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CHAPTER NINE

THE MASTERS AMONG US

Whatever is published and made known to everyone concerning our Fraternity … let no man take it lightly, nor consider it an idle or invented thing, much less dismiss it as a mere personal conceit of ours.

—THE CONFESSION OF THE LAUDABLE FRATERNITY OF THE MOST HONORABLE ORDER OF THE ROSY CROSS, 1615

For months it was the talk of the Unity Metaphysical Center of Helena, Montana—this strange book that told of wonderful miracles performed by centuries-old teachers living in farthest India. Many hungered to learn more about the holy beings venerated in its title: Life and Teaching of the Masters of the Far East. Their curiosity extended to the book’s mysterious author, the bald, professorial-looking Baird T. Spalding, who had carried out a “metaphysical research” expedition for an Ivy League university at the distant corners of the earth.

“So many Helena men and women have been reading a book, the subject of so much speculation and hot controversy,” reported the Helena Daily Independent in March 1931, that Ruth E. Chew, a Smith College–educated teacher of positive thinking and the town’s doyen of the metaphysical, had selected it for a series of “five Lenten lectures.” A New Yorker by birth who gained brief national note for her “diet of joy” teachings, Chew had received Spalding’s personal blessing to lecture about his journeys. Her audience was no cluster of starry-eyed Californians or avant-garde New Yorkers. They were spiritually curious heartland folk enthralled with Spalding’s claim that wise immortals dwelled in the Himalayas, preaching a gospel of love, self-realization, and human potential. The lecture series was so popular that within a few years Spalding himself came to town to speak. For two evenings the crowd so overflowed the Unity Center that the auditorium of a nearby Baptist church had to host the messenger of the Masters.

Since a private printing of one thousand copies, financed by the wife of a California railroad magnate in 1924, Spalding’s book had run into many tens of thousands of copies. It would sell more than a million in years ahead—popularizing early themes of New Age spirituality. The Masters taught that all religions are one, there is no hell outside “man’s mortal thought,” and the seeds of “Christ Consciousness” exist within all people. Spalding produced a popular second volume three years after the first, recounting dialogues with Jesus Christ himself, who, Spalding wrote, had studied as an adept in India, where he now lived among his fellow Masters in the form of an ordinary man but for “a peculiar translucent quality about the flesh.”

For those believers who had grown up on hellfire Christianity or within the cold formality of Anglican faiths, and for whom faraway places like India or Tibet could seem as magical as never-never land, Spalding’s books came as a liberating uplift. They passed among the hands of thousands of people who had heard little of Theosophy or the other mystical and occult sources upon which Spalding drew, and to whom they arrived with the impact of a new testament.

Invisible College

Spalding was vastly more readable, and more likely to be read, than the voluminous literature to emerge from Theosophy or the metaphysical writings of Emanuel Swedenborg. His works were the result of two underground channels that converged and burst to the surface in America: The first was the Theosophical notion of hidden adepts sent to aid humanity, and the second was a modern mythos that Christ had spent his “lost years”—roughly from the ages of thirteen to thirty—as a Far Eastern initiate of wisdom.

The idea of hidden masters had long circulated in the modern West. The Rosicrucian manuscripts of the early seventeenth century told of an “invisible college” behind the scenes of ordinary life. In 1842, a popular novel titled Zanoni, by the British nobleman Edward Bulwer-Lytton, ignited the occult imagination with tales of immortal superinitiates walking the earth. Possibly taking inspiration from Zanoni, Madame Blavatsky later wrote that she made her very first contact with an Indian Master at the international exhibition at Hyde Park’s Crystal Palace in 1851; he was said to have been a hugely tall man who arrived with the royal Nepal delegation. World’s fairs seemed to be a magical bridge for bringing the influence of the East across the oceans. The 1893 world’s fair in Chicago featured the first World Parliament of Religions, which attracted religious leaders from around the globe, including a large number of robed swamis, yogis, and gurus who heightened the perception that there were, indeed, mysterious teachers of whom the West knew little.

One of the most beguiling and charismatic visitors who reached America through the Chicago World’s Fair was Swami Vivekananda, a Hindu teacher who remained in America for two years, teaching and traveling around the nation. At once friendly and exotic-looking in his turban and robes, Vivekananda—a serious purveyor of Hindu ideas—seemed to enjoy his contact with the refreshingly unpretentious, caste-free Americans. He discussed reincarnation with cowboys, chided Americans for their materialism, and teased Spiritualists for showing more interest in conjuring up “creepy things” than the higher goal of self-knowledge. In good humor, the swami repeated the story of a husband–wife team of spirit mediums with whom he shared a kitchen at a New York rooming house. The couple performed a stage show together and would often get into domestic spats. Vivekananda recalled that after one of their arguments the wife turned to the Eastern master and complained: “Is it fair of him to treat me like this, when I make all the ghosts?”

If wise men had always existed in the ancient cultures of India and Tibet, some Western observers began to wonder—with greater or lesser levels of discrimination—whether the wisest man in history had traversed east from Nazareth during his long stretch of “silent years” in Scripture. The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ, a “rediscovered” Tibetan narrative published in 1894 by Russian journalist–impresario Nicolas Notovitch, had done much to popularize this notion, as had the 1908 Aquarian Gospel of Ohio’s Levi H. Dowling. In the early twentieth century, Theosophy’s Annie Besant went further, describing “The Master Jesus” as an immortal adept living “mostly in the mountains of Lebanon.” (This was ascertained, presumably, through clairvoyant perception or a higher-dimensional visit. Besant rarely claimed such abilities herself, but they were frequent methods of her closest deputy, Charles Webster Leadbeater.)

Spalding’s point of view, however, reached a wider public than had any of his predecessors’. He possessed what few of them did: a sprightly writing style and the ability, found so completely in perhaps no American scribe since Joseph Smith, to convey the drama and portent of a new gospel. Spalding’s Master Jesus spoke in a distinctly twentieth-century early Atomic Age idiom that seemed, in the mind of his readers, to reveal a confluence between science and spirit. In a third volume of his Masters series, published in 1935, Spalding had a modern Christ turning back a group of bandits set to raid a holy temple:

As I stand alone in Your great silence, God my Father, in the midst of me there blazes a pure light and it fills every atom of my whole being with its great radiance. Life, Love, Strength, Purity, Beauty, Perfection, stand forth in all dominion within me. As I gaze into the very heart of this light, I see another light,—liquid, soft, golden-white and radiantly luminous,—absorbing, mothering and giving forth the caressing fire of the Greater Light.

Now I know that I am God and one with God’s whole universe. I whisper to God my Father and I am undisturbed.

Looking back, it can seem puzzling that many thousands of readers could accept Spalding’s tales of a Christ extant in India, living among other Masters who performed acts of teleportation, clairvoyance, and levitation. But time and again Americans had flocked to fantastic visions or stories of occult prowess that, regardless of the believability of their outer details, touched people’s innermost religious emotions or hopes: the Fox sisters summoning the spirit world, Andrew Jackson Davis’s dispatches from the Summer Land, Joseph Smith’s record of America as a land of biblical patriarchs, Phineas Quimby’s mental healing, William Dudley Pelley’s reports from the afterlife, and Frank B. Robinson’s claims to have “talked with God.” Each tore the lid off a yearning that existed just beneath the surface of popular religious culture.

Like Miss Chew’s congregants in Helena, Montana, Spalding’s readers felt a particular hunger to know more about the Masters and the “world traveler” who recorded their metaphysical testament. The scribe of the Masters was, however, someone about whom almost nothing could be said with certainty: not his age, his background, his vocation, or whether he had really visited the Far East or even set foot outside the United States.

The Book of Gold

Spalding was, in fact, a Western mining prospector with an uncanny knack for reciting dead-to-rights details about people and places that all reasonable deduction precluded his having ever encountered. He likewise possessed the ability to speak movingly on spiritual systems—Hinduism, Buddhism, and ancient forms of mysticism—with which he had little direct contact. Spalding spent most of his time laboring as a solitary claims prospector. And while his mining ventures left him broke, his first Far East narrative—which the miner initially called The Book of Gold—attracted and thrilled readers, as did the enigma of the man himself, from the time when his manuscripts began privately circulating in the early 1920s to the day of his lonely death on the morning of March 18, 1953, at a Tempe, Arizona, motor inn.

The motel owner discovered Spalding’s body half draped over a bed that he had just managed to reach before collapsing. The best-selling author had $15.98 in his pockets, wore bedraggled miner’s clothes, and drove a ’47 pickup. Though once married, he had spent much of his final year living alone in New Mexico in an old mining shack with no modern conveniences. From the conflicting reports he had given friends—further confused by the two different driver’s licenses found on his body—Spalding could have been anywhere from middle age to ninety-five years old. Later investigations showed that he was probably eighty.

A smallish man whose nose had become misshapen—he said from atomic radiation exposure—Spalding had died of a heart attack while stopping en route to Reno, Nevada, to visit one of his mining claims. Even in his aged years, however, Spalding was reported to be capable of remarkable feats of physical stamina, including sleepless nights behind the wheel and the physically grueling routine of solitary drilling—in one case, an observer said, for twenty-four hours straight.

Spalding was by nature a wanderer. Acolytes believed him when he said he had traveled to the most exotic places on earth. Beginning in the year 1894, so went his story, he set off with a party of eleven to probe hidden truths in the still-mythical regions of Tibet, India, China, and Persia. He was, he initially said, working as a researcher in the employ of Columbia University (a claim to which Columbia authorities quickly put an end). Closer to the truth was that, aside from an ill-conceived tour of India that his publisher sent him on with a handful of credulous pilgrims in 1935, Spalding may never have traveled farther than the upstate New York town where he was born and the Western and Pacific states where his mining activities took him.

At least one member of the 1935 India tour wrote back home that, strangely, faculty members at Calcutta University fondly remembered Spalding from his student days there. But most other eyewitnesses described the whole excursion as a disaster of comedic proportions. During the trip, Spalding was supposed to conduct his party of California pilgrims to the locales where he’d encountered the “Elder Brothers”—maybe even snagging a meeting with one in the process. The composite of stories from returning participants had Spalding disappearing for days at a time, tossing off a few tall tales, spuriously reporting that washed-out roads and earthquakes precluded their visiting sites from his books, and then finally ditching the tour group altogether, cashing in his ticket, and returning home aboard a freighter.

The few authentic Hindu worshippers who did cross paths with the Spalding party regarded its leader as a curious, likable, though off-balance man. The British mystical scholar and writer Paul Brunton, at the time a student of Hindu teacher Ramana Maharshi, encountered Spalding knocking about with his fourteen pilgrims in southern India and spent a little time with them. Brunton wrote in his notebooks that Spalding “finally admitted” to him that his Far East travelogues “dealt with visits made in his astral body, not in his physical body as readers were led to believe.” Another disciple of Ramana Maharshi, a British army major named A. W. Chadwick, spent more time with Spalding and his travelers. In his memoirs, Chadwick recalled a “showdown” in which members of the party “turned on Spaulding [sic] and accused him of having swindled them, that the story about the Masters was nothing but an invention and that he had never been in India before. However, he seemed quite equal to the occasion and held his own in spite of the odds.”

Chadwick discovered some “very nice and sincere people” among the Spalding party. While he agreed they had been snookered, he took a more philosophical tack on the whole affair, noting that it did bring some of these hapless tourists into contact with at least one genuine Hindu swami, Ramana Maharshi. One woman in the group, a Mrs. Taylor—who traveled with her husband, a retired postmaster—came into Ramana Maharshi’s presence. In the bombastic style once infamous among traveling Americans, Mrs. Taylor insisted to the Hindu ascetic that she wanted “self-realization”—and wanted the swami to be quick about it. “Wait,” replied the teacher, “it will come in due time.” Mrs. Taylor wasn’t budging. “No,” she replied, “that’s no good. I want it here and now.” After Mrs. Taylor repeatedly refused the teacher’s entreaties for patience, Chadwick recalled, the Hindu master stopped speaking, “but gazed steadily in her eyes for some five minutes or so. She suddenly burst into tears and rushed out of the room, but would never tell anybody what had happened.”

As for Spalding himself, Chadwick recalled him as “a decent sort of person who obviously suffered from delusions. He told me some fantastic tales which he certainly believed himself.… For, surely, he would never have had the courage to lead such an expedition which could only end in fiasco if he had not been slightly mad.” On this point, Chadwick may have been right, and in the strictest sense. According to U.S. census records from April 21, 1930, a “Baird Spalding” was an inmate at Patton State Hospital, a mental institution in San Bernardino, California, for patients committed by the courts. Amid the Spalding résumé of birth dates and background stories—the census identifies him as sixty-nine years old, married, unemployed, and a native of England (another background Spalding was known to give)—it stands as one more odd entry.

Spalding also had frequent run-ins with the law. According to California newspaper reports, he was arrested no fewer than three times between 1928 and 1935. The incidents ranged from mine fraud in Los Angeles, to forgery in New York, to charges stemming from a paternity claim in San Francisco. He was cleared on the paternity claim, but by 1937, his wife, Stella, had had enough and obtained a divorce.

The Camera of Past Events

Despite the chaos that ran through Spalding’s personal life, even his critics marveled at the million-selling author’s gifts. His biographer, David Bruton, a West Coast metaphysical writer and lecturer who argued with Spalding as much as he agreed with him, decided to test the mystic chronicler’s reputed talent for relating vivid details about nearly any person or idea put to him. Bruton mentioned to Spalding his father-in-law, a man of no note whom he was sure the miner had never known, only to hear Spalding expound on his old pal “Charlie” in accurate and eerie detail. “I was soon convinced,” Bruton wrote, “that there was no end to Spalding’s ready knowledge. I heard him repeatedly come up with the right answers on almost any topic, any place or any time.… The manner in which Spalding talked of people, places and events made the whole world seem about the size of a golf ball.”

Indeed, Spalding’s tales would have gotten a less gifted speaker hooted off podiums—especially when he told audiences of inventions like his “Time Camera,” which he said could capture images of the past by tuning to the proper “band of vibratory frequency.” He told of inventing the marvel with no less a luminary than electrical-engineering pioneer Charles Steinmetz (who conveniently died the year before Spalding’s first book appeared). Spalding explained to audiences that he could film historic events, soundtrack included, such as the signing of the Declaration of Independence, George Washington’s inaugural address, and (never one to stop before reaching the top) the Sermon on the Mount, each of which he recounted in pleasingly quirky detail. But for Spalding’s apparent seriousness, it could have been Mark Twain putting on a satire.

But when Spalding would push his lecture audiences too far, just as people might cast glances around them, wondering, Is anyone buying this?, he would change course and offer a moving homily on universal spiritual values. And at such times, Spalding was no cipher. When a questioner at a 1935 lecture asked him whether the Jews had killed Christ, the author turned the question back on him:

We do not put that at the door of any nationality at all. Had He not wished to present a condition through which all men could go, they could not have crucified Him. It was a definite method to show His people that they could go through these conditions without the least effect upon themselves. Had it not been for that purpose, He could have taken His body and gone on with it as He showed many times. It was not a thing imposed upon Him except that He allowed the imposition for a purpose.

Spalding exemplified the one facet found fairly consistently in the work of popularizers and fabulists who refashioned Theosophy’s theme of hidden Masters: a complete absence of religious chauvinism or bigotry. And this is no mere happenstance. As seen in the testament of Gandhi, the vision opened by the Theosophical Society placed all historic faiths and nationalities on equal footing. Theosophy, possibly more than any other nineteenth-century organization, crafted a modern reaction to religious chauvinism, the tone of which carried into most tagalong movements. It was an unrecognized channel (though far from the only one) through which ecumenism became a basic part of the American liberal outlook.

Darkness Falls

Seen from one angle, Spalding pulled off a massive metaphysical caper on thousands of unsuspecting believers. But if money were all he was after, he would have operated along different lines. While held in thrall by a legion of readers, Spalding had no organization, offered no products beyond his books, and created no money-raising apparatus. Biographer Bruton, who on several occasions made clear that he put little stock in Spalding’s tall tales, recounted seeing him, impromptu, give $400 to a distant acquaintance who had lost her home. And while Spalding’s various editions of Life and Teaching of the Masters of the Far East series sold hundreds of thousands of copies during his lifetime (and appeared in several translations), he seems to have reaped limited benefit. According to Bruton, who administered Spalding’s estate after his death, the writer had a dubious system of recompense with his Los Angeles publisher and business manager, Douglas DeVorss. DeVorss, who founded one of the premier metaphysical imprints and book distributors of the dawning New Age, kept Spalding on a monthly stipend that Bruton estimated at $150. By the night Spalding died in Tempe, Arizona, the scribe of the Far East had all of $110.74 in savings. And, in a most unusual arrangement, DeVorss retained total control of Spalding’s copyrights, which he owned flat out by the time of the writer’s death. To all appearances, Spalding had been fleeced.

In a tragic twist of events, the financial advantage of this arrangement would prove of little benefit to DeVorss. The year 1953 hung darkly over the lives of the Spalding circle. After Spalding’s death in Arizona in March of that year, DeVorss suffered the terrible loss of his young wife, Dorothy, in complications following childbirth in June. The couple had just moved into a twelve-room home on a landscaped property in Pasadena; after his wife’s death DeVorss was seen alone in the gardens, sobbing. Their newborn daughter was sent to Lincoln, Nebraska, to be raised by a maternal aunt. And the clouds darkened still. The following September, a gunman burst into DeVorss’s offices in downtown Los Angeles and fired four times, shooting the fifty-two-year-old publisher to death at his desk. After turning himself over to police eight hours later, the shooter, a former Minneapolis mail carrier, was revealed to be an enraged husband who suspected the metaphysical publisher of carrying on an affair with his estranged wife.

And that was not the end of the fog that surrounded Spalding and his friends. Spalding’s executor and biographer Bruton completed his thoughtful, meticulous memoir of the writer in fall 1954—and he then died, a relatively young man, the following March, almost two years from the death of Spalding himself. With these events, the mysteries of Baird T. Spalding were largely sealed.

A Real Phony

In the final years of Spalding’s life, a woman approached him after a lecture and said: “Mr. Spalding, I think you are the biggest liar I ever heard.” But for those who would demand a reckoning of the New Age pioneer, none will be found by branding him a charlatan. He was something else altogether. In the novel Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Truman Capote’s heroine Holly Golightly—the hillbilly girl who transformed herself into a party-going sophisticate in New York City—was deemed no ordinary phony, but “a realphony.” Holly wasn’t trying to con anyone but to embody her ideal that life should always be beautiful. In this sense, Spalding, too, was “a real phony.” From within a cloak of absurdities he proffered sincere religious principles and a discernible set of ideals.

His was a sensitive theology, emphasizing a message of universal hope for self-realization. “The path is right within,” Spalding would repeat, in what became a mainstay of New Age metaphysics. “Search ever deeper within yourself. Know that this great light belongs to you.” All religions, in the Spalding view, were part of a revolutionary world gospel in which the Great Teacher would once again burst into the temple, ridding it not of money-changers but of religious sectarianism. “The Masters,” Spalding wrote in his first volume, “accept that Buddha represents the Way to Enlightenment, but they clearly set forth that Christ IS Enlightenment, or a state of consciousness for which we are all seeking—the Christ light of every individual; therefore, the light of every child that is born into the world.”

Spalding’s gospel was strongly suggestive of the New Age Christianity that gained popularity more than a generation later through such writers as Matthew Fox and Andrew Harvey. It prefigured the cross-pollination of Jewish, Christian, Sufi, Buddhist, and Hindu ideas, today derided by critics as “cafeteria religion” but indelibly stamped on the spiritual experience of countless Americans. For a generation of readers and religious experimenters, the tales of this Western mining prospector became a source of encouragement that spiritual understanding is possible through many doors, open to any who seek.

Black Magicians

Although Spalding was nearly broke when he died, the commercial success of his books was not lost on the canniest observers. One of the oddest strains of mystical religion in America appeared in a 1930s movement heavily influenced by Spalding: the “Mighty I AM”* teachings of Guy and Edna Ballard. The Ballards were a charismatic Chicago couple who briefly built a huge prosperity cult based on hyperpatriotism and the teachings of their own “Ascended Masters.”

Guy and Edna Ballard were catholic, in the occult sense of the word. In the 1920s and ’30s, the couple maintained an occult bookshop and absorbed a wide range of metaphysical ideas: Frank B. Robinson’s Psychiana, New Thought, Christian Science, the Rosicrucian-styled teachings of the Ancient and Mystical Order Rosae Crucis (AMORC), and a variety of books and novels on “hidden masters,” including the works of Silver Shirt leader William Dudley Pelley, whose members they actively recruited. They seem to have been fairly forthright about wanting to start their own for-profit, membership-based mystical movement. According to Frank B. Robinson, Guy sought out the prophet of Moscow, Idaho, and told Robinson of his ambitions. Robinson said it was okay with him—as long as Guy knew where they stood. “I told him I didn’t mind,” he recalled to columnist Westbrook Pegler in 1939, “…   I just warned him to keep off my stuff.”

The itinerant Spalding had stayed as a houseguest at the Ballards’ Chicago home. Like Spalding, Guy Ballard was a professional prospector with a passion for speculative digging. And on a mountain, Ballard found his gold. As Ballard described it, his first encounter with an “Ascended Master” came in 1932 during a day hike on Northern California’s snow-peaked Mount Shasta. Shasta was a kind of Mount of Olives for the West Coast occult, steeped in local legend as a place of hidden tunnels, mythical races, UFO landings, and remnants of lost civilizations from Atlantis or Lemuria. During his leisure hike, Guy met the ethereal being that would ever after serve as his heavenly teacher, Saint Germain: “a Magnificent Godlike figure in a white jeweled robe, a Light and Love sparkling in his eyes that revealed and proved the Dominion and Majesty that are his.”

The personage called Saint Germain had considerable pedigree in occult tradition. His legend began with an altogether real Count of Saint Germain, an eighteenth-century European courtier, diplomat, musician, and purveyor of mystical ideas. His life and career later took on wondrous dimensions among early Theosophists who conceived of him as an ageless, beneficent messenger of the Great White Brotherhood. In the twentieth century, his reputation traveled in many directions: from the pages of Manly P. Hall’sSecret Teachings of All Ages to the theology of Elizabeth Clare Prophet, who cited Master Saint Germain as a sage and guide behind her apocalyptic-minded Church Universal and Triumphant.

In the hands of the Ballards, Saint Germain’s teachings came across a lot like the prosperity gospel of New Thought, though couched in a mind-numbing dirge of cosmic language that could make its message seem foggy compared to the to-the-point writings of a Wallace D. Wattles or Ernest Holmes. For many readers, the over-the-top tone of the I AM “decrees”—Mighty Sacred Fire! Come forth and do your Perfect Work Now!—seemed to romanticize the appeal of old-fashioned New Thought. By the early 1930s, the Ballards embarked on an ambitious program of books, classes, and speaking appearances. In short order, they filled large auditoriums with pageants and services, often peopled with well-dressed and apparently well-to-do men and women.

Yet it soon became clear that the Ascended Masters of I AM and their messengers, Guy and Edna Ballard, had a different outlook from the beneficent brothers recounted by Blavatsky and Spalding. Following on from William Dudley Pelley and his Silver Shirt Legion, the Ballards combined their mysticism with a heavy dose of ultrapatriotism, vowing to eradicate “vicious forces” threatening America. And the organization went further still. Although I AM’s activities could be closely guarded, a religious scholar, David Stupple, undertook a field study of the I AM movement and found that it maintained racially segregated temples, even as late as 1975. Stupple discovered one Midwestern temple that actually relegated black congregants to an auxiliary hall to listen to live services via an audio hookup from the main white temple. He witnessed one I AM meeting descend into an argument over whether to include “Luther King and the Communist Conspiracy” on the organization’s list of “Black Magicians” whom the Ascended Masters would “blast and annihilate.”

Even though I AM was never anything like the hate machine of Pelley’s Silver Shirts, federal investigators began keeping an eye on it in the years leading up to World War II. The government was deeply suspicious of any sects with far-right ideology, fearful that such organizations might act as fifth-column sympathizers if Axis forces invaded the West Coast, where many of the nation’s mystical movements were grounded. The turn of the decade ended on a dismal note for I AM: Guy died in late December 1939, and the organization, caught in the same right-wing mop-up that imprisoned Pelley, faced federal charges of mail fraud in mid-1940. Time magazine responded almost gleefully with an August 5, 1940, headline, I AM in a Jam, reporting that the Ballards had pocketed more than $3 million from “deluded followers.”

From the start, the trial was tangled up in First Amendment issues, specifically when the judge instructed jurors to consider whether the Ballards held their religious beliefs sincerely. A flurry of appeals followed and in 1944 the case landed in the U.S. Supreme Court, which overturned the convictions but remanded the case to a lower court for retrial. In a historic dissent, Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson argued that the high court should have dismissed the case outright and “have done with this business of judicially examining other people’s faiths.” Any attempt to explore the Ballards’ theology or how sincerely they held it, Jackson wrote, “is precisely the thing the Constitution put beyond the reach of the prosecutor, for the price of freedom of religion or of speech or of the press is that we must put up with, and even pay for, a good deal of rubbish.”

It was a decisive stroke for religious freedom, though not an all-out victory for I AM. The Ninth Circuit Court in San Francisco once more convicted the Ballards, and in 1946 the Supreme Court heard the case for the last time—ultimately throwing out the indictments upon determining that women had been excluded from the grand jury selection. As the legal fires subsided, I AM quietly resumed its activity as a smaller, more suspicious organization, with a lower profile and an arm’s-length attitude toward outsiders. The group that wanted to save America from dark forces achieved a bruising victory that it never sought: Justice Jackson’s dissent came to be seen as a rallying defense of the rights of new or controversial religions to be left alone.

* I Am is a mystically rooted term for God that attracted considerable use in twentieth-century occult teachings.

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