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A dashing Manly P. Hall in 1929.

Occult American

The real story behind Manly P. Hall, Ronald Reagan, and the “secret destiny” of America

I’ll never forget the first time I heard the stately name: Manly P. Hall. It was a summer day about twenty years before this writing. I was having lunch with friends in New York City, where the esoteric scholar Hall (1901–1990) once lived and began researching his “Great Book,” The Secret Teachings of All Ages, at the city’s cathedral-like public library, where I am a writer-in-residence today.

It was early in my studies of occult and esoteric traditions. “Who should I be reading?” I asked my friends, both longtime seekers. One, named Pythia — the same name, I later learned from Hall’s work, as the oracle at Delphi — said: “Manly P. Hall,” lingering over every syllable. I felt the kind of electrical charge you sometimes experience when you know you’re about to make a life-shifting discovery. I had to learn who was behind that imposing name; I felt an inner conviction that such knowledge would prove personally meaningful. My conviction turned out right: Hall’s work helped chart the course of my career.

Hall was the first writer who helped me understand that studying the metaphysical dimensions of history could be a vocation in itself. In fall of 2005, I delivered my first full-scale talk, “The Occult Philosophy in American Life,” at the Mayan-Egyptian-Art Deco campus he founded in Los Angeles, the Philosophical Research Society (PRS). My presentation that day formed the basis for my first book, Occult America, and much else that followed.

Without Hall’s influence, I’m not sure I would have found my way as a historian of alternative spirituality. Although Hall’s name is rarely heard in academia today (this is slowly changing), I believe that his writing and persona have quietly moved many scholars of esotericism toward their work. University of Chicago historian of ancient religions Mircea Eliade, whose scholarship brought new respect to the study of Gnostic and esoteric belief systems in the twentieth century, told friends that as a young man Hall’s writing ignited his own love for symbol and myth.

Transcendental History

Hall’s spent seven decades, most of them in Los Angeles, writing about the esoteric and inner dimensions of the United States, and much else besides. Hall’s view of American history could be called transcendental. It was neither liberal nor conservative, populist nor elitist; and the writer rarely concerned himself directly with politics, elections, or current events, other than to remark on the need for environmental stewardship and moderation in civic life (which can only lead us to imagine at how he would have despaired over the nature of today’s perpetual attack-mode).

Within Hall’s writings on American history, particularly in his book The Secret Destiny of America, appears the principle that the U.S. serves — at its finest moments — as a vessel for primeval ideals of democracy, self-development, individual searching, and personal liberty. Hall located these principles, in their earliest form, within ancient esoteric traditions, and he believed that such aims were preserved within the work of illumined intellects, like Francis Bacon and Sir Walter Raleigh, as well as covert fraternities, including Freemasonry and Rosicrucianism (the latter probably not an actual brotherhood but a thought movement), and enacted, albeit with egregious gaps, by America’s founders, many of whom were either Masons, such as Washington and Franklin, or were intimately steeped in ethical and individualist philosophy, such as Paine and Jefferson.

This perspective ignited the patriotic imagination of a surprising range of figures, including President Ronald Reagan. I first discovered in 2010 that some of Hall’s ideas and language about the inner meaning of America began appearing in Reagan’s writing and speechmaking from the earliest years of his political career up through his presidency. As we’ll see, it is likely that two met in their hometown of Los Angeles while Reagan was governor. In this sense, Hall’s influence travelled far beyond esoteric circles. The most powerful case in point appears in his impact on one of the twentieth century’s most consequential politicians.

The Mystic and the President

During Reagan’s two terms of governor of California, from 1967 to 1975, whispers and speculation circulated about the ex-actor’s penchant for lucky numbers, superstitions, and newspaper horoscopes. But it was unknown that the esoteric scholar Hall, and particularly his occult backstory of America, made a lasting impact on the man who became our 40th president.

As is typical of many actors, Reagan was no stranger to occult lore. He was friendly with Eden Gray, a onetime costar who went on to write the nation’s first popular guides to Tarot. Later on as governor Reagan was friends with psychic Jeane Dixon (he and Nancy broke with the prophetess after she failed to foresee his rise to the White House) and was especially close to Santa Monica stargazer Carroll Righter, who in 1969 became the first, and only, astrologer to appear on the cover of Time magazine.

Deep into the second term of Reagan’s presidency in the spring of 1988, stories about the Ronald and Nancy Reagan’s interest in the occult broke into full view. A tell-all memoir by disgruntled ex-chief of staff Donald Regan definitively linked Nancy to a San Francisco astrologer named Joan Quigley, who closely monitored the president’s calendar and appointments. Speaking at a press briefing, White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater attempted to quickly dispel the matter by acknowledging that, yes, the Reagans were fans of astrology, but never used it for policy decisions; the spokesman also conceded the president’s penchant for “lucky numbers” or numerology. To many political observers, the revelations cemented press speculations that arose when Reagan, as governor-elect, scheduled his first oath of office at the eyebrow-raising hour of 12:10 a.m., which critics saw as an effort to align the inaugural with promising heavenly signs.

But a bigger and more substantive piece of the story went missing. In speeches and essays that he produced decades apart, Reagan revealed the unmistakable mark of Hall’s writing and phraseology. Judging from a tale of Hall’s that Reagan borrowed and often repeated, the president’s interests in the esoteric went far beyond the daily horoscope. And this returns us to the book-lined Los Angeles sanctum of Manly P. Hall.

***

In 1944, within the stucco walls of his “mystery school” in Griffith Park, Hall produced an historical work at little-known beyond his immediate circle. The Secret Destiny of America — based on Hall’s earlier lectures and essays — caught the eye of our future president, then a middling movie actor gravitating toward politics. The book’s wording became a mainstay of Reagan’s speeches.

The Secret Destiny of America describes how America was the product of a “Great Plan” for religious liberty and self-governance, launched by an ancient order of arcane philosophers and secret societies. In Hall’s original 1943 essay \he recounts a rousing speech delivered by an “unknown speaker” before the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Hall also told an earlier version of this story in his 1928 opus, The Secret Teachings of All Ages.

The “mysterious man,” Hall wrote, invisibly entered and exited the locked doors of the Philadelphia statehouse on July 4, 1776, delivering an oration that bolstered the wavering spirits of the delegates. “God has given America to be free!” commanded the stranger, urging the men to overcome their fears of the noose, axe, or gibbet, and to seal destiny by signing the great document. Newly emboldened, Hall wrote, the delegates rushed forward to add their names. They looked to thank the man only to discover that he had vanished from the locked room. Was this, Hall wondered in 1944, “one of the agents of the secret Order, guarding and directing the destiny of America?”

At a 1957 commencement address in Illinois at his alma mater Eureka College, Reagan, then a corporate spokesman for GE, sought to inspire students with this leaf from occult history. “This is a land of destiny,” Reagan said, “and our forefathers found their way here by some Divine system of selective service gathered here to fulfill a mission to advance man a further step in his climb from the swamps.” Reagan then retold, without attribution, the tale of Hall’s unknown speaker. “When they turned to thank the speaker for his timely words,” Reagan concluded, “he couldn’t be found and to this day no one knows who he was or how he entered or left the guarded room.”

Reagan revived the story several times, including in 1981 when Parade magazine asked the new president for a personal essay on what Independence Day meant to him. Longtime aide Michael Deaver delivered the piece with a note saying, “This Fourth of July message is the president’s own words and written initially in the president’s hand,” on a yellow pad at Camp David. Reagan retold the legend of the unknown speaker — this time using language very close to Hall’s own: “When they turned to thank him for his timely oratory, he was not to be found, nor could any be found who knew who he was or how had come in or gone out through the locked and guarded doors.”

Continuing on Hall’s theme, Reagan spoke of America’s divine purpose and of a mysterious plan behind the nation’s founding. “You can call it mysticism if you want to,” he told the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington, D.C., in 1974, “but I have always believed that there was some divine plan that placed this great continent between two oceans to be sought out by those who were possessed of an abiding love of freedom and a special kind of courage.” Reagan repeated these words almost verbatim before a television audience of millions for the Statue of Liberty centenary on July 4, 1986.

***

Where did Manly P. Hall uncover the tale that made such an impact on a president and his view of American purpose and destiny? In actuality, the episode originated as “The Speech of the Unknown” in a collection of folkloric stories about America’s founding, published in 1847 under the title Washington and his Generals, or Legends of the Revolution by American social reformer and muckraker George Lippard. Lippard, a friend of Edgar Allan Poe, had a strong taste for the gothic — he cloaked his mystery man in a “dark robe.” He also tacitly acknowledged inventing the story: “The name of the Orator…is not definitely known. In this speech, it is my wish to compress some portion of the fiery eloquence of the time.”

Regardless, the parable took on its own life and came to occupy the same shadow land between fact and fiction as the parables of George Washington chopping down a cherry tree, or young Abe Lincoln walking miles to return a bit of a change to a country-store customer. As with most myths, the story assumed different attributes over time. By 1911, the speech resurfaced in a collection of American political oratory, with the robed speaker fancifully identified as Patrick Henry.

For his part, Hall seemed to know little about the story’s point of origin. He had been given a copy of the “Speech of the Unknown” by a since-deceased secretary of the occult Theosophical Society, but with no bibliographical information other than it being from a “rare old volume of early American political speeches.” The speech appeared in 1938 in the Society’s journal, The Theosophist, with the sole note that it was “published in a rare volume of addresses, and known probably to only one in a million, even of American citizens.”

It is Hall’s language that unmistakably marks the Reagan telling. Indeed, there are indications that Reagan and Hall may have even met to exchange ideas. In an element unique to Hall’s version, the mystic-writer attributed the tale of the unknown speaker to the writings of Thomas Jefferson. When Reagan addressed CPAC he added cited an attribution — of sorts: Reagan said the tale was told to him “some years ago” by “a writer, who happened to be an avid student of history … I was told by this man that the story could be found in the writings of Jefferson. I confess, I never researched or made an effort to verify it.”

Gnostic scholar Stephan A. Hoeller, for many years a close associate and friend of Hall’s, and a frequent speaker at PRS, affirmed the likelihood of a Reagan and Hall meeting. Hoeller told me that while he was on the Griffith Park campus one day in 1971, early in Reagan’s second term as governor, he spotted a black limousine with a uniformed chauffeur standing outside it. Curious, he approached the man and asked, “Who owns this beautiful car?”

“At first,” Hoeller recalled, the driver “hemmed and hawed and then said, ‘Oh, it’s Governor Reagan — he is in meeting with Mr. Hall.”

Hall’s longtime librarian, Pearl M. Thomas, confirmed the account to Hoeller. “They know each other quite well,” he recalled Thomas saying. She further told him that Reagan had “called him here at the office several times. But we are not supposed to talk about this.”

Hall was known for discretion and avoidance of Hollywood chatter and social climbing; there is no record of his speaking directly about the governor. But when Reagan began his ascent to the White House and his name arose in conversation, Hoeller recalled, the mystic smiled and said, “Yes, yes, we know him.”

Hoeller, a distinguished man of old-world bearing, eschews hyperbole. He concluded: “There are definitely several indications that there was contact and influence there.” The scholar’s recollections square with the timing of Reagan’s 1974 remarks before CPAC.

***

Given the fanciful origins of the “unknown speaker,” one may wonder what worth, if any, the tale has as history. It is important to remember that myths, ancient and modern, reflect psychological truth and the teller’s self-perception, sometimes more so than events themselves. Myths reveal who we aspire to be, and warn us against what we may become. Those on which we dwell reveal character.

Hall captured an element of what philosopher Jacob Needleman calls “the American soul” within the story. Reagan certainly thought so. And the codes and stories in which Reagan spoke form the skeleton key to the inner man — a fact intuited by President Gerald Ford, who called Reagan “one of the few political leaders I have ever met whose public speeches revealed more than his private conversations.”

Esotericist as Historian

Other elements of Hall’s Americana were more factually verifiable than the unknown speaker. Indeed, the writer sometimes gave voice to rejected ideas that time later validated. This is the case with Hall’s description of the Oracle at Delphi in The Secret Teachings of All Ages. Hall first published his epic codex to symbolic philosophy in 1928 at the remarkably young age of 27. At the time, many mainstream scholars and historians dismissed as fantasy the classical portrait of the Delphic oracle as a female medium seated on a tripod in a cavern imbibing fumes and foretelling the future. The image was considered more drama than fact. Yet Hall, reading deeply into esoteric sources, affirmed the scene’s historical accuracy. About a decade after Hall’s death in 1990, archeological discoveries at Delphi bore out his vision and restored this classical description to widely accepted history.

My point in documenting these varied episodes is that we do no service to Hall’s memory, or to his uniqueness as a thinker, to raise him on a pedestal, as some of his students wish to do. Nor is it closer to accurate to paint Hall as a purveyor of white-supremacist manifest destiny, as one professor recently did from that that hallowed court of wisdom, Twitter.

In my books Occult America, One Simple idea, and elsewhere I have written critically about aspects of Hall’s career. He sometimes over-relied on folkloric or single sources, including in his writing about the influential German-American mystic Johannes Kelpius (1667–1708), with some legend mixed in. But to neglect Kelpius, as many other historians once did, would mean ignoring a important if subtle facet of American history.

The facts are these: the mystic Kelpius and his small circle of followers fled religious persecution in Central Europe in 1693, arriving in the colonies the next year to establish a monastic hermitage in Philadelphia on the banks of the Wissahickon Creek. The mystical community helped establish the colonies’ reputation as a safe harbor for religious radicalism, and to attract other experimenters to its shores. Hence, Kelpius’s influence is seminal, and is slowly being rediscovered by historical scholars today. Although Hall includes several fanciful episodes from the monk’s life, involving secret caskets and alchemical explosions, his work kept this important figure from being written out of modern history at the time when Kelpius’s reputation was overlooked. Hall vouchsafed the Hermetic monk’s importance, and today no account of the development of America’s religious culture is considered complete without at least noting him.

In this sense, to understand Hall, and to constructively read and write about him, requires taking full account of his strengths and weaknesses as a historical thinker. You do not read Manly P. Hall for a timeline of consensus-based history, or for a blow-by-blow rendering of what occurred. Rather, Hall saw history as a transcendent arc of ideas. His work is an esoteric key to the meaning behind people, ideas, and events. His historical telling is sometimes parabolic — revealing the internal currents and ideas of a certain time and place, and often of our own. Hall’s historicism helps us find new layers in our nation’s self-conception. .

Masonic Republic?

In light of what I’ve written, it is also important to understand Hall’s “secret society” thesis, in which he describes how esoteric ideals were preserved within the vessel of clandestine fraternities and societies, and later put into governance in the new republic. Aspects of his thesis are over-dramatized. Yet, in the broadest strokes, Hall’s outlook provides a vital and not wholly inaccurate insight into an element of American history that most mainstream historians and scholars overlook. Key facets of Hall’s “secret society” vision can be seen in the veritable influence of Freemasonic ideals on America’s founders.

Indeed, Hall was among the first modern historians to grasp Freemasonry’s impact on early America — and the facts are richer and more significant than anything that entertainment or conspiracy would hold. As a radical thought movement that emerged from the Reformation, Freemasonry was one of the first widespread and well-connected organizations in modern life to espouse religious toleration, ecumenism, internal democracy, and personal liberty — principles that the fraternity helped spread among key American colonists.

It may seem anomalous for liberal principles to arise from within a “secret society,” but skullduggery was never Masonry’s primary aim. In an age of religious conflict in seventeenth-century Europe — when an individual caught running afoul of church strictures could suffer persecution or worse — Freemasons clung to secrecy less out of esoteric drama than political expedience. Many Masons believed in a search for religious truth as it existed in all civilizations, including those of a pre-Christian past, and they drew upon ancient and occult symbols, from pentagrams to luminescent eyeballs, as codes for ethical development and progress. Reactions from church authorities ranged from suspicion to hostility. European Masons had good reason to be discrete.

It was in a young America that Masonic ideals fully took flight — sometimes in unexpected ways. In Boston in 1778, local freemen of color affiliated together as Masons under the banner of African Lodge №1. The African Lodge later became known as Prince Hall Masonry, so named for the order’s founder, Prince Hall, a freed slave and leatherworker. Hall became the first African-American named a Grand Master. Despite the African Lodge’s segregated status, Prince Hall Masonry was a bastion of abolitionism. Its leader affixed his name to some of the republic’s earliest anti-slavery petitions in 1777 and 1778. As such, African Lodge №1 represented the first black-led abolitionist movement in American history.

Whatever its airs of mystery and images of skulls, pyramids, and all-seeing eyes, Freemasonry’s most radical, even dangerous, idea was the encouragement of different faiths within a single nation. Early in his first term, Washington communicated these ideals in a letter to the congregation of a Rhode Island synagogue:

It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it was the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily, the government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens…

In other words, in the new nation minority religions were not just guests at the table but full householders.

As Manly P. Hall noted, Washington and other early-American Freemasons rejected a European past in which one overarching authority regulated the exchange of ideas. This outlook is further suggested in one of the greatest symbols associated with Freemasonry: the eye-and-pyramid of the Great Seal of the United States, familiar today from the back of the dollar bill.

The Great Seal’s design began on July 4, 1776, on an order from the Continental Congress and under the direction of Benjamin Franklin (another Freemason), Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams. The Latin maxim that surrounds the unfinished pyramid — Annuit Coeptis Novus Ordo Seclorum — can be roughly, if poetically, translated as: “God Smiles on Our New Order of the Ages.” Although the symbol is not directly from Freemasonry, it embodies Masonic philosophy to the core: The pyramid, or worldly achievement, is incomplete without the blessing of Providence. And this polity of man and God, as Masonic philosophy held, required a break with the religious order of the Old World and a renewed search for universal truth. In its symbols and ideas, Masonry conveyed a sense that something new was being born in America: that the individual’s conscience was beyond denominational affiliation or government command.

Historically, Masonry’s voice and principles informed America’s founding commitment to the individual pursuit of meaning, as Manly P. Hall also understood. As found in these pages, Hall repeatedly extolled Masonry’s influence. Taking a leaf from Hall’s thesis, it is not going too far to suggest that many Masons foresaw the nascent republic as a place destined to protect the individual search for meaning — from majority rule, from foreign meddling, and from sectarian restriction. That ideal represents Freemasonry’s highest contribution to our national life. This noble, meaningful aspect of Masonic philosophy runs throughout Hall’s work.

* * *

I believe that Hall’s historical writing makes it possible for readers today to rediscover a neglected dimension of our shared history and purpose. He also wrote extensively about undercurrents of esoteric thought and spiritual insight found within the Native American cultures. Hall considered these topics with veneration when such cultures were often ignored or caricatured within mainstream letters.

Hall’s vision of America is a nation born from, and in the ongoing process of fulfilling, primeval ideals of individual agency and the search for meaning. In illuminating our best principles, Hall provides a way to measure our insufficiencies and failures, and also an internal obelisk by which to recalibrate the heights we wish to attain.

(This essay is adapted from the author’s introduction to The Secret History of America by Manly P. Hall).

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"Treats esoteric ideas & movements with an even-handed intellectual studiousness"-Washington Post | PEN Award-winning historian | Censored in China

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