A look at peculiar institutions, oddball literary experiments, and reckless rugged individualists. A celebration of American non-conformity.
Urantia: The Great Cult Mystery
By Martin Gardner
Prometheus Books (1995)
Also consulted : Strange Creations: Aberrant Ideas of Human Origins from Ancient Astronauts to Aquatic Apes, by Donna Kossy
Review by Karl Wolff
"Every now and then, someone arises who attempts to make other people believe in the things which they see or hear in their own minds. Self-styled 'prophets' arise to convince us of the reality of their visions. Odd geniuses appear who tell us of the voices they hear, and if they seem fairy sane and socially conventional in every way, they are sometimes able to build up vast followings, to create cults, and establish churches; whereas, if they are too bold in their imaginings, if they seem a little too far or hear a little too much, they are promptly seized and quickly lodged within the confines of an insane asylum..." The man who wrote that paragraph was Dr. William Sadler, who "would himself become the founder of a cult based on a revelation initially channeled through his sleeping brother-in-law!" Martin Gardner wrote that assessment in Urantia: The Great Cult Mystery. Gardner was a noted skeptic and scientist and a prolific writer.
But there is also a Chicago connection. The Urantia Foundation, the subject of Gardner's in-depth investigation, has its headquarters at 533 W Diversey Pkwy, Chicago, IL 60614. Gardner's digressive book takes many detours on its journey to discovering who really wrote The Urantia Book. On its own, without historical or religious context, The Urantia Book appears like an odd religious texts. Over two thousand pages long and filled with strange names, it could be seen as Flash Gordon meets The Book of Mormon. While the latter sections become a lengthy re-imagining of Jesus's life and ministry, the early sections read like bureaucratic legalese. We learn that Earth (or, rather, Urantia) "is number 606 of a planetary group called Satania." Satania is in the constellation called Norlatiadek (headquarters: planet Edentia), itself the 70th world of the universe Nebadon, the 84th universe in the minor sector Ensa, which is the third major sector of the seventh sector superuniverse Orvonton. Confused yet?
How did such a fantastic and grandiose cosmology come about? Gardner traces William Sadler back to his connections with Dr. John Kellogg and Wilfred Custer Kellogg. The Michigan-based health advocates embraced a lifestyle of vegetarianism, hard beds, and cold baths. John Kellogg ran the famous Sanatarium in Battle Creek, Michigan. He combined his idiosyncratic view of health and wellness with a pious devotion to Seventh-Day Adventism. The Sadlers moved to Chicago where William Sadler's channeling activities began in 1912. The process of revelation involved the sleeper to dictate to a listener who would transcribe the message. These became known as The Papers. The Urantia Book has 196 of them, divided into four parts.
In Gardner's account, he regales the reader with chapters debunking the science of the book. He details evidence of large-scale plagiarism along with The Urantia Foundation's institutional in-fighting, and "new revelations" from dissident Urantians. Before it lost a pivotal copyright case, the Urantia Foundation was as litigious and ruthless as Scientology. Now The Urantia Book is in the public domain.
While a certain amount of Gardner's debunking came across as a bit heavy-handed, he rightly criticized The Urantia Book for its espousal of racism and eugenics. Beneath a thin veneer of pulpy science fiction narrative lay a vicious racist heart. If this was a piece of science fiction, we could all shrug our shoulders and move on. But there are people who take the book literally, seeing the Papers as revealed by agents of the Gods. Luckily, Urantians only number in the thousands at the very most. They are an off-shoot of Seventh-Day Adventism, but only a very small one. Urantians usually hold small-scale discussion groups and seem relatively harmless. Since they are such a small cohort of believers, Gardner's relentless attack on the absurdity and irrational nature of their beliefs came across as rather mean and smug. Other more dangerous groups also tap into America's long-simmering history of racism and violence.
The Urantia Book is a problematic snarl of racism and outdated science. Yet at the same time it should also be celebrated (is that the right word?) as an epic product of the religious imagination. The Urantia Book is on par with another monumental work of religious eccentricity, Oahspe: A New Bible, written in 1892 by John Ballou Newbrough. Like the Urantians, Newbrough conceived of a sacred universe filled with planets and angels and divine messengers. The United States legal framework allowing for individual expression and a lack of an established church create an atmosphere conducive to divinely inspired oddballs. Don't like your church? Start your own!
Coming next: The art and writing of Henry Darger