The life of Dr. John Ballou Newbrough was often impressive, often unique, and often strange — and at its strangest, it was in New Mexico.
Born in Ohio in 1828, Newbrough was a charismatic man with fiery red hair, an imposing 6’4” frame, deep and enigmatic eyes, and a commanding presence. In the course of his life, Newbrough became an East Coast doctor, dentist, inventor, and novelist, made two fortunes mining gold in California and Australia, travelled the world, married a girl from Scotland, and practiced medicine for decades in New York City.
Newbrough was also deeply immersed in the spiritualistic circles and seances so in vogue in the mid- to late-1800s, and in the spring of 1880, declared that angels had instructed him to create a new Bible.
“I had been commanded by the spirit voices to purchase a typewriter, a new invention which writes like the keys of a piano,” Newbrough wrote in the introduction to a later edition of the book he produced. “I applied myself to this invention with indifferent success. Then one morning lines of light rested on my hands, while behind me an angel stood with hands on my shoulders. My fingers played over the typewriter with lightning speed. I was forbidden to read what I had written and I obeyed. This same power visited me every morning. My hands kept on writing, writing for five weeks. The illustrations were made under the same control. Then I was told to publish the book which should be called Oahspe, a paneric word meaning Earth, Air, and Spirit.”
First published in 1882, Oahspe: A New Bible in the Words of Jehovih [sic] and his Angel Ambassadors, professed to be a true account of the entire history of humanity, covering approximately 78,000 years. The book incorporated and explored stories from the Bible, world history, Greek mythology, Buddhism, Confucianism, Mohammedanism, and — coincidentally — Newbrough’s own life. It was the first book to ever use the word “starship,” and perhaps the only book to suggest that the Star of Bethlehem said to have shone over Jesus’s birth was actually the Starship of Bethlehem.
One verse in Oahspe reads, “When the birth was completed, the angels of heaven re-entered their starship and hastened back to paradise.”
The book soon sold out its initial printings and attracted a small band of disciples who Newbrough called Faithists. It also attracted the interest (and fortune) of an affluent businessman named Andrew Howland.
In 1884, Newbrough convinced Howland that a spirit had revealed that the Faithists were to go west to establish a home for orphaned children — a place where all the Faithists could live together in peace. Newbrough had already — according to an anonymously authored 1906 account — determined that the group’s refuge would be in the Mesilla Valley of southern New Mexico, just a few miles north of Las Cruces, but told Howland to board a train westward with him, and that angels would instruct them further.
Newbrough and Howland soon arrived in New Mexico Territory, and Newbrough said he felt compelled to head south. In Las Cruces, Newbrough said he felt the need to exit the train. There, Newbrough asked to be blindfolded so that only inspiration would lead them to their goal. The pair rode into the desert in a buggy and, on the sandy banks of a bend of the Rio Grande, Newbrough removed his blindfold and declared what he saw to be the Land of Shalam — or Shalam Colony — the future home of the Faithists.
Next week, we will explore the unusal story of Shalam Colony and its residents, the ongoing fate of the Faithists, and why the colony today is little more than ruins.