Harvey Spencer Lewis, the Imperator of the Rosicrucian Order

From the Lecture Series: The Real History of Secret Societies

By Richard Spence, Ph.D., University of Idaho

In San Jose, California, right in the middle of Silicon Valley, there is a park with Egyptian-style architecture, called the Rosicrucian Park. There is an Egyptian museum filled with esoteric symbols, antiquities, and, of course, pyramids. The park also houses the headquarters of the Rosae Crucis, also known as Rosy Cross, or AMORC. Is Rosae Crucis a secret society? Who found it?

A picture of the Rosicrucian University building in San Jose
Rosicrucian Park in San Jose, California. (Image: Andrew Parodi at en.wikipedia/CC BY-SA 3.0/Public domain)

Who Was Harvey Spencer Lewis?

The 20th century Rosicrucianism, promoted by Harvey Spencer Lewis, was advertised in pulp magazines as the ultimate solution to reveal Ancient Wisdom, the ‘Secret Method for the Mastery of Life’, ‘Suppressed Knowledge of the Ages’,  and the ‘Psychic Power of Attraction’.  The ads also promoted teaching skills like levitation and telepathy by Spencer Lewis, who was the secret society’s grand imperator.

In addition to promoting his mystical order, Spencer Lewis was the pioneer of radio talk shows and the inventor of Luxatone, a device for turning sounds into colors. He built an empire out of the Order of Rosy Cross, which had its roots in the 17th century Rosicrucian. So how did it all start?

Lewis’ first encounter with Rosicrucian was in the spring of 1908. He was 25 years old and a struggling artist at that time. As he claims, through a mystical experience, he was instructed by ‘a spirit guide’ to head for the east and look for Rosicrucians.

Learn more about Secret Societies: The underworld of history.

Harvey Spencer Lewis’s Mission in America

So, the next summer, he went on a business trip to Paris with his father, Aaron Lewis. He had a journey to the city of Toulouse, where he was initiated into the Rosicrucian order at an old chateau near the Garonne River. The man who initiated him was Count du Belcastel-Ligne.

Upon initiation, he gained free access to the old archives of the order as well as its library. He was allowed to make notes of whatever he wanted in return for conducting a mission: restoring ‘true Rosicrucianism’ to America. He accepted the mission but mysteriously, was ordered not to commence his mission until 1915. He also claims that another vision ordered him to restore Rosicrucianism to its new home, San Jose, in 1927. That is how he claimes to have been commissioned to found the mystical order of the Rosy Cross.

This is a transcript from the video series The Real History of Secret Societies. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Doubts about Lewis’s Claims

An image of Harvey Spencer Lewis
Harvey Spencer Lewis claimed he was instructed by ‘a spirit guide’ to head for the east and look for Rosicrucians. (Image: Unknown Author/Public domain)

However, there are doubts about the truth of Lewis’s version of the story. Most importantly, there are doubts about Lewis’s journey to France. It cannot be attested through any records that the journey took place. In that year, there are no records of him leaving or entering the United States. Also, his interest in mystical phenomena had started earlier in 1903, when he joined a group focusing on paranormal phenomena called the New York Institute for Physical Research. According to the New York State census data, Lewis was an advertising salesman in 1915, the year he was supposed to found the Rosicrucian order.

A more in-depth investigation reveals more cases of Lewis’s fraudulent activities. In September 1918, he described himself as manager of the Order Rosae Crucis in his draft registration. However, in a police investigation into his Lily Langtry mansion, he was arrested and charged with fraud. He was charged that he had sold thousands of dollars’ worth of bind certificates claiming his order was ‘a recognized branch of a worldwide institution devoted the study of the occult’. He wasn’t accepted by New York State. So, he decided to move to California, establishing himself as a ‘scientific lecturer’.

The Origins of Lewis’s Order

Harvey Spencer Lewis’s grave in the Rosicrucian Park.
The Rosicrucian Park is also the burial ground of Harvey Spencer Lewis. (Image: Unknown author/CC BY-SA 3.0/Public domain)

Lewis’s order was a branch of a French secret society called the Kabbalistic Order of the Rosy Cross.  The order was founded in 1888 by a group of French occultists, including Gerard Encausse, also known as Papus, and Joséphin Péladan. Joséphin left the order and formed his own Rosicrucian order to study ‘occult magic of the Ancient East’. There is a feature that indicates a connection between Joséphin’s and Lewis’s orders: both of them referred to their leaders as imperator. But there are no records of Lewis going to France. How could they have met?

He hadn’t been to France, but his father had. He was a handwriting expert whose job was to find and authenticate old scripts. In 1914, he traveled to France, and right after he returned, his son started to found The Ancient and Mystical Order of the Rosy Cross. By February 1915, his order had attracted nine members, but he announced April Fool’s Day as the formal initiation day. In the years to come, he continued to build an empire out of his mysterious activities.

Learn more about Masonic revolutions in America and France.

Common Questions about Harvey Spencer Lewis and the Rosicrucian Order

Q: What does AMORC mean?

AMORC is the acronym of the Ancient and Mystical Order of the Rosae Crucis, or Rosy Cross. It is a secret society founded by Harvey Spencer Lewis in the United States.

Q: What is the Rosicrucian sign?

The Rosicrucian sign is a rose on a cross. Harvey Spencer Lewis claimed that he had a mission to restore the order in the United States.

Q: What is the Rose Cross Order?

The Red Cross order was founded by a group of French occultists in 1888. A secret society restored by Harvey Spencer Lewis to the United States.

Q: Who built the Rosicrucian Park in San Jose?

Harvey Spencer Lewis founded the Rosicrucian Park in San Jose. He was the imperator of the Rosicrucian order.

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