1964:  Jeffrey Preston Bezos was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

1994:  Jspeff Bezos founded Amazon, initially as an online bookstore.

2000:  Jeff Bezos founded Blue Origin, a company to develop spaceflight technologies.

2016:  The Amazon corporation announced it was developing New World, a massively multiplayer online game set in a “cursed” land, along with two small-team combat online games named Breakaway and Crucible.

2018:  Breakaway was cancelled before completion.

2020:  Crucible was launched and then rather quickly cancelled.

2021 (September 28):  New World launched worldwide, with huge publicity and gaining far more than 1,000,000 paid players.

2022 (February 11):  Amazon published Lost Ark, an adapted version of a 2019 Korean game.


The New World massively multiplayer online (MMO) game depicts colonization of a mythical America four hundred years ago, in which the fictional Covenant religion plays a significant role. This work of dramatic art may represent what the massive corporation founded by ideologue Jeff Bezos hopes our real America is becoming: A technocratic civilization dominated by economics in which religion still exists but has become marginalized, rather like just one more subset of customers buying a narrow genre of books being sold by Amazon. Or, as Carolyn Chen (2022) reports in her study of Silicon Valley high-tech companies, a new form of religion may be emerging from secular companies, often drawing upon Buddhist traditions of meditation or mindfulness. Founded far north of Silicon Valley, near Seattle, we may imagine Amazon was not named after a vast river, as usually reported, but after the aggressive daughters of war god Ares and the sacred nymph Harmonia, called Amazons in Greek myth.

New World illustrates the possible future High Secularism, in which religion has no special public honor at all, while a few religious minorities struggle for power against other factions that totally lack any faith in supernatural beings. Magic seems to be real in New World, but unconnected to religion, and thus merely a form of technology in a virtual world dominated by invisible computer algorithms. Over the past quarter century, many MMOs have blended imaginary religions into their virtual cultures (Bainbridge 2013), and New World serves as a capstone beyond which fictional faith may be difficult.

Jeff Bezos has been described as a revolutionary (Khan 2017; Williams 2020; O’Connell 2021), and his radical values may have shaped the virtual culture, even as his ownership of the Washington Post newspaper may have influenced politics. To be sure, Amazon’s main goal with New World was to become a dominant profiteer in the computer game business, and we have very little information about the thinking of the game designers and the extent to which Bezos or his assistants participated in the development (Royce 2016). Yet New World was clearly intended to revolutionize massively multiplayer games, and the peak number of players online at the same moment in its first week was a spectacular 913,027, according to the Steam online store that sold copies for forty dollars each.

Each avatar of a player was a colonist invading Aeternum Island, which represented America, but the avatars were not specifically European, nor were the indigenous populations “American Indian.” This was part of the revolutionary character of New World within the wide gaming culture that often assigned avatars to races, like the Elves, Dwarves and Humans in both World of Warcraft and Lord of the Rings Online. In New World, the avatar that represents a player is not created within a specific racial or ethnic group, nor locked within a specific functional class. Rather, each avatar begins simply as an individual person, who later voluntarily acquires roles in the economic system and usually joins one of three directly competing player factions, Marauders, Syndicate, or the cultic Covenant. Beginning factionless, a player’s avatar is encouraged to join one of the factions after a few hours of gaining experience, but is not required to do so.


All three player factions often use magic, explore the same mysterious territories, and undertake nearly identical missions. Each is identified by its ideology, as described on the special wiki,

Marauders: “a ruthless military force bent on establishing a free nation where anyone with the strength to do so can prosper and profit.”
Syndicate: “a secretive organization of boundless guile and intellect in search of forbidden knowledge to usher in a new age of enlightenment.”
Covenant: “a fanatical order that has charged itself with cleansing the land of heretics and defilers so that its true holy nature can flourish and justice can be restored.”

Their three ideologies are military, academic, and religious, but all very selfish and probably deceptive. There is no hint of altruism, although there is a mention of enlightenment. The Covenant may be treated as sacred by its members, but it does not promote ethical values. Some towns have churches in which leaders of the Covenant give missions, but God seems to be absent. [Image at right] Thus, at least as predicted in New World, the High Secularism perspective on religion is that its faith is merely self-serving rhetoric, on the same level as competing factions that use non-religious rhetoric. The sum of the three factions may reflect the values of Amazon and Bezos, which could be described as competitive, intellectual and spiritual.

New World also includes four main factions of non-player characters, against whom the players fight, each of which has supernatural qualities. Most prominent are the aggressive Corrupted who occasionally attack towns held by one or another of the player factions. Comparable to zombies, many of them are dead colonists brought back to life by an evil spirit, violent and aggressive. The other three non-player factions are more passive, defending their own territories against the players, described as follows in the special wiki:

Lost: “soulless wretches, the ghouls of New World. The Lost are humanoids or creatures who have eternal life but without a soul. They’re stuck in a half-death state because they died in a horrific way or sailors who have crash landed on the island.”
Ancients: “previous residents of Aeternum, depicted in the large, four-armed statues with split heads in Ancient Ruins. They can no longer be found in the world, but they created the Ancient Guardians that serve as protectors of the ruins.”
Angry Earth: “the pure, natural power of the island in the New World fighting back against the people who’ve come to corrupt it.”

Of these, the Ancients and the Angry Earth have strong religious qualities, as well as being the indigenous populations. Statues of deities can be found in the ruins of the Ancients, a civilization that fell long before the new colonists arrived, apparently because the Ancients misused a magical mineral named “azoth.” Player avatars gain supplies of azoth, and one prominent use is energizing a spirit shrine at one location in order to teleport magically to a distant shrine. Much of the lore of New World is communicated to players through fragments of writings like scraps of parchment, found across a local territory. For example, one of the historical field notes of non-player character William Heron, titled “Center of the Stars,” can be found in Shattered Obelisk of the Ancients, but it also suggests the meaning of Angry Earth:

We all know that the earth is the center of the planets and universe, and it is only fitting that the jewel of our planetary system is the one with such a fantastical island like Aeternum on it. If our planet is the center of the heavens then Aeternum must be the center of the planet, located so closely to the equator and imbued with power as it is. Azoth, the substance found here and nowhere else, is further proof that is the primordial Eden of which the scriptures spoke, the place from which all life sprang. I am honored and humbled to be standing at the center of everything, and must know what the Ancients thought of this phenomenon.

The fragments of written lore found across the landscape of Aeternum remind one of the books for sale at Amazon, which serves as an archive of all human culture. Once upon a time, people would obtain books at local shrines called bookstores, often receiving guidance from their clergy, the booksellers. The scriptures available in a traditional bookstore were quite limited, which is not the case for Amazon, where the sacred role of booksellers was taken over by computers. Thus New World is an expression of Amazon’s complex culture, in which many human traditions are housed but perhaps also diminished.


Each of the three player factions is run by a set of non-player characters, including several that give out sacred quests, missions that the player’s avatar must complete to earn material rewards and improved reputation with the faction. These missions are of two kinds: (1) PvE or Player versus Environment that may merely require the player to catch some fish, could require stealing relics from a nearby Ancients shrine, or looting goods from a farm tended by the Lost. [Image at right] (2) PvP or Player versus Player that may involve directly fighting players who belong to one of the other two factions.

The status structures of the three player factions are identical, but use different terminology and have special initiation rituals for their status levels. For example, upon joining the Covenant, a player gains “initiate” status, while the beginner term is “soldier” in the Marauders, and “adept” in the Syndicate. It is worth noting that some real-world religious movements have systems of rank for all their members, not just for clergy, inspired by the hierarchies in the fraternal organizations that were influential in society long ago, and perhaps by the status ranks in academia, from freshman to full professor (Jolicoeur and Knowles 1978; Bainbridge 1985). However, the organizational structure of player groups in New World is really not based upon this status symbolism. The benefit of being at a higher level is that a player may buy increasingly more effective weapons, armor, and other goods from non-player faction vendors, using virtual currency that can be earned in-game at great effort or purchased for real-world money. Indeed, many of the design aspects of New World are intended to earn for Amazon far more than the initial forty dollar cost.

After earning 3,000 reputation points in the Covenant, players may accept a mission called Trial of the Templar for their avatars. This quest seeks to find a missing initiate named Bremen Luca, and further information must be obtained at the church in the town of Brightwood, from non-player Covenant templar Beatris Roose. She demands: “Find the Apostate and bring him back here. We will purge these ideas from his mind, one way or another.” What ideas exactly? In a ruined village the avatar finds a page titled “A Question of Faith,” torn from the personal journal of Bremen Luca:

The Spark… perhaps we are not worthy of it, after all. I view the Lost, as they go about their days in perfect harmony… no concerns, no worries, no need for conflict or violence save for those that wish to do them harm. Is this what we are meant to learn from Aeternum? To become Lost is the way to find the true path? I shall meditate on this, and seek guidance.

The Spark is the nearest thing to a god which the Covenant recognizes, yet it is impersonal. [Image at right] Indeed, a spark is electronic, like the basis of computers, and may represent the souls of leaders in the Covenant, all of which are non-player characters, and thus unhuman, operated by simple artificial intelligence. Here is their godless theology, as summarized in a Covenant pamphlet titled “Keep Faith:”

Shall we rejoice? Humankind’s oldest enemy is gone: Death is dead. We have reached the promised land… yet there are some who call it a false promise. ‘This land seeks our ruin’, they cry, but even more dangerous are the enemies within: moral weakness blinds us to the truth. Those who live in the dark can never recognize Paradise. But where eyes fail, faith sees. The Covenant carries the Spark. In our time of need, the Spark carries us. Its clarity is our greatest gift. We bring the light of the Spark to the darkest corners. We keep it shining, at any cost, against any foe. And one day, it will shine bright enough to reveal Paradise itself.

After dealing with the apostate, Bremen Luca, an avatar is elevated to Templar rank in the Covenant, and can begin earning higher reputation to undertake additional initiation quests to rise upward: “excubitor” then “lumen” then “adjudicator.” In this context, the phrase “false promise” has many meanings. The trial to become an excubitor requires invading three Lost communities and killing ten innocent ghouls in each of them. The trial to become lumen is strangely distorted, placing the avatar under the command of Livia Luca, mother of the apostate, perhaps continuing to hold her position in the Covenant because of her remote location in the snowy north. She orders the avatar to kill many corrupted templars to collect their prayer beads, as evidence that a high official of the Covenant, adjudicator Zuzanna Maras, was really responsible for the unnecessary execution of her beloved son and many other evil deeds. The final trial quest is assigned by Zuzanna Maras herself, obviously to kill Livia Luca. Once becoming adjudicators themselves, the player avatars do not seem to get a quest to gather evidence about who was really evil, Livia Luca or Zuzanna Maras, but that would require the assumption that good and evil are valid opposites in New World.

A very different kind of quasi-religious ritual, experienced equally by the three player factions, is attacks on towns and other locations by the Corrupted, which are typically announced ahead of time so players can sign up to be defenders and schedule their active hours. On March 19, 2020, a year and a half before the actual launch, Amazon posted on its website a prophecy, titled “March to Battle: Corrupted Breaches:”

Aeternum is a land of immense beauty and endless wonder that The Corrupted seek to stain and dominate with their vile presence. Taking what was once serene and peaceful and twisting it to their will. They do this by ripping open the ground and flooding the area with corrupted creatures and structures. The very air turns to a thick black smoke and all is illuminated by an evil red glow, pulsating with an unearthly light. These are known as Corrupted Breaches. As you establish a safe haven in a Settlement or Fort, the Corrupted ake notice. Corrupted Breaches will begin to emerge in your territory, making travel and resource gathering more difficult the longer these Breaches go unaddressed. Guarding these Breaches are the Zuzana Acolytes of Corruption. Like their lesser brethren the Cultists, they channel the dark, forbidden forces of Corruption to summon forth and sustain the dread portals and monoliths that form the heart of Corrupted Breaches.

Factional trials are like initiation rituals for individuals, although teams of players in one faction may complete them together if they prefer, which can be advantageous for the difficult killing of Livia Luca. Battles against the Corrupted often involve temporarily assembled teams, and battles between avatars in different factions must usually be pre-arranged and held in special battlefields. In both cases, religious ritual is violent, rather like the proverbial human sacrifice of so-called primitive tribes. The other key factor in more secular social organization is economic commerce.


As is the case for other popular massively multiplayer online games, many versions of New World exist (literally called “worlds”) comparable to separate Internet servers, each capable of supporting about 2,000 players simultaneously. Globally, they are divided into five geographic regions: North America East, North America West, Brazil, Europe, and Australia. Each avatar is registered to one of these worlds, and opportunities to move from one to another are severely limited. The territories of the worlds are identical, most prominently holding eleven towns, each dominating a region of the island, plus some northern territories intended for highly experienced avatars.

Towns are centers for production, commerce, and mission recruitment, operated by non-player avatars who are recent colonists but do not belong to a faction. As players gain experience, wealth as measured by a virtual currency, and for social status, they can form durable voluntary groups, called “companies.” This term is standard in military social structures as well as commercial business, and the companies of New World serve both functions. Notably, a prosperous company can buy a town and collect taxes in order to pay the costs of governing as well as to gain personal profit. Each company belongs to one of the three player factions, and may form an alliance with other companies of the same faction to take over other regions either financially or violently.

Individual avatars of one faction are usually greeted peacefully in towns dominated by other factions. One reason is that many avatars, but by no means all, rent homes from the town government, and decorate them with artifacts and trophies for personal status display, major components of the town’s economy. Game journalist Chris Neal (2022) reported the results of a contest to identify the three most beautiful homes, and other players posted pictures and descriptions of their own: “I built a small pharmacy in Cutlass. On the second floor is a study room with a small hidden entrance to an even smaller bedroom 😀 and yes: I like Plants.” “I built a tree house in the back yard of my Monarch’s Bluff abode. It’s a nice place to nap in the sun. Drop by for a visit if you want to try it out.” “My Everfall home features a play style of vibrant colours. Here I walk you through a red Chinese-theme front yard into the greens from fine jade furniture as well as a purplish romantic section away from Aeternum’s corruption.” “My shrine and prayer room in Ebonscale.”

Each well-functioning town has a variety of facilities such as a metal forge, essential for manufacture of weapons and heavy armor, but also for components of the furniture an avatar can place in a rented home, which also requires wooden components from a sawmill and workshop. The town government may decide to upgrade the forge, for production of higher-quality output, and finance this by posting some quests on the Town Project Board. This raises the question of whether player companies are at all democratic, or give huge wealth and power to their top executives, which Amazon did as a company in our real world. Using the standard gamer term “guild” for player group, rather than “company.” Chris Neal (2021) offered this example, expanding upon a debate in the Reddit online forums, in which OP stands for the “original poster” who in this case expressed outrage over what happened:

“The leader of a Covenant guild by the name of Jade reportedly took several steps to make the faction lose the territory of Mourningdale, including replacing the territory’s previous tier three siege equipment with nothing but horns, encouraging participants and members of his guild to go into the war without armor, and ignoring a full standby list of level 60 players who came to defend the territory, letting low level characters into the war instead. Several replies to the OP corroborate the events, with one Redditor sharing personal accounts of conversations with Jade and another poster providing a video of the war. Why do all of this? Because evidently Jade was going to transfer servers and so he wanted to burn the Covenant down with him.”

The spaceflight company founded by Jeff Bezos, Blue Origin, was apparently named in a metaphor for our own planet, which is blue because of its vast oceans, and the origin of humans who wish to migrate to new worlds. New World may therefore be a computer simulation of our own world in the context of High Secularism. Gods have vanished, so “good” is defined as whatever powerful people desire. Religion has been transformed in two ways. Magic, including the extreme spell conferring immortality, has separated from religion and combined with technocracy. The physics symbolism of the Spark has allowed a religious movement to consolidate, calling itself the Covenant, but indistinguishable in function from social movements having military or academic ideologies.


Like Amazon itself, New World placed a heavy emphasis on management of a complex economy via Internet-connected computers. Every town had a trading post where avatars could place items for sale, that they had either gathered or produced, and other avatars could buy them. [Image at right] The market prices were quite dynamic, and the economic system had depth, for example the connection between the price for a particular kind of item and the prices for the raw materials needed to make it. A versatile text chat communication system allowed direct trading of items and a diversity of other actions. Soon after launch, flaws in the system were exploited by players who might be called “hackers,” leading to several periods in which major parts of the economic system were shut down until repairs could be completed (Marshall 2021; Orland 2021; Yang 2021; Gonzalez 2022).

Very early, advanced features of the text chat built into the game’s user interface were removed, because some players used them to disrupt the performance of other player’s computers. One widely publicized hack was rendering one’s avatar nearly invulnerable by constantly moving the display image around on the computer’s screen. Then a whole series of “duping” hacks were discovered by clever players. That means duplicating virtual money or valuable items at no cost, typically by moving them from one storage location or player to another in a way that interfered with the complex transfer algorithm. Simply put: Moving an item from box A to box B goes in two steps, adding to B and subtracting from A, but interruption of the process in the middle can wind up with two copies of the item, one in each box. Other problems arose in some of the processes by which players used virtual resources to manufacture products.

By mid-November 2021, the accounts of over 1,200 players apparently guilty of duping were cancelled (Stanton 2021). Rather chaotically, duplicated or falsely enhanced items were erased from other players’ inventories. In online forums, players complained they had been punished but were innocent. It was possible that players might benefit from a bug in the software without being aware of its nature and not intending to violate the rules. This whole situation raises a philosophical issue: If a culture is unethical in ways that benefit it, how can it claim the behavior that harms it is unethical? If members of the Covenant are serene about performing dozens of quests to steal from the Lost, how can they argue that stealing from members of the Covenant is criminal?

Given the heavy publicity that drew many players into New World when it launched, it was not surprising that the peak number of simultaneous players reported by Steam for each month declined: October = 913,027, November = 357,188, December = 145,038, January = 117,042, February = 67,943. By early 2022, any really active player would have been able to explore all of Aeternum and experience many special events and PvP battles. As with real-world religious movements, developing social bonds with other players might prevent defection to some other virtual world, but New World’s event recruitment system and the heavily economic aspects of companies may have discouraged such bonds from forming with many avatars.

Then on February 11, 2022, Amazon published another violent multi-player online game, Lost Ark, based on an apparently religious story described thus on its website: “The god Regulus brings order and light to balance the darkness of chaos and creates worlds to embody each: Arkesia and Petrania. The order of the light is powered by the Ark, split seven ways for seven gods and spread across Arkesia.

When the two worlds nearly destroy each other the Guardians are created to restore peace.” [Image at right] But Amazon had not created Lost Ark, merely publishing a westernized version of a Korean game three years after its original launch, and polytheistic lore is standard in Korean games. Steam reported that at launch New Ark leapt to a maximum current players of 1,324,761. In March the maximum player count for New World dropped to 34,098, while New Ark was at 907,696.

We do not currently have good data on the dollar earnings of New World, its total number of avatars, or the hours invested by players. We may estimate that 1,000,000 avatars reached the initial experience cap of sixty, which required investment of about 100 hours of player time. So even if New World dies quickly, its human significance is great, comparable to many new religious movements in the real world, few of which reach 100,000,000 hours of member involvement. There is certainly room to debate whether High Secularism is a valid concept, or Amazon represents it properly. Such questions may not be fully answered for a century, yet examination of a diversity of examples like Amazon’s New World may help us understand the future that approaches.


Image #1: A church of the Covenant; note that worship services are never held here, but the priestess standing on the box in front of the banner of the Spark offers quests to members.
Image #2: A colonist, confronting one of the Lost who seeks to defend his farm from invaders.
Image #3: A non-player evangelist for the Covenant proclaiming the sacred Spark to several avatars of players.
Image #4: Two high-level player avatars who belong to the Covenant, making products at a work bench primarily for sale and increasing their manufacturing skills.
Image #5: A member of the Syndicate battling a Guardian of the Ancients, seeing to gain entrance to sacred ruins that contained valuable artifacts.


Bainbridge, William Sims. 2013. eGods: Faith Versus Fantasy in Computer Gaming. New York: Oxford University Press.

Bainbridge, William Sims. 1985. “Cultural Genetics.” Pp. 157-98 in Religious Movements, edited by Rodney Stark. New York: Paragon.

Chen, Carolyn.  2022.  Work Pray Code: When Work Becomes Religion in Silicon Valley. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Gonzalez, Christina. 2022. “New World Bans Over 500 Players and Removes Substantial Number of Items Duped in Glitch.” Accessed from on 4 June 2022.

Jolicoeur, Pamela M., and Louis L. Knowles. 1978. “Fraternal Associations and Civil Religion: Scottish Rite Freemasonry.” Review of Religious Research 20:3-22.

Khan, Lina M. 2017. “Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox.” The Yale Law Journal 126:710-805.

Marshall, Cass. 2021. “Players Are Gleefully Breaking New World with Gold Duping, Chat Exploits.” Accessed from on 4 June 2022.

Neal, Chris. 2021. “New World’s Faction Pvp Is Rife with Guild Drama over ‘Throwing’.” Accessed from on 4 June 2022.

Neal, Chris. 2022. “Look at the Cool Things New World Players Are Doing with Their In-Game Houses.” Accessed from on 4 June 2022.

O’Connell, Mark. 2021. “‘A Managerial Mephistopheles’: Inside the Mind of Jeff Bezos.” Accessed from on 4 June 2022.

Orland, Kyle. 2021. “New World Disables Wealth Transfers as Item Dupes Ruin In-Game Economy Second Shutdown this Month Has Players Despairing for the State of the Young MMO.” Accessed from on 4 June 2022.

Royce, Bree. 2016. “So One Of Amazon’s New Games Is an MMORPG Sandbox, and It’s Called New World. ” Accessed from on 4 June 2022.

Stanton, Rich. 2021. “New World Permabans Over 1200 Accounts for Duping Exploits.” Accessed from on 4 June 2022.

Williams, Dana M. 2020. “Power Accrues to the Powerful: Amazon’s Market Share, Customer

Surveillance, and Internet Dominance.” Pp. 35-49 in The Cost of Free Shipping: Amazon in the Global Economy, edited by Jake Alimahomed-Wilson and Ellen Reese. London: Pluto Press.

Yang, George. 2021. “New World Is Having a Problem With Gold Duplication – Again.” Accessed from on 4 June 2022.

Publication Date:
18 June 2022



The Cathedral


1925 (September 20):  Justo Gallego Martinez was born in Mejorada Campo, Madrid, Spain.

1952:  Martinez entered a Trappist monastery, the Santa Maria de la Huerta Monastery in Soria Province.

1960:  Martinez left the monastery after contracting tuberculosis.

1961 (October 12):  Martinez began construction on his “Cathedral.”

1990s (Early):  Ángel López joined Martinez as his assistant.

2019:  Martinez’s health began to deteriorate seriously, probably from dementia.

2021 (November 9):  An engineering firm examined The Cathedral and pronounced it to be structurally sound.

2021 (November 28):  Justo Martinez died in Mejorada Campo, Madrid, Spain.


Justo Gallego Martinez was born in Mejorada Campo, Madrid, Spain in 1925. [Image at right] His family was relatively prosperous and owned land outside of Madrid that he later inherited. Martinez reports being very close to his mother and having had a strong Catholic faith from an early age to which she contributed: She was the one that taught me the words of the Bible(Bremner 2022).  As a youth he witnessed the devastation created during the Spanish Civil war. The war also interrupted his education, and so his formal education was quite limited. Martinez was twenty-seven when he decided to become a novitiate in a Trappist monastery, the Santa Maria de la Huerta Monastery in Soria Province. After eight years in the monastery, Martinez contracted tuberculosis and was forced to exit the monastery. At the time he pledged that if he recovered his health he would build a shrine to honor Our Lady of Pillar. Amidst a period of personal depression and in a quandary about how to pursue his quest for a sacrificial life, he conceived the project of building a cathedral for God (Bremner 2022). In 1961, Martinez commenced what would become his lifetime project, constructing  what local residents began to call “The Cathedral,” and sometimes  “the cathedral of Justo” or “the cathedral from junk.”


Since Martinez never completed construction, his cathedral has not functioned as a church in any formal sense. [Image at right] His personal schedule has been highly ritualized for most of his sixty-year project as he rose at four AM every day and worked for ten hours gathering and processing construction materials. On Sundays he attended Mass. His dedication to his task was reinforced by the surrounding community’s treatment of him as an outcast until his project began to attract favorable attention from outside the community and he became a minor celebrity.

The site receives both pilgrims and tourists. Beyond The Cathedral Martinez himself is a source of fascination for visitors. Bremner (2022) reports that

Over the years, tens of thousands of people have come to visit the cathedral. They all want to see Justo – to touch him, to hear him speak, to understand him, his inspiration, his genius and his imagination. I saw old ladies kiss him, pilgrims accost him and fanatics pitch him with all manner of schemes for the future of the cathedral.

Visitors are encouraged to leave donations to support the construction project.


The Cathedral is one of many visionary environments (with religious or spiritual themes) conceived and created by committed individuals (Roux 2004), such as Howard Finster’s Paradise Gardens (Bromley 2016) and Leonard Knight’s Salvation Mountain (Bromley and Urlass 2016).

Like these other visionary projects, The Cathedral on Avenida Antoni Gaudí Street in Mejorada Campo was largely a singular creation (Keeley 2021). For most of the project’s sixty year history Martinez worked alone. For brief periods members of his family helped him and volunteers occasionally offered assistance. In the early 1990s, Ángel López Sánchez joined Martinez in his project and remained with him for the remainder of Martinez’s life. On rare occasions he hired an expert consusltant. However, Martinez was the central visionary, architect and builder throughout. He was also a fascinating, complex figure in his own right (Rogan n.d.):

Justo, in this world, is a dinosaur building a colossal monument to a god long since given up for dead. Nevertheless, his achievement is nothing short of miraculous. I am fascinated by the paradox of his character – whether he is madman or martyr? On the one hand, it has been an enterprise of total self-indulgence, on the other, total self-negation. To work with, especially for his helpers, he can be difficult, angry and harsh. His serene contentment in his work can switch to searing fury if anybody gets in the way of his project. But his determination is necessary precisely because he is a man who has succeeded in living outside of society pursuing an eccentric dream. His unswerving faith has enabled him to carry out a super-human task, revealing the raw power of religion in the hands of an exceptional individual.

Certainly the most distinctive and impressive feature of The Cathedral is that most of the construction materials were recycled (Rainsford 2010). Martinez gathered discarded, everyday materials from the surrounding neighborhood and nearby construction companies and factories. For example, columns in The Cathedral were construction from old petroleum barrels. Other materials used in the construction process included barrels, tires, ceramic shards, bricks, wire, and bits of colored glass.

Martinez was inspired by St. Peter’s basilica in Rome, the White House in the U.S., and various other churches and castles in Europe. What all of these other buildings modeled was curvature (Bremner 2022):

He preferred curves and circles – vaulted ceilings, domes, arches, rounded chapels, annular altars and spiral staircases. “God made all things round. He made the planets round. He made the earth round.”

The Cathedral incorporates twelve towers, twenty-eight cupolas minor chapels, cloisters, a sacristy, lodgings, a library, frescoes, and a crypt. [Image at right] The central dome in The Chapel itself took twenty years to complete. The crypt was built as the place that Martinez hoped to be interred. All of this construction took place without any formal architectural plans. Much of The Cathedral remained unfinished at the time of Martinez’s death in 2021.


The Cathedral project was beset by two major problems through Martinez’s life, it lacked funding and it lacked community and institutional support.

From the outset The Cathedral was largely a personal project and commitment. There never has been a stable source of funding. Martinez sold and rented land that he had inherited as one source of funding, but he incurred debts and was forced to live in The Cathedral beginning in the 1980s to reduce expenses (Bremner 2022). As Martinez persevered and the project grew, it began to attract national and international attention. A photograph of The Cathedral was displayed at an exhibition in the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2003. An advertising campaign for the Aquarius soft drink produced by Coca-Cola brought attention in Spain in 2005.

The other major challenge to The Cathedral was its institutional standing. Martinez had hoped to bequeath The Cathedral to the Catholic Church so that it could operate as a local parish. However, there were no architectural plans or construction approval from the local planning commission, and so local church leaders had studiously ignored Martinez’s project (Rainsford 2020). This problem became more serious as Martinez’s health began to erode in 2019, construction remained unfinished, and legal status of the building was precarious. Just prior to Martinez’s death in 2021, transfer of responsibility for The Cathedral was arranged to the NGO, Messengers of Peace (Menageries de la Paz), [Image at right] headed by Father Ángel García Rodríguez. The organization pledged to complete the construction process. He then engaged a major engineering firm to assess the structural integrity of The Cathedral and, to the surprise of many observers, it was deemed structurally sound (Hughes 2021). Other support then began to materialize (One Man Cathedral website 2022). An architect offered to address the legal standing of the building. Municipal officials have shown interest in preservation by filing a petition to have The Cathedral designated as an asset of cultural interest (Bien de Interés Cultural). Cathedral supporters have also approached UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) with the goal of gaining the protected status of an item of cultural heritage for The Cathedral. The Catholic Church, however, has maintained its distance (Hughes 2021). The future of The Cathedral still remains somewhat unclear as Martinez had envisioned a link to the Catholic Church while Rodriguez has expressed a preference for a multi-faith space (Farrant 2021).


Image #1: Justo Gallego Martinez.
Image #2: The exterior of The Cathedral.
Image #3: An interior section of The Cathedral.
Image #4: Messengers of Peace (Menageries de la Paz) logo.


Bremner, Matthew. 2022. “The man who built his own cathedral.” The Guardian, May 22. Accessed from on 10 June 2022.

Bromley, David G. 2016. Paradise Gardens.” World Religions and Spirituality Project. Accessed from on 10 June 2022.

Bromley, David G. and Stephanie Urlass. 2016. “Salvation Mountain.” World Religions and Spirituality Project. Accessed from on 10 June 2022.

Farrant, Theo. 2021. “Madrid monk’s 60-year ‘scrap cathedral’ project lives on after his death.” Euro News, November 30. Accessed from on 10 June 2022.

Hughes, Felicity. 2021. “The man behind Madrid’s most unusual cathedral, and the last-ditch effort to save it.” Lonely Planet, November 23. Accessed from the on 10 June 2022.

Rainsford, Sarah. 2010.Madrid man builds cathedral from junk.” BBC, 30 December. Accessed from on 10 June 2022.

One Man Cathedral website. 2022. “Save the Cathedral of Justo.” Accessed from on 10 June 2022.

Rogan, James. n.d. “The Story.” The Madman and the Cathedral. Accessed from on 10 June 2022.

Roux, Caroline. 2004. “Castle Magic.” The Guardian, January 7. Accessed from on 10 June 2022.

Publication Date:
15 June 2022







































St. Paul’s Episcopal Church (Cathedral of the Confederacy)


1811:  Monumental Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia was planned as a memorial to the devastating Richmond Theater fire on December 26 that took the lives of seventy-two persons.

1814 (May 4):  The first service was held in Monumental Church.

1843:  Organization of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church began. A cornerstone was placed.

1845:  St. Paul’s Church was consecrated.

1859:  The General Convention of the Episcopal Church was held in Richmond Virginia.

1861 (April 17):  Virginia seceded from the Union.

1861:  The Protestant Episcopal Church in the Confederate States of America was formed.

1862:  The President of the Confederate States of America, Jefferson Davis, became a member of St. Paul’s Church.

1865 (April 3):  Jefferson Davis was informed that Confederate forces were unable to defend Richmond and ordered a fire to be set in the city that would destroy potential supplies for advancing Union forces.

1890s:  Family members often were memorialized in St. Paul’s Episcopal Church with Confederacy-themed wall plaques in the sanctuary.

2013:  The loosely coupled groups constituting the Black Lives Matter movement emerged following the shooting death of African-American teen Trayvon Martin the previous year and the acquittal of George Zimmerman in a criminal trial.

2015 (June 17):  Dyllan Roof killed nine African-American parishioners during a Bible study at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.

2015:  The Episcopal Church’s General Convention passed a resolution that called for the universal discontinuation of display of the Confederate Battle Flag. St. Paul’s removed its Battle Flags.

2015:  St. Paul’s Church announced the History and Reconciliation Initiative following the Dylann Roof murders.

2018 (August): Violence erupted in Charlottesville, Virginia at a rally of white nationalists opposed to the removal of a statue of General Robert E. Lee.

2020:  St. Paul’s Episcopal Church celebrated its 175th anniversary.

2021:  The Washington National Cathedral announced that stain-glass windows depicting Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson would be replaced with works related to social justice by renowned artist Kerry James Marshall.

2021 (June 25):  The Executive Council of the Episcopal Church General Convention announced the formation of a new international, churchwide racial truth and reconciliation effort at its annual meeting.

2022:  A “Stations of St. Paul’s” liturgy and art installation acknowledging the church’s history of complicity in slavery and systemic racism was placed on view at the church.

2022:  St. Paul’s published a plan for continuing it History & Reconciliation Initiative.


The history of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church [Image at right] can be traced to the formation of  Richmond’s Monumental Episcopal Church (St. Paul’s Episcopal Church n.d.). Monumental  was planned as a memorial to the devastating Richmond Theater fire on December 26, 1811 that took the lives of seventy-two persons. At the time it reportedly was the largest urban disaster in American history. Monumental held its first service three years later on May 4, 1814. Church membership slowly declined, however, as Richmond’s population began migrating westward. A segment of the Monumental membership began planning for what became St. Paul’s (along with St. James’s in 1831 and All Saints in 1888). The cornerstone was laid in 1843, and the church was consecrated two years later just west of the Virginia State Capitol.

During its early years, the St. Paul’s congregation consisted primarily of  upper status whites, such as bankers and industrialists, with a small number of black men and women also attending services. It was only fifteen years after its founding that St. Paul’s was swept up in the Civil War, and it from this period that the church became popularly known as the Cathedral of the Confederacy. As Griggs (2017:42) notes:

Of all of Richmond’s churches, none was more closely associated with the Southern Confederacy than St. Paul’s. President Jefferson Davis worshipped there, as did Robert E. Lee when he was in Richmond….On many Sundays, St. Paul’s was filled with soldiers in gray and many women dressed in black to symbolize that they had lost a loved one.

Davis became a member of the congregation in 1862. It was Episcopal Bishop John Johns who baptized Jefferson Davis in the Executive Mansion of the Confederacy and confirmed him in St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. Most of the St. Paul’s congregation at that time were involved in the slavery economy in some fashion.

It was following the Virginia Convention of 1861, which resulted in a convention vote (April 17) and a confirming public vote (May 23), that Virginia seceded from the Union and joined the Confederacy. In the case of the Episcopal Church, the division also began in 1861, when the southern component became the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Confederate States of America. A sermon preached on Thanksgiving Day 1861 at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Richmond clearly linked the church to secession (Stout 2021):

God has given us of the South today a fresh and golden opportunity—and so a most solemn command—to realize that form of government in which the just, constitutional rights of each and all are guaranteed to each and all. … He has placed us in the front rank of the most marked epochs of the world’s history. He has placed in our hands a commission which we can faithfully execute only by holy, individual self-consecration to all of God’s plans.

Events on April 3, 1865 signaled an impending conclusion to the Civil War. Reportedly, while in attendance at St. Paul’s, Jefferson Davis was informed that Confederate forces were unable to defend Richmond any longer. Davis left the church and ordered what became known as “the fire” [Image at right] be set in the city of Richmond to destroy supplies potentially useful to advancing Union forces. However, the fire raged out of control, ultimately destroying about 800 buildings in the city. The railroad bridge across the James River was also burned to slow the Union army advance (Slipek 2011). Just six days later, on April 9, General Robert E. Lee surrendered his forces to General Ulysses S. Grant at the Battle of Appomattox Court House in Appomattox County, Virginia, effectively ending Civil War combat. The national reintegration of the Episcopal Church occurred soon after the end of the war in 1866, with Bishop John Johns leading the campaign for reunification.

For much of St. Paul’s history following the Civil War the guiding narrative for the church implicitly or explicitly involved racial inequality/slavery and what is termed “Lost Cause” mythology. Like many other Protestant denominations in the South, Episcopal churches accepted versions of Christianity that legitimated slavery. The Lost Cause mythology contained several key elements (Wilson 2009; Janney 2021):

At the center of the myth is the assertion that secession was not about slavery at all; rather, secession was a constitutionally legitimate process, a protection of states’ rights, and a defense of agrarian southern culture against the northern infidels. The Confederacy preferred to refer to the Civil War as the War between the States. Secession was an institutional right of every state. In that sense secession was in many ways akin to the original American revolution as a fight against tyranny.

The Lost Cause narrative gained momentum toward the end of the nineteenth century nationally, but it was particularly notable in Richmond and among Episcopalians. Episcopalians were prominent in the support for the Lost Cause, due to “…their position in Southern society: the Episcopal church was the church of the antebellum planter class” (Wilson 2009:35). At St. Paul’s, it became popular during the 1890s to memorialize family members with wall plaques in the sanctuary, some of which featured  memorial wall plaques, alter kneelers, and Confederate battle flags (Doyle  2017; Kinnard 2017). The church erected memorials to Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis in the 1890s and embraced the“Lost Cause” narrative of the Civil War (Wilson 2009:25). [Image at right] In an 1889 mural, for example, a youthful Moses is presented in a way that resembles Robert E. Lee as a young officer in the Confederacy (Chilton 2020). The accompanying inscription read:“By faith Moses refused to be called the son of Pharoah’s Daughter choosing rather to suffer affliction with the Children of God for he endured as seeing Him who is invisible. In grateful memory of Robert Edward Lee born January 19 1807.”

That cultural tradition persisted through the mid-twentieth century. As the chair of the church’s History and Reconciliation Initiative commented, “ St. Paul’s remained steeped in Lost Cause lore through the Jim Crow era,” that is, between the 1870s and 1960s (Williams 2018).

Even during the first decade of the twenty-first century, public celebration of the Confederacy and its leaders was still highly visible in Virginia (Feld 2020). In 2006, there was overwhelming legislative support for state authorization of license plates honoring Robert E. Lee. In 2007, a bill titled  “Authorizes the Commissioner of the Department of Motor Vehicles to issue special license plates honoring Robert E. Lee” unanimously passed both houses of the Virginia state legislature.

The roots of the Episcopal Church’s initial inquiry into its role in racial oppression can be traced at least to initiatives by its Black caucus in the 1960s (Paulsen 2021). However, it was in 2006 that the Episcopal Church began to take action. In 2006, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church passed a resolution acknowledging its participation in slavery and segregation:

Resolved, That we express our most profound regret that (a) The Episcopal Church lent the institution of slavery its support and justification based on Scripture, and (b) after slavery was formally abolished, The Episcopal Church continued for at least a century to support de jure and de facto segregation and discrimination;

Following this resolution, Episcopalian dioceses across the country (Georgia, Texas, Maryland and Virginia) began programs in  response to the resolution.  Other predominantly white denominations, such as the Presbyterian Church (2004) and the Evangelical Lutheran Church (2019) passed similar resolutions and initiated denominational and inter-denominational response programs (Moscufo 2022).

Several key events contributed to St. Paul’s and other institutions reassessing their racially freighted histories. In 2013, the loosely coupled groups constituting the Black Lives Matter movement emerged following the shooting death of African-American teen Trayvon Martin the previous year and the subsequent acquittal of George Zimmerman in a criminal trial. In 2015, Dyllan Roof killed nine African-American parishioners during a Bible study at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. [Image at right] It was just a few months after that shooting that systematic removal of Confederate-themed relics began. That year the Episcopal Church’s General Convention passed a resolution that called for the universal discontinuation of display of the Confederate Battle Flag: “The Episcopal Church strongly urges all persons, along with public, governmental, and religious institutions, to discontinue the display of the Confederate Battle Flag.” In Richmond,  shortly after the Dyllan Roof murders, the Rev. Wallace Adams-Riley, St. Paul’s rector, asked in a sermon, “What if in this, the last summer of the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War, we begin a conversation here at St. Paul’s about the Confederate symbols in our worship space?” (Doyle 2017). St. Paul’s sought to distance from its popular sobriquet as The Cathedral of the Confederacy (Noe-Payne 2015; Millard 2020):

We are not and do not wish to be identified with white supremacy, or Lost Cause theology. The St. Paul’s of today is a diverse church community open and welcoming to all (Virginia Foundation for the Humanities 2017).

The process began with discussion about which of the numerous Confederacy-themed artifacts should be removed. Initially, stained glass windows were preserved. The church vestry voted to remove the battle flags in November 2015. Subsequently, kneelers with the Confederate flag in needlepoint were removed and the church’s coat of arms was retired. By 2020, the church decided to remove or rededicate all of its remaining Confederate memorials (Kinnard 2017; Chilton 2020).

There was, of course, a much broader movement to remove Confederate symbols that was similarly fraught. Numerous other Virginia churches, including the R.E. Lee Memorial Episcopal Church in Lexington, encountered sometimes intense engagement and conflict during this period, as did public colleges and universities across Virginia (Cumming 2018; Anderson and Svrluga 2021). A major development occurred in 2020 when the mayor of Richmond ordered the immediate removal of all Confederate themed statues on  public property (Wamsley 2020).


St. Paul’s has embraced two distinct identities through its history. In recent years it has sought to exchange its earlier identity as the Cathedral of the Confederacy for its current promise to become the Cathedral of Reconciliation. Symbolically, this transformation begins with its open acknowledgement of its historical involvement in racial oppression and Lost Cause mythology (Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church n.d.):

We are part of a living and evolving history. Our story began in 1844 as the United States’ economic and political structures fully embraced racial slavery. The resources that made this church possible came directly from the profits of factories and businesses, built on the backs of enslaved African American people. During those years, many white Protestants sought to justify slavery as God’s plan. St. Paul’s members also supported, along with most proslavery Protestants, a theology that insisted that God ordained racial inequality and that, as white people, they had a responsibility to govern black people. St. Paul’s became inextricably entwined with the Confederacy during the American Civil War. It was the home church to Confederate officials and officers and the scene of dramatic events at the end of the conflict. In the aftermath of the Civil War, St. Paul’s officially recognized its connections to Robert E. Lee, who worshipped here, and Jefferson Davis, who was baptized as a member of the parish, by marking their pews and installing windows in their honor.

Juxtaposed to this acknowledgement is its vision of a mission to “Proclaim Christ in the Heart of the City.” That mission involves openness, equality, service, community, and active engagement (St Paul’s Episcopal Church n.d.):

Welcoming all to join us in worship and ministry.Respecting the dignity of every human being.
Seeking and serving Christ in all people, loving our neighbors as ourselves.
Growing as a community of God’s people by reaching out to others.
Being active in the world as witnesses of God’s love.
Pledging ourselves to compassion and service by supporting one another in local, national, and international ministries.


St. Paul’s is part of the worldwide Anglican Communion and one of three dioceses in Virginia. It is a moderate-sized congregation. Its active membership is 300-400, with about half of the active membership participating attending Sunday services (Doyle 2017). When the church began its History and Reconciliation Initiative, about 100 members initially participated.

The Richmond Metropolitan Area has increased in size and diversity in recent decades and has become less conservative (Weinstein 2022). This more progressive stance has been reflected in some religious congregations, and notably in St. Paul’s. Beginning in the 1970s, St. Paul’s undertook dozens of initiatives intended to alleviate the legacies of racism and segregation in Richmond, including the funding for public health, educational, and fair housing projects. (Doyle 2017; St. Paul’s n.d.). Although church membership continues to be predominantly white, racial diversity in leadership positions has changed substantially (St. Paul’s Episcopal Church 2022). The History and Reconciliation Initiative has become a focal point of church activity since 2015.


The evolution of the conflict over Confederate-themed symbols, plaques, names, holidays, statues, and buildings continues as do activities on both sides. For example, in 2018 lethal violence erupted in August 2018 in Charlottesville at a rally of white nationalists opposed to the removal of a statue of General Robert E. Lee. Confederate paraphernalia was present at the January 6, 2021 political insurrection in Washington, DC. At the same time removal or Confederate objects and symbols has continued apace across the nation. In 2020, 168 objects and symbols were removed across the country, with Virginia recording the most (McGreevy 2021). The removals, of course, left unanswered what would replace them, and in Richmond the Virginia Museum of the Fine Arts was tasked with leading the development of proposals for repurposing the sites. In one case of replacement, a bill passed both state legislative bodies replacing the Lee-Jackson Day holiday with an Election Day holiday (Stewart 2020).

The Episcopal Church moved ahead with its truth and reconciliation project. In June 2021, the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church General Convention announced the formation of a new international, churchwide racial truth and reconciliation effort at its annual meeting. A working group was formed to develop proposals “that will foster and facilitate the convention’s adoption of a plan and pathway for a process of truth and reconciliation in The Episcopal Church”  (Millard 2021). In Richmond, St. Paul’s History and Reconciliation Project reached a milestone with the presentation of its project report, Blindspots. [Image at right]


Image #1: Monumental Church
Image #2: The Richmond and Petersburg Railroad depot near Eighth and Byrd streets after the evacuation fire of 1865.
Image 3: Stained glass windows in the St. Paul’s sanctuary honoring Robert E. Lee. (Clickable image).
Image #4; Dylann Roof displaying a Confederate flag.
Image #5: The front cover of the History and Reconciliation Project report, Blindspots.


Anderson, Nick and Susan Syrluga. 2021, “From slavery to Jim Crow to George Floyd: Virginia universities face a long racial reckoning.” Washington Post, November 26. Accessed from on 10 May 2022.

Banks, Adelle. 2021. “Cathedral to replace Confederate windows with stained glass reflecting Black life.” Religion News, September 23. Accessed from the on 10 May 2022.

Bohland, Jon.  2006. A Lost Cause Found: Vestiges of Old South Memory in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Ph.D. Dissertation, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

Chilton, John. 2020. “St. Paul’s Richmond to rededicate Lee and Davis windows with new meaning.” Episcopal Café, July 12. Accessed from on 1 November 2021.

Cumming, Doug. 2018. “Our church was named for Robert E. Lee — here is how we changed it.” Religion News Service, January 15. Accessed from on 10 May 2022.

Doyle, Heather Beasley. 2017.‘Cathedral of the Confederacy’ reckons with its history and charts future.” Episcopal News Service, June 19. Accessed from the on 10 May 2020.

Feld, Lowell. 2020. “Just 10-15 Years Ago, Virginia Legislators Were Voting Overwhelmingly to Approve “Special License Plates Honoring Robert E. Lee” and to “Defend Marriage.” Blue Virginia, June 18. Accessed from on 10 May 2022.

General Convention. 2007. “2006 Study of Economic Benefits Derived from Slavery.” Journal of the General Convention of…The Episcopal Church, Columbus. New York: General Convention, pp. 664-65. Accessed from on 10 May 2022.

Griggs, Walter. 2017. Historic Richmond Churches & Synagogues. Charleston, SC: The History Press.

Janney, Caroline. “The Lost Cause. 2021. Encyclopedia of Virginia. Accessed from on 9 November 2021.

Kinnard, Meg. 2017. “Episcopalians struggle with history of Confederate symbols.” Associated Press, September 18. Accessed from display&id_encode=187133PWdvb2dsZS1kaXNwbGF5&rid=15630&c=10814666875&  on 26 October 2021.

McGreevy, Nora. 2021. “The U.S. Removed Over 160 Confederate Symbols in 2020—but Hundreds Remain.” Smithsonian Magazine, February 25. Accessed from on 10 May 2022.

Millard, Egan. 2021. “Presiding Bishop announces new churchwide racial truth and reconciliation effort during first day of Executive Council.” Episcopal News Service, June 25. Accessed from

Millard, Egan. 2020. “As Confederate symbols come down in Virginia, a Richmond church removes its own, but keeps BLM graffiti.” Episcopal News Service, July 9. Accessed from on 10 May 2022.

Moscufo, Michela. 2022. “Churches played an active role in slavery and segregation. Some want to make amends.” NBC News, April 3. Accessed from the on 10 May 2022.

Noe-Payne, Mallory. 2015. “Richmond’s St. Paul’s Episcopal Church Seeks to Become “Cathedral of caReconciliation.” Radio IQ, November 24. Accessed from on 10 May 2022.

Paulsen, David. 2021. “Deputies of Color organize for change in Episcopal Church, society ahead of General Convention.” Episcopal New Service, September 24. Accessed from on 10 May 2022.

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. 2022. “Our Staff & Leadership.” Accessed from on 10 May 2022.

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. n.d.“History and Reconciliation  Initiative.” Accessed from on 27 October 2021.

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. n.d. “More History.” Accessed from on 10 May 2022.

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. n.d. “Our Mission and Vision.” Accessed from on 10 May 2022.

Stewart, Caleb. 2020. “Va. lawmakers pass bills to end Lee-Jackson Day and make Election Day a holiday.” Associated Press, February 6. Accessed from on 10 May 2022.

Stout, Harry. 2021. “Religion in the Civil War: The Southern Perspective.” Accessed from on 18 November 2021.

Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. 2017. “Dealing with the Past from a Theological /Faith-based practice.” Webinar, December 13. Accessed from on 16 May 2022.

Wamsley, Laurel. 2020. “Richmond, Va., Mayor Orders Emergency Removal Of Confederate Statues.” NPR, July 1. Accessed from on 10 May 2022.

Weinstein, Dina. 2022. “Counting Change.” Richmond Magazine, February 7. Accessed from the on 10 May 2022.

Williams, Michael. 2018. “Richmond church to delve into race’s role in its history.” Richmond Times Dispatch, March 9. Accessed from on 1 November 2021

Wilson, Charles. 2009. Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause, 1865-1920. Athens: University of Georgia Press.

Publication Date:
19 May 2022



Knights Templar (Los Caballeros Templarios)


1970 (March 8):  Nazario Moreno González was born in Apatzingán, Michoacán, Mexico.

1980s:  La Familia Michoacán (LFM) formed, initially as a group of vigilantes that sought social justice.

1986:  Moreno emigrated to the United States.

1990s:  La Familia Michoacána became the Gulf Cartel’s paramilitary group, seeking to take control from rival drug cartels.

2003:  Moreno returned to Michoacán with Servando Gómez Martínez and José de Jesús Méndez Vargas. Moreno began organizing LFM into a drug cartel. Moreno became the spiritual leader of LFM.

2006:  The Mexican government declared war on drug cartels.

2010:  Moreno was allegedly killed by Mexican authorities in a shootout in Apatzingán, Michoacán, but no body was ever produced by the police.

2011:  LFM split up into various factions. Gómez created the Knights Templar (Los Caballeros Templarios (CT).

2012:  There were sightings of Moreno, who some people claimed was resurrected to lead the Knights Templar.  Gomez released a video in which he called on other cartels to join forces against the leading cartel in Mexico, Los Zetas. Indigenous populations in Guerrero started rising up against the CT.

2014 (March):  Moreno was confirmed killed, although who murdered him has remained a matter of controversy.

2015:  Gomez was captured and imprisoned.

2015:  CT waned in power with the official death of Moreno and the capture of Gomez.

2020:  In Zitácuaro, Michoacán, Armed Forces stormed a safe house allegedly belonging to members of the LFM, which confirmed that they were still operating, although only in splinter cells.


The Knights Templar Group, known as Los Caballeros Templarios (CT), originated in Michoacán, Mexico. The group formed as an offshoot of an earlier cartel, known as La Familia Michoacán (LFM) or The Michoacán Family (Soboslai 2020). In the 1980s, LFM emerged as would-be vigilantes. Founded originally in Tierra Caliente (Hot Land) in southwest Michoacán, LFM claimed that their goal was to provide security to and protect people in the region from encroaching cartels and their violence. Indeed, initially they were welcomed by many as they executed known criminals in their region who the police had treated with impunity. Gradually, the group turned increasingly to criminal insurgency as they acquired new leaders. One such leader in the 2000s was Nazario Moreno González (hereafter Moreno or Nazario), also known as “El Más Loco” (The Craziest One) or “El Chayo” (The Rosary), who rapidly rose within LFM to take on the role spiritual leader (Kingsbury 2019; Mekenkamp 2022; Grillo 2016). [Image at right]

According to biographical and presumably autobiographical sources (Grillo 2016; Mekenkamp 2022), as a teenager Moreno lived in California, where he encountered people openly drug trafficking in a stash house near his own home. This appears to have impressed him. He eventually began selling marijuana himself, crossing back and forth between Mexico and the U.S. to traffic ganja grown in his home country. Those who knew him described him as belligerent, and frequently drunk and stoned. His anger only increased after four of his brothers were murdered in a series of killings.

His bellicose and unpredictable temperament, which earned him the epithet “el mas loco” (the craziest one) further deteriorated in 1994. That year, Moreno nearly died from a brutal beating when, following an altercation during an amateur soccer game, he was repeatedly kicked in the head. His skull was fractured. Surgeons had to insert a metal plate to hold his cranium together. The wound and treatment aggravated his mental condition. His visions and hallucinations may well have been due to the injury to his brain and resultant inflammation. As a result of the metal plate, it is said that when agitated Moreno’s face and forehead bulged disconcertingly.

The suffering and shock caused by the deaths of his brother and his own near death reportedly caused Moreno to re-examine his life. To overcome his alcohol dependency, Moreno turned to Alcoholics Anonymous, and the twelve-step program helped him to achieve sobriety. He also discovered Evangelical Christianity, after having been involved in Catholicism and the Jehovah’s Witnesses earlier in his life. He was drawn to the idea that one could be “Born Again.” However, changing one’s life for the better appears to have meant acquiring power, riches and respect as a drug lord. He also was drawn to the idea of adhering to a strong moral code and of becoming a foot soldier of Christ, an ideology that Nazario would implement within LFM, and later again within CT. In the version that he constructed, he encouraged his foot soldiers to do violence in the name of God and to follow his narco honor code.

In August 2003, Armando Valencia Cornello, the most powerful drug lord in Michoacán, was arrested. Moreno returned to Tierra Caliente and with Gómez and José de Jesús Méndez Vargas (or “El Chango”) (hereafter, Méndez), and began to unite LFM into a powerful and deadly cartel that became involved in the hypertrophic crystal meth trade. [Image at right] Moreno and Gomez split off to create the Cartel Templarios (CT). They became involved in extortion of local farmers, migrant smuggling into the U.S., illegal mining, the sex trade, illegal gasoline trafficking (known as huachicolero), arms trafficking, and appropriation of water sources.

One event that exemplified the brutality and attempted religious legitimation by LFM occurred on September 6, 2006, in Uruapan, Michoacán. LFM dumped onto a local dance floor the heads of five men said to be Los Zetas with a message that stated: “The family does not kill for pay, it does not kill women or innocents. Only those who deserve to do, will die. Everybody understand: this is divine justice.” The message evinced Nazario’s belief that he was doing God’s work and that he was protecting the people, demonstrating the bizarre mixture of populist, anti-establishment and Evangelical rhetoric he preached. LFM also replicated Old Testament style punishments with crucifixions and floggings (Sanchez 2020:40).

More broadly, Moreno framed himself, with his co-founders, as a savior who would carry out justice where the Federal Government was failing. For example, in 2006, the group placed an announcement in numerous newspapers with the headline, “MISSION:”

Eradicate from the state of Michoacán kidnapping, extortion in person and by telephone, paid assassinations, express kidnapping, tractor-trailer and auto theft, home robberies done by people like those mentioned, who have made the state of Michoacán an unsafe place. Our sole motive is that we love our state and are no longer willing to see our people’s dignity trampled on” (Grayson 2006:179-218).

In December 2010, Moreno was reportedly killed in a shootout with Mexican authorities in Apatzingán, Michoacán. Mexican authorities celebrated the purported victory. However, no body was ever found, and Moreno’s death was never confirmed. While the Mexican government continued to claim that Moreno was dead, sightings of him became frequent, such that it was highly improbable that he had been killed in 2010 but rather was feigning death while masterminding CT behind the scenes with Gómez (Grillo 2016). LFM then splintered. Méndez and those loyal to him remained in LFM, which became La Nueva Familia Michoacana.

If LFM was a testing ground, CT was to be the final product of Moreno’s narco-evangelism. Both Moreno and Gómez embraced the link between religion and narco-trafficking, seeing it as a way to organize their cartel both ideologically and structurally. Additionally, they had both belonged to Evangelical movements in the U.S. and extolled a militant Christian ideology. They found inspiration in the Knights Templar, one of the major military religious orders that grew out of the crusading movement (1096-1102). Known for their ferocity, the original Knights Templar  spent their lives protecting Christian territory, to the death if need be. While some engaged in temporary military service as an act of devotion, for the self-styled warrior monks waging war in God’s name became a way of life. This symbolism was attractive to the cartel leaders and also legitimated violent young men ready to do whatever was required to serve and protect to the death their narco-territory, ostensibly in the name of God.

Going one step further than LFM, whose religious elements had largely been based in text and praxis, Moreno and Gómez began using structural elements, symbols, as well terminology, from the original Knights Templar of the Crusades in rituals and in organization of their cartel.

In August 2012, Gómez posted a video seeking to galvanize other cartels to join with the CT against their most powerful enemy, and the leading drug syndicate at that time, Los Zetas. Against the backdrop of a wall featuring photos of Che Guevara and Pancho Villa, as well as a Mexican flag, Gómez not only outlined CT plans but also detailed the “Code of the Knights Templar of Michoacán” which once again depicted them as honorable, holy warriors fighting for safety of the people of Michoacán. One strategy for creating expanded CT power was to establish a shadow state by financing the political campaigns of numerous Michoacán politicians, including Fausto Vallejo Figueroa, a member of the PRI who was elected to the governorship of Michoacán. After he took his position as governor, the CT publicly reminded Vallejo and other politicians to make good on their agreements with their syndicate.

The CT had gradually expanded its narco-territory into neighboring Guerrero, much of which was under its control. Guerrero has a large Indigenous population, with Nahua, Tlapaneco and Amuzgo peoples. Many such Indigenous communities have long sought independent control of their land and to keep their peoples and meagre profits safe in the face of encroaching, usually violent, groups that only wanted to extract revenue from their territories. As part of such efforts to resist outside forces detrimental to their well-being, many Indigenous communities have a tradition of organizing volunteer police forces when necessary. Known as “Policía Comunitaria” (community police) and tolerated by the federal government, such community police groups have generally been less amenable to external corruption and benefited from far more local support than official government counterparts. In 2012, Indigenous peoples began to resist CT extortion, kidnappings and increased violence within their communities. While there had been an earlier uprising against the CT in Cheran, Michoacán, this had not gained much momentum. In Guerrero, multiple communities, though poorly armed, joined forces and soon other non-Indigenous towns and villages rallied to the cause. These vigilante movements grew, numbering in the hundreds and as their communities restored order, regained control of their lands and produce and safeguarded their people.

Others in Michoacán who had formerly accepted the CT’s message of spiritual insurgency began to take notice of the events and recognise the devastation CT had wrought on their communities. This led to the rise of other “autodefensas” (self-defense groups) (Perez 2018). In relatively more affluent Michoacán, thanks to funding from local businessmen, such groups were even better armed, organized, and, equipped to combat the CT. These Michoacán vigilantes gained significant support.

In 2013, autodefensas had developed tactics and increased in numbers such that within Michoacán the movement covered many municipalities. At the outset, the federal government in Mexico City denounced the actions of the vigilantes, but by November 2013, upon witnessing the success of such auto-defensas in freeing swaths of land from CT control, the federal government changed its position. As Ernst (2019) notes,

…autodefensas were like a Trojan horse. Working hand in hand with the federal government, they fractured the Templars. The kingdom crumbled, leaving a trail of warring fiefdoms mostly led by former mid-level Templar commanders.

Popular support for the vigilantes reached an all-time high and the government, under President Pena-Nieto, while not officially endorsing them turned a blind eye to their activities. Meanwhile, military troops were deployed to seize the Lazaro Cardenas port, which the CT had previously controlled and used in its illegal activities.

By 2014, government security forces and vigilantes joined forces to weaken the grip of the CT.  In January, Dionisio Loya Plancarte, one of the most senior members of the cartel was arrested. In March 2014, Moreno was once again killed but this time a body, confirmed to be his, was produced by authorities. [Image at right] The official story was that he was assassinated in a shootout with Mexican authorities. Rumours have it, however, that Moreno was killed by those within his own entourage. It is said that weary of his crazy and pugnacious behavior and the extortions he carried out upon locals, they joined forces with vigilantes to overthrow the CT from the inside. Nevertheless, not eager to face vendetta for murder, they turned the narco’s body over to the police so that they might have the glory of claiming the kill. (Garcia 2016; Grillo 2016) While this time, Moreno’s death was confirmed, many Michoacanos refused to believe it, arguing that it was a hoax. If he had not really been killed in 2010, how could one assume he was actually killed in 2014, they posited. To this day in Michoacán, one of Mexico’s most religious states, there are still some that believe that San Nazario continues to protect and guide them.

Despite living on in the popular imagination as a narco-saint, with the death of Moreno, CT power began to wane as local people sought to take control of their communities and the government began to exert its authority. Auto-defensas were disbanded by the government. While government authorities had initially suggested that a more formal rural defense force unit should be established, comprising of the vigilantes who had helped free the many municipalities of Michoacán, it suddenly backtracked and began arresting the leading members. While Gómez roamed free, he eventually founded a new crime syndicate, known as “la tercera hermandad,” the third brotherhood (or Los H3), with other criminals, including members from the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG). However, this new crime syndicate did not develop as had LFM and CT. In 2015, Gómez was captured and imprisoned (Rama 2015). While the glory days of CT and LFM were then over, vestiges of their groups linger on across the state of Michoacán. In 2020, in Zitácuaro, Michoacan an LFM safe house was raided by the police. As the influence of LFM and CT has dwindled, new cartels such as Los Viagras, Cartel del Abuela, and CJNG have moved into the territory.


Other Mexican folk saints have been associated with drug cartels, most notably Jesus Malverde (Bromley 2016) and, more recently, Santa Muerte (Kingsbury 2021). CT is distinctive. It developed a theology that was a bricolage of religious messaging with a revolutionary narrative of insurgency, as well as narcoculture. Centered around a moral code, the CT believed themselves to be God’s loyal foot soldiers waging a holy war to protect their turf, the local population and narco-family. Promoting a sort of populist uprising, these insurgency elements were inspired by revolutionary figures such as the Mexican hero Pancho Villa and Argentinian Guerilla leader, Che Guevara who fought for the communities in Cuba, and later Congo and Bolivia. Doctrines presented CT members as protectors of their people, fighting for justice against the state, as well as other rival cartels.

A militant Christian ideology was espoused which came from both the Evangelical movements Moreno had encountered during his time in the U.S. and the original Knights Templars of the crusades. Their avowed mission had been to safeguard Christian pilgrims visiting sites in the Holy Land while also waging war against Islamic Armies. The Knights Templar adhered to a strict code of conduct which required them to be humble and obedient. They wore distinctive white capes with a red cross. The CT took from the Original Knights both symbologically, such as using the cross pattée, [Image at right] as well as ideologically, adopting the idea of a strict moral code to which new members had to swear. This code of conduct that emphasized obedience was used to indoctrinate CT members into carrying out whatever orders their superiors requested. The code book, which members were required to carry around with them, specifically described cartel members as holy warriors, delineating their responsibilities within the organization and duties to each other and to leaders in fifty-three commandments that they had sworn to obey. While the CT carried out acts of violence, doctrinal elements emphasized that the struggle was for the people and for future generations.

Additionally, in Evangelical prosperity gospel, hard work and obedience were understood to be rewarded not only with God’s grace but with material wealth. The ideas that individuals have a personal mission and that members can be “re-born” to fight in the name of God also derived from Evangelical movements. The CT, much like LFM, drew on Evangelicalism in teaching that members should remain humble and not be ostentatious with their wealth. This differentiated them from rival cartels that strove to display their wealth. Instead, the CT especially during rituals, created an egalitarian community where all members dressed identically, such as wearing the white capes with the red cross that the original Knights Templar had worn.

Chesnut (2018) has summarized the moral and religious precepts contained in Moreno’s writings, Pensamientos (James 2018), that lent transcendent purpose to cartel activities:

Article number 8 commands Templarios to “selflessly love and serve all of humanity.” In a similar vein, article 9 states, “A Templar Knight understands that there is a God, a life created by Him, an eternal truth and a divine purpose to serve God and mankind.” Given the cartel’s logic of neutralizing rivals, point 16 makes a bizarre call to respect diversity. “The Templars should not have a negative attitude against any man that has been created by God, even if he is different or strange. On the contrary, the Templar should understand how others seek God.” Going a step further, article 17 makes it clear that the raison d’etre of the cartel is seeking truth through God. “A soldier of the Templars cannot be enslaved by sectarian beliefs and shallow opinions. God is truth and without God there is no truth. The Templar must always search for the truth because in truth there is God.


A key ritual in the building of CT was initiation. The cartel recruited primarily among young, poorly educated Michoacáno men who were adrift and disillusioned with the opportunities afforded to them in contemporary Mexican society. Membership offered them a sense of community, membership in a sacred family, holy purpose, and a new idealized masculine identity. As Lomnitz (2019) sums up the matter:

With the breakdown of the biological family in many parts of Mexico, including Michoacán due to divorces, single parent households, labor migration to the US, deaths both natural and caused by the drug war and increasing urban anomie, affinal families have faced many pressures and young men in particular, may seek more familial alternatives.

Members could become divinely ordained warriors and take up arms and fight as God’s foot-soldiers to protect local populations and stave off invasion from rival cartels, even as they engaged in violence and criminality.

The young men transitioning into the cartel were required to read both Eldredge’s book, The Wild Heart, and Moreno’s Pensamientos and to carry the latter with them at all times. Pensamientos contains the fifty-three commandments CT members are expected to obey and emphasize hard work, subservience and service (James 2018). During the initiation rituals new members dressed in white capes with the red cross of the original Knights Templar and swore an oath of loyalty to the cartel. Pensamientos stipulated that CT members who betrayed the cause would be penalised with capital punishment.

Symbols were carefully selected to appeal to young Michoacáno men. The most important of these was the Cross Patteé. In a country where around eighty percent of the population identifies as Catholic, the crucifix in its many forms has mass appeal in that it represents the religion of the great majority and is therefore seen as a major marker of national identity. During rituals of initiation and special occasions, battle gear and ceremonial garb employed by the CT adorned with the signature red cross, as well as other significant symbols (crests, replicas of those of the medieval Knights Templar) were used for inductions of new members. Weaponry also frequently featured such insignia, mobilized to remind CT members of their holy role in waging cartel war.


The central founders of CT were Nazario Moreno Gonzalez (“El Mas Loco” or “el Chayo”) and Martínez Servando Gómez (“La Tuta,” the teacher). Moreno and Gómez initially began working together in the drug industry when they formed part of a group of core founders. From the beginning Gómez frequently sought the limelight and, like a televangelist, used the media stage to spread the word of LFM and later the CT narco-theology. Gómez released numerous YouTube videos, attended interviews with TV reporters and even called in to radio phone-in shows to offer explanations and rationalizations for the cartel’s actions. After Moreno’s feigned death in 2010, the pair separated from the rest of LFM leaders to found CT.

By contrast, Moreno assumed a role of spiritual leadership. Indeed, Moreno emerged in the popular imagination as a folk saint, or perhaps to be more exact, a narco-saint. His death was scripted as a sacrifice for the greater good, and sightings of him, dressed in white robes wandering the countryside, added to CT mythology, making him a martyr who had been resurrected to lead the CT. His name added to this mythology. Nazario, an unusual name in Mexico, means “from Nazareth,” alluding to the biblical Jesus, who was resurrected after dying on the cross for “our sins.” In CT script, Moreno had died doing God’s work, fighting for justice for Michoacános. A cult following soon emerged. Shrines were built by CT members around Michoacán containing statues and images of Nazario dressed in traditional Templar garb to further build the mystique of Moreno as a narco-saint. [Image at right] The cross pattée had been a symbol of martyrdom for the Knights Templar of the crusades, of their sacrifice for Christ and Moreno’s death for the CT further played into this mythos.

Organization of CT beneath Moreno and Gómez was hierarchical, and new members were required to swear their fealty to CT leaders. Hierarchies were loosely based upon the original Knights Templar and used biblical lexicon. Important core members were called apostles, preachers were responsible for various territories, and hitmen were dubbed celestial warriors. The cartel’s organizational activities involved a broad range of criminal enterprise: extortion of agricultural businesses, coordinating undocumented migration into the U.S., illegal mining, the sex trade, illegal gasoline trafficking (known as huachicolero), arms trafficking, and appropriation of water sources. All of these enterprises were stabilized by force and violence.


The growth and success of CT can be attributed to a number of factors. Some are external, most notably the tumultuous, dysfunctional state of Mexican society and the availability of a cohort of adrift and dispirited young potential recruits. Indeed, the condition of Mexican society has remained desperate, which has set the stage for similar successor cartels in the wake of CT. Some are internal, most notably the ability of the founders to create community and transcendent purpose for potential recruits through its doctrines and rituals. Not all cartels incorporated religious/spiritual themes as did CT. Its leaders were particularly adept at drawing themes from Evangelical Christianity, promising recruits that they could be “born again” as warriors in a godly cause; incorporating the idea of a revolution in a way that drew on ideologies key to Mexican national identity and revolutionary figures such as Pancho Villa; producing a “bible” that professed high moral ideals; and invoking the Knights Templar of the crusades in declaring a holy war that was to be waged in the name of God but at the same time legitimated and vindicated violence and brutality. And, for a time, CT was a formidable presence among the numerous drug cartels in Mexico.

The inventive quasi-religious doctrines and tight, hierarchical organization of CT notwithstanding, the cartel had a relatively brief lifespan. Following the capture of Gomez and the death of Moreno, the cartel began to disintegrate. In this respect, the fate of CT replicates that of numerous Mexican cartels. Like the group’s emergence, its demise involved both internal and external factors. As Sullivan (2019) summarized the external factors, they involved

…endemic corruption; weak state institutions, extreme violence, and diminishing state legitimacy. The conflict at times involves direct confrontation with the state and its security forces. At other times, corrupt state officials collude with cartel capos hollowing out state capacity and exerting territorial control over municipalities, large portions of some states, and economic processes, including resource extraction and illicit taxation. The cartels not only confront the state, but battle each other for control, profit, and prestige within the emerging narcostate.

Geopolitically, the nation has been divided into a number of areas of control, with the shape of those areas and the identities of the dominant cartels constantly in flux. For the nation as a whole, the situation has become so dire that characterizations as “civil war,” “cartelization,” and “failed state” have been invoked to describe it (Grayson 2006; Lomitz 2019). As for CT, for a time it attempted to form an alliance with other cartels, United Cartels (Cárteles Unidos) to fend off the dominance of the Los Zetas Cartel but continued to lose ground. CT subsequently faced another major challenge from the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, which itself may be continuing the cyclical growth of Mexican drug cartels (Dittmar 2020).

Internally, the group confronted the problems of organizational development amid a highly chaotic, violent environment and also experienced the kind of internal conflict, schism, and leadership loss characteristic of new movements of various kinds. Even more significantly, the cartel created an inherent internal contradiction. On the one hand its bricolage ideology combined elements of Evangelical Christianity, Catholicism, Mexican folklore, and historical Knights Templar symbolism. This ideology presented the cartel as a spiritually legitimated messianic enterprise dedicated to protection on local populations and in opposition to an illegitimate and corrupt central government. The juxtaposition of this ideology with the violent and exploitive practices of the cartel ultimately was not manageable and eroded the cartel’s initial popular support. This combination of erosion of local support, the emergence of auto-defensas, cartel competition and aggressive governmental control measures proved to be more than the cartel could endure.

Image #1: Nazario Moreno González.
Image #2: José de Jesús Méndez Vargas (or “El Chango”).
Image #3: Nazario Moreno cadaver.
Image #4: The cross pattée
Image #5: San Nazario.
Image #6: Candlelight Vigil at a San Nazario shrine.


Alfaro, Konrad. “Between Syncretic and Religious Terrorism. The Knight Templars and Nazario Moreno.” Accessed from on 25 April 2022.

Bromley, David G. 2016. “Jesús Malverde.” World Religions and Spirituality Project. Accessed from on 5 March 2022.

Chesnut, R. Andrew. 2018. “Saint Nazario and the Knights Templar: The Narco-Evangelicalism of a Mexican Drug Cartel.” Small Wars Journal. Accessed from on 20 April 2022.

Dittmar, Victoria. 2020. “Why the Jalisco Cartel Does Not Dominate Mexico’s Criminal Landscape.” Insight Crime, June 11. Accessed from on 20 April 2022.

Eldredge, John. 2001. Wild at Heart: Discovering the Secret of a Man’s Soul. Nashville: Thomas Nelson,

Ernst, Falko. 2019. “Mexico’s Hydra-headed Crime War.” International Crisis Group. Accessed from on 25 April 2022.

Garcia, Alfredo. 2016. “The Dangerous Faith of a Notorious Drug Lord.” Religion and Politics. Accessed from on 20 April 2022.

Grayson, George. 2006. Mexico: Narco-Violence and a Failed State? New York: Routledge.

Grillo, Joan. 2016. “The Narco Who Died Twice.” The Atlantic, February 4. Accessed from the  on 15 April 2022.

James, Phil. 2018. Código de los Caballeros Templarios de Michoacán. Accessed from (99+) Código de los Caballeros Templarios de Michoacán | Phil James – on 25 April 2022.

Kingsbury, Kate. 2021. “Santa Muerte.” World Religions and Spirituality Project. Accessed from on 5 March 2022.

Kingsbury, Kate. 2019. “The Knights Templar Narcotheology: Deciphering the Occult of a Narcocult,” Pp. 89-95 in Los Caballeros Templarios de Michoacán: Imagery, Symbolism, and Narratives, edited by Robert Bunker and Alma Keshavarz. Bethesda, MD: Small Wars Foundation.

Lomnitz, Claudio. 2019. “The Ethos and Telos of Michoacan’s Knights Templar.” Representations 147:96-123.

Mekenkamp, Marloes. 2022. “Narrative Strategies of Criminal Legitimacy: The Picaresque Novel and the Social-Bandit Myth in Me dicen “el más loco”: Diario de un idealista.” Mexican Studies 38:36-57.

Pérez, Miguel Ángel Vite. 2018. “Mexico: The Binary Narrative of the Performance of Self-Defense Groups in Tierra Caliente Michoacán”  Sage Open: Criminology and Criminal Justice. Accessed from on 20 April 2022.

Rama, Anahi. 2015. “Mexico Captures Knights Templar Cartel Leader ‘La Tuta’.” Reuters, April 29. Accessed from on 20 April 2022.

Sanchez, Carlos. 2020. A Sense of Brutality. Amherst, MA: Amherst College Press.

Soboslai, John. 2020. “Narco Religious Movements.” Pp. 223-26 in Religious Violence Today, Volume 1, edited by Michael Jerryson.  Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.

Sullivan, John. 2019. “Narcocultura, Insurgencies, and State Change.” Accessed from on 1 May 2022.

Publication Date:
10 May 2022



Women’s Roles in The Church of Christ, Scientist (Christian Science)


1821 (July 16):  Mary Morse Baker was born to Mark and Abigail Baker in Bow, New Hampshire.

1843:  Mary Baker married George Washington Glover, who died in 1844. They had one son in 1844 named George W. Glover.

1853:  She married Daniel Patterson.

1866 (February 4):  Mary Patterson slipped on ice in Lynn, Massachusetts on February 1, and was seriously injured. Three days later, while reading about Jesus’ healing ministry in the Gospels, she was healed. She later cited this as the date she discovered Christian Science, as the result of her healing through prayer of injuries from a serious accident.

1866 (March):  Her husband Daniel Patterson deserted her. They divorced in 1873.

1867:  Mary Patterson began teaching about her discoveries, as well as maintaining an active healing practice.

1875 (October 30):  Now active as a spiritual healer and teacher in Lynn, Massachusetts, she published the first edition of her book Science and Health.

1876 (July 4):  She established the first Christian Science organization, the Christian Scientist Association, a small group of her students, a mix of both men and women.

1877 (January 1):  She married Asa Gilbert Eddy. He passed away in 1882.

1879 (April 12):  The Christian Scientist Association voted to found a church. The charter for the first Christian Science church, the Church of Christ (Scientist), in Boston, was granted by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in August. Mary Baker Eddy served as pastor.

1881 (January 31):  The Massachusetts Metaphysical College was chartered in Boston. Eddy served as its only President and taught classes there in Christian Science over the next eight years.

1881 (November 9): Eddy was ordained Pastor of the Boston church. While women served as pastors in other Christian Science churches, aside from Eddy only men served in this role in Boston at this time.

1883 (April 14):  The Journal of Christian Science began publication, eventually becoming a monthly periodical that included articles on religious themes, as well as listings of both men and women as Christian Science healers, teachers, and nurses. Eddy served as the magazine’s first editor.

1889 (May 28):  Eddy resigned the pastorate of the Boston church.

1890 (January):  The Christian Science Quarterly began publishing Bible lessons. Originally intended for study and Sunday School classes, they later became “lesson-sermons” for reading in church services.

1892 (September):  The Boston church was reorganized, and the Christian Science Board of Directors was established to transact the business of the church. The evolving system of membership allowed for both membership in the Boston church (The Mother Church) as well as in a branch church anywhere in the world.

1894 (December):  Mary Baker Eddy named the Holy Bible and Science and Health the pastor of the Boston church.

1895 (January 6):  The newly completed original Mother Church building in Boston was dedicated. A large extension church building was added in 1906.

1895 (April):  Eddy named the Bible and Science and Health Pastor for all churches of the denomination.

1895 (April 23):  Eddy was given the title “Pastor Emeritus” by the Boston church’s board of directors.

1895 (September 10):  The first edition of the Church Manual was published, containing bylaws for the church, including a bylaw which specified that a male and a female would be appointed as Readers in the Boston church.

1898 (January):  The Christian Science Board of Lectureship was established. The majority of lecturers during Eddy’s lifetime were men, though two women were appointed as lecturers in 1898.

1898 (September):  At Eddy’s request, The Christian Science Publishing Society began publication of the Christian Science Sentinel, a weekly devoted to religious articles and testimonials of healing.

1903 (February):  Originally comprised of four members, the Christian Science Board of Directors was expanded to five members. All were male until 1919.

1903 (April):  The Herald of Christian Science, a non-English periodical, was first published. As of 2022, the publication was published in fourteen languages.

1908 (January 26):  Eddy moved from Concord, New Hampshire, to Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, near Boston.

1908 (November 25):  The Christian Science Monitor was first published. As of 2022, the paper had been awarded seven Pulitzer Prizes and more than a dozen Overseas Press Club awards.

1910 (December 3):  Mary Baker Eddy died in Chestnut Hill, aged eighty-nine years.

1913:  Laura E. Sargent (a student of Eddy) became the first woman other than Eddy to teach the Church’s Normal class, training Christian Science practitioners to be teachers.

1919:  Annie Macmillan Knott (an Eddy student) became the first woman to serve as a member of the Christian Science Board of Directors.

1927:  Ella W. Hoag (an Eddy student) became the first woman to serve as President of The Mother Church. This annual appointment was largely an honorific.

1935:  Margaret Murney Glenn Matters became the first woman to serve as chairman of the Christian Science Board of Lectureship.

1959:  Helen Wood Bauman was appointed editor of Christian Science religious periodicals, the first woman in this position since 1892.

1977:  Grace Channell Wasson became the first woman appointed to the First Reader role. Previously, only men had held that position at the Boston church in three-year terms.

1983:  Katherine Fanning was appointed editor of The Christian Science Monitor. She was the first woman to head the newspaper, although women had worked as reporters and editors since its founding.

1988:  It was in this year that as many as two women served simultaneously as Directors for the first time. In 2001, three women served simultaneously as Directors for the first time.

2021:  Women accounted for nearly sixty percent of the denomination’s public lecturers.


The history of women in The Church of Christ, Scientist naturally begins with its founder, Mary Baker Eddy (1821–1910), who led the movement until her death. [Image at right] Born in New Hampshire, Mary Baker grew up in a large family and received a modest education, while regularly battling various health issues. She was married in 1843. Her husband died in 1844, shortly before their son, George W. Glover, was born. She married Daniel Patterson in 1853, who deserted her in 1866; they divorced in 1873. She married Asa Gilbert Eddy in 1877, and thereafter became known as Mary Baker Eddy. It was in 1866, after a fall on an icy street in Lynn, Massachusetts, that she received what she later felt was a divine revelation that brought healing of her injuries while reading about the healing ministry of Jesus Christ in the Gospels. She felt that the revelation was not some kind of singular miracle, but an indication of divine laws governing humanity and the universe, a science that could be discovered and taught to others. She became a healer and teacher and published the first edition of her book Science and Health in 1875. The Christian Scientist Association was founded in 1876, attracting both women and men.

The Church of Christ, Scientist was founded in 1879, and, with a reorganization in 1892, it came to have a basic structure that remains in place today. The Christian Science Board of Directors transacts church business. The Christian Science Publishing Society (governed by three trustees) directs the denomination’s publications, including its famed daily newspaper, The Christian Science Monitor. Christian Scientists typically belong to the Boston church (formally known as The First Church of Christ, Scientist, and also known as The Mother Church), as well as a local “branch” church. Local churches are found all over the world. The Christian Bible and Science and Health serve as pastor for all churches. [Image at right] Eddy’s book has been translated into seventeen languages as well as Braille.

There have been times when the denomination’s leadership has been dominated by men. Christian Science historian Jean McDonald observed that “women scholars have generally theorized that Eddy and other women of the period gravitated toward Christian Science, not for its theological worth but for its personal utility, because it satisfied their needs for status and power in a male-dominated society that largely closed off other avenues of achievement” (McDonald 1986:89). But McDonald does not explore whether Christian Science actually provided this status and power. An examination of historical data presents a more complex picture, with men tending to obtain leadership roles at Boston headquarters, as well as in branch churches in many large cities and metropolitan regions. Yet women did succeed in finding leadership positions in Christian Science churches in some large cities (such as New York City, for example) and in many smaller, less prestigious localities.

Despite the difficulties in traversing some of the Christian Science “avenues of achievement,” there were women who were able to face this disparity, becoming public faces for the movement as well as making things happen. In 1913, Laura E. Sargent (1858–1915), who had studied under Eddy and served as her companion for a number of years, became the first woman to teach in the Church’s Board of Education, training Christian Science practitioners (healers who advertise their services) to be teachers.

In 1919, Annie Macmillan Knott (1850–1941), a Scottish immigrant, rose to the top ranks in the early church organization, serving as the first woman on the Christian Science Board of Directors, an office of considerable authority and significance within the denomination.  [Image at right] This was, however, nearly a decade after Eddy’s passing. Knott’s path to the directorship was hardly an easy one. She began practicing Christian Science in the 1880s as a single mother in Detroit, Michigan. She became a church leader in Detroit, serving as a Christian Science healer, teacher, and preacher. She moved to Boston in 1903, to serve as an associate editor for Christian Science publications; the editor-in-chief was a man.

Mary Baker Eddy had recognized Knott’s promise five years earlier, in 1898, when she made the decision to appoint two women to serve with the five men she had already appointed as Christian Science lecturers. Knott and Sue Harper Mims (1842–1913) [Image at right] were Eddy’s choices. The Board of Lectureship had been established just months earlier as a way to reach those unacquainted with Christian Science via public talks, an arena in which women were becoming more accepted. Knott later recalled that at first she received few calls to lecture, and mentioned this in a conversation with Eddy. The church leader responded that Knott must “rise to the altitude of true womanhood, and then the whole world will want you. . . .” Knott soon found greater success in the lecture work (Knott 1934:42).

In 1935, Margaret Murney Glenn Matters (1887–1965), who had been a powerful force as chairman of the committee revising the Christian Science Hymnal, became the first woman to serve as chair of the Christian Science Board of Lectureship. [Image at right] Glenn had also served as a Second Reader in church services in Boston. It was not until 1977 that Grace Channell Wasson (1907–1978) became the first woman appointed to the First Reader role, leading the weekly church services. Previously, only men had held that three-year position at the Boston headquarters.

Women were also serving in leadership roles outside of Boston. Some of the better known figures in the movement’s early years (late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries) were Sue Ella Bradshaw (San Francisco), Mary M. W. Adams and Kate D. Kimball (Chicago; Kimball’s husband, Edward A. Kimball, was also a Christian Science leader in the city), E. Blanche Ward and Lady Victoria Murray (London and Manchester, England), and Bertha Günther-Peterson and Frances Thurber Seal (Germany; Seal, however, was an American). They worked as healers, teachers, lecturers, and responded to criticisms of Christian Science in the press.

Women’s advancement at headquarters came more incrementally. It was not until the 1950s that a number of women were holding supervisory positions in Boston, and women in senior management roles were quite rare until the late 1960s. Equal representation in management positions has become the norm in the half century since.


Mary Baker Eddy regarded men and women as equals in society and in leading the Christian Science movement.

Let it not be heard in Boston that woman, “last at the cross and first at the sepulchre,” has no rights which man is bound to respect. In natural law and in religion the right of woman to fill the highest measure of enlightened understanding and the highest places in government, is inalienable, and these rights are ably vindicated by the noblest of both sexes. This is woman’s hour, with all its sweet amenities and its moral and religious reforms (Eddy 1887:57).

In 1904, Eddy stated firmly:

The Magna Charta of Christian Science means much, multum in parvo, — all-in-one and one-in-all. It stands for the inalienable, universal rights of men. Essentially democratic, its government is administered by the common consent of the governed, wherein and whereby man governed by his creator is self-governed. The church is the mouthpiece of Christian Science, — its law and gospel are according to Christ Jesus; its rules are health, holiness, and immortality, — equal rights and privileges, equality of the sexes, rotation in office (Eddy 1914:246–47, punctuation as in original).

Why do Eddy’s statements give strong support for the equality of the sexes, while the administration of her religious denomination was largely relegated to men? Eddy was aware of this, as her essay “Man and Woman” (not published in her lifetime) makes clear. She wrote that she had “given the preponderance to the masculine element in my organizations for carrying out the functions of Christian Science.” However, she didn’t really explain why, although she may be hinting that this was all she could do given the social norms of the day and the capacities of her followers:

If at any period the reflection of the masculinity of God seems more apparent and desirable to the human senses than the reflection of His femininity, it is because the human perception, apprehension, and understanding have not kept pace with the Divine Love and order that characterize the period which manifests the dual nature of God, coupled with his trinity and the equality of man and woman (Eddy n.d.).

Theological statements tend to focus on the fact that men or women cannot be relegated to certain roles. Ella W. Hoag (1854–1928), an Eddy student, became in 1927 the first woman to serve as President of The Mother Church in Boston. In 1919, as the individual states were ratifying the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, Hoag reflected in an editorial titled “Equal Suffrage”:

Because Christian Science teaches that all good is the equal inheritance of all of God’s children, it does not in any way relieve anyone from the responsibility of proving this for himself. Each individual must at some time not only prove that all good is for him as the image and likeness of God, but he must also come to understand that all good is equally for every other child of God. The practical application to-day of this truth to the subject of “equal rights for women,” if approached in obedience to the teachings of Christian Science, may do much to liberate the world from all its beliefs in inequality. . . . To give the “vote” to women will do comparatively little for them and for the world unless men perceive and relinquish the selfish, egotistical belief—which as a class they are indulging—that at least a degree of superior intelligence has been bestowed upon them. (Hoag 1919:365–66).


Although The Church of Christ, Scientist, was founded by a woman, advancement was rarely easy for women in its early days, or even later. But as Christian Science became more widely known in the late nineteenth century, with branch churches founded throughout the United States and beyond, a structure developed that included two paths for women. At the headquarters of the movement, centered then (as now) at The Mother Church in Boston, Massachusetts, leadership opportunities were somewhat limited for women. Yet in the churches throughout the global “field,” ranging from tiny Christian Science societies to large and impressive urban churches, leadership roles were far more available for women. Scholar and Christian Scientist Stephen Gottschalk describes the state of affairs in his 2006 study Rolling Away the Stone: Mary Baker Eddy’s Challenge to Materialism:

In part, Eddy appointed men to visible posts in the movement, not because she saw them as having superior capacities, but because they were more acceptable to society at the time than women would have been in the same roles. . . . If Eddy looked to men as the public face of Christian Science, she largely looked to women to make things happen—that is, to build the movement from the ground up. This they did in considerable numbers, so that outside Eddy’s own labors, the work of women was probably the single most important element in the spread of the Christian Science movement in the period before her death. Their labors as healers, teachers, and organizers of churches accounted in large measure for the development of Christian Science, for example, in Minneapolis, New York, Spokane, San Francisco, southern Los Angeles, Detroit, and also in such European cities as London, Hanover, and Berlin (Gottschalk 2006:185).

Readers play a significant role in a global church that has no clergy. Sermons are compiled from the two texts that form the “Pastor” of the church: the Bible and Eddy’s Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures. The Sunday sermons, found in the Christian Science Quarterly published by The Christian Science Publishing Society, are read by two Readers (First Reader, Science and Health; Second Reader, Bible). The First Reader also is responsible for conducting the services. At Wednesday meetings, First Readers compile their own readings on self-chosen topics from Science and Health and the Bible. Readers are lay positions, elected by the congregations in the branch churches. At The Mother Church, Church headquarters, the Christian Science Board of Directors appoints Readers for the Boston services every three years.

Christian Science practitioners are not clergy, but are found worldwide, and play an important role in the church. To be listed as a practitioner in the church’s monthly periodical, The Christian Science Journal, an individual must devote his or her full time to helping individuals through prayer. (Eddy’s Science and Health is the best source for information on the Christian Science approach to spiritual healing, particularly the chapter “Christian Science Practice.”) Practitioners are self-employed, and fees and payment are determined by the individual practitioner. Practitioners, like many Christian Scientists, have taken Primary class instruction, a two-week course of study that teaches students how to heal themselves and others. Some practitioners eventually take Normal class instruction and become teachers of Primary classes.

A quick survey of the listings of Christian Science practitioners (healers and teachers of classes in healing) in the monthly Christian Science Journal gives a sense of the situation: women could attain leadership roles outside of Boston. [Image at right] In 1900, San Francisco’s listings of practitioners were sixty percent women; Chicago’s listings were eighty-three percent women; and London’s listings were eighty-one percent women. In 1950, San Francisco’s practitioners were nearly eighty percent women; Chicago’s practitioners were eighty-one percent women and London’s practitioners had increased to 85.5 percent women. In 2000, San Francisco’s Christian Science practitioners were 65.5 percent women; Chicago’s practitioners were close to eighty percent women, and London’s practitioners were eighty-four percent women.


Today, the roles women play in The Church of Christ, Scientist are, at last, many and varied, both at Boston headquarters and in branch churches worldwide. Is this a reflection of a change in Christian Science attitudes, or a reflection of changes in society? It is likely a little of both, but such progress is welcome, even as it is ongoing. In 1959, Helen Wood Bauman (1895–1985) was appointed the first woman editor of the Christian Science periodicals since 1892. Katherine Fanning (1927–2000), [Image at right] the first woman editor of the daily newspaper founded by Eddy, the Pulitzer Prize winning The Christian Science Monitor, was not appointed until 1983. In 1988, for the first time, two women were simultaneously serving as members of the Mother Church board of directors, a sign that the “highest places in government” in the denomination were becoming more and more accessible to women.

Currently in 2022, women serve in a variety of leadership roles at church headquarters in Boston. For example, Barbara Fife and Mary Alice Rose are members of the board of directors; the First Reader conducting church services is Mojisola George; (Image at right) Ethel Baker serves as editor of The Christian Science Publishing Society’s religious periodicals; the President of the church is Mimi Oka; and The Christian Science Monitor’s managing editor is Amelia Newcomb.

Another important advance for The Church of Christ, Scientist, is its increasingly international as well as racially diverse presence. The November 2021 admission of church members included applications received from a number of countries: Angola, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Cuba, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Germany, India, Italy, Kenya, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Peru, Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Spain, Togo, United Kingdom, United States, Uruguay, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. Women are playing an important role in leading the internationalization of the denomination.


Mary Baker Eddy founded a religion. This is significant, for even today, nearly 150 years after this founding, there are not many religions that identify women as among their founders. Eddy also led the church and was deeply involved in its government from the time of its founding until her passing three decades later. The Church of Christ, Scientist, while not intended by Eddy to be a women’s religion, has attracted a large number of women into its ranks. Its theology emphasizes the spirituality and the equality of men and women, without segregation or subordination of women, or men. This strong sense of equality precludes the placement of either sex on a pedestal. By ruling out comparisons that define the superiority (or inferiority) of maleness or femaleness, Christian Science has over time made it more possible for women to attain important positions within the denomination, and for a fairly new church (which will be 150 years old in 2029) this progress will surely continue to become evident.


Image #1: Photograph of Mary Baker Eddy taken in the 1880s. Library of Congress. Wikimedia Commons.
Image #2: Cover of Mary Baker Eddy’s book, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures. Courtesy of The First Church of Christ, Scientist.
Image #3: Annie Macmillan Knott, the first woman to serve on the Christian Science Board of Directors. P01082. Courtesy of The Mary Baker Eddy Library.
Image #4: Photograph of Sue Harper Mims in the book edited by Frances E. Willard, A Woman of the Century: Fourteen Hundred-seventy Biographical Sketches Accompanied by Portraits of Leading Women in All Walks of Life (1893). Wikimedia Commons.
Image #5: Portrait of Margaret Murney Glenn Matters, circa 1940. Bachrach Studios. Courtesy of The Mary Baker Eddy Library.
Image #6: Fujiko Signs, of Tokyo, Japan, is a Christian Science practitioner, teacher, and lecturer. Signs is also `serving as Committee on Publication for Japan, responding to public statements on Christian Science. Courtesy of The First Church of Christ, Scientist.
Image #7: Katherine Fanning, 1983. Photography by Linda Payne. The Christian Science Monitor. Courtesy of The Mary Baker Eddy Library.
Image #8: Mojisola Anjorin Solanke George, a Christian Science practitioner and teacher based in Lagos, Nigeria, is currently serving as First Reader of The Mother Church in Boston, and has formerly served as a Christian Science lecturer.


Eddy, Mary Baker. 1914. The First Church of Christ, Scientist, and Miscellany. Boston, MA: Allison V. Stewart.

Eddy, Mary Baker. 1887. Christian Science: No and Yes. Boston, MA: The Author.

Eddy, Mary Baker. 1895. Church Manual of The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston, Massachusetts. First Edition. Boston, MA: The Christian Science Publishing Society.

Eddy, Mary Baker. n.d. “Man and Woman.” The Mary Baker Eddy Library, A10142B.

Gottschalk, Stephen. 2006. Rolling Away the Stone: Mary Baker Eddy’s Challenge to Materialism. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Hoag, Ella W. 1919. “Equal Suffrage.” The Christian Science Journal 37: 364–66.

Knott, Annie M. 1934. Reminiscence, archival collections of the Mary Baker Eddy Library.

McDonald, Jean A. 1986. “Mary Baker Eddy and the Nineteenth-Century ‘Public’ Woman: A Feminist Reappraisal.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 2: 89–111.

Voorhees, Amy B. 2021. A New Christian Identity: Christian Science Origins and Experience in American Culture. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.


The Mary Baker Eddy Library ( regularly publishes articles on its website relating to women Christian Scientists. The series is titled “Women of History.” The site also has a downloadable chronology of church founder Mary Baker Eddy’s life. This chronology is fully annotated, providing references to many primary and secondary sources. PDFs of The Christian Science Journal listings of practitioners from 1883 to the present day are available on The Christian Science Publishing Society subscription website JSH-Online (

Christian Science Journal listings are available on The Christian Science Publishing Society website JSH-Online

Eddy, Mary Baker. 1925. Prose Works Other than Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures. Boston, MA: The First Church of Christ, Scientist.

Eddy, Mary Baker. 1910. Manual of The Mother Church, Eighty-Ninth Edition. Boston, MA: The First Church of Christ, Scientist.

Eddy, Mary Baker. 1910. Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures. Boston, MA: The First Church of Christ, Scientist.

Gill, Gillian. 1998. Mary Baker Eddy. Reading, MA: Perseus Books.

Voorhees, Amy B. 2021. A New Christian Identity: Christian Science Origins and Experience in American Culture. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.

Publication Date:
1 May 2022






















2021: Women accounted for nearly 60 percent of the denomination’s public lecturers.


The Alliance for Therapeutic Choice and Scientific Integrity


1992 (March):  The National Association for Psychoanalytic Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH) was founded.

1992 (December 18): The organizing committee of NARTH, with twenty-three members, met at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City.

1992:   The World Health Organization removed homosexuality from the International Classification of Diseases.

1993 (May 20):  NARTH held its first annual conference in San Francisco.

1997:  NARTH submitted an amicus brief to the Hawaii Supreme Court to oppose legalizing same-sex marriage.

2000 (May 17):  NARTH and several ex-gay ministries published a full-page newspaper ad in USA Today and held a press conference in Chicago to protest the American Psychiatric Association’s cancellation of a debate on therapy aimed at changing sexual orientation.

2001:  Evangelical Christian psychologist James Dobson of Focus on the Family declared NARTH co-founder Joseph Nicolosi to be the “foremost expert on homosexuality.”

2002:  NARTH submitted an amicus brief to the Kansas Supreme Court, which ruled that a “transsexual” is not a woman, voiding her marriage and inheritance.

2003:  Psychiatrist Robert Spitzer, who advocated in 1973 to declassify homosexuality as a mental disorder, published a study based on participants recruited through NARTH and Exodus International, that concluded sexual orientation change is possible.

2005 (December 25):  NARTH co-founder Charles Socarides died.

2009:   Reacting to NARTH and others promoting the belief that homosexuality is a disorder and sin that can be changed through therapy and religious interventions, the American Psychological Association evaluated the peer-reviewed research literature on sexual orientation change efforts and found no scientific evidence to support their efficacy.

2009:   NARTH established the Journal of Human Sexuality.

2010:  NARTH submitted an amicus brief to the California Supreme Court to oppose legalizing same-sex marriage.

2010:  George Rekers resigned from NARTH’s Scientific Advisory Board after a newspaper reported that he hired a male escort to accompany him on a trip to Europe.

2010:  NARTH Executive Secretary Arthur Goldberg resigned from NARTH after it was publicly revealed that he served time in federal prison for conspiracy to commit fraud.

2012:  Robert Spitzer repudiated and sought to retract his 2003 study, saying it was flawed. He also apologized for the harm it caused.

2012:  NARTH submitted an amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court to uphold the Defense of Marriage Act.

2012:   California became the first state to ban conversion therapy with minors.

2012:   Exodus International removed NARTH materials from its website. Exodus President Alan Chambers renounced reparative therapy.

2012:  NARTH lost its tax-exempt status.

2013:  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld the constitutionality of California’s ban on conversion therapy with minors.

2013: The World Medical Association released a statement condemning “so-called ‘conversion’ or ‘reparative’ methods.”

2013: The American Psychiatric Association removed “Gender Identity Disorder” from the DSM and replaced it with “Gender Dysphoria.”

2014:  NARTH leaders rebranded the organization as the Alliance for Therapeutic Choice and Scientific Integrity and established “the NARTH Institute” as one of its divisions.

2014:  Members of The United Nations Committee against Torture expressed concern about conversion therapy on youth in the United States.

2015 (June 1):  The Office of the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights issued a report calling for all nations to ban “conversion therapies.”

2015 (June 25):  Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality (JONAH) lost a consumer fraud civil lawsuit brought by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

2015 (August):  The American Bar Association adopted a resolution urging legislation to prohibit conversion therapy on minors.

2015 (October):  NARTH co-founder Benjamin Kaufman relinquished his medical license amid allegations of gross negligence and unprofessional conduct.

2017 (March 8):  NARTH co-founder Joseph Nicolosi died.

2017 (May 1):  The U.S. Supreme Court rejected a challenge to California’s law banning conversion therapy with minors.

2018-2019:  Joseph Nicolosi, Jr. trademarked “reparative therapy” and “reintegrative therapy,” in 2018 and 2019 respectively.

2019:  Retailer announced a decision to stop selling books on conversion therapy.

2020:  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit invalidated two ordinances in Florida (the city of Boca Raton and Palm Beach county) that banned conversion therapy with minors based on “free speech.”

2021:  The American Psychological Association adopted a resolution opposing gender identity change efforts and another strengthening its stance against sexual orientation change efforts.

2021:  For the first time, legislation to protect conversion therapy was introduced in a few states.

2022:  More than half of the states and several U.S. cities had some form of conversion therapy ban, by statute or regulation.


The Alliance for Therapeutic Choice and Scientific Integrity (ATCSI) is “a multi-disciplinary professional and scientific organization” headquartered in Salt Lake City, Utah. It is

dedicated to preserving the right of individuals to obtain the services of therapists and medical professionals who honor the clients’ values; advocating for integrity and objectivity in social science research; and ensuring that competent licensed professional assistance is available for persons who experience unwanted same-sex erotic attractions or who experience conflict between their biological sex and perceived gender identity (ATCSI 2022).

Its motto is “Because your values matter.”

ATCSI was originally founded as a scientific, professional organization under a different name in March of 1992 by Charles Socarides, Joseph Nicolosi, and Benjamin Kaufman (NARTH Bulletin 1993a, Kaufman 2001-2002). The organizing committee of NARTH, with twenty-three members, met at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City. Twenty-three members attended (NARTH Bulletin 1993a). Its founders, religiously conservative mental health professionals, created the organization to protect and advocate for the interests of licensed psychotherapists to offer sexual orientation and/or gender identity “conversion therapies.” Conversion therapists were gradually marginalized in the U.S. mental health professions (Drescher 2015a; Kaufman 2001-2002) in the years following the 1973 American Psychiatric Association decision to declassify homosexuality as a mental disorder. In response to threat of a lawsuit (Isay 1996), the American Psychoanalytic Association became the last major mental health professional organization to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation in the training of psychoanalysts (Drescher 2015a). This was the catalyst for creating NARTH.

ATCSI was originally named the National Association for Psychoanalytic Research and Therapy of Homosexuality  (Socarides and Kaufman 1994). It was renamed the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality [Image at right] the same year. The organization existed as NARTH until it rebranded as ATCSI in 2014. It is one of the most influential partners in the transnational conversion ministry movement and the anti-LGBT Christian Right (Moss 2021, Robinson and Spivey 2019), both of which were inaugurated during the 1970s. The founders attempted to establish NARTH as a scientific association and promote therapy as an effective method for treating homosexuality, which they viewed as a gender identity disorder (Bennett 2003, Robinson and Spivey 2007). To date, the organization’s legacy includes revitalizing the market for conversion therapy and developing a global advocacy network for its practitioners. For many years, NARTH also rendered some credibility for its two major partners, the ministry networks that promise the possibility of change and Christian political groups opposed to LGBT rights.

No major mental health professional organization has ever recognized NARTH as a scientific organization. NARTH has repeatedly been described as pseudo-scientific (Cianciatto and Cahill 2006, Drescher 2015a, Ford 2001, Haldeman 1999, Panozzo 2013) and accused of distorting and misusing scholars’ research (Besen 2003, ILGA World and Mendos 2020, Robinson and Spivey 2015, Waidzunas 2015, Williams 2011). Beginning in 1992, major professional health organizations began to publish position statements and resolutions opposing attempts to change sexual orientation (NASW 1992), and later, gender identity (NASW 2015), citing the absence of scientific support, among other concerns (see Shidlo, Schroeder, and Drescher 2001). In 1992, the World Health Organization removed homosexuality from the International Classification of Diseases, a diagnostic tool used around the world for reimbursement systems in health care. Today, all prominent professional mental health and medical associations “reject ‘conversion therapy’ as a legitimate medical treatment” (AMA 2019) to change sexual orientation or gender identity as well as the etiologies on which they are based (APA 2021a, APA 2021b).

Several scholars have questioned or disputed NARTH’s claim to be a secular organization (Alumkal 2017; American Psychiatric Association 2000; Besen 2003; Burack and Josephson 2005; Clucas 2017; Drescher 1998, 2015; Grace 2008; Haldeman 1999; ILGA World and Mendos 2020; Queiroz, D’Elio and Maas 2013; Robinson and Spivey 2007, 2019). Beverley’s (2009) Illustrated Guide to Religions lists NARTH as an organization that is critical of pro-gay theology. Psychologist John Gonsiorek (2004:758) referred to conversion therapy as “theocracy in scientistic drag.” Jurist Craig Konnoth (2017:283) argued that conversion therapy is “quintessentially a form of religious practice.” Scholars (Babits 2019, Martin 1984) have documented the central role of religion in conversion therapies since the early twentieth century. Religion itself remains the “primary driving force that perpetuates” conversion therapy in the U.S. and globally (Horne and McGinley 2022:221).

Although NARTH was neither established as nor officially affiliated with a religious organization, religion has been essential to the work and vitality of the organization and its leaders throughout its thirty-year history. Despite repeated assertions found in NARTH’s literature and by its representatives that NARTH is not a religious organization, NARTH’s newsletter, conference presentations, journals, and website promote socially conservative religious beliefs and practices. Religion is the keystone on which the vocation and professional work of conversion therapists depend, since most clients who seek therapy do so based on moral or religious conflicts related to their own or their children’s sexuality or gender (Flentje, Heck and Cochran 2013; Haldeman 2022; Nicolosi and Nicolosi 2002; Rosik 2014; Spivey and Robinson 2010; Streed, Anderson, Babits and Ferguson 2019).

The organization’s founders were religious conservatives. Joseph Nicolosi, [Image at right] a Roman Catholic who served as the organization’s first executive director, was a psychologist and consultant for the Los Angeles Catholic Archdiocese (Christianson 2005) prior to co-founding NARTH and consistently integrated religion into his psychotherapy practice with clients (Nicolosi 1991, 2001, 2012). For many years, NARTH was headquartered at Nicolosi’s Thomas Aquinas Psychological Clinic. Charles Socarides, [Image at right] a psychiatrist who served as the organization’s first president, was one of the most vocal opponents of the American Psychiatric Association’s 1973 decision to declassify homosexuality as a mental disorder. In a magazine published by the Jesuits of the United States, Socarides described his clinical work with homosexual men as “…a kind of ‘pastoral care’…. many of us thought we were quietly doing God’s work” (Socarides 1995). He called the idea, found in some pro-gay literature, that God made people gay “blasphemy.” Benjamin Kaufman was a Jewish psychiatrist (Thorn 2015) who served as the organization’s first vice-president.

Early in NARTH’s first decade, its officers intentionally developed working partnerships with several established “ex-gay” Christian networks, which had already begun to incorporate psychoanalytic etiologies of homosexuality and “transsexuality” into their ministries, based on the teachings of two theologians, Leanne Payne and Elizabeth Moberly (Ford 2001, Robinson and Spivey 2007, 2019). In its first year, NARTH established a leadership structure, which included “Liaison with Religious and Ex-Gay Ministries.” “Mr. and Mrs. Bill Grasso and Rev. Tom Mullen” first served in these roles (NARTH 1993a). In 1993, NARTH co-founder Joseph Nicolosi spoke as a psychologist in a video titled “Choosing to Change from Homosexuality,” sold by the largest ex-gay ministry Exodus International, an evangelical Christian organization. The video featured Exodus president Joe Dallas and religious testimonies of change. Bob Davies, former executive director of Exodus, acknowledged that the organization worked with NARTH to help Exodus boost its credibility (Davies 1998). Randy Thomas, former executive vice-president of Exodus, revealed in a recent documentary that “There was a symbiotic relationship between our need for credibility and then, of course, the therapists who get clients. Our networks were infused with their books… teachings… and therapeutic approach. It sounds awful, but it was a mutually beneficial business arrangement” (Stolakis 2021).

Several NARTH officers had prior working relationships with and held leadership positions in ex-gay ministries and Christian political organizations. NARTH officers had also engaged in anti-LGBT political activities (Drescher 1998, 2001; George 2016; Robinson and Spivey 2019) prior to developing formal partnerships with major Christian political and legal organizations such as Liberty Counsel and the Pacific Justice Institute. NARTH and its officers sought to establish the idea that sexual orientation is not an immutable characteristic (Byrd and Olsen 2001-2002), a criterion considered by the US judiciary to grant protected class status (Nussbaum 2010, Knauer 2021). In 1993, Charles Socarides and Harold Voth submitted affidavits in support of an amendment to Colorado’s constitution to ban cities from passing ordinances to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation (Socarides 1993, Drescher 1998). Joseph Nicolosi appeared in a documentary by Summit Ministries titled “Gay Rights, Special Rights: Inside the Homosexual Agenda,” touting his American Psychological Association membership to claim that gays can change their behavior and attractions, in support of the film’s message that gays are not a minority group entitled to protected class status. Socarides submitted an affidavit in 1995 in support of the state’s defense of the Tennessee sodomy law (Dresher 1998).

In 1995, NARTH intentionally cultivated partnerships with major Christian Right political organizations. It established as goals “networking with conservative public policy organizations such as Focus on the Family, the American Family Association, the Family Research Council, and the Heritage foundation” and “interfacing with religious organizations, including ex-gay ministries, Christian counseling services, orthodox ‘Jewish’ groups, and the National Association of Christian Educators” (NARTH Bulletin 1995:2). By the end of NARTH’s first decade, the organization had solidified mutually beneficial partnerships with ex-gay ministries and Christian Right political and legal organizations (Barack and Josephson 2005; Robinson and Spivey 2019). In 2001, co-founder Joseph Nicolosi secured the blessing of powerhouse evangelical Christian psychologist James Dobson, who endorsed him as “the foremost authority on the treatment and prevention of homosexuality” (Dobson 2001:18).

NARTH continued to reap the harvest of its labors at the end of its first decade. In 2001, psychiatrist Robert Spitzer, who advocated in 1973 to remove homosexuality from the DSM, presented a peer-reviewed study at the American Psychiatric Association, based on participants recruited through NARTH and Exodus International, that concluded that is possible for some people to change sexual orientation through therapy and religious practices. NARTH and its partners touted Spitzer’s study as validation of its claims. Its publication in a peer-reviewed journal (Spitzer 2003) generated a firestorm of political and scholarly debate (Drescher and Zucker 2006). The publicity benefitted conversion therapists and invited renewed interest, and greater scrutiny of, the ex-gay movement, including NARTH, by journalists (Besen 2003), scholars (Silverstein 2003, Stewart 2005), activists, and others. In 2002, NARTH submitted an amicus brief to the Kansas Supreme Court in support of a lawsuit filed by Liberty Counsel. The court ruled that a “transsexual” is not a woman, voiding her marriage and inheritance (Robinson and Spivey 2019). In 2005, co-founder Charles Socarides died.

By 2007, several members of the American Psychological Association became so concerned about NARTH and other organizations promoting the belief that homosexuality is a disorder that can be changed through therapeutic and religious interventions, that it formed a task force to evaluate the peer-reviewed research literature on sexual orientation change efforts (SOCE) (Drescher 2015b). The task force report found no scientific evidence to support the efficacy of SOCE (APA 2009; Dresher 2015b). In 2009, the APA also passed a resolution stating that psychologists should avoid misrepresenting the efficacy of SOCE when working with individuals distressed by their own or others’ sexual orientation. Infuriated by the findings of the APA Task Force, NARTH established the Journal of Human Sexuality in 2009 and devoted the first volume to NARTH’s response to the Task Force report. Subsequent issues of the journal published articles and book reviews, mostly by prominent NARTH officers.

Two high-profile scandals severely damaged NARTH’s reputation toward the end of its second decade. In 2010, NARTH officer George Rekers, a psychologist and Baptist minister who also co-founded the Family Research Council, resigned from NARTH’s Scientific Advisory Board after a newspaper reported that he hired a male escort to accompany him on a trip to Europe, where he allegedly received nude massages. Rekers had also frequently provided expert testimony to support discrimination based on sexual orientation in adoption cases and in other areas (Rekers 2006). The same year, NARTH executive secretary Arthur Goldberg, co-founder of the ex-gay ministry Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality, resigned after it was publicly revealed that he had served time in federal prison for conspiracy to commit fraud (Kent 2010). These events led to more bad press. In 2011, CNN journalist Anderson Cooper aired a special report titled “The Sissy Boy Experiment,” which revealed Rekers’ role in overseeing shocking experiments designed to extinguish effeminate behavior and prevent homosexuality in boys, one of whom committed suicide as an adult. At the close of NARTH’s second decade, Warren Throckmorton (2011), a former NARTH member who previously supported reorientation therapy, revealed that seventy-five percent of NARTH’s members were neither scientists nor therapists, but “lay people, ministers, and activists.”

The beginning of NARTH’s third decade is marked by turmoil and organizational reconstruction. 2012 ushered in a series of major setbacks. In 2012, psychiatrist Robert Spitzer sought to retract the 2003 study that claimed sexual orientation change was possible, saying it was flawed, and apologized for the harm it caused. NARTH submitted an amicus brief to the US Supreme Court to uphold the Defense of Marriage Act, which they partially invalidated, and directed the federal government to recognize state-sanctioned same-sex marriages. NARTH lost its tax-exempt status after neglecting to file the necessary paperwork. The most devastating event for NARTH in 2012 occurred when California became the first state to pass a law banning licensed health professionals from engaging in conversion therapy with minors. NARTH sued and lost. In 2013, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld the constitutionality of the law. The Supreme Court denied a request for further appeal. Exodus International removed NARTH materials from its website and its president, Alan Chambers, publicly renounced reparative therapy. This prompted several Exodus officers and ministries to leave the organization and form a rival ministry network called The Restored Hope Network. NARTH co-founder Joseph Nicolosi joined RHN’s Board. In 2013, the American Psychiatric Association removed “Gender Identity Disorder” from the DSM and replaced it with “Gender Dysphoria,” which depathologized people who are transgender and non-binary (APA 2013). The same year, the World Medical Association released a statement (WMA 2013) that “condemns so-called ‘conversion’ or ‘reparative’ methods” by health care professionals. NARTH’s response was published in the official journal of the Catholic Medical Association (Rosik 2014).

These events prompted NARTH’s leaders to entirely rebrand the organization and its messaging. In 2014, the Alliance for Therapeutic Choice and Scientific Integrity became the organization’s new name and “the NARTH Institute” was placed alongside one of ATCSI’s new divisions. ATCSI represents a significant departure from its previous incarnation. In addition to renaming the organization and broadening its mission, ATCSI’s leaders also announced they had created a global advocacy organization, the International Federation for Therapeutic and Counselling Choice (IFTCC), and located ATCSI within that federation. The language of IFTCC’s organizational mission is almost identical to ATCSI’s. The most significant aspect of IFTCC is its “anthropological approach,” which “is based on a Judeo-Christian understanding of the body, marriage and the family” (IFTCC 2022). This development is an official acknowledgement of the religious commitments of the federation and its member organizations, particularly the Alliance for Therapeutic Choice and Scientific Integrity.

NARTH’s founders endeavored to frame the organization as scientific and secular. Despite many years of successfully marketing etiologies of disorder and “reparative therapy” to clients, NARTH’s conversion to ATCSI, which positions “therapeutic choice” before “scientific integrity,” and its new practice guidelines (ATCSI 2018) for change therapy endorsed by the organization, Sexual Attraction Fluidity Exploration in Therapy (SAFE-T), appears as a concession. NARTH’s appeals to science have not protected licensed mental health practitioners against professional and legal regulation. As psychologist Charles Silverstein (2003:33) observed, the “concept of ‘choice’ currently favored by the conservative Christian right is a regression to an earlier religious belief in ‘free will.’”

In 2012, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a consumer fraud civil lawsuit against an ex-gay organization, Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality (JONAH), which was co-founded by former NARTH officer Arthur Goldberg. NARTH officers Joseph Nicolosi, Joseph Berger, Christopher Doyle, and James Phelan provided expert declarations in advance of the trial and testified in court in support of JONAH. In 2015, the judge declared that, as a matter of law, homosexuality is not a mental illness and excluded their testimony (Dubrowski 2015). The jury returned a unanimous verdict, finding JONAH liable for consumer fraud. The scientific claims of NARTH experts are increasingly being rejected by the courts (Dubrowski 2015). While ATCSI maintains, despite evolving stances of the mental health establishment to the contrary, that the therapy they endorse is effective, ethical, and safe, it is clear that NARTH’s salvation can no longer rely on its appeals to science alone. Since 2014, ATCSI has more intentionally leveraged rights-based arguments (client autonomy, self-determination, religious liberty, religious diversity, conscience, free speech, and parents’ rights) to defend the legitimacy of its profession (Clucas 2017, Robinson and Spivey 2019).

The first years of ATCSI were extremely difficult. In 2014, members of The United Nations Committee against Torture questioned officials in the U.S. State Department about why 48 states allow conversion therapy with minors (Margolin 2014). In 2015, The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights (United Nations 2015) issued a report calling for all nations to ban “conversion therapies.” In 2015, NARTH co-founder Benjamin Kaufman relinquished his medical license amid allegations of gross negligence and unprofessional conduct (Truth Wins Out 2016). The American Bar Association adopted a resolution urging “…all federal, state, local, territorial and tribal governments to enact laws prohibiting state-licensed professionals from using conversion therapy on minors” (ABA 2015). In 2016, the World Psychiatric Association declared conversion therapy to be “wholly unethical.” In 2017, NARTH co-founder Joseph Nicolosi died, a couple of months before the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a challenge to California’s law banning conversion therapy with minors. Nicolosi’s practice had been harmed by this law, and he was a plaintiff in the lawsuit challenging it (as was NARTH). After his father’s death, Joseph Nicolosi, Jr. trademarked “reparative therapy” and “reintegrative therapy,” in 2018 and 2019 respectively (Justia 2018, 2019). In 2019, juggernaut retailer announced its decision to stop selling books on conversion therapy.

ATCSI’s rights-based rhetorical strategy garnered a significant legal victory in 2020, when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit invalidated two ordinances in Florida (the city of Boca Raton and Palm Beach county) that banned conversion therapy with minors. Liberty Counsel, the Christian litigation firm that has worked closely with NARTH/ATCSI for several years (Robinson and Spivey 2019), represented two therapists, former NARTH President Julie Hamilton and Robert Otto. They challenged these ordinances as a violation of free speech. Only time will tell if this is a harbinger of future success.

In 2021, the American Psychological Association adopted a resolution that strengthened its stance against SOCE (APA 2021a) as well as its first resolution opposing gender identity change efforts (APA 2021b). For the first time in the U.S., pro-conversion therapy legislation was “quietly” introduced in five state legislatures (Terkel 2021). Oklahoma’s bill, “The Parental and Family Rights in Counseling Protection Act,” was patroned by Rep. Jim Olson, who quoted ATCSI board member, pediatrician Michelle Cretella, to claim that conversion therapy can be effective and is not harmful (Brack 2021). Arizona’s bill sought to prohibit state agencies from punishing practitioners who engage in therapy “consistent with conscience or religious belief.” None of these bills was passed into law. As of 2022, more than half of the states, and several U.S. cities, have some form of conversion therapy ban, by law or regulation (Movement Advancement Project 2022). Almost all of these prohibit conversion therapy on minors by state-licensed health providers.


NARTH’s founding goal was to protect the livelihoods of professionals who provide counseling to clients who are distressed about their same-sex attractions and gender nonconformity. In an early Statement of Policy, NARTH asserted that homosexuality “…is inimical to the preservation of the family unit” (NARTH Bulletin 1993a:2). The worldview that NARTH promoted and that ATCSI continues to promote (and shares with its transformational ministry and Christian Right partners) is that the patriarchal, nuclear family structure is God-ordained, is reflected in the natural order, and is the keystone of a healthy society. All of society’s institutions (religion, law, medicine, etc.) should preserve and protect this grand design and the essential gender structure on which it depends (Burack and Josephson 2005; Robinson and Spivey 2007, 2015, 2019).

ATCSI promotes the belief that homosexuality and gender variance are gender identity disorders that develop from gender-deviant parenting/family dynamics or other childhood trauma, which are abetted and exacerbated on a societal level by feminism, gay rights, and the transgender movement (Robinson and Spivey 2007, 2019). Its efforts to market the treatment and prevention of “gender confusion” are reinforced by conservative Judeo-Christian theology and laws that deny LGBT people human and civil rights. ATCSI remains an active partner in these endeavors as well, and currently features on its website a webinar by Liberty Counsel attorney Mat Staver on why The Equality Act, which would add anti-discrimination protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity to federal law, should be opposed.

NARTH’s officers and organizational literature from 1992-2013 attempted to establish a scientific rationale for conversion therapy. The vast majority of the organization’s officers, board members, and advisors during its thirty-year history are individuals who hold religiously conservative positions on the morality of homosexuality and gender variance. In addition, several officers and board members simultaneously held prominent positions in and/or work closely with ex-gay ministry networks and Christian anti-LGBT political organizations. Despite declarations that NARTH is primarily a scientific organization, its literature consistently expressed and encouraged conservative Judeo-Christian condemnation of homosexuality and gender non-conformity. Reparative therapy, which integrates and prioritizes religion within a therapeutic model that prescribes gender resocialization (Robinson and Spivey 2007, 2015, 2019), was developed by theologian Elizabeth Moberly (1983). It has been the dominant “treatment” model since the late 1980s. It was popularized, and possibly plagiarized, by NARTH co-founder Joseph Nicolosi (Besen 2003, Erzen 2006). It has been the most prominent therapy promoted by NARTH and Christian and Jewish ministries around the world for diagnosing and “healing” people of their same-sex attractions and gender dysphoria (Hall 2017, Mikulak 2020, Robinson and Spivey 2015).

In 2014, when the organization rebranded as the Alliance for Therapeutic Choice and Scientific Integrity and developed new practice guidelines, science became secondary to “therapeutic choice” and the religious values and rights of clients and practitioners.


The original goal of NARTH was to protect licensed mental health practitioners who offer SOGIE change therapy from professional regulation. The organization also sought to market therapy to clients, who primarily pursued therapy based on religious conflicts. Both are likely more difficult in a society that increasingly accepts and recognizes the civil rights of LGBT people.

Through NARTH, conversion advocates appeared to engage in all of the familiar activities of a scholarly, scientific professional association. They provided stable leadership, generated a membership, and created an organizational structure to facilitate its work. NARTH sponsors a newsletter, hosts an annual conference (since 1993), maintains a website (since 2006), and publishes its own journal (since 2009). NARTH purported to uphold science as the foundation for research and therapy and to be a secular organization. Its endeavors were exceedingly fruitful for developing mutually beneficial collaborations with change ministry networks and Christian political and legal organizations. NARTH provided scientific legitimacy for ministries and expert testimony for Christian Right litigation, legislation, and policy advocacy. In return, these partners supplied publicity, client referrals, and legal counsel (see Robinson and Spivey 2019). In addition to its scientific practices, NARTH has always operated, de facto, as a religious organization in every aspect of its work (Clucas 2017; Drescher 1998).

ATCSI’s organizational literature (newsletter, website, conference presentations, and journal) has always disseminated and promoted conservative, Judeo-Christian religious views of homosexuality and gender variance. Most of its officers and board members who are licensed mental health professionals integrated theology and/or prescribed religious practices (prayer, reading scripture, attending church or ministry support groups) into their work with clients. The organization’s own survey (Nicolosi, Byrd and Potts 2000) found that most “reorientation psychotherapists” incorporate religion into their work with clients at least some of the time.

ATCSI’s leadership has always represented an interfaith alliance of socially conservative Christians and Jews. The overwhelming majority of ATCSI’s officers, board and committee members, past and present, hold religious affiliations representing conservative Catholic, Jewish, LDS, mainline Protestant, nondenominational and evangelical Christian traditions. Every President in the organization’s history has been a Christian. They commonly publish their work in religious journals and presses (Waidzunas 2015).

ATCSI’s leaders worked closely with and frequently held prominent positions in ex-gay ministry organizations (Robinson and Spivey 2015, 2019; Waidzunas 2015). James Phelan is the former President of Transforming Congregations, a Methodist ministry (Kuyper 1999). Arthur Goldberg co-founded JONAH, a Jewish ministry. David Pruden, Dean Byrd, Shirley Cox, Jerry Harris, and David Matheson served prominently in the LDS ministry, Evergreen International (Petrey 2020). Michael Davidson directs a ministry in the U.K. Charles Socarides, Joseph Nicolosi, Janelle Hallman, Richard Fitzgibbons (Tushnet 2021) and others worked closely with Courage International, a Catholic ministry. Over the years, NARTH/ATCSI conferences regularly included leaders of these ministries as well as Exodus International, One by One, the Restored Hope Network, the International Healing Foundation, and others.

ATCSI also collaborates closely with Christian legal, political, and medical organizations, particularly Liberty Counsel, Focus on the Family, and the American College of Pediatricians (Robinson and Spivey 2019; Spivey and Robinson 2010). Representatives of these and other similar groups often speak at ATCSI conferences. ATCSI’s board members have also held significant leadership roles in Christian political and medical organizations. Former NARTH psychologist and Baptist minister George Rekers co-founded the Family Research Council. Jewish psychiatrist Jeffrey Satinover served as the medical advisor for Focus on the Family. Catholic pediatrician Michelle Cretella was president of the American College of Pediatricians.

In addition to ATCSI’s success in disseminating its literature and ideas through formidable and fruitful partnerships with conservative religious organizations, its leaders have also been prolific advocates, providing media interviews and appearing on popular television shows. A significant aspect of its ability to resist against professional and legal regulation, attract clients, and justify its existence in the public sphere is its rhetorical appeals. Scholars have analyzed the rhetorical “framing” strategies used by NARTH/ATCSI leaders to defend conversion therapy and appeal to various audiences (Arthur et al. 2014, Bennett 2003, Burack and Josephson 2005, Clucas 2017, Conrad and Angell 2004, Robinson and Spivey 2019, Stewart 2005, Waidzunas 2015). While the organization maintains, despite the evolving stances of the mental health establishment to the contrary, that therapy is effective, ethical, and safe, it is clear that ATCSI’s future must depend on a different approach. As SOGIE change therapy became increasingly regulated by the mental health profession and the law, ATCSI’s framing emphasized “client autonomy” and religious rationales more than science. This is the essence of what is reflected by rebranding NARTH as The Alliance for Therapeutic Choice and Scientific Integrity.


The Alliance for Therapeutic Choice and Scientific Integrity is highly bureaucratized. [Image at right]  NARTH’s original leadership structure consisted of an executive director, president, and vice-president, first staffed by Joseph Nicolosi, Charles Socarides, and Benjamin Kaufman (respectively). Nicolosi also edited the NARTH Bulletin and served as the first secretary-treasurer. NARTH established several committees during its first year (NARTH Bulletin 1993a), including: an advisory committee to government, educational and mental health agencies; a committee on media, religious and social service organizations; a committee on the public information/pamphlets, a committee on political and academic intimidation, and a committee to liaison with religious and ex-gay ministries. Jack Hale initially provided legal counsel. NARTH received tax exempt status as a private, non-profit organization in 1993 (NARTH Bulletin 1993b). In 1994, it added a research committee (NARTH Bulletin 1994). NARTH also established a board of directors and a scientific advisory committee.

The NARTH Newsletter (1992:7), renamed “NARTH Bulletin” thereafter, delineated the original categories of membership. These include member (“for individuals engaged in psychological treatment or research of homosexuality… open to psychoanalysts, psychiatrists, psychologists, counselors, and certified social workers [who] have completed a Masters’ [sic] Degree level training sexuality, family, and MFC programs”), associate member (“for educators, public health officials, religious leaders, social scientists and historians, as well as writers in the field of sexuality and family health [including] any individual in the behavioral sciences with a particular interest in homosexuality”), and friends of NARTH (for “individuals who wish to further and encourage the educational and therapeutic aims of this organization”). The membership form noted that NARTH offers client referrals for members in the first category.

NARTH created and dissolved several ad hoc committees from 1992-2013, including an interfaith committee. However, its leadership, organizational and membership structures remained relatively stable as the organization grew. The size of organization’s membership, which was occasionally mentioned in the newsletter and at the annual conference, grew steadily during its first decade. In 2003, NARTH’s membership was “approaching 1,500 and rapidly growing” (Byrd 2003:5). In 2009, NARTH established The Journal of Human Sexuality and created new positions (such as managing editor, and later, an editorial board) to carry out the journal’s work.

In 2014, when NARTH became the Alliance for Therapeutic Choice and Scientific Integrity, the organization’s leadership originally located “the NARTH Institute,” alongside the organization’s newly-developed divisions within ATCSI. Eventually, the NARTH acronym was phased out altogether. To date, ATCSI’s six divisions include three “public advocacy” divisions (Ethics, Family & Faith; Public Education; and Client Rights) and three “professional” divisions (Clinical, Research, and Medical). Each division has its own goals, a working committee, and an advisory committee.

In 2014, NARTH’s officers also established a global organization, The International Federation for Therapeutic and Counselling Choice, with an explicitly Judeo-Christian worldview, and announced ATCSI as a member of this federation.


In 30 years, ATCSI has accomplished a great deal of its founders’ vision. Its charter members successfully developed a network of devoted professionals and supporters to advance the organization’s mission and carry out its work. By cultivating synergetic partnerships with established ministry networks and religious political, legal, and health organizations, ATCSI’s efforts revitalized the profession of conversion therapy in the United States, and strengthened the transnational conversion therapy movement. ATCSI has endured loss, weathered scandals, and persisted through negative publicity involving some of its leaders and former allies; however, its primary obstacles are external. ATCSI’s efforts and accomplishments also raise a number of unresolved issues.

The most pressing challenge facing ATCSI is professional and/or legal regulation. ACTSI has formidable opponents, including and beyond mental health, medical, and legal professional associations. These include non-profit organizations that have worked to educate, advocate, legislate, and litigate against conversion therapy, such as Truth Wins Out, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, and the Trevor Project. To what extent and in what ways can/will mental health associations, state licensing boards, and legislatures regulate conversion therapists? Will the movement to pass state laws banning licensed health providers from engaging in conversion therapy with minors maintain momentum? What is the likelihood of regulating this through existing laws protecting children from abuse (Hicks 1999)? Scholars have identified limitations and loopholes of these approaches (Alexander 2017, Calvert 2020, Drescher 2022). What about consumer fraud legislation, such as the proposed federal Therapeutic Fraud Prevention Act, which would make advertising conversion therapy in exchange for remuneration a fraudulent practice for minors and adults? What about state and federal legislation to “defund” Alexander 2017) or deny the use of public funds to pay for it, such as the proposed Prohibition of Medicaid Funding for Conversion Therapy Act? In what ways might the daunting prospect of “high-tech” conversion therapies present new opportunities for conversion proponents, and more complex challenges for regulating them (Earp, Sandberg, and Savulescu 2014)?

In three decades, ATCSI has proven resilient and has largely resisted attempts by professional associations and advocacy organizations to discourage or obstruct SOGIE change therapy. The consensus position of the mental health establishment is that no sexual orientation or gender identity is a mental illness. Should clients be allowed to pursue attempts to change anyway, for themselves or their children, based on their religious beliefs or any other reason? While some licensed practitioners have been affected by state laws and regulations banning therapy with minors, most have largely avoided legal and/or professional regulation (IRTC 2020). This is particularly true for unlicensed, religious counselors, whose religious practices are beyond the regulatory reach of U.S. law (Cruz 1998-1999, Knauer 2020). ATCSI’s division on client rights is dedicated to resisting professional and legal control, and earned a significant, recent victory that invalidated two ordinances. To what extent will ATCSI’s religious freedom and rights-based arguments succeed in the judiciary? What about the court of public opinion? How will furthering the human and civil rights of LGBT people, which have advanced significantly since NARTH began in 1992, affect the demand for conversion therapy? The market today remains robust.


Image #1: Joseph Nicolosi
Image #2: Charles Socarides
Image #3: Logo of National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality.
Image #4: The Alliance for Therapeutic Choice and Scientific Integrity.


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Publication Date:
12 April 2022


Ordo Templi Orientis


1855 (June 28):  Theodor Reuss was born.

1875 (October 12):  Aleister Crowley was born in Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, Britain.

1901–1902:  Reuss obtained charters to operate several high-degree masonic rites in Germany.

1902:  Reuss began issuing the periodical Oriflamme.

1904 (April 8–10):  Crowley received The Book of the Law in Cairo, Egypt.

1906 (January 22):  The date of the earliest constitution of the “Ancient Order of Oriental Templars,” likely produced closer to 1912.

1910:  Reuss granted Aleister Crowley a charter for the “Antient and Primitive Rite.”

1912 (April 21):  Reuss granted Crowley a charter for Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO) and designated him National Grand Master General for Britain and Ireland. Reuss also designated Crowley “General Representative” for America around this time.

1912 (June 1):  A British branch of OTO, “Mysteria Mystica Maxima” or M\M\M\, was established in London.

1912 (September):  Reuss announced the existence and mission of OTO, as well as Crowley’s status, in a “Jubilee” issue of Oriflamme. Crowley concurrently announced the “Order of Oriental Templars” and its British branch, M\M\M\, in the September issue of his periodical The Equinox.

1913:  Crowley penned “Ecclesiæ Gnosticæ Catholicæ Canon Missæ,” the Gnostic Catholic Mass, as the “central ceremony” of OTO.

1913:  The first local Lodge of OTO was established in London.

1913 (December 20):  Crowley issued an OTO charter to James Thomas Windram for South Africa, leading to the formation of two Lodges.

1913–1914 (c.):  Crowley revised OTO’s initiation rites up until the VI°.

1914: Crowley published a manifesto for the British branch of OTO, “Manifesto M\M\M\”.

1915 (January 1): Crowley issued a charter to Charles Stansfeld Jones, appointing him OTO representative in Vancouver.

1915 (November 15)  : J.T. Windram issued an OTO charter for Australia to Frank Bennett.

1917 (January 22):  Reuss announced an “Anational Grandlodge” as the new headquarters of OTO in the utopian commune Monte Verità in Ascona, Switzerland.

1917 (August 15–25):  Reuss held an OTO “Anational Congress” at Monte Verità.

1918:  Reuss published Crowley’s Gnostic Mass in German under the auspices of Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica (EGC).

1918 (March):  The first English-language publication of the Gnostic Mass, in The International.

1919 (March 21):  The Equinox III (1) was published. This issue comprised documents related to the organization and mission of OTO.

1921 (July):  Reuss issued a multinational charter for OTO in North America to C.S. Jones, and a national charter for Germany to Heinrich Tränker.

1921 (September 3):  Reuss issued an OTO charter to Carl William Hansen, alias Ben Kadosh, for Denmark.

1923 (October 28): Theodor Reuss died.

1924 (December):  Crowley formally accepted the position of Outer Head of the Order (OHO) of OTO with the support of Jones and Tränker.

1925 (August):  The Conference of Grand Masters was held in Weida, Germany.

1935:  Wilfred Talbot Smith, working with Jane Wolfe, established the Agape Lodge of OTO in Southern California.

1940 (April 8):  Crowley appointed Karl J. Germer as Grand Treasurer General.

1941:  Germer emigrated to the U.S.

1941 (July 18):  Crowley named Germer as the next OHO.

1941:  Grady Louis McMurtry was initiated into the Agape Lodge of OTO.

1946 (March 22):  Crowley authorized McMurtry to assume control of OTO in California in case of emergency.

1947 (December 1):  Aleister Crowley died in Hastings, East Sussex. He was succeeded by Germer as OHO.

1948:  Agape Lodge was closed.

1962 (October 25):  Karl Germer died in West Point, California.

1968–1969:  Learning of Germer’s passing, McMurtry acted on his previous authorization from Crowley and moved to reestablish OTO in California with the aid of members of the old Agape Lodge.

1977 (October 12):  McMurtry chartered Thelema Lodge in Berkeley, CA, as the Grand Lodge of the reestablished OTO.

1979 (March 20):  OTO was incorporated as a religious non-profit organization under the laws of the State of California.

1985 (July 12):  The U.S. District Court of Northern California declared McMurtry’s OTO the rightful heir to the Crowley–Germer organization, with exclusive legal rights to Crowley’s literary legacy and the OTO name and lamen.

1985 (July 12):  Grady McMurtry died.

1985 (September 21):  The IX° members of OTO elected William Breeze, alias Hymenaeus Beta, as acting OHO.

1996:  An International Headquarters of OTO was established, with the United States Grand Lodge (USGL) as a subordinate body.

2005:  The United Kingdom Grand Lodge (UKGL) was established.

2006:  The Australia Grand Lodge was established.

2014:  Grand Lodges were established in Italy and Croatia.

2014 (October 10):  The five National Grand Masters voted to elect Breeze as de jure OHO.


Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO) or the Order of Oriental Templars is an initiatory magical order that arose out of the irregular and high-degree masonic networks of early-twentieth-century Central Europe. Carl Kellner (1851–1905), a wealthy Austrian paper chemist and Freemason with an interest in yoga and occultism, is traditionally credited as the “spiritual father” (geistige Vater) and first “Outer Head” of OTO (Reuss 1912:15). [Image at right] However, the order appears to have arisen from the collaboration between the German socialist and singer Theodor Reuss (1855–1923) and the British occultist, poet, and mountaineer Aleister Crowley (1875–1947), the latter being the principal architect of the present-day order’s structure and teachings.

Theodor Reuss was born in 1855 to an English mother and a German father. Having worked as a journalist in the 1880s, Reuss in 1885 joined the Socialist League, one of several early socialist movements emerging in England. He was expelled the following year due to accusations of operating as a spy for the Prussian police (despite scant evidence) (Howe and Möller 1978). During the 1890s, Reuss moved in several esoteric and masonic groups. [Image at right] This is where Reuss met Carl Kellner, whom Reuss later claimed wished to create an “Academia Masonica” uniting all masonic degrees and systems (Reuss 1912:15). Around the year 1900, Reuss obtained charters to establish several high-degree masonic rites in Germany via Gérard Encausse (alias Papus, 1865–1916), founder of the Martinist Order; William Wynn Westcott (1848–1925), Freemason and co-founder of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn; and the Freemason John Yarker (1833–1913). In 1902, Reuss began issuing the periodical Oriflamme as a vehicle for his ideas (Höwe and Möller 1978; Kaczynski 2012).

Also embroiled in the neo-Gnostic movement of the time, Reuss attended a spiritualist masonic conference organized by Papus in Paris in 1908. There, Reuss may have been ordained bishop of Jean Bricaud’s (1881–1934) l’Église Catholique Gnostique (later l’Église Gnostique Universelle). Bricaud (formerly a bishop of Jules Doinel’s (1842–1902) Gnostic Church) had broken away in 1907 to form his own church, supported by Papus and Louis-Sophrone Fugairon (b. 1846). Reuss later established a German branch of the church titled Die Gnostische Katolische Kirche (G.K.K.) (Toth 2005).

In 1910, Reuss granted a charter for Yarker’s Antient and Primitive Rite to Aleister Crowley (Reuss 1906 [1910]; Crowley 1989:628–629). Born in 1875 to parents who were members of the Plymouth Brethren, a dispensationalist Christian sect, Crowley was no novice to esoteric activity. In 1898, he had joined the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in London, rising quickly through the grades. His involvement with the order ended in 1900. In 1904, on honeymoon with his first wife Rose (née Kelly, 1874–1932), [Image at right]  Crowley was visited by a discarnate entity named Aiwass, whom Crowley considered to be a messenger of the god Horus. Over three days, Aiwass dictated a text to Crowley: The Book of the Law, later given the technical title Liber AL vel Legis (Crowley 2004). Though initially skeptical of the book’s message, Crowley eventually accepted his status as prophet of a new religion: Thelema (Greek for “will”), of which The Book of the Law became the central sacred text. In 1907, Crowley and his former Golden Dawn mentor George Cecil Jones (1873–1960) founded the Order of the Silver Star or A\A\, which drew on the degree structure and ritual magical practices of the Golden Dawn combined with yogic techniques Crowley had learned travelling in Asia (Crowley 1994). Crowley also made study of the “Holy Books of Thelema” part of the A\A\ curriculum (Crowley 1909). Like Reuss, Crowley was a periodical publisher, having issued The Equinox as a vehicle of A\A\ since 1909.

In 1912, Crowley and Reuss again crossed paths. Crowley claims Reuss sought him out at his London home, accusing Crowley of disseminating the “supreme secret” of Reuss’s Ordo Templi Orientis, associated with the IX° of the order. As a result, Reuss stated, Crowley must be initiated into the order and ceremonially sworn to secrecy. Crowley claimed to have retorted that he, ignorant of the order’s secret, could hardly be guilty of revealing it, to which Reuss responded by indicating a passage from Crowley’s The Book of Lies (first published in 1912, see Crowley 1980). Crowley describes how realization dawned on him. On April 21, Reuss thus conferred the IX° on Crowley, appointing him National Grand Master of OTO in Great Britain and Ireland (Crowley 1989:709–10). [Image at right] Reuss also appointed Crowley OTO representative for the U.S.. Parts of Crowley’s account are called into question by the lack of evidence of OTO existing as a membership organization prior to 1912. Though the order’s first constitution is dated to January 22, 1906, the document was likely produced closer to 1912, and it is thus reasonable to assume that OTO as a functioning organization emerged from Reuss’s and Crowley’s collaboration and mainly from 1912 on (cf. Howe and Möller 1978).

A British branch of OTO, “Mysteria Mystica Maxima” or M\M\M\, was established in London on June 1, 1912 (Reuss 1912:14). In September 1912, Reuss issued a “Jubilee edition” of Oriflamme, announcing OTO and revealing the nature of the order’s supreme secret: sexual magic, claimed as the key to all Hermetic and masonic systems (Reuss 1912:21). Concurrently, the September 1912 issue of Crowley’s The Equinox announced an “Order of Oriental Templars” and its British branch, M\M\M\. Though it is unclear whether Reuss had consecrated Crowley as bishop of his own Gnostic Catholic Church, Crowley’s announcement of OTO also mentioned the “Gnostic Catholic Church” as a spiritual antecedent to the order (Crowley 1912).

From the point of its official launch, OTO admitted men and women on equal terms. Though the order had this in common with several other contemporary occult societies, including the Golden Dawn and the Theosophical Society, the policy of initiating women distinguished OTO from its masonic roots. The decision to admit women can likely be linked to the order’s sex magical teachings. From the outset, several women held executive offices within the order, including Crowley’s first Grand Secretary General, Vittoria Cremers, and succeeding Secretaries, Leila Waddell (1880–1932) and Leah Hirsig (1883–1975) (cf. Hedenborg White 2021b). [Image at right]

After his induction into OTO, Crowley proceeded to reshape the order. Dissatisfied with Reuss’s initiation rituals, Crowley with Reuss’s support revised the initiations up until the VI°. In Moscow in 1913, Crowley also penned a neo-Gnostic, Eucharistic ritual for the order: “Ecclesiæ Gnosticæ Catholicæ Canon Missæ” or the Gnostic Catholic Mass, which Crowley intended to communicate OTO’s central, sex magical secret (Crowley 1989:714; Crowley 2007:247–70). The Latinized name Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica had not previously been in general use, though Crowley’s adoption of this terminology clearly links the ritual to Reuss’s neo-Gnostic interests. The ritual centers on the veneration of the masculine and feminine principles and their erotic union (see Rituals/Practices for further information). The order also expanded geographically around this time. On December 20, 1913, Crowley issued a charter to his student James Thomas Windram (1877–1939) for South Africa, leading to the formation of two lodges. On November 15, 1915, Windram in turn granted a charter for Australia to Frank Bennett (1868–1930) (Windram 1915).

Though Crowley had utilized sexual acts to attain spiritual purposes on several previous occasions (see e.g., Hedenborg White 2020:54; 76 n89), his collaboration with Reuss marked the beginning of a more systematic engagement with sexual magic; the use of sexual acts or energy to attain specific goals. From 1914 on, Crowley explored sexual magic with numerous partners both male and female, recording the experiments in his diary (e.g., Crowley 1983; Crowley 1996). He also penned instructional documents for OTO’s higher degrees (e.g., Crowley 1914a; 1914b). Briefly summarized, Crowley’s technique consisted of concentrating on a desired outcome and raising and focusing sexual energy, culminating at the point of orgasm with the “charging” of an appropriate mental image. The resulting genital fluids were subsequently consumed or, in some cases, used to anoint a material talisman. Sexual magic was initially linked to the OTO’s VIII° and IX°, associated with autoerotic exercises and heterosexual intercourse, respectively. After performing a series of invocations with his lover and disciple Victor B. Neuburg (1883–1940) in 1914 in Paris, Crowley added an XI°. This degree is generally held to be associated with anal sex, which Crowley performed with both male and female partners (Crowley 1983: e.g., 53–64; Crowley 1998:343–409; cf. Bogdan 2006:218). In 1915, Crowley formally introduced Thelema into the branches of OTO under his jurisdiction (cf. Bogdan 2021:34).

During World War I, Crowley settled in the U.S., while Reuss relocated to Switzerland. In January 1917, Reuss announced the establishment of OTO’s headquarters in the form of an Anational Grandlodge in the progressive, utopian commune Monte Verità near Ascona, Switzerland (Howe & Möller 1978; Green 1987). In August that year, Reuss hosted an “OTO Anational Congress,” which featured a special reading of Crowley’s Gnostic Mass (Reuss 1917; Adderley 1997:245). Reuss also undertook a translation of The Book of the Law into German (Reuss n.d. [1917]), and in 1918 issued a modified German translation of the Gnostic Mass under the auspices of OTO (Reuss 1997:226–38; cf. Hedenborg White, forthcoming). The adoption of the Gnostic Mass as a central ritual established Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica (EGC) as a Thelemic organisation and marked a break with previous forms of Gnostic revivalism.

1918 marked the first English-language publication of the Gnostic Mass in The International (Crowley 1918). Around this time, Crowley again undertook a major revision of the OTO initiation rituals for 0°–III° to further distinguish the order from its masonic origins (Starr 2003:20–24; 98–100). On the spring equinox (March 21), 1919, Crowley resumed publication of his periodical The Equinox after a five-year silence. This was part of a larger publishing endeavor undertaken with the support of Detroit-based Freemason Albert W. Ryerson (1872–1931) and his mistress Bertha Bruce (b. 1888/1889), who also became Crowley’s lover. Commonly called the “blue” Equinox due to the color of its cover, The Equinox III (1) represents a benchmark in OTO history (cf. Kaczynski 2019:1–16). It comprises several key documents detailing the organization and mission of OTO, including Crowley’s revised manifesto for the order and a very slightly modified version of the Gnostic Mass that has since become canonical (Crowley 1919).

Crowley returned to Europe in December 1919. By the summer of 1921, his relationship with Reuss had become strained. Though Crowley later claimed an increasingly mentally unwell Reuss abdicated his position around this time, asking Crowley to take over as Outer Head of the Order (OHO), there are no surviving documents to prove this claim (quoted in Starr 2003: 110–13, 363). Reuss died in 1923, leaving the question of successorship unanswered. In 1924, Crowley formally accepted the office of OHO with the support of two of the remaining National Grand Masters: Charles Stansfeld Jones (1886–1950), who held a multinational charter for North America, and Heinrich Tränker (1880–1956), who held a national charter for Germany. It appears that all three were unaware, at the time, that Reuss in 1921 had issued a national charter for Denmark to Carl William Hansen (alias Ben Kadosh, 1872–1936) (Reuss 1921). Hansen’s successor Grundal Sjallung (1875–1976) contacted Crowley in 1938, believing that OTO had ceased to operate internationally.

With the aid of a close circle of followers, Crowley sought to defend his authority at a conference of occult leaders hosted by Tränker at his home in Weida, Germany, during the summer of 1925. The participants held mixed feelings towards Crowley. While Tränker’s secretary and publisher Karl J. Germer (1885–1962) sided with Crowley, the conference precipitated a schism between Crowley and Tränker (Lechler 2013; Kaczynski 2010:418–23; for further details, see Issues/Challenges).

Coincident with the apparent rise of totalitarianism in Europe, Crowley decided to focus his efforts on establishing OTO in the U.S. Wilfred Talbot Smith (1885–1957), formerly active as a member of OTO in Vancouver, Canada, and Jane Wolfe (1875–1958), [Image at right] a long-time friend and student of Crowley’s who had resided with him in Europe, proceeded to establish the Agape Lodge of OTO in Los Angeles, California, in 1935. After suffering interment in a Nazi concentration camp, Germer emigrated to the U.S. in 1941. On July 18, Crowley indicated Germer as the next OHO of OTO (Crowley 1941). The same year, engineering student Grady Louis McMurtry (1918–1985) [Image at right] was initiated into the Agape Lodge. McMurtry had spent time with Crowley in England during WWII while being stationed there as a soldier. In 1942, the Agape Lodge relocated to Pasadena at the behest of its new lodge master, jet fuel engineer John “Jack” Whiteside Parsons (1914–1952). In the spring of 1946, Crowley authorized McMurtry (under his magical name Hymenaeus Alpha) to take control of OTO in California in case of an emergency (Crowley 1946). By the end of WWII, the Agape Lodge was the only active OTO body in the world (Starr 2003: passim).

Aleister Crowley died in Hastings on December 1, 1947. The Agape Lodge dissolved the following year. While OTO membership activities subsequently dwindled in North America for a number of years, Germer supervised the publication of some of Crowley’s writings and collaborated with Crowley’s friend Gerald Yorke (1901–1983) to preserve letters and documents by Crowley and his followers (Germer 2016; Kaczynski 2010:553–54).

Karl Germer died in West Point, California, on October 25, 1962. In the aftermath of his passing, several persons made claims to successorship, including the British occultist Kenneth Grant (1924–2011), a student of Crowley’s who had been the latter’s secretary late in life; Herman Metzger (1919–1990), who led a Swiss branch of the order; and the Brazilian Thelemite Marcelo Ramos Motta (1931–1987). The strongest claim to successorship, and the only one to have been legally recognized, was that of Grady McMurtry. Learning of Germer’s death in 1968, McMurtry acted on his previous authorizations from Crowley (e.g., Crowley 1946) and moved to reestablish the order with the aid of former Agape Lodge members Phyllis Seckler (1917–2004) and Helen Parsons Smith (1910–2003). In 1977, McMurtry chartered Thelema Lodge in Berkeley, California, as the Grand Lodge of the reestablished OTO. On March 20, 1979, OTO was incorporated as a religious non-profit under California law. On July 12, 1985, the U.S. District Court of Northern California ruled in favor of McMurtry’s OTO, establishing it as the successor to Crowley’s organization and granting it the exclusive copyrights to Crowley’s works. McMurtry died on the day the court ruling was announced (Wasserman 2012).

As McMurtry did not name a successor, the task of choosing the next OHO was delegated to the remaining IX° members of the order. On September 21, 1985, William Breeze (b. 1955) was chosen as acting OHO under the name Hymenaeus Beta. OTO has grown considerably under Breeze’s leadership: 1996 witnessed the incorporation of the International Headquarters of OTO, with the United States Grand Lodge (USGL) as a subordinate body, and additional grand lodges have since been established in the UK (2005), Australia (2006), Croatia (2014), and Italy (2014). On October 10, 2014, Breeze was unanimously elected de jure OHO by the order’s five National Grand Masters.


A discussion of the teachings of OTO necessitates a demarcation between the order’s first years of existence and its development under Crowley’s increasing stewardship and after. As noted, Reuss declared the order’s initial agenda to be the union of masonic and Hermetic systems via the key, sexual magic. Though the exact nature of Reuss’s teachings on sexual magic prior to his collaboration with Crowley is unclear, previous scholarship has identified three distinct sources of inspiration. Firstly, the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor, whose practices encompassed the sex magical teachings of physician, abolitionist, and spiritualist medium Paschal Beverly Randolph (1825–1875) (Deveney 1997). [Image at right] Randolph’s ideas may have reached Reuss indirectly via Carl Kellner and the Hermetic Brotherhood of Light, with which Reuss claimed Kellner had been in contact (Reuss 1912:15; Godwin et al. 1995). A second source of inspiration for Reuss was eighteenth and nineteenth-century Phallicism or Phallism, as propagated by Richard Payne Knight (1751–1824), Sir William Jones (1746–1794), and Hargrave Jennings (1817–1890), whose work Reuss partly plagiarized in the book Lingam-Yoni (Reuss 1906; cf. Kaczynski 2012:246–8). The core notion of Phallism was that the original religion of humankind consisted of the worship of the regenerative organs of both sexes. Reuss envisioned OTO as a vehicle for a reinstated cult of the Phallus (cf. Bogdan 2006; 2021:33–36). A third source of influence for Reuss was the Belgian Freemason and spiritualist Georges Le Clément de Saint-Marcq (1865–1956) and his ideas about spermatophagy (consumption of semen) as the true Eucharist established during the Last Supper (Pasi 2008; Reuss 1993:56–57).

OTO was fundamentally restructured by Crowley’s introduction and increasing emphasis on Thelema and its principles as put forth in its core sacred text, The Book of the Law. Its central tenet “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law” was prefigured in Francois Rabelais’s Gargantua et Pantagruel (1532), which features an “Abbaye du Thélème.” Rather than an injunction to act on each impulsive desire, Crowley interpreted “Do what thou wilt” as referring to the duty of each person to discover and accomplish their “true Will”, which he believed to be the unique purpose of each individual life (e.g., Crowley 1974:129–30). The related maxim: “Love is the law, love under will” (foreshadowed by St. Augustine’s dictum: “Love, and do what thou wilt”) was interpreted by Crowley to mean that the nature of the true will is love, and that each intentional act is an act of union (i.e., love) with creation (e.g., Crowley 1974:163–64; Crowley 2007b). Crowley viewed magic (or “Magick,” as he preferred to spell it) as the key to discovering and honing one’s will, defining it as “the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will” (Crowley 1994:128). Between 1907 and 1911, Crowley produced several additional inspired writings, which together with The Book of the Law comprise the “Holy Books of Thelema,” the canon of Thelemic texts (Crowley 1988; 1998).

Crowley considered the reception of The Book of the Law to mark the beginning of a new age, which he designated the Aeon of Horus. In his notion of aeons (approximately 2,000 year-periods correlating with different stages in the spiritual evolution of humanity), Crowley was inspired both by his upbringing in the Plymouth Brethren and its dispensationalist teachings, and by Frazerian theories of religious evolution (Bogdan 2012; 2021:16–20). The first aeon Crowley mentions by name is the Aeon of Isis, which he associates with matriarchal prehistory and the veneration of a great goddess representing the natural world. Isis was superseded, according to Crowley, by the Aeon of Osiris, characterized by patriarchal monotheism, the elevation of spirit over matter, and worship of various embodiments of the “Dying God,” such as Christ, Dionysus, or Orpheus. The reign of Horus, divine offspring of Isis and Osiris, would be characterized by individualism, the shattering of old illusions, and the union of matter and spirit (Crowley 1936; Crowley 1974:137f; 271ff).

Erotic imagery is central to Thelemic ontology, which is conceptualized as a dialectic between the goddess Nuit, envisioned as the night sky and representing limitless space and potential, and her consort Hadit, the infinitely condensed life-force of each individual. Their ecstatic union gives rise to Ra-Hoor-Khuit (a form of the god Horus), [Image at right] associated with the sun and the liberating energies of the new aeon (Crowley 1974; 2004, passim). This triad is reflected in The Book of the Law, whose three chapters are ascribed to Nuit, Hadit, and Ra-Hoor-Khuit, respectively. The Thelemic pantheon also includes the goddess Babalon and her consort Chaos. Based on a favorable re-interpretation of the Biblical Whore of Babylon (Rev. 17), Crowley identified Babalon with the magical formula of openness or receptivity towards all aspects of creation, and the sacredness of liberated (and particularly feminine) sexuality (Hedenborg White 2020, passim). This Thelemic pantheon is celebrated in Crowley’s Gnostic Mass (Crowley 2007).


OTO offers a series of staged initiation rituals through which the initiate is gradually made privy to esoteric secrets. As noted above, the masonic elements that characterized the early OTO initiations were gradually toned down under Crowley’s influence. Sexual magic is taught in the order’s higher degrees. The present-day OTO’s initiatory structure (organized under M\M\M\ (see below)) comprises thirteen numbered degrees from O° to XII° and eight intermediary degrees. The degrees are organized in three “Grades” or “Triads”: Man of Earth, Lover, and Hermit. The Man of Earth degrees are correlated with the chakra system and represent a dramatized progression of the soul through incarnation: conception, birth, life, death, and beyond (see Crowley 1982:122–24: Crowley 1990:193). The 0° (Minerval) degree is equivalent to the status of “honored guest”, while the first degree (I°) confers full membership. Two degrees are primarily administrative: X° marks a National Grand Master, and XII° is held exclusively by the OHO.

Aside from initiations, larger OTO local bodies are expected to provide regular celebrations of the Gnostic Catholic Mass, considered to be the “central ceremony of [OTOs] public and private celebration” (Crowley 1989:714). The Gnostic Mass is performed under the auspices of Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica (EGC) and is often open to the public, serving an important function in introducing Thelema to new seekers as well as providing a spiritual experience and opportunity for socializing. Though Crowley claimed to have written the Gnostic Mass under the inspiration of the liturgy of St. Basil’s Cathedral, his Eucharistic ritual is structurally more like the Tridentine mass of the Roman Catholic Church. Direct parallels include the recitation of a creed; an acknowledgment of spiritual predecessors; recitation of collects; blessings for the dead; and the dissemination of a Eucharist of wine and bread (so-called Cakes of Light). The Gnostic Mass celebrates the Thelemic worldview and divine pantheon. Mirroring the Thelemic view of divinity as comprising both masculine and feminine aspects, the Gnostic Mass is performed by a priest and priestess aided by a deacon and two auxiliary officers known as “children.” Priest and priestess collaboratively invoke the masculine and feminine divine and prepare the Eucharist by enacting a “Mystic Marriage,” a symbolic sexual union where the priest’s lance is lowered into a wine-filled cup (Crowley 2007:247–70).

In addition to performances of the Gnostic Mass, the contemporary EGC confers lay membership via baptism and confirmation and performs weddings, last rites, and clerical ordinations. Many larger OTO bodies offer social gatherings, study groups, workshops, and classes on Thelema in addition to ritual activities. It is common for local bodies to celebrate the solstices, equinoxes, and some or all the “Thelemic Holidays” marking important dates in the life of Aleister Crowley. Such events are frequently open to non-initiates, and this combined with the fact that many larger OTO bodies maintain permanent temple facilities gives the organization a more public presence than many other initiatory orders.

A large-scale study of the individual esoteric practices of OTO members is lacking. However, tentative conclusions can be drawn based on the author’s observations. Though not a formal requirement, many (if not most) OTO members maintain some form of personal magical practice. Though A\A\ is formally distinct from OTO, dual affiliation has been relatively common since Crowley’s lifetime and remains so today. Even among OTO members who are not affiliated with A\A\, many adopt elements of the A\A\ system into personal practice. This includes, but is not limited to, keeping a magical diary (a practice Crowley taught his disciples); daily salutations to the sun as prescribed in Crowley’s “Liber Resh vel Helios” (Crowley 1994:645); regular rituals in service of magical hygiene such as the “Lesser Ritual of the Pentagram” or Crowley’s “Star Ruby” ritual (Crowley 1980:60); and yogic and meditational practices. Though sexual magic is traditionally linked to the higher degrees of OTO, eclectic and individualized sex magical practices appear relatively common among rank-and-file members (cf. Hedenborg White 2020:196, passim).


Counting approximately 4,000 members, OTO is the world’s most populous Thelemic order. As of January 2022, it is organized on five continents in more than thirty countries, with over 150 local bodies worldwide. The order’s International Headquarters (IHQ) is administered by the Supreme Council, comprising the three principal international officers of the order. These are: (1) the Outer Head of the Order, also known as Frater (or Soror) Superior or Caput Ordinis, (2) the Secretary General, or Cancellarius, and (3) the Treasurer General, or Quaestor. IHQ presides over National Grand Lodges in the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, Croatia, and Italy. Of these, the United States Grand Lodge (USGL) is the largest and most active, comprising roughly a third of global membership. National Grand Lodges are headed by a National Grand Master General, holding the degree of Rex Summus Sanctissimus or Supreme and Most Holy King (X°). Countries without a National Grand Lodge may operate as National Sections under the supervision of a Frater Superior’s Representative (FSR). At the Man of Earth level, local bodies (organized as Camps, Oases, and Lodges, and differentiated by the initiations and activities they are expected to offer) are operated either under the jurisdiction of a National Grand Lodge or directly under IHQ. Additional forms of organization include so-called Chapters of Rose Croix, formed by members of the Lover Grade, and Guilds, which center on promoting a particular profession, occupation, or science. There are no official statistics on OTO membership or leadership by gender, though observations suggest a slight male majority among rank-and-file members (Hedenborg White 2020:198).

OTO encompasses two constituent rites: Mysteria Mystica Maxima (M\M\M\) and Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica (EGC). Originally denoting Crowley’s British branch of OTO, M\M\M\ today presides over OTO initiations worldwide. Though originating as an independent organization (and existing as an autonomous, religious non-profit between 1979 and 1985) EGC is today integrated in OTO as its ecclesiastical arm. The office of patriarch (or matriarch) of EGC is held by the OHO, and the primacy of the church comprises the National Grand Masters of the order. EGC also comprises episcopate, priesthood (priests and priestesses), and diaconate. Though baptism and confirmation in EGC do not require OTO membership, ordination to the diaconate, priesthood, and episcopate require particular OTO degrees.


The issue of succession and leadership has posed recurring challenges throughout OTO’s history. As noted above, Reuss’s death was followed by disagreements as to the rightful successor to the office of OHO. The issue was broached at the Conference of Grand Masters, a gathering of occult leaders hosted by Heinrich Tränker at his home in Weida, Germany, 1925. Also present for the gathering were Crowley’s long-term disciple Martha Küntzel (1857–1941) and her lover, Otto Gebhardi; Tränker’s secretary and publisher, Karl Germer; Tränker’s wife, Helene: members of Tränker’s Pansophical movement, Albin Grau (also a member of Crowley’s A\A\) and Eugen Grosche (1888–1964); Henri Birven (1883–1969); and the artist Oskar Hopfer, as well as Crowley and his disciples Leah Hirsig, Norman Mudd (1889–1934), and Dorothy Olsen (b. 1892). The conference was hardly an unequivocal success for anyone involved. While Küntzel and Germer supported Crowley, Tränker, Grau, Birven, and Grosche agreed to keep the Pansophical movement independent of Crowley’s leadership. Tränker subsequently came to reject Crowley (e.g., Lechler 2013), as did Mudd and Hirsig (cf. Hedenborg White 2021b). Bringing together several ex-Pansophists, Grosche went on to found Fraternitas Saturni, which regarded Crowley as a prophet but maintained its independence as an order.

As noted above, the issue of succession resurfaced after Karl Germer’s death in 1962. McMurtry’s claim to OTO headship was challenged by Hermann Metzger, head of a Swiss branch of the order that traced its lineage to Reuss, and which regularly performed Crowley’s Gnostic Mass (Giudice 2015). Following Germer’s death, the members of Metzger’s group voted to elect him as OHO (Weddingen 1963). Lacking authority as per the OTO constitution, the results of this election were not accepted by order members outside of Switzerland. An alternate claim to OTO headship was made by Kenneth Grant, who had served as Crowley’s secretary late in the latter’s life. In 1948, after Crowley’s death, Grant was accepted as a IX° initiate of OTO, and later received a charter from Germer to operate an OTO body in London. In 1955, Grant issued a manifesto announcing the foundation of his “New Isis Lodge” as a body of OTO (Grant 1955). The manifesto put forth that the earth was under the influence of a “transplutonic” planet named Isis, and that the task of the New Isis Lodge was to channel its influence. Germer took issue with Grant’s ideas and expelled the latter from OTO. Grant, however, continued to operate the New Isis Lodge until 1962. From the late 1960s, Grant claimed to be head of a “Typhonian” OTO (referencing the idea of a Typhonian tradition, which Grant elaborated in his nine “Typhonian Trilogies,” published 1972–2002). In 2011, the name of this organization was changed to the Typhonian Order (Bogdan 2015).

The most substantial challenge to McMurtry’s leadership was brought by the Brazilian Thelemite Marcelo Ramos Motta (1931–1987), a former A\A student of Germer’s who had been publishing new editions of Crowley’s works, often with his own commentaries. Upon learning that Crowley had bequeathed his copyrights to OTO, Motta enlisted his student James Wasserman (1948–2020), then an employee of the Samuel Weiser bookstore in New York, to aid him in securing the rights. However, Wasserman ultimately backed McMurtry’s claim. The ensuing hostility led Motta in 1981 to sue Weiser for copyright infringement, positing his own Society Ordo Templi Orientis as the continuation of the Crowley-Germer OTO. As mentioned above, the U.S. District Court of Northern California eventually ruled in favor of McMurtry’s OTO. Today, these issues are largely resolved, and little controversy remains as to the religious non-profit Ordo Templi Orientis Inc. being the legal successor to the Crowley-Germer organization (Wasserman 2012).

The reception of Crowley’s ideas has been affected by larger societal changes, including feminism and LGBTQ rights advocacy. The Thelemic milieu (including OTO as well as other, smaller Thelemic orders, networks, and solitary practitioners) since at least the 1990s has witnessed an increasing proliferation of publications and initiatives (including conferences, podcasts, newsletters, and social media campaigns) aimed at highlighting women’s voices and experiences. The organization of Thelemic Women’s Conferences (in 2006, 2008, and 2016) can be noted as important benchmarks. In the U.S., many larger OTO bodies have regular meetings for women members of the order. The U.S. branch of EGC, which is the largest and most organized, shows awareness of ongoing conversations about gender identity, and has developed EGC policy to accommodate trans priests and priestesses in the Gnostic Mass, as well as non-binary and/or genderqueer identified EGC clergy (cf. Hedenborg White 2021a:189–90).


Image #1:  Carle Kellner.
Image #2: Theodor Reuss .
Image #3: The Crowley family.
Image #4: Aleister Crowley as Baphomet X°.
Image #5: Leah Hirsig.
Image #6: Jane Wolfe.
Image #7: Grady Louis McMurtry.
Image #8: Paschal Beverly Randolph.
Image #9: The Stele of Ankh-af-na-Khonsu.


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Publication Date:
10 April 2022





Our Lady of Guadalupe


1322:  A shepherd in Extremadura, Spain, found a 59 cm statue of the black Virgin of Guadalupe.

1340:  A sanctuary to Guadalupe was founded by King Alfonso XI at Villuercas, Extremadura, Spain.

Pre-Hispanic Period:  Goddess Tonantzin-Coatlicue was venerated at the Tepeyac Hill in Mexico.

1519:  A banner with the Virgin Mary of the Immaculate Conception was brought by Hernán Cortés during his conquest of Mexico.

1531:  Five apparitions of the Mexican Virgin of Guadalupe took place at the Tepeyac Hill, Mexico

1556:  Fray Francisco de Bustamante delivered a sermon denouncing the excessive cult attached to a painting of Guadalupe by the Indigenous artist, Marcos Cipac de Aquino.

1609:  The first Spanish sanctuary to Guadalupe was built at the Tepeyac Hill.

1648 and 1649:  The first historical references to the Mexican Guadalupe cult were published in essays by Miguel Sánchez and Luis Lasso de la Vega, respectively.

1737:  Guadalupe was proclaimed the official patroness of Mexico City.

1746:  Guadalupe was proclaimed the official patroness of all of New Spain (Mexico).

1754:  An official Guadalupe’s holiday was established in the Catholic calendar.

1810-1821:  Guadalupe played a patriotic role during the Mexican War of Independence.

1895:  Guadalupe was crowned.

1910:  Guadalupe was declared patroness of Latin America.

1935:  Guadalupe was proclaimed patroness of the Philippines.

1942:  Guadalupana Societies were funded by Mexican American Catholic women.

1960s:  Guadalupe became a cultural icon for the United Farmworkers strike and other Movimiento Chicano struggles.

1966:  Guadalupe was granted a golden rose by pope Paul VI.

1970s-Present:  Deconstruction, appropriation, and transformation of the traditional Guadalupe image by groups of Chicanos/as for various social and political causes have taken place.

2002:  Pope John Paul II canonized the Indian Juan Diego, who was the object of Guadalupe’s apparitions in 1531.

2013:  Pope Francis granted Guadalupe a second golden rose.


Documentation by various sources dating back to the sixteenth century confirms that, before Cortés’s Conquest of Mexico-Tenochtitlan in 1519–1521, Mesoamerican peoples worshipped the Mother Goddess Tonantzin-Ciuacoatl (Our Mother–Wife of the Serpent/Snake Woman) in her many forms, performing a yearly pilgrimage to her shrine on the Tepeyac hill. Tonantzin was revered in the same location where the Virgin of Guadalupe’s 1531 apparitions later took place and where the Virgin’s Basilica stands today. The sixteenth-century Franciscan Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, referring to the state of things at the onset of the Conquest, affirmed: “[O]n Tepeyacac . . . . they had a temple consecrated to the mother of the gods, called Tonantzin, which means ‘our mother’ . . . and people came from afar . . . and they brought many offerings” (Sahagún 1956, volume 3:352). Sahagún’s testimony was further confirmed by Fray Juan de Torquemada and the Jesuit Clavijero. During the conversion process of the Indian population, the ancient sacred place of Tepeyac was imbued with new powers by substituting the preexistent Aztec goddess with a Christian holy figure. This common practice was promoted by the church. Although this mandate was carried out, the goddess Tonantzin-Ciuacoatl did not disappear. More correctly, she was synthesized into the Virgin of Guadalupe. This new hybrid figure proved to be an ideal focal point of common faith for the eclectic population of the Spanish Vice-Royalty of New Spain. The process, however, did not occur without surprises.

According to the Virgin of Guadalupe legend, Mary appeared to the humble Indian Juan Diego Cuauhtlatonzin on the Tepeyac hill in 1531, expressing her will that a temple be built for her there. This Nahuatl account of the apparitions, titled Nican Mopohua (Here Is Being Said), attributed to the learned Indian Antonio Valeriano, was published by Lasso de la Vega in 1649 (Torre Villar and Navarro de Anda 1982:26-35). It took four apparitions, a miraculous healing, roses out of season, and the imprint of Mary’s image on Juan Diego’s rustic tilma (cloak) to finally convince Archbishop Zumárraga that the apparitions were true. Interestingly, sixteenth-century sources, such as Sahagún’s Historia general, document the great devotion to the goddess Tonantzin-Ciuacoatl centered on the Tepeyac hill, but there is no written record of the apparitions or of the Virgin of Guadalupe until the mid-seventeenth century. In 1648, Imagen de la Virgen María Madre de Dios Guadalupe, milagrosamente Aparecida en la ciudad de México (Image of Virgin Mary Mother of God Guadalupe, Miraculously Appeared in Mexico City) by Miguel Sánchez, and in 1649, the Nican Mopohua, were published. In fact, what can be found prior to 1648 are omissions or attacks regarding the Tepeyac cult (Maza 1981:39–40). For example, on September 8, 1556, Fray Francisco de Bustamante delivered a sermon in Mexico City, denouncing the excessive cult attached to a painting made by the Indian Marcos and placed in the Guadalupe shrine, because he saw this cult as idolatrous:

It seemed to him that the devotion that this city has placed on a certain hermitage or house of Our Lady, that they titled Guadalupe, (was) in great harm of the natives, because they made them believe that that image which an Indian [Marcos] painted was performing miracles . . . and that now to tell them [the Indians] that an image painted by an Indian was performing miracles, that this would be a great confusion and would undo the good that was sowed, because other devotions, like Our Lady of Loreto and others, had great grounds and that this one would be erected so much without foundation, he was astonished” (Torre Villar and Navarro de Anda 1982:38-44).

Even now, a great controversy surrounds the issue of the apparitions of the Virgin of Guadalupe to the newly baptized Indian Juan Diego. In countless studies related to different aspects of the apparitions and the famous image itself, such as those analyzing the paint, the fabric, the reflections in the Virgin’s eyes, and so on, aparicionistas (those who believe in the apparitions) and antiaparicionistas (those who oppose the apparitions), try to prove their point. What we know for sure is that apparitions are impossible to prove, especially six centuries later. Whether they were real or constructed, we will concentrate on the consequences the alleged apparitions brought to the colonial church, to the national cause, and to the people of Mexico.

Following a precedent established by other Span

Following a precedent established by other Spanish and Portuguese conquistadores, Hernán Cortés came to Tenochtitlan (today’s Mexico City) in 1519, under the protecting banners of the Apostle Santiago (Saint James) and the Virgin Mary. In Spanish minds, the Conquest of America was the continuation of the Reconquista or Reconquest of Spain opposing eight centuries (AD 711–1492) of domination by the Moors. The year 1492, a date that marks the “discovery” of America, held multiple significance. It was the year of the final defeat of the Moors in Granada and of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. Another important event of 1492 was the publication of the first Spanish (Castilian) grammar book and the first printed grammar of a vernacular language, The Art of the Castillian Language, by Antonio de Nebrija. These actions reflect the zeal to reinforce the political unity of Spaniards by “cleansing” their faith and by systematizing the official language of the newly united Spain. The popular dramatized dances of Moros y cristianos, representations of battles between Moors and Spaniards, continued in the New World as Danza de la conquista, Danza de la pluma, and Tragedia de la muerte de Atahuallpa, with one alteration, the Moors were replaced by the new infidels, the Indians. The Virgin Mary, traditionally connected to the seas, was long the protectress of the sailors (Nuestra Señora de los Navegantes) and of the Conquest. Cristóbal Colón (Columbus) named his flagship caravel “Santa María” in her honor. Hernán Cortés, like many other conquerors of the New World, came from the impoverished Spanish region of Extremadura. He was a devotee of the Virgin of Guadalupe of Villuercas, whose famous sanctuary was located near his place of origin, Medellín. Villuercas, founded

ish and Portuguese conquistadores, Hernán Cortés came to Tenochtitlan (today’s Mexico City) in 1519, under the protecting banners of the Apostle Santiago (Saint James) and the Virgin Mary. In Spanish minds, the Conquest of America was the continuation of the Reconquista or Reconquest of Spain opposing eight centuries (AD 711–1492) of domination by the Moors. The year 1492, a date that marks the “discovery” of America, held multiple significance. It was the year of the final defeat of the Moors in Granada and of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. Another important event of 1492 was the publication of the first Spanish (Castilian) grammar book and the first printed grammar of a vernacular language, The Art of the Castillian Language, by Antonio de Nebrija. These actions reflect the zeal to reinforce the political unity of Spaniards by “cleansing” their faith and by systematizing the official language of the newly united Spain. The popular dramatized dances of Moros y cristianos, representations of battles between Moors and Spaniards, continued in the New World as Danza de la conquista, Danza de la pluma, and Tragedia de la muerte de Atahuallpa, with one alteration, the Moors were replaced by the new infidels, the Indians. The Virgin Mary, traditionally connected to the seas, was long the protectress of the sailors (Nuestra Señora de los Navegantes) and of the Conquest. Cristóbal Colón (Columbus) named his flagship caravel “Santa María” in her honor. Hernán Cortés, like many other conquerors of the New World, came from the impoverished Spanish region of Extremadura. He was a devotee of the Virgin of Guadalupe of Villuercas, whose famous sanctuary was located near his place of origin, Medellín. Villuercas, founded in 1340 by King Alfonso XI, was the most favored Spanish sanctuary from the fourteenth century until the times of the Conquest. It contained the famous black, triangular, fifty-nine-centimeter-high statue of the Virgin with the Christ on her lap, supposedly found by a local shepherd in 1322 (Lafaye 1976:217, 295). [Image at right]

What demands our attention, though, is a different representation of the Virgin Mary carried on a banner accompanying Cortés in his Conquest of Mexico, currently in Mexico City’s Chapultepec Castle museum. This image portrays a gentle, olive-skinned Mary with folded hands, her head slightly tilted to the left, with hair parted in the middle. A red robe drapes her body, and a crown with twelve stars rests on her mantle-covered head. This rendering of the Virgin Mary bears a striking resemblance to the famous representation of the Mexican Virgin of Guadalupe. The Italian historian Lorenzo Boturini (1702–1775) described Cortés’s banner thus: “A beautiful image of the Virgin Mary was painted on it. She was wearing a gold crown and was surrounded by twelve gold stars. She has her hands together in prayer, asking her son to protect and give strength to the Spaniards so they might conquer the heathens and christianize them” (quoted in Tlapoyawa 2000).  According to Kurly Tlapoyawa, the Indian Markos Zipactli’s (Marcos Cipac de Aquino’s) painting, which was placed at the Tepeyac temple, was based on Cortés’s banner. This image is also very similar to an eight-century Italian painting called Immaculata Tota Pulcra, [Image at right] and to a 1509 central Italian representation of the Madonna del Soccorso by Lattanzio da Foligno and by Francesco Melanzio. The expression of her face, the pattern of her robe and mantle, and the halo surrounding her body and crown are almost identical to those of the Mexican Virgin of Guadalupe. The difference is that on the Madonna del Soccorso paintings Mary is represented defending her child from the devil with a whip or a club. Moreover, Francisco de San José, in his Historia, affirms that the Mexican Guadalupe is a copy of a relief sculpture of Mary placed in the choir opposite the Spanish Guadalupe statue in her Villuercas sanctuary. On the other hand, Lafaye (1976:233) as well as Maza (1981:14) and O’Gorman (1991:9–10) believe that the original effigy placed by the Spaniards at Tepeyac was that of the Spanish Guadalupe, La Extremeña, which only years later was replaced by the Mexican Virgin. Lafaye supposes that the change of images corresponds to the change of the dates of the Guadalupe celebration in Mexico from December 8 or 10 to December 12: “we know for certain . . . that the substitution of the image took place after 1575 and the change of the feast day calendar after 1600” (Lafaye 1976:233). December 8 was the day of the feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe of Villuercas, Spain, as well as that of the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception. Fray Bustamante’s sermon discussed previously further supports this view.

Whether appearing in person or on canvas, Guadalupe is clearly a syncretic figure, possessing both Catholic and Native Mesoamerican elements. Her original name comes from the Arabic wadi (riverbed) and Latin lupus (wolf) (Zahoor 1997). There have been speculations arguing that the Mexican Guadalupe’s name comes from the Nahuatl Cuauhtlapcupeuh (or Tecuauhtlacuepeuh), She Who Comes from the Region of Light as an Eagle of Fire (Nebel 1996:124), or Coatlayopeuh, the Eagle Who Steps on the Serpent (Palacios 1994:270). Curiously, Juan Diego’s name was Cuauhtlatonzin (or Cauhtlatoahtzin). Cuahtl means “eagle,” Tlahtoani is “the one who speaks,” and Tzin means “respectful.” This would suggest that Juan Diego was the Eagle Who Speaks, someone of a very high rank in the Order of Eagle Knights, continuing the mission of the last Aztec emperor Cuauhtemoc, the Eagle Who Descends (“Where Does the Name Guadalupe Come From?” 2000), but some scholars doubt the very existence of Juan Diego. Since the Nahuatl language does not include the sounds of “d” and “g,” the use of Guadalupe’s name with the above meaning may indicate a native adaptation of the Arab-Spanish word.

As to other particularities of the Mexican Virgin of Guadalupe, her attire is of primary importance. Guadalupe’s mantle is not blue, a characteristic of the European Virgins, but turquoise or blue-green, which in Aztec mythology symbolizes water, fire, prosperity, and abundance. [Image at right] In native Mexican languages, such as Nahuatl, there is only one word for blue and green. Blue-green, jade, or turquoise was a sacred color and it was worn by the high priest of Huitzilopochtli. Turquoise is also the sacred color of the earth and moon Mother Goddess Tlazolteotl (Goddess of Filth), the water and fertility goddess Chalchutlicue (The One with a Skirt of Green Stones), and the fire and war god of the south, Huitzilopochtli. This god was believed to be “immaculately” conceived with a feather by his mother, the goddess Coatlicue (Lady of the Serpent Skirt). Blue is also the color of the south and of fire, and “in Mexican theological language ‘turquoise’ means ‘fire.’” On the other hand, the Virgin’s robe is red, signifying the east (rising sun), youth, pleasure, and rebirth (Soustelle 1959:33–85). Thus, the Aztec symbology of the main colors worn by Mary (red and blue-green) corresponds to her Christian duality as young virgin and mature mother. It is indeed remarkable that the skin tone of the faces of both Guadalupe and the angel are brown, as in the image of Cortés’s banner and the faces of the Indians themselves.

Additional correlations surface in prophetic literature between Guadalupe, the woman of the Apocalypse, and the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception. According to the Book of Revelation, “there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and a moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown with twelve stars” (The Holy Bible). In her Mexican representations prior to the nineteenth century, Guadalupe also wore the crown with twelve stars, present on the image of Cortés’s banner. Later, the crown was eliminated. Obviously, the distinctive elements of the Apocalyptic woman were reproduced quite precisely in the Virgin of Guadalupe image, who also wears a starry mantle, a crown of twelve stars, is surrounded by the rays of the sun, and stands on the moon. These cosmic elements (the sun, the moon, and the stars) played an important part in the Aztec religion as well. In fact, Tonacaciuatl, the goddess of the upper skies and the Lady of Our Nutrition, was also called Citlalicue, the One with a Starry Skirt (Soustelle 1959:102). Other goddesses such as Xochiquetzal (Flowery Quetzal Feather), Tlazolteotl-Cihuapilli (Goddess of Filth-Fair Lady), Temazcalteci (Grandmother of the Bathhouse), Mayahuel (Powerful Flow, Lady Maguey), and Tlazolteotl-Ixcuina (Goddess of Filth-Lady Cotton) were represented with crescent-shaped adornments as part of their attire. Moreover, the passage from Revelation “And when the dragon saw that he was cast unto the earth, he persecuted the woman . . . And to the woman were given two wings of a great eagle, that she might fly to the wilderness, into her place, where she is nourished” (quoted in Quispel 1979:162) coincides with the Aztec foundational legend. The legend describes how the Aztecs were instructed to look for the sign of an eagle devouring a serpent while perched on a nopal cactus. The sign functioned as a divine indication of a permanent homeland, Tenochtitlan, for the nomadic people coming from the northern region of Aztlán. The eagle motif occurs frequently in Aztec mythology. For example, the goddess Ciuacoatl, or Wife of the Serpent (also identified with Tonantzin), appears in her warrior aspect adorned with eagle feathers:

The eagle
The eagle Quilaztli
With blood of serpents
Is her face circled
With feathers adorned
Eagle-plumed she comes
. . .
Our mother
War woman
Our mother
War woman
Deer of Colhuacan
In plumage arrayed
(“Song of Ciuacoatl,” Florentine Codex, Sahagún 1981, vol. 2: 236).

The association of the Virgin of Guadalupe with the eagle and the cactus may be seen in New Spain’s iconography as early as 1648, and it intensifies during the nationalist surge of the mid-eighteenth century.

The first historical references to the Mexican Virgin of Guadalupe devotion appeared in the form of essays by Miguel Sánchez in 1648 and Lasso de la Vega in 1649. According to Lafaye, “they had a special meaning . . . for they were the first step toward recognition of Guadalupe as a Mexican national symbol.” The Creole bachiller Sánchez created a prophetic vision of the Spanish Conquest, stating “that God executed his admirable design in this Mexican land, conquered for such glorious ends, gained in order that a most divine image might appear here.” As the title of the first chapter of his book, “Prophetic Original of the Holy Image Piously Foreseen by Evangelist Saint John, in Chapter Twelve of Revelation,” makes explicit, Sánchez draws a parallel between the appearance of Guadalupe at Tepeyac and Saint John’s vision of the Woman of the Apocalypse at Patmos (Lafaye 1976:248–51). Eighteenth-century paintings, such as Gregorio José de Lara’s Visión de san Juan en Patmos Tenochtitlan and the anonymous Imagen de la Virgen de Guadalupe con san Miguel y san Gabriel y la visión de san Juan en Patmos Tenochtitlan, illustrate Saint John’s vision of a winged Guadalupe and of a Guadalupe accompanied by the Aztec eagle at the Tepeyac hill. By providing a parallel not only between the Woman of the Apocalypse and Guadalupe but also between Patmos and Tenochtitlan, local painters portrayed Mexico as a chosen land. This idea was also reflected in poetry. In 1690, Felipe Santoyo wrote:

Let the World be admired;
the Sky, the Birds, the Angels and Men
suspend the echoes,
repress the voices:
because in New Spain
about another John it is being heard
a new Apocalypse,
although the revelations are different! (quoted in Maza 1981:113)

It is evident that “the identification of Mexican reality with the Holy Land and the prophetic books,” as well as statements such as “I have written [this book] for my patria, for my friends and comrades, for the citizens of this New World” and “the honor of Mexico City . . . the glory of all the faithful who live in this New World” (quoted in Lafaye 1976:250–51), make Miguel Sánchez a Creole patriot whose writings had important consequences for the emancipation of Mexico. Developments in the iconography reflecting Mexican history make it apparent that the Virgin of Guadalupe has gained increasing agency in the social and political realms.

There certainly was a need for a powerful protective entity among the populace of New Spain. From the late seventeenth century to the mid-eighteenth century, thousands fell victim to yearly calamities such as floods, earthquakes, and epidemics. There was also an urgency for the appearance of a native symbolic figure, one that could reconcile and fraternize the diverse racial, ethnic, cultural, and class components of Mexico, serve the purpose of identification, and instill national pride. The historical perspective explains why Guadalupe becomes a presence sine qua non during colonial times; there is no important image or event from which she may be omitted. The nineteenth-century Mexican historian Ignacio Manuel Altamirano made reference to the 1870 Guadalupe celebrations when he wrote that the worship of Guadalupe united “all races . . . all classes . . . all castes . . . all the opinions of our politics . . . The cult of the Mexican Virgin is the only bond that unites them” (quoted in Gruzinski:199-209).

This increase in devotion to Guadalupe responded to a need by Creoles to find a feature of their own that would clearly distinguish them from the Spaniards: “[T]here will be then the Creoles, who in the seventeenth century will give a definitive position in history to guadalupanismo” (Maza 1981:40). As a consequence, the first Spanish sanctuary was built at Tepeyac in 1609. As early as 1629 the image of Guadalupe was carried in solemn procession from Tepeyac to Mexico City by pilgrims who implored her to deliver the population from the menace of floods. Having achieved this goal, Guadalupe was proclaimed the city’s “principal protectress against inundations,” and she “achieved supremacy over the other protective effigies of the city” (Lafaye 1976:254). By the end of the seventeenth century, a legend was added to the image of Guadalupe, thus making her emblem complete. The legend, Non fecit talliter omni nationi ([God] Has Not Done the Like for Any Other Nation), was taken by Father Florencia from Psalm 147. It became attached to the sacred image (Lafaye 1976:258), further reinforcing its national character. But it wasn’t until the mid-eighteenth century that Guadalupe became the center of collective fervor. In 1737 the effigy was proclaimed the official patroness of Mexico City, and, in 1746, of all of New Spain. In 1754, Pope Benedict XIV confirmed this oath of allegiance, and Guadalupe’s holiday was established in the Catholic calendar (Gruzinski 1995:209).

Our Lady of Guadalupe also played an important role in the Mexican War of Independence from Spain (1810–1821). She was then carried on banners of the insurgents, led by Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla and later by Father José María Morelos, confronting the Spanish royalists who carried the Peninsular Virgen de los Remedios. The first president of independent Mexico changed his name from Manuel Félix Fernández to Guadalupe Victoria in homage to the patriotic Virgin. Other Mexican political and social struggles, such as the War of Reformation (Guerra de la Reforma, 1854–1857), the Mexican Revolution (1910–1918), and the Cristeros Rebellion (1927–1929), were also performed under the banners of Guadalupe (Herrera-Sobek 1990:41–43). The process of exaltation of the Virgin of Guadalupe and of Juan Diego continues. On July 30, 2002, Pope John Paul II canonized the Mexican Indian, declaring him an official saint of the Catholic Church. This was done in spite of the fact that even some Mexican Catholic priests, such as father Manuel Olimón Nolasco, doubt the actual existence of Juan Diego (Olimón Nolasco 2002:22). In turn, on December 1, 2000, after being sworn in as the new Mexican president, Vicente Fox directed his first steps to the Virgin of Guadalupe Basilica at the Tepeyac hill, where he asked the Virgin for grace and protection during his presidency. This constituted an unprecedented case in Mexican politics (“Fox empezó la jornada en la Basílica” 2000), as a strong division between church and state has been officially enforced since the Mexican Revolution. Once again, the Virgin of Guadalupe claimed victory over official customs and rules.

From the onset, the patriotic significance of the Virgin of Guadalupe was exhibited in iconography and other artistic expressions. As her image achieved increasing national and political significance, it was placed above the Aztec coat of arms (the eagle devouring a serpent on a nopal (prickly pear) and Mexico City-Tenochtitlan. Sometimes the image was framed by allegorical figures representing Americas and Europe, as in the eighteenth-century painting Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe de México, Patrona de la Nueva España (Our Lady of Guadalupe, Patron of New Spain) (see Cuadriello, Artes de México 52). In Josefus de Ribera i Argomanis’s 1778 painting Verdadero retrato de santa María Virgen de Guadalupe, patrona principal de la Nueva España jurada en México (Real Portrait of Holy Mary Virgin of Guadalupe, Main Patron of New Spain Sworn in Mexico), her image was framed by a non-Christianized Indian representing America, and Juan Diego, a European-influenced one. In contemporary art, we see the progressive Mexicanization of Guadalupe reflected in the use of the colors of the Mexican flag (red, green, and white) as well as in the darkening and the Indianization of her features. [Image at right]

Thus, Guadalupe played an important role in Mexican struggles for independence from foreign aggressors, for freedom, and for social justice.


The veneration of Our Lady of Guadalupe, also called the Virgin of Guadalupe, is part of the Catholic religion, and Guadalupe is one of the manifestations of the Virgin Mary (Mother of God). She is believed to be the one who gave birth to the Savior, Jesus Christ, conceived in a miraculous manner, without the intervention of man. Mary herself is also believed to be conceived in an immaculate way, thus one of her expressions is called the Immaculate Conception. Among the myriad of other manifestations, there is the Virgin of the Pillar, of El Carmen, of Montserrat, of Fatima, of Sorrows, of Regla, of Częstochowa, etc. Some of them are black, some brown, and others white. Sometimes the Virgin is portrayed seated with her divine child on her lap, and at others she is standing alone; nevertheless, all her images refer to the same historical Mary who lived in Nazareth and gave birth to Jesus at Bethlehem, at the beginning of the Common Era. Devotees venerate the Virgin as Guadalupe, often above any other divinity of the church, and place her images and altars in their homes. They see her as a protective mother who is always there for them, feeds them and shields them from danger, especially in times of wars and calamities. This phenomenon happens across social classes, but is especially notable among disenfranchised population who experience hardships and great need. This isn’t a new tradition, as the Virgin is a heir to the Great Goddess of Life, Death, and Regeneration as the mother who feeds and protects their children, but also receives them at death.


The rituals for the Virgin of Guadalupe are the same ones practiced for all Virgin Marys, and they include Rosaries, Novenas, and masses. Specifically, there is a huge, yearly international pilgrimage to her basilica at the Tepeyac hill in Mexico City, in which people of all nationalities and walks of life arrive, often after walking for weeks, and sometimes on their knees, in order to give her homage on December 12, the day of her feast. This is the most-visited Catholic shrine in the world (Orcult 2012). Another frequent practice are the petitions, promises (votos) and the offering of ex-votos, objects dear to the devotees who were granted favors by the Virgin. They include jewels, crutches, and symbolic representations of the afflictions that were cured, or of the favors granted. She appears on portraits and altars, both in churches and other public spaces, as well as in the intimacy of people’s homes. Oftentimes, she is the object of shrines in front of private homes, on buildings, and on public roads. [Image at right]

She offers protection and guidance to the faithful and is believed to be very miraculous. Although her devotion is officially part of Catholicism, it trespassed the boundaries of religion, and in many cases the cult to the Virgin of Guadalupe stands by itself, regardless of the faith of the devotees. Our Lady is believed to be the purest of women and her symbol is a rose-colored rose.


The organization and leadership of the devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe occurs within the Catholic Church structure, but specific groups, such as the Guadalupanas, and those that organize the Rosaries and other events in her honor, are often led by women devotees. Sociedades Guadalupanas (Guadalupe Societies) are Catholic religious associations funded by Mexican American women in 1942 (“Guadalupanas”; “Sociedades Guadalupanas”). The most important Guadalupe day is December 12, the Feast of Guadalupe, when millions of pilgrims visit her basilica in Mexico City, but also in many other places locally. There is an extensive network of named Guadalupe churches, shrines, and chapels especially in Mexico, Latin America, the United States. The basilica in Mexico City that houses the miraculous portrait of Guadalupe imprinted on Juan Diego’s tilma (cloak) that allegedly withstood ca. 500 years without damage, is the most-visited Catholic site in the world. Since the mid-eighteenth century, when Our Lady of Guadalupe was declared the official patroness of New Spain, and her official holiday was established, she has been the object of numerous endorsements by different popes. She was crowned on her feast day in 1895, and was declared the patroness of Latin America in 1910, and of the Philippines in 1935. In 1966, she was granted a symbolic golden rose by pope Paul VI, and in 2013 by pope Francis. Pope John Paul II canonized Juan Diego in 2002, and declared Our Lady of Guadalupe Patroness of the Americas (“Our Lady of Guadalupe”).


Since the inception of the Virgin of Guadalupe devotion, there has been a controversy between  aparicionistas and antiaparicionistas, as described above. The former firmly believe in the miraculous apparitions of Guadalupe at the Tepeyac Hill in 1531. The latter claim that her new image was commissioned to the Indigenous artist Marcos Cipac de Aquino who painted her following traditional images of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, including Mexico’s conqueror Hernán Cortés banner. In this latter view, her persona and devotion were constructed for the purpose of Christianization during colonial times. Later, she served as a unifying force for the multiethnic Mexican nation and the enhancement of feelings of patriotism. In addition, the contemporary transformations and appropriations of her image, mainly by U.S. Chicanx groups, to convey political, social, or feminist ideas, are often met with great controversy, and the rejection of the church and traditional Catholics. A development of the past twenty years is the competition between Guadalupe and unofficial saints, particularly La Santa Muerte,  [Image at right] whose following is greatly increasing. Many devotees feel abandoned by and mistrust official church and state institutions, and prefer to pray to powerful holy figures that don’t judge them and do not require intermediaries, such as La Santa Muerte (see Oleszkiewicz-Peralba 2015:103-35).


Image #1: Our Lady of Guadalupe, Villuercas, Spain (From the archives of the late Antonio D. Portago).
Image #2: Immaculata Tota Pulchra, Italy, 8th Century.
Image #3: Virgin of Guadalupe, Basilica of Guadalupe, Mexico City.
Image #4: Virgin of Guadalupe with the colors of Mexican flag. Photograph by author.
Image #5: Street altar of Guadalupe. El Paso Street, San Antonio, Texas. Photograph by author.
Image #6: Santa Muerte as Our Lady of Guadalupe. Cover, La biblia de la santa muerte.


Unless otherwise noted, the material in this profile is drawn from The Black Madonna in Latin America and Europe: Tradition and Transformation (University of New Mexico Press 2007, 2009, and 2011). All translations in this text are by the author.

Cuadriello, Jaime, comp. n.d. Artes de México 29: Visiones de Guadalupe. Santa Ana, CA:  Bowers Museum of Cultural Art.

Cuadriello, Jaime. n.d. “Mirada apocalíptica: Visiones en Patmos Tenochtitlan, La Mujer Aguila.” Cuadriello 10–23.

“Fox empezó la jornada en la Basílica.” 2000. Diario de Yucatán, December 2,  February 7, 2003. Accessed from on 5 April 2022.

“Guadalupanas.” 2022. Immaculate Heart of Mary Church, April 6. Accessed from on  5 April 2022.

Gruzinski, Serge. La guerra de las imágenes: De Cristóbal Colón a “Blade Runner” (1492–2019). 1994. Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1995.

Herrera-Sobek, María. 1990. The Mexican Corrido. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

The Holy Bible. n.d. King James version. Cleveland and New York: The World Publishing Company.

La Biblia de la Santa Muerte. n.d. Mexico: Ediciones S.M.

Lafaye, Jacques. Quetzalcóatl and Guadalupe: The Formation of Mexican National Consciousness, 1531–1813. 1974. Translated by. Benjamin Keen. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1976.

Maza, Francisco de la. El gaudalupanismo mexicano. 1981 [1953]. Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica.

Nebel, Richard. 1996 [1995] Santa María Tonantzin Virgen de Guadalupe. Translated by Carlos Warnholtz Bustillos. Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1996.

Nebrija, Antonio de. 1926. Gramática de la lengua castellana (Salamanca, 1492): Muestra de la istoria de las antiguedades de España, reglas de orthographia en la lengua castellana. Edited by Ig. González-Llubera. London and New York: H. Milford and Oxford University Press.

O’Gorman, Edmundo. 1991. Destierro de sombras: Luz en el origen de la imagen y culto de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe del Tepeyac. Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.

Oleszkiewicz-Peralba, Małgorzata. 2018 [2015]. Fierce Feminine Divinities of Eurasia and Latin America: Baba Yaga, Kali, Pombagira, and Santa Muerte. Palgrave Macmillan: New York, NY.

Olimón Nolasco, Manuel. 2002. “Interview.” Gazeta Wyborcza. July 27–28.

Orcult, April. 2012. “World Most-Visited Sacred Sites.” Travel and Leisure, January 4. Accessed from on 6 April 2022.

“Our Lady of Guadalupe Patron Saint of Mexico.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed from on 4 April 2022.

Palacios, Isidro Juan. 1994. Apariciones de la Virgen: Leyenda y realidad del misterio mariano. Madrid: Ediciones Temas de Hoy.

Quispel, Gilles. 1979. The Secret Book of Revelation. New York: McGraw-Hill,.

Sahagún, Fray Bernardino de. Florentine Codex: General History of the Things of New Spain. Translated by Charles E. Dibble and Arthur J. O. Anderson. Santa Fe, NM: School for American Research; Salt Lake City: University of Utah, book 1, 1950; book 2, 1951 (Second Edition,  1981); books 4 and 5, 1957 (Second Edition, 1979); book 6, 1969 (Second Edition, 1976).

Quispel, Gilles. 1956. Historia general de las cosas de Nueva España. 4 Volumes. 1938. Edition. Angel María Garibay K. Mexico City: Porrúa.

“Sociedades Guadalupanas.” 2022. TSHA Texas State Historical Association. Accessed from on 6 April 2022.

Soustelle, Jaques. 1959. Pensamiento cosmológico de los antiguos mexicanos. Paris: Librería Hermann y Cia. Editores.

Tlapoyawa, Kurly. 2000. “The Myth of La Virgen de Guadalupe.” Accessed from on 24 February 2003.

“Where Does the Name Guadalupe Come From?” 2000. The Aztec Virgin. Sausalito, CA: Trans-Hyperborean Institute of Science. Accessed from on 3 March 2003.

Torre Villar, Ernesnto de la, and Ramiro Navarro de Anda, comps. and eds. 1982. Testimonios históricos guadalupanos. Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica.

Zahoor, A. 1997 [1992]. Names of Arabic Origin in Spain, Portugal and the Americas. Accessed from on 15 March 2003.








1767:  Franz Anton Mesmer began to practice medicine in Vienna using “magnetized” water as a cure.

1784:  The Marquis de Puységur discovered “magnetic somnambulism.”

1787:  Swedenborgians in Sweden reported regular communication with spirits of the dead via mediums in mesmeric trance.

1849 (November 14):  The Fox sisters held the first public demonstration of Spiritualist practices in Rochester, New York.

1857:  Allan Kardec published Le Livre des Esprits (The Spirits’ Book) in Paris.

1858:  Allan Kardec founded La Revue Spirite (the key Kardecist journal) and the Société Parisienne des Études Spirites (the leading association and institutional model).

1858–1862:  Kardecist publications began to be printed in Mexico, Brazil and Chile.

1872:  Kardecist Spiritism began to attract interest in Puerto Rico.

1877:  The first Kardecist group in Argentina was founded.

1882:  The first Kardecist group in Venezuela was founded.

1890:  The First Brazilian Republican Penal Code (1890) criminalised Spiritist activities and “curandeirismo” (magical healing/curses and divination).

1944:  Brazilian medium Chico Xavier published Nosso Lar, a best-selling psychographed afterlife autobiography of the spirit André Luiz.

2018:  A rift between social conservatives and progressives developed in Brazilian Kardecism.


 Kardecism is a doctrinally and ritually developed variation of nineteenth-century Spiritualism (the séance movement). It began in France in the mid-1850s and spread to Latin America in the 1860s, where it continues to have its largest impact, especially in Brazil.

Popular religious and healing practices around the world include the ritualized practice of communicating and interacting with disembodied entities, while in a trance state; and this has formed part of various European esoteric traditions for more than two millennia (Laycock 2015). Such entities include the souls or spirits of dead humans, in addition to animal and plant spirits, spirits of disease, gods, divine spirits, djinn, angels, demons, extraterrestrials etc. These entities can be helpful, harmful or irrelevant; they can be good, evil, or morally ambivalent; they usually have trans-mundane knowledge and/or supernatural powers.

Spiritualism is generally seen as having begun in the U.S. in 1848 or 1849: on March 31, 1848 the Fox sisters (Leah, [1813–1890], Maggie [1833–1893] and Kate [1837–1892]) first contacted the spirit world; and on November 14, 1849, they offered the first public demonstration of interaction with spirits of the dead. Communication with dead people in esoteric contexts had become prominent over six decades earlier as a side-effect of mesmeric trance, beginning with the work of Armand-Marie-Jacques de Chastenet, Marquis of Puységur (1751–1825), a follower of Franz Anton Mesmer (1734–1815). In 1784, while magnetizing patients for healing purposes, Puységur discovered what he called “magnetic somnambulism” (which later came to be called “hypnosis”), arguably inaugurating the modern era of “psychodynamic psychology and psychotherapy”:

Beginning with the Marquis de Puységur, magnetic somnambulism revealed an alternate consciousness that is intelligent (capable of understanding and making judgments), reactive (aware of what is happening in one’s environment and capable of responding to those events), purposeful (able to pursue its own goals), and co‐conscious (existing simultaneously with ordinary consciousness). This understanding of the alternate consciousness amounted to a new paradigm for defining the dynamics of the human psyche (Crabtree 2019:212).

Theological and spiritological frames for this phenomenon were soon developed by esoteric thinkers, notably Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772). By 1787, Swedenborgians in Sweden were reporting regular communication with spirits of the dead via mediums in mesmeric trance (Gabay 2005:86).

As Spiritualism exploded onto the religious landscape in the U.S. in the 1850s, it had impacts abroad, especially in the U.K. (where it arrived in 1852), as well as in Canada and other British settler nations. It developed in a unique direction in Iceland, where it continues to be prominent (Dempsey 2016). Spiritualism’s séance and “table-turning” events became a huge public phenomenon in France in 1853–1854; Kardecism developed from there, when Hippolyte Léon Denizard Rivail (1804–1869) became interested (Aubrée and Laplantine 1990). Rivail was involved in phrenology and Mesmerism, including research into clairvoyance and trance states.

Writing as Allan Kardec, [Image at right] Rivail systematized French Spiritisme in The Book of the Spirits (1857), subtitled, Containing the Principles of the Spiritist Doctrine Concerning the Immortality of the Soul, the Nature of Spirits and Their Relationships with Humankind, Moral Laws, the Present Life, the Future Life and the Destiny of Humanity – According to the Teachings Given by Highly Evolved Spirits through Several Mediums – Received and Coordinated (2011 [1857]). The book consists primarily of questions posed by Kardec along with answers provided by spiritually evolved spirits, as psychographed (transcribed during a light trance) by a team of mediums. (Kardecist books are often published with named spirits as their authors, and with the name of the medium in smaller print.) [Image at right] Four other books by Kardec also form part of what is, in effect, a canon: The Book of Mediums (1861); The Gospel according to Spiritism (1864); Heaven and Hell (1865); and Genesis: Miracles and Predictions according to Spiritism (1868). Other important French Spiritiste writers of the period include Léon Denis (1846–1927) and Gabriel Delanne (1857–1926).

Kardec drew on mesmerism (e.g., non-contact manipulation of “magnetic fluids” in people, especially through the ritual of passe), Christianity (e.g., God as efficient and final cause, Christ as the most elevated previously incarnated spirit, and charitable works as a standard of spiritual evolution) and esoteric traditions (e.g., the doctrine of many worlds and reincarnation, the latter also perhaps influenced by Asian religions). (There are rare references to Hinduism, Taoism and Islam in the key publication of early French Spiritisme, the Revue Spirite; there appears to be no reference to Buddhism [Campetti Sobrinho 2008].) Kardec considered Spiritism to be a science and philosophy not a religion: communication with the dead is a natural reflection of the dual constitution of reality, material/visible and spiritual/invisible.

The dramatic impact of Spiritisme in late-nineteenth-century France resonated with other religious and intellectual developments of the time: in Catholicism a pious upsurge of interest in angels, purgatory, and Marian apparitions; in esotericism an emphasis on empirical study, e.g., Eliphas Lévi (1810–75); in the emerging field of psychiatry an interest in the interiority of the psyche; and, more generally, ideas of science, progress, and social reform (Engler and Isaia 2016). Kardec may have been a Freemason (Guénon 1972 [1923]:37), but this question remains open (Lefraise and Monteiro 2007). These points of resonance, especially with Catholicism and progressivism, shaped the reception of Kardecist Spiritism in other countries, most significantly in Latin America. Helena Blavatsky (1831–1891), cofounder of modern Theosophy, was an adept of Spiritualism and influenced by Mesmerist and Kardecist ideas; and this has been a key line through which Kardecism has had an impact on other esoteric traditions, including the New Age movement.

Kardecism is common throughout most of Latin America and the Caribbean. Influenced directly by French Spiritisme, the first Kardecist publications in Mexico date from 1858, in Brazil from 1860 and in Chile from 1862 (Hernández Aponte 2015:109–111). Justo José de Espada founded a Spiritualist group in Uruguay in 1858 and a successor group in Argentina in 1872; the first Kardecist sociedad espiritista was founded in 1877; and surveys in 1887 and 1912 reported many thousands of members and fifty or more groups (Gimeno, Corbetta, and Savall 2013:88, 86, 79–80). (Many Kardecist groups and Kardecist-influenced new religious movements are active in Buenos Aires today [Di Risio and Irazabal 2003].) Influenced by Spanish Espiritismo, the first Kardecist group in Venezuela was founded in 1882 (Hernández Aponte 2015: 112). Mesmerist demonstrations are recorded in Puerto Rico from 1848 and séances from 1856, with Kardecist publications sparking interest in that tradition from 1872 (Hernández Aponte 2015:122).

In Brazil, an important development resulting in a sharp distinction between orthodox Kardecism and popular invocations of spirits was the foundation of the Brazilian Spiritist Federation (FEB) in 1884. The First Brazilian Republican Penal Code (1890) criminalised Spiritist activities and “curandeirismo” (magical healing/curses and divination) (Maggie 1992). In part, this legislation was the culmination of recent professionalization in Brazil’s medical community (Schritzmeyer 2004 69–81). The Brazilian Spiritist Federation (FEB, founded in 1884) lobbied government during the Empire and, after 1889, the Republic in order to protect the literate elites who practiced Kardecism (Giumbelli 1997). The FEB’s insistence on distinguishing between “true” and “false” spiritists (and journalistic echoes of these claims) played a supporting role in the processes of marginalization, repression and criminalization that constructed “low spiritism” (often Afro-Brazilian) as a marginal religious category (Giumbelli 2003). In Brazil, state repression of “low” Spiritisms and Afro-Brazilian traditions was prominent during the “New State” dictatorship (1937–45) of Getúlio Vargas. Elite Kardecism escaped relatively unscathed, though many centres were closed: “the state and the medical profession were not as successful with Kardecian and other ‘scientific’ Spiritists as they were with the ‘low Spiritists’ who had recourse to Afro-Brazilian magic” (Hess 1991:160; Maggie 1992). In part this reflected the political value of nationalist discourses in Kardecism (See the discussion of Nosso Lar in the following section). Some other forms of Spiritism, broadly defined, sought protection under the Kardecist umbrella: e.g. certain groups in the heterogenous religion of Umbanda went through a process of de-Africanization in order to emphasise affiliation with Kardecism (Oliveira 2007). Comparable legislation was passed and enforced in many countries: for example, many laws against the “dangerous others” of esoteric traditions in Argentina were passed in the late nineteenth-century, with persecution hardening after 1921 (Bubello 2010:97–114).

Kardecism is found almost exclusively in Europe and its settler colonies. National groups in Europe consist of from hundreds to a few thousand members: e.g., French Spiritisme, Italian Spiritismo, British Spiritism, Finnish Spiritismi, Romanian Spiritismul, Spanish Espiritismo, and others; there are groups in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the U.S. (Aubrée and Laplantine 1990:289-331; CESNUR 2017; Spiritist Group n.d.).

Brazil has the largest number of Kardecists in the world. 3,800,000 Brazilians (two percent of the population) self-identified as members on the 2010 census. (The Brazilian Spiritist Federation estimates that as many as 30,000,000 Brazilians, many of them Catholics, regularly attend study sessions and rituals.) Important Brazilian mediums have included Adolfo Bezerra de Menezes (“the Brazilian Kardec”: 1831–1900), [Image at right] Francisco Cândido “Chico” Xavier (1910–2002) and Yvonne do Amaral Pereira (1926–1980). Brazilian Kardecismo has diverged from French Spiritisme. The latter remains a small philosophical/scientific movement (Union Spirite Française et Francophone website. n.d.). Brazilian Kardecism has become a large and thriving religion with a central emphasis on spiritual therapy: e.g., emphasising healing and miracles, reflecting mixture with popular, especially Afro-Brazilian, practices, and sometimes sanctifying leaders, due to their reputation as healers (Damazio 1994:154; Silva 2006). Brazilian kardecistas, like French Spiritistes, tend to see their tradition as more philosophy and science than religion. However, a dramatic increase in the size of Kardecism between the censuses of 2000 and 2010 (from 1.3 percent to 2 percent of the Brazilian population) reflects, in part, a shift away from kardecistas self-declaring as having “no religion” on the national census (Lewgoy 2013:196–98).

Brazilian Kardecism has been shaping the global Kardecist community to the point that Kardecist Spiritism is arguably now a “Brazilian religion” (Santos 2004 [1997]). Kardecist groups have been established in many countries among Brazilian emigrant communities; and prominent contemporary Brazilian mediums, like Divaldo Pereira Franco (1927-) [Image at right] and José Raul Teixeira (1949–), have growing international impact through books, lectures and the Internet (Lewgoy 2008; 2011). This increasing transnationalization of Brazilian Kardecism reflects the decline of a nationalistic myth of origin, as found especially in the works  of key medium/author Chico Xavier, and a growing emphasis on “spiritual health and well-being” and “the happiness of the spirit” (Lewgoy 2012). This latter shift, “from Spiritism to self-help” (Stoll 2006:267), is illustrated by Kardecist moralistic novels, a popular sub-genre of books on “spirituality.” For example, Zíbia Gasparetto (1926–2018), author of over two dozen books as a medium, became a consistent presence on Brazilian bestseller lists, selling millions of copies and reaching an audience far beyond Kardecist circles (Stoll 2006:264). Her son, Luiz Antonio Gasparetto (1949–2018) took Kardecism in a different direction: spending time at the Esalen Institute; becoming well-known in Europe through a series of speaking tours in the 1980s; breaking with official Kardecism (as represented by the Brazilian Spiritist Federation) due to, in his view, its antiquated and moralistic approach; founding what is in effect an esoteric spa, with his “Life and Consciousness Space”; developing a sort of Kardecist theology of prosperity, linking spiritual progress and worldly goods; and emphasizing the use of social media (e.g., Luiz Gasparetto Facebook page. 2022; Stoll 2006).

There are many examples of the emergence of Kardecist-influenced new religious movements. For example, in Argentina, Spanish Kardecist, Joaquín Trincado Mateo (1866-1935) founded in 1911 the Escuela Magnético-Espiritual de la Comuna Universal (Magnetic-Spiritual School of the Universal Commune), combining Kardecist and Theosophical ideas (Bubello 2010:91). Nicaraguan revolutionary Augusto César Sandino (1895-1934) joined this group in Mexico, and it had “a profound and lasting impact on his life, thought, and strategy” (Navarro-Génie 2002:80). In Brazil, the “Temple” of the Legião da Boa Vontade (Legion of Good Will), with its associated Religião de Deus (Religion of God), presents Kardec as just one source of revelation in an “unrestricted ecumenism” that includes many esoteric and New Age elements (Dawson 2016 [2007]:45–48). Waldo Vieira (1932–2015), who worked closely with the most famous Brazilian medium Chico Xavier, left Kardecism in the late 1960s and founded Conscientiology (first called Protectiology) in 1988: his tradition cultivates out-of-body experiences, mixing Kardecist and New Age ideas (D’Andrea 2013).


Spiritualism (as opposed to Spiritism) is often pragmatically focused on allowing living and dead people to communicate with their loved ones, with little emphasis on developing a doctrinal basis for this practice. Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke excludes it as a type of esotericism for this reason: “Spiritualism’s lack of a coherent philosophy other than the implication of life beyond the veil of death tend[s] to disqualify it as a variety of esoteric philosophy” (2008:188). This is unfair to Spiritualism, which does sometimes include such doctrinal development, for example, in the work of Andrew Jackson Davis (1826–1910) and in many Spiritualist Churches. However, it suggests the value of distinguishing Spiritualism from the more general category of Spiritism.

Though “Spiritism” and its translations are used in a variety of ways in different religious cultures, it is usefully defined as referring to esoteric traditions that place prominent emphasis on communication with the spirits of the dead. In this light, Spiritualism, Kardecism, Umbanda (Engler 2018, 2020), Mexican-American curanderismo (Hendrickson 2013) and hundreds of other traditions, like Cao Dai in Vietnam (Hoskins 2015) are types of Spiritism. Candomblé, Santeria and related Afro-diasporic traditions in the Americas are not, because communicating with the dead is a marginal aspect and because they do not share in the loose family of characteristics that characterize esoteric traditions (e.g., levels of mediation between humans and the divine, ontological and epistemological correspondences between these levels, the transmutation of practitioners through ritual, flexible borrowing of characteristic from other esoteric traditions, and a reflexive relation between social functions of secrecy and these other characteristics). (The key source for this broad approach to defining esotericism is the work of Antoine Faivre [e.g., 2012 {1990}]).

It is also useful to make a related and relative distinction between horizontal and vertical relations between the living humans and spirits. In horizontal relations, the dead are like us, at our level; and in vertical relations, they are powerful and (usually) helpful spiritual beings. With horizontal relations, the only significant difference between the living and the dead is death itself. With vertical relations, the dead are more advanced, with a significantly higher state of level of spiritual development and knowledge: they communicate primarily to offer spiritual assistance to the living. (Sometimes they are seen as significantly less developed and potentially harmful. This underlines the idea of a scale of development.) Spiritualism emphasizes horizontal and Kardecism vertical relations, though both are present in both.

Kardecism maintains the core beliefs of nineteenth-century French Spiritisme. God (one, and good) created all human souls equally in an innocent state, and our purpose is to progress, spiritually and ethically, as we face the expiating challenges of a series of (re)incarnations on this world (and others). There are no entities other than God and created spirits, no angels or demons. Charity is the core virtue and marker of spiritual evolution. Disincarnated souls (both those awaiting their next resurrection and those sufficiently advanced to require no further incarnations) work compassionately with earthly mediums in order to help their less evolved incarnate fellows with their spiritual progress. Mediums receive (vertically-oriented) messages from more highly evolved spirits, as part of God’s plan of universal spiritual progress. Jesus is a created spirit like all of us, but he proceeded with unmatched speed on the path of spiritual evolution and was the most developed spirit to ever incarnate in this world. The spiritist view of Jesus is more like that of a bodhisattva in Buddhism than of the agent/victim of an Atoning sacrifice in Catholic Christianity; there is no concept of Original Sin in Kardecism.

The concept of “spiritual progress” characterizes each spirit’s individual trajectory from creation to perfection, over a series of incarnations, until a point is reached at which incarnation is no longer needed, and advancement continues only at an elevated spiritual plane:

God created all Spirits in a state of simplicity and ignorance, that is, without knowledge. He gave them each a mission, with the goal of enlightening them, making them gradually achieve perfection through the knowledge of truth, and bringing them closer to Him. Eternal and unalloyed happiness lies, for them, in this perfection. Spirits acquire this knowledge by passing through the trials that God imposes on them. Some accept these trials with submission and arrive more quickly at their destiny’s end. Others undergo them with murmuring and so remain, through their own fault, far from that promised perfection and happiness. … In each new existence, the Spirit takes a step on the path of progress. When it has divested itself of all its impurities, it has no further need for the trials of bodily life (Kardec 1860 [1857], §115, §168).

Kardecism does not believe in demons or any other form of essentially evil spirits. There is no spirit possession:

A Spirit does not enter a body as you enter a house. It assimilates itself with an incarnate Spirit that has the same defects and the same qualities, in order to act jointly. But it is always the incarnate Spirit that acts as it wills on the material with which it is clothed. No Spirit can take the place of another that is incarnated, because the Spirit and the body are linked during the period of material existence (Kardec 1860 [1857]: §473).

Kardecist mediums do not consider themselves to be “possessed by” but rather to be “working with” spirits. They generally describe their state while doing this work as fully conscious, with a voluntary relaxation of the will that allows spirits to communicate, usually through automatic writing.

Kardecist views of afterlife states are exemplified in a book by Francisco Cândido “Chico” Xavier (1910–2002), the most famous and influential of Brazilian Kardecists. (For a French Spiritiste view, influenced by Brazilian Kardecism, see the Centre Spirite Lyonnais website 2015). His more than 400 “psychographed” books have sold over 50,000,000 copies, with all proceeds donated to Kardecist charities: this led to his being honoured as a philanthropist by the Brazilian Senate in 2020 (Agência Senado 2020). In 1944, Chico Xavier  [Image at right] wrote a moralistic and to an extent nationalistic novel, Nosso Lar (Our Home): psychographed autobiography of a highly evolved disincarnate spirit, André Luiz (2006 [1944]). It became his most well-known book, a landmark of Brazilian popular literature and a highly successful 2010 film. The title of the novel refers to an afterlife destination for Brazilian spirits, a city inhabited by spirits and geographically situated above Rio de Janeiro, though on a higher spiritual or vibrational plane. The plot of Nosso Lar moves from the earthly death of the protagonist (the spirit, André Luiz, who “authored” the book) through his on-going education in spiritual ideas and charitable practices, to the culminating moment when he earns citizenship in the spiritual colony. The novel thus traces the trajectory followed by spirits after their death.

Nosso Lar serves as a sort of Brazilian national heaven. It is one of several colonies located above Brazil, and one of many found throughout the world: “national and linguistic patrimonies still linger here, conditioned by psychic boundaries”; Nosso Lar is an “old foundation of distinguished Portugueses who disincarnated in Brazil in the sixteenth century”; (Xavier 2006 [1944]: 155, 157). Another example is the “spiritual city” or “colony” of Alvorada Nova, said to be situated above the port city of Santos, near Brazil’s largest city, São Paulo (Glaser 1992). This Kardecist image of (one level of) the afterlife is also found in some centres of “white,” Kardecist-influenced Umbanda.

Nosso Lar is one of two types of afterlife “colonies”: it provides a place where spirits prepare for a return to a new incarnation; a higher afterlife state exist for those who have already evolved spiritually to the point where no further incarnations are required.

Kardecism also believes in a lower afterlife destination that is very much like Catholic purgatory: the Umbral. (Kardec discussed the doctrine of purgatory in order to underline the expiatory function of the Earth [1865: Chapter 5].) André Luiz first spent an indeterminate time in this zone “situated between the Earth and the heavens, a painful region of shadows, constructed and cultivated by the human mind, as this is generally rebellious, lazy, unbalanced and infirm…” (Campetti Sobrinho 1997:877). Colonies like Nosso Lar are placed near the Umbral (in vibrational terms) in order to help the spirits who wander there. Most of these, in time, can be led up to the higher plane of the spiritual colony:

The Umbral functions … as a region for the emptying out of mental residues, a type of purgatorial zone, in which creatures burn off in phases the deteriorated material of the illusions that they have accumulated in great quantity, through their failure to appreciate the sublime opportunity of their terrestrial existence. … [I]n the dark regions of the Umbral are found not only disincarnate humans, , but veritable monsters…. Divine Providence acted wisely in allowing the creation of this department around our planet. There you find compact legions of indecisive and ignorant souls, those not sufficiently perverse to be sent to more painful colonies of reparation, nor sufficiently noble to be led to elevated planes. There gather in groups the rebels of our species. … Notwithstanding the shadows and anguish of the Umbral, divine protection is never lacking there. Each spirit remains therefore as long as is necessary. For this … the Lord raised many colonies like this one, consecrated to spiritual work and aid (Xavier 2006 [1944]:81–82, 217).

Brazilian Kardecism has developed the idea, found in Kardec’s work, that departed spirits maintains relations with those who they were close to in life. Kardec’s spirit interlocutors informed him that, after leaving its worldly existence,

the Spirit immediately reencounter[s] those that it knew on Earth and who are already dead … according to the affection that it had for them and they for it. Often, they come to meet it on its return to the world of the Spirits, and they help to clear away the bonds of matter. It also reencounters many that it had lost to sight during its sojourn on the Earth. It sees those who are in error, and it goes to visit those who are incarnated (Kardec 1860 [1857]:§160).

In Brazilian Kardecism, each spirit works on its spiritual progress over a series of lifetimes as part of a small group of related spirits; the roles may change, but the small ensemble cast remains intertwined, lifetime after lifetime. The popular Brazilian idea of twin souls (almas gêmeas) is related to this: each spirit has an ideal romantic partner, and multi-incarnational romances are a staple of the best-selling genre of Kardecist novels (romances espíritas).

This shift toward the personal in Brazilian Kardecism is visible in the domestication of the religion:

primarily since the 1950s … a Kardecism was constructed that had its anchor not only in the Centre [the public space of ritual and study], but also in the home as an existential, ritual and moral space: a Kardecism no longer restricted to elite urban men, but one that incorporated aspects of a popular, family-centred and maternal religiosity; a Kardecism destined to captivate a public accustomed to the more oral and popular style of Catholicism, cultivating personal saints, believing in the force of prayers and simpatias [magic spells, primarily used to affect romantic relationships], and often reserving these practices for the domain of mothers. (Lewgoy 2004:42; original emphasis).

In contrast to French Spiritism (still a small quasi-philosophical/quasi-scientific movement)  Brazilian Kardecism has become a large and thriving religion. The key difference between the two is the latter’s emphasis on spiritual therapy. This is especially pronounced if we consider Brazilian Spiritisms like Kardecism and Umbanda as belonging to a single “mediumistic continuum” (Camargo 1961:94–96, 99–110; See Bastide 1967:13–16; Hess 1989). Yet many Brazilian Kardecists, like French Spiritists, see their tradition as more philosophy and science than religion. That said, a dramatic increase in the size of Kardecism between the censuses of 2000 and 2010 (from 1.3 percent to 2 percent of the Brazilian population) reflects, in part, a shift away from a historical trend in which many Kardecists self-declared as having “no religion,” given their view that they practice a philosophy and a science, not a religion: Kardecists seem to increasingly see themselves as belonging to a religion (Lewgoy 2013:196–98).


The most common Kardecist activity is group and individual study of classic Spiritist texts, especially those of Kardec, along with public lectures and discussion of related themes. Many religious traditions have been influenced by Kardecism, and the extent to which Kardec’s books remain important is a key marker of the degree of that influence. For example, in Umbanda (an Afro-esoteric Brazilian spirit-incorporation tradition) Kardecist doctrine is central to all groups (and a minority have no African elements) (Engler 2020). At the Kardecist end of the spectrum of Umbandas, mediumship training begins with months of study of Kardec’s books.

Trained mediums work in closed sessions (often through automatic writing) with highly evolved spirits who (1) give advice to help in the spiritual evolution of those incarnate in the less evolved material realm or (2) bring specific messages from recently departed individuals. The most common type of Kardecist publication consists of collections of the former type of communications. All people have a natural capacity to communicate with the spirits that surround us, and Kardecism offers means to perfect one’s mediumship, allowing for more controlled and uniformly positive interactions with the spirits. Dedicated mediums generally establish working relationships with specific spirits, including important mediums of previous generations. Afro-descendent and indigenous spirits have generally been considered relatively unevolved and continue to play only a small role in orthodox Kardecism (that most strongly rooted in Kardec’s works).

Public meetings generally end with those attending receiving passe from advanced practitioners. [Image at right] In this ritual (derived from Mesmerism and comparable to reiki) the recipient sits in a quiet low-lit room and a medium stands in front of them, passing their hands above the recipient’s head and upper torso without contact. This is believed to transfer positive magnetic fluids or energies either from the medium or from the spirits via the medium (these being two distinct forms of passe). Passe is also given to groups. The ritual is used as a healing technique, with mediums visiting patients in homes and hospitals in order to “give passe as an act of charity. In Brazil, items of clothing (belonging to those who are ill or in need of protection from potential negative energies) are brought to Kardecist centers and imbued by passe with positive magnetic fluids or energies. What is in effect the same ritual (blessing of clothing as a form of healing and protection) is found in Umbanda, popular Catholicism and Neo-Pentecostal churches.

There are no exorcism rituals, because there is no spirit possession. However, unevolved spirits are believed to cause “perturbation”: they interfere with living individuals, through maliciousness, vengefulness, ignorance or confusion. Their presence results in negative magnetic fluids, with consequences that range from mild emotional disturbance (easily handled when the person affected has some training as a medium) through “fascination” (serious distortions of thought that are not recognised as caused by a spirit) to “subjugation” (in which the spirit deprives their victim of autonomy). The cure is ritual “disobsession,” which involves treating both the victim and the offending spirit, primarily helping the latter to understand that their negative actions are standing in the way of their own spiritual development. Disobsession is also found in some centres of “white” and esoteric Umbanda.

This view of encumbering spirits is related to a more general cultural beliefs in spirits. In Brazilian popular religiosity for example,, an encosto is a somewhat malignant spirit that ‘leans’ on a person, e.g. causing them to become confused and forgetful. ‘Encosto’ is also used to refer to the resulting state of quasi-possession. Disobsession is also known as ‘desencosto’ in some Kardecist contexts.

Mediums also receive (horizontally-oriented) messages from recently disincarnated spirits (dead people). In Brazil, for example, those mourning recently diseased family members might receive a visit from a Kardecist with a psychographed message received in a recent session from the departed loved one. I have interviewed people in Brazil who rejected this initial message as false and received no more, and to others who accepted it as true and continued to received messages from their loved one. One family showed me a binder filled with letters from a departed child: the parents felt they were able to accompany their child’s growing up in the afterlife, year after year, and preparing for their next incarnation.

Two letters from dead murder victims, psychographed by Chico Xavier, played key roles in Brazilian legal cases in the 1970s. In the first case, a posthumous letter from the victim led his mother to drop an appeal; and the judge stated that the letter had provided additional support for his judgment that the accused was innocent (Souza 2021:47). In the second case, a posthumous letter from the victim was considered so accurate in its details of the crime that it was accepted as part of official court documents. The judge’s sentence, finding the death to be accidental, stated the following: “We must give credibility to the message…, although legal circles have not yet acknowledged anything of this sort, in which the victim himself, after his death, reports and provides data to the judge, and so informs sentencing” (Souza 2021: 50).

Material charity is a central practice in Kardecism: members support and volunteer at hospitals, homes for the elderly, orphanages etc. This charitable work, like many aspects of the religion, reflects, to an extent, its middle- to upper-class social location. From a critical perspective, “the fact that charity focuses especially on the poorer classes signifies not an emphasis on potential expansion but a moment for the affirmation of social distance” (Cavalcanti 1990:151–52, translated).

Kardecism shapes a wide variety of spiritual healing practices in Brazil, notably psychic surgery (Greenfield 2008). For example, the medium Zé Arigó (José Pedro de Freitas: 1922–1971) [[Image at right] became world famous for psychic surgeries and other treatments, all performed (while the medium was in a trance) by the spirit of a German physician and surgeon, Doctor Fritz (Comenale 1968). Since Arigó’s death, Doctor Fritz continued his healing work through other mediums (Greenfield 1987). This emphasis on healing also visible in the many new religious movements that draw on Kardecist ideas.


In organizational terms, Kardecism is a series of local voluntary associations as opposed to a hierarchical church-like institution. In 1858, Kardec founded both the key Kardecist publication, La Revue Spirite, and the Société Parisienne des Études Spirites (SPEE). The SPEE model was taken up in other countries: it was a clearing house for information and a willing partner, but it did not manage the operations of federated member groups. National Spiritist associations (often more than one in each country) continue to provide educational resources and support the distribution of publications. Informal on-line research strongly suggests that the number of such organizations has increased dramatically in the past twenty years.

Kardecism has remained relatively stable in its beliefs and practises, granted the shift to a greater focus on healing in Latin America, especially in Brazil. Overall coherence and continuity results primarily from three factors. First, a shared emphasis on the texts of nineteenth-century French Spiritisme, especially Kardec’s works, constitutes a de facto normative orthodox core. Second, Kardecism shares socially conservative values with many societies, especially in Latin America, which leads to a valuation of tradition (Betarello 2009:124). Third, Kardecism has a tendency to hybridize with other traditions, especially with esoteric and Afro-diasporic traditions in Latin America.

This third factor helps us understand Spiritisms in Latin America more generally. Orthodox Kardecism reinforces its traditionalism in an ongoing effort to distinguish itself from emerging hybridized traditions. Mexico illustrates this tension. The first Congresso Nacional Espírita, rooted in Kardec’s works, gathered 2010 people in 1906 (Garma 2007: 100). Seventy years later, a president of the Mexican National Spiritist Centre, writing as a “kardeciano,” underlined that Spiritism is rooted in Kardec’s texts and argued that it is a scientific, philosophical and moral system, not a religion (Alvarez y Gasca 1975). El espiritualismo trinitario mariano (Marian Trinitarian Spiritism) is a far more popular hybrid Spiritism that mixes indigenous and Catholic elements and focuses on therapeutics: it began in 1866 and continues strong today (Echániz 1990). In the 2000 census, 60,657 people (0.07 percent of the Mexican population, with members in all states) self-identified as “spiritualistas” of this tradition (Garma 2007:102). Other countries offer comparable examples. Kardecism arrived in Cuba in the 1860s and Kardecist Espiritismo cientifico soon became distinct from Espiritismo cruzado (“crossed” with Afro-Cuban traditions) and Espiritismo de cordon (with strong Catholic influences) (Espirito Santo 2015; Palmié 2002; Millet 2018). Puerto Rico offers a contrasting example, in which Mesa Blanca (“white table” Kardecism) blurs into popular brujería (healing magic), Catholicism, and Yoruba-rooted Santería of Cuban origin (Romberg 2003). In Brazil, Umbanda (a closely related but distinct type of Spiritism) has taken on the role of site of hybridization with other traditions (Engler 2020). This is correlated with Kardecism’s emphasis on normative orthodoxy in that country.


Since its advent in Latin America, Kardecism has been associated primarily with white, literate, upper-class segments of national societies. In Brazil, for example, it remains a primarily urban phenomenon, and its members have the highest literacy and education rates and the highest average incomes, after Jews and Muslims, of any religious group in the country: the number of Kardecists in the top income brackets and with post-secondary education is almost two-and-a-half times the national mean; the number of those working in administration or public service or who are themselves employers is twice the mean (Jacob et al. 2003:105).

Kardecism’s vision of universal human spiritual progress embeds socially contingent ideological presuppositions. There is a correlation between Kardecism’s class positioning and its discomfort with indigenous and Afro-descendent spirits. (Relations between race and class are especially complex in Brazil [Fry 1995–1996; Sansone 2003; Magnoli 2009].) This discomfort was linked to the emergence of Umbanda in the 1920s, when spiritually evolved, racialized spirits are said to have been rejected by Kardecists, leading to Umbanda’s becoming the tradition in which they play leading roles.

Kardecism continues to express socially conservative views, reflecting in part its members’ divergence from demographic norms. For example, attitudes toward sexuality in Brazil reflect the dominance of heteronormative views: e.g. in one of many recent meditations on Nosso Lar, sexuality independent of the goal of reproduction is considered to be devoid of meaning and homosexuality a lack of “equilibrium” (Baccelli and Ferreira 2009:255, 302). Attitudes toward homosexuality constitute one of several dimensions along which spirit possession religions in Brazil present a spectrum (Engler 2009: 561): Afro-Brazilian traditions, most notably Candomblé, usually offer a hospitable environment for alternative sexualities; Umbanda varies from more accepting at the Afro- Brazilian end of its range to much less so at the Kardecist end; Kardecism generally sees homosexuality as abnormal, with charitable tolerance the norm (many leaders and mediums are gay men); Neo-Pentecostal churches tend to see non-heterosexual desire as pathological and demonic (Landes 1947; Fry 1982; P. Birman 1985, 1995; Natividade 2003; Natividade and Oliveira 2007; Gárcia et al. 2009).

Reflecting these facts, Brazilian Kardecism has experienced significant internal tensions in recent years, between a majority of political and social conservatives and a minority of progressives (Arribas 2018; Camurça 2021). The initial division echoed tensions that sharpened in Brazilian society after the decisive victory by social conservative, not “far right,” Jair Bolsonaro in the 2018 presidential election. It was sparked by leading medium Divaldo Franco’s response to a question on “gender ideology” at the 34th Congresso Espírita do Estado de Goiás in February, 2018, which was posted on YouTube (Franco 2018).


Image #1: Allan Kardec.
Image #2: The Spirits Book.
Image #3: “The Brazilian Kardec,” Adolfo Bezerra de Menezes (1831–1900).
Image #4: Brazilian medium Divaldo Pereira Franco (1927-).
Image #5: Brazilian medium Chico Xavier (1910–2002) in a session of automatic writing.
Image #6: The Kardecist ritual passe (non-contact form of manipulation of “energies” or “magnetic fluids”).
Image #7: Brazilian medium and psychic surgeon Zé Arigo (José Pedro de Freitas: 1922–1971) treating a patient, with the assistance of the spirit Dr. Fritz.

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Publication Date:
6 April 2022



Grace Holmes Carlson


1906 (November 13):  Grace Holmes was born to Mary Nuebel Holmes and James Holmes in St. Paul, Minnesota.

1906 (December 9):  Holmes was baptized in the Roman Catholic Church at St. Peter Claver in St. Paul, Minnesota.

1922:  Holmes’ father, James, participated in the Railroad Shopmen’s strike.

1924–1929:  Holmes attended College of St. Catherine in St. Paul.

1926 (May 11):  Holmes’s mother, Mary, died.

1929–1933:  Holmes attended the University of Minnesota and earned a Ph.D. in 1933.

1934 (summer):  Holmes witnessed the Minneapolis Teamsters strikes.

1934 (July 28):  Holmes and Gilbert Carlson were married.

1935–1940:  Grace Holmes Carlson was employed as a vocational rehabilitation counselor for the Minnesota Department of Education.

1937:  Carlson left the Catholic Church and separated from Gilbert.

1937 (December)–1938 (January):  Carlson served as a delegate at the founding convention of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in Chicago.

1940 (September 1):  Carlson resigned from the Department of Education and ran for the U.S. Senate from Minnesota.

1941 (July):  Carlson and twenty-eight other Trotskyists were indicted in Minneapolis for violating the Smith Act.

1941 (December):  Carlson and seventeen other defendants were convicted and sentenced to prison.

1942:  Carlson ran for mayor of St. Paul, Minnesota.

1944 (January)–1945 (January):  Carlson served her sentence at Alderson Prison.

1945 (June–September):  Carlson conducted her nationwide “Women in Prison” speaking tour and published articles on working women’s struggles in The Militant.

1946:  Carlson ran for the U.S. Senate from Minnesota.

1948:  Carlson ran for U.S. vice president with Farrell Dobbs who ran for president in the SWP’s first national campaign.

1950:  Carlson ran for the U.S. Congress from Minnesota.

1951:  Carlson’s father James Holmes, a large influence in her life, died.

1952 (June 18):  Carlson resigned from the SWP, returned to the Catholic Church, and reunited with Gilbert.

1952 (November)–1955 (August):  Carlson worked as a secretary in the pediatrics department of St. Mary’s Hospital in Minneapolis and engaged in various charitable endeavors.

1955 (August)–1957 (April):  Carlson worked as the social director for St. Mary’s Hospital’s School of Nursing; Carlson delivered public speeches before Catholic groups on topics such as “The Return to God” and “The Paradox of Communism.”

1957 (April):  Carlson was hired as an instructor in the Department of Nursing at the College of St. Catherine.

1957–1965:  Carlson delivered speeches to various Catholic and secular audiences on the importance of the Catholic lay apostolate as well as on women’s career paths.

1964:  Carlson and Sister A. J. Moore, CSJ, released the St. Mary’s Plan, the founding plan for the new St. Mary’s Junior College (SMJC) in Minneapolis where Carlson was hired as a professor of psychology.

1968:  Carlson delivered her speech, “Review of Catholics and the Left.”

1979:  Carlson retired from teaching at SMJC and began her “Carlson’s Continuing Commentary” column in the college’s newspaper Good News.

1980–1984:  Carlson worked in the SMJC alumnae office.

1982:  Carlson established the Grace Carlson Student Emergency Loan Fund to assist SMJC students with small, no-interest loans.

1984:  Carlson left her alumnae and newspaper work at SMJC to care fulltime for Gilbert who died on May 13.

1988:  Carlson moved to Madison, Wisconsin.

1992 (July 7):  Grace Holmes Carlson died at the age of eighty-five.


Grace Holmes Carlson [Image at right] was raised a Catholic in St. Paul, Minnesota, but left the Church in the late 1930s at the end of the Great Depression to pursue a career in the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party (SWP). For more than a decade, as an organizer, political candidate, and contributor to the party’s newspaper, The Militant, she dedicated her life to the SWP. When she returned to the Catholic Church in 1952, Carlson did not shed her Marxist understanding of the need to eliminate exploitative capitalism. She viewed her commitment to pursuing social justice through that Marxist lens but, as a Catholic once again, she also understood that commitment as a gospel mandate to involve herself in worldly affairs to “restore all things to Christ” (Carlson 1957). Carlson engaged in this work as an active laywoman in her parish, as an educator at St. Mary’s Junior College (SMJC), and as public speaker. Unlike well-known figures of the Catholic Left, like Dorothy Day, Carlson did not take a personalist approach to faith and social reform. Nor did she believe in individual acts of witness as resistance, as famously engaged in by Fathers Daniel and Philip Berrigan. Instead, she remained committed to effecting social and economic change through what she called the slow and “laborious process of educating and propagandizing” (Carlson 1970) in her public speaking and in her work at SMJC.

Grace Holmes was born in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1906 into an Irish and German working-class Catholic family. The women religious who taught her at St. Vincent’s parish school, St. Joseph’s Academy high school, and the College of St. Catherine (CSC)  [Image at right] were a formative influence. Through religious instruction and extracurricular activities, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet taught Carlson that serving all people without distinction was a way to serve God. Their communication of this gospel mandate of service was informed both by scripture and by the sisters’ founding mission. These women religious, along with parish priests who were trained by Father John Ryan at St. Paul Seminary established by Archbishop John Ireland, also exposed Carlson to the Catholic Church’s social teachings on the dignity of work, the legitimacy of workers’ associations, and the need for a just wage to support a decent life for laborers. Among the many texts Carlson read as an undergraduate at CSC was Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical, Rerum Novarum, which advanced these social teachings. She was thus aware of the Church’s arguments for workers’ assertion of their human dignity through the cooperation of labor and capital. But Carlson was also educated in worker solidarity and class conflict when her father, James Holmes, who was a boilermaker on the Great Northern Railway, joined his fellow railroad shopkeepers on strike in 1922. Carlson recalled other, purely secular, influences on her maturing working-class and social-justice oriented consciousness, including her maternal uncle who read the Socialist Appeal.

When Carlson began her graduate study at the University of Minnesota in 1929, she already was committed to helping the exploited and had a strong working-class identity. After earning her Ph.D. in psychology in 1933, she became politically active and supported the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party campaign of Floyd Olson for governor. But during the summer of 1934, as she witnessed the momentous Minneapolis Teamsters strikes, she became attracted to the revolutionary Marxism that the Trotskyist leaders of that work stoppage advocated. Carlson began attending the weekly Sunday Forums of the Communist Left Opposition (as the followers of Leon Trotsky, who had been ousted from the Communist Party in 1928, had come to be known) and learned about their commitment to international revolutionary socialism. The 1934 strikes were a seminal moment in her evolving political identification, as were her years working as a vocational rehabilitation counselor (1935–1940). While she struggled to help disabled clients find work in a crashing economy and as she attended the Trotskyist Sunday Forums, she came to believe that only socialism would meet people’s economic needs. As Carlson and her sister Dorothy became more deeply committed to the Trotskyists, Carlson’s husband Gilbert, a law student whom she had married in July 1934, became wary. Warned off by a local priest that one could not be a good Catholic and a socialist at the same time, Gilbert Carlson did not become a formal member of the Left Opposition. Grace Carlson, however, did: she joined the Trotskyists in the Workers Party in 1936. At some point during this period, Grace and Gilbert separated and Grace left the Catholic Church. Carlson became a delegate to the convention in Chicago where the Trotskyists founded their own revolutionary socialist party, the Socialist Workers Party, in January 1938.

For the next fourteen years, Carlson was an important figure in the SWP, serving as a state organizer in Minnesota and becoming the first woman to serve on the party’s National Committee. In 1941, Carlson gained notoriety as one of the twenty-nine Trotskyists who were indicted by a federal grand jury for violating the 1940 Smith Act. She was one of the eighteen defendants who ultimately was convicted of conspiring to advocate the violent overthrow of the government because of her political beliefs. On December 8, 1941, she was sentenced to sixteen months in federal prison. After a failed appeal, Carlson served just over a year in Alderson Prison and was released on parole in January 1945. She remained active in the SWP, conducting a nationwide
speaking tour on “Women in Prison,” writing for the party’s newspaper, The Militant, working as a party organizer in Minnesota and New York City, and running for office in various campaigns, including for vice president of the United States in 1948. [Image at right] Carlson almost ran for vice president again in 1952 but pulled out of the race in June when she announced that she was leaving the SWP and returning to the Catholic Church.

Carlson’s departure from the SWP stemmed from personal, not political, reasons. Her father, James, died in September 1951 and his passing led Carlson to realize that she needed God back in her life. Marxism no longer seemed to have all the answers, yet it was difficult for her to acknowledge the call of her faith. She later explained how “I thought I was seeking personal satisfaction and betraying the movement” (Romer 1952:8). She spent months struggling with her feelings. In her conversations with Father Leonard Cowley, the priest who guided her in her return to the Church, he explained that she did not have to choose between her God and her “opinion on social problems so long as it doesn’t conflict with moral principle” (Romer 1952:8). With this reassurance, Carlson left the SWP in June 1952 and rejoined the Catholic Church with her Marxist viewpoints largely intact. She also reunited with her husband Gilbert at this time.

As a Marxist, Carlson’s return to the Catholic Church during the McCarthy period was not an easy one, but she soon found more progressive circles within which she could simultaneously pursue her spiritual devotions and her political activism. These included St. Mary’s Junior College in Minneapolis. After she left the SWP in 1952 it was hard for Carlson to find employment because she had been blacklisted. Sister Rita Clare Brennan, one of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, helped her secure secretarial work at St. Mary’s Hospital. By 1957 Carlson was hired to teach in the hospital’s nursing program and became an indispensable member of the faculty at what became St. Mary’s Junior College (SMJC). She relished the opportunities to “teach and practice social justice” until she retired in 1979. With Sister A. J. Moore, CSJ, Carlson co-wrote the founding plan for the college in 1964 that called for a broad-based liberal arts education to complement the technical training for the nursing students so that they could use their talents to serve others as a means of serving God. Carlson incorporated this mission into her many volunteer activities on and off campus. She became a mentor to countless female students, delivered numerous public speeches during the late 1950s and 1960s in which she articulated her vision of an activist Catholic lay apostolate, volunteered at a home for at risk women in Minneapolis, and served on her parish’s liturgy committee. Carlson found the Catholic lay apostolate (the Church teaching that all laypersons are entrusted by God with a common vocation through their Baptism and Confirmation to build up the Church and sanctify the world in their actions in everyday life) to be an inspiration and guide to her work in this new phase of her life.

Carlson remained engaged with the SMJC community after she retired from teaching in 1979, working as an alumnae officer, setting up an emergency fund for students, and publishing a weekly column in the campus newspaper. In 1984 she focused her attention on Gilbert, becoming his primary caretaker in the last year of his life. In 1988 she moved to Madison, Wisconsin to be closer to her sister Dorothy. Grace Holmes Carlson died in Madison on July 7, 1992.


Carlson’s lay apostolate was rooted in her Catholic faith that was nurtured in the Church during her childhood and young adult years and during her late adulthood after she responded to the call of her faith again in 1952. Early in her life, her faith was shaped by the instruction she received from the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet and by her exposure to the Catholic Church’s social teachings. She undoubtedly was also familiar with the liturgical movement of the late 1920s that called for greater participation of congregants in forms of worship, particularly in the Mass. Carlson’s time at St. Joseph’s Academy and CSC included monthly adorations of the Blessed Sacrament and weekly reception of the Eucharist. Through these practices Carlson probably was exposed to the Church’s teaching on the Mystical Body of Christ, which held that through the Eucharist, Catholics’ union into a spiritual body with Christ as their head was strengthened. She was most likely taught that this mystical union with Christ also connected Catholics to one another in the Church and necessitated a duty to act in the world to serve Christ in one another (Ephesians 4:4-13; John 15: 5-12; 1 Corinthians 10:17). This doctrine influenced the Catholic Action movement of the 1930s that, albeit under the direct supervision of the bishops, called on Catholic laypersons to “engage in their faith in socially-oriented ways” (Harmon 2014:52). By this period, Carlson was on her way out of the Church, but the concept of a socially oriented engagement of one’s faith (and the Catholic organizations that mushroomed in its soil, like the Catholic Worker Movement) remained and provided a touchstone for Carlson when she returned to the Church in 1952.

In the many speeches she delivered from the late 1950s through the early 1960s, in the period immediately before Vatican II, Carlson repeatedly called for a Catholic lay apostolate that engaged with the concerns of the secular world and became “propagandists for Christ” (Carlson 1957, 1958). In speeches like “Nurse and the Parish” and “The Lay Apostle,” Grace grappled with an understanding of the Catholic faith that was at once focused on both the transcendent and the temporal, on loving and serving and uniting with God and humanity through lay Catholic activism. She argued that when it came to “contest for minds of men . . . atheism must be opposed,” but “as to Marxist economics” there could be a more “complex approach” in which there could be a “union and communion with God and with each other” (Carlson 1965). She made the case for an incarnational Christian response to the needs of the people by quoting Rev. Peter Riga, a professor of theology at St. John Vianney Seminary in East Aurora, New York, that “To be a Christian is not purely to serve God, but it is also a dynamic social ethic, a service to mankind; it is not merely a theology, but also an anthropology” (quoted in Carlson 1965).

Carlson had tapped into broader currents flowing in the Catholic Church before Vatican II (1962–1965) that stressed the importance of the laity as brothers and sisters in Christ who had a mandate to do God’s work in the world. Those currents (including the liturgical movement, the Catholic Action movement, and the doctrine of the Mystical Body of Christ that had been further developed in Pope Pius XII’s 1943 encyclical Mystici Corporis Christi) “sowed the seeds for the frenzied activity that followed the Second Vatican Council” (Bonner, Burns and Denny 2014:17). But that activity was later nurtured by the decrees that emerged from the Second Vatican Council, especially Lumen Gentium (The Dogmatic Constitution of the Church) and Gaudium et Spes (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the World Today). Lumen Gentium “stressed that the church is a pilgrim people, not an unchanging institution.” It developed the notion of the Church as the People of God based on the belief that “by virtue of baptism, every Christian is called upon to minister in the name of Christ” (Gillis, 1999:86–90). Gaudium et Spes stressed that the faithful had to “decipher authentic signs of God’s presence and purpose” in the world and become “witness to Christ in the midst of human society” (quoted in McCartin 2010:114).


As a laywoman, Carlson repeatedly called on others (and took action herself) to be a lay apostle, a “propagandist for Christ,” in the world even before Vatican II issued decrees acknowledging that baptismal call to ministry. In addition to the many speeches in which she made the case for such work, Carlson’s efforts in crafting the curricular plan for what became SMJC in 1964 advocated this lay apostolate. Carlson and Sister A. J. Moore [Image at right] designed the new junior college as a place where the “students in technical programs are urged to develop a sense of social responsibility” not just their own self advancement and “To develop a person assured of the significance of spiritual values strongly imbued with a desire to serve God and his neighbor” (Carlson and Moore 1964). To help SMJC students complete their education so that they could undertake this mission, Carlson also established an emergency fund out of her own pocket in 1982 that provided small, no-interest loans to students in need.


Her work at SMJC was not the only way that Carlson was a propagandist for Christ. So too was her protest against America’s involvement in the war in Vietnam and her support for the anti-nuclear movement. Although Carlson cared about causes that were central to the New Left, she diverged from that movement because of her unique Catholic and Old Left Marxist approach to the issues, a position that she articulated most clearly in her 1968 speech, “Review of Catholics and the Left.” As a self-defined “propagandist for Christian socialism,” she explained that she was “prejudiced against those who muddy the waters by individualistic acts: demand dialogue in churches undemocratically; offend sensibilities by vulgar language; burn draft records or pour blood on them” (Carlson 1968). In her denunciation of what she saw as the New Left’s vulgarity she found common ground with Dorothy Day, who also disliked “the rage and obscenities, the irreverence and smugness, the lack of humility” of many of the anti-war protestors (Loughery and Randolph 2020:316). Day, however, made her objection on moral grounds. For Carlson, it was a political objection. She argued that the “basic error of New Left—Catholic or not is anti-intellectualism. . . ‘I feel therefore I am,’” and contrasted that new movement to the Old Left of which she had been a part in which “not to ‘do your thing’ but to do the thing that will advance the movement” was the focus in order to bring “an end to racial and social and economic oppression of man by man” (Carlson 1968, punctuation as in original). For Carlson, social reform—indeed a revolutionary reordering of the existing socio-economic system—was the paramount concern. By contrast, Dorothy Day, influenced by Peter Maurin, co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, focused on “the little way,” in which it was about bringing about a “revolution in thought, not an adjustment of an economic system” (Loughery and Randolph 2020:139). The difference here was not just that Day’s activism was rooted in her pacifism and the Church’s prophetic tradition geared ultimately to an eschatological end, but that Carlson’s was still so grounded in Old Left Marxism. They both believed in changing hearts and minds; but for Day, that was the revolution, whereas for Carlson, it was the application of that change to the social and economic system that was so needed in the modern world.

Carlson’s Old Left perspective blended with her Catholic activism to produce the hybrid Catholic Marxist approach that she took to contemporary issues during the 1960s and beyond. It is also what attracted her to Slant, a left-wing Catholic group in England. Slant (the name was always italicized) was a movement that was formed in 1964 among “a group of undergraduates at Cambridge University and their clerical advisors” who launched a journal of the same name and “whose purpose was a radical examination of traditional Catholic theology so as to promote the social goals of the Gospel.” For Slant members those “goals implied a socialist revolution” (Corrin 2013:216). They expressed ideas that were “decidedly radical, in drawing imaginative connections between Christian theology and revolutionary Marxism” (Corrin 2013:224). Carlson began “a discussion with a number of selected students” and initiated a branch of Slant at SMJC among them and some faculty members. In so doing she practiced what she had preached: working to effect social change “through the more laborious process of educating and propagandizing” (Carlson 1970).


Carlson’s lay apostolate reveals the diversity of Catholic laywomen’s witness in the mid- to late-twentieth-century United States. But it also was unique to her somewhat unusual life path. Part of her focus on effecting social change included a particular feminist agenda that had its roots in her years at the College of St. Catherine, where she learned from the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet the importance of developing her intellectual talents to put in the service of God by serving others. This service included pursuing graduate education and a career outside the home through which she could minister to others, as she did in her role as a vocational rehabilitation counselor from 1935 to 1940. During her years in the Socialist Workers Party, Carlson developed her feminist identity further and solely through her engagement with secular Marxist influences. She approached the “woman question” as a Trotskyist, seeing the class struggle as central to women’s liberation from capitalism, which she understood as the source of all oppression. When she returned to the Catholic Church in 1952, Carlson maintained these positions but integrated them with her renewed Catholic faith. Drawing on certain facets of Catholic social teachings and the liturgical and Catholic Action movements, Carlson argued in “The Catholic Woman Apostolate” that the “creator must have endowed women with qualities of mind and soul to do his work,” which included work outside the home that made a difference in society (Carlson 1959). In this way her feminism resonated with some of the Catholic laywomen who redefined Catholic womanhood to include an affirmation of their calls to work in the world that have been studied by historian Mary J. Henold (2008). But Carlson diverged from these women almost as much as she did from her former Trotskyist sisters. She did not root her understanding of Catholic womanhood in essentialism or complementarity (a doctrine promulgated by twentieth-century popes beginning with Pope Pius XII that asserts the essential difference yet equality of the sexes); nor did she base it solely on a Marxist view of the primacy of the class struggle. Instead, she combined the Catholic influences from her childhood with her working-class experiences and Trotskyism as she worked for social justice in her years at St. Mary’s Junior College. [Image at right] The result, in Carlson’s case, is a woman who challenged both capitalist oppression and patriarchal structures in the pursuit of liberating women and serving God.

Carlson’s lay activism also reveals some of the diversity that existed in the American Catholic Left during the Cold War era, specifically Marxist Catholic alternatives that rejected violence while demanding, as a gospel mandate, revolutionary social and economic change. Through her speeches, correspondence, and campus organizing work, Carlson attempted to bring something to the American Catholic context that was, according to historian David J. O’Brien, largely missing—a way “to develop the social and political dimensions of the [then] present revolution in the church” (O’Brien 1972:213). By blending her Old Left perspective with her Catholic activism, Carlson created the Catholic Marxist approach that she took to this work.


Image #1: Grace Holmes Carlson, Minneapolis, 1941. Photo Acme 10-29-41, courtesy of David Riehle.
Image #2: Grace Holmes and her fellow graduates, College of St. Catherine, 1929. Graduates of the Class of 1929, Photo 828, f. 7, box 166, University Archives Photograph Collection, Archives and Special Collections, St. Catherine University. Courtesy of Archives and Special Collections, St. Catherine University, St. Paul, Minnesota.
Image #3: Grace Holmes Carlson campaigning for vice president in 1948. Photo of Grace Carlson at podium, f. 1948 Presidential Campaign—Aug. 1948, box 1, Grace Carlson Papers, Minnesota Historical Society. Courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul, Minnesota.
Image #4: Grace Carlson with Sister Anne Joachim Moore, 1981. St. Mary’s School of Nursing, Series 8, Photographs, Box 11, Archives and Special Collections, St. Catherine University. Courtesy of Archives and Special Collections, St. Catherine University, St. Paul, Minnesota.
Image #5: Grace Carlson in her office at St. Mary’s Junior College, 1983. Grace Carlson, 1983, St. Mary’s School of Nursing, Series 8, Photographs, Box 11, Archives and Special Collections, St. Catherine University. Courtesy of Archives and Special Collections, St. Catherine University, St. Paul, Minnesota.


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Publication Date:
30 March 2022