From Mother Divine to the Corner Swami is a bustling buffet of a book. Like your typical buffet, it offers a wide range of items. The average reader is sure to find any number of offerings to enjoy in the book, along with other items they’ll take a quick look at before turning away to sample some more appealing tidbits.
It should be noted right here that the book’s subtitle – Religious Cults in Philadelphia – is … oh, let’s be generous and say a trifle misleading. Many, maybe even most of the groups and individuals who grace these pages do not qualify as cults, or even as “religious’. Some of the groups that do see themselves as religions would be mortified to find themselves described as ‘cults’. Would the Mormons like to see themselves characterized as “a cult that has become mainstream”. Would Christian Scientists appreciate being called “the respectable cult”? How about the millions of Roman Catholics in just this country who attend the Novus Ordo mass every week? To say nothing of the millions of men and women who regularly practice yoga solely for health reasons and not to slip past the gateway into devout Hinduism. Come to think of it, would Hindus like to be known as members of a cult? And can we consider people who think they might have seen UFOs as belonging to a cult? Or those who consult psychics, or who explore the possibilities of revisiting past lives?
To be fair, Thom Nickels himself allows that not all of the sections in this volume actually deal with anything like a religious cult. Indeed, the clearly non-cult sections include some of the best things in this buffet. Nonetheless, there are a number of bona fide cultish figures and groups given the spotlight in these pages, and their tales can be quite interesting. For instance, I myself was surprised to learn that the notorious Reverend Jim Jones (he of the Jonestown massacre) actually travelled to the Divines’ Peace Mission Woodmont estate in suburban Gladwyne, intent on usurping control of the Peace Mission movement. Luckily for all those associated with Peace Mission, Jones’ takeover bid failed rather miserably.
Whether or not the “cult” pedigree actually fits them, we do meet a cavalcade of Philly eccentrics in these pages, including headliners such as Ira Einhorn; Michael Grant (a.k.a. Philly Jesus); the founders of MOVE; Swami Nostradamus Virato; and Amma Sri Karunamayi. Even Madame Blavatsky, the renowned co-founder of Theosophy, finds her way into these pages, as she was a Philly resident for a time, when Theosophy was just starting to peak in popularity. (Another surprise I’m grateful to Thom Nickels for providing here.)
Nickels shifts his focus throughout the book. At times, he dons the robes of the objective reporter, rendering a straightforward account of events and personalities, citing sources more connected to the actual events or individuals involved. At other times, he steps into the role of active participant in the stories he’s sharing with us. These latter provide some of the more engaging sections of From Mother Divine to the Corner Swami.
He tells us about some eye-opening experiences with respected Philadelphia-area psychics as well as the disturbing experience he had when, under hypnosis, he seemingly explored his past lives. Certainly, the discussion of Amma Sri Karunamayi’s Philly sojourn would be so much thinner and pale if it wasn’t part of the story where Nickels himself attended a mass gathering of Amma’s devotees at the First Unitarian Church on Chestnut Street. Further on, the account of his near seduction by Scientology serves as a neat cautionary tale, though, regrettably, he doesn’t share how he evaded the seduction.
While he often takes an objective stance in his reporting here, Thom Nickels makes no secrets of things he dislikes. These include Modernist church architecture, modernist liturgy embellishments in Catholic services, and pit bulls. He also lets us know about the things he likes. These include psychics who exhibit humility and deep gratitude for the powers they believe provided their psychic gifts; traditional church architecture and liturgies; religious leaders who don’t devote their energies to enriching themselves; and the down-and-outs in our society who are doing their best to survive and even perhaps pull themselves out of the morass they find themselves trapped in.
One complaint I have with Nickels’ arrangement is that in seeking to cover a wide array of topics that take us outside of the straight and narrow path, he gives too short a coverage to some interesting matters. For instance, we learn here that the political guru/vicious murderer Ira Einhorn taught for a while at Temple and held night classes on the Penn campus. What courses was he teaching? How’d he even acquire these gigs?
Also, in his chapter on MOVE, Nickels gives a very brief – truncated actually – account of the bombing of the MOVE residence on Osage Avenue in West Philly. As I was living in Europe at that time, I would like to know more about the circumstances involved in that attempt to drive the MOVE people out that went horribly awry. (The images of the bombing itself and the conflagration that followed were given full view on European news programs as well as here.)
An account of the provocations, the planning and the miscalculations involved in this tragedy would have made good reading in the MOVE chapter. Perhaps Nickels could have sacrificed his protracted account of the opening of the new Mormon Temple in Philly and discussion of other Mormon Temples around the world and given more attention to the Osage Avenue incident as well as intriguing details left untold in other sections.
Some of my misgivings about From Mother Divine to the Corner Swami were things beyond Thom Nickels' control. For instance, the book lacks an index, which would be invaluable in a volume such as this.
Moreover, the book could have used a more hawk-eyed editor. There are numerous typos throughout the book. For instance, we learn that Pope Francis delivered – or is scheduled to deliver – a homily in Philly in 2915, and on page 87, the author assures us that “It’s not that I put sock in faith healers.” It’s even better not to put stock in those faith healers, and a diligent copy editor would have seen to that.
The book closes out with author Nickels describing his encounters with the homeless in his section of Philly. It’s a good piece for a wrap, as it is one of the best sections in the book. Here, Nickels appears as a committed reporter and concerned witness to the waste of lives that many of us choose to ignore as much as we can. No one would say that the flocks of the city’s homeless are members of any cult, religious or secular, but the sympathetic look into the lives of these forlorn folks is a compelling one that earns a sad nod of appreciation as the book closes out.