John E. Fetzer and the Quest for the New Age

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Brian C. Wilson
Great Lakes Books Series
  • Alberta, Canada: 
    Wayne State University Press
    , August
     2018.
     344 pages.
     $34.99.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780814345306.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Tracking its subject through decades of commercial and spiritual ventures, Brian C. Wilson’s John E. Fetzer and the Quest for the New Age could be subtitled Better Living through Esoterica. To his fellow residents of Michigan, John E. Fetzer seemed like an unsurprising Cold War businessman. He was a prosperous communications executive, philanthropist, and owner of the Detroit Tigers. Yet Fetzer privately was an enthusiastic student of the occult and metaphysics. After quitting Seventh-day Adventism, Fetzer freely added spiritual practices to his personal, idiosyncratic version of Christianity (xii, 31). Wilson argues that Fetzer sought a union of science and religion through metaphysics, eventually committing his entire fortune to this cause (xi). Fetzer’s quest involved most of the 20th century’s major metaphysical traditions, including Spiritualism and derivative channeling, Freemasonry, Theosophy, UFOs, the search for Atlantis, Transcendental Meditation, energy healing, and parapsychology.  

Wilson positions Fetzer as a transitional figure between early-20th-century metaphysics and the late-20th-century New Age, contending that the activities of Fetzer and his peers also anticipated the current Spiritual But Not Religious movement (xii). The book succeeds admirably in making this case. The Fetzer Institute’s records, including Fetzer’s heavily annotated personal library, enable Wilson to chart how Fetzer became a prototypical New Ager in granular detail. John Fetzer emerges as someone who embodied Leigh Eric Schmidt’s concept of cosmopolitan spirituality (Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality, 2nd ed., University of California Press, 2012, 11–12, 105), but by way of sedate men’s clubs and corporate board rooms. Fetzer did not create his own religion, but he was an eager consumer of new religions while maintaining his business empire. Wilson embeds thorough discussions of these new movements within a zippy narrative. The main text clocks in at a brisk 218 pages, and theoretical terms are explained clearly. Teachers who want to assign an undergraduate primer on metaphysics will find this book useful.

The volume’s brevity means that several parts of Wilson’s argument could be pursued further. For example, Wilson quotes a letter by former Seventh-day Adventist Sterling Slater that helped to push Fetzer away from Adventism. Slater makes anti-Catholic statements in the letter (21–23), but Wilson does not say if Fetzer harbored anti-Catholic views himself. Similarly, Wilson mentions Fetzer’s Native American spirit guides (41), but he does not unpack the racial stereotypes encoded within these séances. Then there is the matter of Jim Gordon, Fetzer’s favorite spirit medium in his old age. Fetzer spent considerable money to support Gordon’s publishing career (168), as well as the endeavors of the mystic John-Roger Hinkins (171). Wilson does not pursue the possibility that these individuals took advantage of Fetzer, nor does Wilson address the scandals that marred John-Roger’s ministry. Readers will likely want more information about Fetzer’s jaw-dropping opinion that he was the Apostle Paul and Thomas Jefferson, among other icons, in his past lives (141, 193)!

Wilson’s definition of metaphysical religion—“a monistic rather than dualistic cosmology, that is, one that posits that all is one, including God” (x)—may generate debate. Wilson bases his definition on the work of Wouter Hanegraff and Catherine L. Albanese, among others (see x, 209–10, 214n1, 215n11, and 295n33–35). Yet Wilson’s definition omits a key part of Albanese’s definition of metaphysical religion, namely that “a preoccupation with mind and its powers” is crucial to metaphysics (A Republic of Mind and Spirit: A Cultural History of American Metaphysical Religion, Yale University Press, 2007, 13). Although Wilson addresses Fetzer’s views on mental powers at several points (e.g., 39, 111, 115), Albanese’s treatment of the mind in metaphysics could have added theoretical context to Wilson’s argument. Similarly, despite characterizing Fetzer’s self-fashioned religion as “liberal” (211), Wilson does not cite Schmidt’s concept of American liberal religion, developed in Restless Souls. Wilson could have identified additional continuities between early-20th-century metaphysics—what he calls the “old New Age” (xii)—and the 19th-century practices that Schmidt describes—arguably the Ür-New Age.

Nonetheless, Wilson’s book offers compelling paths for future research. Fetzer believed that genealogy had spiritual benefits for his deceased ancestors (42). The parallels between his genealogy practice and the Latter-day Saint ordinance of proxy baptism warrant further study. Another intriguing topic is Fetzer’s interest in metaphysical texts that offered business tips, notably Guy Ballard’s 1935 book The Magic Presence (78). Did Fetzer also draw inspiration from orthodox Christian business texts of the era, such as Bruce Barton’s The Man Nobody Knows? There is also the matter of Fetzer’s sympathy for student protesters in the 1960s. Fetzer’s consideration of why students might reject science and question the Cold War social order (120) echoes Paul Goodman’s sympathy for juvenile delinquents in 1960’s Growing Up Absurd. Was Goodman’s work popular in occult circles?

John E. Fetzer and the Quest for the New Age suggests the need for a biographical series dedicated to major figures in American metaphysics. I am imagining a free-thought counterpart to Eerdmans’s Library of Religious Biography or Yale University Press’s Jewish Lives. Between this book and his earlier profile of Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, Wilson has made a substantial contribution to such a project.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Daniel Gorman Jr. is a PhD candidate in history at the University of Rochester.

Date of Review: 
September 16, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Brian C. Wilson is Professor of American Religious History in the Department of Comparative Religion at Western Michigan University. He is the author of Dr. John Harvey Kellogg and the Religion of Biologic Living and Yankees in Michigan.

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