By Robert Cecil


One could easily assume that the proliferation of religious cults in the last 100 years is a unique occurrence, and is not, in fact, preceded by as many unorthodox and compelling versions of the mysteries of life and death.

But as historian Robert Cecil shows, cult-thinking in the religious world is an ongoing thing. Because, as Dr Arthur Deikman also argues in his book The Wrong Way Home, cultishness is almost a default setting in which we cling infant-like to notions of helplessness and family succour long after these have become inappropriate. Cult behaviour, in whatever sphere, can be likened as a ‘comfort food’ for the mind: easy to swallow but lacking in nutrition and harmful as an exclusive diet.

The danger is that this in turn can create its own easy opposition: that which is bitter and without meaning must be ‘more true’ than the comfortable revelations of the cultists. Indeed a whole new cult of nihilism has it roots in this.

The lesson we learn from studying such cults is that Truth is best sought directly, known by developing our own truth-sensing abilities and not from assessing the probability or likelihood of one story over another.

The below excerpt is from the full version of this monograph, and can be downloaded from:

The Author

Robert Cecil, CMG, MA was Chairman of the Graduate School of Contemporary European Studies, University of Reading (1976-8), and Chairman of the Institute for Cultural Research, for which he edited an anthology, The King’s Son (Octagon Press, 1980). His other published works include Life in Edwardian England (1969), The Myth of the Master Race: Rosenberg and Nazi Ideology (1972), Hitler’s Decision to Invade Russia (1975), A Divided Life: a biography of Donald Maclean (1988), and The Masks of Death: Changing Attitudes in the Nineteenth Century (1991).

Cults in 19th Century Britain

There has never been a time of which we have record when Christendom has not been vexed by controversy about dogma or church organisation or both. This applied as forcibly to 19th Century Britain as to earlier centuries, even though religion was under threat and Christians might have been expected to close ranks against the assaults of infidelity and secular ideology.

Variations of belief flourished partly because religious tolerance was gaining strength, especially after the emancipation of Roman Catholics in 1829, and partly because scientific discoveries, coupled with historical and textual criticism, had cast doubt on the literal truth of the Bible.

The mystery of life and death

The human mind, throwing off its shackles, or in some cases reluctantly prised loose from traditional authority, was resuming that enquiry into man’s origin and destiny which seems to be innate in us all.

Perennial interest in the mystery of life and death justifies our concentrating on this aspect of heterodox thought, where the invasive influence of cults was at its strongest.

Who are the cultists?

One historian of this period [E.P. Thompson], following the Marxist practice of interpreting religious phenomena from an economic base, has attempted to relate the rise and fall of these minor millenarian waves to cyclic movements of the economy: “ . . . it was certainly a cult of the poor …. There is a sense in which any religion which places great emphasis on the after-life is the Chiliasm of the defeated and the hopeless.”

If despair of well-being in this world were the motivation, one would expect the millenarians and their followers to be drawn predominantly from the lowest economic and social category.

This is demonstrably not the case. Sibley was a watchman and his followers are described as “journeyman mechanics and labourers”; Ward was self-employed.

Thackeray, who was a shrewd social observer, mentions two adventists among the employees of the devout Mrs Sophia Newcome, whose “mansion at Clapham was long the resort of the most favoured of the religious world”.

One of these is the house-keeper; the other is the head-gardener; it is not the illiterate, lower servants, but the half-educated, upper servants, who are touched by this obsession.

The fact is that in the first half of the 19th Century all classes of society were in some degree touched by millenarian ideas [including the ultimate millenarian cult- Marxism].

Swedenborg’s influence

Eschatological speculation was undoubtedly promoted (though in what degree it is impossible to assess) by study of the works of Swedenborg, which gradually became more widespread.

The Day of Judgment, for Swedenborg, would be an almost imperceptible process of separation between sheep and goats. This would take place in the world of spirits, an intermediate point between heaven and hell; unlike purgatory, it was not a world where reparation and repentance were possible, but one in which characteristics that had become dominant in life would reassert themselves after death with inescapable results.

Those who gravitated to hell did so because it was for that their lives had fitted them. All who went to heaven became angels; there was no independent order of angelic beings.

Mental and moral states, which men had developed in their lives, accompanied them through the gateway of death into the world of spirits, so much so that some, who had recently died, were scarcely aware of the transition from this world to the next.

William Blake

The poet and painter William Blake was not an uncritical Swedenborgian, but until his death in 1827 he held fast to certain basic ideas, which he had found in Swedenborg’s works, as these became available in English translation from 1783 onwards.

Blake perceived that the institutionalised churches had perverted the message of Jesus by laying so much emphasis on death, judgment and the intercession of clergy. The moral problem confronting man was not connected with what he believed or what religious rites he observed; the root question was what attitude he took up towards the sufferings of his fellowmen.

Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience bore the subtitle: “showing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul”. In his Songs of Innocence he mainly extolled children, because their responses had not been corrupted by deceit and dissembling, which were the fruits of adult experience. Such experience would prove fatal in the world of spirits, where the false antithesis between appearance and reality would vanish, “because no one there is permitted to have a divided mind, that is to speak one thing and will another.”

Blake’s vision of heaven was also Swedenborgian. He wrote in The Book of Los: “The eternal world is one of mutual cooperation in which all forms of life are nourished and supported by all other forms, as in the economy of the individual human body.”


There was another powerful ingredient spicing the cultist brew that was beginning to intoxicate impressionable minds. It had originated with Franz Mesmer who well before the French Revolution had created a sensation in Vienna by postulating the existence of ‘magnetic fluid’ and a force denominated ‘animal magnetism’, which could be employed in healing.

This theory, too, had links with Cabalistic tradition. Medical research was already interested in electricity, though unclear what curative function it could fulfil, and it was at first supposed that electricity might have some affinity with the magnetic fluid.

The hostility of orthodox doctors was soon aroused, however, when it became apparent that in some people the mesmeric trance was accompanied by inexplicable manifestations of paranormal powers.


The medical profession in the early decades of the 19th century was engaged in a struggle to divest itself of its dubious association with apothecaries, bonesetters and others, whose practice seemed to rest upon no scientific foundation.

At the same time the more scientific practitioners themselves enjoyed minimal success in their efforts to check disease and alleviate suffering; they were in no mood to tolerate the interference of mesmerists, hypnotists and somnambulists (as they were then sometimes designated), whose claims seemed to be even more extravagant than those of the existing subculture of ‘quacks’.

By the 1850s spiritualism had been imported to these shores from the USA, linking the hypnotic trance to belief in survival. Swedenborgians had for some time been using mediums in the hope of holding conversations with angels, as the founder of their faith had done, and the most famous of all the mediums, Daniel Home, arrived in London in 1855 with an introduction to a leading Swedenborgian, Dr. J. Garth Wilkinson.

Home, who took no money for his displays and was never detected in any kind of fraud, always insisted that his chief aim was to refute materialism by demonstrating the truth of immortality. As he wrote, “I have a mission entrusted to me. It is a great and holy one.”

Ruskin, who in the 1870s attended seances organised by Lord Mount-Temple at Broadlands, admitted, “I could never have recovered my faith in Christianity except for spiritualism.”

An explanation

There is a psychic phenomenon, well known in the East and recorded in Sufi lore, by which a mind finely attuned can ‘pick up’ from other minds information stored in them, but normally inaccessible.

That this might be the process in operation was largely excluded by the obsession that the messages must be coming from the dead and that the void to be traversed was that of death itself, rather than one attributable to ignorance and lack of perception.

Another form of materialism

Some of those interested in spiritualism noted that it was not a life-line thrown to true faith in an age of infidelity, but rather an incursion of materialism.

Christianity had always rested, in the last resort, upon revelation; spiritualists, on the other hand, were claiming to supply proof. In doing so they were in step with the spirit of the age; everywhere, it seemed, men were laying bare the secrets of the natural world and harnessing them to their uses.

Christian Science

Whilst insight was being gained into diseases of mind and personality, perception was growing on the other side of the Atlantic that mind also had power to cure. ‘Mind-cure’ was the term originally employed for what in the hands of Mary Baker Eddy became known as Christian Science.

Like Buddhism, Christian Science was preoccupied with pain and death; but the response was not to escape into Nirvana, but rather to deny the reality of these facts, fundamental as they are to life as we know it.

Mrs Eddy (1821- 1910) began her spiritual journey by rejecting the Calvinism of her upbringing. She married young and in 1843 her prayers failed to save the life of her first husband, who died of yellow fever; but the doctor who attended him assured her that her prayers had prolonged her husband’s life.

Her own health was poor and for three years she was a patient of the faith-healer, Phineas P. Quimby. In 1866 she suffered a fall on an icy street that was thought likely to prove fatal. She lay in bed with the Bible open at the passage: “And behold, they brought to Him a man sick of the palsy, lying on a bed: and Jesus seeing their faith said unto the sick of the palsy: Son, be of good cheer; thy sins be forgiven thee.”

Mrs Eddy got up and made a recovery that her friends regarded as miraculous. From 1867–79 she practised as a healer and was reputed to have restored to life a child who had been given up for dead. At the end of that period she decided, for reasons that remain unclear, to found a church, which by the end of the century was firmly established in the USA.

Science as a brand

Progress in Britain was slower; but the first Church of Christ, Scientist, opened its doors in London in 1897. Use of the word ‘Scientist’ was presumably dictated by the fact that science was the new gnosis; for similar reasons Marx attached the adjective to his brand of socialism.

It is more puzzling, however, to understand why Mrs Eddy named her science after the Christ who suffered for men and died on the Cross. In her terms, this sacrifice would seem to have been meaningless, since Christ died to redeem the human race from sin, whilst in Mrs Eddy’s eyes sin, like death itself, was unreal.

In an authoritative work on Christian Science death is described as: “ …. part of the belief in material life, and therefore unreal in the strict meaning of the word …. Those who have passed through the experience called death in no wise lose their individuality …. those whose affections and interests have been centred on the material, will find that they have but entered on a fresh dream of material living and dying.”

From the same source one learns that Mrs Eddy “passed away without pain or struggle” in December 1910.

It cannot be said that her religion, whilst it may well have aided the living, has contributed to our understanding of the mystery of death and survival. It was, however, an antidote to more dismal creeds and, as such, was welcomed by William James: “Mind-cure might be briefly called a reaction against all that religion of chronic anxiety which marked the earlier part of our century in the evangelic circles of England and America.”

One may regret that the early Christian Scientists, like the followers of Swedenborg, decided to found a church, thus ignoring the long history of discord, rivalry and doctrinal distortion that has plagued institutionalised religions.

Recent research

If Mrs Eddy had stayed with her original concept and the designation Mind-cure, her less ecstatic followers might have anticipated some of the promising research undertaken in recent years by such American neurobiologists as Professor Robert Ornstein and his colleague Dr David Sobel.

Their research has shown how much the maintenance of good health and the prolongation of life depend upon mental attitudes, and how great a role can be played by the brain in keeping us well and resistant to the onset of disease.

The story of the main Christian heterodoxies of the 19th century can conveniently be brought to an end at this point. As the restless search for panaceas continued and the Judaic-Christian legacy became exhausted, the new knowledge that was sucked in to fill the vacancy derived increasingly from Eastern sources.

These provided the antecedents of the Theosophical Society, founded in 1882 by Helena Blavatsky (1831–91), whose major work, The Secret Doctrine, was published three years before her death. Through this and other channels Eastern concepts of survival, such as reincarnation and eternal recurrence, were introduced into Western minds.


The only Western philosopher to pursue the idea of recurrence was Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900); he was reticent about the source on which he had drawn, but was probably indebted to Pythagoras and other Greek sages, rather than to Buddhism and Hinduism.

The first English translation of Nietzsche began to appear in 1895 and in that year R.L. Stevenson published his remarkable fable of recurrence, The Song of the Morrow. In general, however, the idea made scant headway in Britain, since it offended against two strongly held assumptions: the first, that time is linear extension from a known past into an unknown future and not, as Nietzsche depicted it, an ever-turning wheel.

The second assumption is that man has free will, whilst this is restricted, according to Nietzsche, to responding ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to an inexorable fate.

The fruitful upsurge of Eastern teaching did not gather momentum until the 1960s with the introduction of a flood of literature about Sufism and the revival by Idries Shah of Sufi classics of earlier centuries.