He is almost unknown today except among a small group of in-the-know devotees, but at one time the populist politician, spiritualist, novelist, and amateur scientist Ignatius Loyola Donnelly (1831-1901), “the Sage of Nininger,” was someone to be reckoned with. Among other things, he has been described as “America’s Prince of Cranks” and “the Apostle of Discontent.” (Walter Monfried, “America’s ‘Prince of Cranks’,” The Milwaukee Journal, May 15, 1953, 8.)
|The Apostle of Discontent|
The son of an Irish immigrant who died young, Donnelly was raised by his mother and sent to the best schools she could afford, where apparently he imbibed the socialism that was captivating the intelligentsia of the day. He studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1852. In 1855 he married Katherine McCaffrey.
It is not known at what point in the 1850s Donnelly formally left the Catholic Church and became a spiritualist, but it was probably immediately after his marriage; “Many leading socialists of the day looked to religion for ways to define society according to principles both religious and socialist.” (Dr. Julian Strube, “How Socialism Helped to Seed the Landscape of Modern Religion,” Aeon, 14, November 2017.) In the mid-1850s he left the practice of law and began a career in real estate speculation.
In 1857 “amidst rumors of financial scandal,” Donnelly moved to Minnesota where he and some partners attempted to establish the City of Nininger. This was one of the utopian socialist communities springing up at the time, most of them either inspired by or based directly on the program developed in France by François Marie Charles Fourier (1772-1837) and revised and promoted in the United States by Albert Brisbane (1809-1890).
|David Émile Durkheim|
Donnelly was heavily influenced by Fourierism, also called “Associationism,” which later provided the basis of the fascist-socialist version of solidarism developed by David Émile Durkheim (1858-1917). Heinrich Pesch, S.J. corrected Durkheim’s pseudo religion (as Fulton Sheen pointed out, Durkheim believed that God is a “divinized society” and religion consists of the group’s worship of itself) and brought it in line with Thomist philosophy and Catholic doctrine, but the damage had been done. Even today, some solidarists and others insist on interpreting Pesch’s work (and thus Catholic social thought) as a form of socialism instead of as socialism’s opponent and remedy.
The Panic of 1857 caused the effort to establish a socialist utopia at Nininger to fail and left Donnelly deeply in debt. As so many had before and since, Donnelly decided to go into politics to make his fortune . . . again.
The Sage of Nininger eventually served as one of the first Lieutenant Governors of Minnesota, then in Congress, then as a state senator, and then as a state representative. Interestingly, his offices declined in status as people became more aware of his “esoteric” ideas expressed in his speeches, novels, and works of pseudoscience, such as his best-known work, Atlantis: The Antediluvian World (1882).
|Guido "von" List|
Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831-1891) cited Donnelly’s book several times in her theosophical treatise, The Secret Doctrine. (Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine, The Synthesis of Science, Religion, and Philosophy. New York: The Theosophical Society, 1888, II.221n, II.266n, II.276n, II.333, II.334, II.741n, II.745, II.746n, II.761n, II.782, II.782n, II.786n, II.791, II.792-793.) Donnelly’s theories of an Aryan Master Race may have influenced Nazi ideology by way of Blavatsky’s theosophy which spawned the ariosophy (Aryan-Theosophy) of Guido “von” List (1849-1919).
Donnelly followed up Atlantis a year later with Ragnarok: The Age of Fire and Gravel. Both books appear to have influenced the work of Immanuel Velikovsky (1895-1979), whose book Worlds in Collision (1950) is generally rejected by serious scholars.
The Apostle of Discontent was one of the earlier converts to the doctrines of the agrarian socialist Henry George (1839-1897), whose bestselling (eventually) book, Progress and Poverty was published in 1879, and which soon after inspired the founding of the Fabian Society. One of the most influential socialist books published in the U.S. in the nineteenth century — the other being Edward Bellamy’s “nationalist fantasy” Looking Backward: 2000-1887 (1888) — Progress and Poverty’s program appeared simple and straightforward: the abolition of private property in land by taking away all power of control or receipt of any form of income from land ownership. People could still “own” land privately by holding legal title, but the “ownership” would be meaningless. As George described his proposal,
What I, therefore, propose, as the simple yet sovereign remedy, . . . is — to appropriate rent by taxation.
In this way the State may become the universal landlord without calling herself so, and without assuming a single new function. In form, the ownership of land would remain just as now. No owner of land need be dispossessed, and no restriction need be placed upon the amount of land any one could hold. For, rent being taken by the State in taxes, land, no matter in whose name it stood, or in what parcels it was held, would be really common property, and every member of the community would participate in the advantages of its ownership. (Henry George, Progress and Poverty. New York: The Robert Schalkenbach Foundation, 1935, 406.)
|William Jennings Bryan|
According to George, the abolition of private property in land would solve all social problems and usher in the Kingdom of God on Earth, the common goal of proponents of “the Democratic Religion” of socialism. Interestingly, neither Bellamy nor George called their respective systems “socialism.” The term was coming into disrepute due to condemnations by civil and religious leaders who objected to the idea that Church, State, and Family should all be merged into a single monolithic entity to achieve “true Christianity.”
Donnelly himself preferred the term “populism,” although he hated “the Great Commoner” William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925). This was probably because Bryan was opposed to George’s proposals, as he made clear on more than one occasion, one of them extremely embarrassing to George, who had made a public announcement of Bryan’s alleged endorsement (“A Denial from Bryan,” The Daily Star, October 19, 1897, 1).
In addition to his inventive and revisionist ideas concerning the high Neolithic civilization that he claimed existed before the Flood, Donnelly espoused a number of other innovative theories, many of them presented in fictional form. (Eric F. Goldman, Rendezvous with Destiny: A History of Modern American Reform. New York: Vintage Books, 1956, 49.) These included (as Edmund Boisgilbert), Caesar’s Column (1890); Doctor Huguet: A Novel (1891); (as Ignatius Donnelly) The Golden Bottle, or, The Story of Ephraim Benezet of Kansas (1892).
|Willy Shakesberg . . . what's in a name?|
What put the seal on Donnelly’s extravagant ideas as far as most people were concerned, however, was the publication of a series of books in which Donnelly explained how Shakespeare’s plays were really written by Francis Bacon, and that the texts conveyed occult messages from Bacon to his disciples in the future. These were The Shakespeare Myth (1887), The Great Cryptogram: Francis Bacon’s Cipher in Shakespeare’s Plays (1888), and The Cipher in the Plays, and on the Tombstone (1899).
In pursuit of this idea, Donnelly traveled to England to arrange for the publication of an English edition of The Great Cryptogram. While there, he gave a speech at the Oxford Union. His thesis, “Resolved, that the works of William Shakespeare were composed by Francis Bacon,” was put to a vote. The resolution was not adopted, and Donnelly was discredited in the eyes of the academic community. The English edition was a complete failure.
One reviewer described Donnelly’s cypher as “a worthless and silly piece of nonsense. . . . the work of a crank or a humbug.” As the reviewer concluded, “Such men as Mr. Donnelly can thrive only when the ignorant and the curious support them.” (Arthur Mark Cummings, “Letters to Theodore, IX,” Boston Evening Transcript, July 3, 1888, 10.)
In 1898 at the age of sixty-seven, Donnelly married his nineteen-year old secretary, Marian Hanson. On his death in 1901, he was characterized as ruled “by his imagination more than logic.” (“Ignatius Donnelly,” The Toledo Weekly Blade, January 10, 1901, 4.) His obituary noted that, “though he was a man of great mental powers he was dominated by the erratic and unfounded.” (Ibid.)
Perhaps the most amazing, even weird thing about Donnelly, however, was his influence on the interpretation of Catholic social teaching, as we will see in the next posting on this subject.