Life & Soul

Heretic of the week: Harvey Spencer Lewis

When this writer was a boy, such journals as Argosy, Popular Science, and Popular Mechanics were festooned with strange ads for an organisation that claimed to have ancient wisdom to dispense and that boasted such worthies as Benjamin Franklin and Francis Bacon as past members. Both advertisements and the organisation – the Rosicrucians (Ancient Order Rosae Crucis) – were the brainchildren of Harvey Spencer Lewis (1883-1939).  

Formerly a commercial artist and early involved in debunking spiritualist mediums, Lewis claimed to have been initiated into the pre-existing Rosicrucian Order while on a trip to France in 1909. Since the first appearance of the name in a 17th-century German tract, a number of groups have claimed to be the “true and original Rosicrucian Order”. Lewis’s version (of which he proclaimed himself “Imperator”) featured reincarnation, various self-purification techniques, ancient Egyptian trappings, alchemy, Lemurians on Mount Shasta, and various gadgets designed by Lewis to further spiritual growth: the Luxatone or Color Organ; the Cosmic Ray Coincidence Counter; and the Sympathetic Vibration Harp, to name a few. 

By 1927, Lewis had enough recruits to his organisation to justify building an enormous headquarters in San Jose, California. To this day the city block of Rosicrucian Park shelters not only a Grand Temple and library, but Egyptian and Alchemical Museums, a Peace Garden, Planetarium and Labyrinth. 

Lewis died, leaving “Imperatorship” of the group to his son, Ralph Maxwell Lewis, who would occupy this lofty post until 1987. The group soldiers on – as do others of unrelated origin which consider themselves to be “real” Rosicrucians: Max Heindel’s Rosicrucian Fellowship in Oceanside, California (founded 1909); the Fraternitas Rosae Crucis of Quakertown, Pennsylvania (founded 1858); and several others, including a Masonic body. All reject Lewis’s group.