The most successful of American Rosicrucian orders, the Ancient Mystical Order Rosae Crucis was founded in 1925 in Tampa, Florida by Harvey Spencer Lewis (1883–1939), an advertising executive with a longtime interest in the occult. He claimed Rosicrucian initiations from Europe and a lineage dating back to Akhenaten, the “heretic pharaoh” of Egypt, but the actual origins of AMORC are a good deal less exotic. The process of AMORC’s evolution began in 1904, when Lewis founded an organization called the New York Institute for Psychical Research. Despite the scientific name, this was an occult study group with a particular interest in Rosicrucian traditions. See Akhenaten; Rosicrucians.

In 1915, Lewis contacted Theodor Reuss, founder and head of the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO), and received a charter for an OTO lodge. This action brought him into the middle of the feud then under way between Reuss and Aleister Crowley, over the latter’s attempt to turn the OTO into a vehicle for his new religion of Thelema. Crowley, who spent most of the First World War in America, attempted to recruit Lewis in 1918 but was rebuffed. Lewis’s efforts on behalf of Reuss’s branch of the OTO had little effect, however. In 1918 the New York City police raided his offices and arrested Lewis, charging him with selling fraudulent initiations. The charges were dropped, but Lewis relocated to San Francisco immediately thereafter. In 1925 he moved to Tampa, Florida and formally established an occult secret society of his own, the Ancient Mystical Order Rosae Crucis (AMORC). He soon discovered that the market for occult correspondence courses was concentrated on the west coast, and relocated to San Jose, California in 1927. AMORC’s international headquarters remained there until 1990, and its North American operations are still based there. See Crowley, Aleister; Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO); Reuss, Theodor.

Like most American occult orders of the time, AMORC used the correspondence-course model for recruitment and training. Advertisements in popular magazines offered a series of study-by-mail courses to prospective members, and those who completed the introductory courses were authorized to join a local group if one existed in their area, or help found one if one did not. Another standard procedure was the use of different titles and privileges for local lodges depending on their number of members, as an incentive to local recruitment; in AMORC’s case it took 15 members to form a Pronaos, 30 to form a Chapter that could work the first of the Temple degrees, and 50 to form a Lodge that could confer the degree rituals.

Lewis’s prior experience in the advertising industry gave him an advantage over his competitors. By the early 1930s AMORC was the largest occult order in America, and was expanding into foreign markets as well. The order did particularly well in France. Through this French connection AMORC unwittingly played a minor role in launching one of the most colorful hoaxes of recent years; see Priory of Sion.

Though AMORC’s overseas expansion drew on the same methods that had made it successful in the American market, connections with existing European secret societies also played a part. Lewis built on his links with OTO lodges in Germany, headed by Heinrich Tränker (1880–1956) after Theodor Reuss’s death in 1921, and also pushed the organization of an international Rosicrucian federation, the Fédération Universelle des Ordres et Sociétés Initiatiques (FUDOSI). These links with French occult sources brought Lewis into contact with the Martinist movement, and he quickly established a Martinist organization, the Traditional Martinist Order (TMO), open only to AMORC members. See Martinism.

AMORC’s rapid expansion brought it unfriendly attention from its main American competitor, R. Swinburne Clymer’s Fraternitas Rosae Crucis (FRC). From 1928 on, Clymer made common cause with disaffected ex-members of AMORC and circulated allegations that Lewis’s order was simply a moneymaking scheme with no right to call itself Rosicrucian. Lewis responded in kind. The American occult press was enlivened for years by vitriolic blasts and counterblasts from the two orders, with Max Heindel’s Rosicrucian Fellowship an occasional target from both sides. See Fraternitas Rosae Crucis (FRC); Rosicrucian Fellowship.

During the 1930s AMORC expanded its San Jose headquarters to include a planetarium, a museum, and a college for Rosicrucian studies, where courses on practical laboratory alchemy were taught during the following decade. Lewis also found time to involve himself in lost continent literature, publishing a book on Lemuria under a pseudonym. Longtime residents of the Mount Shasta area have described AMORC expeditions in the 1930s searching for entrances to the Lemurian cities in the mountain. See Alchemy; Lemuria.

On Lewis’s death in 1939, his son, Ralph M. Lewis, became Grand Imperator of AMORC. Under the younger Lewis’s leadership, AMORC continued expanding into the international market, translating its” correspondence-course material into scores of languages and marketing the order in any country that allowed it. By the time Ralph Lewis died in 1987, AMORC had members in over 100 countries and a secure place in the American occult scene.

Lewis was succeeded as Grand Imperator by Gary L. Stewart. In 1990, however, Stewart was deposed by AMORC’s board amid charges of embezzlement. He was replaced by Christian Bernard, the head of AMORC’s French branch, who remains Imperator as at the time of writing. The legal wrangling around Stewart’s removal from office brought AMORC a certain amount of bad publicity and some loss in membership, and the attrition suffered by most of the older occult secret societies since the 1970s has also taken its toll. AMORC nonetheless remains a significant presence worldwide.


The Element Encyclopedia of Secret Societies : the ultimate a-z of ancient mysteries, lost civilizations and forgotten wisdom written by John Michael Greer – © John Michael Greer 2006