Silly sunphonies: does Jesus want me for a sunbeam?

U 15.2199-2200, 2203-4, 2206-7: Are you all in this vibration? I say you are [...] It restores. It vibrates. I know and I am some vibrator [...] You call me up by sunphone any old time.

John Alexander Dowie was the restorer, and Thomas Jefferson Sheldon was the vibrator. Ireland was kept informed when Dowie marched on New York in October 1903:

To Convert New York.

Dr. Dowie’s Host Descends on the City [...]

New York, Friday.

Dr. Dowie’s Restoration Host, four thousand strong, with which he intends to effect the conversion of New York, is now arriving here from Sion City, Illinois. Dr. Dowie himself, who claims to be the reincarnation of Elijah, drove in a splendid chariot to a fashionable hotel.

Irish Times (1903) 17 October, p. 7

But by 1907 Dowie was dead. Thomas Jefferson Shelton was steaming through on the inside track.

Thomas Jefferson Shelton was born in Boxville, Kentucky on 13 June 1849. He had a rather colourful early life, and an even more colourful later one. By 1865 he was enlisted in the Union army and afterwards returned home to marry. Events conspired to send him out to Mexico soon after, in search of gold. Later he returned east, and re-married in Illinois. By 1880 he was in Wichita, as a minister of the Christian Church there, but after some dissension in the church he tried to form an independent congregation. For a few months in 1881 he edited the Republican-Times.

The church and the newspaper business continued to be significant factors in his life from now on. Later on in the 1880s he had moved with his (second) wife to Little Rock, Arkansas, and there – as pastor of the First Christian Church – started to publish the Arkansas Christian (later just the Christian, and later still the Scientific Christian) in February 1889.

He is still some way off from developing his laws of vibration, and certainly a decade or so away from the sunphone. But he has begun, it would seem, to identify himself with Jesus Christ (cf. ‘Florry Christ, Stephen Christ, Zoe Christ... A. J. Christ Dowie and the harmonial philosophy’ from the Elijah passage). Despite being hailed as a first-rate preacher, his eccentricity appears to land him in hot water, as heralded by the headline in the San Francisco Examiner for 29 March 1891 - ‘A Preacher Goes Daft’1:

Little Rock (Ark.), March 28. – A decided sensation was caused in this city today by the arrest on a charge of insanity of the Rev. T. J. Shelton, a prominent divine of this city and editor of the Arkansas Christian, the organ of the Christian Church of this State.

About two weeks ago he announced in his paper and from his pulpit that he was the Messiah and was endowed with all the powers of God. He also said that he was ordered to go to Kansas City, Mo., with the wife of a prominent merchant, who was a member of his church [...]

This afternoon his acts reached the culminating point, when he was discovered in Oakland Cemetery hard at work resurrecting the body of a young lady member of his congregation who died a few weeks ago. As an explanation of his act he said he wished to raise the young lady from the dead.

The authorities placed him under arrest, and to-night he is in jail awaiting an investigation as to his sanity.

Examiner (San Francisco) (1891) 29 March

The First Christian Church seemed unwilling to have him back. In 1894 he has gone independent and we start to hear of his vibrations. He was a sitting duck for journalists, and the State (Columbia, South Carolina) enjoys the story – ‘A Crazy Preacher..Introduces ‘The Law of Vibrations’:

Little Rock, Ark., Jan. 29. – Rev. T. J. Shelton of this city, has introduced a new feature in preaching. It is the art of making the organist do the praying and the principal part of the preaching. Shelton was for many years recognized as one of the ablest pulpit orators in the State, and was for many years pastor of the First Christian church of this city. He had for some time past been preaching to an independent congregation, and last night created a sensation in his church. His text was ‘The Law of Vibrations, or How Jesus Healed the Sick’.

State (Columbia, South Carolina) (1894) 30 January

This was the making (or breaking) of Thomas Shelton. He concentrated almost all of his efforts on his newspaper the Christian (as well as spending a while editing the Wichita Daily Eagle). He switches from being a first-rate preacher to becoming a first-rate salesman. He won’t advertise, but builds up the readership of the Christian worldwide to an alleged 40,000. In 1898 his book The Law of Vibrations was published (ed. 2, 1900), available for 25 cents from Thomas Shelton in Little Rock.

By now he was attracting ridicule, presumably mixed with a taint of incredulity and perhaps admiration. He was said to be earning $50,000 a year from the annual $1 subscription to his newspaper plus additional money sent to his extensive mail-order business. The St Paul Globe in Minnesota explains the source of this additional income:

Unique as a Money Maker ... Mr. Shelton ... has all kinds of vibrations in stock. Thus if a patient is poor and desires riches Mr. Shelton will send out a ‘success vibration’, or any number of them, at a cost of $1 each [....] As a result of ‘vibrating’ industriously Mr. Shelton is said to have an income of $50,000 a year from his practice.

St Paul Globe (Minnesota) (1900) 15 April, p. 25

In the early 1900s Shelton remarries and moves to Denver, Colorado. But his money-making schemes continue. The journalist Elbert Hubbard pulls together a number of the aspects of Shelton’s ‘ministry’ that feature in Ulysses:

Shelton says he does not publish for one week as Jesus would – he does it by the year – one dollar a year, and sends you gratis Health Vibrations every day at 4 P. M. As a premium [...] Thomas J. Shelton of Denver is not satisfied with being a plain J. C., he claims to be God Almighty. I do not exaggerate in the slightest – this is just what Shelton says twenty times in every issue of his paper. He calls himself the I AM.

... His paper is surely amusing, but its great circulation is undoubtedly caused by the premium of Health Vibrations. Shelton will send you vibrations that will bring you success in business, make the lady of your desire love you nearly to death, and cure you of that tired feeling [...] Shelton’s remedies never salivated anybody. He sends me No. 6 Vibrations, and if he is short on No. 6, he always sends No. 4 and No. 2, & I have not had an ache or a pain since I subscribed for Shelton’s paper. [...] How will it be with Jehovah Shelton of Denver, Colorado? Already the vibrations are coming rather faint. God help us all! what if they should entirely cease! Why then, I have it, we will rely on Eleanor Kirk, John Alex. Dowie, Paul Tyner & Helen Wilmans.

1900 Philistine: a Periodical of Protest vol. 11, p. 120

Hubbard throws in the name of John Alexander Dowie at the end to hammer home the eccentricity of his subject.

Shelton’s old paper, the Wichita Daily Eagle notices the direction its old editor is taking, and brings to our attention a slight shift in Shelton’s emphasis: the highly profitable vibrations are still there, but a more scientific gloss is provided by reference to mental telepathy and the power of the sun to contribute to his own healing powers. The article gives a helpful summary of Shelton’s career to this point:

Colonel Shelton was the first Christian preacher that occupied the pulpit for the Christian church in Wichita. He fell from grace, left the church and entered the newspaper business in that city. He bought the Wichita Times and ran it for some little time, but got to dwelling on his own pipe dreams so much that he got a little daffy and took to dallying with the strong drink, got tangled financially, and finally blew the town. He lit at Little Rock, Ark., about the time the first wave of occultism struck the country, and as he had given up taking sinners into the fold he evolved the brilliant scheme of taking suckers into camp, so he blossomed out as a healer.

He originated the system of accepting money from credulous dupes that later has been widely exploited by Weltmer and other mental curists. Shelton did not advertise in the newspapers, but confined his operations in that line to a little paper of his own, which he still runs and calls ‘The Christian’. In it he stated that he treated mental and physical ailments, and also for business success, or any old thing; that he made no charge for his services, which could be rendered either by personal interview or by long-distance mental telepathy, but would receive any money that was voluntarily given him. He soon organized an enormous business in mail order, healing, and finally got so strong that $1 must be enclosed with every letter for treatment.

Shelton treats by going out into the silence and exuding vibrations. [...] Two or three years ago he separated from his wife, left Little Rock and located in Denver, where he went to meet his ‘soul’s mate’, whose beautiful face he had seen while vibrating in the silence. He calls all the women ‘soul’s mates’ and sweethearts, but this one he married and has rung her in his assistant vibrator and healer. Shelton says his power to heal comes from the sun, and that for three years while passing through the psychic atmosphere he focussed the sun in his eyes and received the vibrations.

Wichita Daily Eagle (Kansas) (1901) 9 April, p. 6

Business seems to have boomed. Shelton orientated himself amongst the radical-thinking ‘New Thoughters’ of his day.2 By 1916 he had introduced the ‘sunphone’ to his repertoire of accessories:

Among the advertisements in the convention program are offered many roads to hope and happiness through the medium of thought. T. J. Shelton advertises Sunphone and Sunsense, which ‘leads you into real and genuine telepathy so that you can talk to God, your neighbor, and yourself’. ‘Sunphone and Sunsense’, he says, is dictated by himself the way he thinks it ought to be written and taken down by his wife the way she thinks it ought to be written, thus giving the product of both brains and leaving the last word where it belongs both in new and old thought.

Miami Herald (Florida) (1916) 27 September

Shelton talked to his subscribers by sunphone, and they could speak to each other the same way. In February 1919 a woman from Scranton, Pennsylvania even used the ‘Sunphone wireless’ to help clear up ‘the mystery surrounding the death of Edmund A. Gretschel..of this city’ (Wilkes-Barre Times 11 February, p. 1). As it turned out, even serious physicists had been experimenting during the First World War with the possibility of harnessing the power of sunbeams for secret communication.3

As the 1920s opened, Thomas Jefferson Shelton felt drawn to spread his message in California, home even then of many exotic cults. We find the Oakland Tribune advertising a series of lectures by him in October and November, after which the message was to be taken on to Los Angeles. Here is a typical advertisement of his religion-plus-musical entertainment:

Sunphone Sermons By T. J. Shelton, Preacher Writer Teacher (Editor Scientific Christian, 28th year.) Affiliated with Christian Healing Center. Hotel Oakland (South Room) Services Sunday, October 16th, subjects: 11:00 A.M. ‘Secret Writings of the New Testament’. 8:00 P. M. ‘My Three Visits to the Sun’. Freda Weber, soloist.

Oakland Tribune (Oakland, California) (1921) 15 October, p. 9

Almost certainly copies of the Christian were sent to Paris and Dublin. Perhaps Joyce saw firsthand some examples of Shelton’s work. The seller of vibrations and inventor of the sunphone died in Denver in 1929, but his place was taken by others whose influence did not stretch as far as Ulysses.

Harald Beck/John Simpson

Writing Elijah

Silly sunphonies: does Jesus want me for a sunbeam?

Slippery gamblers Philately is for bumboosers

Advertising patter Next stop Paradise!

The Great Harmonia and the music of the spheres


1 See Ambrose Bierce's Civilians and soldiers in context: a critical study (2004) by Donald T. Blume. With reference to this incident Blume suggests that Bierce (prefiguring Joyce) ‘may have found Shelton’s story irresistible fodder for his own creative urges’ (p. 321).

2 For a short account of New Thought in 1910 see World’s Work, vol. 19, p. 12471-5 [sic], accessible at The article publishes a paragraph from the cover of the latest issue of the Christian:

Friendship! Make friends with mammon. Money is a great friend. It all belongs to you. Make friends with it. Hold no enmity, and you will have no enemies. Antagonizing thought hurts. Above all, make friends in your mind. Shake hands with your thoughts. Call all your thoughts good. Don't array one thought against another. Have no war in your mind. Eternal friendship with everything! Shake, Old Universe! Let all of us shake hands with God.

3 See, for example, the work of Dr (later Professor) A. O. Rankine of University College, London:

British War Secret Now Revealed for Benefit of World – Range of Instrument Is Eight Miles. Almost Impossible to Tap Messages. By Crossley Davies. London, October 23. – You can telephone by sunlight now. Or, if you prefer it, you can do it by searchlight.

1919 Atlanta Constitution 26 October 15

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