The New Age movement was a revivalist movement that swept through metaphysical New Thought churches and Spiritualist and occult organizations in the 1970s and 1980s. As a result, many people accepted either a metaphysical or Spiritualist perspective and both communities grew significantly. The New Age idea of replacing the present society with a coming of the golden age of peace and love for the next generation transformed both communities. By the mid-1990s, the idea of a New Age had largely died out but had left the psychic community permanently changed.
Roots of the New Age Movement
A noticeable New Age vision, the triumph of the hopes and ideals to which occultists gave their allegiance, was given a certain limited expression throughout the twentieth century. Often that hope was seen in the arrival of what was termed the Aquarian Age. In astrology, an "age" is defined by the location of the sun at the moment of the spring equinox each year. Because of the tilt of the Earth's axis, that sign changes approximately every 2,160 years. Depending upon the astrological system one uses, the sun is making the transition from the sign of Pisces to that of Aquarius sometime in this century.
Pisces, the fish sign, is often associated with Christianity, in which the fish is frequently used as a symbol of Jesus; in Greek the word for fish, ichthus, was a acronym for the phrase "Jesus Christ, God's son and Saviour." The passing of the Earth to a new astrological age would bring a new religion or spiritual perspective to dominance. However, during the last half of the twentieth century, as a new millennium loomed on the horizon, a variety of occult groups predicted the coming new age at the same time as the new millennium.
Among the early groups predicting the New Age was the London-based Universal Link, which originated in the contact of Richard Grave of Worthing, England, with a spirit entity who came to be known only as "Limitless Love." This entity first appeared in 1961 and gave Grave a variety of messages on the impending return of Christ in the midst of the seemingly destructive course of action being followed by the human race. Publicity given Grave's messages in a Spiritualist newspaper and his subsequent meeting with Spiritualist artist Libby Pugh led to the development of a network of interested individuals.
Crucial to the message was a prediction that by Christmas morning of 1967 Christ would reveal himself through the medium of nuclear evolution. That prediction brought many into the network, including Sir Anthony Brooke, the former ruler of the Indonesian island of Sarawak, who spent his retirement years traveling the world spreading the message.
When no visible event occurred to coincide with the predicted nuclear event, the most dedicated of the Universal Link members concluded that the event was an invisible one. Nellie Cane, founder of the Spiritual Research Society, and a key American figure spreading the Universal Link message, suggested that the event was the completion of the international linking of groups and individuals who need to join in a common effort to radiate God's light to the world.
Among the groups linked in the 1960s was the Findhorn Foundation, a communal association in northern Scotland in large part held together by channeling. Channeling is similar to mediumships in Spiritualism — the ability to contact spirit entities. However, in Spiritualism, a mediumship had concentrated upon the communication with a large number of spirit entities bringing greetings or messages to their still-living relatives with the aim of proving their continued existence after the transition of bodily death. Channeling, in contrast, assumed the existence of a spiritual world with which contact could be made for the purpose of learning about the nature of the world and receiving guidance on how to live. Mediumship was seen as the special prerogative of a few special individuals, while channeling was seen as possible for almost anyone.
A medium usually had a control, one or a few individual spirit entities who facilitated contact with the deceased relatives of the sitter(s). The channel usually contacted one or a few master teachers who regularly delivered philosophical discourses. The entities channeled, while usually the spirits of long-deceased individuals, could also be creatures from other planets, angelic beings, nature spirits, the channels' own higher self, or even Christ or God. The theosophical tradition had been built from the initial channelings of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky from the Masters or Mahatmas. While little channeling activity took place in the post-Blavatsky Theosophical Society, numerous splinter groups emerged around a new channel, sometimes referred to as a Messenger. Most prominent of these subsequent channels were Alice A. Bailey of the Arcane School and Guy W. Ballard, founder of the I Am Movement. The practice of channeling was given a tremendous boost in the 1970s by the publication of the material channeled by Jane Roberts from an entity known as "Seth."
Findhorn had been sustained through the 1960s, its developing years, by the channeling activity of Eileen Caddy. In the early 1970s, it was joined by a young student of the Alice Bailey teachings, David Spangler, who channeled material from an entity called "John." Spangler would, during his three years at Findhorn, construct a vision of the New Age as a time when important new energies from the cosmos were available to the human race. If these energies were accepted and worked with over the next generation, a New Age could be brought to pass. According to Spangler, the coming of the New Age was dependent upon the dedicated spiritual work of the people. He published his views first in a small book published by Findhorn, The New Age Vision (1973), upon which he expanded in his widely circulated volumes Revelation: The Birth of a New Age (1976) and Towards a Planetary Vision (1977).
Through the 1970s the New Age vision as articulated by Spangler spread through the groups and individuals that had constituted the network created by the Universal Link and spread far beyond it. The basic ideas were quite simple: There is a New Age coming and this present generation is the transition generation, though most will live to see and enjoy the imminent new society of peace and love. As society goes through the birth pangs of the new society and the turmoil and displacement it will bring, individuals can experience a foretaste of the social transformation in an immediate and personal transformation occasioned by a healing, a new personal insight, or the realization of a spiritual truth. Facilitating the personal transformation were a number of New Age transformative tools: channeling, crystals, divinatory techniques (tarot cards, astrology, etc.) and a whole range of holistic health practices. Responsibility for bringing in the New Age is in the hands of individuals who must take responsibility for their lives and the direction of society.
As the New Age movement emerged through the 1970s, it had a social vision that saw the merging of New Age vision to older movements centered upon world peace, environmentalism, and multiethnic cooperation. Healing became an important metaphor of the New Age and the holistic health perspective provided an alternative program to the common scientific medicine built upon drugs and surgery. It suggested an emphasis upon preventive medicine and the eradication of disease through a natural (and frequently vegetarian) diet, healthful practices (exercise, hatha yoga, living in a nonpolluted environment), and attention to clearing problems by developing spiritually and cleansing the emotions. The various forms of body work (chiropractic, massage, and related practices) have been immensely popular in New Age circles.
Rise and Fall of the New Age
The New Age movement grew through the 1970s and by 1980s had become a recognizable social phenomena. In that year Marilyn Ferguson would describe it as The Aquarian Conspiracy, a decentralized network of people who have forsaken the past for a coming new world. They are bonded by their experience of inner transformation and their common work for the coming transformed society. Through the next decade channeling became a well-known phenomenon, the use of crystals (the effect of which was described in great detail by channeler Frank Alper ) spread, the publication of metaphysical and occult books burgeoned, and hundreds of thousands of people in Europe, North America, and urban centers around the world were swept up into the movement. An estimated four million adherents could be found in the United States alone.
The movement seemed to peak in the late 1980s following the airing in 1987 of Out on a Limb, a television movie based upon the New Age awakening of actress Shirley MacLaine. MacLaine had written a series of popular New Age books and publicly identified with the movement, in which she developed an avocation as a teacher. In 1989 she released a video, Shirley MacLaine's Inner Workout.
However, through the 1980s, the New Age movement received a significant amount of criticism, the most telling accusing it of being a shallow spiritual vision built upon the questionable practices of channeling and crystals and a naive (and false) hope of a significant systemic change in society. Internally, New Age leaders began to reexamine the movement. The first of an important set of redefining articles by David Spangler began to appear in 1988. Over the next few years, prominent leaders of the movement announced their abandonment of the New Age vision of a transformed society and publicly distanced themselves from channeling and crystals. They suggested that the heart of the movement had always been the personal transformations experienced by individuals and the spiritual perspective on life it gave to people. The social vision was abandoned and the people left in the movement reoriented entirely around personal development and improvement.
By the early 1990s, it was obvious that the New Age movement was dying. The passing of the New Age movement did not leave the metaphysical, Spiritualist, and occult communities unchanged. The hundreds of thousands of individuals brought into the communities by the New Age did not leave. Hundreds of New Age bookstores still dot the landscape, and New Age publishing remains a healthy concern. Most importantly, the concept of "New Age," which largely replaced "occult" in popular parlance, gave occultism a positive image in popular culture, the lack of which was a major barrier to its growth. The New Age movement left the occult community in a most robust state.
During the nineties the New Age has shifted from its premillennialist stance where an "overnight" scenario was expected to occur to a more postmillennial outlook where each person is expected to create their own heaven on earth by personal spiritual transformation over time. This evolution can be seen in the progression of books by James Redfield starting with The Celestine Prophecy and continuing with many sequels. The new emphasis has been on the issue of ascension, but with no crystallized consensus from the many authors that promote it. Such authors grace the pages of Sedona Journal of Emergence with an eclectic mix of views. Another huge archive of New Age information is the SpiritWeb Internet site.
Anderson, Walter Truett. The Upstart Spring: Esalen & the American Awakening. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1983.
Basil, Robert, ed. Not Necessarily the New Age. Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1988.
Celestine Vision. http://www.celestinevision.com/main.html. April 10, 2000.
Ferguson, Marilyn. The Aquarian Conspiracy: Personal and Social Transformation in Our Time. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1980.
Lewis, James R., and J. Gordon Melton, eds. Perspectives on the New Age. Albany, N.Y.: State University Press of New York, 1992.
MacLaine, Shirley. Out on a Limb. New York: Bantam Books, 1983.
Melton, J. Gordon, Jerome Clark, and Aidan Kelly, eds. New Age Encyclopedia. Detroit: Gale Research, 1990.
Mystic Planet and New Age Directory of Planet Earth. http://www.mysticplanet.com/. April 10, 2000.
New Age Reading Room. http://www.wholeagain.com/news.html. April 10, 2000.
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Schultz, Ted. The Fringes of Reason: A Whole Earth Catalog. New York: Harmony Books, 1989.
Sedona Journal of Emergence. http://www.sedonajo.com/sje. April 10, 2000.
Spangler, David. Revelation: The Birth of a New Age. San Francisco: Rainbow Bridge, 1976.
Spangler, David, and William Irwin Thompson. Reimagination of the World: A Critique of the New Age, Science, and Popular Culture. Sante Fe, N.Mex.: Bear and Company Publishing, 1991.
Spiritual Consciousness on WWW. http://www.spiritweb.org. April 10, 2000.
Wilson, Robert Anton. The New Inquisition: Irrational Rationalism and the Citadel of Science. Las Vegas: Falcon Press, 1986.
New Age, a term popularized in the 1980s to describe a wide-ranging set of beliefs and practices that are an outgrowth of the counterculture of the 1960s and 70s in the United States. Adherents of the New Age movement believe that a spiritual era is dawning in which individuals and society will be transformed. The movement encompasses a wide range of ideas, including personal spiritual growth and self-realization, holistic medicine (including the use of crystals for healing), reincarnation, astrology, and the mystical energies said to be induced by pyramids. Many critics of the movement regard it as anti-intellectual. In music, the term refers to meditative, relaxing, usually instrumental styles.