by Elizabeth V. Brown, MTh
Former Docent and Tour Guide, Koreshan State Park
As a religion, Koreshanity was as undefinable as its peripatetic founder, Cyrus R. Teed. Both defied categorization which permitted infinite adaptability. Teed was born in Trout Creek, New York in 1839, the second son of eight children born to a farm family in the closing days of the Second Great Awakening. His mother was the daughter of a Baptist minister and the family hoped he would follow in those occupational footsteps. Teed was uninterested in that career path and knew that his father, Jesse, also a second son, had been forced to vacate the family farm and strike out on his own. The economic reality was that like his father before him, Teed would not inherit the land, leaving him most likely hard-wired to know he would need to chart his own course.
Therefore, it was not all that surprising that he left home at the age of eleven to work on the Erie Canal. The work taught him indelible lessons about capitalist exploitation and led to a hatred of market economics which would later materialize in his religious views. In addition, while working on the Canal he would come in contact with trance mediums, abolitionists, labor reformers, itinerant preachers, and feminists, all of whom would later add seasonings to his savory religious stew.
Beyond the economic model that drove him to that work, Teed had a deep-seated thirst to distinguish himself. Later stories of his personal style offer evidence that he most likely did not suffer from false humility about anything, including the uniqueness of his patchwork of religious views. From this realization, there are three distinct influences that form the tripod that shaped Teed’s religious teachings and help to distinguish Koreshanity:
Teed held a unique perspective on the intersection of science and religion.
Teed constructed a scriptural mandate, defining biblical roots for himself as the new messiah.
Teed preached an economic model, based on early Christianity, that eschewed evils of capitalism and the virtues of communalism.
Intersection of Science and Religion
For centuries, theologians and scientists had debated the intersection of religion and science. Teed was no different but his understanding of science was distinctive. He dabbled in the occult and in alchemy after completing his studies in 1869 at the Eclectic Medical College in New York City where he specialized in electrotherapy.
He had become interested in magnetic healing. He began using occult practices to heal his patients. He believed that he would unlock mysteries that no one else could. Alchemy and electromagnetism were his lab experiments. He was obsessed with discovering something unknown as he experimented with microscopes, electromagnetic motors, and various metals including mercury, gold, and silver. He went so far as to turn a part of his medical office into an electro-chemical laboratory in which to blaze a path and discover a new relationship between matter and energy.
Teed’s experiments focused on the modern technology of the day which was electricity and he continued to search for ways to distinguish himself while using it. He applied electricity to the occult theories, to his treatment of patients, and his own religious interpretations of the Bible. His eventual teaching was that spiritual transformation as he preached it would bring about the salvation of the next golden age of human civilization (Morris 140).
Simultaneous with his experimentation, the mid-nineteenth century witnessed the rise of new scientific fields of geology, genetics, evolution, and anthropology. We don’t know how these impacted Teed but they may well have been unsettling. He seemed to be bent on restoring a sense of order to the universe, placing it in a womblike environment he called the cosmic egg which he alone could explain. This was his version of the extant Hollow Earth theory which had been most recently addressed by Jules Verne in his science fiction title Journey to the Center of the Earth, first published in 1864. This cosmic egg provided a sense of security for his followers, knowing all had been provided for them by God and under Teed’s religious teachings, this truth was revealed to them alone. It defied the new scientific findings of geology and he continued to walk his own path.
His electro-chemical laboratory led to his most famous scientific experiment, his illumination, in 1869, which is discussed below. Interestingly, he did not write about the 1869 experiment for 30 years. This fits with his overall pattern of keeping lots of space between his teachings and the written word, a fact that permitted him endless flexibility and ultimate deniability in his doctrinal pronouncements later in his career.
The Scriptural Precedents
Teed used both Old and New Testament scripture to authenticate his religious credentials. Teed’s encounter with the spirit of the woman who came to him in 1869 in his laboratory raises theological points that are important to decoding his religious teachings and the specific way he writes himself into the narrative of the scriptural prophecies.
The events of the 1869 illumination are centered on the image of the divine woman from Revelation 12, the last book of the New Testament which itself borrows extensively from the Old Testament. The apocalyptic language of the Book of Revelation uses allegorical language to urge the early Christians to stand firm and resist the evils of paganism and await the fulfillment of God’s promise. When it was written, the apocalyptic form was the language of the oppressed (CSB 570). Therefore, the Book of Revelation was often used by apocalyptic leaders over the millennia as the stage for announcing a new vision for the religion they would preach (Millner 7). Revelation prophetically announced that God’s justice will prevail and that Christ was coming in glory, so hold on, the apocalyptic leaders like Teed were saying.
Teed related his experience of Revelation 12 to give scriptural authority to his role as the next prophet. The woman Teed described was “clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and on her head a crown of 12 stars” like the passages in Revelation 12:1. Most significantly, in Revelation the woman is with child and she gives birth to the Messiah who then becomes the leader of the new Israel (Rev. 12:5). Teed would later claim this mantle of messianic leader for his own with the pronouncement from the woman in his illumination who told him, “Thou art chosen to redeem the race. Luxuriate thee! for soon I shall withdraw and thou shalt go...” (Millner 20). Teed had been selected as a prophet to reveal the True Path.
Teed further embellishes his own role in the fulfillment of scripture. He connects to Isaiah 11:10, noting that he was sprung from the root of Jesse (his father’s name) and he (Teed) will stand as a banner for the people and rest in glory recovering the remnant of the beleaguered people. Cyrus the Great, in Isaiah 44:28, was called the shepherd who would rebuild Jerusalem and lay the foundation for the temple. Teed proclaimed he was part of that lineage through the name Koresh, a transliteration of the name Cyrus. Teed took on the name Koresh in 1891 and he believed it tied him to Cyrus the Great. Importantly, Cyrus the Great, most likely a Zoroastrian Persian king ruling in 559 BC, was the first king who is not a Jew to be referred to as “anointed” in the Old Testament. In Hebrew, the word “anointed” related to the root word for “messiah” which was applied to both leaders and kings who were guided by God to save the chosen people. The Greek translation of “messiah” was Christos from which comes the title “Christ” so when Teed links himself to Cyrus the Great, the entire chain of messianic reference, including ties to Christos, comes along.
If God’s first divinely created human was Adam, the second Adam was Jesus, and now, Teed explained he was the next in the line, receiving what God gave the prophets so they could provide it to their people (Millner 2). Teed taught that the coming of the messiah was inevitable. “The Divine Seed was sown 1900 years ago and the Messiah (Teed himself) was now in the world” declaring the new gospel (Pennington 9).
In addition, Teed claimed messianic authority from Jeremiah 31:22, the acknowledgement of the feminine spiritual counterpart which Teed combined with occult theories of regeneration (Morris 140). Teed was saying that since scripture had noted that Spirit could now move into different bodies from Enoch to Elijah to Jesus, Teed claimed it could also move to himself. Alchemical transmutation offered a scientific explanation of reincarnation which formed the central thesis to Teed’s messianic message.
Economic Model that is Anti-Capitalistic
In his book, American Messiahs, Adam Morris makes some important observations which connect Teed to some general patterns which influenced other religious leaders. “Messiahs tend to arise from progressive movements and identify with capitalism as an evil because it contradicts the primitive Christian church of the apostles” (9). The early church of the apostles was founded on ideals of charity, mutual aid, joint possessions, and equality of everyone, including the poor and weak. The progressive movements shifted mid-century when Teed arrived on the scene. Following the end of the Second Great Awakening, the new churches turned to temperance, abolition, and women’s rights, ideas which were popular with the progressive evangelicals like Teed (Ibid 135).
Teed would lead his followers to believe that the regeneration of human kind would mean turning away from what he perceived of as the evils of capitalism and industrialization. In 1877, Teed established a communal society removing its residents from exploitative capitalism and his first commune in New York tracked closely with the early Christian communities in spirit of Matthew 22:37-39 (Ibid 146). By 1887, his publishing house, Guiding Star Publishing, was a sounding board for Teed’s ideas. It had issued persistent and aggressive warfare against all modern shams, hypocrisies, evils, and fallacies. It was the fearless champion of the rights of the oppressed woman in her bondage and of the working man under the weight of oppressive capitalism. For Teed, the evils of capitalism became biblical in proportion and he again reverted to scriptural imagery from the Ezekiel and the battles between Gog and Magog as the “threshold over which humanity must tap to arrive at...peace (Ibid 168). His apocalyptic pitch proclaimed the benefits of communalism.
The communal religious society that Teed formed lasted into the middle of the twentieth century and it had accomplished, however tentatively, an alternative to what Morris calls the “alienation of secularized industrial urbanism and a progressive alternative to the mainline Protestantism that has served as a handmaiden to business” (Ibid 192). It was Teed’s evangelization and his charisma that led to recruiting followers into his constantly moving messianic communalism at a time of social and economic anxiety. His was a messianic voice of the time and this second son of a second son had indeed found a way to distinguish himself, however briefly, in the constellation of messianic leaders.
February 21, 2021
Millner, Lyn. The Allure of Immortality. University Press of Florida. 2015.
Morris, Adam. American Messiahs: False Prophets of a Damned Nation. Liverlight Publishing. 2019.
Pennington, Bruce. King Koresh: The Man from Inside the Earth.
Senior, Donald, John J. Collins, Mary Ann Getty, editors. The Catholic Study Bible. New American Bible. Oxford University Press. 2016.
To learn more about Koreshanity and the life and times of Cyrus Teed and his followers, click here to register for a guided tour of the Historic Settlement in Koreshan State Park.