 school and university in Fairfield, include references to the Divine, to heaven and to Hindu deities.

A form of astrology, known as Jyotish, and a form of architecture, known as Sthapatya Veda, are part of the system and Fairfield is dotted with homes and other structures built in accord with it. [Image at right] Adherents hold, for instance, that east-facing entrances on buildings foster enlightenment, affluence and fulfillment while south-facing entrances breed fear, destruction and quarreling. Some homes and buildings are adorned with distinctive kalashes, cupola-type crowns that are said to tighten the link between the residents and heaven. Some homes are built around Brahmastans, shrine-like covered areas said to nourish family life.  Sanskrit is among the subjects students at the movement’s schools may study, though all coursework (even computer science and literature) is infused with the guru’s teachings. In addition, based on the late guru’s aversion to cellphones, adherents avoid using wireless computers in the movement schools (though the university relaxed its bars on such machines in many areas).

The Maharishi also expanded on the meditation technique with his TM-Sidhi program, which required hours of meditation daily and included promises of levitation. Believers hopped around on mats in such “Yogic Flying,” a practice based on a classic text of Hindu philosophy, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. The practice carried promises of invisibility and the ability to move through walls. Adherents also hold with “the Maharishi Effect,” a belief that groups of meditators can lower the levels of violence in a town, city or even a nation. Various numbers were reported over time, ranging from one-tenth of the adult population in a given area to one-hundredth or one-thousandth. The movement settled on the square root of one percent of a given population and produced studies purporting to prove the effect. Indeed, with prominent scientists trained at such institutions as Harvard in its practitioner ranks, the TM movement has produced studies backing up its claimed effects, though they often appear in movement journals rather than peer-reviewed mainstream academic or medical journals.

In Fairfield, the movement has tried to assemble enough meditators twice daily in its meditation domes to deliver the Maharishi Effect nationwide. For a time, it also brought in young men from India, known as pandits, to meditate for many hours daily in a compound in Maharishi Vedic City, [Image at right] a small city developers associated with the movement built outside of Fairfield .(Weber 2014)

From Fairfield, the movement also influenced the global debate over genetically modified organisms in food and agricultural products. TM leaders, most notably some associated with Maharishi International University, opposed such modifications, with one drawing national attention in 1994 for returning federal grant money tied to biotechnology and instead endorsing a “Vedic approach” to agriculture. As that argument became a key one for the Natural Law Party in various political campaigns, advocates made their case nationally and globally against GMOs. Fairfield became the home to a company that tested various products across the world for GMOs, FoodChain ID (Grohman 2021).


Meditation sessions of twenty minutes each, conducted twice daily in private or in group sessions are core practices of TM adherents. Some adherents, who have been through the TM-Sidhi program, meditate far longer each day. In Fairfield, meditators gather in great domes on the university campus for group sessions or meditate in their homes or in the movement’s university or pre-K to grade twelve school. Those who have taken up the practice outside of Fairfield typically meditate privately.

When meditation is taught in programs in public schools under the aegis of the Lynch foundation or affiliates, the practice includes a controversial ritual known as the puja. This rite included students appearing before a picture of Maharishi’s late guru and chanting in Sanskrit that critics have said included statements recognizing the power of Hindu deities. In early iterations in the 1970s (deemed religious by a federal judge), the programming included instruction from a textbook in the guru’s Science of Creative Intelligence.

Experts and former practitioners have argued that the ties to Hinduism cannot be separated from TM. Hinduism scholar Cynthia Ann Humes, in “Maharishi Mahesh Yogi: Beyond the TM Technique,” argues: “When is a path to enlightenment, which sponsors rituals to deities and is based on meditation that deploys the names of gods, not a religion?” She adds: “Not only is it Hinduism, but it is a specific incorporated brand of Hinduism” (Forsthoefel and Humes 2005). Scholars Rodney Stark and William Sims Bainbridge wrote that “for a long time, its more religious teachings and practices were revealed only to the inner core of members while ordinary meditators were offered an apparently nonreligious, practical technique.” (Stark and Bainbridge 1985). Bainbridge and Daniel H. Jackson called TM “a solidly organized religious cult movement” that in 1981 was “undoubtedly one of the largest new religions in America.” (Wilson 1981).


The international organizations of the TM movement are based in Vlodrop, in the Netherlands, while most of its U.S. organizations are headquartered in Fairfield. The organization is led globally by Dr. Tony Nader, a physician and neuroscientist who trained at the American University in Beirut and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and did research at Harvard. The Lebanese-born Nader, whose full name is Tanios Abou Nader, was born in 1955 and assumed leadership of the TM global efforts upon the guru’s death in 2008. A leading figure in the movement’s U.S. operations in Fairfield is John Hagelin, president of Maharishi International University and a Harvard-trained physicist, though much of the proselytization efforts for TM now come from moviemaker David Lynch through his eponymous foundation. Politically, the interests of the university in Fairfield are advanced by local elected officials who are practitioners, most conspicuously the mayoral positions in Fairfield and nearby Maharishi Vedic City.


Because so much of the TM movement’s direction and inspiration came from its guru, his death in 2008 left the organization with a vacuum at the top. For followers, the charismatic Maharishi was a source of wisdom and centralized leadership, as well as a major draw for the media when he was in his prime. Adherents still rely on tapes of the guru’s lectures and his writings. Leadership is somewhat fractured now, with such figures as Lynch far more visible in the media than global organization head Tony Nader or a leading U.S. figure, John Hagelin. None of the leaders have proved as inspirational as the late guru and no spiritual successor is apparent.

While Maharishi was responsible for the broad popularization of mantra-based meditation outside of India in the 1960s and beyond, the practice since then has been taught by others who provide various types of meditation. Some groups have taken advantage of the Internet to provide apps that offer meditation techniques that don’t carry the religious baggage critics see in Transcendental Meditation. But the TM movement adheres to its model of prospective meditators meeting in person with teachers. It has far more competitors for meditation techniques than ever before, moreover, as some meditation practices are offered in venues ranging from gyms and yoga programs to churches and synagogues.

The movement also has spawned defectors who criticize it in blogs, such as the TM-Free Blog, and books, such as Transcendental Deception, and in materials easily available online (Siegel 2018).

As organizations such as Lynch’s foundation seek again to teach the meditation technique in public schools, they run into opposition from religious groups and individual who see the programs as espousing a form of Hinduism that violates laws barring the propagation of religion in such schools (one such suit in 2021 was moving forward in federal court in Chicago). Critics, including former practitioners who continued to live in Fairfield, argue that the movement’s denial of its religious nature amounts to deception. Some who have left the town have written scathingly of the culture the movement developed in Fairfield (Shumsky 2018). No matter how much evidence the movement produces showing the positive effects its meditation practices have on students in troubled schools, the religious argument is a daunting hurdle for proponents.

Despite claims that the movement’s practices can aid in mental health, several suicides among practitioners in Fairfield and a 2004 murder of a student on the campus of what is now known as Maharishi International University suggest its benefits are more limited that some enthusiasts have suggested. The guru also embraced health supplements that have drawn skepticism among medical professionals (Wanjek 2007).

While some meditators have built distinctive homes around Fairfield, sporting unique architectural features, they or their heirs could find difficulties in selling them over time, as family needs change. Some of the homes are worth far more than the median prices for houses in the relatively modest-income town. Similarly, the architectural styles that now mark many of the new buildings on the university campus could prove unappealing for other potential occupants, should the university ultimately fade if the movement declines over time.

Also the guru’s teachings and credibility could wane over time. Following Hindu tradition for holy men, Maharishi publicly held out that he was celibate, but several women who dealt with him claimed otherwise, embarrassing the movement. One, former follower Judith Bourque, self-published a book about her sexual liaisons with the guru, Robes of Silk, Feet of Clay. (Bourque 2010). Other women who reported sexual relationships with him were written about by critical journalists or defectors from the movement, who suggested the guru was hypocritical and deceptive, blunting the guru’s appeal.

Finally, the movement’s practitioners are aging. It appealed originally to many twenty-somethings in the 1960s and 1970s, and its leadership and supporters in the early days included many such figures, some of whom moved to Fairfield in response to the guru’s call in 1979. Developing a coterie of younger people to take the helm in the 2000s, as elders cling to their often well-paying organizational roles, as well as to fill the followers’ ranks, is an existential challenge, one other religious organizations have faced with mixed results. For Fairfield, the challenge is likely to be most acute, as many of the children of devotees have not so far risen to leadership roles (Weber 2014).

Copyrights to the images displayed in this profile are held by Joseph Weber and are used with permission.
Image #1: Fairfield town square.
Image #2: One of the Golden Domes in Fairfield.
Image #3: A home in Fairfield owned by a meditator.
Image #4: The Global Country of World Peace headquarters in Vedic City.


Bourque, Judith. 2010. Robes of Silk, Feet of Clay. Self-published.

Fairfield Convention and Visitors Bureau. 2021. Fairfield: Tune Into Our Vibe. Accessed from https://www.visitfairfieldiowa.com/about/history on 25 July 2021.

Forsthoefel, Thomas A. and Cynthia Ann Humes. 2005. Gurus in America. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Grohman, Gregory. 2021. “Transcending Transgenics: Transcendental Meditation, Natural Law, and the Campaign to Ban Genetically Engineered Food,” Annals of Iowa 80:Issue 1.

Jefferson County Online. n.d. The Rise and Fall of Parsons College. Accessed from http://iagenweb.org/jefferson/ParsonsCollege/Parsons.html on 7/25/2021.

Population.us. 2016. Accessed from https://population.us/ia/fairfield/ on 25 July 2021.

Shumsky, Susan. 2018. “My Experience Living In A Cult For 20 Years – Here’s How I Broke Free.” Huffington Post, October 17. Accessed fromhttps://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/cult-maharishi-mahesh-yogi_uk_5bc5e04de4b0d38b5871a8c3 on 25 July 2021.

Siegel, Aryeh. 2018. Transcendental Deception. Los Angeles: Janreg Press.

Stark, Rodney and William Sims Bainbridge. 1985. The Future of Religion: Secularization, Revival, and Cult Formation. Berkeley: University of California Press.

U.S. Census Bureau. 2019. Accessed from https://data.census.gov/cedsci/table?q=Fairfield%20Iowa%20population%201974&tid=ACSDT5Y2019.B01003 on 25 July 2021.

Wanjek, Christopher. 2007. “Ayurveda: The Good, the Bad and the Expensive.” Livescience. Accessed from https://www.livescience.com/1367-ayurveda-good-bad-expensive.html on 25 July 2021.

Weber, Joseph. 2014. Transcendental Meditation in America: How a New Age Movement Remade a Small Town in Iowa. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.

Welty, Susan Fulton. 1968. A Fair Field. Harlo Press.

Wilson, Bryan ed. 1981. The Social Impact of New Religious Movements. New York: Rose of Sharon Press.

Publication Date:
29 July 2021


La Famille


1640:  Augustinus, the posthumous treatise by Bishop Cornelius Jansen, was published in Louvain.

1642:  The first Pontifical condemnation of “Jansenism” was issued.

1713 (September 8):  The Papal bull Unigenitus by Clement XI marked the final condemnation of Jansenism.

1727 (May 1):  Deacon François de Pâris died in Paris.

1731:  Miracles started to be reported at the grave of Deacon François de Pâris in Paris’ Saint-Médard cemetery.

1733:  The “Convulsionaries” movement was driven underground.

1740s:  Crucifixion and other extreme practices involving (mostly female) Convulsionaries started.

1744 (February 23):  Claude Bonjour was born in Pont-d’Ain, in Eastern France.

1751 (January 4):  François Bonjour was born in Pont-d’Ain.

1762 (July 25):  Jean-Pierre Thibout was born in Épinay-sur-Seine, near Paris.

1774:  Claude Bonjour was appointed as parish priest of Fareins, Dombes, France.

1783:  Claude Bonjour resigned as parish priest of Fareins in favor of his brother François.

1787 (October 10):  Étiennette Thomasson was crucified in the parish church of Fareins.

1788:  A criminal prosecution against the Bonjour brothers was initiated.

1789 (January 5):  Marguerite Bernard died in Paris, following extreme austerities.

1790 (June 6):  The Bonjour brothers and several followers were arrested.

1791 (September 10):  Claude Bonjour was released from jail.

1791 (November 19):  François Bonjour was released from jail.

1791 (December 5):  The Bonjour family left Fareins and moved to Paris.

1792 (January 21):  Jean Bonjour, son of François Bonjour and Benoite Françoise Monnier, was born in Paris.

1792 (August 18):  Israël-Elie Bonjour (Lili), son of François Bonjour and Claudine Dauphan, was born in Paris.

1799:  Sister Élisée (Julie Simone Olivier) was accepted as a prophetic voice within the Bonjours group.

1800:  François Bonjour stated that the prophetic messages of Sister Élisée “did not come from the Holy Spirit.”

1805 (January 20):  François Bonjour was arrested in Paris with fifteen relatives and followers.

1805 (May):  François Bonjour and his family were expelled to Switzerland (or agreed to go there to avoid being arrested again).

1812 (January 4):  Israël-Elie Bonjour married Marie Collet.

1814 (March 6):  Claude Bonjour died in Assens, Canton of Vaud, Switzerland.

1817 (date unknown):  Sister Élisée died in the Paris region.

1819 (January 2):  Jean-Pierre Thibout and François Joseph Havet reorganized the followers of the Bonjours in Paris.

1836 (July 12):  Jean-Pierre Thibout died in Paris.

1846 (April 24):  François Bonjour died in Paris.

1863 (April 25):  Paul-Augustin Thibout (Mon Oncle Auguste) was born in Paris.

1866 (September 4):  Israël-Elie Bonjour died in Ribemont, Aisne, France.

1920 (Mars):  Paul-Agustin Thibout died in Villiers-sur-Marne.

1961–1963:  Former members of La Famille organized a kibbutz in Pardailhan, Hérault, through which some French media discovered the existence of La Famille.

2013 (night between June 10 and 11):  La Famille’s villa in Villiers-sur-Marne (Les Cosseux) was burned by an arsonist and severely damaged.

2017 (July 4):  Contacted by ex-members, the French governmental anti-cult mission MIVILUDES published a document critical of La Famille.

2020–2021:  Using materials posted on Facebook by a hostile ex-member, several French media published articles on La Famille.

2021:  Journalist Suzanne Privat published the book La Famille. Itinéraires d’un secret.


Jansenism was a theological movement born in the seventeenth century that imported into Catholicism some Protestant elements, including a doctrine of predestination, a puritanic morality, the autonomy of national churches, and the introduction of readings in French rather than in Latin within the Catholic liturgy. It took its name from Dutch Bishop Cornelius Jansen (1585–1638), [Image at right] although the latter did not want to establish any movement, and his book Augustinus was published only after his death, in 1640. It met with an almost immediate Papal condemnation in 1642 as promoting a form of crypto-Protestantism.

What came to be called “Jansenism” was particularly successful in France, where it seduced prominent intellectuals, such as philosopher Blaise Pascal (1623–1662), and a sizable number of bishops and priests. For political as well as religious reasons, it was suppressed in the eighteenth century by both the Catholic Church and the French monarchy. The strongest document was the Papal bull Unigenitus by Clement XI (1649–1721) in 1713, although its cultural influence continued into the nineteenth century and extended to other countries (Chantin 1996).

Jansenism was never a movement of intellectuals only. A popular Jansenism developed around the cult (not authorized by the Catholic Church) of “saints” such as Jansenist Deacon François de Pâris (1690–1727). His grave in the Parisian cemetery of the Saint-Médard parish church witnessed the first phenomena of the “Convulsionaries,” who convulsed, fainted, screamed, prophesied, and claimed to have been healed from various illnesses.

Eventually, the movement of the Convulsionaries spread from Paris to several cities and villages of France, and added to the convulsions extreme practices called secours, where devotees, mostly female, willingly submitted to beating, torture, and even crucifixion to mystically connect with Jesus and early Christian martyrs. [Image at right]. Early scholars of Jansenism regarded Convulsionaries as a deviant group, while later historians have emphasized continuities between the “cultivated” and the “popular” Jansenism (Chantin 1998; Strayer 2008).

The Convulsionaries never became a unified movement. They formed a network, and a devotee moving from one French city to another might be welcomed there by other Convulsionaries. More often, the different small groups criticized and excommunicated each other, particularly after some of the leaders advanced messianic claims forthemselves (Chantin 1998; Maury 2019).

One successful group of Convulsionaries developed from the 1770s around Father François Bonjour (1751–1846: complete dates, when available, are supplied in the Timeline above), later known as “Silas,” the parish priest of Fareins, a village in the French region of the Dombes, some twenty-five miles from Lyon. [Image at right] Father François’ activities, carried out with the cooperation of his elder brother and predecessor as parish priest of Fareins, Father Claude Bonjour (1744–1814), and other priests, belonged to the most extreme wing of the Convulsionaries.

The crucifixion in 1787 of a female devotee, Etiennette Thomasson (who survived, while another female parishioner, Marguerite “Gothon” Bernard, submitted to heavy secours died at the beginning of 1789), led to police intervention, and the Bonjour brothers ended up in jail (Chantin 2014). The confusion of the years of the French Revolution set them free, but Father François decided to leave Fareins in 1791 [Image at right] and move to Paris. The main reason for this was that, claiming it had been commanded to do so by a divine revelation, the priest had taken two lovers, his servant Benoite Françoise Monnier, and Claudine Dauphan (sometimes spelled “Dauphin,” 1761–1834: François Bonjour might have married her secretly on November 23, 1790), the servant of a Convulsionaries leader in Lyon, and both were pregnant (Maury 2019:136–44).

Eventually, Father François explained the events within the framework of a millenarian theology. Benoite would generate a male child, Jean Bonjour (1792–1868), who would serve as the John the Baptist to the new divine incarnation, Claudine’s son Israël-Elie Bonjour (1792–1866), nicknamed Lili, who would open the path to the Millennium. Not all Convulsionaries in Paris accepted the strange “holy family” of Father François, but some did, and the birth of Lili was celebrated with great enthusiasm. A prophetess, “Sister Elisee” (Julie Simone Olivier, d. 1817), joined the group and predicted the imminent advent of the Millennium in no less than 18,000 pages of revelations, although after one year of cooperation she broke with the Bonjours and established her own separate group in 1800 (Maury 2019).

The Bonjours’ followers belonged to the faction of the Convulsionaries who welcomed the French Revolution as a deserved punishment for the Catholic Church and the monarchy that had persecuted them (while other Convulsionaries remained loyal to the King and opposed the Revolution). However, the Revolution did not welcome those who were now called “Bonjouristes,” particularly after Napoleon signed in 1801 his Concordat with the Catholic Church. In January 1805, the Bonjours, including thirteen-year-old Lili, and a group of followers were arrested and later in the same year (in May) exiled to Switzerland (or, as others maintain, negotiated with the government a move to Switzerland as an alternative to being jailed).

In Paris, Jean-Pierre Thibout (1762–1836), the concierge of the building where the Bonjours lived, emerged as the leader of the remaining “Bonjouristes.” He later claimed that Lili, before leaving France, had passed his mantle to Pierre’s son, the then three-year-old Augustin Thibout (1802–1837), known as “St. John the Baptist” among the devotees (for this and subsequent information see La Famille n.d. [1] and Havet 1860).

The years after the Revolution were somewhat confused. The Bonjours were allowed to return to France in 1811, but they seemed to have lost interest in their new religion. Lili, who had behaved as a temperamental messiah as a child, married the daughter of a rich merchant, Marie Collet (1794–1829), who gave him ten children. With the help of his father-in-law, Lili became a successful industrialist. He was also a colonel in the National Guard and was awarded the Legion of Honor in 1832. He died in 1866, and just as his father François, who died in 1846, did not play a significant role in the subsequent development of the Bonjouristes, although some continued to correspond with him and received his blessing.

In fact, Jean-Pierre Thibout built a “Bonjourisme” without the Bonjours, which continued to venerate Lili as a mystical presence independently of the real flesh-and-blood Lili, who was busy elsewhere with his businesses. The group has continued to celebrate the anniversary of the reorganization of the movement on the first Saturday of January 1819 (January 2). This is the date when Thibout was discussing Lili’s mission in a coffee shop in the Parisian suburb of Saint-Maur with his co-religionist François Joseph Havet (1759–1842). At the moment of paying the bill, they put two coins on the table, and a third coin, they reported, appeared miraculously, a sign that God was blessing their projects.

But in fact a group of families has kept the faith in Lili, and would continue to quietly meet and intermarry. “La Famille,” as it came to be called, insisted it had no leader, but in fact the elder sons of the Thibout family, all named Augustin as Lili had once requested, had a certain prominence in the movement and dictated some of the current practices (see below, under Rituals/Practices).

Some 3,000 members (although precise statistics are difficult) remain in the movement, and live today mostly in the same area of Paris (11th, 12th, and 20th arrondissements), often in the same buildings.


La Famille has a basic Christian theology, but teaches that all churches are corrupted and that it has been left in the world by God as a little remnant to usher in the Millennium, a kingdom of God on Earth that will last for 1,000 years.

The contemporary La Famille celebrates the Convulsionaries as saintly ancestors, but does not repeat their practices, just as Roman Catholics venerate saints who practiced extreme austerities but do not imitate them.

La Famille reads about Lili, and expects that he or his spirit will return in some way to usher in the Millennium, but offers no dates for this return.

Critics of La Famille describe its Jansenist connection as “remote,” but its songs are still full of Jansenist reminiscences. The great moments of Jansenism continue to be celebrated, as is the saint Deacon François de Pâris. The Church of Rome is condemned as deviant (since it repudiated Jansenism as its last chance of reform) and corrupted, with accents reminiscent of French nineteenth-century anticlericalism. Non-members are called “Gentiles,” and although their fate in the Millennium remains unclear, they are often criticized in the songs as not part of those chosen by God to follow him and defend the truth in dark times (La Famille n.d. [2])

While the origins of La Famille are in Roman Catholicism and Jansenism (and some texts of eighteenth-century Jansenism are still read in the movement), neighbors often describe them as “Protestant,” as their attitude and conservative morality are more similar to Evangelicals than to Catholics.

On the other hand, despite its puritanism and its Jansenist roots, La Famille maintains a familiar relation with God, who is called “Bon Papa,” and trusts his benevolence and care. In the eyes of devotees, this is the root of the loving and caring attitude of members towards each other, which leads many to remain in La Famille, despite its strictness.


In 1892, Paul Augustin Thibout (1863–1920), a direct descendant of Jean-Pierre Thibout who was called “My Uncle Auguste” (Mon Oncle Auguste), [Image at right] enacted a series of precepts aimed at preserving La Famille from contacts with the larger society, which he believed to be hopelessly corrupted.

What he exactly prescribed is a matter of controversy between members and opponents. Certainly, he expressed little sympathy for public schools, holidays, and work outside the community. These precepts are now largely disregarded, and children of La Famille (except those of a minority of arch-conservative families, which prefer home-schooling) do attend public schools (often with very good results), join their parents in taking holidays, enjoy modern music. They may achieve significant professional results in careers Uncle Auguste would have not approved of (although they do not become doctors or lawyers, believing only God is the master of health and law).

Women today do not necessarily wear long shirts or keep their hair long, according to other precepts of Uncle Auguste, although some do. What remains of his legacy, however, is that La Famille does not proselytize and no longer accepts new members from outside. Further, devotees do not marry “gentiles,” i.e. non-members. This has led to a situation where all members of La Famille are identified by the same eight last names.

Uncle Auguste also celebrated drinking wine as a bond between male members of the movement, citing biblical precedents, and noisy alcoholic celebrations have remained a distinctive feature of La Famille. And he inaugurated the practice of celebrating the main feasts of the country and of Christianity (and some typical of La Famille, such as the commemoration of the reorganization of the group in 1819) in his property of Les Cousseux, in Villiers-sur-Marne. [Image at right] The property still belongs to La Famille and has been restored after an arsonist (possibly an angry ex-member) set in on fire in 2013. Weddings (most of them purely religious ceremonies, not registered for legal validity) also often take place at Les Cousseux.

Singing is a key part of La Famille’s celebrations, and the hymnals are a main component of its otherwise scarce literature.


La Famille had remained largely unknown to both media and scholars, with books on the Bonjourisme wrongly proclaiming it dissolved in the nineteenth century. However, in 1960 a member of the Thibout family, Vincent (1924–1974), who had visited Israel, decided to establish a kibbutz in Pardailhan, Hérault, and he took with him some twenty families from La Famille. Although the experiment, which collapsed in 1963, was disavowed by the Paris community and led to a total separation from La Famille, it attracted the attention of several media sources, which also mentioned the Famille origins of the founders. [Image at right]

After the end of the Pardailhan kibbutz, Vincent Thibout established two businesses that were ruled according to the kibbutz philosophy. After his death, one of his successors was accused of physical violence against other devotees. Critics used this incident to attack La Famille despite the fact that Vincent’s group had a contested relationship with La Famille.

The Pardailhan kibbutz had, nonetheless, been largely forgotten by the twenty-first century. The element that brought La Famille back into controversy was the government-sponsored anti-cult campaigns in France. Former members of La Famille became aware of these campaigns and contacted the governmental anti-cult mission MIVILUDES in the decade beginning in 2010. In 2017, the MIVILUDES published a note acknowledging that it was difficult to apply its “cult” model to La Famille (MIVILUDES 2017). In the French anti-cult model, each “cult” is understood to be led by a “guru” who exploits gullible followers. Although this form of guru leadership was not present in La Famille, MIVILUDES still found “dérives sectaires” (cultic deviances), a concept used to identify “cult-like” problems in many groups denounced by former members and anti-cult groups. Former members also noticed the development of anti-cult campaigns on social networks, and one former member established a critical Facebook group.

Media articles began appearing, and proliferated in 2021 (see e.g. Jacquard 2021; Cala and Pellerin 2021), as reporters liberally drew on material from the Facebook site for articles on the “secret cult in the very heart of Paris.” In the same year, journalist Suzanne Privat published La Famille. Itinéraires d’un secret [Image at right]. She began research for her book after discovering that young members of a religious community (about which she reportedly had been unaware), who physically resembled each other and had a limited number of surnames, were in the same schools in Paris with her two children. Since she was unable to interview current members and relied on hostile ex-member accounts, Privat’s book contributed to La Famille’s contested public image.

What most disturbs French anti-cult opponents and MIVILUDES about La Famille is its “separatism,” a word used in France to criticize a variety of groups. Members of La Famille have survived for centuries by remaining largely insular, with a variety of implications that have drawn the attention of critics. Members do not participate in elections, marriages are not legally registered, their children are educated differently, and there have been some cases of genetic diseases as a result of the groups endogamy.

La Famille is not surprised by the controversiality it has been experiencing as what it regards as persecutions were predicted in its prophecies. However, the current French emphasis on “anti-separatism” may create problems the group has not experienced since the Napoleonic era.

Image #1: Bishop Cornelius Jansen.
Image #2: The “secours” in a 18th-century lithograph.
Image #3: Father François Bonjour, “Silas.”
Image #4: The parish church in Fareins.
Image #5: Paul Augustin Thibout, “Mon Oncle Auguste.”
Image #6: Les Cosseux, in Villiers-sur-Marne, at the time of “Uncle Auguste.”
Image #7: Members of the Pardailhan community, 1961.
Image #8: Cover of Suzanne Privat’s book.


Cala, Jeanne, and Juliette Pellerin. 2021. “‘La Famille’, une secte au cœur de Paris.” Paris Match,  April 20. Accessed from https://www.parismatch.com/Actu/Societe/La-Famille-une-secte-au-coeur-de-Paris-1734414 on 18 July 2021.

Chantin, Jean-Pierre. 2014. Il était une croix, ou la curieuse et édifiante histoire du crucifiement de la Tiennon en 1787, et ses suites. Villefranche-sur-Saône: Éditions du Poutan.

Chantin, Jean-Pierre. 1998. Les Amis de l’Œuvre de la Vérité. Jansénisme, miracles et fin du monde au XIXe siècle. Lyon: Presses universitaires de Lyon.

Chantin, Jean-Pierre. 1996. Le Jansénisme. Entre hérésie imaginaire et résistance catholique. Paris: Cerf.

Havet, Walstein. 1860. “Mémoire du Grand-Père Walstein.” Manuscript. Posted on the critical page https://www.facebook.com/lafamille.secte/ on Jan,uary 30 2021 [it had appeared in 2020 on another critical page, no longer existing].

Jacquard, Nicolas. 2021. “Dans le secret de «la Famille», une communauté religieuse très discrète en plein Paris.” Le Parisien, June 21. Accessed from https://www.leparisien.fr/faits-divers/dans-le-secret-de-la-famille-une-communaute-religieuse-tres-discrete-en-plein-paris-21-06-2020-8339295.php on 18 July 2021.

La Famille. n.d. [1]. “Recueil sur la Sainte Famille.” Manuscript. Posted on the critical page https://www.facebook.com/lafamille.secte/ on January 30, 2021 [it had appeared in 2020 on another critical page, no longer existing].

La Famille. n.d. [2]. “Cantiques.” Manuscript. Posted on the critical page https://www.facebook.com/lafamille.secte/ on January 30, 2021 [it had appeared in 2020 on another critical page, no longer existing].

Maury, Serge. 2019. Une secte janséniste convulsionnaire sous la Révolution française. Les Fareinistes (1783-1805). Paris: L’Harmattan.

MIVILUDES. 2017. “Note d’information sur la communauté ‘La Famille.’” Paris: MIVILUDES.

Privat, Suzanne. 2021. La Famille. Itinéraires d’un secret. Paris: Les Avrils.

Strayer, Brian E. 2008. Suffering Saints: Jansenists and Convulsionaires in France, 1640–1799. Eastbourne, Sussex: Sussex Academic Press.

Publication Date:
20 July 2021



Teresa Urrea (La Santa de Cabora)


1873:  Niña Garcia María Rebecca Chávez (later known as Teresa Urrea) was born to Cayetana Chávez in Sinaloa, Mexico.

1877-1880; 1884-1911:  The Porfiriato, the period of the presidency of Porfirio Díaz in Mexico during which the government suppressed Indigenous and popular rebellions in the name of “orden y progresso” took place.

1889:  Teresa Urrea received the “don,” the gift of healing, and became widely known throughout Northwest Mexico as “La Santa de Cabora” (or “Santa Teresa”) because of her miraculous healings.

1889-1890:  Many visited the Cabora Ranch, where Teresa lived, to be healed, including Yaqui and Mayo Indians from the region. Mexican Spiritists and U.S. Spirtualists also visited to assess her power as a Spiritual medium.

1890:  Spiritualist and Spiritist presses joined to from the Federación Universal de la Prensa Espirita y Espiritualista.

1890-1892:  The Mexican Spiritist periodical, La Illustración Espirita, published stories on Santa Teresa. Some of these stories were published in U.S. Spiritualist periodicals, including The Carrier Dove.

1890 (September):  Mayo Indians worshiped and witnessed their holy santos (living saints). They prophesied along the Río Mayo (in the name of God and Santa Teresa) that a flood would come and destroy Mexicans and then Mayo lands would be their own again. The Mexican government stopped this and deported the santos.

1892 (May):  Mayo Indians attacked the Mexican customs house at Navojoa, Sonora, and proclaimed “¡Viva la Santa de Cabora!” “¡Viva la Libertad!”

1892 (June):  Teresa Urrea and her father were exiled from Sonora because of Teresa’s association with Mayo uprising. The Urreas temporarily settled in Arizona, close to the border with Sonora where Teresa continued to heal.

1892 (September-October):  The Tomochic Uprising in Chihuahua, Mexico was suppressed by the Mexican government. Although she was not present, Santa Teresa’s name was invoked during this uprising.

1896 (February):  “Plan Restaurador de la Constitución Reformista” (Plan to Restore the Reformed Constitution) was drafted in the Urrea home in Arizona.

1896 (June):  Teresa, her father, and extended family moved to El Paso, Texas where they continued to publish the anti-Díaz paper, El Independiente and other materials including ¡Tomóchic!.  In El Paso, Teresa continued to heal many people from both sides of the border.

1896 (August 12):  Rebels attacked the Nogales, Sonora Customs house in the name of “La Santa de Cabora.”

1896 (August 17):  Rebels attacked the Mexican Customs house in Ojinaga, Chihuahua (across the border from Presidio, Texas).

1896 (September):  Rebels attacked the Mexican Customs house in Palomas, Chihuahua (across the border from Columbus, New Mexico).

1897:  Teresa Urrea and family moved to Clifton, Arizona. They continued to publish the anti-Díaz paper, El Independiente and Teresa continued her healings.

1900 (July):  Teresa Urrea left Clifton, Arizona and moved to San Jose, California where she continued healing and gained media attention in papers such as the San Francisco Examiner.

1901 (January):  Teresa embarked on tour of the United States. She stopped first in St. Louis and gave interviews for the local press.

1903 (April):  In Los Angeles, Teresa supported La Unión Federal Mexicana (UFM) and took part in the Pacific Electric Strike.

1906:  Teresa Urrea died in Clifton, Arizona at thirty-three, probably from tuberculosis.


Niña Garcia María Rebecca Chávez (later known as Teresa Urrea) was born in 1873 in Ocoroni, Sinaloa, Mexico to Cayetana Chávez, a fourteen year-old Tehueco Indian girl. Her father, Don Tomás Urrea, was the owner of the hacienda that employed Cayetana’s father as a ranch hand. Cayetana herself may have been working as a criada (house servant) for Don Tomás’ uncle, Miguel Urrea, on a nearby ranch. Until she was sixteen Teresa Urrea lived in servant quarters near the Urrea Ranch in Ocoroni, Sinaloa with her mother and aunt, half brothers, sisters, and cousins. There, she lived the life of the Tehueco, a tribe in the Cahita linguistic group, who, along with the Yaquis and Mayos of this region in northwestern Mexcio, had been farming the Fuerte River Valley since before the arrival of the Spaniards in the sixteenth century. After centuries of colonization by the Spanish and then the Mexican state, in the late nineteenth century, these Indigenous peoples mostly worked as house servants and field workers for wealthy hacendados, like Don Tomás Urrea, who came from a family tracing their lineage back to Spain, as Christian Moors, or moriscos. However, after growing up with her Tehueco family, Teresa was welcomed at sixteen into her father’s “legitimate” family at the Rancho de Cabora.

At Cabora, Teresa Urrea received the don, the gift of healing. One evening in 1889, witnesses described how Teresa experienced a sudden attack of violent convulsions. For approximately thirteen days thereafter, she alternated between short bursts of convulsions and longer spells of unconsciousness, interspersed with moments of lucidity during which she talked about seeing visions and expressed her desire to eat dirt. Those who attended Teresa during these thirteen days remembered that she would eat only dirt mixed with her saliva and nothing else. Teresa came out of this violent thirteen-day episode by healing herself with dirt mixed with saliva.  On the last day of her convulsive attacks, she complained of intense pain in her back and chest, and she ordered her attendants to apply to her temples the mixture of dirt with her saliva that was kept by her bed. Her attendants did as she asked, and when they removed the mud and saliva mixture from her temples, she claimed to finally be free of pain.

Over the next three months, Teresa drifted between coherence and a kind of otherworldly daze; she seemed to be in a trance, or a liminal state. She had visions. She began to heal. In one of her visions, Teresa claimed the Virgin Mary told her she had been given the gift of healing (the don) and that she would be a curandera.

Years later, Urrea would describe her don experience to a San Francisco journalist:

For three months and eighteen days I was in a trance. I knew nothing of what I did in that time. They tell me, those who saw, that I could move about but that they had to feed me; that I talked strange things about God and religion, and that the people came to me from all the country and around, and if they were sick and crippled and I put my hands on them they got well…Then when I could remember again, after those three months and eighteen days, I felt a change in me. I could still if I touched people or rubbed them make them well…When I cured people they began to call me Santa Teresa. I didn’t like it at first, but now I am used to it (Dare 1900:7).

It seems that from the moment she received her don Teresa Urrea became known throughout Sonora, Mexico, and even parts of the U.S. Southwest, for her miraculous cures, divinely-sanctioned healing powers, and the multitudes of poor and oppressed that she healed freely at Cabora Ranch. [Image at right] Her adherents (and detractors) called her “La Santa de Cabora,” “La Niña de Cabora,” or simply “Santa Teresa.”

Because she was one of the santas from whom the insurgent Mayos took inspiration in the 1892 attack on the Mexican customs, President Díaz became convinced that nineteen-year-old Urrea incited Indians to rebel against him, and that the Ranch at Cabora was the place that dissidents met to plan these uprisings against his government. Thus, he had her expelled from the region. The government claimed there was no reason for the Mayo uprising, other than “religious fanaticism” that Teresa Urrea inspired at her father’s Rancho de Cabora. On the president’s orders, Teresa and her father were then exiled from Mexico and into the United States. Teresa and her father stayed in Nogales, AT (Arizona Territory) across the border from the twin city Nogales, Sonora.

To the disappointment of the Mexican government, Santa Teresa continued to heal people and inspire resistance from the U.S. side of the border, first in Nogales, Arizona, and then when she moved to El Paso, Texas in 1896. Some reports suggest that hundreds, even thousands, crossed the lightly monitored border into the U.S. to receive healing from Santa Teresa. One journalist, writing for the Los Angeles Times, visited Teresa’s healing practice in El Paso and described the way she healed Mexicanos as well as Americans: she used her hands to massage and apply salves, she administered and prepared herbal remedies with the assistance of several older Mexican women in order to heal 175-200 patients each day.

In addition to healing, Teresa Urrea was also engaged in a political project in El Paso, along with her father Don Tomás, and Spiritist friend Lauro Aguirre. Teresa and Aguirre published an opposition newspaper, El Independiente, which exposed the injustices of the Díaz regime and called for an overthrow of the current Mexican government.  They wanted to replace it with a reformed, more enlightened one with Teresa Urrea at the head, as the “Mexican Joan of Arc.” They also published a revolutionary manifesto that proposed that Teresa Urrea would overthrow the Mexican government: Señorita Teresa Urrea, Juana de Arco Mexicana.

Three attacks on Mexican customs houses launched from the U.S. side of the border into Mexico within three months in 1896, all in the name of “La Santa de Cabora” with the goal of overthrowing the corrupt Mexican government provide evidence of the power and influence of Santa Teresa and the ideology she and her cohort articulated in their publications, First, on August 12, 1896 rebels attacked the Nogales, Sonora Customs House (across the border from Nogales, Arizona), then on August 17 they attacked the Mexican Customs House in Ojinaga, Chihuahua (across the border from Presidio, Texas), and thirdly in early September fifty armed men attacked the Mexican Customs House in Palomas, Chihuahua (across the border from Columbus, New Mexico). Although Teresa Urrea denied involvement, her name was invoked by many of the assailants (sometimes called “Teresistas”), and authorities on both sides of the border suspected that these were coordinated attacks meant to start a revolution. The editorials published in El Independiente, including Señorita Teresa Urrea, Juana de Arco Mexicana, strongly suggest that Teresa was involved, even if she denied allegations.

Because of the unwanted attention these attacks and publications brought to Teresa, she moved with her family almost 200 miles away from the border, eventually landing in Clifton, Arizona. There, for three years, Teresa lived with her family, continued to heal, and became an important figure in the town of Clifton, making friends with the local physician and other influential families who sought her healing. In July 1900 Teresa left Clifton for California, with the support of Clifton friends, and began a healing career far from her family, on her own, in the urban cites and medical marketplaces of San Francisco, Los Angeles, St. Louis and New York City. Santa Teresa Urrea represented a source of cultural and spiritual refuge and possible revitalization for the people she healed in these U.S. cities. In the burgeoning urban centers, she continued to heal those on the margins of power: especially people of Mexican descent. Many of those she healed in these growing cities not only suffered from diseases for which medical science had no cure, but were discriminated against by U.S. public health officials who deemed non-white “others” as vectors of disease.

During the years Teresa Urrea lived in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York City (1900-1904) she performed cures in front of audiences, and the analysis of her healing from observers described her as an “exotic” that had special powers emanating from the electric impulses in her hands. [Image at right] However, in U.S. cities, Teresa continued practicing her curanderismo that mixed Indigenous healing ways with espiritismo. She used her hands to heal by applying mud, plasters, sínapismos, and electric vibrations, yet, she continued to identify as an espiritista healer as well, as she advertised herself as a Spiritualist medium in the San Francisco Call classifieds, demonstrating this connection between Mexican espiritistas and U.S. Spiritualists revealed when she was investigated by both at Cabora.

At twenty-eight years old and on her own, Teresa Urrea made plans to travel the world in order to discover the source of her healing power. However, she never made it to any of those places. It seems that, as is the case for so many women, domestic concerns intervened and cut short her dreams. In New York City, she gave birth to her first child, Laura, in February of 1902. Teresa lived in New York City for a year with her translator, a family friend from Clifton named Jon Van Order with whom she had two children. Then, in September of 1902, she received news that her father, Don Tomás, had passed away. The sources are silent on her reasons for abandoning the world tour and returning to California, yet it seems possible that Teresa wanted to raise her family somewhat closer to family and friends. Whatever her reasons, she returned to California, and by December of 1902, she had settled in an East Los Angeles neighborhood near Sonoratown, populated with Mexican people from Sonora. In Los Angeles, Teresa Urrea continued to heal and attract attention of the popular press. She supported La Unión Federal Mexicana (UFM) and took part in the Pacific Electric Strike 1903. However, after her home burned down that same year, she (and her family) moved back to Clifton, Arizona where she lived until she passed away in 1906, at the age of thirty-three, probably from tuberculosis.


The doctrines and beliefs that animated Teresa Urrea, according to her own writings, were Spiritist and liberal ideologies popular among her cohort and others in Mexico over the turn of the century. The Spiritist ideology embraced the concept of social equality as well as a practical and Christian morality centered on charity and love for one’s fellow man. These values are reflected in Teresa Urrea’s own words, published in the radical anti-Díaz newspaper El Independiente in 1896: “Todos somos hermanos é iguales por ser todos hijos del mismo Padre” (We are all brothers and equal because we are sons of the same father) (El Independiente 1896). Like their French counterparts, Mexican espiritistas sought to apply scientific rationale to religious faith.

In her own words, Teresa Urrea expressed what Spiritist meant to her:

If for something I have affinity, and if something I try to practice, it is espiritismo,     because espiritismo is based on the truth, and the truth is much greater than all the religions, and also because espiritismo was studied and practiced by Jesus and is the key to all the MIRACLES of Jesus and the most pure expression of the religion of the spirit…

I suppose, as well, that science and religion should march in perfect harmony and union, being that science should be the expression of truth and religion… I think God more adores the ATHEIST that loves his brothers and works to acquire science and virtue than the Catholic monks that kill and hate men while proclaiming God.

God is goodness, is love, and only for goodness and love can we elevate our soul towards him (El Independiente 1896).

Like many anticlerical liberals in Mexico at this time, Santa Teresa voiced a clear disdain for the hypocrisy of institutional religion and in particular the Catholic Church in Mexico that often aligned with oppressive leaders, yet she combined this cynicism with sincere Christian beliefs (particularly the belief in the centrality and goodness of Jesus) as well as the Spiritist ideals of the pursuit of God and “Truth” through science and the perfection of society.


Teresa Urrea’s healing practices combined espiritismo and curanderismo. One of the most important aspects of Teresa Urrea’s healing was that her adherents believed she had received the don, the supernatural gift of healing. To receive the don, curanderas undergo a kind of symbolic death and rebirth, accompanied with visions and messages from God, Jesus, the Virgin Mary, or saints and other deities. Some curanderas claim the gift also gives them the power to see into the future and discern people’s illnesses before they present themselves, a belief about healers shared by the local Indigenous groups Yaquis and Mayos. The gift to cure is considered by curanderas a spiritual gift, something Teresa consistently claimed. Yet, Teresa also healed as an espiritista medium, and her own descriptions of her healing reveal the blending of traditional curanderismo and espiritismo healing.

Teresa gave an interview in St. Louis on January 13, 1901, when she was setting out on a tour and possibly a world tour, to demonstrate her healing power and to discover the sources of her power. [Image at right] In this interview, she provided a description of what happened when she healed. First, she explained how she diagnosed her patients: “Sometimes I can tell at a glance what ailment afflicts the patient who comes to me – just as though it were written on his face; sometimes I cannot.” She discussed giving botanical medicines: “Sometimes I give medicines made from herbs to my patients.” The use of herbal medicine is not what Urrea is most known for (surely not what most people wrote about when they described her healing), but it is something consistently mentioned in less sensationalized accounts of her healing and reflects her training as a curandera in Mexico with Maria Sonora.

Teresa went into most detail discussing the intimate moment of healing, the laying on of hands, and what transpires between the curandera and her patient:

In treating a patient, I take his hands in mine – not grasping them tightly, but only clasping the fingers and pressing each of my thumbs against each of his thumbs.  Then, after awhile, I place one of my thumbs on his forehead – just over the eyes (The Republic 1901).

Then, she describes the patient’s point of view, why they come to her, what they should feel:

It is this way: You have headaches. Sometimes your head feels heavy. Your heart does not at all times beat regularly – sometimes it palpitates too rapidly. Your stomach is not as good as it should be.  Do you feel a little electric thrill entering your thumbs? No? Sometimes I cannot communicate the thrill to patients –and then I cannot cure them (The Republic 1901).

Here, Teresa Urrea describes communication between herself and her patient: the clasping of hands and touching of thumbs and the “little electric thrill” that the patient must feel to know that healing power is passing from her to her patient. This electricity is something many described feeling when Urrea clasped their hands in this way.

In this interview, Urrea consistently speaks about her healing as powerful, as a power within her that she conveys to sick bodies through her hands. For example, Teresa describes how she almost always uses her hands to “rub” her patients “gently.” However, she makes a distinction between what she does and what “masseurs” do. She only rubs her patients in order to “communicate the power that I have to them,” not necessarily to give pleasure, as journalists would describe her touch as doing. In this interview, Urrea acknowledges the limitations of her power. In fact, she begins her discussion of healing by admitting that she cannot heal everyone.  She explains the importance of belief in her healing power, that healing is a two-way street, and if some do not believe, “that power I try to send into them returns to me, and they are no better.” However, she says that if her patient does accept that power from her hands, “most of them get well.” Finally, Teresa describes how she often goes into a trance state when she heals, similar to the trance state she was in for over three months when she received in don, and this is when she is when her healing power is strongest:

I frequently go into trances, but none have lasted as long as did the first one. Then people think I am crazy. Not that I am violent: But I do not pay attention to their questions, and I say strange things. These spells do not give warning to their approach. I do not know when I am to have them except by my queer answers to their questions. In these spells my power for healing is greater than at other times (The Republic 1901).

News of Urrea’s cures spread, inspiring ever more visitors to come to Cabora to be cured or witness the amazing powers of the curandera Santa Teresa. Santa Teresa’s style of healing involved touch, herbs, faith, and the use of earth, water, and her saliva. For example, one man was carried by his friends to Teresa because he could not walk. He suffered a wound in a mining accident (the mines in this area were significant employers of Indigenous peoples and peasant mesitzos) that he believed was incurable. This man came to Santa Teresa as a last hope. Her cure? She drank water, spat it out on the dirt, mixed the water and dirt into a poultice, and applied it to the man’s wound. Witnesses claim he was “instantly cured.” A woman was brought to Teresa who had hemorrhage in one lung. Witnesses describe how Teresa said to her: “I am going to cure you with blood from my own heart” (La Ilustración Espirita:159). Then she took saliva, in which appeared a drop of blood, and mixed it with earth, and applied it to the middle of the sufferer’s back, with the result that the hemorrhage was at once controlled, and the woman cured.


During her lifetime, Teresa Urrea influenced, healed, and inspired many people, but no organization ever developed around her. However, she did have numerous supporters.  In addition to the Indigenous and mestizo peasants who came to Cabora to be healed by Santa Teresa, there was another group in Mexico drawn to her: espiritistas. Mexican espiritistas (Spiritists) followed the French metaphysical religion of Spiritism, which taught that gifted mediums could heal while in a trance state, and Mexican espiritistas believed Teresa Urrea was one of these gifted healing mediums. Espirista mediums, like Teresa Urrea, they believed, prophesied, cured, and offered advice that guided their “brothers and sisters” to higher, more evolved and “scientific” ways while in trance states. Like their French counterparts, Mexican Spiritists sought to apply scientific rationale to religious faith. While most prominent in cosmopolitan Mexico City, there were groups of espiritistas in other areas, such as the Sinaloan and Sonoran groups that came to be associated with Teresa Urrea. In 1890, Mexican espiritistas from Mazatlán, Sinaloa, declared Teresa Urrea a medium. Subsequently, espiritistas from Baroyeca, Sonora, traveled to Rancho de Cabora to observe her healing. Among several miraculous healings they observed, the Sonoran espiritistas witnessed Urrea heal a deaf man in front of 100, simply by applying her saliva to his ears. These espiritistas came to believe that she not a curandera or a miracle-working santa, but a powerful healing medium.

Not unlike the skeptical journalists who described Teresa’s healing, the Espiritistas explained that Teresa Urrea’s Indigenous, impoverished, and (they believed) ignorant followers had been misled by Catholic priests into believing in miracles, saints, and superstitions. Espiritistas believed that her powers could be scientifically explained through magnetism and spirit channeling. She was not a religious mystic, they insisted, but a champion of the “Nueva Ciencia” (New Science). When Teresa healed by “laying on hands,” espiritistas did not interpret this as a miraculous, supernatural sign of God or the Virgin Mary working through her, but rather as proof of the vital magnetic fluid moving through her. Mexican Spiritists were not alone in interpreting Teresa Urrea’s healing powers in this way. American Spiritualists, who maintained contact with Latin American Spiritists through shared editorials in publications (such as La Ilustracíon Espirita and The Carrier Dove (San Francisco)) also became interested in the healing powers of Teresa Urrea.

There was a political dimension to the connection between Mexican Spiritists and Teresa Urrea. The Spiritist movement in Mexico typically reinforced elite, Porfirian ideas about modernization and progress, yet there was a minority of Spiritists, including Lauro Aguirre and eventually Teresa Urrea, who held more radical views about social equality and transcendence (Schrader 2009). One of the observers at Cabora described the promise of Teresa Urrea as an espiritista regenerating agent for Mexico, as one who could return the nation to the ideals articulated in the 1857 Constitution that had been betrayed by the government of Porfirio Díaz:

Espiritismo, we repeat, is called to bring about universal regeneration and with the help of God we will see an age not very far in the distance, the true brotherhood of man without distinction between races, nationalities; the true government of the people in order to benefit the people, without the intervention of despots or tyrants…(La Ilustracíon Espirita 1892: 29).

In her own words, Teresa Urrea expressed what Spiritist meant to her:

If for something I have affinity, and if something I try to practice, it is espiritismo, because espiritismo is based on the truth, and the truth is much greater than all the religions, and also because espiritismo was studied and practiced by Jesus and is the key to all the MIRACLES of Jesus and the most pure expression of the religion of the spirit…

I suppose, as well, that science and religion should march in perfect harmony and union, being that science should be the expression of truth and religion… I think God more adores the ATHEIST that loves his brothers and works to acquire science and virtue than the Catholic monks that kill and hate men while proclaiming God.

God is goodness, is love, and only for goodness and love can we elevate our soul towards him (El Independiente 1896).

 Two influential espiritistas supporting Urrea’s spiritual status were General Refugio González and Lauro Aguirre. González fought for Mexican Independence when he was young, for liberalism during the civil wars and Reforma, against the United States invasion (1846), and then in the French Occupation, became one of the founding leaders of Mexican Spiritism. General González was often referred to as the “Mexican Kardec.” He founded the first official espiritista circle in Mexico in 1868, translated Kardec’s books into Spanish in 1872, and helped to establish the main journal of the espiritismo movement in Mexico, La Ilustracíon Espirita. As Teresa Urrea would do, González spoke out forcefully against the Catholic Church in La Ilustracíon Espirita, his own books (written as spiritist transmissions, like Kardec’s), and in well-known Mexican liberal newspapers such as El Monitor Republicano and El Universal. González believed in Teresa Urrea as a powerful healing medium and he defended her often in the pages of La Illustracion Espirita as well as other publications.

Lauro Aguirre, a practicing Spiritist and close friend of the Urrea family, claimed that Teresa was a medium of the highest order, never seen before in Mexico, perhaps even one that Allan Kardec had prophesied in his Book of the Mediums. Aguirre and his fellow Espiritistas believed that Teresa healed in a trance and that she could channel spirits of the dead and help them elevate Mexico to a higher plane of scientific and spiritual evolution. While the Spiritist movement in Mexico typically reinforced elite, Porfirian ideas about modernization and progress, there was a minority of Spiritists, including Lauro Aguirre and eventually Teresa Urrea, who held more radical views about social equality and transcendence (Schrader 2009).

One of the observers at Cabora described the promise of Teresa Urrea as an espiritista regenerating agent for Mexico, as one who could return the nation to the ideals articulated in the 1857 Constitution that had been betrayed by the government of Porfirio Díaz:

Espiritismo, we repeat, is called to bring about universal regeneration and with the help of God we will see an age not very far in the distance, the true brotherhood of man without distinction between races, nationalities; the true government of the people in order to benefit the people, without the intervention of despots or tyrants…(La Ilustracíon Espirita 1892: 29).


Teresa Urrea was a complex figure who confounded even her supporters while drawing strong opposition from Mexican authorities. Her healing practice crossed both religious/spiritual boundaries and political/religious boundaries.

In her healing practice Urrea combined seemingly contradictory ideas as she embraced Spiritism, with its scientific orientation, but also her religious status as a folk saint. She practiced Indigenous healing ways as well as some elements of folk Catholicism, but strongly rejected the institutionalized Church. She also defied proscribed gender roles. While her healing practice in some ways conformed to the traditional gender roles for women as nurturers and caregivers, she defied the rigid gender expectations that demanded women be kept sequestered in domestic spaces. Instead, openly, in the public space of Cabora, she healed those who came to her.

Urrea drew the most intense opposition from government officials who were concerned that she was not only healing the Indigenous Yaqui and Mayo from the region, but also inciting them to resist government attempts to dispossess them of their lands for foreign investment. The government of Porfirio Díaz was committed to a national project encompassed in his idea of orden y progresso, a mantra as well as an official program whose ultimate aim was to unify and modernize Mexico by courting foreign investment in enterprises such as railroad production and mining. This development especially affected the north of the country and created an increasingly larger and discontented agrarian class, including the Yaquis, Mayos, and other Mexicans. Teresa Urrea, as the Mexican Joan of Arc, threatened Díaz’s orden y progresso. She specifically addressed (and healed) those excluded from the economic benefits of modernization or targeted by his government, like the Mayos who were disposed from their homeland and the Yaquis, who the government deported from Sonora to work on henequen plantations in the Yucatan, or killed for not submitting to the government’s wishes.

Teresa Urrea and her family were exiled as a result of her political activities and her symbolic representation of opposition to the Mexican government. She never returned to Mexico but rather moved to various locations in the United States and continued both her healing practice and political opposition. She died in Clifton, Arizona at age thirty-three, but her influence as a healer and supporter of revolution lived on.


Image #1: Teresa Urrea healing and blessing babies in El Paso, Texas, 1896.
Image #2: Teresa Urrea healing by grasping hands and transmitting healing energy through her thumbs. San Francisco Examiner, September 9, 1900.
Image #3: Teresa Urrea, ó La Porfetisa De Cabora, sitting with a world globe.


Unless otherwise noted, the material in this profile is drawn from Jennifer Koshatka Seman, Borderlands Curanderos: The Worlds of Santa Teresa Urrea and Don Pedrito Jaramillo. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2021.


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Vanderwood, Paul J. 1998. The Power of God Against the Guns of Government: Religious Upheaval in Mexico at the Turn of the Nineteenth Century. Stanford: Stanford University Press.


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The Republic. Sunday, Jan. 13, 1901.














Reclaiming Witchcraft


1951 (June 7):  Starhawk was born Miriam Simos.

1976:  Starhawk was initiated into the Feri Tradition by Victor and Cora Anderson. Soon after, she began forming new covens: Compost, Raving, and Honeysuckle.

1979 (October 31):  The first Annual Spiral Dance, a Samhain ritual, was held at Fort Mason, in conjunction with a book release party for Starhawk’s The Spiral Dance.

1980:  Starhawk and Diane Baker led the first Reclaiming class, “The Elements of Magic.” Reclaiming Witches named their organization the Reclaiming Collective. The first Reclaiming Newsletter was printed.

1981/1982:  Reclaiming Witches participated in a blockade around Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant.

1982:  Starhawk published Dreaming the Dark, a version of her master’s thesis submitted to Antioch University.

1985:  The Reclaiming Collective held a weeklong summer intensive that later blossomed into extensive Witchcamps.

1994:  Reclaiming Collective incorporated as a 501(c)(3) in California.

1997:  The Reclaiming Collective reorganized itself as a Wheel rather than a singular working collective.

1997:  The organization wrote its first “Reclaiming Principles of Unity.” Reclaiming Newsletter was retitled Reclaiming Quarterly.

2005:  After several years at Herbst Pavillion of Fort Mason, the Spiral Dance was held at Kezar Pavilion, which was the location for the following ten years.

2011:  Reclaiming Quarterly transitioned to digital publication only.

2012:  At the annual Dandelion Gathering, Reclaiming revised its Principles of Unity, emphasizing a non-gender-binary polytheistic theology. The event led to a public disaffiliation by priestess M. Macha NightMare.

2016:  The Spiral Dance was held at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco.

2019:  The fortieth Anniversary Spiral Dance was held at the Craneway Pavillion in Richmond, California.

2020:  The Spiral Dance was conducted online because of COVID-19.


The Reclaiming Witchcraft Tradition was founded by Starhawk (b. Miriam Simos 1951) and Diane Baker, with assistance from others including Kevyn Lutton and Lauren Gale (Reclaiming Collective 1980; Craig [1998?]; Salomonsen 2002:44).  [Image at right] Starhawk had received prior training from Victor and Cora Anderson in their shamanic Pagan Witchcraft tradition, “the Feri Tradition” (sometimes spelled “Faery Tradition”). From 1976 to 1979, Starhawk founded three covens: Compost, Raving, and Honeysuckle. The first, Compost, was mixed-gender, and the next two, Raving and Honeysuckle, were for women only (Salomonsen 2002:37–39). Baker had been practicing contemporary Pagan Witchcraft (aka “Craft”) in California, and she was preparing to relocate to New York, where she did not know any Witches (Salomonsen 2002:37). Baker and Starhawk’s initial vision was to develop a “school” of Witchcraft, and its curriculum would be Starhawk’s forthcoming book, The Spiral Dance (Salomonsen 2002:37). Beginning to implement this vision, in 1980, Starhawk and Baker developed the first Reclaiming class, “The Elements of Magic,” and taught it as a six-week series to a group of women in Northern California (NightMare 2000; Salomonsen 2002:39). Receiving requests for more, they ran a second “Elements” series and developed other classes, “The Iron Pentacle” and “The Rites of Passage.” These courses became the foundation for the Reclaiming Witchcraft tradition, and they have continued to be observed  and taught by leaders around the world.

Starhawk’s The Spiral Dance was released in late October 1979, and a Samhain ritual was planned in conjunction with the book’s release. [Image at right] This Samhain ritual, titled “The Spiral Dance,” became an annual event hosted by Bay Area Reclaiming Witches and has been observed each year since (remotely during COVID-19).  The event has grown from one taking place in a Fort Mason (former military outpost now used as a venue for arts and cultural celebrations) room rental with a capacity of 400 (NightMare, personal communication) to one whose attendance exceeds a thousand (Craig [1998?]; Bay Area Reclaiming [2009?]). Starhawk’s publication is often discussed in association with Margot Adler’s Drawing Down the Moon and Zsuzsanna “Z” Budapest’s Holy Book of Women’s Mysteries. These three books about Paganism, written respectively by three priestesses in North America, were all published in the same year.

In the early phases of Reclaiming, Starhawk taught that Witchcraft was a form of Goddess religion that especially benefitted women (Starhawk 1999; Feraro 2017). Over the decades, Reclaiming Witchcraft has shifted to become an inclusive Witchcraft tradition. Starhawk and Diane’s initial classes were for women, but men joined the Reclaiming Collective soon after in the early 1980s (Salomonsen 2002:41). By 1990, the Reclaiming Collective counted nineteen members (Salomonsen 2002:41). From 1980 to 1997, the Reclaiming Collective counted up to fifty-two members (Salomonsen 2002:42). By the late 1990s, there were “perhaps thousands of Reclaiming Witches in the U.S. and also many abroad” (Salomonsen 2002:43).


From its beginning, the Reclaiming Witchcraft Tradition has centered around the integration of magic and leftist politics. In the merging of ritual practice with social action, the Reclaiming Tradition resembles Quakerism, and the influence from Quakerism is often recognized (NightMare 2000; Salomonsen 2002:108; Adler 2006:123). Social action, magic, and personal healing are the pillars of Reclaiming practice (Starhawk, NightMare, and The Reclaiming Collective 1999:14).

The Reclaiming Witchcraft Tradition is anti-authoritarian and non-hierarchical. As for the definition of magic, Starhawk has often cited Dion Fortune’s – “the art of changing consciousness at will” (C.f. Starhawk n.d; Starhawk, NightMare, and The Reclaiming Collective 1999:14). Reclaiming Witchcraft is eclectic. Reclaiming Witches’ beliefs and terms for divinity are fluid. The tradition historically celebrated Goddess as an immanent divine life force permeating all beings, the ecosystem, and the known universe. The Reclaiming Collective now incorporates greater pluralism and non-binary language, working to destabilize and disrupt gendered language and gender norms for ritual practice in new ways. The only required belief is agreement with the Principles of Unity (NightMare 2000; Reclaiming Collective n.d.):

The values of the Reclaiming tradition stem from our understanding that the earth is alive and all of life is sacred and interconnected. We see the Goddess as immanent in the earth’s cycles of birth, growth, death, decay and regeneration. Our practice arises from a deep, spiritual commitment to the earth, to healing and to the linking of magic with political action.
Each of us embodies the divine. Our ultimate spiritual authority is within, and we need no other person to interpret the sacred to us. We foster the questioning attitude, and honor intellectual, spiritual and creative freedom.
We are an evolving, dynamic tradition and proudly call ourselves Witches. Our diverse practices and experiences of the divine weave a tapestry of many different threads. We include those who honor Mysterious Ones, Goddesses, and Gods of myriad expressions, genders, and states of being, remembering that mystery goes beyond form. Our community rituals are participatory and ecstatic, celebrating the cycles of the seasons and our lives, and raising energy for personal, collective and earth healing.
We know that everyone can do the life-changing, world-renewing work of magic, the art of changing consciousness at will. We strive to teach and practice in ways that foster personal and collective empowerment, to model shared power and to open leadership roles to all. We make decisions by consensus, and balance individual autonomy with social responsibility.
Our tradition honors the wild, and calls for service to the earth and the community. We work in diverse ways, including nonviolent direct action, for all forms of justice: environmental, social, political, racial, gender and economic. We are an anti-racist tradition that strives to uplift and center BIPOC voices (Black, Indigenous, People of Color). Our feminism includes a radical analysis of power, seeing all systems of oppression as interrelated, rooted in structures of domination and control.
We welcome all genders, all gender histories, all races, all ages and sexual orientations and all those differences of life situation, background, and ability that increase our diversity. We strive to make our public rituals and events accessible and safe. We try to balance the need to be justly compensated for our labor with our commitment to make our work available to people of all economic levels.
All living beings are worthy of respect. All are supported by the sacred elements of air, fire, water and earth. We work to create and sustain communities and cultures that embody our values, that can help to heal the wounds of the earth and her peoples, and that can sustain us and nurture future generations.


Reclaiming Witches celebrate many of the same lunar and solar events associated with traditional Wicca, specifically the full moons (Esbats) and the eight Sabbats (two solstices, two equinoxes, and four cross-quarter days). Reclaiming Witches also perform initiations within covens, as do most Wiccan groups. The Elements of Magic and other classes started by Starhawk and Diane Baker have continued to be the foundation of the public Reclaiming tradition, with many more teachers around the world applying the curriculum with their own innovations. Also unique to Reclaiming-style Witchcraft are Witchcamps, some that are even family-oriented (e.g. Northern California’s Redwood Magic and Witchlets in the Woods). Witchcamps arose out of a successful summer intensive from 1985. Witchcamps are represented within Reclaiming’s main authority, “the Wheel,” through a spokescouncil.

Reclaiming Witches utilize the magic circle for rituals, a paradigmatic ritual structure found in British Traditional Witchcraft and other forms of Wicca (as well as in other Western esoteric traditions). For Reclaiming Witches, the circle represents a magical application of the principles of grassroots organizing, a unique spin on the magic circle used in other esoteric groups. Salomonsen writes: “People sit, stand, lie down or hold hands, always in a circle. There are no chairs, tables or pulpit, only an open floor with altars set up around the walls. By choosing this structure also for teaching, the women hoped to increase the changes that people would form covens when the classes ended” (Salomonsen 2002:40). The Reclaiming application of the magic circle illustrates the merging of magic, spirituality, and politics that defines the tradition.

Reclaiming leaders take pride in social action and demonstration including acts of civil disobedience. A particularly memorable event for Reclaiming’s founders was their participation in a 1982 blockade around the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant, which they and others believed was a devastating ecological hazard, given its proximity to major fault lines in California (Starhawk 1997:xxix; NightMare 2000; Adler 2006:124). Starhawk reports: “The blockade became a crucial experience in my understanding not only of the theory but also of the actual practice of political/spiritual work based on the principle of power-from-within” (Starhawk 1997:xxx).

Starhawk’s books often act as the spine of the Reclaiming Witchcraft Tradition. The Spiral Dance, as previously noted, was the original curriculum that inspired Reclaiming. Dreaming the Dark was an adaptation of Starhawk’s master’s thesis for Antioch University. The book presents the political worldview that informs Reclaiming magic, ritual, and theology. The Fifth Sacred Thing is a utopian novel that showcases Starhawk’s belief in the power of ritual for leading social and environmental change. A Pagan Book of Living and Dying was developed to fill a void of funerary and grieving rites and green burial guidance for Pagans. Twelve Wild Swans, acting as a workbook in Reclaiming magic, demonstrates how Reclaiming Witches use mythology and folklore from different world cultures.

Starhawk has described Reclaiming ritual style as ecstatic, improvisational, ensemble-based, inspired, and organic (“EIEIO”). and also experimental, eclectic, and evolving (Starhawk n.d.). Vestiges from the Feri Tradition include the rituals and classes, Iron Pentacle and Pentacle of Pearl; the concept of the Three Selves (the Younger Self (unconscious mind), the Talking Self (conscious expression) and Deep Self (the divine within)); and aspecting (the name for transpossession in some Witchcraft/Pagan groups). There is no one pantheon of deities associated with the Reclaiming Witchcraft Tradition. Reclaiming Witches work with goddesses and gods from many world cultures.

Bay Area Reclaiming has hosted its Annual Spiral Dance for more than forty consecutive years. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Spiral Dance was moved to an online platform, which enabled the planning group to encourage international participation. (There were some failures in technology and inclusion (Maxina Ventura, personal commmunication).


The Reclaiming Tradition includes any Reclaiming-identifying Witch who agrees to the Principles of Unity (NightMare 2000). The Reclaiming Collective is the more formal organization that developed from Bay Area Reclaiming practice. The Reclaiming Collective is incorporated as a 501(c)3 in California and keeps updated bylaws. Reclaiming Witches make decisions by consensus as much as possible (C.f. Reclaiming Collective 1997; Salomonsen 2002:108, 301). Responding to the tradition’s growth, the organization restructured in 1997 into a “Work-Cells-and-Wheel” structure. [Image at right] The Reclaiming Collective’s Board of Directors are called “the Wheel.” The Leadership Team, “the Triad,” consists of three Wheel members selected by the Wheel at the most recent meeting. The Wheel meets quarterly, and members who have urgent business between meetings are pointed to the Triad (Reclaiming Collective 2018:Section 15).

Local Reclaiming chapters (“communities”) are established within most major metropolitan regions in the U.S. and Canada (e.g., Bay Area Reclaiming, Philly Reclaiming, Portland Reclaiming, Tejas Web, Chicago Reclaiming, British Columbia Witchcamps/Vancouver Reclaiming, Toronto Reclaiming, and Montreal Reclaiming) and also in Australia, Brazil, Venezuela, Costa Rica, Spain, Germany, the Netherlands, and England. Reclaiming Witches use the term “cells” from grassroots organizing for magical, ecumenical, and political working groups. Examples include the spokescouncils of the Wheel (e.g., SF Teachers cell, Samhain (aka Spiral Dance cell), and Special Projects cell).

Reclaiming published a newsletter for many years. Initially Reclaiming Newsletter, the periodical was retitled Reclaiming Quarterly in 1997. In the mid-2000s, Reclaiming Quarterly publication tapered off, no longer living up to its name of “Quarterly.” Production of issues became spotty, and then non-existent after 2014. In an attempt to revive Reclaiming publications, one issue of Reclaiming Cauldron was published in 2020.


In comparison with some other Pagan traditions, the Reclaiming Tradition has been characterized by rapid evolution when it comes to issues of gender identity. Especially popular with Millennial Pagans and Gen Z Pagans (as compared with British Traditional Witchcraft), the Reclaiming Witchcraft Tradition has maneuvered cultural shifts regarding gender rather well. (Some other groups by contrast have struggled around transgender inclusion and have been the subject of controversy among Pagans (Mueller 2017).)

Reclaiming Witchcraft was founded upon principles of radical feminism. Starhawk’s first book The Spiral Dance, a bestseller that received multiple anniversary editions, emphasized Witchcraft as a feminine religion of Goddess worship. According to the organization’s very first newsletter, “We [Reclaiming Witches] use the word ‘Witch’ as an affirmation of women’s power to shape reality” (Reclaiming Collective 1980:2). The same newsletter advertised separate six-week class series for women (The Rite-of-Passage) and for men (Magic for Men), showing that men have been offered space in Reclaiming from the beginning (Reclaiming Collective 1980:3). Yet, the Reclaiming Tradition today emphasizes inclusion of all genders among its practitioners and its deities.

The organization has gone through periods of preferring feminine, gendered terms and others of using more pluralistic and/or more non-binary terms. For instance, Starhawk and others have preferred “thealogy” over “theology” (C.f. Starhawk 1999:13–18) and have used “priestess” as a gender-neutral term (Starhawk and Valentine 2000:xxiv). Witchcraft as Goddess religion has been a present theme throughout Starhawk’s writing. Yet, gendered terminology within Reclaiming’s theology was approached directly and reformed in 2012. At that year’s Dandelion Gathering, the Reclaiming Collective consensed upon new wording for its “Principles of Unity,” delivering a more non-binary creed. The group replaced its statement of belief in “Goddess and God” supported by the practice of using “female and male images of divinity” to one “affirm[ing] a plurality of goddesses and gods ‘of myriad expressions […and] genders’ without a definitive binary to separate them” (Mueller 2017:260). The events of the Dandelion Gathering led to a very public disaffiliation from long-time Reclaiming priestess M. Macha NightMare (aka Aline O’Brien) (NightMare 2012). Macha cited lacking civility and candor as her reasons for withdrawing from Reclaiming.

Furthermore, some tensions have arisen around the meshing of Reclaiming’s grassroots-organizing-based values onto traditional Wiccan systems, which are implicitly hierarchical on account of its initiatory degree system (Salomonsen 2002:42). In traditional Wicca, initiands (those undergoing an initiation rite) are ignorant of the inner workings of the ritual they are about to undergo. The secrecy (or mystery, according to practitioners) contributes to the esoteric nature of the tradition, but the secrecy also institutes an exaggerated power differential between initiating members and initiands, which is perceived by some as counter-intuitive to Reclaiming’s radical social values (Salomonsen 2002:42).

Though many rituals and esoteric practices (Esbats, Sabbats, and an initiatory degree system) are shared in common with traditional Wicca, the Reclaiming Collective formally uses the label “Witchcraft.” Though Reclaiming Witchcraft had been differentiated from Wicca well before the recent conflict (NightMare 1998), the distinction of Reclaiming as Witchcraft rather than Wicca relates with a recent controversy within the Pagan community. Around 2013, the buzzword, “Wiccanate privilege,” was newly in use among Pagans as an internal critique of Wicca’s hegemony within contemporary Paganism. Awareness of Wiccanate privilege led to more groups articulating their own locations as Wiccan or as non-Wiccanate. Wicca-derived groups might be labeled as “Wiccanate,” although the controversial nature of Wiccanate privilege led to few if any groups embracing the label “Wiccanate” for themselves. The origins of various Pagan/Witchcraft groups are often contested, as is the chain of influence between leaders like Victor and Cora Anderson and Gerald Gardner (C.f. Adler 2006:76).

The location for the Annual Spiral Dance has been embroiled with some controversy, affecting the Bay Area Reclaiming community. Complaints about the Kezar Pavillion (location for 2005–2015) included that it lacked a natural, earthy aesthetic (or, to some, any aesthetic), was not accessible for people using wheelchairs, and was not accessible via public transportation. Looking for a venue that would be wheelchair accessible and a more economically sustainable rental, organizers considered the Armory in San Francisco as a new site for the Spiral Dance. In 2013, it became known to community members that Spiral Dance organizers were considering the Armory in San Francisco as a new site for the Spiral Dance.  Some members felt that Reclaiming’s consideration of the Armory as a possible venue was aligned with Reclaiming’s support for all sexual orientations. Others ranged from being vehemently opposed to the idea of Reclaiming’s implied support for BDSM to arguing that the Armory was not suitable for families with children.


Image #1: Starhawk (Miriam Simos).
Image #2: 1979 Spiral Dance Flyer. Courtesy of Diane Fenster.
Image #3:  The Work-Cells-and-Wheel organization.


Adler, Margot. 2006. Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers and Other Pagans in America. Revised and updated with expanded Appendix III. New York: Penguin Books.

Bay Area Reclaiming. [2009?]. “The Dance’s History.” Reclaiming Spiral Dance. Accessed from https://www.reclaimingspiraldance.org/history on 1 July 2021.

Craig, Georgie. [1998?]. “The Beginning of the Spiral Dance: It Was 20 Years Ago…” Reclaiming Quarterly.  Accessed from http://www.reclaimingquarterly.org/web/spiraldance/spiral4.html on 1 July 2021.

Feraro, Shai. 2017. “The Politics of the Goddess: Radical/Cultural Feminist Influences of Starhawk’s Feminist Witchcraft.” Pp. 229–48 in Female Leaders in New Religious Movements, edited by Inga Bårdsen Tøllefsen and Christian Giudice. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan.

Mueller, Michelle. 2017. “The Chalice and the Rainbow: Conflicts Between Women’s Spirituality and Transgender Rights in US Wicca in the 2010s.” Pp. 249–78 in Female Leaders in New Religious Movements, edited by Inga Bårdsen Tøllefsen and Christian Giudice.– Palgrave Studies in New Religions and Alternative Spiritualities. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan.

NightMare, M. Macha. 2012. “A Co-Founder Withdraws from Reclaiming Tradition.” Broomstick Chronicles, August 6. Accessed from https://besom.blogspot.com/2012/08/a-co-founder-withdraws-from-reclaiming.html on 1 July 2021.

NightMare, M. Macha. 2000. “Reclaiming Tradition Witchcraft.” Reclaiming. Accessed from https://reclaimingcollective.wordpress.com/reclaiming-tradition-witchcraft/ on 1 July 2021.

NightMare, M. Macha. 1998. “The ‘W’ Word: Why We Call Ourselves Witches.” Reclaiming Quarterly 71:16–17, 49–50.

Reclaiming Collective. 2018. “Bylaws.” Revised 2018.

Reclaiming Collective. 2014. “Archives and Back Issues.” Reclaiming Quarterly. Accessed from http://reclaimingquarterly.org/backissues.html on 1 July 2021.

Reclaiming Collective. 1997. “About – 1997 Restructuring.” Reclaiming. Accessed from https://reclaimingcollective.wordpress.com/about-1997-restructuring/ on 1 July 2021.

Reclaiming Collective. 1980. Reclaiming Newsletter 1, Winter.

Reclaiming Collective. n.d. “Principles of Unity.” Accessed from https://reclaimingcollective.wordpress.com/principles-of-unity/ on 1 July 2021.

Salomonsen, Jone. 2002. Enchanted Feminism: Ritual, Gender and Divinity Among the Reclaiming Witches of San Francisco. New York: Routledge.

Starhawk. 1999. The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess. Twentieth Anniversary Edition. San Francisco: Harper Collins.

Starhawk. 1997. Dreaming the Dark: Magic, Sex, and Politics. Fifteenth anniversary edition. Boston: Beacon Press.

Starhawk. n.d. “A Working Definition of Reclaiming.” Reclaiming. Accessed from https://reclaimingcollective.wordpress.com/about-working-definition/ on 1 July 2021.

Starhawk, M. Macha NightMare, and The Reclaiming Collective. 1999. Pagan Book of Living and Dying: Practical Rituals, Prayers, Blessings, and Meditations on Crossing Over. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.

Starhawk, and Hilary Valentine. 2000. The Twelve Wild Swans: A Journey to the Realm of Magic, Healing, and Action. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.

Publication Date:
3 July 2021




1342/1343:  Julian of Norwich was born.

1343 and 1362 (and periodically recurring throughout the fourteenth century):  Severe flooding occurred in Norwich.

1348–1349, 1361, 1369, 1375, 1383, 1387:  Plague struck Norwich.

1373 (May 8 or May 15): Julian experienced a series of visions during a near fatal illness.

1378–1417:  The Western (Papal) Schism took place. The Papacy was disputed with bishops in Avignon and Rome each claiming papal authority.

1381:  The Peasants’ Revolt took place across England.

1382:  John Wycliffe produced the first English translation of the Latin Vulgate Bible.

1382:  Lollard movement was begun by earliest followers of John Wycliffe.

1384:  John Wycliffe died.

Circa 1393:  The possible date that Julian entered her anchor-hold at Norwich.

1415:  The English defeated the French in the Battle of Agincourt.

1413–1416:  Margery Kempe visited Julian of Norwich.

After 1416:  Julian of Norwich died in Norwich, England.


Saint Julian, a late fourteenth to early fifteenth century woman from Norwich, England,  [Image at right] is known and remembered through her own recounting of a series of sixteen visions that she received while suffering a near fatal illness. According to Julian’s account, the visions came to her in May of 1373 at the age of thirty. Already a very devout woman , she relates that in her desire to become closer to Christ, she had previously asked for three specific gifts from God: “the first was memory of his passion; the second was bodily sickness in youth at thirty years of age; the third was to have from God’s gift three wounds;”  specifically the wounds of “true contrition,” “compassion,” and a “wish-filled yearning for God”(Revelations chapter 2, John-Julian 2009:67, 69). Julian’s hope in asking for these rather strange gifts, complete even with wounds, was “so that after the showing I would have a more true consciousness of the Passion of Christ . . . [and] so that I would be purged by the mercy of God and afterward live more to the honor of God because of that sickness. . . ” (Revelations chapter 2, John-Julian 2009:67, 69). Remarkably, she was indeed afflicted  by a severe illness at thirty years of age, [Image at right] during which she seems to have passed in and out of consciousness for several days. On the fourth night, when she was not expected to survive to daybreak, a priest was called in and last rites were administered. With a crucifix held before her face, death began its creep over her, until she was aware of nothing but her own tortured and labored breathing; and then, finally, a cessation of all pain and a feeling of wholeness (Revelations chapter 3, John-Julian 2009:71). As Julian puts it, she “marveled at this sudden change,” but “the feeling of comfort was of no full ease to me, for it seemed to me I would rather have been delivered from this world” (Revelations chapter 3, John-Julian 2009:73). Yet, no such deliverance from the world was to be. Instead, as her body lingered between death and life, the visions commenced and with them, God began to gift her with those very “wounds” she had earlier requested; that is, to reveal to her God’s own true contrition, compassion and yearning, and to teach her that God truly is love (all love) and that such love can never be divorced from humanity.

Entitled Showings or Revelations, these visions given to Julian were recorded in both a short and a long version. It is generally believed that she completed the former shortly after recovering from her illness; and that the latter, which is much longer, was written down after many years of prayer and reflection, since it includes not only the visions but also Julian’s own interpretations regarding the meaning of those visions (Spearing 1998:xii–xiii). By meditating on the memory of her experience over the course of years, Julian engaged in an ongoing relationship with God through which greater and greater knowledge of God’s love was continuously revealed to her. Thus, for her, even the long text  was “an unfinished text” because there was always more that God might choose to reveal through the process of her own remembering (Yuen 2003:198). Unfortunately, no original manuscripts have survived to the present day, but copies of both the long and short versions do exist (John-Julian 2009:17). [Image 3 at right] The long version consists of 86 short chapters and is notable for being the first book written in English by a woman. It is also significant that after lying in obscurity for nearly six hundred years, the work has grown increasingly popular since the latter part of the twentieth century. Julian’s visions, which reflect on the nature of God and God’s relationship to humanity, on the meaning of sin and redemption, on prayer, and ultimately on communion of the soul with God, seem to offer fresh possibilities for those seeking a deeper level of relationship with God as well as with their fellow human beings.

Very little is known about this medieval woman, apart from her writings, which continue to inspire people today. Due to a difference between two major manuscripts, there is some discrepancy regarding the exact date on which the visions came to Julian, yet it is clear that the illness and thus the visions began on either the eighth or the thirteenth of May 1373 (John-Julian 2009:35–38) when Julian was thirty years old (Revelations chapter 3, John-Julian 2009:69). For this reason, a birthdate of 1342/1343 is generally assumed. Ascribing a date of death is more difficult. The oldest surviving manuscript is a copy of the Short Version, which dates to the mid-fifteenth century. It includes an introductory note from which it can be ascertained that she lived at least until 1413 since the note reads: “this is a vision shown, through God’s goodness, to a devout woman, and her name is Julian, and she is a recluse at Norwich, and is still alive in the year of our Lord 1413.” (Revelations chapter 1, Spearing, 1998:3). In addition, a will that bequeathed funds to “Julian recluse at Norwich,” in 1416 supports the likelihood that she lived at least until that time. Some have assigned a death date into the 1420s based on later wills; one in 1429, for instance, leaves a gift to “the anchorite in the churchyard of St. Julian’s, Conesford in Norwich” (John-Julian, 2009:31). Testimonials such as these have led to some confusion since it is known that another Julian, known as Dame Julian Lampett, was an anchorite at Carrow Priory (also in Norwich) between 1426 and 1481 (John-Julian 2009:31-32). Another important piece of historical evidence that suggests Saint Julian lived until sometime around 1415 comes from the Book of Margery Kempe (c. 1440), in which that well known visionary writes about her own visit to Dame Julian, the anchoress at Norwich (excerpts in John-Julian, 2009:33–34 and Spearing, 1998:192–93). The date of this visit between the two women is not absolutely certain; it may have taken place in 1413 (John-Julian 2009:33) or as late as 1415 (Spearing 1998:xi).

One fact that is certain is that at some point in her life, Julian became an anchorite attached to St. Julian’s Church in Norwich, England. Yet, as with the date of her physical death, the date on which she was ritually entombed in the anchor-hold is also unknown. Instead, questions abound regarding much about this woman, including the very name, Julian, by which she is known to history, as well as about her religious vocation, her familial ties and social status, and her education.

Just how Saint Julian attained the name “Julian” has been a matter of much discussion in recent years. Although it had become commonplace to assume that she took this name upon entering the anchor-hold at St. Julian’s Church in Norwich (for instance, Spearing 1998:xi and Milton 2002:9), this notion is now being questioned, with some scholars even implying that it is more likely that the church took its name from her. In his extensive translation and commentary on the Revelations, Father John-Julian asserts that “there is no evidence of any kind that any English anchorite ever took a new ‘name-in-religion,’ to say nothing of taking the name of the patron saint of the church to which his or her cell was attached or affiliated. Historical records show that it was certainly not a ‘common practice’. . .” (John-Julian 2009:21–22). Likewise, following a systematic study of anchoresses of the Norwich diocese up to 1540 (including those enclosed at St. Julian’s Church as well as St. Edward’s Church in Norwich), E. A. Jones states that “There is, in fact, nowhere in any of the extant rites for the enclosure of an anchorite where a changing of name is stated or implied.” While such an assumption is generally based on a practice common to religious orders, anchorites were not considered a part of any order, a fact that weakens the comparison considerably (Jones 2007:1, 3). Furthermore, Jones notes that the name, Julian, “was not exclusively, or even principally, a male name in the Middle Ages” (Jones 2007:9). Citing two different studies as well as poll tax records from the fourteenth century, he found that Julian was never listed among male names but was quite common for women, an equivalent to the modern name, Gillian (Jones 2007:9). Thus, he argues that it is quite possible that Julian, may have actually been Saint Julian’s given name, and that she retained that name upon entering the anchor-hold at Norwich.

Alongside questions about Julian’s given first name, there are further uncertainties regarding her heritage and background. Just who was this woman? Where did she come from and how did she end up as an anchorite attached to St. Julian’s Church in Norwich? There has been some speculation that she was a Beguine, that is, a laywoman informally connected to other women who devoted themselves to prayer and the care of others, who took simple, rather than solemn, religious vows (Milton 2002:11). However, perhaps because Carrow Abbey, a convent with which Julian would have been familiar, is located within walking distance of St. Julian’s Church, a much more popular theory is that she may have been a Benedictine nun. Indeed, a striking portion of stained glass window, [Image at right] depicting her as such, was commissioned in 1964 for Norwich Cathedral, and in their extensive 1978 study and translation of Julian’s work, Edmund Colledge and James Walsh concluded that it was “clear that she had entered a religious order when still young” (Colledge and Walsh 1978:20).

Even so, there are several factors that point away from the possibility that Saint Julian was actually a nun. First, in her writings, Julian never speaks about life in a convent. Of course, this in itself, is merely an argument from silence. It must also be noted that while she speaks a great deal about her visions and her feelings surrounding them, she gives very few, if any, hints about her own personal life. More important, however, are small details that she does include while describing her experience. First, her mother and others were present during her illness. This would have been highly unlikely had she been a Benedictine nun residing at the convent. Second, Julian relates that it was her “curate,” who came to administer last rites and who placed the crucifix before her face. Since the word “curate” refers specifically to a secular or parish priest, it seems strange that Julian would have used it here had he been the priest associated with her convent (John-Julian 2009:26 and footnote #6, 70; Revelations chapter 2, Spearing 1998:5). In addition, in both chapters 4 and 8, Julian uses the Latin phrase, Benedicite Domino incorrectly, instead saying Benedicite Domine. Had she been a nun for whom this was a common and traditional greeting this would be an unlikely mistake (John-Julian 2009:26 and Revelations chapter 4, 75 and chapter 8, 89).

Unconvinced that Saint Julian of Norwich was a nun, in spite of the fact that Carrow Abbey is conveniently close to St. Julian’s Church, Father John-Julian has recently argued persuasively that she may have actually been a laywoman; specifically, Lady Julian Erpingham Phelip, a member of a prominent aristocratic family in fourteenth-century Norwich who was twice widowed and had three children from her second marriage. There is much to support this theory. Historical records of Norwich indicate that Julian Erpingham, elder sister of the Norfolk knight, Sir Thomas Erpingham, first married Roger Hauteyn who was killed, apparently in a duel with Sir John Coleby, in 1373. This Julian then remarried, this time to Sir John Phelip I of Suffolk and subsequently gave birth to three children, the last in 1389. According to Father John-Julian’s hypothesis, the timeline of Lady Julian Erpingham’s life coincides with that of Saint Julian. For instance, it may not be merely coincidental that Saint Julian became ill and experienced her visions in 1373, the very same year that Julian Erpingham faced the shocking and traumatic death of her first husband, Roger Hauteyn. Furthermore, with the death of her second husband in 1389, it is possible that she recorded the Long Version of her visions and then entered the anchor-hold in the years following. The fact that she had three children would not have disallowed that possibility since records show that her daughter, Rose, was married in 1389. As for the care of her younger sons, it is well established that in medieval England children of the upper classes were almost always fostered out to other families of high social standing in order to ensure a proper upbringing. Given the circumstances of Lady Julian Erpingham’s life, Father John-Julian points out that in 1389, she would have “‘faced four choices: a third marriage, the position of a secular “vowess” (under vows of chastity but living in the world), entering a convent, or being enclosed as an anchorite” (John-Julian 2009:24). Arguably, anchorite status may have been “the most attractive alternative” (John-Julian 2009:24). Furthermore, there was the very practical matter of support. Prior to enclosing an anchorite, a bishop needed to be assured that the person being enclosed had the necessary means of support for the remainder of her/his physical life. Such support could come from various places, however, the most common source was through the anchorite’s own holdings and family. Through her birth family, as well as through connections made via her second husband, Sir John Phelip, Lady Julian Erpingham Phelip clearly had the wealth needed to assure the bishop that she could be adequately taken care of and would not become a drain on Church resources (John-Julian 2009:24–5 and footnote #30, 415).

Finally, among the other uncertainties surrounding the question of “Who was Saint Julian?” is the matter of her education. Since she is the first woman to have ever recorded a book in English, a book that in the eyes of many is a theological masterpiece, one might be inclined to believe that she must have been highly educated. Yet, in the world of the fourteenth century, English was but the common spoken language. It was not a language associated with higher learning and certainly not with Roman Catholic Church writings. In England during this time, John Wycliffe, an Oxford academic, had advocated translating the Bible into English and was eventually deemed a “heretic” so dangerous that many years after his death in 1384, his body was exhumed, burned, and the ashes thrown into the river Swift (Gonzalez 2010:411–15). Given this context, it seems likely that had Julian been able to write in Latin rather than in English, she would have done so. Thus, many scholars take her at her word when, in chapter 2 of her work, she relates that “These revelations were shown to a simple creature that had learned no letter” (Revelations chapter 2, John-Julian 2009:67). Still, it is quite possible that these words merely exhibit Julian’s humility or modesty about her work. Such would certainly not be out of the realm of possibility for a woman writing in a man’s world. Thus, scholarly opinion regarding Julian’s level of education runs across the spectrum, from highly educated to little or no education. Perhaps she knew English, Latin, French, and maybe even Hebrew, or she may have known no language other than English. Perhaps she could read some of these languages, including English, but could not write them, a level of learning that would not have been uncommon for a woman of high social status in the fourteenth century (for a summary of various views, see John-Julian 2009:27–29). Perhaps Grace Jantzen, the well-known feminist philosopher and theologian, comes closest to accuracy in asserting that Julian’s reference to herself as “unlettered” “should be taken within the context of her time to indicate the lack of formal education such as would have been available to men in monastic and cathedral schools and universities” but which would not have been accessible to her as a woman in the fourteenth century (quoted, John-Julian 2009:28). Still, such a lack of formal education would not preclude the possibility that she could have achieved a high level of academic proficiency through informal personal study. In all of this, it is evident that Julian’s actual level of education, and the manner in which she achieved it, will most likely never be known with certainty. Still, the purpose for which she recorded her visions is abundantly clear: she wished to come closer to her God and in the process to help other ordinary people do the same. It is indeed possible that she knew other languages and could have written a theological treatise in Latin. It was by writing in English that she could best share her experiences with common people. As she herself put it:

I am not good because of this showing, but only if I love God better; and in so much as you love God better, it is more to you than to me. I do not say this to those who are wise, for they know it well, but I say it to you who are simple, for your benefit and comfort, for we are all one in love (Revelations chapter 9, John-Julian 2009:93).

Indeed, over the years, Julian’s message of love has resonated with those for whom she specifically wrote; that is, common people. In the latter half of the twentieth century, the Church of England and the Episcopal Church in the United States designated May 8 as the date on which to commemorate her (John-Julian, 2009:35–36). Furthermore, although never formally beatified or canonized in the Roman Catholic Church, she is often referred to as “Saint” Julian, “Mother” Julian, or “Blessed” Julian due to popular veneration, and the Catholic Church commemorates her as “blessed” on May 13 (“Blessed Julian of Norwich” 2021; “Saint Julian of Norwich” 2021).  There is hope among many that Julian’s status in the Roman Catholic Church could change as her popularity continues to grow. In 1997, the Jesuit Giandomenico Mucci listed Julian of Norwich among those on the waiting list for the title of “Doctor of the Church” (Magister 2011); and in 2010 Pope Benedict XVI dedicated a General Audience to Julian in which he emphasized her central message that God is love (Benedict 2010).


From our modern vantage point, it is difficult to imagine the attraction of the anchoritic lifestyle, and even more so, how an anchorite such as Julian would have had much influence on the wider community, or could possibly have gathered followers. After all, becoming an anchorite meant being ritually entombed, that is, literally living out the rest of one’s physical life in a cell and thus, cut off from the rest of the world. Yet, contrary to what might seem likely, studies have shown that there were a number of persons living the anchoritic life in England during the medieval period, and in Julian’s time, Norwich actually had more of these persons than any other English town (Spearing 1998:xi). Both men and women were drawn to this life, but for women in particular, it may have offered a measure of autonomy that could not otherwise have been achieved, even though such autonomy came at the cost of severe solitary confinement. In Julian’s case, her ritual tomb, or cell, is thought to have had three windows; the first, a very small “squint window,” situated such that it provided a very narrow view into the church, allowing her to gaze upon the altar and the sacrament. The second window would have opened into a room where one (possibly two) servants dedicated to her care would have done their work. It is from this window that food would have been provided to Julian, and also through this window that laundry, as well as anything needing disposal, such as bodily waste, would have been passed. It is the third window that would have provided Julian’s only contact with the outside world and, therefore, this third window from which she was likely to have had the most influence (John-Julian 2009:39).

As to the community, anchorites, including Julian, provided several benefits. While the bulk of their time was dedicated to prayer, often patterned after the Benedictine Rule (which prescribed seven periods of prayer spaced throughout every twenty-four hour period), time was also allotted for counsel (Milton 2002:10). This would take place only at that third window through which the anchorite could listen and talk, but which was usually curtained so that no one could see her face nor could she see theirs (John-Julian 2009:39). Evidence shows that many anchorites were highly regarded as counselors; that in fact, they acted as forerunners to persons in the counseling professions today, such as “psychiatrists, social workers and pastoral counselors” (Milton 2002:10). In some cases, they may have acted in other arenas as well, for instance, in fund raising for the poor, assistance in banking, and even in providing medical aid when necessary (Mayr-Harting 1975:337–52) As for Julian, it seems she was highly regarded in her own day since gifts were left to her in several wills, including by some persons of high social standing. It is reasonable to presume that these gifts were granted in gratitude for services rendered. In addition, it is certain that Julian did offer counseling services since a report of such was recorded by Margery Kempe (1373–1438) who wrote that she “was commanded by our Lord to go to an anchoress in the same city [Norwich, where she took advice from the friar William Southfield] who was called Dame Julian” (Spearing 1998:192). In this book about her travels and spiritual experiences, Margery also recorded several excerpts from the “holy conversation” that she had with the anchoress who “was expert in such things and could give good advice” (Spearing 1998:192).

Following her death, Julian and her work fell into obscurity. Since she had written in English it is quite possible that the work was suppressed lest it raise suspicions of heresy. During this time, Lollardy, a popular movement advocating many of the teachings of John Wycliffe (particularly the notion that the Bible should be made available to common people in their own language) was deemed a dangerous heresy, and its followers were severely persecuted by Roman Catholic Church authorities. In 1397, the situation grew even more dire as Church authorities succeeded in convincing Parliament to implement procedures that would authorize Church leaders to imprison and interrogate those suspected of heresy. Those deemed guilty would then be handed over to the secular arm of government for execution. The first decree in this set of procedures was issued in 1401 by King Henry IV and was called “On the Burning of the Heretics” which targeted Lollards in particular, referring to them as “diverse false and perverse people of a new sect” (Deane 2011:230). This Act enabled the arrest of heretics who could then be executed by secular authorities.  This political environment quite likely played a major role in the fact that Julian’s text was not widely circulated in the years immediately following her death. Nonetheless, it is clear that certain communities must have treasured and preserved it since the two surviving copies of the Long Version both date to the seventeenth century (John-Julian 2009:17).

Finally, this treasure which languished in obscurity for so long, is being rediscovered. Since the latter part of the twentieth century, a plethora of academic as well as popular books, articles, and devotions about Julian and her visions have been produced. Rowan Williams (b. 1950), the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury, referred to Julian’s book as a work that “may well be the most important work of Christian reflection in the English language” (Back cover comment—Watson and Jenkins 2006 and quoted, John-Julian 2009:3). Likewise, the highly esteemed modern mystic, Thomas Merton (1915–1968), considered her one of the greatest English theologians; “without doubt one of the most wonderful of all Christian voices” (John-Julian 2009:3). That her voice has carried over the centuries and continues to speak to the hearts of many is evident by the growing number of persons who now seek to pattern their own lives after her way of being. In 1985, Father John-Julian, OJN, founded the Wisconsin-based Order of Julian of Norwich, with “the intention of providing contemplative monastic life and witness as a leaven of spiritual renewal in the Episcopal Church” (The Order of Julian of Norwich 2021). Another community “inspired by the Revelations of Divine Love,” is Friends of Julian of Norwich, which is active both in Norwich as well as around the world via its online outreach and work of growing in “the love of God alongside fellow pilgrims” (Friends of Julian of Norwich 2021). In addition to these communities , the Church of St. Julian and Shrine in Norwich has become a popular tourist destination. [Image at right] Although destroyed by bombing in World War II, the church was rebuilt in 1953 and includes a reconstruction of the area that was thought to have once been Julian’s cell (Church of St. Julian and Shrine, Norwich 2021).

While many are drawn to visit Julian’s cell each year, it has become clear that her influence has reached well beyond the confines of those walls. Her central message, that God is love and that there is hope, even when all evidence appears to the contrary, continues to provide strength to many. Perhaps nowhere is this conveyed more clearly than in T. S. Eliot’s famous poem, “Little Gidding,” which he wrote in 1942 while serving as a nighttime fire watcher during the bombings of London. With the world literally on fire, Eliot recalls to his own mind the voice of Julian: “Sin is Behovely” and yet, “all shall be  well and / All manner of thing shall be well” (stanza three, second verse of “Little Gidding,” Abrams 1993:2168–9). [Image at right] Julian’s use of the word, “behovely,” (behovabil) has been translated in various ways, sometimes as inevitable (footnote #3, Abrams 1993:2168); or as befitting (Spearing 1998:79). In Julian’s thinking, it seems to indicate a thing simply unavoidable and somehow necessary; thus, sin and the pain it causes is understood as inevitable, even necessary or befitting; yet it is ultimately transformed and utilized for the good in the overarching economy of God (John-Julian 2009:408–9). In “Little Gidding” Eliot draws on the same message of hope and confidence to which Julian had clung in the fourteenth century as she endured deaths of loved ones, multiple plagues, a church in disarray, violence and warfare (John-Julian 2009:381–86 and 49–52). Taking up Julian’s words into his own, he conveys, in the twentieth century, that same transformative power of God’s presence and love, even as the village of Little Gidding burned. Like Julian, he witnessed terrible, and heart wrenching tragedy. Yet, somehow he also knew that not only in the good times but somehow, even during the worst of times, “All shall be well.”

While beautiful, poetry such as Eliot’s, as well as various works and words of theologians, are not the only venues where Julian’s life and work flourishes today. A quick internet search reveals numerous informational and devotional sites and even an abundance of gift items available for purchase: mugs, tote bags, aprons, cards, t-shirts, all bearing a message of God’s love passed down by this fourteenth-century anchorite (Julian of Norwich Gifts 2021). After several hundred years in obscurity, it appears she is finally being recognized and appreciated for who she was: a theologian, a mystic, and most importantly, a true lover of God. Today, the Church of England and the Episcopal Church in the United States commemorate Dame Julian on May 8 (John-Julian 2009:35–6), while the Roman Catholic Church designates May 13 as her feast day. The difference in dates on which Julian is venerated results from a discrepancy in manuscripts regarding the actual day on which her visions began (John-Julian 2009:35–38).


The bedrock of Saint Julian’s revelations is that God is love (complete and total love) and that everything that exists has its very being in the love of God. This concept, that God is love and that nothing that exists, exists outside of God’s love, was shown to Julian early on in her visions in the form of a hazelnut, perhaps one of her most well-known images. As she relates, God showed to her a little round thing, “the size of a hazelnut , in the palm of my hand” (Revelations chapter 5, John-Julian 2009:77). [Image at right] Upon asking what this could possibly be, the answer came that, “It is all that is made” (Revelations chapter 5, John-Julian 2009:77). But upon questioning how such a small thing could possibly be “all that is made,” Julian was answered: “It continueth and always shall, because God loveth it; and in this way everything hath its being by the love of God” (Revelations chapter 5, John-Julian 2009:77). Thus, in this little hazelnut resting in the palm of her hand, Julian saw that everything, “all that is made,” has its foundation in God for “God made it,” “God loves it,” and “God keeps it” (Revelations chapter 5, John-Julian 2009:77). Nothing that exists, no matter how large or how small, exists outside of the love of God who created it, loves it and protects it. All of Julian’s subsequent visions and reflections on those visions, build on this foundational point, that God is love and that all things exist within God’s love. As the visions reveal God’s deep and endless love for humanity, they also lead her to plumb the depths of such topics as the nature of God and of humanity, the reality of sin and the hope of redemption, and finally of prayer and ultimate unity with God.

Throughout Julian’s various revelations, the figure that is most prominent is that of Christ in the midst of his passion. This is perhaps not surprising since as she lay in delirium, a priest performing last rites was also holding a crucifix before her eyes. Nonetheless, it can hardly be forgotten that to take part in the passion of her Lord and to share in his wounds was the exact request she had previously made of God. From her graphic descriptions of the Savior’s bleeding head and battered body it is clear that her request to know his passion more deeply was granted. Still, the revelations that she receives are not limited to the suffering endured by Jesus on the cross. Rather, the showings always reveal much more than that for which she asked. Through them, she would come to know not only the passion of her Savior but rather the fullness of the Godhead, the Trinity, in all of its various reflections. As she says, “Whenever Jesus appears, the blessed Trinity is understood” (Revelations chapter 4, John-Julian 2009:75),

for the Trinity is God, God is the Trinity; the Trinity is our Maker, the Trinity is our Keeper, the Trinity is our everlasting Lover, the Trinity is our endless Joy and Bliss, through our Lord Jesus Christ and in our Lord Jesus Christ (Revelations chapter 4, John-Julian 2009:73).

Thus, as Julian looks upon the figure of Christ, she understands not just a god-man dying on a cross but rather the fullness of God; a non-hierarchical union in which each Person of the Trinity is distinct as to function but equal within the godhead.

While this basic understanding regarding the Trinity does not differ from orthodox Church teaching, the language Julian uses to describe that distinct but unified whole is far less common. As she seeks to present that which was revealed to her, she uses gendered language in order to describe the three aspects of God: “the aspect of the Fatherhood, the aspect of the Motherhood, and the aspect of the Lordhood, in one God” (Revelations chapter 58, John-Julian 2009:279). While over the centuries Christians have become accustomed to the use of masculine language when speaking of the First Person of the Trinity (the Creator) as Father, and the Second Person (the Redeemer) as Son, there has been far less use of feminine language when referring to these two Persons of the Trinity. In her own discussion of the functions of each Person of the godhead, Julian follows the tradition by most frequently referring to the First Person as Father; however, she departs radically from that tradition in regard to the Second Person whom she describes as a “Mother” and whom she often refers to as “Mother Jesus” (for instance, Revelations chapters 60 and 61, John-Julian 2009:289, 293). For Julian, “all the sweet natural function of dear worthy motherhood is attached to the Second Person” (Revelations chapter 59, John-Julian 2009:285) for it was this Person of the godhead who “clothed Himself and enclosed Himself  most willingly in our poor flesh, in order that He Himself could do the service and duty of motherhood in everything” (Revelations chapter 60, John-Julian 2009:287). [Image at right] Indeed, in the incarnate Christ, Julian sees the One who “carries us within Himself in love, and labors until full term so that He could suffer the sharpest throes and the hardest birth pains that ever were or ever shall be” (Revelations chapter 60, John-Julian 2009:287). It is this one, “our true Mother Jesus, He—all love—[who finally in his dying] gives us birth to joy and to endless life” (Revelations chapter 60, John-Julian 2009:287). Yet, as Julian sees the love of “Mother Jesus” poured out in the blood of his passion she comes to understand that even after He could die no more, “He would not cease working” (Revelations chapter 60, John-Julian 2009:289). Instead, he remains and functions always as our true Mother who surpasses all others. As Julian gazes on the crucified Christ, she comes to understand the great depth of the nurture and love of God, for as it is revealed to her any “mother can give her child suck from her milk, but our precious Mother Jesus can feed us with Himself; and He does it most graciously and most tenderly with the Blessed Sacrament, which is the precious food of true life” (Revelations chapter 60, John-Julian 2009:289). Furthermore, recognizing that a child needs tenderness and hope as surely as food, she sees that any “mother can lay the child tenderly on her breast, but our tender Mother Jesus can more intimately lead us into His blessed Breast by His sweet open Side, and show therein part of the Godhead and part of the joys of heaven, with spiritual certainty of eternal bliss” (Revelations chapter 60, John-Julian 2009:289).

Thus, for Julian it is clear that it is Mother Jesus, the incarnate Second Person of the Trinity, through and by whom human beings are reborn, nurtured, and united once again to their God. It is critical to remember, however, the point she makes clear throughout her work that, “whenever Jesus appears [in her visions], the blessed Trinity is understood” (Revelations chapter 4, John-Julian 2009:75). As she writes:

I understood three ways of looking at motherhood in God: the first is the creating of our human nature; the second is His taking of our human nature (and there commences the motherhood of grace); the third is motherhood in action (and in that is a great spreading outward . . .) and all is one love (Revelations chapter 59, John-Julian 2009:285).

Although the function of motherhood is attached to the Second Person of the Trinity, motherhood itself permeates the essence of God and is essential to Julian’s understanding not only of Christ, but of the fullness of God, that is, the Trinity.

For Julian, it is not only motherhood that is of the essence of the godhead but also human nature itself. Significantly, it is not simply that the Second Person assumed human flesh at the time of Jesus’ birth on earth. Rather, it is that Christ (the Second Person) was “already ‘spiritually human’ in heaven,” (footnote #3, John-Julian 2009:274) where “human nature was first assigned to Him” (Revelations chapter 57, John-Julian 2009:275). Human nature, in other words, was already and always within the essence of the godhead. As Father John Julian describes it, for Julian, “The Son was human before all others. He was the ‘pioneer’ of humanity, and our humanity is an imitation of His” (footnote #3, John-Julian 2009:274).

This point, that humanity itself is of the essence of God, radically affects Julian’s understanding of the relationship between God and human beings. For her, it is not enough that God knits God’s own self to our spiritual essence. As it is revealed to Julian, God also knits God’s self to our very flesh, thereby in Christ uniting our spiritual and fleshly natures within ourselves, while at the same time uniting us to the godhead; “for the Trinity is encompassed in Christ” in whom our “higher part” [spirit] is based and rooted and in whom our “lower part” [flesh] has been taken up (Revelations chapter 57, John-Julian 2009:275). In this way, Christ “by full accord of all the Trinity . . . knit us and one-ed us to Himself” (Revelations chapter 58, John-Julian 2009:277). Thus, Julian comes to understand that “[God] makes no distinction in love between the blessed soul of Christ and the least souls that shall be saved” for “God dwells in our soul” and “our soul dwells in God” (Revelations chapter 54, John-Julian 2009:263). Indeed, Julian notes that she

saw no distinction between God and our essence. . . . God is God, and our essence is a creation of God. . . . We are enclosed in the Father, we are enclosed in the Son, and we are enclosed in the Holy Spirit; and the Father is enclosed in us, and the Son is enclosed in us, and the Holy Spirit is enclosed in us: all Power, all Wisdom, all Goodness, one God, one Lord (Revelations chapter 54, John-Julian 2009:263).

 Julian wrestles greatly with this lack of distinction, this notion of one-ness between God and humanity. While the hazelnut in her palm had revealed that “everything hath its being by the love of God” (Revelations chapter 5, John-Julian 2009:77), and while her visions had repeatedly shown her that the essence of God is love, the same could not easily be said for humanity. How could it be possible that everything exists in love when there is clearly so much sadness and wickedness in the world? And how could there be no distinction between the essence of God and the essence of humanity when human beings are so obviously sinful? Thus, the reality of human sin and God’s response to sin troubled her deeply. Specifically, she was greatly puzzled by the fact that her visions never revealed any anger or wrathful punishment being meted out on humanity by God. Would not, and should not, a god of love be filled with righteous indignation in the face of sin? And would not, should not, such a god seek to punish sinners?

In response to such questions, Julian relates that she was given an illustration, a vision involving a parable of a Lord and his servant. The story is one on which she must have reflected a great deal in the years following her illness, for the retelling of it, along with her subsequent interpretation, make up the lengthiest chapter in the Long Version of her revelations.

In her account of this vision, Julian relates that she saw two figures, a lord who “looks upon his servant most lovingly and sweetly” and a servant who stands “reverently, ready to do his Lord’s will” (Revelations chapter 51, John-Julian 2009:227). As the parable unfolds, the servant, at the humble bidding of his lord, eagerly rushes off to fulfill the master’s request. However, in his great haste to comply and thus show his master how much he loves him, the servant suddenly missteps, falling into a deep pit and badly injuring himself. Julian notes that as she looked upon the servant wallowing in his great misfortune, she saw him enduring many pains and much woe, the greatest of which was that he could not turn his head in order to look upon the face of his loving lord who constantly watched him “most tenderly . . . most humbly and gently with great compassion and pity” (Revelations chapter 51, John-Julian 2009:229). Gazing upon this startling scene, Julian claims that she watched “deliberately” in order to determine whether there was any failure on the part of the servant; yet all she could see was that he was “good inwardly” and that it was “only his good will and his great desire [to please his master, that] were the cause of his falling” (Revelations chapter 51, John-Julian 2009:229). Furthermore, she watched to see whether “the lord would allot him any blame, and truly there was none seen” (Revelations chapter 51, John-Julian 2009:229). Instead, this compassionate, gracious lord continued to look upon his servant with love declaring

Behold, behold, my beloved servant. What harm and distress he has received in my service for my love, yea, and because of his good will! Is it not reasonable that I reward him for his fright and his dread, his injury and his wounds, and all his woe? And not only this but does it not fall to me to give him a gift that is to him better and more honorable than his own health would have been?” (Revelations chapter 51, John-Julian 2009:231).

Julian must have been truly puzzled by this parable for she writes that she remained in ignorance regarding its full meaning until nearly twenty years later when she “received inner teaching,” an epiphany, so to speak, instructing her to reflect on it further, taking heed to its many details even those that might seem uninteresting (Revelations chapter 51, John-Julian 2009:233). In following this directive, Julian saw much that had previously escaped her notice and an allegorical interpretation of the parable began to take shape. In the Lord, she saw one who was brilliantly and beautifully clothed such that he seemed to have “enclosed within Himself all heavens and all joy and bliss” (Revelations chapter 51, John-Julian 2009:237). And yet, this glorious looking lord sat not on a noble throne but, rather, on a bare earthen floor in the midst of the desert. Reflecting on the strangeness of the scene, the realization came to Julian that this lord was God the Father and that “His sitting on the bare earth and desert” was to symbolize that “He made Man’s soul to be His own Throne and His dwelling place;” a place that although dusty and barren, He nonetheless chose, out of His great love, to sit and await the time when humanity would be returned to its noble state through the rescue of His own dear Son (Revelations chapter 51, John-Julian 2009:237).

As she observed the lord in detail, so Julian began to notice more about the servant as well. The servant, she noted, appeared outwardly as a peasant worker, clothed in a torn and tattered smock, stained with the sweat of his own body and dirt from the earth. Yet in this humble workman, she also detected a deep wisdom and a “foundation of love that he had for the Lord that was equal to the love that the lord had for him;” and the understanding came to her that this workman symbolized both the first human being, Adam (and thus all of humanity), and the Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, who would come to rescue humankind from the ditch of despair (Revelations chapter 51, John-Julian 2009:239). In all of this detail, the deep meaning of the parable is gradually revealed to Julian: the servant’s falling into the ditch symbolizes that “When Adam fell, God’s Son fell—because of the true union that was made in heaven [between the Second Person of the Trinity and humanity]” (Revelations chapter 51, John-Julian 2009:243). Thus, as the man (and all humanity) lies wallowing, beaten, and bruised, in the deep ditch of sin, death, and despair, so also Christ lies with him, never leaving him alone, always sharing in his suffering, his battering, his shame, and his disgrace. But the Son would not leave Adam forever in the pit. As this deep meaning unfolds, Julian comprehends that the servant, the Son of God, “would do the greatest work and hardest toil that is—he would be a gardener; digging and ditching, and straining and sweating, and turning over the earth . . . he would continue his labor . . . and he would never return” until he had retrieved that great treasure for which his lord had initially sent him out—the treasure of eternal bliss and unity with which his dear Father would repay and reward his much loved servant for his good will and devoted service (Revelations chapter 51, John-Julian 2009:241).

Embedded in this parable are key points regarding Julians’ theology of sin and redemption. It is significant that the lord’s gaze never strays from the servant and that the gaze is always filled with compassion, pity, and love and never with anger, wrath, or blame. For her, sin in and of itself, “has no manner of essence, nor any portion of being” (Revelations chapter 27, John-Julian 2009:149). It occurs as an unfortunate “falling away from love,” that is, a falling away from God that happens because of the lower (fleshly) nature of humanity (Revelations chapter 37, John-Julian 2009:179). And yet, because of the higher part of human nature (spirit) through which they are bound to Christ, humans also possess a “divine will that never consented to sin nor ever shall” (Revelations chapter 37, John-Julian 2009:179). Thus, in the servant (humanity), God sees only that which is reflected through Christ: good will, devotion, and love, not bad will, evil desire, or intent.

Nevertheless, God’s loving response to sin did not, for Julian, easily answer the question of why sin was allowed to exist in the first place. “I often wondered why, by the great foreseeing wisdom of God, the beginning of sin was not prevented, for then, it seemed to me, all would have been well” (Revelations chapter 27, John-Julian 2009:147). Initially, Julian’s repeated pondering of this question is answered by Jesus only with the response that, “Sin is inevitable, but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well” (Revelations chapter 27, John-Julian 2009:147). Eventually she saw “a marvelous, high secret hidden in God,” a secret that would be made more fully known in heaven (chapter 27, John-Julian 2009:149). This secret, which God began to reveal to Julian, uncovered for her even more clearly how truly everything is created in and exists in God’s love. As she began to understand it, nothing in God’s creation would be wasted. Instead, God in great love, would eventually transform all things, even the worst of human sin, into honor and glory. Not only would God transform sin to honor, but because of his great compassion and love (as shown in the parable of the lord and the servant), God would reach far beyond mere redemption. Not only will sinners be redeemed, they will also be rewarded for the pain and sorrow suffered as a result of sin. Just as the lord in the parable chose not only to restore his devoted servant but also to reward him greatly with eternal bliss and joy forever, so God will not only redeem the sinner but also reward him “in heaven [with] manifold joys exceeding what he would have had if he had not fallen” (Revelations chapter 38, John-Julian 2009:183). Therefore, in Julian’s understanding, “sin is the harshest scourge” and yet, through the love of God, all pain and shame that is caused by sin will finally be “transformed to honor and more joy” since “our falling does not prevent Him from loving us” (Revelations chapter 39, John-Julian 2009:183 and 185).

Thus, ultimately, Julian’s foundational understanding of God as ALL love leads her to a different understanding of sin, and of the relationship between God and humanity, than that which was common in her day and throughout much of Christian history. For Julian, sin is not so much evil intent as it is human error. Thus, God’s response to sin is not wrath and punishment but, rather, compassion and love. In this view, God can never be angry or wrathful because anger and wrath do not logically flow from love. Rather, God’s love causes even sin to become a means of growth and movement toward God. In, with, and under God’s great love even the worst of sin is transformed into love and compassion in the process of making all things well.

For Julian, then, the whole life of the Christian is a process of moving toward God, a process through which the soul finally attains one-ness with God in eternity. Until the time of that eternal bliss, God continues his transformative work, providing the gift of prayer as an ongoing means of connection between humans and God, for “Prayer ones the soul to God” (original language). This is necessary, “for though the soul is ever like God in nature and essence (restored by grace), it is often unlike God in its external state by sin on man’s part” (Revelations chapter 43, John-Julian 2009:201). Thus, prayer is a gift which Julian comes to understand exists, as does everything else in creation, only through God’s love, for as the Lord reveals to her, “I am the ground of thy praying” (Revelations chapter 41, John-Julian 2009:191). And in that revelation, Julian recognizes that contrary to what is often believed, prayer is neither initiated nor answered by human action but rather only through “God’s own characteristic goodness” for, as the showing continued, the Lord explained: “First, it is my will that thou have something, and next I make thee to want it, and afterward I cause thee to pray for it” (Revelations chapter 41, John-Julian 2009:191).

Julian notes that two major obstacles nonetheless often arise in human prayer. The first is that, because of our own perceived unworthiness, we are not always certain that God hears us; and the second is that we may “feel absolutely nothing,” remaining as “barren and dry after our prayers as we were before” (Revelations chapter 41, John-Julian 2009:191). As to the first, the parable of the Lord and the Servant once again establishes the great value that God sees in fallen humanity. It is a worth so high that his loving gaze is never averted, neither will he leave the servant ignored and alone in the vile pit. As to the second obstacle, the showing reveals to Julian that the Lord rejoices and delights in our prayer even if we feel absolutely nothing. God, not one’s own feelings (however solid or fickle they may be), is always the ground of prayer. Furthermore, it is revealed to her that God “watches for [prayer] and He wishes to enjoy it, because with His grace it makes us [as] like Himself in character as we are in nature” (Revelations chapter 41, John-Julian 2009:193). Prayer  then, is not a means whereby humans curry favor with God and can then expect to be either answered or ignored. Rather, prayer is transformative, a powerful grace given by God through which we are made more like God. [Image at right] While sin sometimes moves us away from God, prayer is a process through which we are restored to God; and not only we ourselves but eventually others as well, and even all of creation. In prayer, God makes us “partners in His good will and deed, and therefore He moves us to pray for that which it pleases Him to do,” according to Julian. “I saw and sensed that His marvelous and fulsome goodness completes all our abilities” (Revelations chapter 43, John-Julian 2009:201, 203).

 As in Julian’s understanding of sin and redemption, her revelations regarding prayer rest on the firm and often repeated assurance that God is all love, and that everything that exists exists within God’s love. For her, God is love that has always been and ever shall be. In humanity’s relationship with the blessed Trinity, there was no beginning and there will be no end.

Before we were made, God loved us. When we were created, we loved God. And so our souls are made by God, and at the same moment, knit to God. . . . We are held and protected in this endless love of God from the very beginning. And we shall continue to be joined with God in this knot of love for all eternity (chapter 53, Milton 2002:79).


Although Julian refers to herself as a “simple creature” who recorded her visions for the benefit of other ordinary people, her Revelations cannot be said to be simple (Revelations chapter 2, John-Julian 2009:67). While her message that God is love could not be missed by even the most superficial reading, her graphic manner of writing is sometimes startling to the modern ear, and her unwavering stance that God will indeed make all things well has raised questions regarding her own loyalty to the Roman Catholic Church. More specifically, it concerns whether she was an advocate for universal salvation, the belief that ultimately there will be no eternal damnation. Instead, every person, even all of creation, will one day be fully reconciled to God.

The first issue touches upon the graphic nature of Julian’s work. The introduction to Elizabeth Spearing ’s translation notes that the fourteenth century was a time when devotional practices were becoming “more Christocentric and more affective than that of earlier Christianity” (Spearing 1998:xiv, italics in original). [Image at right] Among many devout persons there was a growing desire to share in the life and experiences of Jesus, particularly in his Passion, yet for those “desired feelings to be continually renewed, Christ’s torments had to be evoked in ever-intensifying detail, to an extent that modern readers of Julian and other devotional writers may find repellent and even nauseating” (Spearing 1998:xiv). Given this context, it is not surprising that the first gift that Julian requested from God was to share in the memory of His passion. It is equally unsurprising that when she recounts the visions given to her in response to this request, she does so in meticulous detail, graphically recalling the sight of Christ’s crucified head weighted down with its crown of thorns:

The great drops of blood fell down from under the garland like pellets, seeming as if they had come out of the veins; and as they emerged they were brown-red (for the blood was very thick) and in the spreading out they were bright red; and when the blood came to the brows, there the drops vanished; and nevertheless the bleeding continued. . . (Revelations chapter 7, John-Julian 2009:85 and 87).

As the vision moves from the head to the whole of Christ’s suffering body she continues:

I saw the body plenteously bleeding (as could be expected from the scourging) in this way: the fair skin was split very deeply into the tender flesh by the harsh beating all over the dear body; so plenteously did the hot blood run out that one could see neither skin nor wound, but, as it were, all blood. . . . And this blood looked so plenteous that it seemed to me, if it had been as plenteous in nature and in matter during that time, it would have made the bed all bloody and have overflowed around the outside (Revelations chapter 12, John-Julian 2009:105).

Why this seeming obsession with blood?” we might ask. Couldn’t we just skip over those passages and still catch the drift of Julian’s experience? Perhaps. But maybe not. In an article in which he explores and compares brutality against the male body in theological discourse and cinematic texts, Kent Brintnall, a scholar of religion and gender, asserts that “representations of violence have an ethical import because they can focus our attention and generate our sympathy in particular ways.” The bloody, gory, wounded human figure can serve “as a mechanism for generating ethical critique, moral judgment and possible social transformation” (Brintnall 2004:74, 71). In regard to Julian’s text, Brintnall notes that she explicitly links compassion and brutality, and suggests an underlying assumption on her part that “meditating on the suffering of Jesus would increase compassion . . . and that “the means to this end is contemplation of the spectacle of a wounded body” (Brintnall 2004:70). Indeed, the text does seem to support this line of thinking. As Julian lingers between life and death, she recalls her earlier desire for that second wound, compassion, and she remembers that she had prayed “that his pains were my pains with compassion” (Revelations chapter 3, John-Julian 2009:73).

Given the possibility that graphic images of Christ’s crucifixion might generate a drive toward greater compassion, modern readers might wish to use caution regarding the temptation to skip over the gory details painted so vividly by Julian. Certainly, Brintnall’s work raises important questions for future study:

If violent spectacle is capable of making an ethical demand and directing our moral attention, then what is lost when we avert our gaze from images of brutality? What is the cost when Jesus becomes a great moral teacher instead of a victim of public torture? (Brintnall 2004:72).

 Apart from her explicit, yet gripping writing style, Julian’s theology of God as all Love has created another controversy, resulting in disagreement regarding her alignment (or lack thereof) with religious authorities, particularly on the question of salvation. Will some people be eternally saved while others be eternally damned, as the Roman Church taught? Or will, ultimately, all be saved. The issue presents a conflict for Julian who writes:

one point of our faith is that many creatures shall be damned (as were the angels who fell out of heaven because of pride—who are now demons), and many on earth who die outside of the faith of Holy Church (that is to say, those who are heathen men and also men who have received Christianity but live unchristian lives and so die without love) all these shall be damned to hell without end as Holy Church teaches me to believe (Revelations chapter 32, John-Julian 2009:163).

But then she continues:

Given all this, it seemed to me that it was impossible that all manner of thing would be well as our Lord showed at this time; and in regard to this, I had no other answer in any showing of our Lord God except this: “What is impossible for thee is not impossible for me. I shall preserve my word in all things, and I shall make everything well.” Thus I was taught by the grace of God that I should steadfastly keep myself in the Faith as I had interpreted it before, and also that I should firmly believe that everything shall be well as our Lord showed. . . (Revelations chapter 32, John-Julian 2009:163).

Clearly, Julian was not willing to speak directly against church teaching on this matter, but she freely admits that she does not understand how all could be made well if some are destined for eternal damnation. From what she had seen in her vision of the lord and the servant it was clear that God would never leave his beloved child in the ditch to struggle alone. Ultimately, she declares that “it is necessary for us to leave off involving ourselves” with how God would solve this problem for “the more we busy ourselves to know His secrets in this or any other thing, the farther we shall be from the knowledge of them” (Revelations chapter 33, John-Julian 2009:167).

Julian’s ability to live with the tension on this matter may well have forestalled accusations of heresy in her day, but it has not prevented disagreements in the modern period as to whether or not she leaned for or against universal salvation. Father John-Julian notes that Julian uses the phrase “all mankind that shall be saved” thirty-four times in her book and argues that this is a “clear indication that she is NOT a universalist, but believes there are people who will not be in heaven” (footnote #2, John-Julian 2009:92). On the other hand, after examining works of other theologians, both ancient and modern, on this topic of universal salvation, Richard Harries suggests that Julian could not affirm universalism because she accepted the teaching of the Church, but nonetheless “everything in her writing points in that direction” (Harries 2020:7). He then lists eight key convictions apparent in her work that “point in an inexorable way to the salvation of all,” and goes on to say, “You cannot help feeling that when she stresses that the existence of hell is taught by the Church, it is as a safeguard against the possible accusation that [her] theology is implicitly universal, which it is” (Harries 2020:8). In the end, the most that can be said is that Julian chose to live in the unknown on this issue, trusting only in the certainty that God had planted within her the knowledge that somehow, someway, someday all would be made well. Perhaps she “trembled on the edge of universalism” but she did not choose to go over the edge in either direction. She determined to leave that decision to God (Harries 2020:7).


There is much that makes the work of Julian of Norwich highly significant to the study of women in religions. First and foremost is simply the fact that she stands as an undeniable example of a woman not only able to claim revelations from God but also one capable of influencing others during a time when women were not considered credible bearers of theology. Furthermore, through the reemergence of her work in the twentieth century, she continues to stand as a powerful and sorely needed example of encouragement for women. As theologian Wendy Farley has noted, several “churches and seminaries continue to accept it as natural that the feminine body of Christ, figuratively and literally, has had its tongue cut out” (Farley 2015:7). And while it is true that women have made great strides within many Christian circles, there continue to be denominations that “do not ordain women” and have not accepted women as legitimate “interpreters of Christian thought” (Farley 2015:6). Julian serves as a beacon of hope that this systematic silencing of women in the Church will one day come to an end.

It is highly significant to the study of women in Christianity that Julian’s theology applies feminine imagery, particularly the symbol of the mother to God, and not only to the Second Person of the Godhead but rather to the whole of the Trinity. For Julian, the Mother aspect is of the essence of God and it is always active. In her work examining Julian’s use of the mother symbol, theologian Patricia Donohue-White describes the three “inter-related stages of divine mother-work” in Julian’s writings:

First, there is the Trinitarian work of creating—what I call Trinitarian “womb-work”—that culminates in incarnation. Secondly, there is the work of redeeming  that begins with incarnation and climaxes in the hard labor of Jesus’ birthing/dying on the cross.  [Image at right] The third and final stage consists in the work of sanctifying that comprises the long process of nurturing, raising and educating a child and is completed eschatologically with the mother leading the child back to the place of origin, that is, back to the Trinitarian womb (Donohue-White 2005:27).

For Julian then, motherhood is present first and foremost in God. It is “archetypically divine” and thus, although she also frequently uses Father imagery for God, her use of these gendered images is balanced. “As truly as God is our Father, so truly is God our Mother” (Revelations chapter 59, John-Julian 2009:283). This is critical, for in recognizing both Mother and Father aspects of the godhead, Julian emphasizes that God cannot properly be understood as specifically male; not even, and perhaps not even especially, in the incarnate Christ who is our “Mother.”

Even so, because Julian’s use of feminine imagery does not include women in roles other than that of mother, the question has sometimes been raised as to whether she was merely conforming to the conventions of her day, wherein the role of mother was acceptable but other roles for women were not. Can her work be understood as truly subversive? Or, does she merely seem to resist negative stereotypes even as she conforms to the stereotypes of her own day? The late Catherine Innes-Parker, a highly revered scholar and professor of medieval literature, wrestled with this question by examining Julian’s development as an author as she progresses from her Short Text to her final version, the Long Text. She concluded that Julian re-envisions her own self, as well as the conventional view of God, by adopting “strategies of subversion through conformity.” That is to say, “she creates metaphorical possibilities for reinterpreting the gendered stereotypes of her day, without rejecting them entirely” (Innes-Parker 1997:17 and 11).

The manner in which Julian negotiates this delicate terrain between subversion and conformity can be seen particularly in her descriptions of Jesus as mother, which

involves not so much the active reconstruction of the images of female humanity, but the reconstruction of a male icon, the ultimate male model in whose image all humankind is created, into a female figure, the mother of us all in whom we find, male and female alike, the “ground of our being” (Innes-Parker 1997:18).

Thus, although Julian utilizes themes and images commonplace in her day, “her re-working of those themes and images shows that her hidden agenda may have been more subversive than her outward conformity suggests” (Innes-Parker 1997:22). Indeed,

[b]y applying the images of motherhood to the incarnate Christ, Julian makes the feminine normative for the Word made Flesh, and thus for all flesh. By fundamentally redefining, in terms, who God is, Julian thus also redefines what it means to be created in the image of God. The human ideal, therefore, becomes feminine (Innes-Parker 1997:22).

Yet, not only feminine. Through Julian’s visions one senses that the potential exists for the human ideal to span the entire range of human possibility for “Julian transforms a ‘woman’s theology’ into a universal human theology.” It is a theology not defined by difference, sexual or otherwise; but rather, a theology defined by love, both in this world and the next (Innes-Parker 1997:22). As such, these revelations given to a self-proclaimed “simple creature that had learned no letter” are a critically important resource not only for women but for the whole Christian Church. Indeed, they are vital for all people who seek a relationship with a god whose love is deep and abiding; a god whose steadfast love is capable of carrying them not only through the good times but also through the chaos and turbulence of loss, tragedy, terror, and injustice (Revelations chapter 2, John-Julian 2009:67).

Saint Julian trusted in such a God and indeed clung to that God of love through personal illness, floods, plagues, warfare, and papal schisms, trusting that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come could separate her from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:38–39). Through it all she remained convinced that, ultimately, God would somehow make all things well. It was neither a trite saying nor a naive wish. For her, it was a sure and certain hope that had been revealed to her by God, and which she sought to pass on to others. Whatever one’s circumstances, personal or communal, “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well” (Revelations chapter 27, John-Julian 2009:147).


Image #1: Statue of Julian of Norwich on Norwich Cathedral, England, by David Holgate, 2014. Wikimedia.
Image #2: Icon produced by artist Geoffrey P. Moran on display in the Nave of St. Aidan’s Church, Machias in Machias, Maine. https://staidansmachias.org/about/our-icons/icons/
Image #3: Title page of Senenus de Cressy’s 1670 edition of the Long Text of Julian’s Revelations of Divine Love, written by unknown hand c. 1675 and copied from a manuscript.
Image #4: Bauchon Chapel Window, 1964. Designed by Maria Forsyth. Made by Dennis King of G King & Son.  Given in memory of Harriet Mabel Campbell (1874-1953). http://www.norwich-heritage.co.uk/cathedrals/Anglican_Cathedral/bauchon_window_general.html
Image #5: St. Julian’s Church, with Julian’s cell in lower right, https://www.britainexpress.com/counties/norfolk/norwich/st-julian.htm
Image #6: Contemporary depiction of Saint Julian of Norwich with cat holding her book showing the statement, “All shall be well.”
Image #7: Brother Robert Lentz, OFM, “Dame Julian’s Hazelnut. For sale at Trinity Stories. https://www.trinitystores.com/artwork/dame-julians-hazelnut. Accessed June 18, 2021.
Image #8: Icon of Julian of Norwich painted by Christinel Paslaru. Commissioned by Father Christopher Wood, rector of St Julian’s Anglican Church. https://anglicanfocus.org.au/2020/05/01/julian-of-norwich-all-shall-be-well/.
Image #9: Emily Bowyer. 2012. A photograph from inside the reconstructed cell at St. Julian’s Church, Norwich, England, showing the altar in the new chapel. https://www.researchgate.net/figure/A-photograph-from-inside-the-reconstructed-cell-St-Julians-Church-Norwich-showing-the_fig1_303523791.
Image #10: Stained glass window in the Norwich Cathedral depicting Julian of Norwich in prayer.
Image #11: Farid de la Ossa Arrieta, God, the Mother, 2002. https://www.paulvasile.com/blog/2015/10/28/mothering-christ.


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Publication Date:
28 June 2021



Charlotte Forten Grimké


1837 (August 17):  Charlotte Forten was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to Robert Bridges Forten and Mary Virginia Wood Forten.

1840 (August):  Charlotte’s mother died from tuberculosis.

1850:  The U.S. Congress passed Fugitive Slave Act, which required seizure and return of runaway slaves who had escaped from slave-owning states; it was repealed in 1864.

1853 (November):  Charlotte Forten moved from Philadelphia to Salem, Massachusetts to the home of the Charles Lenox Remond family.

1855 (March):  Charlotte Forten graduated from the Higginson Grammar School and enrolled in Salem Normal School (now Salem State University).

1855 (September):  Forten joined the Salem Female Anti-Slavery Society.

1856 (June/July):  Forten graduated from Salem Normal School and took a teaching position at the Eppes Grammar School in Salem.

1857 (March 6):  The U.S. Supreme Court handed down the Dred Scott decision, which stated that African Americans were not and never could be U.S. citizens.

1857 (Summer):  Forten went to Philadelphia to recuperate from illness, then returned to Salem to continue teaching.

1858 (March):  Forten resigned her position at Eppes Grammar School due to ill health and returned to Philadelphia.

1859 (September):  Forten returned to Salem to teach at the Higginson Grammar School.

1860 (October):  Forten resigned Salem post due to continued poor health.

1861 (April 12):  The U.S. Civil War began.

1861 (Fall):  Forten taught in Philadelphia’s Lombard Street School, run by her paternal aunt Margaretta Forten.

1862 (October):  Forten left for South Carolina to teach under auspices of Port Royal Relief Association.

1862 (December):  Forten’s written accounts of her experiences in South Carolina were published in the national abolitionist journal The Liberator.

1863 (July):  Forten nursed wounded soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts regiment after their defeat at Fort Wagner, South Carolina.

1864 (April 25):  Forten’s father died of typhoid fever in Philadelphia.

1864 (May/June):  Forten’s two-part essay “Life on the Sea Islands” was published in the Atlantic Monthly.

1865 (May 9):  The U.S. Civil War ended.

1865 (October):  Forten accepted a position as Secretary of the Teachers Committee of the New England Branch of the Freedman’s Union Commission in Boston, Massachusetts.

1871:  Forten was employed as a teacher at the Shaw Memorial School in Charleston, South Carolina.

1872–1873:  Forten taught at Dunbar High School, a Black preparatory school in Washington, D.C.

1873–1878:  Forten took a position as first-class clerk in the Fourth Auditor’s Office of the U.S. Treasury Department.

1878 (December 19):  Forten married the Reverend Francis Grimké, minister of the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C.

1880 (January 1):  Forten Grimké’s daughter, Theodora Cornelia Grimké, was born.

1880 (June 10):  Theodora Cornelia Grimké died.

1885–1889:  Charlotte Grimké and her husband moved to Jacksonville, Florida where Francis Grimké was minister of the Laura Street Presbyterian Church.

1888 to late 1890s: Charlotte Forten Grimké continued to write and publish poetry and essays.

1896:  Forten Grimké became a founding member of the National Association of Colored Women.

1914 (July 22):  Charlotte Forten Grimké died in Washington, D.C.


Charlotte Louise Bridges Forten [Image at right] was born on August 17, 1837 at 92 Lombard Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the home of her grandparents, a leading free Black family in the city that was active in the abolitionist movement (Winch 2002:280). She was the grandchild of James and Charlotte Forten, and the only child of their son Robert Bridges Forten and his first wife, Mary Virginia Wood Forten, who died of tuberculosis when Charlotte was three years old. Named after her grandmother, Charlotte was a fourth-generation free Black woman on her paternal side (Stevenson 1988:3). Her grandfather was the eminent James Forten, a reformer and antislavery activist who owned a successful sail-making business in Philadelphia, at one point amassing a fortune of more than $100,000, a huge sum for the times. Charlotte Forten grew up in relative economic security, was privately tutored, traveled widely, and enjoyed a variety of social and cultural activities (Duran 2011:90). Her extended family was deeply committed to ending slavery and combating racism. James Forten played a central role in the American Anti-Slavery Society and was a friend and supporter of the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison (1805–1879). The Forten women helped found the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society. Her aunts, Sarah, Margaretta, and Harriet Forten, used their intellectual gifts to advance the antislavery movement (Stevenson 1988:8).

The Fortens were part of a large network of prosperous, well-educated, and socially active African Americans in New York, Boston, and Salem, Massachusetts, all of them engaged in the abolition movement. But by the early 1840s, the firm of James Forten & Sons declared bankruptcy and money did not flow as freely in the extended family (Winch 2002:344). Charlotte was sent to Salem in 1853 to live with the Remonds a few years after the death of her grandmother, Edy Wood, who had been raising Charlotte after her mother’s death. Forten grieved the loss of her mother and grandmother and her later estrangement from her father, who had moved with his second wife, first to Canada, and then to England. Charles Remond of Salem, the son of a successful caterer, had married Amy Williams, a former neighbor of the Fortens in Philadelphia, and they became a welcoming family to Charlotte Forten. Both Charles and Amy Remond were key players in the abolition network and were frequently visited in their home by such antislavery luminaries as Garrison, William Wells Brown, Lydia Marie Child, and John Greenleaf Whittier (Salenius, 2016:43). Salem had desegregated its schools in 1843, the first town in Massachusetts to do so (Noel 2004:144). Forten’s father sent her to Salem to attend a desegregated school, and she enrolled in the Higginson Grammar School for Girls under the tutelage of Mary L. Shepard whom Forten warmly referred to as her friend and “dear, kind teacher” (Grimké 1988: September 30, 1854:102).

With her move to Massachusetts in 1854, Forten was a contemporary witness to the brutal effect of the federal Fugitive Slave Law (1850), which required seizure and return of runaway slaves who had escaped from slave-owning states. On Wednesday, May 24, 1854, an arrest warrant was issued in Boston for a fugitive slave, Anthony Burns. [Image at right] His trial riveted the abolitionist community, including Forten. The court found in favor of Burns’ owner, and Massachusetts prepared to return him to slavery in Virginia. Forten’s journals convey her outrage at this injustice, as she wrote:

Our worst fears are realized; the decision was against poor Burns, and he has been sent back to a bondage worse, a thousand times worse than death. . . . To-day Massachusetts has again been disgraced; again has she showed her submissions to the Slave Power. . . . With what scorn must that government be regarded which cowardly assembles thousands of soldiers to satisfy the demands of slaveholders; to deprive of his freedom a man, created in God’s own image, whose sole offense is the color of his skin! (Grimké 1988:June 2, 1854:65–66)

Her early journals, written while living in Salem, reveal a persistent sense of unworthiness. In June 1858, she wrote:

Have been under-going a thorough self-examination. The result is a mingled feeling of sorrow, shame and self-contempt. Have realized more deeply and bitterly than ever in my life my own ignorance and folly. Not only am I without the gifts of Nature, wit, beauty and talent; without the accomplishments which nearly every one of my age, whom I know, possesses; but I am not even intelligent. And for this there is not the shadow of an excuse (Grimké 1988:June 15, 1858:315–16).

As Forten matured, these self-critical thoughts seem to have subsided, and she pioneered many accomplishments as a Black woman. She had been the first Black student to have been admitted to Salem Normal School, and the first Black public school teacher in Salem. She became a well-published author and traveled to the South during the Civil War to teach newly freed slaves. She was highly regarded in prominent abolitionist circles and participated in the founding of reform organizations.

Forten’s father had wanted her to attend Salem Normal School (now Salem State University) to prepare for a career in teaching. Charlotte herself had not expressed interest in this path; her father had seen it as a way for Charlotte to support herself. She desired to please her father and was determined to find ways to uplift her race. “I will spare no effort to become what he desires that I should be . . . a teacher, and to live for the good that I can do my oppressed and suffering fellow creatures” (Grimké 1988:October 23, 1854:105). Forten considered her opportunity to engage in advanced study a blessing that suggested God had chosen her for an important mission: to use her talents to improve the lives of Black Americans. Through unswerving devotion to this idea, she sometimes denied herself personal pleasure and happiness.

On March 13, 1855, seventeen-year-old Charlotte Forten passed her entrance examination and enrolled in the second class of Salem Normal School. [Image at right] One of forty students, she did not have financial assistance from her father; her teacher Mary Shepard offered to pay or loan Forten the money for her education. Forten thrived intellectually at the school. Her low self-esteem was fueled by the insidious racism of the society in which she lived. Of course, Salem, Massachusetts of the 1850s and 1860s was progressive enough that she could attend an excellent teacher training school and be hired as a teacher in the city’s public schools. But her diary records the many slights she suffered from her classmates’ prejudice, and the pain of this made it difficult for Forten to maintain what she considered Christian fortitude:

I long to be good, to be able to meet death calmly, and fearlessly, strong in faith and holiness. But this I know can only be through the one who died for us, through the pure and perfect love of Him, who was all holiness and love. But how can I hope to be worthy of his love while I still cherish the feeling toward my enemies, this unforgiving spirit . . . hatred of oppression seems to me to be so blended with hatred of the oppressor I cannot seem to separate them (Grimké 1988: August 10, 1854:95).

The following year, Forten wrote:

I wonder that every colored person is not a misanthrope. Surely, we have everything to make us hate mankind. I have met girls in the schoolroom—they have been thoroughly kind and cordial to me—perhaps the next day met them in the street—they feared to recognize me; these I can but regard now with scorn and contempt, once I liked them, believing them incapable of such measures (Grimké 1988: September 12, 1855:140).

Forten persisted, though, believing that her scholarly advancement would “aid me in fitting myself for laboring in a holy cause, for enabling me to do much towards changing the condition of my oppressed and suffering people” (Grimké 1988:June 4, 1854:67). Later, she would expand on this vision:

We are a poor, oppressed people, with very many trials, and very few friends. The Past, the Present, the Future are alike dark and dreary for us. I know it is not right to feel thus. But I cannot help it always; though my own heart tells me that there is much to live for. That the more deeply we suffer, the nobler and holier is the work of life that lies before us! Oh! for strength; strength to bear the suffering, to do the work bravely, unfalteringly! (Grimké 1988: September 1, 1856:163–64).

Her firm Christian beliefs carried her through these challenging times, and she fully immersed herself in her academic work.

Forten performed well at the Normal School’s final examinations and was selected to write the class hymn for the graduating class of 1856. She began teaching at the Epps Grammar School in Salem on the day after her graduation, a position secured for her by the principal of Salem Normal, Richard Edwards. Her salary was $200 per year. The death of her beloved friend Amy Remond and her own continuing poor health plagued Forten during this time, and she resigned the position in March 1858, returning to Philadelphia to recover. Upon leaving her teaching post in Salem in 1858, Forten was commended by the Salem Register for her contributions. According to the article, Forten was highly successful in her educational endeavors, and “graciously received by the parents of the district,” despite being a “young lady of color, identified with that hated race whose maltreatment by our own people is a living reproach to us as a professedly Christian nation” (quoted in Billington 1953:19). The article suggested the praise for the “experiment” largely redounded to the Salem community which congratulated itself on its progressiveness (Noel 2004:154).

Forten returned to Salem in 1859 to teach at the Higginson School with Mary Shepard and enrolled in Salem Normal School’s Advanced Program. The famed Salem navigator, Nathaniel Ingersoll Bowditch, was her benefactor (Rosemond and Maloney 1988:6). She completed two terms before the outbreak of the Civil War. Then, in 1862, Forten answered the call to help in the education of newly freed persons in the Gullah communities in the Sea Islands in South Carolina.

This passion led to her decision to leave her teaching program to prepare for moving to the South to assist newly freed men and women. Union military officials had classified all land, property, and slaves on St. Helena Island in Beaufort County, South Carolina as “contrabands of war,” but it quickly became apparent that policies needed to be developed to deal with the major social and economic changes that resulted from their liberation. After years of perseverance in working toward her dream of useful, challenging, and satisfying reform work, she found it in the Port Royal Relief Association, headquartered in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Forten worked as a teacher in Beaufort County, South Carolina for more than a year, demonstrating what she had always declared in her journals: that Black people could be taught to excel academically. Forten found that educating the most downtrodden of her race was both rewarding and exhilarating. Forten partnered with other Northern teachers and immersed herself in the stories and music of the Creole-speaking Gullah islanders who lived there.

Thomas Wentworth Higginson, commander of the formerly enslaved first South Carolina Volunteers, appreciated that she taught many of his men to read, and was a close friend. Forten also writes affectionately of her meeting with Col. Robert Gould Shaw, [Image at right] the commander of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment consisting of African American soldiers (Grimké 1988:July 2, 1863:490). During the summer of 1863, the Union forces set out to conquer the port of Charleston. Col. Shaw led his 54th regiment in the doomed attack on Fort Wagner, in which scores of men, including Shaw, were killed. Forten waited to hear the outcome of the battle for two weeks from secluded St. Helena Island, and mourned the losses in her journal: “To-night comes news oh, so sad, so heart sickening. It is too terrible, too terrible to write. We can only hope it may not all be true. That our noble, beautiful Colonel [Shaw] is killed, and the regt. cut to pieces. . . . I am stunned, sick at heart . . . I can scarcely write. . . .” (Grimké 1988: Monday, July 20, 1863:494). Shaw was only a month younger than Forten when he died at age twenty-five. The next day, Forten volunteered as a nurse for the soldiers. Forten later wrote of her experiences, and in 1864, her two-part essay, “Life on the Sea Islands,” was published in the May and June issues of The Atlantic Monthly.

The following October 1865, Forten came back to Boston, Massachusetts, having accepted a position as Secretary of the Teachers Committee of the New England Branch of the Freedman’s Union Commission.  She lived in Massachusetts for six years before making arrangements to return to the South. During this period, she published her translation of Madame Thérèse (1869) and published in the Christian Register, the Boston Commonwealth, and The New England Magazine (Billington 1953:29). In fall 1871, Forten began a year of teaching at the Shaw Memorial School in Charleston, South Carolina, named after her friend, the late Robert Gould Shaw. She continued to teach the following year at a preparatory school for young Black men in Washington, D.C., later called Dunbar High School. Following that second year of teaching, Forten was offered a position as first-class clerk in the Fourth Auditor’s Office of the U.S. Treasury Department. She worked for five years in this role, from 1873–1878.

In 1878, at the age of forty-one, Forten married Reverend Francis Grimké, [Image at right] the twenty-eight-year-old minister of the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. Thirteen years her junior, he was the manumitted Black nephew of White abolitionists Angelina and Sarah Grimké originally from a wealthy Charleston, South Carolina slave-owning family. Francis Grimké was intelligent, sensitive, and fiercely dedicated to his profession and the advancement of his race. The couple had one daughter who died in infancy, a deeply affecting loss. Charlotte Forten Grimké died July 22, 1914.


Forten was an ardently spiritual Christian believer. From a young age, she idolized her deceased mother as angelic and would have heard stories of her parent’s exceptional piety. Mary Virginia Wood Forten’s obituary in The Colored American quoted her saying as she lay dying, “You are moral and good but you need religion, you need the grace of God. O seek it!” (quoted in Glasgow 2019:38). Forten felt her mother’s loss keenly throughout her life, even though several other women mentors stepped in to help fill the role.


In her early journals, Forten expressed interest in the Spiritualism movement, which was then all the vogue, especially among abolitionists. Several prominent thinkers and writers were intrigued with the concept, including Garrison, who believed that it was possible to communicate with the dead through a medium. William Cooper Nell (1816–1874) was a prominent Black abolitionist and believer in Spiritualism, and a close friend of Forten’s. In August 1854, Forten made a few entries in her journal that touched on Spiritualism. On Tuesday, August 8, 1854, Forten wrote of walking through Harmony Grove Cemetery in Salem with her beloved teacher, Mary Shepard:

Never did it look so beautiful as on this very loveliest of summer mornings, so happy, so peaceful one almost felt like resting in that quiet spot, beneath the soft, green grass. My teacher talked to me of a beloved sister who is sleeping here. As she spoke, it almost seemed to me as if I had known her; one of those noble, gentle, warm-hearted spiritual beings, too pure and heavenly for this world (Grimké 1988: August 8, 1854:94).

A few days after this walk, Forten began reading Nathaniel Hawthorne’s mystical story of revenge, The House of the Seven Gables, and it affected her deeply. She wrote

That strange Mysterious, awful reality, that is constantly around and among us, that power which takes away from us so many of those whom we love and honor. . . . I feel that no other injury could be so hard to bear, so very hard to forgive, as that inflicted by cruel oppression and prejudice. How can I be a Christian when so many in common with myself, for no crime suffer so cruelly, so unjustly? It seems in vain to try, even to hope. And yet I still long to resemble Him that is really good and useful in life (Grimké 1988:August 10, 1854:95)

Finishing the novel in just a few days, Forten records a conversation with Nell on the day before her seventeenth birthday “about the ‘spiritual rappings’.”

He is a firm believer in their “spiritual” origin. He spoke of the different manner in which the different “spirits” manifested their presence,—some merely touching the mediums, others thoroughly shaking them, etc. I told him that I thought I required a very “thorough shaking” to make me a believer. Yet I must not presume to say that I entirely disbelieve that which the wisest cannot understand (Grimké 1988:August 16, 1854:96)

Spiritualism was again on her mind in November 1855, as she again walked through Harmony Grove and spied the tombstone of a friend who had passed away. Forten wrote, “Hard is it to realize that beneath lie the remains of one who was with us a few short months ago! The belief of the Spiritualists is a beautiful, and must be a happy one. It is that the future world is on the same plan as this, but far more beautiful and without sin” (Grimké 1988:November 26, 1855:145).

On August 5, 1857, Forten wrote of hearing an oration by a theologian at Church, “Most of it was excellent; but there was one part—a tirade against Spiritualism, which I disliked exceedingly; it seemed to me very inappropriate and uncharitable” (Grimké 1988:244). But in 1858, Forten again expressed skepticism about it, “This afternoon a little girl professing to be a medium, came in. Some raps were produced, but nothing more satisfactory. I grow more and more skeptical about Spiritualism” (Grimké 1988:January 16; 1858:278).

That same year, however, Forten penned a poem called “The Angel’s Visit” (Sherman 1992:213–15). Certainly, some lines from the poem seem compatible with a belief in Spiritualism:

“On such a night as this,” methought,
“Angelic forms are near;
In beauty unrevealed to us
They hover in the air.
O mother, loved and lost,” I cried,
“Methinks thou’rt near me now;
Methinks I feel thy cooling touch
Upon my burning brow.

“O, guide and soothe thy sorrowing child;
And if ‘tis not His will
That thou shouldst take me home with thee,
Protect and bless me still;
For dark and drear had been my life
Without thy tender smile,
Without a mother’s loving care,
Each sorrow to beguile.”

After this spiritual crisis, the poem continues,

I ceased: then o’er my senses stole
A soothing dreamy spell,
And gently to my ear were borne
The tones I loved so well;
A sudden flood of rosy light
Filled all the dusky wood,
And, clad in shining robes of white,
My angel mother stood.

She gently drew me to her side,
She pressed her lips to mine,
And softly said, “Grieve not, my child;
A mother’s love is thine.
I know the cruel wrongs that crush
The young and ardent heart;
But falter not; keep bravely on,
And nobly bear thy part.

“For thee a brighter day’s in store;
And every earnest soul
That presses on, with purpose high,
Shall gain the wished-for goal.
And thou, beloved, faint not beneath
The weary weight of care;
Daily before our Father’s throne
I breathe for thee a prayer.

“I pray that pure and holy thoughts
May bless and guard thy way;
A noble and unselfish life
For thee, my child, I pray.”
She paused, and fondly bent on me
One lingering look of love,
Then softly said, —and passed away, —
“Farewell! we’ll meet above.”

Though the poem concludes with the speaker’s realization that it was a dream from which she “woke,” the concept of communing with the dead so central to Spiritualism becomes a comfort to the speaker who finds her despair soothed, and a closer connection to God.

The injustices of her society took an emotional toll on Forten. While her early diaries indicate she suffered from depression, her staunch commitment to Christianity prevented her from thoughts of self-harm, as she believed only God could shape a person’s life course (Stevenson 1988:28). As an adolescent and young adult, Forten was often highly self-critical and condemned herself as selfish for not working harder to fulfill lofty Christian ideals. This was the theme of her graduation hymn, first published in the Salem Register, July 16, 1855. Later published as a poem called, “The Improvement of Colored People,” in The Liberator, the national journal of the abolition movement, August 24, 1856, the opening verse underscores the idea of Christian obligation:

In the earnest path of duty,
With the high hopes and hearts sincere,
We, to useful lives aspiring,
Daily meet to labor here (Stevenson 1988:25).

Forten wrote another hymn, also published in the Salem Register, February 14, 1856, which was sung during the Salem Normal School examination program:

When Winter’s royal robes of white
From hill and vale are gone,
And the glad voices of the spring
Upon the air are borne,
Friends, who have met with us before,
Within these walls shall meet no more.

Forth to a noble work they go:
O, may their hearts keep pure,
And hopeful zeal and strength be theirs
To labor and endure,
That they an earnest faith may prove
By words of truth and deeds of love.

May those, whose holy task it is
To guide impulsive youth,
Fail not to cherish in their souls
A reverence for truth;
For teachings which the lips impart
Must have their source within the heart.

May all who suffer share their love—
The poor and the oppressed;
So shall the blessing of our God
Upon their labors rest.
And may we meet again where all
Are blest and freed from every thrall.

The hymn meditates upon the important role of the teacher, especially in uplifting the downtrodden. The reference to being “freed from every thrall” speaks to the poem’s abolitionist theme. Forten held out hope that teachers would rise to the challenges of the times.

It seems her faith was more easily placed with teachers than with ordained members of the ministry. Like many abolitionists, Forten was concerned that the institution of slavery tainted American Christianity. In an early discussion with her mentor Mary Shepard, Charlotte writes that Shepard, while thoroughly opposed to slavery, “does not agree with me in thinking that the churches and ministers are generally supporters of the infamous system; I believe it freely (Grimké 1988:May 26, 1854:60–61). Forten shared the belief common to Garrisonian abolitionists that slavery had deeply infected “American Christianity” and appraised the ministers she encountered by this measure. Following the Anthony Burns ruling, Forten wondered in her journal “how many Christian ministers to-day will mention him, or those who suffer with him? How many will speak from the pulpit against the cruel outrage on humanity which has just been committed, or against the many, even worse ones, which are committed in this country every day?” (Grimké 1988:June 4, 1854:66) In answer to her own rhetorical question, Forten responds, “Too well do we know that there are but very few, and these few alone deserve to be called the ministers of Christ, whose doctrine was ‘Break every yoke, and let the oppressed go free’” (Grimké 1988:66). After attending an anti-slavery lecture by a Watertown, Massachusetts minister, Forten praised him as “one of the few ministers who dare speak and act as freemen, obeying the Higher Law, and scorning all lower laws which are opposed to Justice and Humanity” (Grimké 1988:November 26, 1854:113).

Despite Grimké’s continued skepticism about the purity of American churches, she remained a devout Christian throughout her life. After her death, her niece, Angelina Weld Grimké (2017), extolled her in a touching poem, “To Keep the Memory of Charlotte Forten Grimké.” The four-stanza poem ends with this summation of her spirituality:

Where has she gone? And who is there to say?
But this we know: her gentle spirit moves
And is where beauty never wanes,
Perchance by other streams, ’mid other groves;
And to us here, ah! she remains
A lovely memory
Until Eternity;
She came, she loved, and then she went away.


In addition to participating in the rituals of Christian life, Charlotte Forten’s primary meditative practice was to maintain a journal. She began writing her diary on May 24, 1854 at age fifteen, having moved to Salem, Massachusetts to attend the newly integrated public schools in that city. In embracing this genre, she was engaging with a form of writing that signaled female gentility. In the introduction to her journal, Forten declared that one of the purposes of her diary was “to judge correctly of the growth and improvement of my mind from year to year” (Stevenson 1988:58). The journals span thirty-eight years, including the antebellum period, the Civil War, and its aftermath. There are five distinct journals:

Journal 1, Salem (Massachusetts), May 24, 1854 to ­December 31, 1856;
Journal 2, Salem, January 1, 1857 to January 27, 1858;
Journal 3, Salem, January 28, 1858­; St. Helena Island (South Carolina), February 14, 1863;
Journal 4, St. Helena Island, February 15, 1863 to ­May 15, 1864;
Journal 5, Jacksonville (Florida), November 1885­, Lee (Massachusetts), July 1892.

Historian Ray Allen Billington wrote that Forten “kept her journal in ordinary board-covered notebooks, writing in ink in a cultivated and legible hand” (Billington 1953:31). Grimké’s journals are now archived in the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University.

Between October 28, 1862 and May 15, 1864, Forten chronicled her life among the South Carolina Sea Island “contrabands,” enslaved persons who escaped to assist Union forces during the Civil War. It was during this period that she began to speak to her journal as “Ami,” French for “friend.” She detailed her encounters with the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, the 1st and 2nd South Carolina Volunteer Infantry Regiments consisting of former slaves, and the culture of the Gullah people who inhabited the forfeited plantations of the island. With an ethnographer’s eye, Forten chronicled the social structures of the Gullah/Geechee peoples who lived off the coasts of South Carolina and Georgia on the Sea Islands. Sharing the locale with luminaries such as Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, and personally meeting with Harriet Tubman who led the 2nd South Carolina Volunteer Infantry Regiment in the Raid at Combahee Ferry, Forten was indeed an eyewitness to important moments in the Civil War. Her status as an elite Black female abolitionist and intellectual renders her journals historically significant.

Charlotte Forten movingly records the arrival of the hour of freedom on Thursday, New Year’s Day, 1863, when the Emancipation Proclamation was read to a crowd of slaves that had been placed under the protection of the Union Army. She wrote:

It all seemed, and seems still, like a brilliant dream. . . . As I sat on the stand and looked around on the various groups, I thought I had never seen a sight so beautiful. There were the black soldiers, in their blue coats and scarlet pants, the officers of this and other regiments in their handsome uniforms, and crowds of lookers­on, men, women and children. . . . Immediately at the conclusion, some of the colored people—of their own accord sang “My Country Tis of Thee.” It was a touching and beautiful incident (Grimké 1988:New Year’s Day, January 1, 1863:429–30).

In her journals and in her letters published in The Liberator, Forten meticulously described the people and culture of the Sea Islands. She presented them as God-fearing, polite, industrious people who were grateful to the Union Army for liberating them from slavery, humanizing her subjects and depicting them sympathetically. On November 20, 1862, the following letter from Forten was published in The Liberator:

As far as I have been able to observe—and although I have not been here long, I have seen and talked with many of the people—the Negroes here seem to be, for the most part, an honest, industrious, and sensible people. They are eager to learn; they rejoice in their new-found freedom. It does one good to see how jubilant they are over the downfall of their “secesh” masters, as they call them. I do not believe that there is a man, woman, or even a child that is old enough to be sensible, that would submit to being made a slave again. There is evidently a deep determination in their souls that never shall be. Their hearts are full of gratitude to the Government and the “Yankees.”

Emphasizing the steady and rapid progress made by her pupils, Forten wrote in her essay, “Life on the Sea Islands,” published in the Atlantic Monthly, 1864:

I wish some of those persons at the North, who say the race is so hopelessly and naturally inferior, could see the readiness with which these children, so long oppressed and deprived of every privilege, learn and understand.

Forten strongly argued that once freed from the horrors of slavery and given the opportunities of education, these formerly enslaved persons would prove to be responsible citizens. One scholar describes the journals this way: “The journals of Charlotte Forten are a hybrid mixture of diary writing, autobiography proper, and racial biography” (Cobb-Moore 1996:140). As an extensive cultural record, Forten’s journals explore her anomalous position as an elite Black woman in a white world and vividly trace her education and her development as a social reformer. The journals critically probe nineteenth-century constructs of womanhood and facilitate the development of both Forten’s political and artistic consciousness. Forten’s sophisticated rhetoric in her journals [Image at right] built on her awareness of them as future public documents intended for posterity that balanced a highly literate elicitation of sympathy with incisive criticism of racial injustice in the United States. Australian scholar Silvia Xavier has argued that Forten deserves recognition for her radical use of rhetoric to advance the cause of ending slavery (2005:438). “Forten’s work attests to the gulf between rhetoric and reality that belies the ‘democratizing’ culture of this period, revealing the limitations of the cultural and social role of rhetorical pedagogy in its failure to address the issue of race” (Xavier 2005:438). Xavier notes Forten also adopts nineteenth-century rhetorical practices that successfully mediate between speaker and auditor to elicit sympathy, move passions, and incite action (Xavier 2005:438), a familiar strategy for abolitionist literature. In later life, Forten Grimké wrote fewer entries; her final entry is dated July 1892 from Lee, Massachusetts, as she often spent a few summer weeks in the Berkshires to try to improve her health (Maillard 2017:150–51).


From her earliest upbringing, Forten was involved in abolition work. Newly arrived in Salem, Forten helped the Remonds advocate for the freeing of captured runaway Anthony Burns. While studying in Salem, Forten sewed clothing and other articles to raise funds at fairs for abolitionist activities, such as the New England Anti-Slavery Christmas Bazaar in Boston. Forten made important contributions to nineteenth-century literary productions by African Americans, publishing accounts of her experiences in South Carolina in the prestigious Atlantic Monthly. As the Civil War ended, she moved to Boston in October 1865, where she became Secretary of the Teachers Committee of the New England Branch of the Freedmen’s Union Commission, recruiting and training teachers of freed enslaved people until 1871 (Sterling, 1997:285). She continued her work as a leading Black intellectual and linguist. In 1869, her translation of Emile Erckman and Alexandre Chartrain’s French novel, Madame Thérèse; or the Volunteers of ’92 was published, although her name does not appear on the edition. Billington quotes from a note by the publisher, likely from one of the editions, that states, “Miss Charlotte L. Forten has performed the work of translation with an accuracy and spirit which will, undoubtedly, be appreciated by all acquainted with the original” (Billington 1953:210). The following year, when she was living in Philadelphia with her grandmother and teaching in her aunt’s school, the census records her occupation as “Authoress” (Winch 2002:348).

Forten remained active in the struggle for her people even during lapses in her teaching career. She remained deeply committed to a life of service. Forten returned to the South for a year to teach freedmen in Charleston at a school named in honor of Robert Gould Shaw; in 1871, she taught at a Black preparatory school in Washington, D.C. For five years, from 1873 to 1878, she worked as a statistician in the Fourth Auditor’s Office of the U.S. Treasury Department. The New National Era reported, “It is a compliment to the race that Miss Forten should be one of fifteen appointed out of five hundred applicants” (quoted in Sterling,1997:285). It was at the Treasury that she met her future husband.

Following her marriage to Francis Grimké in 1878, Forten Grimké stepped back from public life, though she continued to write poetry and essays for publication. The Grimké home at 1608 R Street NW in Washington D.C. [Image at right] served as a social and cultural center for Black intellectuals. Mary Maillard’s research has uncovered details of its well-appointed and tasteful interior: polished furniture, inspirational artwork, and tables laden with fine French china and sparkling silver cutlery (Maillard, 2017:7–9). In 1887, the Grimkés began hosting weekly salons where guests discussed a range of topics, from art to civil rights (Roberts, 2018:69). She also helped organized a group known as the “Booklovers,” a club for elite Black women to discuss cultural and social issues (Roberts, 2018:70).  In 1896, though in poor health, Forten was one of the founding members of the National Association of Colored Women. Her Dupont Circle brick home was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1976.


Forten’s life in Salem, Massachusetts during the mid-1850s, compared with those of contemporary people of color, was relatively genteel. She read widely in such authors as Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton, Phyllis Wheatley, Lord Byron, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, among others. She attended lectures in Salem and Boston, and especially enjoyed learning about countries like Great Britain, where slavery had already been abolished. Forten was fascinated by historical and scientific exhibits such as could be seen in Salem’s East India Marine Society and the Essex Institute. At the same time, she suffered deeply from the racial prejudice that was deeply woven into the culture of the United States.

Though more privileged than many, Forten intermittently suffered from economic deprivation. Once the Philadelphia Forten enterprises went bankrupt, her father was unable to offer her much financial support. These economic pressures could easily have been ameliorated by her white grandfather, James Cathcart Johnston (1792–1865), son of a North Carolina governor and senator, who remained living until she was twenty-eight years old. Forten’s grandmother, manumitted bondswoman Edith Wood, had been the mistress of this prominent wealthy white southern planter before her death in 1846 (Maillard 2013:267). Historian Mary Maillard details the extent of his wealth: “Johnston possessed a vast estate; he was described at his death in 1865 as ‘one of the wealthiest men in the South.’ His property, spanning four counties, was valued at several million dollars and ‘his immense possessions on the Roanoke river comprise[d] the richest lands in the country’” (Maillard 2013:267). Forten did not receive any portion of this extensive estate, since Johnston left all his wealth, including three plantations, to three friends. No speculation about her grandmother’s former lover or mention of Johnston appears in her journals or letters, but it seems probable that she was aware of the lineage on her mother’s side, since she was raised almost as a sister to Johnston’s youngest daughter, her aunt, Annie J. Webb, who sued Johnston’s estate for her inheritance. Even late in Forten Grimke’s life, and throughout her successful marriage, true economic security remained elusive (Maillard 2017:150–51).

The final stanza of Charlotte Forten’s “Valedictory Poem,” [Image at right] written for the Farewell Exercises of the Second Graduating Class of Salem Normal School, and published in the Salem Register July 28, 1856, sums up her fierce dedication to the battle to end slavery and to the improvement of her society through reform. It also illustrates her unwavering Christian faith:

But we have pledged ourselves to earnest toil;
For others’ good to till, enrich the soil;
Until the abundant harvests it shall yield,
We must be ceaseless laborers in the field.
And, if the pledge be kept, if our good faith
Remain unbroken till we sleep in death,—
Once more we’ll meet, and form in that bright land
Where partings are unknown—a joyous band.

For forty years on her own, and for thirty-six years partnered with her husband, Forten Grimké strived to advance racial equality. The couple’s Washington, D.C. home was the setting for well-attended salons and meetings to help the causes they supported, such as racial and gender equality. Though Forten suffered greatly as an invalid during the last thirteen years of her life, the Grimké home remained a social and cultural center for activities to improve the lives of Black Americans (Sherman 1992:211). Charlotte Forten Grimké’s fifteen known poems, including the searing parody, “Red, White and Blue,” which turns her satirical eye on the hypocrisy of “Independence Day” celebrations in the United States, and as many essays appearing in leading periodicals from 1855–1890s were infused with her intense spirituality and deeply Christian consciousness. Charlotte Forten Grimké’s ground-breaking accomplishments as an educator, writer, and reformer, and her devoted work as the marriage partner of a Presbyterian minister, secure her place as an important figure in the realm of religion and spirituality.


Image #1: Charlotte Forten as a young scholar.
Image #2:  The Story of Anthony Burns, Library of Congress pamphlet.
Image #3:  Salem Normal School, Salem, Massachusetts.
Image #4: Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, commander of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment.
Image #5: Rev. Francis James Grimké, husband of Charlotte Forten.
Image #6: Charlotte Forten, circa 1870.
Image #7:  The Charlotte Forten Grimké House, Washington, D.C., National Register of Historic Places.
Image #8: Charlotte Forten’s “Valedictory Poem” published in the Salem Register, 1856.


Billington, Ray Allen. 1953. “Introduction.” Pp. 1-32 in The Journal of Charlotte Forten: A Free Negro in the Slave Era, edited by Ray Allen Billington. New York: The Dryden Press.

Cobb-Moore, Geneva. 1996. “When Meanings Meet: The Journals of Charlotte Forten Grimké.” Pp. 139-55 in Inscribing the Daily: Critical Essays on Women’s Diaries, edited by Suzanne L. Bunkers and Cynthia A. Huff. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.

Duran, Jane. 2011. “Charlotte Forten Grimké and the Construction of Blackness.” Philosophia Africana, 13:89–98.

Forten, Charlotte. 1953. The Journals of Charlotte Forten: A Free Negro in the Slave Era, edited by Ray Allen Billington. New York: The Dryden Press.

Forten, Charlotte. 1862. “Letter from St. Helena’s Island, Beaufort, S.C.” The Liberator, December.

Forten, Charlotte. 1858. “Parody on ‘The Red, White, and Blue.’” Salem State University performance by Samantha Searles. Accessed from www.salemstate.edu/charlotte-forten on 20 June 2021. Original manuscript in the American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts.

Forten, Charlotte. 1856. “Valedictory Poem.” Salem Register, July 28. Salem State University Archives, Salem, MA.

Forten, Charlotte. 1855. “Hymn, for the Occasion, by one of the Pupils, Miss Charlotte Forten.” Salem Register, July 16. Salem State University Archives, Salem, MA.

Glasgow, Kristen Hillaire. 2019. “Charlotte Forten: Coming of Age as a Radical Teenage Abolitionist, 1854–1856.” Ph.D. dissertation, University of California, Los Angeles. Accessed from https://escholarship.org/content/qt9ss7c7pk/qt9ss7c7pk_noSplash_041462aa2440500cfe2d36f1e412dd0f.pdf on 20 June 2021

Grimké, Angelina Weld. 2017. “To Keep the Memory of Charlotte Forten Grimke.” Manuscripts for the Grimke Book 2. Digital Howard. https://dh.howard.edu/ajc_grimke_manuscripts/2

Grimké, Charlotte Forten. 1988. The Journals of Charlotte Forten Grimké, edited by Brenda E. Stevenson, New York: Oxford University Press.

Maillard, Mary. 2013. “‘Faithfully Drawn from Real Life:’ Autobiographical Elements in Frank J. Webb’s The Garies and Their Friends.The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 137:261–300.

Maillard, Mary, ed. 2017. Whispers of Cruel Wrongs: The Correspondence of Louisa Jacobs and Her Circle, 1879–1911. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press.

Noel, Rebecca R. 2004. “Salem as the Nation’s Schoolhouse.” Pp. 129-62 in Salem: Place, Myth and Memory. Edited by Dane Morrison and Nancy Lusignan Schultz. Boston: Northeastern University Press.

Roberts, Kim. 2018. A Literary Guide to Washington, D.C: Walking in the Footsteps of American Writers from Francis Scott Key to Zora Neale Hurston. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press.

Rosemond, Gwendolyn, and Joan M. Maloney. 1988. “To Educate the Heart.” Sextant: The Journal of Salem State University 3:2–7.

Salenius, Sirpa. 2016. An Abolitionist Abroad: Sarah Parker Remond in Cosmopolitan Europe. Boston: University of Massachusetts Press.

Sherman, Joan R. 1992. African-American Poetry of the Nineteenth Century: An Anthology. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Sterling, Dorothy, ed. 1997. We Are Your Sisters: Black Women in the Nineteenth Century. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Stevenson, Brenda. 1988. “Introduction.” Pp. 3-55 in The Journals of Charlotte Forten Grimké, edited by Brenda Stevenson. New York: Oxford University Press.

Winch, Julie. 2002. A Gentleman of Color: The Life of James Forten. New York: Oxford University Press.

Xavier, Silvia. 2005. “Engaging George Campbell’s Sympathy in the Rhetoric of Charlotte Forten and Ann Plato, African-American Women of the Antebellum North.” Rhetoric Review 24:438–56.


Braxton, Joanne. 1988. “Charlotte Forten Grimke and the Search for a Public Voice.” Pp. 254-71 in The Private Self: Theory and Practice of Women’s Autobiographical Writings, edited by Shari Benstock. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Long, Lisa A. 1999. “Charlotte Forten’s Civil War Journals and the Quest for ‘Genius, Beauty, and Deathless Fame.’” Legacy 16:37–48.

Stevenson, Brenda E. 2019. “Considering the War from Home and the Front: Charlotte Forten’s Civil War Diary Entries.”Pp. 171-00 in Civil War Writing: New Perspectives on Iconic Texts, edited by Gary W. Gallagher and Stephen Cushman. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.

Webb, Frank J. 1857. The Garies and Their Friends. London: Routledge.

Publication Date:
21 June 2021










Sunburst (Brotherhood of the Sun)


1929:  Norman Paulsen was born.

1947:  Paulsen joined Yogananda’s Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF).

1951:  Paulsen left SRF.

1969:  Paulsen founded the Brotherhood of the Sun in Santa Barbara, California.

1970:  Paulsen bought farmland, calling it Sunburst Farm.

1971:  The Brotherhood of the Sun incorporated as Sunburst Communities and founded Sunburst Natural Foods.

1975:  The Brotherhood of the Sun gained national media attention for its organic food operations; local newspapers reported on Sunburst’s stockpiled firearms and military drills.

1978:  Sunburst opened a supermarket; Paulsen was arrested amidst myriad allegations.

1980:  Paulsen published his autobiography, Sunburst.

1981:  Most members had left the group after a series of crises; Paulsen and remaining members moved to Nevada.

1983:  The group moved to Utah, where they were called The Builders.

1987:  Sunburst opened its first New Frontiers natural food store in Utah.

1991:  Paulsen relocated the group’s headquarters to California, renaming the group Solar Logos.

2006:  Paulsen died, and his wife Patty became spiritual director; the group reincorporated as Sunburst Church of Self Realization.

2014:  Sunburst sold all remaining New Frontiers stores except one in Solvang, California.


Sunburst was formed in 1969 in Santa Barbara, California, by Norman Paulsen (1929-2006). Over the years, the group has called itself several names: The Brotherhood of the Sun, The Builders, Solar Logos Foundation, and Sunburst. In 2006, it incorporated as Sunburst Church of Self Realization.

Norman Paulsen was born in 1929 in California. His father, Charles Paulsen (d.1970), was a judge and Buddhist minister (known as the “Blind Buddha”) in Lompoc and San Luis Obispo. As a child, Norman had visions of illumined beings who visited to give him guidance or teach him skills (Paulsen 1980). Years later, he would claim these figures were Paramahansa Yogananda, Melchizedek, and Jesus Christ (Paulsen 1980). At sixteen, Paulsen became a merchant marine, traveled to Asia and the Middle East, and then enlisted in the U.S. Navy, receiving an honorable discharge after his mother’s death in 1947.

After reading Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi (1946), Paulsen entered Yogananda’s Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF) in Los Angeles in 1947 to study at SRF’s Mount Washington monastery and be initiated as a monk. [Image at right] There, he studied Kriya Yoga, a meditation technique for obtaining self-realization and cosmic unity through directing mental energy along the spinal chakras. He also read widely about various religions. At SRF, he learned gardening, carpentry, and construction, and in 1951 helped build one of the first vegetarian restaurants in California, SRF’s India House Café.

Paulsen’s fellow students at SRF included his friends Bernard Cole (c.1922-c.1980), who as Yogacharya Bernard became an independent spiritual teacher; Daniel Boone (1930-2015), who helped build the Integratron, a large rejuvenation chamber and “time machine” in California’s Yucca Valley; Roy Eugene Davis (b. 1931), who would found New Life Worldwide and later lead the Center for Spiritual Awareness; and J. Donald Walters (1926-2013), better known as Swami Kriyananda, the founder of the Ananda Cooperative Communities (Kriyananda 2011; Paulsen 1980; Walters 1977).

While at SRF, Paulsen had a dream where he saw young people living on the land near Santa Barbara, a vision that presaged Sunburst (Hansen-Gates 1976; Paulsen 1980). He later wrote in his autobiography, Sunburst: Return of the Ancients (1980), that this dream would fulfill “Yogananda’s vision of self-sustaining world brotherhood colonies where men, women, and children could live harmoniously together practicing plain living and high thinking” and thus achieve union with the divine (Paulson 1980:485). For Yogananda, world brotherhood colonies could cure society of the root causes of depression, namely selfishness and consumerism (Yogananda 1939; Yogananda 1959). They involved a vow of simplicity, fellowship, joint ownership of property, living communally, perennialism, and spiritual exploration.

In 1951, Paulsen was pronounced a “minister” of the SRF, but he left the group later that year after a disagreement with Yogananda over maintaining chastity and the departure of his close friend Daniel Boone (Paulsen 1980). Paulsen spent the ensuing years working as a tradesman, particularly in construction and masonry, and researching spiritual movements. Soon after returning to Santa Barbara he had a direct encounter with what he variously called I AM THAT I AM, Christ, the Divine Solar Logos, or the Divine Mother and Father (Paulsen 1980). He saw a vision of a Golden Age of human beings living in cosmic consciousness, in which all are rightly recognized as sons and daughters of God.

In 1952, inspired by the publication of I Rode a Flying Saucer (1952), Paulsen met its author, famed UFO contactee George W. Van Tassel, and joined Van Tassel’s UFO study group at Giant Rock, California. Paulsen married and later divorced (1954-1957) Van Tassel’s daughter Glenda, had a son, and became an expert mason and novice electrician. Paulsen would have at least five wives during his life. Paulsen wrote that after one public recounting of Van Tassel’s alien contact experience, Paulsen and his friend Daniel Boone picked up an alien hitchhiker named Waldo who had arrived on earth in a spacecraft (Paulsen 1980). Paulsen also said he had his first encounter with an alien spaceship in 1953.

Throughout the 1950s, he continued to have visions, especially of visiting beings of light, whom he would later interpret as Christ and Melchizedek as well as enlightened beings he understood to be Lemurian space travelers or cosmic angels that he called the Ancients or, alternately, The Builders (Cusack 2021; Grünschloß 1998; Paulsen 1980; Trompf 1990). The beings told Paulsen that 500,000 years ago they came to earth to establish an ideal civilization, the lost continent of Mu, but that eventually war with an invading intergalactic malignant force caused them to leave. One day, they told him, the Ancients would return and Paulsen’s job was to help prepare the way for their return. Upon their return, an apocalyptic battle would take place between the “Forces of Light and the Forces of Darkness” (Paulsen 1980:285).

The early 1960s was a period of injury, illness, and poverty for Paulsen, including a medication overdose, his being involuntarily committed to a state mental institution, and having a near-death experience. But in 1964, after leaving the psychiatric hospital, The Builders instructed him to gather a community ready for them as a base station (Paulsen 1980). Much later, Paulsen would write that he was an ancient ruler of Mu who flew a spaceship on the side of Christ and that he would head the return of the Ancients when they arrive to establish “God’s Empire of the Sun” (Paulsen 1980; Trompf 2012).

By the late 1960s, living in Santa Barbara, Paulsen taught meditation classes and led spirituality discussion groups for disaffected youths seeking mystical experiences and clean living. In 1969, Paulsen and his followers formed the Brotherhood of the Sun, the name reflecting both their vision of the Spiritual Sun (the white light of the Creator, communion with which was the highest goal of the Brotherhood’s members) as well as a homophone of Jesus as the Son of God. As the group grew, they began meeting in an old ice cream factory. They supported themselves through construction jobs, housecleaning, and babysitting. However, members instead wanted to live communally on a farm, grow organic foods, and sell natural foods to the public as their means of support (Paulsen 1980).

In 1970, Paulsen bought a 160-acre farm near Santa Barbara with proceeds from a workers’ compensation claim and donations from his followers. He called it Sunburst Farm. [Image at right] For Paulsen, the farm was a spiritual center and he described having visitations from intergalactic ancestral beings, The Builders or Ancient Ones, who blessed his project (Paulsen 1980). The next year, Sunburst bought a 220-acre farm that he called Lemuria Ranch.

In 1971, the Brotherhood of the Sun incorporated as a religious nonprofit, called Sunburst Communities, Inc., and created Sunburst Natural Foods as its member-run for-profit corporation to manage their health foods businesses. That same year they opened Sunburst Community Store to sell their organic produce, and soon formed a trucking company, also called Sunburst Natural Foods, to distribute organic food and natural dry goods to other stores and restaurants. The company became “one of the largest distributors of naturally grown foods in the United States,” trucking their own foods and those grown by other organic farms to health food stores and restaurants across America (Paulsen 1980; see also Chandler 1974; Corwin 1989; T. Miller 1999).

Throughout the early 1970s, Sunburst opened two local restaurants, a whole-grain bakery, a dairy, and a fruit juice-bottling company, among other enterprises, and bought a 2,000-acre farm. Paulsen hired lawyers, accountants, and investment staff to maximize profits in their commercial arm, the Brotherhood of Man, so that they could reinvest them in the community and in their farm properties. Sunburst marketed their products as healthier, more environmentally sustainable, and more spiritually nourishing than industrially processed or chemically-grown non-organic foods. Sunburst Organic Apple Juice sold well nationally. Commune members largely worked without pay, yet they received nutritious food, simple clothing, medical care, shared land, and housing. [Image at right] As its organic foods businesses grew, it helped create standards for the emerging organics industry (Hoesly 2019; S. Leslie 1979). Sunburst was an important part of 1970s back-to-the-land communes and the development of natural foods stores (Dobrow 2014; Edgington 2008; Hoesly 2019).

Sunburst’s operations diversified and expanded in the late 1970s as it became America’s leading grower and retailer of organic foods, what one journalist called a “Natural Foods Empire” (Meade 1981). [Image at right] The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Chicago Tribune reported on the success of the movement, which totaled over 340 members and earned over $3,000,000 in profits in 1975 (Chandler 1974; Nordheimer 1975; Zyda 1976). In 1976, Sunburst bought a 3,000-acre farm called Tajiguas Ranch, and a member, Susan Duquette, published the Sunburst Farm Family Cookbook (1976), which sold well in two editions and promoted the group and its spiritual intentions. Paulsen bought four large sailboats (the group owned only one at any given time) to catch fish for their Sunburst Pierce Fisheries business and for pleasure cruises. Sunburst also experimented with non-polluting energy sources, such as a homopolar free-energy generator (Schiff 1981; Zachary 1981a).

In 1978, Sunburst opened a large alternative supermarket, selling its own organic foods, organic produce from other farms, and other products. The store pioneered selling bulk items in clear, airtight food bins. Sunburst also distributed produce from other organic farmers throughout California and the Southwest, including shipping to Chicago, New York, Canada, and other major markets by truck and air freight. By 1980, Sunburst earned $16,000,000 through twelve wholesale and retail outlets in five cities (Meade 1981).

By 1978, a number of factors began to drive people from Sunburst (Beresford 2007; Black 1977; Cass 1975; Chandler 1981a; Corwin 1989; Every 1982; Hurst 1975a; Hurst 1975b; Ibáñez 1975; King 1980; Nordheimer 1975; Trompf 1990; Weaver 1982). Accusations in 1975 that Paulsen had brandished guns in public, stockpiled firearms, and oversaw military training drills in preparation for a coming apocalypse resulted in defections and bad publicity. As a result, Sunburst was investigated by anticult groups, leading to the kidnapping of two Sunburst members in 1976 by famed “deprogrammer” Ted Patrick (Brantingham 1977a; Brantingham 1977b). Later allegations that Paulsen abused painkillers, sexually abused minors, and evaded taxes, in addition to a threatened shoot-out with law enforcement after he was arrested for drunk driving and resisting arrest in 1978, led many members to turn against him publicly. These charges also led to increased government scrutiny, including by the Drug Enforcement Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Department of Justice (Hoesly 2019). Paulsen claimed that he took medications to soothe lingering pain from an earlier injury and to restore energy depleted by providing spiritual counsel, but many members were turned off by his alleged alcoholism and drug abuse, which violated Sunburst community rules (Corwin 1989). Sunburst’s arsenal and apocalypticism drew increased attention after the 1978 Peoples Temple mass suicide in Guyana and during the 1980 presidential campaign, since one Sunburst farm abutted Ronald Reagan’s ranch.

In addition to these concerns, members alleged that Sunburst did not fairly distribute the wealth from its businesses, instead aggrandizing wealth only for Paulsen’s inner circle. In 1980, store employees agitated for a union and later filed a grievance about anti-union intimidation by Sunburst’s management (Hall 1980; C. Miller 1981). Increasing competition in the organic foods market whittled away at revenues by undercutting Sunburst’s prices, and the national economy soured amid rising inflation, high unemployment, and a looming recession. By 1981, two-thirds of members had left, leaving the farm and markets with fewer workers. These economic and labor woes brought about Sunburst’s financial downfall. A 1981 lawsuit by over seventy former members, which was later dismissed, sought $1.300,000 of the group’s profits, and a separate lawsuit concerning Sunburst’s inability to pay its debts caused Sunburst to have to sell its Tajiguas Ranch (Mann 1982; Meade 1981; Zachary 1981b). Sunburst liquidated its other California properties by 1982.

In 1981-1982, Paulsen and about one hundred of the more committed members left California for a large ranch in Wells, Nevada, called Big Springs Ranch, and to a mobile home park in nearby Oasis, a small settlement where members operated a gas station, mini-mart, hotel, and restaurant (Chandler 1981b; Greverus 1990; Paulsen 2002). The half-million-acre cattle ranch was less hospitable for agricultural production, especially due to long, cold winters and short growing seasons. By 1983, after enduring harsh winters and facing a lien on the new ranch, Paulsen took most of the remnant to Salt Lake City, Utah, where he renamed them The Builders.

During the 1980s and into the mid-1990s, the community dwindled further, eventually down to about two or three dozen people (Corwin 1989). In Utah, they mostly abandoned farming to find other employment, living in a four-story mansion and then in an apartment complex they managed, meditating daily to sustain unity (Paulsen 2002). Others lived in the Nevada trailer park. Members stopped pooling resources collectively and began earning income individually. In Salt Lake City, they bought, remodeled, and sold houses; ran an excavation-demolition business; began offering weekend retreats for spiritual seekers; and opened several natural food stores, called New Frontiers (Hoesly 2019). Some members went to Arizona and opened three additional New Frontiers stores between 1988-1995.

Paulsen, who spent time in Salt Lake City and Las Vegas, returned to California in 1988, looking for land for a new commune (Corwin 1989). In 1991, he renamed the group Solar Logos and bought a 53-acre ranch near Buellton, California, calling it Sunburst Farm, where he relocated the group’s headquarters the following year. Paulsen soon bought a second property called Nojoqui Farm (also called New Frontiers Farm) to raise organic produce for their markets. In 1995-1996, most of the members moved back to the Santa Barbara area and built homes and a retreat center on the ranch.

New Frontiers natural markets has been the primary income generator for the community since the 1990s and serves as a pathway for Sunburst’s organic foods and spiritual values (Spaulding 2008). [Image at right] Paulsen said that each store was a “vortex of healing energy” that could be felt by customers as well as employees (Paulsen 2016:339). Yet, as the group relocated to California, operating the stores in other states became difficult. In 1996, they sold the three Utah stores to Wild Oats, a natural foods grocery chain. In 1997, they opened two new stores in California.

Norman Paulsen died in 2006 (Nisperos 2007). That year, his wife, Patty Paulsen, became spiritual director of the group and changed its name from Solar Logos to Sunburst, incorporating it as Sunburst Church of Self Realization. Since then, Sunburst has built a new sanctuary and retreat center at Sunburst Farm, from which it runs weekend retreats, permaculture workshops, meditation and yoga classes, and weekly services. About two dozen members live on the farm, which continues to grow, serve, and sell organic food (Knapp 2019). In 2014, Sunburst sold a New Frontiers store in California and all three Arizona stores to Whole Foods, leaving only their store in Solvang, California (K. Leslie 2014). Despite the declining membership, the group continues its spiritual practice of “personal and planetary awakening” through organic foods, meditation, and self-realization (Sunburst website n.d.).


Paulsen espoused an eclectic, esoteric combination of spiritual beliefs. These include mystical Christianity, the Judaism of the Essenes, Hopi traditions, Buddhism, Hinduism, Theosophy, and Ufology. The largest influences in the Sunburst community are Paramahansa Yogananda and Jesus Christ (Paulsen 1980; Sunburst website n.d. “Spiritual Lineage”). Details of Paulsen’s complex, synthetic beliefs can be found in his autobiography, which he published in four versions during his lifetime (1980, 1984, 1994, 2002). His wife Patty published a fifth revised version posthumously (2016). Several scholarly articles have focused on Paulsen’s UFO visions and beliefs (Grünschloß 1998; Gruenschloss 2003; Grünschloß 2004; Grünschloß 2006; Trompf 1979; Trompf 1990; Trompf 2003; Trompf 2012; Trompf and Bernauer 2012).

Yogananda inspired Sunburst’s belief that meditation, and Kriya Yoga in particular, is the pathway to self-realization. Self-realization is the embodied understanding that one is divine and merges into oneness with universal energy or God. [Image  at right] This realization produces harmony in the world. For Sunbursters, self-realization through yogic mediation also produces Christ consciousness. Jesus Christ, according to Paulsen, taught that humans have God within them and that every person has divine potential. For Paulsen, Jesus taught the same self-realization as Yogananda (Paulsen 1980; Sunburst website n.d. “Spiritual Lineage”).

Sunburst members believe that living the group’s eightfold path and twelve virtues leads to Christ consciousness and cosmic consciousness, which Paulsen also called self-realization and God-realization (Paulsen 2000; Sunburst website n.d. “The Rainbow Path”). The Eightfold Path of Conscious Living includes meditation, conduct, study, speech, association, nourishment, work, and recreation. The twelve virtues are charity, faith, loyalty, patience, honesty, perseverance, temperance, humility, courage, equanimity, continence, and compassion. Through meditation and right living, people will awaken to the pure self within and realize their oneness with the Divine Spirit, the light of all creation, the consciousness and energy of Christ (Paulsen 1980; Sunburst website n.d. “The Rainbow Path”).

Sunburst’s website lists several other “Aims and Ideals” (Sunburst website n.d. “About Sunburst”):

To seek to know, by direct personal experience, the Infinite Being of eternal existence, pure consciousness and ever-new bliss. This is Self-realization!

To create inner and outer environments that encourage and cultivate Self-realization individually, collectively, and globally.

To offer love and energy to others and to the Divine through selfless service.

To embrace the timeless codes of virtue and paths of conscious living.

To recognize and study the sacredness of Mother Nature.

To use the gifts of imagination and will to design regenerative solutions, and become true caretakers of the Earth-garden.

To honor the truths underlying all wisdom traditions, and to embrace opportunities to share the teachings of Self-realization with those who seek to know their own true nature.

Sunburst members believe that UFOs and aliens inhabited this planet long before humans arrived and that they have come again to lead humans to a path of righteousness. Paulsen was familiar with Theosophical texts about Lemuria and Mu, which were popularized by authors such as W. S. Cervé and James Churchward, whom Paulsen had read and cited in his autobiography (Paulsen 1980). Paulsen connected these teachings to accounts of UFOs and intergalactic spiritual beings, formed in part by his involvement in Van Tassel’s UFO study group and reading of Ufological literature.

Building on Helena Blavatsky’s idea of “root races,” Paulsen developed a color-coded hierarchy of races corresponding to intergalactic beings and racial genealogies on earth (Cusack 2021; Paulsen 1980; Trompf 1990). Four human races (Red, Yellow, Blue, and White) originated in a heavenly realm in outer space and came to Earth as The Builders. Meso-American and Pacific Island civilizations were built by these Lemurians in human form. For Paulsen, these first people were White and they first landed in Latin America (Paulsen 1980).

Paulsen and Sunburst were also heavily influenced by White Bear (Oswald Fredericks), a Hopi writer who befriended Paulsen and who the recorded source material for Frank Waters’ bestselling Book of the Hopi (1963). Book of the Hopi was influential for Paulsen and popular within Sunburst (Blumrich 1979; Fredericks and King 2009; Paulsen 1980; Steiger 1974). Paulsen considered the indigenous Hopi people to be the remnants of the Red race and peaceful caretakers of Mother Earth. White Bear also inspired Paulsen’s view that the South Pacific marked a sacred place of wisdom and that Lemurians had created the earliest earthly civilization there.

In the 1970s, Sunburst members lived by formal rules structures initially but later gravitated toward community guidelines, allowing independence within spiritual belonging. Healthy living norms included no drugs, alcohol, tobacco, or premarital or extramarital sex; wearing simple clothes; living outdoors cleanly and naturally; and eating a nutritious, organic diet, preferably vegetarian. According to members Dusk and Willow Weaver, “For the member of Sunburst all physical endeavors are natural outgrowths of this divine plan,” of “attunement with nature and attainment of communion with the Creator” (Weaver 1982:10-11).

Today, the Sunburst community considers themselves a “global community of light workers, as well as an intentional cooperative community” (Sunburst website n.d. “About Sunburst”). This means creating a fertile environment for personal spiritual growth and self-realization. According the Sunburst’s “Spiritual Lineage” webpage: “Each one of us, made in the image of God, is destined to awaken the Christ consciousness, the pure Self within our souls. This is Self-realization, through whose emergence God is realized. Enlightened, God-realized souls from all spiritual paths continually exist in this consciousness, and can come forth to assist you on your life’s journey.” Sunburst members strive to guide people along this path of self-realization.


Sunburst’s practices are rooted in yoga, meditation, and natural foods. The goal of Kriya Yoga and meditation is self-realization. The group’s organic farming and food cultivation, along with its natural foods stores, feed this goal by providing members conscious living and spiritually-sustaining work (Sunburst website n.d. “Earth Stewardship”). Organic food production and distribution also contribute to promoting Sunburst and its spiritual ideals. Paulsen’s goal was to create a “New Age” society of harmonial living and spiritual self-realization (Lillington 1979).

Kriya Yoga, which Norman Paulsen had studied with Yogananda, is a daily practice of sitting meditation and breathing that directs energies along the spinal chakras. Sunburst presents Kriya Yoga as a sacred science that leads to self-realization (Paulsen 2000; Sunburst website n.d. “Kriya Yoga Initiation”). Today, Sunburst also teaches the Hong Sau technique of meditation, guided visualization, and other pathways to self-realization.

Farm labor has also been a spiritual practice at Sunburst (Hoesly 2019). Cultivating and consuming organic foods, conscious living, and self-sufficiency converge with and were outgrowths of their spiritual aim of divine communion. Members woke up early for daily meditation, then ate together, then worked at farming, trucking, selling, and baking; evenings were spent in communal dinners, small group meditations, and social time (Allen 1982; Arcudi and Meyer 1985; R. Miller 1978; Paulsen 1980; Roth 2011). Meals were mostly fresh dairy products, vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds and grains. Fish or meat was served several times a week by the late 1970s, although originally the diet was exclusively raw food, then lacto-ovo vegetarian, then choose-your-own.

In addition to growing hundreds of acres of fruit trees, vegetables, wheat, nuts, and other crops, members raised hundreds of naturally-fed, hormone-free goats, sheep, cows, and chickens.  [Image at right] They made wool clothes and an array of dairy products, including butter, yogurt, cheese, milk, and smoothies. They sold honey through beekeeping. Paulsen bought horses to work the farm pulling plows and to show competitively. The farm included machinery and tools for making furniture, brickmaking, welding, blacksmithing, pottery, and necessary items for the community and for use or sale in their businesses. A gift shop above the restaurant sold items crafted by Sunburst members. Today, Sunburst also sells Norman Paulsen’s books and CDs, religious literature, and other spiritual items online and at its gift shop.

As a “center for holistic learning, healing and conscious living,” Sunburst offers Sunday meditation gatherings, weekend retreats, Kriya Yoga initiations, spiritual and permaculture workshops, kirtan and song circles, and classes on the science of yoga and the path of self-realization (Sunburst website n.d. “Sunburst Farm & Sanctuary”). Weekly Sunday services include a guided meditation led by rotating leaders and communally performing original songs created by members of the group, followed by fellowship and a brunch of organic foods grown on the farm.

Regular weekend retreats revolve around themes such as permaculture, connection with Mother Earth, sacred silence, and Kriya Yoga (Sunburst website n.d. “Sunburst Events”). These retreats are usually led by Sunburst members, generate revenue for the group, and promote its teachings. In the Karma Yoga program, participants help with gardening, cooking, cleaning, and upkeep. Sunburst also offers a 200-hour yoga teacher training.


Norman Paulsen founded the Brotherhood of the Sun, later known Sunburst, in 1969. During his life, he was the leader of the spiritual community, although a circle of twelve elders helped him make decisions (Trompf 1990). Paulsen gave up leadership of Sunburst’s businesses in the mid-1970s so that he could focus on spiritual development of himself and the group. Its businesses were led by various core members of Sunburst. Paulsen led the community until his death in 2006. Since then, his wife, Patty Paulsen, [Image 9 at right] who joined in 1975, has led Sunburst Sanctuary as its spiritual director.

In addition to the Paulsens, Sunburst has always had a small council of devoted members to guide the community and its for-profit enterprises. In 2021, other leaders of Sunburst include: David Adolphsen, who leads its community development; Jake Collier, who manages the New Frontiers store and chairs Sunburst’s council; Valerie King, who serves as finance manager for Sunburst and its businesses; Jonathan King, who is Sunburst’s treasurer and long led its business enterprises; Emily Wirtz, who leads the retreat center and youth ministry team; Heiko Wirtz, who leads Sunburst’s property services crew; and Elena Andersen, who coordinates events and outreach for Sunburst (Sunburst website n.d. “Staff”). Adolphsen, Collier, and the Kings joined Sunburst in the early 1970s and have long been leaders in the group and its businesses.


Sunburst has faced several challenges, primarily involving allegations of Norman Paulsen’s illegal and unethical conduct in the late 1970s. These issues, described above in greater detail, include his alleged drug abuse, alcoholism, and abuse of minors; arrests; amassing weapons and threatening police; financial self-dealing; and self-deification. As a result of conflicts within the Sunburst community and with law enforcement, most members left Sunburst by 1981.

While many Sunburst members shared Paulsen’s beliefs and visions of ancient civilizations and intergalactic beings, some of Paulsen’s beliefs also caused dissention. In the late 1970s, Paulsen claimed that he was Jesus Christ returned, that he rode in spaceships with The Builders as one of the ancient rulers of Mu, and that he would restore the Garden of Eden, also known as Mu (Paulsen 1980; Trompf 1990; Weaver 1982). Some members, such as Michael Abelman, rejected his self-deification and were forced out of the group (Corwin 1989; Every 1982).

The group struggled to survive during the early 1980s due to mass defections, financial struggles, and relocation to an environment less hospitable to farming. Eventually, they founded a chain of successful natural foods stores, called New Frontiers. However, despite the success of these stores into the 2000s, Sunburst’s spiritual community has remained small. With just a few dozen members at most, Sunburst’s membership remains far below the 350-400 members it had at its peak in the mid-1970s.

Today, Sunburst’s largest challenge is how to survive given its small cohort of aging members. [Image at right] Most of the core members are Baby Boomers in their seventies. While some younger people participate in weekly mediation gatherings, workshops, or retreats, few are committed members of the community (Hoesly 2019). During the 2010s, Sunburst sold all but one of its New Frontiers stores. As of 2021, it owns two farms, although Sunburst has struggled to maintain its Nojoqui Farm (Minsky 2020).


Image #1: Norman Paulsen at SRF, c. 1950.
Image #2: Norman Paulsen at Sunburst Farm, 1972.
Image #3: Apple pickers at Sunburst’s Cuyama Orchard, mid-1970s.
Image #4: Sunburst member with bottle of Sunburst’s organic apple juice.
Image #5: New Frontiers store, 2018.
Image #6: Paulsen’s autobiography, Sunburst: Return of the Ancients (1980).
Image #7: Group prayer at Tajiguas Ranch, 1978.
Image #8: Patty Paulsen.
Image #9: Members at Sunburst Sanctuary, c. 2018.


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19 June 2021



Essene Church of Christ


1898-1901:  The pseudepigraphic Gospel of the Holy Twelve, which claimed Jesus was a vegetarian, was published in installments in the Lindsey and Lincolnshire Star newspaper.

1923:  While studying in the Vatican library. Edmund Bordeaux Szekeley claimed to have found several Hebrew and Aramaic texts that demonstrated Jesus was a vegetarian, and preached vegetarianism.

1958:  David Owen was born in San Diego, California.

1966:  Young David, age eight, saw an apparition of Mary Magdalene.

1960s:  Malachi, an Essene master of Lebanese descent, entered the United States from Mexico.

1965:  David Owen, age seventeen, picked up Malachi as a hitchhiker, and learned about vegetarianism.

1970s:  Malachi established an Essene Garden of Peace somewhere east of San Diego.

1970s (mid):  Day joined Malachi at the Essene garden and spent seven years learning from this teacher.

1970s (late):  Malachi’s Garden was sold to make way for a parking lot.

1976:  Day interviewed Malachi.  A cassette recording of this interview was the only evidence of Malachi’s existence.

1997:  Day embarked on a Holy Qara to Jamaica to introduce the Holy Megillah.

1998:  Essene Church of Christ received tax exempt status.

2011:  Supreme Master Ching Hai, a spiritual leader who started a chain of vegan restaurants, filmed a three-part documentary of the vegetarian Essene Church of Christ.

2019:  Day embarked on a second Holy Qara, beginning in Ashland, Oregon


The Essene Church of Christ has claimed direct apostolic lineage to the ancient Essenes, a Jewish sect of antiquity often associated with the Dead Sea Scrolls. The church currently is run by Brother Day, born in 1958 as David Owen. [Image at right] Day has said he always felt a spiritual connection to Mary Magdalene, and she used to appear to him in dreams and visions when he was a child. Growing up in San Diego, Brother Day identified as a “surfer boy,” and often skipped school to go to the beach.  It was in this context that he met an Essene teacher who would guide his spiritual transformation.

Day met Malachi when he was seventeen years old and Malachi was an old man of undetermined age. Malachi was meditating on the side of a highway in Southern California. Brother Day offered him a ride and Malachi asked him to drop him at a vegetarian restaurant. He asked Malachi if vegetarian food tasted good, to which Malachi replied, “It tastes much better than dead cow.” In Day’s recounting of the meeting, this statement was transformative for his seventeen-year-old self, as he had never considered that burgers were slaughtered animals before. Brother Day joined Malachi for the meal and was surprised at how good it tasted. He became Malachi’s student.

Malachi had been sent by his own Essene teacher from the Middle East to train a disciple to found a modern Essene Church in America, the only place in the world, he was told, with freedom of religion. Malachi built a commune and planted some gardens in the ruins of an abandoned hotel near San Diego. In the commune-surfing era of the 1970s, many people came through Malachi’s Essene Garden of Peace and stayed for short visits. Day stayed for seven years, rising at dawn and working in the gardens. Day has insisted that he became the next teacher of the Essene Church because he stayed long enough to become Malachi’s disciple, and not because of any exceptional ability.

There is no way to prove or disprove this foundational narrative. Malachi and his commune no longer exist. The owner of the hotel had allowed him to build the garden on the defunct property, but after he passed away, the descendants turned the hotel into a parking lot. Consequently, there are no remains of the garden. Malachi has also passed away, and because he entered the country illegally through Mexico, there are no records of him either. In 1976, Day interviewed Malachi, and kept a cassette recording of the event. This cassette is all that remains of Malachi.

The Church headquarters, the Essene Garden of Peace, are located on a country road near Greenleaf, Oregon. The church runs a mystery school called the Essene Academy of Higher Learning. The Essene Church of Christ has also recently opened churches in Santa Cruz and San Francisco, California. Day of Greenleaf


The Essene Church of Christ takes its name from an ancient Jewish sect called Essenes. The meaning of the word is obscure, but one proposed etymology is the Aramaic “assaya” (healer) (Goranson 1984:483-98). The Essene Church of Christ accepts this translation. Maintaining healthy bodies and encouraging environmental healing are central tenets. A vegetarian diet is an absolute requirement for membership, and some members hold to a vegan or fruitarian diet. Vegetarianism and environmentalism inform the group’s broader apocalyptic outlook: the church believes that humanity is living on the cusp of a new age, in which we court environmental disaster. It is the role of the Essene Church of Christ to guide humanity through this transition (Kreps 2018:156-61).

The Essene Church of Christ has twelve central doctrines, which are contained in the Essene Book of Doctrines, and summarized in “The Sacred Creed,” a poem composed by Brother Day, based on Essene scripture, divine revelation, and personal experience.

The church preaches a syncretic theology that joins Hebrew mysticism with eastern notions of reincarnation. Members believe in a Godhead “I AM,” which is neither male nor female, who created the “Elohim” the male and female deity. From the cosmic sexual embrace of the male and deity sprung all creation. All creation is composed of divinity, parts of both male and female deities. These deities conceived the Yashua ha Meshiakh (Jesus the Christ) and the Shekhinah (Holy Spirit), who are both the divine parents and the only begotten siblings of these divine parents. The cosmos is a school for souls who transmigrate through multiple heavenly and hellish realms based on laws of karmic retribution. Those who follow the way laid out by the Essene Church of Christ can be resurrected as angelic bodies and reside in heaven. These angelic bodies can return to earth as needed for service to humanity.

The church locates its own origins in primeval biblical history. It maintains that after the fall of humankind, which occurred after the first humans ate from a tree in Eden that grew meat-fruit, male and female Christ figures established a hidden religion to preserve the truth in an increasingly corrupt world. These Christs established the Nasarean Religion of the Essene Way as the Earth branch of an intergalactic Christ Family, active across the universe. The church believes that the Lord and Lady Christ instituted the Essene vegetarian diet at this time. The Essene movement primarily worked underground for most of human history. It was a hidden movement, which would surface from time to time, only to be violently repressed. The church interprets major biblical figures, such as Noah, Abraham, and Joseph as Essene leaders.

The church finds, in the historical Jesus, an example of the cyclical surfacing and suppression of the Essene church. In their narrative, Mary Magdalene and Jesus grew up as Essenes, eventually married, and had a child. [Image at right] Mary and Jesus preached an Essene message of peace that unnerved Roman and Jewish authorities, and ultimately led to Jesus’ torture and execution. Adopting the controversial claims of Baigent and Leigh’s Holy Blood, Holy Grail, the ECC holds that the Lady Christ, and her child, escaped to France after the crucifixion. This child became the first priest of the Essene Order of the Blue Rose, an esoteric order that Mary and Jesus founded the night before he died. The Essene Order of the Blue Rose would remain underground and become public when the time was right. The Essene Church believes that humankind is now living in the time of restoration; members are the public manifestation of this hidden church.

The primary holy text of the Essene Church of Christ is their self-published Holy Megillah: The Nasarean Bible of the Essene Way. [Image at right] The church claims these texts were originally contained in ancient Hebrew scrolls. Malachi bequeathed these scrolls to Brother Day when he passed. They are being translated piecemeal when historical circumstances prompt the church to do so. Thus, although the church has published several of the scrolls in their English Holy Megillah, the possibility remains that new revelatory texts may be introduced at a later date. Their Bible is structurally modeled on the canonical Bible. The Megillah is divided into two sections: an Old Testament currently comprising thirteen books, and the New Testament, a single Godspell. They attribute this text to Jahleel, the adopted daughter of Mary Magdalene. They also circulate two educational tractates, the Essene Book of Doctrines, and the Introduction to the Order of the Blue Rose. Much of the information in these volumes can be also be found on their website (www.essene.org).

While the church considers the Holy Megillah to be the pure, unadulterated divine revelation, members consult many texts for spiritual edification. They consider the pseudepigraphic Gospel of the Holy Twelve, and Szekeley’s Essene Gospel of Peace, authoritative but corrupt. These texts preserve the vegetarian teachings of Jesus but rejected the theology of a divine mother goddess. They also believe that portions of divine wisdom can be found fragmentarily in sacred texts across cultures, from the Lotus Sutra to the I Ching. They reject the writings of the apostle Paul, and teach he was a false apostle who corrupted the true teachings of the Church.


The “Holy Qara” is a Nasarean Essene ritual that brings the Holy Megillah forth after it has been suppressed for a time. With two drummers, the current steward of the Essene sacred scriptures travels from town to town preaching and distributing copies to interested folks. Day embarked a Holy Qara in 1997 to Jamaica, and a second Holy Qara in 2019, which began in Ashland, Oregon.

Potential converts submit a mail order form to receive the Essene Bible (the Holy Megillah, the Essene Book of Doctrines, the Introduction to the Order of the Blue Rose, and the Forty-Nine Petals of the Blue Rose), the introductory study course for entry into the Essene Church of Christ. By sending away for this study material, one must pledge not to put any content of the Holy Megillah on-line for any purpose. One works through the home study course and sends written assignments to the church for evaluation. Once these assignments are completed, one is eligible to become a member of the Essene Order of the Blue Rose.

To be a member in good standing of the Essene Church of Christ, one must fulfill four requirements: send a small monthly donation to the church (donations are tax exempt); subscribe to The Essene Path quarterly journal; practice good citizenship as outlined in their “Precepts of Zahyen”; and maintain a vegetarian diet.

Members are baptized by immersion upon entry to the church, and they are given personal Essene mantras or Hebrew Words of Power, at various stages of their spiritual path. [Image at right] Disciples who advance to the highest level of the Order of the Blue Rose go through a baptism by fire. Devotees are encouraged to practice any form of yoga, which are considered to be branches of Essene yoga, the original yoga Jesus Christ taught. Other rituals include tree hugging, Sufi dancing, meditation, and chanting. Members avoid using Greek words like Jesus in favor of Hebraicized terms (Yashua). (Kreps: 161-3)

The Essene Church of Christ also hosts an annual summer gathering at Breitenbush Hot Springs, a holistic retreat center in Oregon.


The Essene Church of Christ is organized as in esoteric circles. The church considers itself the current manifestation of the Nasarean Religion of the Essene Way, established in the Garden of Eden. The Nasarean Religion of the Essene Way possesses a hidden arm (Zeroah Nistar) and the Revealed Arm (Zeroah Niglah). The Hidden Arm remains underground, maintaining control over the ancient scrolls and chooses which to make public and when. Revealed Arms, such as the Essene Church of Christ, appear at various points in history when it is safe enough to do so.

The Essene Church of Christ is headed by Brother Day, the High Priest. They view their leader as a human vehicle for restoring the church; he is not to be worshipped.

To become a member of the Essene Church of Christ, one must read a portion of the Holy Megillah, the Book of Doctrines, and the Introduction to the Essene Church and the Order of the Blue Rose. The Precepts of Zahyen, a section of their Holy Megillah, outlines the basic structure of their mystery school, the Essene Mountain of Peace. There are two paths an initiate must follow: the Scholarly Path, which involves study of scripture, and the Social Path, which comprises righteous social behavior. One rises and falls in standing within the community based on how one progresses on these paths.

If a potential convert is not willing to take a vow of vegetarianism, one can remain connected to the community by participating in Friends of the Essene Church of Christ. To access the more esoteric doctrines of the church, one can complete additional coursework to join the Order of the Blue Rose within the Essene Church. The Order of the Blue Rose was established on the night before Jesus died. Jesus gave Mary Magdalene a Blue Rose, a symbol of loyalty, and she founded the order to preserve the true teachings when the male disciples rejected her leadership and the grail child. [Image at right] As one progresses in coursework, one advances from novice of the first degree, to second degree, and third degree. By completing all coursework, one becomes an Adept.

Two additional esoteric circles exist within Order of the Blue Rose: The Order of the Red Rose, and the Order of the White Rose. The Order of the Red Rose is also called the Lions of Zahyen and the Family of the Holy Grail Family. It was founded by Joseph of Arimathea, upon the instructions of Jesus to protect Mary after his death. The Lions of Zahyen is the religion’s “army of peace and love”; they do not use conventional weapons, although they do study martial arts. The Order of the White Rose is also called the Nasarean Order of Wizards. This order is also the upper division within the Lion of Zahyen. They represent the bridge between the Hidden and Revealed Arms of the Nasarean Religion of the Essene way.


The Essene Church of Christ emphatically rejects mainstream Christianity as a Pauline corruption of the true religion Jesus taught. In their reading of Paul, he rejected vegetarianism, the divine feminine, women’s rights, and accepted slavery (Kreps:159).

The church is also careful to distance itself from other modern Essene movements. On one hand, they are conscientious of the fact that most people find their own movement absurd. The introduction to the Holy Megillah states, “Our silence [on the provenance of their texts] will cause some to mock. However, the Holy Spirit has informed us that She will Herself reveal the authenticity of this manuscript to each soul whom has eyes to see and ears to hear. And they who mock this Bible have neither.” [Megillah: i]. On the other hand, the church is careful to distance itself from other Essene groups, whom they consider deeply misguided. The Book of Doctrines acknowledges other Essene movements exist, and cautions that “some of these individuals and groups are nice folk attempting to do good work. On the other hand, some are actually crazy and teach very wrong things in the name of the ‘Essenes.’” [Book of Doctrines:7]

Although it maintains a website, the church is generally hostile to technology. The church prohibits the on-line publication of the Holy Megillah because they believe that in the end times, the computer and internet will be used as a form of mind control and they do not want their scriptures corrupted [Megillah: ii]. Portions of their Bible make predictions about technological advances that signal demonic forces at work: the internet, computers, IVF, and other scientific advances are the antithesis of Essene natural living. [To respect the group’s wishes, the citation of their scripture here is omitted.]

Image #1: Brother Day, High Priest of the Essene Church of Christ.
Image #2: Mary Magdalene.
Image #3: Cover of Holy Megillah.
Image #4: Essene Baptism.
Image #5: Cover of Introduction to the Essene Church and the Order of the Blue Rose.


** Unless otherwise noted, the material in this profile is drawn from the Essene Church of Christ Website (www.essene.org) and Brother Day’s personal testimony as recorded in the documentary The Essene Church of Christ and the Order of the Blue Rose, available on YouTube.

Baigent, Michael, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln. 1982. The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. London: Jonathan Cape.

Day, Brother [Nazariah]. 1998. The Book of Doctrines of the Essene Church of Christ. Elmira, Oregon: Essene Church of Christ.

Day, Brother [Nazariah]. n.d. Introduction to the Essene Church of Christ and the Order of the Blue Rose. Elmira, Oregon: Essene Church of Christ.

Essene Church of Christ. Holy Megillah: The Nasarean Bible of the Essene Way. Elmira, Oregon: Essene Church of Christ.

Essene Church of Christ. n.d. The Forty-Nine Petals of the Blue Rose: The Primary Study Course of the Order of the Blue Rose with an Introduction to the Mystery School known as Essene Mountain of Peace. Elmira, Oregon: Essene Church of Christ.

Essene website. n.d. Accessed from www.essene.org on 19 March 2020.

Goranson, Stephen. 1984. “Essenes: Etymology from ‘sh,” RevQ 11:483-98.

Kreps, Anne. 2018. “Reading History with the Essenes of Elmira.” New Antiquities: Transformations of Antiquity in the New Age and Beyond, edited by Dylan Burns and Almut Barbara Ranger, 149-174. Equinox, Sheffield. Reprinted in the International Journal for the Study of New Religions 9(1): 5-31.

Szekely, Edmone B. 1977. The Discovery of the Essene Gospel of Peace. International Biogenic Society.

Szekely, Edmone B. 1976. The Gospel of the Essenes: The Unknown Book of the Essenes, Lost Scrolls of the Essene Brotherhood. Essex, England: C.W. Daniel Co. Ltd.

Publication Date:
28 June 2021