Bellville’s American Lit 101: The Gospel of Levi

Richland County has always had a strong heritage in the fine arts, and one of its greatest depths of wealth is found in its literature.  There are many shelves of books written by authors who were born here, or found their inspiration here; in fiction, non-fiction, drama and screenplays, magazine articles, essays, novels and children’s books.

There is one writer born here however, who is often overlooked, and, ironically enough, he is the one who has, by far, sold the most books.  Publishers claim there are 50 million copies of his book in print.

The author is Levi Dowling, and his 1908 perennial classic is The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ.  He was born in a log cabin in Bellville in 1844.

The Words

Levi did not consider himself an author, exactly, though he published a number of books.  He called himself a ‘transcriber.’  Levi didn’t compose his words like an ordinary writer, he ‘received’ them.  In the middle of the night—between 2 AM and 6 AM, when the world was quiet and free from distraction—Levi would meditate; and when he had achieved a state of semi-trance consciousness, he would tap into a vast reservoir of arcane knowledge, and ‘trance-scribe’ the understandings he gleaned.

He collected several volumes of these writings—most of them spiritual insights into the interrelationship of health, breath, prayer and meditation; and they formed the basis for a new society of like-minded seekers, who founded a college in California to promulgate their ideals.

But the one manuscript he transcribed that made the broadest impact on the 20th century was the one that addressed the life of Jesus.

It was Levi’s understanding that all the thoughts and deeds of everyone who has ever lived are indelibly recorded and stored into an etheric non-physical plane of existence which is accessed only from the level of spiritual consciousness.  This compendium of information is known in esoteric circles as the Akashic Record.

Once someone has spiritually gained entrance to the consciousness wherein the Akashic Records are found, they can witness the lives and thoughts of anyone who has ever lived.

In this way, Levi witnessed the ‘lost years’ of Jesus’ life—the years that are not recorded in traditional Biblical gospel writings.  In the commonly referenced gospels, all of the teenage years of Jesus life are missing—from the event at 12 years old, when he was documented at the Jerusalem temple, until his formal ministry began at age 30.

The gospel that Levi wrote follows Jesus through these undocumented formative years as he gains knowledge and experience by journeying to India, Nepal, Tibet, Persia, Greece and Egypt.

His record, The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ, was a startling and explosive revelation in 1908 when it first appeared in print; and dramatically controversial through the rest of Dowling’s life. 

The original editions of Dowling’s book were covered with dust jackets that were violet in color: considered by early 20th century spiritualists to be the color most conducive to higher vibrational consciousness.

The Legacy

You might want to dismiss the kid from Bellville as a crackpot spiritualist from an age of classic crackpot spiritualists, but there are a number of concepts that Levi introduced into American society in his writings that are still very much woven into our culture today.

It was he, in fact, who originated the New Age label in 1911, that took more than half a century to take root in American popular culture.

The whole “Age of Aquarius” idea, that became inseparable from 1960s Hippie culture, was actually launched in 1908 by Levi’s book.

And, of course, there is the book itself, which shows no sign of going away any time soon, as it is available at this moment in at least 32 different covers from dozens of publishers all over the planet.

The Book

The enduring appeal of the book to people all around the world is the way in which it tends to unite all of our apparently diverse major religions of the globe into one common source of wisdom.

When the Aquarian Jesus visits India, Nepal and Persia in the chapters of Levi’s book, the lessons he derives from Hindu, Buddhist, and proto-Islamic sages seem to indicate a universal, trans-religion commonality among people, whose spiritual practices otherwise separate them.

This ‘One-World’ unifying paradigm of spirituality becomes particularly relevant to the reading public during times of world crisis, when it seems like civilization is disintegrating; and in fact, the decades when The Aquarian Gospel sold the most were those coinciding with WWI, WWII, and the 21st century.

The Author

Levi Dowling’s life was cast into a spiritual mold from its very inception.  His father was William Dowling, who came to Richland County as a pioneer minister of the newly emerged “Campbellite” frontier sect, otherwise later known as the Disciples of Christ. William Dowling oversaw the development of Disciples’ Churches in Mansfield, Ashland and Mt. Gilead from 1833 to 1858.

From his earliest days, young Levi was encouraged to ‘find the original spirit behind the words of the Gospels; uncorrupted by interpretations of creeds and confessions of established faiths.”  How far his journey away from creeds would eventually take him, no one could have guessed when he was a kid attending Bellville school.

The Dowlings eventually left Bellville and continued their various ministries in Indiana; and Levi enlisted in the Civil War as the youngest chaplain of the Union Army.  He subsequently published Sunday School literature for the Disciples in Indianapolis, and studied homeopathy in Iowa, before he landed on the West Coast.

Levi Dowling had powerful critics in the public press who accused him of everything from heresy to communism.  More impartial witnesses who knew him in the last years of his life said he earnestly wished only to help people develop the power of prayer.

In the years between Bellville and Los Angeles, Dowling developed Sunday School curriculum for the Disciples of Christ, including this hymnal published by his brother in 1874.

Bellville public school, from the 1873 Atlas of Richland County.

O Little Town of Bellville

It is quite a leap to Los Angeles in 1908 from Bellville in 1844, so it is easy to think that Levi’s Richland County childhood might not mean much; but he lived here until he was 10 years old, and he said that his earliest experiences with cosmic consciousness came as a child.  In prayer, in Bellville, he had his first ‘vision:’ in which he was notified that his calling in life was to “build a white city.” 

By all accounts he was noted to have been an honest and a humble man.  His critics were many and scathing, ruthlessly mocking his “ether book,” and attributing to him pseudo-messianic ambitions; but Levi would not let his followers refer to him as a ‘prophet,’ and he published more or less anonymously, only under his first name.  Before the end of his life, Levi’s legion of devotees grew quite large, and when he died in 1911 they named him “The National Seer of the Aquarian Commonwealth.”

Many of these early new agers shared a fascination with astrology, to the point where Levi Dowling’s personal star chart became public property, because he was considered a significant spiritual leader.  You may know that one essential element necessary in concocting an astrological chart of someone’s life involves establishing exactly where on the planet they were born; so, by the evidence of Levi Dowling, it was apparently very auspicious to be born in Bellville, Ohio.  All of his followers knew that.

Even today, about once a year or so, somebody on pilgrimage shows up in Bellville; walks up to the desk at the Library, or the Bellville Star office, or the Historical Society Museum; and asks directions to the site in town where Levi Dowling was born. 

At this point on the timeline, over 170 years after Levi’s birth, no one knows any more the location in Bellville where the Dowling log cabin stood in 1844.  To research that information, we will need someone to consult the Akashic Records.

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