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Religion and Psychoactive Sacraments:
An Entheogen Chrestomathy
Thomas B. Roberts, Ph.D. and Paula Jo Hruby, Ed.D.
Author Index | Title Index

The Witnesses

Hennell, Thomas (1967)
New Hyde Park, NY: University Books.

ISBN: none

Description: Hardcover, lxiv + 252 + 5 pages.

Contents: Introduction by Humphry Osmond, brief bibliography, 4 parts: 1. Enthusiasm, 2. Babel, 3. Put Back, 4. The Groves.

Note: The main part of this book was published in 1938.


"This madman's story is a book with far-reaching importance, for it guided research leading to a major breakthrough in the treatment of schizophrenia."

Dr. Humphry Osmond first read The Witnesses in 1943. In the 1950's working with Mescaline and LSD, he noticed remarkable similarities between his experiences under the drugs and those reported by the author of The Witnesses. Dr. Osmond and his staff became their own guinea pigs. They knew what to look for because of Thomas Hennell's intelligent, sensitive and observant record. Whenever they were discouraged, Dr. Osmond and his fellow workers would return to Hennell's vivid, moving story to find new possibilities they might have overlooked, and reassurances that they were on the right track. (dust jacket front cover)

At the beginning of The Witnesses Hennell touches on matters which like much else in his book have become clearer to me after frequent readings. Indeed, not until this most recent reading did I give the second page of his narrative the attention which it deserves. He wrote:

The early chapters of this book deal with some meetings and influences whose scope seemed later to become expanded and significant. But it needs skill to set the stage for a phase of human experience, which, if new to the writer, may seem far-fetched to those who witness its performance.

The great experience is disowned by religion, by science, by policy. Truth must slowly find her form, and by gradual testimony. (pages xxxix-xl)
Our early mescalin experiences made both John Smithies and me aware of the psychological, artistic, philosophical and religious implications of these matters. However, apart from writing a brief paper about them for Hibbert Journal, we felt that out main energies must be devoted to schizophrenia. The article had unexpected consequences, for early in 1953, shortly after John Smithies joined me in Weyburn, Saskatchewan, we had an encouraging letter from Aldous Huxley, asking for a reprint and suggesting we visit him, should we be in Los Angeles. ...

John and I had decided that we could hardly do better in exploring these matters than to obtain the help and cooperation of those most able to describe experience and whose perceptions were already well sharpened by decades of thought and enquiry. Few men could have been more suitable for this than Aldous Huxley, and for that very reason I approached the matter with uncertainty. It seemed almost too good to be true. Leafing through my copy of The Doors of Perception, inscribed by him with a characteristic, "To Humphry, the only begetter of this book in friendship, Aldous 1954," I am still astonished at the success of that venture. I look sadly and gratefully at my picture of him dazing down at Los Angeles through mescalinized eyes.

We were not, of course, solely concerned with madness, but because one of the main objects of our work was to benefit the sick, Aldous paid most careful attention to this, and later wrote, "The schizophrenic is like a man permanently under the influence of mescalin and, therefore, unable to shut off the experience of reality which he is not holy enough to live with, which he cannot explain away because it never permits him to look at the world with merely human eyes, scares him into interpreting its unremitting strangeness, its burning intensity of significance, as the manifestations of human or even cosmic malevolence, calling for the most desperate counter measures, from murderous violence at one end of the scale to catatonia, or psychological suicide at the other end. And once embarked upon the downward, infernal road, one would never be able to stop."...

Wise man that he was, foresighted and circumspect, Aldous early recognized and warned against most of those difficulties which have beset explorations with what we later called psychedelics. The word itself arose from our correspondence, for while psychotomimetic, hallucinogen pr phantastica all had their uses, they did not express exactly what we wanted. This was the concept of substances which expanded or altered awareness in a variety of ways, depending upon the particular circumstances and the skill and intentions of the users.

Aldous sent me this suggestion in a brief note:
"To make this mundane world sublime,
"Take half a gram of phanerothyme."
I replied with my version which we later adopted:
"To sink in hell or soar angelic,
"You'll need a pinch of psychedelic." (pages xlii-xliii)
Some of those who have had illuminative or mystical experience without psychedelics were shocked at the thought that "a drug could do the same thing." While other people believed that simply by taking a suitable pill, they would enjoy a replica of The Doors of Perception. They were surprised and even angry that this was not always so. I had to explain to several of these aggrieved and disappointed people that Aldous Huxley was Aldous Huxley and that they were they. Not everyone relished this explanation. (page xliv)

In recent years the elders have been plagued by very much more than an occasional book by an explorer of his own madness like Hennell. However, in grappling with his madness, Hennell put his finger on a crucial spot, which now has much greater relevance. We do not enjoy the idea that consciousness and awareness can change radically, and we find it even more disturbing that such changes, whether due to illness or drug, might be for the better. Nevertheless, we are faced with an urgent need to adapt quickly and intelligently to the enormous technological changes which our unbalanced creativity has produced. Pychedelics properly used and understood are the sort of instruments which we require yet, if use carelessly or stupidly, they might well increase the psychosis rate without producing any particular benefit. We need such instruments desperately, for the war men tell us with chilling detachment that if we fail to understand our new technology and its social and political consequences, then we might well be eliminated or terribly maimed as a species in an afternoon by rocketry, or even more sophisticated horror. This is an age in which it is hard to be sure when one man's fantasy may be manufactured in a secret factory around the corner and we must have new techniques of thinking, feeling and perceiving to deal appropriately with these new situations. To put it another way, in an age of improbable happenings we have to pay far more attention to understanding what is possible, for we can no longer be content or be safe with traditional probabilities - that "conventional wisdom" which has so frequently led us to catastrophes, because it easily prevents us from perceiving what is actually happening.

It was with this in mind that with such friends as John Smithies, Abram Hoffer, Aldous Huxley, Gerald Heard, Duncan Blewitt, and A. M. Hubbard of Vancouver, we started exploring the psychedelic experience and have continued to do so. In various writings since 1954, and particularly in his novel Island, Aldous discussed and surveyed the problems likely to be encountered, with his usual depth and sagacity. He strongly advised against challenging society in a dramatic or defiant way, but suggested that we must first learn how to use these new tools well so that they could be shown to their best advantage. Unluckily, the excellent advice that he gave was not always heeded. Indeed some went so far as to suggest that the dangers which undoubtedly exist would be suspended for those who wanted to take the kingdom by storm. But dangers are not suspended simply because people want them to be, nor does the psychedelic experience, of itself, ensure spiritual, artistic or creative growth. It may simply encourage self-centeredness and a belief that "I know best." It has sometimes been an occasion for a narrowing bigotry and pride rather than a general enlarging and increasing humility. (pages il-li)

Psychedelics do not produce instant religion, instant insight, instant empathy, instant creativity, or instant anything. They depend, as does every other instrument, on the skill of those who use them, and our skills are still fairly rudimentary. Hennell's difficulties still exist. The elders disapprove for, as we grow older, most of us feel, with Mr. T. S. Eliot's cat, that "It will last out my time." However, today there is some room for honest doubt about this consoling aphorism. Psychedelics then allow one to focus a widened awareness upon a variety of religious, aesthetic, scientific and personal problems. Not everyone is able to focus the experience, just as not everyone can focus a microscope or telescope adroitly. Indeed, it may take months of effort to learn to see anything with either a microscope or telescope. Some people never seem to succeed in learning. In our present predicament we need above all to enlarge our understanding of human relations, interactions, experiential worlds, or umwelts, for it is these which are peculiarly threatened by the technological changes whose implications we do not fully understand. (pages lii-liii)

This compilation by Thomas B. Roberts & Paula Jo Hruby, © 1995-2003 CSP

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