Cults, Conspiracies, and the Twisted History of Sleepytime Tea
Beyond the chamomile and spearmint blend, there’s a peculiar story lurking in your cup of Sleepytime.
Before Sleepytime became the crown jewel of Celestial Seasonings, with 1.6 billion cups sold per year, before the company became the largest tea manufacturer in North America, the tea was nothing more than a dream in the heads of a few flowerchildren hiking up the Rocky Mountains in search of herbs.
One of the friends, Mo Siegel, was serving an Asian herbal tea to customers in a local shop to much success in 1969. The concept that “tea” could be herbal was innovative in itself, since up until then, all tea in America and Great Britain was made of the plant Camellia sinensis. The group wanted to get into the business.
On those first hikes, the team harvested enough herbs for 500 pounds of a blend they called Mo’s 36 Herb Tea, and the sleep-conjuring tea made of chamomile, spearmint, and other herbs soon followed. In no time the friends were sauntering into the local bank to get a loan for their new business, “wearing jeans, smelling of herbs, and armed with Tupperware containers of Mo’s 36 and Sleepytime blends.” They called their company Celestial Seasonings, after co-founder Lucinda Ziesing’s flowername.
But there might be another reason they named it “celestial.” Mo Siegel and John Hay, two of the founders, were avid believers in a new-age bible called The Urantia Book, which followers call “an epochal revelation authored solely by celestial beings.” The book touches upon everything from mind control to a eugenics plot to eliminate the “inferior races” of our great nation.
In fact, the religious text is responsible for much more than the name of the company. In You’ve GOT to Read This Book! 55 People Tell the Story of the Book That Changed Their Life, Siegel discloses that the ideals he gathered from The Urantia Book guided how he ran Celestial Seasonings from the beginning and provided a moral compass for himself and his employees. “I had wanted bold; I found bold,” he wrote. “I wanted spiritual adventure, and I was on the ride of my life. I was searching for truth and the book was loaded with it.”
The Origins of Urantia
The Urantia Book, a 4.3-pound, 2,097-page tome, published first in 1955, is a modified Seventh-Day Adventist text supposedly communicated to an anonymous man in a trance by aliens. In reality, it was likely authored in the early 1900s by a psychiatrist named William Sadler, who used it as a vessel for his racist ideas. (You can download the entire thing for free: Because the Urantia Foundation asserts that its authorship is superhuman, an Arizona court ruled in 1995 that it’s not protected by copyright and is, thus, in the public domain.)
There are so many wild ideas in The Urantia Book that it’s hard to know where to start. “Lucifer, Satan, Melchizedek, Adam and Eve, and Jesus are all extra-terrestrial beings who have visited Earth,” Mo Siegel, who is still intimately involved with The Urantia Book and the Urantia Book Fellowship, tells us in “The Twenty Most-Asked Questions.” In fact, Adam and Eve were brought to Earth to “upstep the human race” (more on that later).
The first three parts of The Urantia Book describe a complicated universe with invisible seraphim and spirit and semi-spirit beings of all sorts; the last part tells the story of Jesus’ entire life in detail, all 36 years. Though it has just a few thousand followers, the book has been translated into 20 languages, including Arabic, Chinese, Croatian, and Portuguese. There’s even a famous operatic cycle based on it, as well as at least four fantasy novels.
The book also purports that there have been many, many sons of God like Jesus on many different planets, because there are a billion worlds. When evolution is complete, each of these worlds will have 100,000 local universes with 10 million inhabited planets. Our Earth is called Urantia, and it’s number 606 in a planetary group named Satania, the headquarters of which is called Jerusem. When we die, we’re reincarnated from planet-to-planet, then finally to Paradise, where the Deity lives. There is a little piece of the Deity in each of us, called a Thought Adjuster.
The Fellowship will tell you that it’s not a cult, but in The Urantia Book, the revelator named the Brilliant Evening Star of Nebadon calls for Urantians to replace Christianity with a “new cult” that will be the “true religion” of the future.
“The Urantia Book itself does not represent a destructive cult. But some of its self-proclaimed prophets lead groups that can be seen as destructive cults.”
So how did this insightful book come to be? Well, there are many origin stories, but everyone seems to agree that it’s a “direct-voice” book, meaning that it wasn’t written by a human. Instead, aliens communicated the text directly to a person, or in the words of the Urantia Book Fellowship, “numerous supermortal personalities … made contact through the Thought Adjuster (indwelling spirit of God) of a particular human being on our world.”
According to William Sadler, the leader of the movement, a “Divine Counselor” presented the ideas in a language called Uversa, which had to be translated into Salvington and then into Satania before it could be translated into English and communicated to a human being.
The most accepted story, found in How to Know What to Believe by Harold Sherman, quoted and summarized in Martin Gardner’s Urantia: The Great Cult Mystery, is that around 1911, a man in Sadler’s apartment building began having fits and spells at night. Eventually he started speaking in other voices and revealed that he was “a student visitor on an observation trip here from a far distant planet.” William Sadler and his wife, Dr. Lena Sadler, had conversations with these voices for almost 10 years while their adopted daughter, Christy, took notes.
In the 1920s a group of friends (eventually called the Forum) put together a list of 4,000 questions for these beings, and lo and behold, a few weeks later the sleeping man furiously wrote a manuscript that answered all of them.
Along with later communications from the “revelators,” that manuscript became The Urantia Book. These “direct-trance” mediums were hugely popular in the second half of the 1800s, and apparently even the famed psychologist philosopher William James was lured by one. (In the 1990s many followers of The Urantia Book started to hear celestial voices of their own, though the Foundation hasn’t acknowledged that any are legitimate but, instead has done quite a bit to discredit them.)
“Psychoanalysis, hypnotism, intensive comparison, fail to show that the written or spoken messages of this individual have origin in his own mind,” Sadler wrote in his 1929 book The Mind at Mischief: Tricks and Deceptions of the Subconscious and How to Cope With Them.
The original human transmitter’s name is never revealed, but in Urantia: The Great Cult Mystery, from which much of the above is found, author Martin Gardner (who for many years wrote for Scientific American and other legitimate publications) makes the case that it was Sadler’s brother-in-law, Wilfred Custer Kellogg. Sadler had been duped by other channelers in the past, most notably Ellen White, the founder of Seventh-Day Adventism, but he believed his brother-in-law was the real thing.
The Spell on Mo Siegel
“I thought that was just the goofiest thing I’d ever heard,” Mo Siegel wrote of The Urantia Book in You’ve GOT to Read This Book: 55 People Tell the Story of the Book That Changed Their Life. “After I read it, I was not concerned about who had written it or how it had been written because it was so powerful.”
Siegel, who is now the current president of the Urantia Foundation and hosts a weekly study group at his house, discovered The Urantia Book in 1969, the same year he started hiking up the Rockies for herbs. In fact, the text was a major reason he decided to found Celestial Seasonings.
“After studying the teachings in The Urantia Book, I knew that it would feel selfish and wasteful to simply focus on material success,” he said. “So, as a young man, when I began thinking of what I could do to make a living, I immediately turned to the health food industry … The ideas [in The Urantia Book] were the inspiration for the uplifting quotes we print on the side of our tea boxes and on our teabag tags!”
“Mo and John used it as a guiding principal and continually quoted from The Urantia Book,” Caroline MacDougall, the company’s fifth employee and the current founder and CEO of Teecino told Van Winkle’s. At staff meetings they would even use quotes to bolster their arguments. “It was a guide for making sure of the moral values that underlay the company at that time,” she added.
But which morals?
The Hate Within
In “The Twenty Most-Asked Questions” about The Urantia Book, Siegel is careful to say that “all persons are equal in the sight of God” and that “race should become irrelevant.” But the text itself is weighed down with some of the most racist ideas I’ve read in a long time.
For example, starting around 500,000 years ago, six colored races appeared on Urantia (i.e., Earth): red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and indigo
“The earlier races are somewhat superior to the later; the red man stands far above the indigo — black — race,” says Paper 51 of The Urantia Book, and “each succeeding evolutionary manifestation of a distinct group of mortals represents variation at the expense of the original endowment.” Furthermore, “The yellow race usually enslaves the green, while the blue man [which corresponds to Caucasians] subdues the indigo [black].”
On every planet throughout every universe, fair-skinned, blue-eyed aliens named Adam and Eve appear to “upstep” the natives. When their progeny mate with the acceptable inhabitants of the planet, the “inferior stocks will be eliminated and there will be one purified race, one language, and one religion,” as Gardner explains it in Urantia: The Great Cult Mystery.
But before that can happen, Paper 51 of The Urantia Book says, “the inferior and unfit are largely eliminated … it seems that you ought to be able to agree upon the biologic disfellowshiping of your more markedly unfit, defective, degenerate, and antisocial stocks.”
This process happens on every planet when Adam and Eve appear. But on Urantia (i.e., earth), it didn’t go according to plan. Adam and Eve messed up. So, “having failed to achieve race harmonization by the Adamic technique,” Part II: The Local Universe section of book tells us, “you must now work out your planetary problem of race improvement by other and largely human methods of adaptation and control.”
In fact, per the text, evil, in the form of illness and disease, exists because “unfit” peoples like “Australian natives and the Bushmen and Pygmies of Africa … these miserable remnants of the nonsocial peoples of ancient times” haven’t been eliminated. Eugenics is the way to correct this error.
“Biologic renovation of the racial stocks — the selective elimination of inferior human strains,” Paper 70 of The Urantia Book says, will “tend to eradicate many mortal inequalities.”
Compare that to Hitler’s words in Mein Kampf: “The demand that defective people be prevented from propagating equally defective offspring represents the most human act of mankind.”
The Urantian Philosophy
While Hitler didn’t have anything to do with writing The Urantia Book, William Sadler did. One of the most well-known psychiatrists of his era, Sadler got his start working for Dr. John H. Kellogg at the famous Battle Creek Sanitarium, which treated celebrities like the Rockefellers, Montgomery Ward, and even Thomas Edison. Kellogg was a notorious eugenicist and founded the Race Betterment Foundation, whose goals were “to call attention to the dangers which threaten the race.”
Influenced by Kellogg’s ideas, Sadler published three eugenicist books: Long Heads and Round Heads; or, What’s the Matter With Germany (1918), Racial Decadence: An Examination of the Causes of Racial Degeneration in the United States (1922), and The Truth About Heredity (1927). The Urantia Book echoes the ideas presented in these books, and in some cases, it reproduces the text word for word.
In Racial Decadence, Sadler expresses, among other notions, that the “unfit” should be sterilized, that “morality is heredity” and that “some races are more moral than others.” And in The Truth About Heredity, Sadler writes that marriage between races “is to be deplored when one of the races would be inferior as compared with the other, which happens to be the biologic fact as concerns the White and Negro races in this country.”
His wife, Lena Sadler, who was John Kellogg’s niece, had equally damning words. In a paper called “Is the Abnormal to Become Normal” delivered to the Illinois Federation of Women’s Clubs in 1932 and published in a collection called A Decade of Progress in Eugenics, she calls for a mandatory sterilization law and says that if we do not practice good eugenics, “ultimately this monster will grow to such hideous proportions that it will strike us down.”
If we practice eugenics correctly, she continues, we’ll eliminate “at least 90 percent of crime, insanity, feeblemindedness, moronism, and abnormal sexuality, not to mention many other forms of defectiveness and degeneracy. Thus, within a century, our asylums, prisons, and state hospitals would be largely emptied of their present victims of human woe and misery.”
Lena Sadler’s speech was written nearly 100 years ago. Maybe things have changed for such modern-day followers of The Urantia Book as Mo Siegel?
“Illness and disease result from evil and cause suffering,” Siegel writes in “The Twenty Most-Asked Questions” on The Urantia Book Fellowship website. “Unfortunately, several factors hinder progress toward the development of a disease-free world. The laws of genetics are immutable, and form the physical cornerstone of evolution. At the present time mankind loses about as much progress as it makes by ignoring eugenics.”
The Fellowship is putting its money where its mouth is, too. In a 2010 email sent to “readers with advanced information and forward looking perspectives that are not suited for being posted on the website,” a follower named Martin Greenhut writes that the trustees have convened a panel on eugenics. He names all of the panel members, the most striking of which is Kermit Anderson, who at that time was the genetic screening program director at Kaiser Permanente in California and the author of much genetics research.
Little information on the panels current activities could be found, and repeated attempts to reach both Mo Siegel and the Urantia Foundation were met with resounding silence.
Celestial Seasonings Today
So where does this leave Celestial Seasonings? The company also declined to comment for this piece, which means we don’t know if The Urantia Book still guides its business decisions. Most likely not: Siegel retired in 2002, and John Hay, the other Urantia Book believer and co-founder, left even earlier, in 1985, pushed out by Siegel’s desire to become a big company “like Coca-Cola,” Caroline MacDougall recalled. (Hay went on to be the CEO of Rudi’s Organic Bakery, WhiteDove Herbals, and more than a few technology companies.)
Siegel got his wish: Since 2000, the company has been part of Hain Celestial Group, a massive, multibillion-dollar corporation that also includes Arrowhead Mills, MaraNatha, Spectrum Nationals, and Jason. Celestial pretty much invented an entire category that we now take for granted: natural health foods. And it does it well. HowGood, which rates packaged food products, told me that Celestial’s products receive a “great” rating, which means that in terms of social and environmental impact, according to HowGood, the company is 85 percent better than all of the food produced in the United States.
Like any big company, though, over the years it has faced a few class-action lawsuits. The largest one is ongoing: It accuses Celestial of falsely labeling products including Sleepytime Tea as “all natural” even though they allegedly contain pesticides. Propachlor, which is said to be in Sleepytime Kids Goodnight Grape Tea, is “a Bad Actor Chemical (meaning it is toxic, carcinogenic, or a known reproductive or developmental toxicant), a carcinogen and a developmental or reproductive toxin.” Hain has countered that it had teas tested by the National Food Lab, but there’s been some controversy about whether or not it is impartial, as the National Food Lab lists Celestial as one of its clients on its website, saying, “somewhere along the line, we have had a hand in their success.”
That may be. And the same could be said for The Urantia Book and its racist celestial and not-so-celestial creators.
Correction 2/29/16: In the original versino of this article, it was stated that Kermit Anderson is deceased, when, in fact, he is still alive. The article has been updated to reflect that fact.