Over 90 years ago, a Midwesterner by the name of Douglas Kimball DeVorss set up in Los Angeles as a publisher of what today we would call Body/Mind/Spirit books. At that time, the term was New Thought, and Los Angeles was already home to many centers, institutes, and churches that taught a new, “metaphysical,” brand of philosophy and spirituality.
It all had very much to do with health (maintenance and healing) in terms of the mind/body relationship; human empowerment from inner resources; prosperity (emphasis on hard cash); and the emergence of a new era fashioned by a new consciousness. To this end, the millennia-old Eastern teaching of Karma was dusted off, rehabbed, and Westernized: a “universal law” that fashions our experiences of every kind out of our habitual thoughts and feelings. Change these thoughts and feelings, and life changes with them: it’s the Law; and we can use it now.
For those who felt that this was muscling in on God’s business, it was neatly explained that God is to be found within, and that the individual is God “in person.” Waking up to this God within was part of what it was all about – and rather Eastern. To do something with it was the rest of what it was about – all very Western.
One of the outposts of this new way of thinking and doing was (and still is) Unity School in Kansas City. It was up and running more than a century ago, with a spreading network of centers and its own publishing operation that included books and magazines. One of Unity’s monthlies, Wee Wisdom, was in fact the first children’s magazine in America. Sidney Sheldon (Bloodline; The Doomsday Conspiracy; Morning, Noon & Night) is just one of many writers who got their start in those little pages.
Douglas DeVorss didn’t write for Wee Wisdom, but as a child he must have read it every month from cover to cover: his mother was a Unity practitioner – one of those men and women to whom the faithful of that New Age could turn for guidance and for healing therapy of the “hands off” kind: purely mental/spiritual. Doug’s upbringing was of that kind, so it was not surprising that he should go to work for Unity. He was 20 years old, and the fit was perfect.
The Metaphysical / New Thought market had been pioneered in the 19th century by such best-selling authors as Warren Felt Evans, who wrote The Mental Cure in 1869 – regarded by many as the first “modern” book in the New Thought tradition.
In this and his five other books, all published before 1886, Evans taught an integrated, holistic spirituality that included the mental, emotional, and physical aspects of life, while departing from religious and medical orthodoxy in important ways that we almost take for granted today; but they were radical ideas in their time.
Unity’s publications were naturally confined to their organizational writings, service their denominational needs, and targeting their own market. Doug DeVorss, from his vantage point as head of sales, saw a bigger picture: not just Unity books, but the books of other publishers who were discovering the growing market for “metaphysical” books. And it would not be Kansas City any more: the “capital” for this kind of interest was already on the map and had been for some time: Los Angeles.
In 1929, on the very eve of the Great Depression, Doug took leave of Unity and set out for the West Coast to follow his dream of starting a company to enlighten the world to a new way of thinking. A local newspaper described his departure:
KANSAS CITY, MO: We have just learned that another Unity worker has decided to try life in the golden state of California. Doug DeVorss will go to Los Angeles August 15 where he may open his own office for promoting the sale of Truth publications . . . . . We have much for which to thank Doug, because his patience and pep have made the sales department at Unity what it is today – well-organized and efficient. Also, it is through his untiring efforts that the magazines are on the news stands today.
Little did the young entrepreneur DeVorss know that the journey he was soon to embark upon would not only confront him with the financial challenges of starting a new business, but that he was doing this on the brink of perhaps the darkest period in America’s economic history. “Truth publications” – not unlike what we would call Body/Mind/Spirit publications – would find much use in the years ahead.
Los Angeles in the 1920’s and 1930’s was, as always, a storybook place. DeVorss added to the color and legend by creating a “Metaphysical Capital of the World” – his own name for the new publishing and distribution enterprise he was launching. His market awaited him with open arms: the tremendous interest in novel religious teachings and philosophies that one could almost breathe in the Southern California spiritual climate was at its peak. Bookshops and department stores poured in their orders, adding to those from the book outlets of the many churches and institutions.
As so often happens in the fortunes of successful publishers, there was the eventual crossing of paths of “the” author and “the” publisher. DeVorss was the publisher; the author was Baird T. Spalding, who a few years before DeVorss’ arrival in LA had arranged for a small, paperback printing of his two volumes entitled Life and Teaching of the Masters of the Far East – “a breakthrough in Western spirituality,” according to a recent New Age newspaper account; “a landmark work in spiritual literature.”
These words typify the praise that has been heaped upon the Life and Teaching books for three-quarters of a century. Doug DeVorss was quick to see in the slender volumes these same merits and the New Age in all its fullness: spiritual values and healing techniques transcending time, space, theology, and medicine – set against the exotic backdrop of an expedition to India in 1894 by Spalding, one of the most brilliant yet enigmatic seers of recent times.
Here was also a publishing phenomenon of the kind we have become familiar with: starting from a private printing and word-of-mouth publicity, and ending up in worldwide translation, with millions of copies sold. DeVorss liked to tell the story,
"I have been told by people who knew Mr. Spalding in Calcutta, India, in the early nineties that he decided to write out in longhand some of the accounts of his experiences in India. Some friends asked him to type it and let them have copies, and for many years he carried these typewritten accounts (of what later became Volume 1 of the now 6-volume set) with him. People would read them and pass them among themselves until, finally, a very prominent woman in Oakland, California, whose husband was the builder of the Oakland Municipal Railway, asked Mr. Spalding if he would have any objection to her having her printer, the California Press in San Francisco, print a thousand copies of this work in an inexpensive paper binding; she wanted to give every one of her friends a copy of that book. Mr. Spalding gave his consent and soon after this he left for England.
The books were printed and passed among her friends, as a gift. Within about 60 days, phenomenally as it seemed, more than 20,000 orders were received for copies of that book! When Mr. Spalding returned from England, of course he was astonished at the interest in his discoveries and experiences, so he permitted her to have the balance of the work published, which became know as Volume 2."
As for Baird Spalding, already 70 years old when his second volume came out in 1927, not very much is known. Shy, highly reclusive, and often far afield exploring mining properties in the desert Southwest, he would return every few years to the task of telling the story of the 1894 sojourn. These had been encounters with spiritual guides who broke the molds of orthodoxy and tradition in Western spiritual philosophy, revealing an empowerment available to the individual for living life on nothing less than the Masters’ own level.
Spalding and Doug DeVorss gradually embarked on a kind of partnership in which DeVorss bought up volumes 1 and 2 and then urged Spalding to complete his story in a third volume. This was published in 1935 on the eve of Spalding’s return trip to India in the company of 18 fellow-travelers and seekers.
Over the years to come Spalding continued writing material to help the readers understand his findings on a deeper level. There emerged volumes 4,5, and eventually, 6 in 1997 compiled from previously unpublished material Doug DeVorss had stored away since the early 50’s
Interestingly, DeVorss’ top seller these many years later continues to be the six-volume boxed set, Life & Teaching of the Masters of the Far East. As described in a catalog from THE BODHI TREE, a Los Angeles metaphysical bookstore:
For generations, readers have been searching for more information about Baird T. Spalding and his masterwork. Now, something uncanny has happened. While arranging stock in the warehouse, a DeVorss employee came upon ten dusty cartons that were never suspected to contain anything more than old proofs, invoices, and correspondence relating to Baird Spalding’s books.
A DeVorss editor began sorting through the cartons. He found, to his surprise and amazement, unpublished Spalding manuscripts and papers, magazine articles, personal letters, photographs, and other biographical materials relating to the legendary figure . . . This extraordinary discovery of unsuspected writings, rare articles, letters and photographs is now available in volume 6.
Numerous other successful titles in this burgeoning field were also signed by DeVorss. Prominent among these: The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ; The Impersonal Life; and Quiet Talks with the Master.
During DeVorss’ lifetime, and afterwards as his legacy, this genre of books would continue to characterize the company’s publishing and distribution activities. Subsequent titles continue to uphold Doug DeVorss’s publishing focus such as The Infinite Way, The Dynamic Laws of Prosperity, Living the Science of Mind, and Your Mind Can Heal You.
DeVorss & Company took a very dramatic turn in 1953 when word came of Spalding’s death while prospecting in Arizona. Coping with the loss of his best-selling author, Doug DeVorss died suddenly in a dreadful accident.
For fifteen years thereafter, DeVorss & Company was managed by an executive under arrangements with DeVorss’ estate until 1968, when Arthur Peattie was appointed manager. Two years after acquiring the company in 1981, Arthur Peattie died, leaving his wife and son to manage DeVorss & Company.
In all those years, as we have seen, the company remained faithful to what DeVorss and Spalding had initiated. As early as the fateful year of 1953, Spalding’s eulogist observed that “a New Age of spiritual understanding had been born” and credited Spalding with having “ushered in the New Age spiritual concept” with the first appearance of his books in the 1920’s
Today, 150 years after Evans’ The Mental Cure and 90 years from the founding of DeVorss & Company in rented rooms at the Embassy Hotel in Los Angeles, to its present-day offices in Camarillo, California, the company continues to publish books that help people explore their inherent spiritual nature.