Psychiana: Moscow's Mail-Order Religion

You’re probably aware of TV evangelists. They speak to you through the television, some claiming to heal you through the screen. Before television, there were radio evangelists, and mail-order evangelists. One of which offered a money-back guaranteed religion, and was headquartered in the Northwest. Sueann Ramella has the story of the Mail-Order Prophet of Moscow, Idaho.  


Imagine it’s the Great Depression. You’re at the train station and you notice someone left behind a magazine. You read an ad: “I talked with God! Yes I did, actually and literally.” By Dr. Frank B. Robinson.

You read how Frank Robinson lived through horrible failure until he tapped into the God-Power.  And he’ll teach you to do it too. Just send $20 for 20 lessons mailed weekly to your home. Money-back guarantee!

$20 is a lot of money in 1930 but you’re curious, hooked.  And you’re not the only one. Thousands of people around the world respond to Robinson’s ad promoting his New Thought religion, Psychiana.

So what was it about Psychiana that appealed to so many people? Idaho State Historian and Associate Director Keith Petersen…

Petersen: “It was how Robinson sold his religion. If you’re suffering real economic hardship, you know it’s not pie in the sky; you don’t have to wait for an after-life to be successful.  ‘Look at me, I pulled myself up by believing in this power of positive thinking and you can too!’ It had a compelling message for people who were struggling during the Depression.”

Here’s how Psychiana works. It’s a dollar per lesson. 20 lessons, one a week. The first lesson asks that you discard what you’ve been taught about God, then open up to the infinite power that you already possess. The lesson end by having you meditate and say out loud: “I believe in the power of the living God.” Subsequent lessons follow similar formats with different mantras focusing on the power of your mind.

83 years later, Psychiana’s original followers have dwindled to nothing. But the religion does have a presence on the internet, and that’s where Grace Butler of Texas became a believer.

Butler: “It opened me up to knowing that we can talk to God. We don’t need an intercessor between us and God. Also, Robinson made clear that the church has misled us in a lot of ways about that.”

Robinson also said that the mind is the source of God’ power. That there is no subconscious mind but rather it is a manifestation of the God-Power. Once you understood this you would have health, happiness and success.

You may be thinking: sounds New Age-y. Even in the 1930s these were old, new age ideas.  Here’s Keith Petersen. 

Petersen: “Well the lessons were nothing too unique. Robinson wasn’t an original thinker.”

But remember, it’s the Great Depression and people are hungry for what Robinson promises.  Petersen: “It had a very rapid rise.  60,000 pieces of mail a day. He started taking ads in various small magazines and newspapers and it caught on fairly quickly...”

It caught on with Geoffrey Peel Birley of Alexandria, Egypt who sent Robinson $40,000. That money allowed Robinson to quit his pharmacy job and devote full time to his religion… or as some believe, grow his business.

Petersen:  “Robinson, regardless of what you might think of his theology, was a shrewd business man. He started working this into a very significant operation. In the 1930s, besides the University of Idaho, it was the largest employer of Latah County.”

Robinson made a lot of money. Exactly how much was never publicly known. What we do know is he donated a park to the county, built three buildings downtown (he favored white brick) and was known as a community philanthropist. He also drove a Duesenberg and loved fur coats.

How many people believed in Psychiana? It’s hard to say. Business records were never found. And while people ordered Psychiana lessons, they may not have practiced it. But we do know that the volume of Psychiana mailings was so huge that Moscow’s  post office was granted first class status - virtually unheard of in those days. Because of the mass mailings, Robinson was known as the Mail Order Prophet. And to this day, perhaps he's the only spiritual guru to offer a money back guarantee.

In 1948, The Mail Order Prophet died of a heart attack. A few years later the offices of Psychiana closed.

Back in Texas Grace Butler still has Psychiana readings on her youTube Channel. But she is considering taking them down.
Butler: “Some of the things he said were a little dogmatic. But still I like the man. You know, everybody goes through stages in their search. It’s like sometimes the masters will use an illusion to destroy another illusion to take you one step further. Then you realize it wasn’t all entirely correct. But that’s alright because we grow that way.”

Copyright 2013 Northwest Public Radio