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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Mail-Order Religion Moscow, Idaho, Once Was Home To A Booming Religion Known As Psychiana

FOR THE RECORD: 9-4-96 The story about the “Psychiana” mail-order religion on Page A1 of Tuesday’s Spokesman-Review was written by staff writer Rich Roesler. His name inadvertently was omitted for the story.

Few people in Moscow remember Frank Robinson - and some of those who do wish they didn’t.

Robinson, a British pharmacist with a checkered past, rolled into Moscow in the late 1920s and soon had a religious revelation. Borrowing $400, he put an ad in Psychology magazine in 1928.

“I TALKED WITH GOD,” the ad claimed. “Yes I did, actually and literally.”

Ministers were appalled. But more than 2,800 people answered the ad, mailing in $13,000 to sign up for Robinson’s mail-order religious lessons.

“Psychiana” was born.

Over the next 25 years, Robinson’s mail-order religion swelled into an empire, churning out millions of mailings each year and raking in millions of dollars.

At its zenith, Robinson claimed Psychiana was the world’s eighth-largest religion - and the only one with a money-back guarantee of satisfaction.

Today, little remains of Robinson’s empire other than boxes of documents and photographs in county historical society archives and the basement of the University of Idaho library.

Two years ago, Moscow computer graphics artist John Black, 47, spent most of a winter reading 15 of Robinson’s books. Because of Robinson’s reliance on mass mailing, advertising and radio, Black nicknamed Psychiana “The Media Religion.”

Now, the “Media Religion” has met the ultimate medium.

Working in his spare time, Black recently began publishing Robinson’s history and writings on the Internet. He said he hasn’t tracked the number of people checking out the information.

Black said his interest is mostly historical, but he said he likes much of what Robinson had to say.

“I don’t want to make this into a religion again. I just want to put the ideas out there,” Black said. “I feel like it’s kind of my job to digitize it (Psychiana). There’s so few books. If I don’t do this, his ideas will just sit on a shelf.”

Born in the 1880s to a Congregational minister and his wife, Robinson later was booted from home by his stepmother. For drunkenness, he was drummed out of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the U.S. Navy. After stints as a druggist in Oregon and Arizona, Robinson moved to Moscow, then a sleepy town of 5,000.

Psychiana was based on 1 Corinthians 3:16: “Know ye not that ye are the temple of God and that the spirit of God liveth in you?”

Robinson believed that every human has what he called the “God-Law,” which could fuel happiness, health and wealth. The religion relied heavily on affirmations and positive thinking.

“Ninety percent of the human race is walking the streets today only half-alive,” Robinson wrote in his first lesson. “… You have not the faintest suspicion of the mighty dynamic God-Law behind you.”

“He didn’t really believe in ‘God’ in terms of some sort of being,” said Keith Petersen, a Washington State University Press editor who has researched Psychiana.

Robinson said Christians, in their devotion to Jesus Christ, worshiped the messenger and not the message. He viewed much of conventional religion as hypocritical and Bibles as antiquated, representing morals and the state of society centuries ago.

In 1929, the stock market crashed, and people desperate for hope turned to Psychiana in droves. Robinson regularly bought ads in more than 200 publications, from the Old Farmer’s Almanac to Spicy Detective. He advertised heavily in pulp magazines - Weird Tales, Amazing Stories, G-8 and His Battle Aces - and in daily newspapers.

It worked. Psychiana soon was mailing letters and lessons by the tens of thousands to 57 countries. It was the largest private employer in Latah County. Students reportedly included Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, heavyweight boxing champion Tommy Burns and Lindbergh baby kidnapper Bruno Hauptmann. Hauptmann wasn’t a student for long - he discovered Psychiana shortly before going to the electric chair.

Robinson adapted as the desperation of the ‘30s gave way to the hawkishness of World War II. “THANK GOD FOR THE ATOMIC BOMB!” trumpeted a 1946 ad saluting “the atomic power of the spirit of God in us - for we, too, are composed of atoms.”

Big, blond, blue-eyed and flamboyant, Robinson was the ideal front man for his religion. He drove a $16,000 custom-made Duesenberg convertible, wore fur coats and chatted with Franklin D. Roosevelt and Republican presidential candidate Thomas Dewey. He dictated lessons endlessly into his Dictaphone, posed for dozens of portraits and wrote “The Strange Autobiography of Frank Robinson.”

“I guess it’s about the only money-back religion in the world,” Robinson told a United Press correspondent at a Los Angeles Psychiana convention in 1936. The reporter described Robinson “snapping his suspenders with satisfaction.”

Unimpressed, national columnists and the Christian press frequently blasted Robinson, labeling him “a doctor of bunk” and “the Moscow Jesus.”

“… One of the most bare-faced confidence games ever dished out to the American public,” wrote one columnist.

Moscow’s reaction was more subdued but less than enthusiastic. Despite Robinson’s philanthropy, including giving the county a 160-acre park and hiring an airplane to find a lost girl, Moscow residents by and large treated Psychiana as a family embarrassment.

“I’ve never talked to anyone in Moscow who was really proud of Psychiana,” said Petersen.

Someone pulled up Robinson’s shrubbery. Fearing assassination, he kept a pistol in a drawer. Apparently not eager to fuel the fires, he would not send his lessons to anyone closer to Moscow than Spokane.

Robinson died in 1948 after a succession of heart attacks. His family kept the religion alive for a few years, but on Halloween Day in 1952, a small article appeared in The Spokane Chronicle announcing that Psychiana was suspending operations. The family blamed a postal rate hike.

“His family, their hearts were never really in it,” said Petersen. “In fact, the family was kind of embarrassed by it. Once Robinson died, there was no one to go out and do the huckstering you had to do to keep this thing going.”

No one knows how much money Robinson made. Nearly all financial records were destroyed by the family and staff. The UI archives, which include hundreds of Psychiana letters and lessons, contain only two financial documents.

One is a 1933 prospectus for a public stock offering. The balance sheet, certified by a now-defunct Spokane accounting firm, pegs revenue at $132,476 and expenses at $80,797 for the first nine months of 1932. Robinson’s salary was listed as $4,500.

The other document is a letter from Psychiana to Robinson, visiting a ranch in California. It includes a financial statement saying Psychiana had taken in revenues of $55,698 during the first two months of 1947.

Toward the end, it appears Psychiana was losing money. Family members told Petersen they kept the religion alive until 1952 simply to pay off large printing debts. And Robinson’s mailings in the late 1940s claimed his followers owed him $300,000 for lessons and books. He had nine different form letters pleading for donations - and 27 demanding overdue payments.

There is little left of Psychiana in Moscow today. Robinson’s Howard Street home still stands, and the park he donated is known as Robinson Park. The newspaper he founded has evolved into the Moscow-Pullman Daily News.

But the sign Robinson erected along the highway - “MOSCOW, IDAHO: KNOWN THE WORLD OVER AS THE HOME OF PSYCHIANA” long ago was taken down. When the historical society put up a display on Psychiana at the county courthouse in 1991, a deputy prosecutor demanded it be removed, saying it violated the laws on separation of church and state.

Occasionally, Petersen still gets a letter from someone looking for a copy of Psychiana lessons. One misguided devotee, hearing of Petersen’s research, sold his Ohio home in the late 1970s and arrived on his doorstep, mistakenly believing Peterson was trying to restart Psychiana. He left “very, very upset,” Petersen said.

In retrospect, Psychiana looks very much like Moscow’s “15 minutes of fame.” The novelty of affirmations is gone, with self-help books filling shelves in bookstores everywhere. “New Thought,” now old, is still a long way from supplanting Christianity.

Still, Robinson’s enthusiasm and hope are clear in his writing - if it can be found.

“I felt they (the lessons) spoke to me, even though they were written 50 years earlier,” said Peterson.

“I liked him,” said Black. “I think he was just one of those hell-raisers. In today’s age, with what’s going on in religion, it’s nice to get another view.

“I think if there’s a true religion,” Black said, “it probably will come from within. And it probably won’t have a name.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 3 photos

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