The Origins of the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness (MSIA)

Note: This is the text of a lecture delivered in 1998 and reflects the situation at that date. Since then, David Christopher Lane has changed many of his opinions, including his evaluation of MSIA.

© Massimo Introvigne 1998

New Age and "Next Age"

A considerable controversy exists whether the New Age movement is still growing, or is heading towards its demise. The latter theory has been proposed since the early 1990s from both inside[1] and outside[2] the movement itself. In some European countries it has been suggested that a new movement, usually called the Next Age, is gradually replacing the New Age. In Italy the theory has been accepted -- and in fact promoted -- by influential leaders of the movement itself. From 1998 the largest New Age exhibition in Italy (in Milan) has been renamed "Salone del New Age e del Next Age". Those speaking of a Next Age usually explain that the New Age faced a serious problem. It promised for many years -- indeed, for some decades -- the advent of a new "aquarian" age of universal harmony and peace, consistently failing to deliver. The Next Age withdraws from global utopias. It rather claims that, although there will probably be no New Age for Planet Earth as a whole, single individuals may enter into a personal "new age" of higher consciousness and happiness through various techniques of personal transformation. The author most often associated with the Next Age in Europe is, currently, Deepak Chopra.

Not unlike the New Age, the Next Age is, of course, not really new. The idea that utopias are to be regarded with suspicion, while individuals may achieve higher consciousness and ultimate happiness, is as old as the New Thought and its occasionally more or less secularized version, positive thinking. Spiritual teachers focusing on individual transformation rather than global scenarios were part and parcel of the New Age from its very beginnings. In fact, it may be suggested that the international network of the New Age movement really included two different (and occasionally conflicting) wings. The first wing had its roots in the occult-theosophical subculture, and was influenced by both the Western esoteric traditions and Eastern religions. It is the kind of New Age studied by Wouter Hanegraaf as post-secular esotericism[3]. Influenced by the Theosophical Society and by the Alice Bailey movements, post-secular esotericism was rarely proposed without some connection with Eastern religion (perhaps in one of their Westernized versions). The Theosophical and esoteric tradition also included a form of progressive or optimistic millennialism -- according to Catherine Wessinger's distinction -- at least since the third president of the Theosophical Society, Annie Besant (1847-1933)[4]. As a consequence, this is the New Age where we more often heard talks of global renewal and of an aquarian millennium.

On the other hand, the New Age was also influenced by forms of much more individually-oriented spirituality, such as the New Thought and positive thinking. J. Gordon Melton noted that "in both a historical and practical sense, New Thought paved the way for the emergence of the New Age Movement"; and "the New Age Movement seems to have appropriated all that it can, perhaps all that is available, from New Thought"[5]. Although influential New Thought figures exposed the New Age as just a passing fashion, through the New Thought the New Age came into contact with the rich tradition of metaphysical Christianity[6]. Occasionally, it also encountered that less uniformly Christian version of the New Thought called positive thinking. Both these traditions were not millenarian and did not focus on the global renewal of the society. In fact, they focused on the individual. Occasionally, seminars and groups centred on the promise of individual happiness were criticized within the New Age as spiritually selfish, or as a form of narcissism. On the other hand, Paul Heelas -- whose concept of New Age is somewhat broad -- indicates that what he calls "seminar religion" is part and parcel of the New Age[7]. Heelas also noticed in 1996 a tension within the New Age between "a spirituality based on the experienced authority of the Self, whilst requiring the exercise of disciplines" and "one catering to the needs of the hedonistic consumer"[8]. This is precisely what in 1998 some New Age publications would describe as the difference between the New Age and the Next Age, although they would claim that the Next Age is not necessarily "hedonistic" and may involve deep and significant experiences.

While we observe the transition from the New Age to the Next Age -- or argue whether this transition exists at all -- the study of the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness (MSIA), an international new religious movement founded in California in 1971, is particularly interesting. On the one hand, MSIA incorporated, perhaps gradually, most of the distinctive features of the Next Age, at least twenty years before Next Age became a frequently used word in some European countries. Some new religious movements had a particular appeal for the new agers. It is not difficult to predict that MSIA may exert a growing influence and appeal should the Next Age worldview (called by any other name one may prefer) ultimately replace New Age utopias among the larger body of New Age enthusiasts and customers. On the other hand what is particularly relevant -- and the focus of this paper -- is the study of the origins of MSIA. In fact, it may show how the two wings or subcultures of the New Age -- Eastern-occult and Christian-New Thought -- interacted when an international movement was born. And MSIA was born very much at the same time when the New Age was starting its international expansion. I also believe that the failure to recognize the presence of both wings in the origins of MSIA has mislead several critics of this American-based movement.

MSIA Controversies

Although MSIA has been only occasionally a main target of the international anti-cult movement, it had its shares of controversies for three main reasons. First, the first and, for many years, the only scholar who devoted some attention to MSIA is a militant anti-cultist, David Christopher Lane. He is, additionally, a very peculiar kind of anti-cultist. A number of anti-cultists are evangelical Christians, and not a few of them are secular humanists. Lane is a dedicated member of the Radhasoami Satsang, Beas, one of among more than a hundred groups that are part of the Radhasoami tradition. The latter is a new religious tradition whose origins are traced to Shiv Dayal Singh ("Soamiji Maharaj", 1818-1878), blending together elements from Hinduism, Sikhism, and the teachings of the medieval, often rebel and unorthodox, Indian "saints" (Sant Mat, or Sant Tradition)[9]. Lane was at one time the graduate assistant of Mark Juergensmeyer, a leading Western scholar of Radhasoami. Ironically, Radhasoami movements, when they come to the West, are often exposed themselves as "cults" by evangelical Christian counter-cultists. The latter are particularly suspicious of tantric ideas and techniques. In fact, although they disagree on hatha yoga and its breathing exercises, "Radhasoami teachings -- in the words of Juergensmeyer -- are different from the rest of the Sant Corpus in that they seem to lean more heavily in the direction of tantric ideas and the Naths"[10]. The Naths are, in turn, relevant for the history of Western esotericism, since they developed a number of sex magic techniques that eventually reached the West and remain to this day the core of a number of occult systems[11].

Lane sees himself as an apologist for his brand of the Radhasoami faith. An important part of his activity has involved exposing as dangerous cults what he regards as unorthodox and unauthorized Western derivations of the legitimate Radhasoami tradition. Lane's targets include both Eckankar, the American new religious movement established by Paul Twitchell (1908?-1971), and MSIA. Lane claims that Twitchell plagiarized a number of Radhasoami texts (and a book on Radhasoami written by Julian Johnson in 1939)[12] in order to invent a non-existing and fictional "ECK" tradition, proclaiming himself the 971s ECK Master[13]. He also accused MSIA of, in turn, plagiarizing Eckankar, and has remained a vocal critic of MSIA to this day[14].

Although Lane has been influential in all and every campaign against MSIA (including a Los Angeles Times exposé in 1988), two other incidents have made the question of MSIA origins particularly controversial. First, nationally syndicated columnist Arianna Huffington was a participant in MSIA since the 1970s. In 1994 a particularly bitter race for US Senate seat was fought in California between democrat Dianne Feinstein and conservative republican Michael Huffington, Arianna's husband. Although Mr. Huffington personally had no connection with MSIA, liberal media and others hostile to his (ultimately unsuccessful) campaign used as an argument against him the fact that his wife was a member of a "dangerous cult". Finally, between 1993 and 1994 Peter McWilliams -- co-author with MSIA founder John-Roger Hinkins of a number of successful self-help books -- broke with John-Roger and got involved in a royalty litigation (later settled) with MSIA. At the same time -- not without help from the ubiquitous David Christopher Lane -- he wrote an angry expose of MSIA, Life 102[15]. Copyright on this (rather scurrilous) book was assigned, as part of the settlement, to MSIA, who quickly withdrew it from circulation. Lane, however, kept the book alive on the Internet, and the matter became the subject of further copyright litigation. Later in 1998 Lane was ruled to have infringed MSIA's copyright and was prevented from further posting Life 102 on the Internet (U.S. District Court Judge Christina A. Snyder, opinion of August 19, 1998 and judgment of September 1, 1998, case no. CV 97-6685 CAS [VAPx]). McWilliams -- who had written on the benefits of Transcendental Meditation before joining MSIA -- is a colourful and perhaps quintessentially Californian figure. On August 21, 1998 he posted bail to be released from federal custody, after being in jail for almost a month. McWilliams was arrested for growing marijuana and conspiring to sell marijuana. He is a proponent of the so called medical marijuana and of personal freedom to take recreational drugs in general. Although his knowledge about the origins of MSIA is derivative, and comes essentially from Lane, McWilliams' personality makes for good copy and could not fail to attract the attention of some media.

The accusation that the founder of a religious movement is a plagiarist is, of course, not particularly new. The founders of some of the most significant American religious traditions created in the 19th century were all accused of plagiarism. The Mormon prophet Joseph Smith (1805-1844) was accused of having derived the Book of Mormon from various sources. First, a manuscript written by a certain Solomon Spaulding (1761-1816) (a text whose very existence has never been proved) was cited. Later, the second edition (1825) of the book by Ethan Smith (1762-1849) View of the Hebrews (first published in 1823) was mentioned as a possible source. Some general ideas are in fact common, but the resemblance is otherwise quite superficial[16]. Mary Baker Eddy (1821-1910), who founded Christian Science, was accused in turn of having plagiarized for her Science and Health a manuscript allegedly authored by German philosopher Francis Lieber (1800-1872). In fact, the manuscript was most probably manufactured, well after Lieber's death, by opponents of Christian Science[17]. Ellen G. White (1827-1915), who is at the origins of Seventh-day Adventists, has been accused of plagiarizing dozens of different Christian sources[18].

White's case is particularly interesting. The General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists has acknowledged that White occasionally borrowed entire paragraphs from other authors, more often than not without credits. It has also admitted that -- although "quite small" in comparison with her large literary production -- "the amount of borrowing was greater than they [church representatives] had previously known"[19]. On the other hand, they also maintain that, when using the prose of other authors, White so significantly altered the context that she created what in fact amounted to new works, under both copyright law and (perhaps more importantly) the history of spirituality[20].

It seems to be a fact of life that, when expounding their doctrines, founders of new religious movements borrow quite liberally from previous authors, without necessarily bothering about copyright problems or future critics. Perhaps because of the underdeveloped status of copyright law at the time, the authors of the Gospels borrowed both from each other and from the Old Testament. Copyright attorneys may discuss these issues, and in the contemporary legal world lawsuits may occasionally be filed. Scholars of new religious movements should perhaps not regard as crucial the issue of literary borrowings (taking for granted that in the world of spirituality this, for whatever reason, seems to be much more frequent that in fiction or scholarly studies). What is more interesting is whether and how -- by using their own or somebody else's literary skills -- founders of new religious movements manage to convey new meanings and ideas perceived as significant by their followers.

My comments, of course, do not mean that investigating the sources of a new movement or doctrine is irrelevant. It may not be very relevant for the faithful, who happily believes that his or her new faith is entirely the original product of the founder's genius and, at any rate, "works". It is, however, relevant for the scholar whose representation of a movement should not simply mirror the self-perception of its members. Investigating the origins and the sources of a new religious movement or tradition -- since nothing in religion is really entirely new -- is not to be confused with a legal investigation of plagiarism. Rather, it may answer important questions about the historical significance of a particular movement within the frame of a larger scenario of religious renewal and transformation.

Sources of MSIA: Christian-Metaphysical

Roger Hinkins was born in Rains, Utah, on September 24, 1934. Rains' very existence was due to a mining camp. With the crisis of Southern Utah mining, Rains disappeared from the maps and is today a ghost city. Hinkins' was a Mormon family, but, in his own words, "there's Utah way up here, and there's Utah down here"[21]. He referred to the differences between North and South Utah. In what Utahns like to call "Dixie", Roger encountered a charismatic Mormon community, with frequent ecstatic experiences, particularly among returned missionaries. Hinkins says today that, although he appreciated the Mormon teaching on morality and family, the theological influences of Mormonism on his subsequent religious experiences is "zero". Growing up, he developed an interest in psychology and became increasingly uncomfortable with the Mormon charismatic experiences common in Utah "down here". He regarded it as "aberrant behaviour". After high school in Huntington, Utah, he attended Carbon College in Price, Utah for two years. Then he moved to Salt Lake City where he received a degree in psychology from the University of Utah in 1958. He had, in the meantime, left the Mormon Church. In fact, his decision concerning his parents' faith had been made when he decided not to attend the Mormon Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, but rather the secular University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

It was not uncommon in the 1950s for graduate students of psychology to be interested in metaphysical or spiritual alternatives. Notwithstanding the dominant presence of the Mormon Church, Utah had also a number of esoteric and metaphysical groups. Shortly after leaving the University of Utah, Hinkins decided to move to San Francisco. It would be tempting to link this move with the peculiar significance of California for spiritual alternatives, but Hinkins says today that he mostly "left Utah because it was cold in the winter time (...). As strange and simple minded as that is, that was it". When in San Francisco, however, Hinkins started experimenting with a number of different spiritualist and metaphysical groups becoming a spiritual seeker or, as he now says, a "metaphizzle". In 1960, he moved to Los Angeles and started teaching English at Rosemead High School in Rosemead, a Los Angeles suburb. He remembers attending the School of Christian Metaphysics, in fact a spiritualist church influenced by the New Thought, in Long Beach, California, and experimenting with a variety of spiritualist mediums and trance channellers.

On July 4, 1963, Hinkins had a car accident in Hollywood. He was hospitalized and, while recovering from the accident, doctors eventually discovered a kidney stone. He had surgery on December 3, 1963. Complications followed, and he found himself in a coma. During the coma, he had a near-death experience. When he awoke, as he was later told:

"My mother was there, all the time. Just devoted. Ah. And I remember one day, opening my eyes, laying on my side, and I looked at her (...). And she said, "Who are you?". Now I remember this. And a voice said, "John". And she said, "Okay. Is Roger in there?". And he said, "Yeah. Would you like to speak to Roger?". She said, "Yeah"".

After this, he was told (he does not clearly remember these days), he acquired extraordinary powers: "I was diagnosing people in the hospital. I was knowing who was dying". Early experiences of reading auras and seeing the "energy field" of persons developed into new capabilities.

According to Hinkins, an important point in understanding his near-death experience was a visit to a couple of trance channellers, channelling both a spiritual entity called EC and the higher self of their followers. In 1964 the couple channelled Hinkins higher consciousness and:

"They said that this was John. The consciousness that came in was John. I said, John who? Well, they said, they said, "Just a minute". And they brought the consciousness in. When it came in through her [the female trance channeller], I recognized it, instantly. I mean, I don't know how I recognized it, but it was like, "that's it". The others [the other channelled spiritual entities], I didn't know who they were. They may have been who they said they were, they may not. But I knew that one. And when it talked, I could feel it inside of me (...). I thought that was phenomenal. And so, I said, "You know, who are you? What do you do? Why are we together? What is?" I asked not [only] one question. I asked him, after he had answered I'll ask the next one. And ah, it says, "John the Beloved". Then they said, "Which, which John the Beloved?". They said, "That one, you'll find out in time". (...) And then, it moved back, and in came this other consciousness. (...). And it came through, and I said, "Well, if this is John... Am I now John?" Or, "Am I Roger? Who am I in here?". And they said, "You're both". I said, "Yeah. But Roger's my first name. And, I had this John". They said, "John-Roger". And it fit. (...). And I said, "Well, how do you do it?". And they said, "John hyphen Roger". And that's how the name came about"".

The conversation was taped and Hinkins "reviewed it quite a bit, afterwards, like maybe three days in a row. I would listen to it, all the way through again". He accepted the information as accurate, and even tried a personal experiment in order to understand which "John" was related to his higher consciousness. He wrote the names of a number of different historical "Johns" on pieces of paper and placed them in a container. The first name he pulled out was "John the Beloved" and the second "John the Disciple of Jesus Christ" (i.e. the same character under another name).

Hinkins started using the name "John-Roger", and continued his metaphysical quest. He attended occasionally yet another spiritualist church, the Agasha Temple of Wisdom founded and lead by Reverend Richard Zenor (1911-1978). He had read before a popular book about Zenor, Telephone Between Worlds, written by journalist James Crenshaw in 1950[22]. According to Hinkins, the book had been recommended to him by a Utah chiropractic doctor, Rodney Bigelow. Hinkins now claims that Zenor called him "the young man with the Lights around him" and generated a considerable interest in John-Roger among his followers.

Another significant event after the near-death experience was John-Roger's enrolment in the correspondence courses of AMORC, the Ancient and Mystical Order Rosae Crucis, headquartered in San Jose, California, founded by Harvey Spencer Lewis (1883-1939) and at that time lead by the founder's son, Ralph Maxwell Lewis (1904-1987). The teachings of AMORC are presented in booklets called monographs, mailed to the members. Through the lessons, members may gradually reach nine "Temple Degrees" during five years of study. They then progress beyond the ninth Temple Degree through direct contact with the Order (while the lesser initiations may be obtained through private rituals that the candidate may undertake alone). Hinkins, according to his own account, "went to the higher levels" and "found the information very interesting". However, he "did a lot of their rituals" and "they didn't work". So, he decided to explore other metaphysical avenues. It is however important to note that, up to this stage, John-Roger had mainly explored churches and groups within the Christian metaphysical, spiritualist and New Thought tradition. Although both AMORC and Agasha Temple of Wisdom claim remote Egyptian connections, they also claim to be perfectly compatible with Christianity, or more precisely a metaphysical and rather unorthodox brand thereof. The Rosicrucian myth was, after all, a Christian esoteric myth.

Turning East?

The Californian metaphysical subculture of the early 1960s was not uninterested in the East. Both Agasha and AMORC recommended the study of all the principal religious traditions of humanity, including the Eastern religions. However, their primary focus was quite Western. John-Roger, notwithstanding his quite ecumenical religious interests, did not feel inclined to become a member of the Theosophical Society or of one of the many others venerable American institutions who had "turned East" since the beginnings of the century. A number of new religious movements based on Eastern teachings were, however, being founded in the mid-1960s. One such movement who caught the attention of John-Roger was Eckankar, founded by Paul Twitchell in 1965. As mentioned earlier, Twitchell's works are heavily influenced by the Radhasoami tradition, and he had been in contact with a number of Radhasoami groups. Twitchell had also been a follower of Swami Premananda (Brahmachari Yotin), a prominent disciple of Paramahansa Yogananda (1893-1952)[23] and had joined (for a short time) the Church of Scientology in 1958. Eckankar teaches that life flows from God into the universe and returns to God as a divine current called ECK. This current may be perceived by humans as light and sound with the crucial help of a Living ECK Master. A lineage of secret ECK Masters existed for many centuries. Eventually, Twitchell claimed, it was passed to him by a mysterious Tibetan master, Rebazar Tarzs, in 1965. Twitchell, thus, become the 971st Living ECK Master. Initiates of Eckankar are taught a number of exercises, aimed inter alia at developing the ability to travel to invisible realms, leaving the physical body ("Soul Travel").

According to Eckankar, John-Roger "joined Eckankar in Sept. 1967. He received his second initiation from Paul Twitchell in 1968. A short time after this he became inactive in Eckankar (...)"[24]. MSIA has no quarrel with the dates, but denies that John-Roger ever really "joined" Eckankar, let alone received the "second initiation" and thus become technically an Eckankar initiate (the so called first initiation, not unlike AMORC's first Temple Degrees, does not require the physical presence of a minister of Eckankar). John-Roger only read Eckankar's literature and occasionally met with Twitchell. Most Eckankar students would receive their ("second") initiation during their second year of involvement in the movement. John-Roger, however, certainly did not devote his time exclusively, or even predominantly, to Eckankar during 1967-1968, nor does he acknowledge to have received any "initiation"[25].

In 1967, when he became interested in Eckankar (and continued to be in touch with a number of other movements) John-Roger had just started sharing his spiritual experiences with others. In his own words, John-Roger started working "one-on-one" in what he called "Light Studies". He answered questions and gave information to each person through what he called "soul action". He also gave information about persons not physically present based on their birth date. He claims that the early followers asked "questions about maybe their spouse, their child, and the only thing I really needed was their name and the birth date. Because if you, if they asked about Jim Jones, I didn't know, really, who that might be. But as soon as they got the birth date, I could pin it right. Right to them, real fast".

Another relevant event of 1967 was John-Roger's decision of opening his hearth on his spiritual experiences, during a trip to Disneyland, to the most trusted fellow teacher at Rosemead High School, Pauli McGarry (who later become Ms. Peter Sanderson). Pauli was impressed by his colleague's spiritual teachings, and encouraged him to share them with others on a more systematic basis. Sanderson has remained with MSIA to this date[26]. In 1968, John-Roger started teaching "seminars", thus being able to "talk about Spirit and the Light (...) to more than one person at a time"[27]. The first seminars were held in Santa Barbara, California, but demand quickly grew, and soon John-Roger was teaching almost every night. "Sometime in 1968/1969, J.-R's evening schedule began to look something like this: Monday evening, a seminar in Thousand Oaks; Tuesday evening, a seminar in Long Beach; Wednesday evening, a seminar in Thousand Oaks; Thursday evening, a seminar in Alhambra; Friday evening, a seminar in Santa Barbara; Saturday evening, a seminar in Los Angeles. His daytime schedule, of course, still included his regular teaching job from 8 a.m. to about 3:30 p.m. and private individual counselling from about 4 to 6 p.m."[28].

Although John-Roger claims that most seminar participants "came out of some Christian denomination -- I remember there were a lot of Lutherans, and a lot of Methodists" and "maybe one or two Mormons", some metaphysical groups noticed the competition. Letters were sent to John-Roger first from Twitchell's secretary and then -- on April 14, 1971 -- by C. Lydon Harrell, Jr., an attorney representing Eckankar. Interestingly, Harrell did not accuse John-Roger of copyright infringement but rather "wanted to be sure" that John-Roger "will in no way refer to him [Twitchell] or Eckankar in your lectures, writings, etc."[29]. Although no further legal action was apparently initiated nor threatened, concerns in Eckankar apparently grew after Twitchell died on September 17, 1971, precipitating a succession crisis. Eckankar attacks against John-Roger were not unusual between 1971-1973, although they have been perhaps overemphasized by later critics. It was because of these references that John-Roger first caught the attention of David Christopher Lane and become an additional target of the latter's crusade against Eckankar on behalf of Radhasoami orthodoxy[30].

In 1969, according to Pauli Sanderson, interest for John-Roger had expanded, well outside California. "He began taping his seminars and making copies of the tapes available. But some people didn't have tape players (remember, this is 1969 or so)". So "with a little tape deck, a stop-start foot pedal, and a portable typewriter, the first transcript [of a seminar] was typed", and John-Roger started to offer "Discourses" on a regular basis throughout the US. "The original run was about 30 copies"[31], but eventually the circulation grew, and John-Roger was able to leave his schoolteaching position in 1970, devoting himself full time to his spiritual activities[32]. The Church of the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness (MSIA) was formally incorporated in 1971, and people attending the seminars started publishing a newsletter, On the Light Side, later replaced by The Movement Newspaper (now The New Day Herald).

It is not my purpose here to discuss extensively MSIA's doctrines and activities[33]. Key teachings include that the universe consists of different levels of being, in descending order from the soul plane down to the physical plane. The latter is actually a prison for the human being, whose real aim is transcending it. MSIA understands reincarnation to be part of the normal human experience, but it also believes that reincarnation itself can be transcended. For this, both certain "spiritual exercises" and a connection with a spiritual energy known as the Mystical Traveler Consciousness are needed. Exercises include (but are not limited to) sound current meditation (typically taught by groups in the Sant Mat and Radhasoami traditions). The Mystical Traveler Consciousness is "anchored" in a succession of Mystical Travellers. The Mystical Traveler with the most significant impact on human history was Jesus Christ. He is regarded as "the head of the Church of the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness", and the work of the present Traveler is said to be "based on Jesus' work"[34]. John-Roger gradually came to realize that the ultimate significance of his 1963 experience was that he is the present Mystical Traveler (or rather was, before passing the mantle to John Morton in 1988). Participants in MSIA activities receive a series of monthly lessons, the Soul Awareness Discourses. After a certain time "on Discourses" (at first in printed, then in taped form) candidates may apply for four subsequent initiations in order to be initiated to five levels (the first initiation covers two levels). They are applying for what MSIA calls the physical aspects of these initiations, while the spiritual part requires no application. Developing gradually their "soul awareness", initiates may ultimately escape the cycle of death and rebirth and reach the higher realms of being.

Controversies started by Lane have focused the attention of whoever has written about MSIA almost exclusively on its relationship with the Radhasoami tradition and Eckankar. A credible case can be built for an influence of Eckankar (or of Radhasoami through Eckankar) on certain teachings of John-Roger, particularly sound meditation. Literary borrowings and borrowings of terminology (or adoption of a slightly different terminology) have also taken place. On the other hand, it is not necessary to postulate an Eckankar (or Radhasoami) influence when discussing the sources of the two key teachings of MSIA. They are the existence of a succession of different planes of being, and the possibility of escaping the physical realm through contacts with the living master who serves as "anchor" for the Mystical Traveler Consciousness. The hierarchy of the planes is ubiquitously present not only in the whole theosophical subculture, but also in the metaphysical teachings of AMORC and Agasha Temple of Wisdom. The succession of Mystical Travellers through history is not necessarily derived from Twitchell's notion of ECK Masters. The idea that, in order to be properly initiated, a connection is needed with an unbroken chain of masters dating back to very ancient times is as old as the esoteric tradition. The mythical history of Freemasonry (as opposed to empirically verifiable historical accounts) claims an uninterrupted succession of Great Masters since Hiram Abiff, the architect of the Temple of Solomon (or, in other versions, since Noah). AMORC claims that its present leaders -- called Imperators -- are at the contemporary end of a lineage starting in ancient Egypt, passing through early Christianity and including unorthodox Christian figures such as Descartes and Benjamin Franklin. Serving under an Imperator is also described as necessary in order to benefit of the "eggregore", or mystical energy field generated by the collective work of the initiates. In 1956 Pierre Plantard founded in France the Priory of Sion. He claimed that he was merely incorporating -- for contemporary legal needs -- an ancient order who had included as Grand Masters, before him, figures such as Leonardo da Vinci and Jean Cocteau. The theory that this lineage of masters was, in fact, protecting the physical blood of Jesus Christ (present on earth through the descendants of his marriage with Mary Magdalene) was later popularized in English-speaking metaphysical circles by the best seller book Holy Blood, Holy Grail[35]. There are literally dozens of Western esoteric organizations claiming a necessary connection between initiation and a traditional lineage of masters, quite apart from the Eastern notion of a guru tradition, and certainly apart from Radhasoami or Eckankar[36].

Unlike Agasha and AMORC, Eckankar does not include references to early Christianity in its alleged lineage. If sound meditation is in fact part of the Radhasoami (or the larger Sant Mat) tradition, other exercises taught in MSIA are widely spread around the metaphysical subculture. MSIA's Discourses, if anything, are similar in concept and format to AMORC's monographs. MSIA's Discourses and AMORC's monographs also have similar connections with a chain of subsequent initiations. One may speculate that -- had David Christopher Lane been a champion of Rosicrucian, rather that Radhasoami, orthodoxy -- he may perhaps have written a book accusing John-Roger (who was interested in the 1960s in both AMORC and Eckankar) of "spiritual plagiarism" from AMORC. However, the core doctrines of MSIA are very much different from AMORC's (as they are different from Eckankar's). While John-Roger conceptualized his spiritual experiences by using concepts from both Christian metaphysical and Eastern subcultures, his style may best be described as a synthesis of both. It is also worth noting that, chronologically, he seems to have been exposed first to a number of groups in the Western metaphysical tradition, ranging from Rosicrucian to spiritualist, and only later to Eastern traditions, in part mediated by Eckankar.

Seminar Religion

With the incorporation of MSIA in 1971, the period of the origins of John-Roger's movement may be regarded as concluded. Later developments should however be mentioned, since they are part of the "origins" of the larger picture of contemporary MSIA. By the 1970s what Heelas calls "seminar religion" was very much part and parcel of the alternative spirituality and New Age scenario. In a genealogical tree of organizations offering personal growth seminars, an important branch would be connected to Mind Dynamics. Before Mind Dynamics' eventual decline, it trained a number of key figures of subsequent seminar culture, including Werner Erhard and John Hanley. The latter, a former director of Mind Dynamics, incorporated Lifespring in 1974[37]. A quick examination of Lifespring shows similarities with Erhard's "est" seminars, and roots in the positive thinking/New Thought tradition (as for most of the seminar culture or "religion"). Not surprisingly, Lifespring has been denounced as promoting an unorthodox worldview by Christian counter-cult organizations such as Spiritual Counterfeits Project[38].

Russell Bishop had been a licensed trainer for Lifespring before joining MSIA. By 1977, according to Pauli Sanderson's recollections, John-Roger was considering a new development. He stated "that he had taught us many things about the Spirit, that we were all catching on and learning well, but that we still didn't seem to be able to make our lives work in a way that was bringing a lot of happiness and fulfilment here on this level"[39]. While seminars like Lifespring were somewhat too harsh and confrontational for MSIA's general style and tastes, John-Roger worked with Russell Bishop to develop a format that, while retaining the flavour of contemporary seminar culture, also included some of MSIA's peculiar ideas. The result was Insight, a new format of seminar who has become quite successful in itself, apart from its connection with MSIA. Insight is part of a larger "movement" inspired by John-Roger and his successor John Morton, but has never been considered a part of MSIA training proper. John-Roger and his closest associates also comment that Insight is not a particularly relevant proselytization field for MSIA. Most Insight graduates come to know about MSIA, but do not join (nor are they asked to join, since it fact Insight is not regarded by MSIA as a proselytizing arm).

Although Insight cares for "happiness and fulfilment here on this level", it clearly includes also a spiritual element. How ideas about happiness are presented in Insight cannot be called purely secular. By contrast, it was only in the 1990s that John-Roger considered the possibility of presenting some of his ideas to a much broader audience in truly secular terms. The suggestion of a series of self-help books using portions of John-Roger's teachings, yet explicitly disclaiming any spiritual or religious connection, was made by Peter McWilliams some ten years after he joined MSIA in 1977-78. The result was a succession of best sellers, the Life 101 Series, that started with You Can't Afford the Luxury of Negative Thought in 1988[40] and Life 101 in 1990[41]. Considerable controversy exists about the authorship of these books. In a 1988 tribute to John-Roger, McWilliams stated that he was a mere "typist", in the sense that he had materially written the books based on John-Roger's ideas or, as he wrote more poetically, supplied music to words by John-Roger[42]. After he left MSIA, however, McWilliams claimed to be the sole author of the self-help books, having taken from John-Roger only a few very basic and general ideas. The matter has since been litigated, and settled by dividing copyrights of the different books of the series among the two (former) co-authors. The books very explicitly represent themselves as part of a well-established self-help tradition, in turn rooted in the older and larger tradition of positive thinking. They leave out any reference to religion. Although primarily oriented to an audience outside MSIA, they were widely read within MSIA as well, and show the willingness of John-Roger to somewhat claim the heritage of positive thinking and the self-help tradition. While not a component of MSIA, features of this culture are apparent in seminars, books and talks by both John-Roger and John Morton[43]. Seminar religion and self-help subculture may thus be considered a third influence, if not on MSIA, on the larger "movement" (including activities taking place outside of MSIA) that regard John-Roger as its founder.

Some Conclusions

From the point of view of the followers of a new religious tradition, the founder is original and unique -- and, to some extent, he or she always is, if the new tradition has any chance of success. On the other hand, nothing is ever really new under the sun of spirituality. While controversial literature looks for evidence or plagiarism, scholars examine sources and formative processes in order to assess the place of each movement in a larger historical picture.

John-Roger's path, shaped by the crucial near-death experience of 1963, appears to have incorporated references to three different traditions. First, starting even before his 1963 experience, John-Roger explored a number of groups of the Western metaphysical and esoteric tradition (predominantly Christian, if with reference to an unorthodox Christianity). He was particularly interested in spiritualist churches. Later, he attended occasionally Richard Zenor's Agasha Temple of Wisdom and later joined the Rosicrucian order AMORC. He interpreted immediately and primarily his 1963 experience in the light of these traditions. Second, during the second half of the 1960s he was also attracted by an Eastern brand of esotericism, shortly became interested in Eckankar and, through Eckankar, was exposed to the Radhasoami and the larger Sant Mat traditions. Third, when MSIA was already well established, John-Roger became interested in presenting some (but by no means all) of his teachings to a broader audience, believing that they may be accepted even by many not prepared to join MSIA. He entered the seminar culture of the 1970s through Insight, and the self-help culture of the 1980s and the 1990s with the Life 101 series.

Thus, John-Roger appears to have incorporated into the language and style he use for presenting his experiences and teachings elements from three different traditions. These are, in chronological order: Western Christian metaphysical tradition, Eastern-oriented esoteric religion (including traditions about the Great White Brotherhood and Ascended Masters), and the later seminar and self-help subculture (the latter itself rooted in the older traditions of New Thought and positive thinking)[44]. With John-Roger and MSIA we are confronted with a typical, yet unique, itinerary of a spiritual teacher during the New Age era. While never very much interested in the New Age proper, John-Roger -- as was typical of the larger movement -- has roots and connections in both traditions who uneasily coexist and shape the New Age: metaphysical and occult, Western and Eastern, Christian and non-Christian. Notwithstanding the importance of certain Eastern techniques and terminology, the Western connection took precedence chronologically (and, I believe, logically) in John-Roger's teachings and thought. In the Western metaphysical tradition -- along a line that goes from the New Thought to "seminar religion" -- he emphasized the elements catering to individual enlightenment rather than to societal reform plans and utopias. This emphasis ultimately prevails in the whole of John-Roger's teachings, as it seems to prevail in the general climate of the New Age era as it evolves towards a more individually-centred phase called in a part of Europe the Next Age. In this sense, MSIA may be called both a precursor of the Next Age and a movement likely to attract, as it expands internationally, the attention of those dissatisfied with the more utopians facets of the New Age.


[1] See David Spangler - William Irwin Thompson, Reimagination of the World: A Critique of the New Age, Science, and Popular Culture, Santa Fe (New Mexico): Bear & Company, 1991.

[2] See J. Gordon Melton, "The Future of the New Age Movement", in Eileen Barker - Margit Warburg (eds.), New Religions and New Religiosity, Aarhus-London: Aarhus University Press, 1998, 133-149.

[3] Wouter J. Hanegraaff, New Age Religion and Western Culture: Esotericism in the Mirror of the Secular Thought, Leiden: Brill, 1996.

[4] See Catherine Lowman Wessinger, Annie Besant and Progressive Messianism (1847-1933), Lewiston (New York) and Queenston (Ontario): Edwin Mellen, 1988.

[5] J. Gordon Melton, "New Thought", in J. Gordon Melton - Jerome Clark - Aidan A. Kelly, New Age Almanac, Detroit: Visible Ink Press, 1991, 343-347 (346).

[6] See on this tradition J. Stillson Judah, The History and Philosophy of the Metaphysical Movements in America, Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1967.

[7] See Paul Heelas, The New Age Movement: The Celebration of the Self and the Sacralization of Modernity, Oxford: Blackwell, 1996.

[8] Ibid., 221.

[9] On Radhasoami see Mark Juergensmeyer, Radhasoami Reality: The Logic of a Modern Faith, Princeton (New Jersey): Princeton University Press, 1991.

[10] Ibid., 31.

[11] On the Naths and these techniques, see David Gordon White, The Alchemical Body: Siddhi Traditions in Medieval India, Chicago-London: The University of Chicago Press, 1996.

[12] Julian Johnson, The Path of the Masters, Punjab: Sawan Service League, 1939.

[13] David Christopher Lane, The Making of a Spiritual Movement: The Untold Story of Paul Twitchell and Eckankar, Del Mar (California): Del Mar Press, 1983 (2nd ed.: 1993).

[14] See David Christopher Lane, "The J.R. Controversy: A Critical Analysis of John-Roger and MSIA", Understanding Cults and Spiritual Movements, 1984, 1:1; Id., Exposing Cults: When the Skeptical Mind Confronts the Mystical, New York, Garland, 1994. Andrea Grace Diem, also a member of Radhasoami Satsang, Beas, incorporated Lane's criticism of MSIA into her Ph.D. dissertation at the University of California, Santa Barbara (September 1995): Shabdism in North America: The Influence of Radhasoami on Guru Movements.

[15] Peter McWilliams, Life 102: What to Do When Your Guru Sues You, Los Angeles (California): Prelude Press, 1994.

[16] The book has been reprinted in 1977: Ethan Smith, View of the Hebrews, New York: Arno Press.

[17] See Conrad Henry Moehlman, Ordeal by Concordance: An Historical Study of a Recent Literary Invention, New York: Longmans Green & Co., 1955.

[18] For a recent summary of these accusations by an anti-Adventist author see Walter T. Rea, The White Lie, Turlock: M & F Publications, 1982.

[19] Neal C. Wilson, "This I Believe About Ellen G. White", Adventist Review, March 20, 1980, 8-10.

[20] See "The Truth about The White Lie", document prepared by the staff of the Ellen G. White Estate in co-operation with the Biblical Research Institute and the Ministerial Association of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, August 1982.

[21] This and other unreferenced quotations come from a long recorded interview I had with John-Roger Hinkins and his successor John Morton in Los Angeles on January 28, 1998. The transcript covers 65 pages.

[22] James Crenshaw, Telephone Between Worlds, Marina del Rey (California): DeVorss & Co., 1950.

[23] Yogananda initiated Premananda in 1920. Yogananda, however, did not approve Premananda's incorporation of a Self-Revelation Church of Absolute Monism in the United States as an entity independent from Yogananda's Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF). According, present-day SRF regards Premananda lineage as unorthodox (see for a discussion Andrew Rawlinson, The Book of Enlightened Masters: Western Teachers in Eastern Traditions, Chicago-La Salle (Illinois): Open Court, 1997, 348-349 -- Rawlinson's otherwise useful book has an entry on John-Roger merely summarizing Lane's criticism: ibid., 339-347).

[24] ECK World News, April 1973, editorial reply to a letter from A. Agee, Grants Pass, Oregon.

[25] According to John-Roger, no bad faith on the part of Twitchell is necessarily involved. Twitchell may have constructed a personal meeting with him as an initiation, although John-Roger did not consider it as such.

[26] In 1988 she wrote a chronicle of her early experiences in John-Roger: In Tribute to Twenty-Five Years as the Traveler, Movement of the Spiritual Inner Awareness, Los Angeles 1988, 2-21.

[27] Ibid., 6.

[28] Ibid., 6-7. See a MSIA publication, Across the Golden Bridge (out of print, but available via Internet) for accounts of the first seminars. Three people, all still involved in MSIA, started the first Santa Barbara seminars: Jack Reed, Muriel Engle and Robert Waterman.

[29] Letter of C. Lydon Harrell, Jr. to John-Roger Hinkins, April 14, 1971, published in The Movement Newspaper, (MSIA's organ), June 1973.

[30] Ironically John-Roger claims that Lane first approached him hoping to receive some support for his activities against Eckankar.

[31] Sanderson, in John-Roger: In Tribute, 9-10.

[32] Critics contend that John-Roger actual had to leave Rosemead High School after the principal complained that he was introducing metaphysical teaching into his English classes (McWilliams, Life 102, 57). John-Roger firmly denies that this was the case.

[33] For a comprehensive view see James R. Lewis, Seeking the Light: Revealing the Truth about the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness and its Founder, John-Roger, published by MSIA's own Mandeville Press, Los Angeles 1998.

[34] Soul Transcendence, Los Angeles: Peace Theological Seminary and College of Philosophy, 1995, 11.

[35] Michael Baigent - Richard Leigh - Henry Lincoln, Holy Blood, Holy Grail, New York: Delacorte Press, 1982.

[36] One movement that does exhibit similarities with Eckankar is the Order of the Shan Masters headquartered in Torino, Italy (not to be confused with the Shan-Movement founded by Ananda Tara Shan -- Jeanne Morashti -- in Denmark and later exported to Australia). I called the attention on the similarities between the Shan Masters and the ECK Masters in my 1989 book Le nuove Religioni (Milan: SugarCo 1989).

[37] Accusations brought by the Church of Scientology against Werner Erhard and its organization est raised the issue of how much this branch of seminar religion owes to the (unacknowledged) influence of Scientology. The issue, of considerable interest, has never become the subject matter of comprehensive scholarly studies.

[38] See the report by Dean C. Halverson, Lifespring and the Sovereignty of Subjectiveness, 2nd ed., Berkeley (California): Spiritual Counterfeits Project, 1984.

[39] Sanderson, in In John-Roger: In Tribute, 19.

[40] John-Roger - Peter McWilliams, You Can't Afford the Luxury of Negative Thought, Los Angeles: Prelude Press, 1988.

[41] John-Roger - Peter McWilliams, Life 101: Everything We Wish We Had Learned About Life In School - But Didn't, Los Angeles: Prelude Press, 1990.

[42] Peter McWilliams, in In John-Roger: In Tribute, 63.

[43] In 1997 I attended a seminar on forgiveness taught by John Morton in Los Angeles. Together with unique MSIA references and practices, the use of a self-help jargon was somewhat obvious.

[44] It is worth nothing that Peter McWilliams attended in 1975-1977 a Religious Science Church in North Hollywood, where his cousin, Carlo DiGiovanna, was a minister (McWilliams, Life 102, 415).

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