In Brief

The evangelist John Alexander Dowie styled himself a reincarnation of the prophet Elijah, but when Elijah speaks in Circe he seems to be based not only on Dowie but also on another American evangelist, Thomas Jefferson Shelton. Shelton preached that he was Jesus Christ, and he sold the gullible on "vibrations" that would punch their ticket to heaven: "Are you all in this vibration? I say you are. You once nobble that, congregation, and a buck joyride to heaven becomes a back number.... It is immense, supersumptuous. It restores. It vibrates. I know and I am some vibrator."

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In an essay on James Joyce Online Notes, Harald Beck and John Simpson observe that Shelton was declaring himself the Messiah as early as 1891, when the San Francisco Examiner reported the story "A Preacher Goes Daft":

     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.

Joyce's Elijah resembles Dowie in moving his church to New York City, and he refers to himself as "A. J. Christ Dowie," but the language of divinization seems to be mostly Shelton's: "If the second advent came to Coney Island are we ready? Florry Christ, Stephen Christ, Zoe Christ, Bloom Christ, Kitty Christ, Lynch Christ, it's up to you to sense that cosmic force."

The language of vibrations is even more distinctive. Beck and Simpson note that by 1894 Shelton has "gone independent and we start to hear of his vibrations." They quote from another newspaper account, in the 29 January 1894 issue of the Columbia, SC State:

     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’.
Shelton shifted from preaching to selling annual subscriptions to a monthly newspaper called the Christian. In 1898 he published a book, The Law of Vibrations, and he began marketing his telepathic powers directly to consumers, charging per vibration and throwing in free ones for all subscribers to the paper. In a 1900 issue of Philistine: A Periodical of Protest, journalist Elbert Hubbard mused on the increasingly pretentious spirituality and the increasingly lucrative business ventures:
      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.
Shelton's claims of telepathic powers apparently drew on the language of occultism: Theosophists had been dealing in vibrations for years. By 1901 he was identifying their source as the sun, as a Wichita Daily Eagle article on April 9 of that year made clear: "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."

By 1916 Shelton had come up with the idea of a "sunphone" through which he and his subscribers could talk. This innovation too shows up in Elijah's spiel: "You call me up by sunphone any old time." Joyce may well have been thinking also of an actual device called the photophone. Beck and Simpson note briefly that "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." Actually, the work began long before that: Alexander Graham Bell and one of his assistants built the first photophones in 1880. It seems likely that Shelton's whimsical conceit was inspired by hearing of these devices, and that Joyce, never one to miss a trick, layered the technological innovation on top of the huckster's blarney.

JH 2023
January 1899 issue of the Christian, published by Dr. T. J. Shelton in Little Rock, Arkansas. Source: