Jun 16, 2018

A Forgotten Religion Gets a Second Chance in Brooklyn

The Oahspe bible, a mystical document said to be the divine inspiration of Dr. John Newbrough, a 19th-century Manhattan dentist.CreditDemetrius Freeman for The New York Times
Sam Kestenbaum
June 7, 2018
New York Times

The New York Kosmon Temple has no stained-glass windows, crucifixes or sounds of gospel ringing from its doors. A banner with a shot of pink hangs outside the church with the cryptic message: “Faithists meet here.” Small crystals jingle when the front doors swing open.

Various churches dot the central Brooklyn neighborhood of Crown Heights. They come in all sizes and denominations: Baptist, Methodist, Catholic, Pentecostal, Evangelical. But the Faithists, who meet in a humble storefront church on the ground floor of a squat brick building, stand apart with an unusual history.

A dozen congregants sat on chairs arranged in a semicircle one recent morning. Birdsong and a plunking guitar played on a stereo in the corner. The temple’s president, a man in a neat tan suit named Anthony Linton, stood to speak. “What is this bible?” he asked, hoisting up a massive hard-bound book. The small crowd of congregants and visitors cradled copies of their own. “The Oahspe,” Mr. Linton answered himself. “This is a most mysterious book.” Then Mr. Linton pointed to a portrait on a yellowed sheet of paper tucked into the book. “And this is the man who received this bible,” he said, tapping a finger on a photo of a man with thick muttonchops and a furrowed brow. “He was like Moses.”

The Kosmon Temple wasn’t always like this. They once read from the standard King James Bible and called themselves Christians. But over the last two years, in a bid to revitalize dwindling membership, the small group underwent a dramatic makeover, adopting, en masse, a new and uncommon faith. The church’s transformation is a local revival of a nearly forgotten American religion. It’s also a symbolic homecoming for that group’s founder, a Manhattan dentist and would-be prophet who published what he said was a divinely inspired book, titled the Oahspe Bible, to local fascination in 1882.

Produced by a man named John Ballou Newbrough, the book is a dizzying collage of myth and religion. It reads like sci-fi or fantasy at times, featuring a lost continent and what’s said to be the first literary reference to an interstellar spaceship. With a band of followers called Faithists, this New York prophet set off to form religious communes across the country. But his efforts sputtered in failure. While some contemporaneous 19th-century groups, like the Mormons, grew to large religions, the Faithists faded away.

“It’s surprising, but fascinating, that the Oahspe has found its way to this group,” said Seth Perry, a Princeton professor of American religion. “Nothing ever completely dies. Then suddenly, it finds new readers.” During Sunday services, a dashiki-clad worshiper named Eugene Grant sat attentively in the front row. The temple had just completed a group meditation, and Mr. Grant flipped through the new bible. “We’re all on a journey,” he said, pausing to scribble in a notepad on his lap. “Sometimes you have to leave the known trail.”

Before he was a prophet, Dr. Newbrough was a humble Ohio farmboy, born in 1828 to a family of settlers. Dr. Newbrough trained to be a dentist, made a small fortune prospecting for gold, and eventually relocated to New York. By 1860, he was heading a dentistry practice in Manhattan. This was a fruitful time for New Yorkers with spiritual interests, and Dr. Newbrough fell into the eclectic circles of the city, visiting many seers and clairvoyants. Eventually, he tried mediumship for himself, too. “I was craving for the light of heaven,” he wrote in a letter to the editor of a popular Spiritualist newspaper. “I wished to learn something about the spirit world.” Then, before dawn one morning, inspiration struck. “Behind me an angel stood with hands on my shoulders,” he wrote. Dr. Newbrough’s hands glowed, the story goes, and were guided to furiously hammer the keys of his typewriter. After many months of work, he published the bible in 1882. Accompanying the text were many otherworldly maps, hieroglyphs and illustrations. The unusual title, Oahspe (oh-AS-pe), is defined as “sky, earth and spirit” in Panic, said to be an ancient language revealed in the book. (When spoken aloud, the name is meant to imitate the sound of wind rushing through trees.)

Dr. Newbrough became a local sensation. Tabloids likened him to the Hebrew prophets. They called his bible one of the “strangest books that has ever been written.” “There is in this city,” The New York Times declared in 1884, “a new religion known as the Oahspe religion.” The book purported to be the forgotten history of the earth, featuring a cast of thousands of unfamiliar gods, lords and angels. It claimed that famed figures of yore — like Jesus, Confucius, Hiawatha — all taught the same universal truth that had tragically been corrupted over time. But Dr. Newbrough promised that rebirth was coming: A new era was dawning right here in America, called Kosmon.

Around 20 devotees, with wealthy backers, set off for New Mexico to live out their ideals on the banks of the Rio Grande. The Faithists kept a strict vegetarian diet, planted orchards and adopted orphans to raise as the vanguard of their new society. With bricks baked in the desert sun, they built a temple to their new faith. The men dressed in long robes, a visiting journalist wrote, with “hair as long and beards as flowing as those of the patriarchs of old.”

But rifts and failures plagued the new utopia. Crops died and disgruntled members split off, eventually suing their leader for fraud. One New Mexico newspaper dubbed the group a “colony of cranks.” Full time residents never grew to more than 40. A major blow came in 1891 when an influenza epidemic broke out. At 62, Dr. Newbrough was among those who died. Offshoots rose and fell in the next decades as acolytes worked to keep the book in print. Controversies erupted. At one Colorado colony, a dozen children died from malnutrition in 1906, and other start-ups since then have been plagued with doctrinal disputes. Faithists recall their past failures with embarrassment and regret.

Out of the public eye, Oahspe readers have grown in recent years. Far-flung Faithists connect online or download free Oahspe materials. The Universal Faithists of Kosmon, a large organization devoted to the Oahspe, remotely serves a community of some 200.

At the Brooklyn temple, a small group made its way down a creaky set of stairs to the basement for lunch. They sat at table where a woman stood over a steaming pot, ladling out vegetarian soup. Mr. Linton gazed at aged photos, tacked on the wall, of his crowded Brooklyn church in more prosperous times.

“We used to fill this church,” he said. “People got older. They moved away.”

The previous church reached its peak decades ago, when it called itself the Church of Righteousness and Light; it drew crowds to services that combined Christianity and New Age health remedies. It was lead by the charismatic Dr. Nathaniel Ignatius Foster, a Jamaican preacher who made his own herbal tinctures. But after the death in the 1990s of Dr. Ignatius, the church lost momentum. By 2015, when Mr. Linton was elected president, membership hovered around 20 men and woman.

Mr. Linton had dabbled in alternative spirituality since his youth in Barbados, and he more recently he came upon the Oahspe bible in a private study group for like-minded seekers. As the church was nearly flickering out, he took a leap of faith. “We were getting smaller and smaller and smaller all the time,” Mr. Linton said. “How do we reach people in a changing world?”

Their conversion came quickly. The church changed its name and redecorated, replacing Christian motifs with the emblem of the Faithists, a leaf and a cross in a circle. Mr. Linton nailed framed passages of their new bible to the walls. They connected with the other scattered remnants of the religion and, in 2016, held a consecration ceremony to declare their new faith to the neighborhood.

Some old time members from the church’s heyday were put off by the unfamiliar direction and canceled their monthly donations. Others simply drifted away. Seeking to assuage doubts, Mr. Linton argued that the church had been on a winding path to the Oahspe all along and suggested that Dr. Ignatius would have approved. Meanwhile, curious passers-by trickled in, and now the Kosmon Temple holds weekly Sunday services, as well as guided meditations and public workshops. Piles of introductory materials are stacked neatly at the entrance. On a mild spring afternoon, congregants assembled around a small altar, where a candle flickered. They recited the opening verses of the Oahspe aloud as Izhor Logan, the gray-haired treasurer, drew a ladder on a well-used whiteboard. “This is our spiritual quest,” he said, adding a simple stick figure. “We all climb.”

Members offered their own testimonies. A first time visitor wondered aloud if icons like Gandhi or Mother Teresa had climbed this same ladder and reached the top rung. An elderly woman in a frilly hat said she saw their spiritual maturation more like the ripening of fruit. “Like the bowl of papayas in my kitchen,” she said. “They all go at different paces.” Ingrid Charles, a schoolteacher from Flatbush, raised her hand. “All I knew before was the Christian Bible. I never heard about any of this. But I’m ready for a new understanding.”

To finish, the group lowered their eyes to meditate. Moments after they began, the distracting throb of bass and tambourine from a neighboring church thudded through the wall, threatening to break the peace. But no one stirred. The Faithists were in their own world.


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