My dad's family were mainly Methodist and Christian (Disciples of Christ), with a few Catholics thrown in for good measure. I myself have belonged to both Southern Baptist and Methodist churches. All these are common and numerous where we live. So how in the world did the Day sisters, Emma, Florida, and Retta Lee, come to be members of a weirdly New Age religious movement called the I Am Activity?
I blame Retta Lee, the youngest of the Day sisters, although I don't really know if she was the first to convert. I suspect her because she lived most of her life in Mt. Shasta, California, where the I Am movement began. Mount Shasta is a sacred place to many groups, and it was there in the early 1930s that a man named Guy Ballard claimed to have met the Count de St. Germain, an alchemist (and probable con man himself) who, incidentally, died in 1784.
Guy Ballard was a student of Theosophy as it developed in the late 1800s under the leadership of Madame Blavatsky who synthesized Western and Eastern religious ideas and originated the idea of Ascended Masters, ordinary human beings who have achieved God-like status through reincarnation. Guy Ballard furthered these ideas, identifying many Ascended Masters (including St. Germain and Jesus), and claimed that they spoke through him and that he himself would experience ascension at the time of his death. Because they recognize Jesus as an Ascended Master, many members of the I Am movement consider themselves to be Christian.
I could go on and on about the history and beliefs of this group, but you can research that for yourself if you are interested. What I want to understand is how the Day sisters fell under the sway of this (what else can you call it?) cult. I wish I knew when they joined so I could identify the historical or family context. Was it in the 1930s when the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl made the future seem a scary prospect? Was it after the death of their beloved father?
I know they all attended meetings in the 1960s. Were they new converts or had they been members for years?
I know that their mother, Grandma Day, was highly religious. It's possible that Emma and Retta Lee felt that their mother's religion was too constraining and prided themselves on their free thinking. I found this reference in a letter Aunt Emma wrote to my grandmother in 1968, not long after the death of her sister, Ida Day Norman. Emma wrote, "She (Ida) was so sincere in her religious convictions & wanting all to believe like her. So did my mother. I say let all be free. No one could believe any religion more than I believe the Ascended Masters' teachings of the Great 'I Am' God. The Bible says: 'He that Christ made free, is free indeed.'"
In Big Mom's case, I suspect that the appeal for her lay in having some control over her circumstances. Her little I Am book gives evidence for this. The Violet Flame on the cover of the book is the movement's symbol of the healing power of positive thinking--that by repeatedly reciting the affirmations in the book, one could make desired change happen. She has written in the margins: "Read over & over," "Read 9 times," "Accept."
What they all passed along to my grandmother was this belief in positive thinking. My grandmother was a great adherent of this principle--but hers was more the Norman Vincent Peale variety. In a letter from Retta Lee, written in 1970, it is obvious that my grandmother had been tactful and careful in her comments about "the Ascended Masters' teachings." Retta Lee had written, "Glad you enjoyed reading the things I sent you, and your remark 'thought-provoking' is applicable, for when we begin to think outside of ourselves at the Great Universe and Its Laws it does require an expansion of consciousness from the monotony of routine thinking."
I do admire these women for their ability to think outside the conventions of their day. I just wish they had believed in something that was a little more, well, believable. I'll remember that the next time I watch the weekend marathon of "Ancient Aliens" on the History Channel.