Apostle of a "Vile" Teaching

Paschal Beverly Randolph: A Nineteenth-Century Black American Spiritualist, Rosicrucian, and Sex Magician by John Patrick Deveney. State University of New York Press, State University Plaza, Albany, NY 11246, 1997, 607 pp., $29.95
By Chas S. Clifton

Orginally published in Gnosis 43 (Spring 1997). Copyright 1997 by the Lumen Foundation.

This book 's long subtitle, "A Nineteenth-Century Black American Spiritualist, Rosicrucian, and Sex Magician, " catalogs the very reasons why most Gnosis readers probably have not heard of P.B. Randolph. Selections from his works on sexual magic were published in 1988 by Magickal Childe, but his florid "Rosicrucian " novels are long out of print. Yet Randolph interacted with and played his part in Spiritualism and Theosophy. His techniques of visualization, development of the Magical Will, and sexual magic were born again in the works of Franz Bardon and numerous other writers on magic (magick).

Deveney 's detailed biography follows the ups and downs of Randolph 's life. Many occultists have struggled for survival on the outer planes, but Randolph 's struggle was complicated as well by his constant encounters with racial prejudice.

Born poor and of mixed race in 1825 and raised (more or less) by prostitutes in the Five Points slum of New York, Randolph was self-educated and prickly proud. Creating himself, he picked and chose just how "black " to be. He could de-emphasize his African heritage in the face of prejudice--after his suicide, a newspaper said he was "part Spaniard, and inherited all the suspicious distrusting qualities of the people of that nationality. " At other times, he emphasized it, as during his Civil War Black Nationalist phase, when he worked briefly as a teacher for the short-lived Freedman 's Bureau, an agency designed to educate freed slaves but only halfheartedly supported by the federal government.

He could describe himself as "the sang melÈe [mixed blood]--Proud of his descent from the [European] kings and queens... " (through his father, allegedly part of a well-known colonial Virginia family) or play the "educated Negro " among the reform-minded Spiritualists of the North and the major cities of Europe. Yet when some Northerners advocated a scheme to ship freed slaves to Africa, Randolph, speaking for the slaves, emphasized "American: " "We men of color were born here; so were our fathers and mothers down a long line of ancestry....Are all our sufferings to be rewarded by our removal to African deserts and barbaric climes and places?...No! Never! Here is our home, and here we mean to stay, and on this soil will die, and in it be buried. "

Randolph first made his way as a barber (one of a few trades open to "free men of color " in pre-Civil War America), then as a highly unorthodox physician, and also as a lecturer, writer, and seller of mail-order lessons in occultism. But ultimately depression and alcohol brought him to take his own life in his fiftieth year.

While in his twenties, Randolph lived in upstate New York, the "burned-over district, " where he encountered Spiritualism and became a medium himself. Traveling (with some help from wealthier patrons) to Britain and France, he carried letters of introduction to these patrons ' correspondents. Soon he was teaching communication with spirits American-style while learning crystal and mirror-gazing and techniques of Continental mesmerism.

Playing the game of "who influenced whom " is difficult, Deveney admits. The world of occult groups is "only partially accessible to the historian, " he writes, adding that he was forced to reconstruct much of Randolph 's European travels from his "Rosicrucian " novels, "which themselves warn of anachronism and deliberate obfuscation. In many cases it is impossible to distinguish the events of one trip from those of another. "

Deveney suggests that Randolph 's work underlay the later Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor, in turn a forerunner of C.C. Zain 's Brotherhood of Light, not to mention the O.T.O and a variety of other esoteric groups. Randolph traveled in Europe and the Middle East, and his mail-order students and correspondents included numerous Europeans. In fact, one difficult aspect of reading Deveney 's biography is keeping straight the myriad secret temples, committees of seven, hidden masters, orders, and brotherhoods. Deveney attempts to organize these connections, and anyone who reads through his extensive chapter notes will make numerous new discoveries in the history of esotericism.

Although Deveney does not make it explicit, the parallel is there to be made between Randolph 's need to re-invent and glorify his pedigree in the face of social rejection and his and other esoteric groups ' needs to claim distant roots and great chains of "masters. "

P.B. Randolph 's life story demonstrates also how reform-minded American Spiritualism turned into "occultism. " Spiritualism was well-intentioned, "scientific " but also passive, linked to social reform (early feminism, the abolition of slavery) but also to faddishness, most notably "free love, " which could, depending on who was talking, mean anything from a partnership of equals to mere spouse-swapping. ( "You and I were meant to be soul mates. ") Occultism, on the other hand, is individualistic, rooted in personal development and self-improvement, and generally not connected to any social or political philosophy.

The occult practices which Randolph developed or originated were active, pragmatic, and flamboyant. We see the development of the magical will, but we also see the tedious piling up of "secret Masters, " Oriental sages, degrees and orders and robes and titles and (paper) temples and secrets and initiations that leave the cynic wondering if there was ever anything there but a few old men in a dusty lodge room, as in Charles Portis 's tragicomic 1985 novel Masters of Atlantis. If some of this sounds like Blavatsky, be assured that "HPB " was well acquainted with Randolph, enough impressed with him that she sometimes had to put him down as "half-initiated " and his teachings on sex as fuel for occult progress as "vile " and "criminal " in order, one suspects, to maintain her own status among her chelas.

That "vile " teaching had two levels. On the exoteric, Randolph wrote conservatively on sexual satisfaction in marriage, preaching the importance of mutual physical and emotional satisfaction for both partners. Although other sexual reformers of his time had advocated "male continence " or "karezza, " that is to say, intercourse without male ejaculation, Randolph denounced the idea. On the esoteric (for an additional payment), he re-formulated the idea of sexual union as the "booster " to magical attainment.

In typical flamboyant terms, he promised that "he or she who, by, in, with, and through [true Sex-power], truly wishes, yearns, prays and craves, with WILL, FAITH, EARNEST VERVE, any great good, Favor, Energy, Power, Quality, Force, or Ability of whatsoever grade, degree, nature, or kind, possible to any human being, as Love, Self-command, Retentive Power, Magnetic Presence, or any other achievable thing--beginning the mental work before, continuing it during, and decreeing it at love 's culmination and demise--that coveted boon will come as certainly as the Soul is true that craves it. "

Similar teachings, of course, remain a magical staple today.

Uncertain of his identity and creating new ones to meet the circumstances, wrapping himself and his projects in fancy foreign-sounding names ( "Imperial Dome of the Third Supreme Temple of the Order, " "Anseiretic Mystery ") yet able to cut through to the essential principles of creative visualization, scrying, and sexual magic, and elucidate them in fairly clear language, Randolph was, after all, a quintessential nineteenth-century American.

As Deveney writes, "He was a black man who tried with considerable success to succeed in a white world and to do so on his own terms rather than as the merely symbolical Black Man erected by the forces of organized reform. In the world of spiritualism and occultism his was a revolutionary role, and he was truly the precursor of what occultism has become ... in its almost exclusive preoccupation with personal experience and spiritual techniques and its relegation of doctrine to a secondary position. " He deserves to be in the canon.

Paschal Beverly Randolph comes with extensive end notes, appendices, and an annotated bibliography of Randolph 's works in addition to the author 's research bibliography. Deveney has rescued P.B. Randolph from the dustbin of history. I wish only that the standard historians of nineteenth-century religion in America, who treat Spiritualism briefly if at all in their obsession with "awakenings " and denominational doings, would give more attention to this collection of movements that involved so many people.

Chas S. Clifton lives in the Wet Mountains of southern Colorado. He edits Llewellyn Publications' Witchcraft Today series, which includes The Modern Craft Movement (1992), Modern Rites of Passage (1993), Witchcraft & Shamanism (1994), and Living Between Two Worlds (1996).