Today, few have likely ever heard of Laura Holloway-Langford, born Laura O. Carter in 1843 in Nashville, but at a time when spirituality is still of great interest and concern to a wide segment of the population, her story is sure to resonate with many readers. Yearning for the New Age by Diane Sasson gives us a fascinating look into the life of this independent woman who struggled to find her spiritual path among British Theosophists and later, American Shakers.
The New Age that Laura longed for is to a great extent the one we now find ourselves living in. She sought the liberation of women not through political reform such as suffrage, but rather believed in the individual's capacity to achieve freedom through spiritual development. From a circle of ultraliberal Protestants she encountered in New York City after her family had left the South at the conclusion of the Civil War Laura developed her freethinking ideas that led to her involvement with Theosophy, a doctrine that held that ancient truths were accessible to moderns who could get in touch with the Masters, or Adept Brotherhood, via psychic means. These Adepts were believed to live in remote places, having extended their earthly existence beyond the normal life span, and to hold the world's greatest knowledge.
Laura had experienced clairvoyance and entered the Theosophical Society as a novice intent on becoming a disciple, or chela. Her encounter with the society's leaders, A. P. Sinnett and Helena Blavatsky, led to her becoming enmeshed in controversy over her gender in a male-dominated world where occult knowledge was received from the Masters by disciples most often in the form of letters, often handwritten in blue pencil. In a deep trance while serving as a medium for Sinnett in his London home she created a "gender-bending" controversy by taking on the persona of one Mahatma himself, Koot Hoomi, speaking in his voice in the first person.
The relationship of sexuality to spirituality is a strong current throughout the book and Laura's life. Convinced that marriage kept women subservient, Laura also believed that abstinence was essential for spiritual attainment. This view accorded with the beliefs of the Shakers with whom she became associated later in her life. Blavatsky had regarded sexual abstinence "as the distinguishing mark of the perfected life," and Laura sought to transmute her own libidinal energies into higher spiritual achievements.
Another belief she shared with the Shakers was their vegetarian diet. The way to spiritual growth was by purifying the activities of the physical body. These ideas were influenced by both Buddhist and Hindu doctrine, with which Theosophy had close connections. Meat consumption was associated with excessive sexual desire, and impeded humanity's astral progress. It also filled the blood with harmful substances that led to disease, and brutalized the lives of those in the slaughtering business. A Shaker elder had commended the Buddhists for making the first article of their religious creed "Thou shalt not kill," assuming that the killing of animals led to murder, war, and the killing of human beings.
Langford-Holloway managed to stay within the orbit of Christianity through the course of her life, while experimenting with many interesting variations in the quest for spiritual growth. Her searching coincided with the great interest in combining the lessons of all the world's religions as expressed by Swami Vivekananda's opening address at the 1893 World's Parliament of Religions in Chicago, that as the various streams all lead to the sea, so the different religions when followed to their conclusion lead to the same Divine presence.