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Travels in Spiritual America


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"He's Only a Thought Away":

Sleuthing The Urantia Book

On a snowy Tuesday evening in January 1997, I waited in a sitting room on the second floor of a 1908 residence on Chicago's North Side for the Urantia study group to begin. This four-story home, now the headquarters of the Urantia Foundation, had been lived in for more than a half century by Dr. William Sadler, a respected surgeon and psychiatrist born in 1875. Taking a critical approach as a young man, the doctor had debunked psychics, spiritualists, and channelers as frauds in his popular early books, The Truth about Spiritualism (1923) and The Mind at Mischief (1929). Yet he lives on in thousands of minds as the man responsible for the 2,097-page Urantia Book, which was said to have been transmitted during the early part of the twentieth century by celestial beings through a "contact personality," a reluctant Chicago businessman who to this day remains anonymous.

I had come across The Urantia Book in 1995, in the New Age capital of Sedona, Arizona, which was the perfect setting for scripture delivered in a Twilight Zone manner to have found a readership. My two guides on a tour of Sedona's supposed seven "vortices"–places in the earth believed by many to emit special electromagnetic properties–revealed themselves along the way to be readers of The Urantia Book. Intrigued by the oddly titled book, I certainly never expected to follow a string of clues that would lead back to the bourgeois home of a respectable-seeming doctor in the middle of that most American of middle-American cities, Chicago. Nor had I expected to discover that cults, or cult-like groups, are a solid part of our American turn-of-the century tradition. Even more surprising was that their adherents were bankers, doctors, and professors, and their wives, who discussed these writings during Sunday picnics at the home of one of their wealthier members in the upper-middle-class suburb of Oak Park, or at Sadler's summer lodge, in Beverly Shores, Indiana.

This wacky-sounding project was pointedly neglected in the April 28, 1969, full-column obituary of the ninety-three-year-old Sadler printed in The Chicago Tribune. The obituary's subheadline read, "He Predicted Organ Transplants in 1917," referring to a lecture he'd once given foreseeing a time "not far distant when wealthy people will take mortgages on internal organs of healthy persons and have the organs transplanted into their bodies at the death of the mortgagor." Sadler's other professional credits were duly listed: author of forty-two books on mental hygiene and health; successful medical doctor and public speaker; faculty member at McCormick Theological Seminary; fellow of the American College of Surgeons; attending psychiatrist at Columbus Hospital. Yet there was no mention of The Urantia Book. A separate one-paragraph listing of a memorial service at the Bentley and Son Funeral Home, on North Clark Street, did suggest "a donation to Urantia Foundation" in lieu of flowers.

The contradiction at the heart of Sadler's life story remains glaring. He matured as a doctor at a time when science was optimistically valued as having won the debate between faith and reason. His sizable medical practice gave him much respectability, as did his success in public speaking and lecturing around the country on what was known as "the Chautauqua circuit". The circuit was a popular summer education program of concerts and high-profile public lectures begun on Lake Chautauqua in southwest New York State in the late nineteenth century; it grew by the early twentieth century into a national network that had the effect, in pre-TV days, of a cross between public television and the Oprah Winfrey Show. Sadler's self-help book, The Elements of Pep: A Talk on Health and Efficiency (1925), as well as short books on such easily digestible topics as sex, teenage dating, and hygiene, sold extremely well. They were balanced by the publication of respected medical textbooks, including the 1200-page Theory and Practice of Psychology (1936). He was bespectacled, Republican, and patriarchal in appearance, and surrounded by an extended family and many friends who looked up to him as a leader and a breadwinner. Sadler's interests in spiritualism were properly skeptical for the time, and his reputation as one of the few psychiatrists sympathetic with churchgoing folk made him the only practitioner many ministers felt comfortable recommending to troubled members of their midwestern congregations. He was a futurist and a dabbler. Yet his was a public face that is certainly difficult–then and now–to reconcile with the sorts of interplanetary, crypto-scientific, and post-Thomistic theological claims mulled over at length in the singular Urantia Book.

Since Sadler himself concealed much activity–either duplicitous or divine, depending on interpretation–it seemed fitting that his Frommann & Jebsen–designed residence at 533 Diversey Parkway was likewise not as bourgeois as might at first appear. Described in the AIA Guide to Chicago as "this grand flat, the star of this graceless southside stretch of Diversey Parkway," the building's official-looking stone exterior is delightfully fronted by a balcony protected with a metal railing and lavish ornaments that recall the more flamboyant Art Nouveau and Jugendstil styles of their time. Its pixilated architectural details are unusual on an urban stretch now filled with tanning parlors, supermarkets, and a Starbucks coffee shop.

"Doctor," as he was affectionately known, moved into this home in 1912 with his wife, Dr. Lena Kellogg Sadler, setting in motion all sorts of nocturnal and weekend activities to match the pace of his daily routine. He slipped an enticing hint as to what these extracurricular activities consisted of into the appendix to his Mind at Mischief, a best-seller published by Funk and Wagnalls in which he treated most matters credited to the supernatural as actually influenced by subconscious drives. Sadler confessed there that he'd been introduced to an individual in the summer of 1911 who was an apparent exception to his thesis, and that he had been present at two-hundred-fifty night sessions recorded by a stenographer: "This man is utterly unconscious, wholly oblivious to what takes place, and, unless told about it subsequently, never knows that he has been used as a sort of clearing house for the coming and going of alleged extra-planetary personalities." The doctor reassured his readers that the message being received was "essentially Christian and is, on the whole, entirely harmonious with the known scientific facts and truths of this age."

On my first visit to the house, I felt as if I'd been dropped onto a Parker Brothers Clue game board, with its musty library and wistful drawing room, a stack of hidden motives, and, most definitely, an atmosphere of unsolved mystery. In this eccentric building, Sadler allegedly had investigated the transcriptions of his contact personality–reputed by some to be a member of the Chicago Board of Trade, by others to be Sadler's own brother-in-law and office manager, Wilfred Kellogg. After about twenty years of serving as a human radio, the contact's broadcasts evolved into the 196 finished papers that often arrived handwritten by his bedside–with no witnesses present during the procedure.

Starting in 1923, a middlebrow salon of about thirty doctors, professors, and interested friends, known as "the Forum," formed around Sadler to hear these messages. They had convened for decades in the carpeted sitting room where I was waiting on that snowy evening for our meeting to begin. Sitting at a seminar-style table with a half-dozen veteran Urantia Book readers, I glanced occasionally through the room's tall windows toward a residential cross street lined with a few remaining gray stone buildings, elegant two-flat houses, and the bare sticks of trees.

The last person with a strong memory of Sadler and the early history of the Forum, Helen Carlson, had just died a week earlier, at the age of ninety-two. The sister-in-law of Sadler's son, William Sadler Jr., Ms. Carlson moved into the third floor of the building in 1935 and stayed on doing clerical work until her death. In a deposition taken in this room in 1994–as part of a defense against a suit claiming that the Urantia Foundation had no right to copyright materials authored by extraterrestrials–Carlson broke down as she told how her sister had invited her to join the Forum in September 1935 to learn about the papers: "Being a sister, she wanted me to know about them. I'm sorry . . . too many memories." These accumulated papers on various topics were eventually collected in what became known as The Urantia Book.

Carlson recalled how they would set up fifty folding chairs for an audience to listen to Dr. Sadler or his son read from the papers typed on yellow sheets. The Forum members would then serve as a focus group, submitting questions to the celestials for further clarification (this transfer of information between the earthlings and the extraterrestrials was never entirely explained) by dropping them into either a fishbowl or a basket resting on a chest of drawers in the center of the room. On my way in, I passed the chest of drawers, which had since been moved into the adjoining foyer.

"I remember at that time everybody was puzzled about personality," Helen Carlson recalled in her deposition. "Somebody asked the question, Well, what is personality? In a short time it just came through in a paper, the definition of personality. That had been in The Urantia Book, and now that was a direct answer to the question."

The paper chosen to be discussed was Paper 112, "Personality Survival." "It was Helen's favorite," explained Bob Solone, who worked in the reader services department at the foundation. As we talked, Solone lit a white memorial candle and placed it among the bags of chips, cookies, a bottle of ginger ale, and a tray of tea and coffee on the table in front of us. On an opposite wall hung a black-and-white Ansel Adams print of craggy mountains backed against a dramatically distressed bank of clouds.

Before the meeting began, Solone talked with me about how he came to the group. "I found a used copy over ten years ago in a bookstore my aunt owned in Wisconsin," he said. Solone was a soft-spoken forty-six-year-old Italian American with thin-boned features, wide staring brown eyes, and graying hair, and he moonlighted as a piano player in nightclubs. "I was living in Chicago, so I came here to the foundation. When I first came to the study group, I was just asking questions and asking questions. Eventually, though, the book satisfied all that."

Trevor Swaddling, an Australian from the suburbs of Sydney, joined in to tell how he'd first been given the book as an eighteenth-birthday present in 1976 by his sister, who was a member of a New Age commune led by Fred Robinson, a self-styled prophet who spread news of astrology, reincarnation, and UFOs in Australia during the 1970s. "You know, mud brick houses, growing veggies out in the back," Swaddling summed up the commune.

"My wife, Kathleen, found her book through the same chap," he went on. "When she was a teenager she was living in the same community as my sister. I met her when she was twenty-seven. I sparked her interest in The Urantia Book again, and she got it down from her bookshelf and reread it. She's been a reader ever since."

"You have to mollycoddle it a bit," interjected his redheaded wife, Kathleen. "You can't compare The Urantia Book to the Bible. We're at the early stages of spreading the word here." Together they ran a branch office for the foundation in Sydney.

Hurrying in from the cold at the last minute was Matthew Block, a short, alert, bantam-weight thirty-eight-year-old with the air of an eternal adolescent or graduate student. He had studied religion and philosophy at the University of Chicago in the 1970s, and was somewhat notorious in Urantian circles for having identified scores of books of the 1920s and 1930s from which portions of The Urantia Book had been paraphrased, a discovery construed by critics as proof of plagiarism.

Excerpted from Godtalk by Brad Gooch Copyright 2002 by Brad Gooch. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.