Who was Edgar Cayce, the day-to-day person?

This past year, I came a bit closer to gaining a feeling in my heart for Edgar the man when I was given the privilege of reintroducing and narrating a new audio and print edition of Thomas Sugrue’s classic biography, There Is a River, jointly published by A.R.E. Press and Tarcher/Penguin.

I spent four days in a small recording booth narrating the full text of Sugrue’s 1942 book, along with my new introduction. There Is a River was the only biography of Edgar published during his lifetime, and the book attracted national attention and established him as the best-known psychic of the twentieth century.

My involvement with the book helped me see Edgar less as a headline-making “miracle worker” than as exactly the person he said he was: a devout Christian, a deeply loyal man of agrarian roots, and a seeker who never knew quite how to understand his psychical gift, yet who determined that his trance readings would either serve the higher good or he would cease them altogether.

Edgar’s self-perception informed Sugrue’s title, from Psalms 46:4: “There is a river, the streams whereof shall make glad the city of God….” The seer regarded himself simply as a “channel”—a term he was among the first to use—of the Divine flow.

When encountering There Is a River, some readers are taken aback, as I first was, by its degree of family detail. Sugrue dedicates long passages to the marriages and living arrangements of various cousins, in-laws, aunts, and uncles. But I came to realize that this detail grew directly out of Edgar’s literary choices, and the author’s close proximity to him.

Sugrue spent several years in the late 1930s and early 1940s convalescing with Edgar in Virginia Beach, Va. The journalist suffered from a debilitating joint disease and credited Edgar’s readings with prolonging his life. During afternoons together, the men would talk for hours. Sugrue set the general framework of their discussions and augmented them with his own research and interviews. But it was Edgar who directed his biographer to the topics that mattered most to him.

There Is a River could not have been written any other way. For all Edgar’s reputation as a “simple” man, he set his own priorities with an iron determination. Scholar Harmon Bro, who also spent time close to the seer, noted that Edgar stood “ten feet tall” and was “as strong-willed and capable of risks as Captain Ahab in Moby Dick.” Edgar, while gentlemanly, deferred to no one. He could be overheard on the phone telling Hollywood celebrities who wanted a reading that their names would be added to the waitlist like everyone else’s. (Even Franklin Roosevelt’s vice president, Henry A. Wallace, a well-known seeker in mystical realms, sat on Edgar’s waitlist, never receiving his session by the time of Edgar’s death in early 1945.)

Sugrue also devotes many pages to the details of Edgar’s medical readings. These parts of the book amass an important record: First, they capture the primary thrust of Edgar’s career as a healer, and, second, they demonstrate how hard his patients had to work on their own recoveries. Those who got better, Sugrue writes, were often those who followed Edgar’s meticulous treatments as closely as possible. This was not easy. Communication was slow between the healer and his patients, who often lived faraway; there was no Baar Products (today’s supplier of Cayce remedies) or A.R.E. catalogue from which to order materials; physicians were often hostile to the readings and would not assist; and the treatments could consume major parts of a patient’s day.

For all the focus on family and medical matters, Sugrue also maps out a coherent and compelling spiritual vision behind Edgar’s readings. In short, Sugrue finds that the teachings contain a definite theology: Men and women enter this earthly plane from prior incarnations, and are charged with balancing out karmic influences from past lives; eventually—sometimes following many lifetimes of trial, error, and resolution—they rejoin the source of Creation. At the foundation of this cosmic theology is a deep sense of Christian ethics. It has Christ at its epicenter. But Edgar’s theology also provides perhaps the nearest expression we have of a universal faith—one that unites and harmonizes the insights of the major religions, a topic I explore further in my introduction.

Another detail struck me with special poignancy—and it may be why Edgar’s name has remained widely known. After Edgar’s hospital closed, while he reeled from heartache and watched key donors depart, the seer received a renewed sense of purpose from his eldest son, Hugh Lynn.

Hugh Lynn Cayce hit upon a new idea of how the work should be carried out. “Maybe there’s something wrong with us,” he told his father in 1931. “Suppose we stop expecting people to do things for us and start doing for ourselves. The world doesn’t owe us a living because we have a psychic medium in the family; we ought to work for what we get just as everyone else does.”

Hugh Lynn proposed a radical new structure for the nascent Association for Research and Enlightenment. The organization would be member-supported—no more reliance on one or two fickle donors. And members would be motivated to remain involved in order to benefit from the association’s educational resources and services. As Hugh Lynn saw it, A.R.E. would categorize the readings by topic and ailment; assemble a world-class psychical library; publish journals, newsletters, and books; and host conferences and programs. A.R.E. would fulfill its aim of “research and enlightenment”—all of it self-supported by people who felt a shared stake in the organization’s mission.

This was one of the turning points of Edgar’s life. Hugh Lynn’s vision left its mark on A.R.E. and generations of members. The currents of the river did not end with the seer, but now flow through the ongoing reach of his work.