The Church of Elvis and the Varieties of Religious Expediency

The Church of Elvis

Our pilgrimage to Graceland on the 15th anniversary of Elvis' death was not some snide commentary on the epitome of kitsch, but a witnessing of the ongoing birth of a new religion.

Once you've communed with the King, look at some of the random observations of 19th century Christian rebels, Indian spiritualists, and others below, and marvel at the mankind's infinite ability to reinterpret its own varieties of religious experience.

Anabaptists in America

Mother Cabrini's Shrine

The Ghost Dance Religion and Wounded Knee

Mormon Masonry



New Harmony

El Sanctuaro de Chimayo

Anabaptists in America

Not long after Luther's theses were posted, a group of free thinkers in Zurich, Switzerland, began meeting and discussing the desirability of a religion divorced from the State. They baptized one another, signaling their adult decision to follow Christ, and became known as Anabaptists, for "second baptism." Baptism outside the formal Church made them objects of violent persecution. To this day, a 1660 book called The Bloody Theater, or Martyrs Mirror, is present in Amish homes to remind them of the test of their faith.

An early leader was a former Dutch Catholic priest named Menno Simons, and he was so influential at organizing the Anabaptists and defining their beliefs that they became known as Mennonites. Late in the 17th century, Mennonites were protected from persecution by non-Mennonite friends and family, who became known as the True Hearted People. Some Mennonites felt it was acceptable to socialize with these people, whereas the teachings of the Mennonites called for "shunning" those who did not follow the true faith.

Eventually, a schism occurred, and a group led by conservative Jakob Ammann split off, and became known as Ammann-ish, eventually Amish. The tension between Old Order Amish and Amish Mennonites and Mennonites continues to this day, but the various groups occasionally cooperate, and individuals move from one group to another.

Pennsylvania, under Quaker William Penn, became a harbor for many persecuted religious minorities, and Mennonites and Amish in large numbers immigrated there. In Europe, some Amish emigrated to Poland or Russia.

One Amish group came into contact in Russia with the Hutterites, who had also evolved out of the Anabaptist movement. The Hutterites lived communally, with joint property ownership and common group meals, following what they felt was the apostolic practice of community of goods. (Jacob Hutter was burned at the stake in 1536, the same year Menno Simons renounced the Catholic church.) They emigrated from Switzerland to Austria and Hungary, to Romania, and eventually to Russia, where they were protected for a time by the Czar. When the Czar withdrew his protection, the Hutterites came to America in the 1870s during the immigration of "Russian Germans," and settled in South Dakota and Montana.

The Amish resistance to technology has more to do with its impact on their values of community than opposition to technology per se. They resisted taxes, social welfare and public education for similar reasons. A Supreme Court case (Wisconsin v. Yoder) upheld their right to refuse public education on religious grounds, the court finding that a way of life that "interferes with no rights or interests of others is not to be condemned because it is different." That case is, incidentally, the precedent that allowed the Native American Church to use peyote in its rituals, despite state and Federal laws against possession of the cactus. The success of the Amish resistance to modern life has led to the growth of an Amish tourist industry in Indiana , Illinois , Ohio , and Pennsylvania.

There is apparently a sect within the Hutterites, called the Bruderhof, or Society of Brothers, that has been accused of cult-like behavior by ex-members. They were excommunicated several years ago by the Old Order Hutterite Church in Canada and the Dakotas for attempting a takeover of the whole church. "Survivors"of the Bruderhof are beginning to publish stories of their experience.

Mother Cabrini's Shrine

Mother Cabrini was the first American Catholic saint, although born in Italy. She did great works for the Italian immigrants to America in New York, Chicago, and Denver at the turn of the century. Her main miracle, for which she was canonized - political considerations aside - was that one of her "relics" - i.e. body parts - was used to cure a blind and dying infant, who lived and regained here eyesight. This was at the Columbus Hospital she founded in NYC.

The Shrine is off I-70, about ten minutes up Lookout Mountain (not far from Buffalo Bill's Grave) in Golden. She is said to have "miraculously" found a spring on what was considered barren land, and so was able to found an orphanage on the site. A 373 step path leads to the centerpiece of the shrine , a twenty foot statue of "the Sacred Heart" (i.e. Jesus). At the foot of the statue is a small chamber with a statue of Mother Cabrini (or St. Cabrini - not Saint Frances Xavier) - at the foot of that statue is a small gold cross, with a glass covered compartment in the center, containing what I can only assume to be a "relic". Nearby on the ground is a "sacred heart, with crown of thorns" arranged out of rocks by Mother Cabrini, covered in glass. The path is lined with stone crosses decorated with the stations of the Cross and other imagery. "Adopt a Plots" of flowers surround each station - including one sponsored by someone with a plaque decorated with a star of David.

There is now a chapel and gift shop near the statue. The chapel is dedicated to "the Sacred Heart, St Joseph, St. Anthony, and the infant of Prague." (??) The gift shop sells the usual kitsch, and you can pick up prayer cards from others in the pantheon - I got a nice Our Lady of Guadeloupe. (From a marketing standpoint, one would think they'd add her to the dedication list given the growing Hispanic population in the Denver area.)

I bought Mother Cabrini's life story, as told by one of the sisters of the order she founded, the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. She also did work in Italy, France, New Orleans (during the 1905 Yellow Fever epidemic), and Nicaragua. The book is replete with interesting Catholicentrisms. The archbishop of NYC told her "First you must have a hospital. I know from experience that when the Italians have all the institutions they need, it is easy to deter them from having recourse to Protestant institutions." She once rode a train that was attacked due to a labor dispute - shots were fired that would have killed here "had not the Sacred Heart of Jesus arranged that they should fall to the floor...Officials told me "somebody was surely watching over you". I told these good men it was the Sacred Heart; but, being Protestants, they could no understand what I meant."

Another story illustrating her holiness - a sister had drawn a picture of an angel. "Mother said, 'There is nothing angelic about this angel. It does not have enough modesty.' She pointed to the folds of the angel's dress which acccented the lines of the body."

There were a lot of foreign visitors to the Shrine the day I was there. One old lady limped up the whole way, praying at each station of the cross. A statue of the Virgin Mary near the top of the hill is surrounded by offerings left by pilgrims.

The Shrine is maintained by the Knights of Columbus. Mother Cabrini is buried in New York. I wonder if the infamous Cabrini Green housing project in Chicago is named after her?

The touch of the divine evidently manifests itself in many ways within formal religions - whether sainthood, the the contemplative life, faith healing, more institutionalized faith healing, or visions of the Virgin Mary herself.

Subscribe to the Mother Cabrini Messenger, 434 West Deming Place, Chicago, IL 60614-1719, first issue free.

The Ghost Dance Religion and Wounded Knee

"The doctrines of the Hindu avatar, the Hebrew Messiah, the Christian millennium, and Hesunanin of the Indian Ghost Dance are essentially the same, and have their origin in a hope and longing common to all humanity," wrote James Mooney of the U.S. Bureau of Ethnography

The Ghost Dance religion began with the Paiute, and they perhaps obtained knowledge of hypnotic secrets from the "Shaker" Indians of Puget Sound (so called by European Americans comparing them to the Shakers in the East.) The first Ghost Dance evangelist, Jack Wilson or Wovoka, fell into a trance during solar eclipse, and was "taken up to the other world"

The great underlying priciple of the Ghost dance doctrine is that the time will come when the whole Indian race, livign and deasd, will be reunited upon a regenerated earth, to live a life of aboriginal happiness, fore ver free from death , disease, and misery. The Ghost Dance religion preached freedom from all vices.

Ghost shirt supposed to protect them - "may have been suggested by the "endowment robe" of the Mormons" - "The Mormons have always evinced a particular interest in the Indians Lamanites, so had evangelized extensively among Paiutes

Sitting Bull, the greatest of all Sioux medicine men. He led tribes at Little Big Horn. Later fled to Canada, then was given amnesty at a South Dakota reservation. then adopted Ghost dance religion and conflated with rebellion. Buffalo Bill was supposed to be a friend and negotiate his surrender during unrest, feared uprising in 1890. Cody was not successful, although he kept Sitting Bull occupied. Then Sitting Bull was killed when authorities came to arrest and move him away from Wounded Knee. The infamous massacre of women and children followed shortly. ( Buffalo Bill cared about women and children.)

The Ghost Dance religion was the first Pan-Indian spiritual movement in the U.S. (Arguably, the Iroquois Confederacy and other agreements established patterns for intertribal cooperation.) The pan-Indian peyote movement that arose around the same time as the Ghost Dance, without a political or revolutionary element, survives to this day, with legal protection even in the current political climate.

Mormon Masonry

A few notes from Deborah Laake's Secret Ceremonies, where she claims to tell all about Mormon ritual and misogyny:

Masonic symbolism (symbols sewn onto garments, also secret handshakes) was prevalent as late as the 1970's - the Church has since removed much of it from the ritual. (Ahlstrom's Religious History of the U.S.describes the flurry of revivalism in upstate NY - so much fire and brimstone it became known as the Burnt District - accompanied by Masonic and anti-Masonic activity. Joseph Smith's syncretic work seems pretty straightforward in that context.)

Polygamy is banned - but "spiritual" polygamy lives on - a man may be divorced but his first wife is still "sealed" to him for all eternity, along with a second or third wife.

Several men Laake knew claim to have carried out healings - all Mormon men are members of the priesthood and are expected to have such powers. At the very least, this is an interesting commentary on the power of common belief.

There is an ongoing struggle by Mormon "dissenters" who still believe in the Church but advocate liberalization. The Church seems to respond with inflexibility. Six women seeking to allow women to be ordained were recently excommunicated.

In the wedding ceremony, the man has the power to bring the woman through the "veil" symbolizing how he will bring her through to heaven.

Former BYU President Ernest Wilkerson was attorney for the Ute Indians when they won a $25 million settlement from U.S., the largest ever for an Indian tribe.

Militia celebrity Bo Gritz was a Mormon.


Notes from The People Called Shakers by Edward Deming Andrews:

Founded in England, first American settlement (1776) in Niskayuna NY (near Albany), the Shakers drew strength from the ongoing Great Awakening that had begun in U.S. in 1734.

Shaking, speaking in tongues, and ecstatic dancing were all part of it. The movement peaked in 1840s with visits to community from "Holy Mother Wisdom" - very similar to the Sophia concept of the Gnostics - there were not many scholars among the Shakers, so it seems a spontaneous phenomena rather than derivative. Holy Mother Wisdom "incarnated" in various Shakers - healings, speaking in tongues, dancing all at a fever pitch in these years.

Andrews lays the end of the sect in part to the taboo on sexual intercourse, and in part to the industrial revolution which drove out of business the handicrafts the Shakers were famous for, e.g. furniture.

Local Indian groups were also welcomed into the community. They seemed at home with the dancing/movements and singing.


The reverence of the dead, a classic shamanic connection with the underworld, is afoot in the late twentieth century. In addition to Mother Cabrini, I have run across relics in other parts of world.

In the Greek Orthodox monastic republic of Mount Athos, like many parts of rural Greece, veneration of relics is widespread. Among the relics claimed by the Athonites is the right hand of St. Mary Magdalene. More recent saints or spiritual leaders in repose also hold places of honor, illustrated by Father Nikodim holding the skull of his Elder Theodosius.

In Patras, on the Gulf of Corinth, stands the cathedral of St. Andrew, according to tradition one of the first Christian martyrs. Andrew asked his persecutors to crucify him upside down on an X-shaped cross, so as not to be presumptious enough to be crucified in the same manner as his Savior. The cathedral houses fragments of this cross, as well as the very head of St. Andrew himself.

In Hungary, long years of Communist rule did not erase the religious traditions. In the cathedral of St. Istvan (Stephen) in Budapest, relics on display to the new generation of Western tourists and religious pilgrims include skulls, feet, and even some lockets with fingernails of the saints. The captions in these display cases were all in Hungarian, so I can't tell you who we're venerating here.

It's worth noting that while membership in major churches is down in recent years, visits to shrines such as Lourdes and Medjugorge is skyrocketing (see Harvey Cox, Fire From Heaven, 1996). Medjugorge, like many others, actually contains nothing to see except what the pilgrims bring with them. The pilgrimage site is the side of a hill in a desolate landscape. I don't know how the Bosnian war has affected the site - it is very much in the area that has been alternating under Christian and Moslem control.

You may be aware of the recent controversy in Mexico when the abbot of the shrine of Our Lady of Guadeloupe declared the appearance of the Virgin Mary to a local peasant in the 16th century to be "a myth". He was later forced to retire. The connection of people to the miraculous is very important to them, in some cases to entire nations. Our Lady of Guadeloupe has a relative just north in the Our Lady of San Juan

New Harmony

New Harmony, Indiana was a Utopian communal religious experiment established in 1814, after an abortive start in Harmony, Pennsylvania. The Harmonists lived communally in imitation of early Christians; they expectedthe millenial return of Christ - saw portents in European Napoleonic wards matching passages in Books of Daniel and Reveleation. They drew celibacy ideas from Christian mystic Jacob Boehme, which led to their eventual end, just like the Shakers.

The Harmonists were very industrious and were among other things accomplished rope makers (out of hemp - also on display in the museum was a pipe with a small bowl, not unlike a hash pipe.) Not much is left of the original village, but there is a recreation of the Roofless Church ("the only roof on worship should be the sky") alongside the cemetary , which is the ultimate statement of their communal beliefs - no individual headstones. New Harmony is preserved today as a museum to Utopian ideals, religious and secular.

El Santuario de Chimayo

The Santuario de Chimayo is the site of the miraculous healing mud, along the high road from Santa Fe to Taos. A side room presents proof of its healing power. I have heard nuns referred to as "brides of Christ", but I have no idea what this is about.

This ends my personal tour of the some of the frequencies on the spectrum of religious belief. Any questions? Email: