Life & Soul

Heretic of the week: Joseph Murphy

A sign points to Wilshire Ebell Theatre (CC BY-SA 3.0)

One of the many joys of my youth was perusing the Saturday religion section of the Los Angeles Times. Among other things in the babbling brook of competing sects that is the religious life of the City of Angels, in those far-off days innumerable varieties of “New Thought” schools advertised their wares. One that caught my eye – I suppose because of the Hibernian name – was that of Joseph Murphy and the Church of Divine Science holding forth at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre.

Murphy (1898-1981) was a native of Ballydehob in County Cork. Gaelic was the language of his household, but his father was sufficiently educated to teach seminarians. Joseph joined the Jesuits, learned pharmacy, and lost his faith shortly after ordination.

He emigrated to the United States, meeting fellow Irish ex-Jesuit pupil Emmet Fox. Fox introduced him to New Thought, which focused on healing through spiritual practises; it was and is a mishmash of various mystical disciplines.

An army pharmacist during World War II, Murphy travelled extensively after the war, becoming ever more deeply involved with New Thought and enthralled with Hinduism – and Freemasonry, eventually rising to 32nd degree in the Scottish Rite.

Deciding upon his return to the US that he was indeed called to the ministry, he founded his own congregation in Los Angeles in 1950 as part of the “Church of Divine Science” – as opposed to Mary Baker Eddy’s Christian Science or Ernest Holmes’s Religious Science.

Before long his crowds outgrew the small building he initially had, and he drew them to the Wilshire Ebell Theatre, which at the time hosted many similar gurus and swamis.

Murphy married his secretary and published many books on his message of “unlocking the subconscious”. He moved his ministry to the tonier purlieus of Laguna Hills in 1976.