Originally published in 1993
The true apocalypse is upon us now—not the universal destruction of the flesh dreamed of by the Puritan colonizers of North America and their bitter spiritual descendants, but a joyous revelation that promises to reorganize the categories of human perception. There has always been a hidden strain of willful ecstasy in American history, from Thomas Morton’s pagan revels to the antinomian poems and rants of the mysterious Hakim Bey. Today, no one embodies this tendency more fully than James Koehnline, the Seattle-based artist whose collages unveil iconic landscapes that awaken a deep sense of mystery and anamnesis. Jarring the roots of memory, Koehnline’s art reminds us of that ancient, ageless place we’ve all forgotten, and offers us the promise of our long overdue return.
Born in Columbus, Ohio in 1955, James Koehnline spent his youth in various Midwestern states, perhaps crossing the faint trails of the alternative American history that would later inspire his work. After these early wanderings, Koehnline’s family settled in Chicago. His life took a turn for the mysterious when he began to receive missives from renegade Islamic scholar Hakim Bey, an expert in esoteric religions who introduced Koehnline to the obscure doctrines of the Moorish Orthodox Church.
The Moorish Orthodox Church traces its origin to the 1913 proclamation of the Canaanite Temple, the first recorded black Islamic church in American history. Its founder Noble Drew Ali, born Timothy Drew in 1886, extended membership to all “Moors,” a group which included not only blacks but Asians and whites (“Celts” or “Persians”) as well. When Drew Ali moved his base of operations from Newark, New Jersey to Chicago in 1928, he reincorporated the sect as the Moorish Science Temple. Drawing from the Koran, Masonic traditions and Aquarian Christian sources, he created a new religion whose traces refuse to fade away.
After Noble Drew Ali’s mysterious death in 1929, the Moorish Science Temple splintered into factions. Its various branches died off, or survived, according to the dictates of fate. Today’s Moorish Orthodox Church was founded in the 1950s by an interracial group of musicians which included Walid al-Taha, described by his 1965 convert Hakim Bey as a “brilliant junky 350-pound jazz saxophonist poet.” Bey in turn converted James Koehnline, who established the Ben Ishmael Temple in Chicago. After his move to Seattle, Koehnline took over the church’s national publication, The Moorish Science Monitor, which chronicles the activities and controversies of the organization. Tolerant to a radical degree, the Moorish Orthodox Church is open to contacts with all religions, but retains a sensible disrespect for all entrenched religious authority, preferring a communion of free religions to any set of doctrines. In 1992, Koehnline expanded this concept into the secular sphere with the inauguration of the Jubilee, a ten-year festival celebrating liberty and the spirit of play. Extending into the next millennium, the Jubilee promises to thwart the puritanical hunger for the end of the world—a viable alternative to Armageddon.
Inside and outside history, human civilizations have observed sacred feasts and festivals, including very special periods when the ordinary rules of social behavior were suspended or overturned. April Fool’s Day still survives as a faint reminder of these once-holy days. The ancient Israelites took this notion to an even greater extreme, at least in principle: their Jubilee was conceived as a year-long festival, scheduled to occur every fifty years, during which all work was suspended and everyone—commoners and kings, property holders and slaves—enjoyed themselves equally in a state of untrammeled liberty. Koehnline, realizing that there had been no Jubilee of any sort on the American continent since the European invasion of 1492, decided that a full decade of celebration was the only reasonable antidote to the past five hundred years of post-Columbian drudgery. In 1991, Koehnline released a set of postcards commemorating the Festaludicon, an imaginal gathering heralded by the slogan “Wake Up And Dream.” He launched the Jubilee in October 1992. A crucial component of this undertaking is the Jubilee Calendar of Saints, which reclaims October 12 as “Anti-Columbus Day.”
The essential premise of the Jubilee Saints calendar is a simple one: every day is a holy day, dedicated to the richness of the human spirit and to those who have added to the infinite variety of its heritage. A key figure is Thomas Morton, the first person to be canonized as a Jubilee Saint. Morton seemed to be an ordinary British subject until he moved to Massachusetts in 1624. It didn’t take Morton long to realize that he preferred the company of the native Americans to his dry-spirited Puritan neighbors in Plymouth. Morton’s “Merry Mount” enclave near Mount Wollaston soon attracted a wide variety of outsiders and outcasts. Rumors of sexual interaction with the Indians (probably true) scandalized the Puritans, who also suspected (again, with good reason) that Morton was not a Christian in even the loosest sense of the word. In 1627, he tipped his hand by erecting an eighty-foot tall Maypole, and announced May Day celebrations open to whites and Indians alike. This was a dead giveaway of Morton’s pagan inclinations. The Puritans, who even frowned on Christmas celebrations, were quick to react: they sent in Miles Standish to arrest him. After a year in jail, Morton was transported back to England. There he penned a sharp-edged satire entitled The New English Canaan, which recounted his American misadventures and skewered the Puritans without mercy.
Thomas Morton is one of the many fascinating figures in Gone To Croatan: The Origins of Drop-Out Culture In North America, a 1993 book of essays edited by Koehnline and Ron Sakolsky. Koehnline himself contributed “The Legend Of The Great Dismal Maroons,” which reveals the fate of the first British colonists in America: they simply went to live among the Croatan Indians. Their descendants, who later welcomed escaped slaves into their community, still inhabit the swamps along the border between Virginia and North Carolina. Many of them retain the family names of their English ancestors—yet the “disappearance” of the Roanoke colony remains one of the great “mysteries” of American history. Official history tend to marginalize people who followed their wilder impulses instead of contributing to the march of progress; Gone To Croatan celebrates them. While the Puritans and their ilk struggled to establish a self-serving religious climate, other flouted all rules in their quest for spiritual freedom: the Antinomians (a group literally “against the law”) gave the Puritans a run for their money, as did the Ranters, the Diggers, and countless other fringe religious groups now consigned to the footnotes of official history.
As Peter Lamborn Wilson summarizes it in his Sacred Drift, “The antinomian may commit crimes in the eyes of society or the Law, but only out of a personal ethics which reaches unimaginably higher than any moral code.” James Koehnline revives and upholds this lost tradition in every aspect of his work—his collages, his writing, and the Moorish Orthodox Church.
One controversy surrounding the church involved the 1993 World’s Parliament of Religions. The Moorish Orthodox Church was not invited, prompting an impassioned debate: should the church send a delegate anyway, or boycott this assembly of organized religions? After weighing both sides of the question, the church decided to boycott. Koehnline traveled to Chicago to perform a key role in the church’s counter-event, an esoteric Moorish hierogamous rite whose details are jealously guarded by the church’s inner council. While he declines to comment on the Chicago ritual, it has clearly had a profound impact on his spiritual life, much like his visions in the Great Dismal Swamp. These mysteries may not be discussed, but they can be revealed: they lie at the heart of his work. James Koehnline reclaims images and history, imbues them with his creative insight, and offers them to the world as a new revelation. “The Chains of the Law have been broken”—let the Jubilee reign.
Originally published in Axcess Magazine. Text copyright © 1993 by Dan Whitworth. Art copyright © 1993 by James Koehnline.
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