The year 1910 marked a turning point in Western spirituality. It saw the deaths of some of the most luminous religious thinkers of the nineteenth century, including psychologist-seeker William James; popular medium Andrew Jackson Davis; and Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy. These three figures deeply impacted the movements in positive thinking, prayer healing, and psychical research.
Their death that year was accompanied by the rise to prominence of a new religious innovator – a figure who built upon the spiritual experiments of the nineteenth century to shape the New Age*culture of the dawning era.
In autumn of 1910 The New York Times brought the first major national attention to the name of Edgar Cayce, a young man who later became known as the “father of holistic medicine” and the founding voice of alternative spirituality.
The Sunday Times of 9 October 1910 profiled the Christian mystic and medical clairvoyant in an extensive article and photo spread: Illiterate Man Becomes a Doctor When Hypnotized. At the time Cayce (pronounced “Casey”), then 33, was struggling to make his way as a commercial photographer in his hometown of Hopkinsville, Kentucky, while delivering daily trance-based medical “readings” in which he would diagnose and prescribe natural cures for the illnesses of people he had never met.
Cayce’s method was to recline on a sofa or day bed, loosen his tie, belt, cuffs, and shoelaces, and enter a sleep-like trance; then, given only the name and location of a subject, the “sleeping prophet” was said to gain insight into the person’s body and psychology. By the time of his death in January 1945, Cayce had amassed a record of more than 14,300 clairvoyant readings for people across the nation, many of the sessions captured by stenographer Gladys Davis.
In the 1920s, Cayce’s trance readings expanded beyond medicine (which nonetheless remained at the core of his work) to include “life readings,” in which he explored a person’s inner conflicts and needs. In these sessions Cayce employed references to astrology, karma, reincarnation, and number symbolism. Other times, he expounded on global prophecies, climate or geological changes, and the lost history of mythical cultures, such as Atlantis and Lemuria. Cayce had no recollection of any of this when he awoke, though as a devout Christian the esotericism of such material made him wince when he read the transcripts.
Contrary to news coverage, Cayce was not illiterate, but neither was he well educated. Although he taught Sunday school at his Disciples of Christ church – and read through the King James Bible at least once every year – he had never made it past the eighth grade of a rural schoolhouse. While his knowledge of Scripture was encyclopaedic, Cayce’s reading tastes were otherwise limited. Aside from spending a few on-and-off years in Texas unsuccessfully trying to use his psychical abilities to strike oil – he had hoped to raise money to open a hospital based on his clairvoyant cures – Cayce rarely ventured beyond the Bible Belt environs of his childhood.
Since the tale of Jonah fleeing from the word of God, prophets have been characterised as reluctant, ordinary folk plucked from reasonably satisfying lives to embark on missions that they never originally sought. In this sense, if the impending New Age – the vast culture of Eastern, esoteric, and therapeutic spirituality that exploded on the US national scene in the 1960s and 70s – was seeking a founding prophet, Cayce could hardly be viewed as an unusual choice, but, historically, as a perfect one.
* The term “New Age” is often used to denote trendy or fickle spiritual tastes. I do not share in that usage. I use New Age to reference the eclectic culture of therapeutic and experimental spirituality that emerged in the late-twentieth century.