The Origin of The Master Key System
I received an email from a reader of The Master Key System by Charles F. Haanel. He wrote, “Since you have a lot of exposure to this material I’m wondering if you have any ideas about where Haanel got his original concepts?”
There is a lot of mystery surrounding Mr. Haanel and his perennial work, The Master Key System.
Was he a part of a Masonic conspiracy?
Did he receive his knowledge through arcane means?
Someone even theorized about a Russian wizard who shared his knowledge with Haanel.
While the history of this wonderful tome is interesting, it is not as interesting as all of that. Before we get into it, The Master Key Systemmust be looked at within the context of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. The New Thought philosophy was in full swing. There were many books and magazines publishing the new beliefs for a seemingly ravenous audience. Based on Christian Science as espoused by Mary Baker Eddy, the Christian Scientists and many New Thought-ers held firmly to the belief about what Jesus Christ said about the powers available to each and every person.
Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the miracles themselves. I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. (John 14:11-13)
Thus, with enough faith and belief, one could perform miracles as Christ did. Even a cursory reading of The Master Key System would reveal to someone that this was something in which Haanel believed deeply. That being said, the monotheistic ideas that Haanel espouses is more than likely derived from his participation in Freemasonry — while the Masons do not define their God, their only prerequisite is a belief in one God. It is then through this God that miracles and extreme human potential can occur.
It is worth pointing out that there were at least two other publications that emphasize the words “The Master Key” prior to the Twentieth Century. The actual phrase has been used since the 17th Century by the Freemasons and for a publication in the 18th century – Hiram, or the Master Key to the Door of Freemasonry, published in 1760. Another use of the phrase can be found in Madame Helena Blavatsky’s famous (or should that be infamous) 600-page Isis Unveiled, with its sub-title A Master-Key to the Mysteries of Ancient and Modern Science and Theology, published in 1877. One shouldn’t underestimate the popularity and influence of Blavatsky and those who followed her teachings – the Theosophists.
In the Twentieth Century, two authors released books with “Master Key” in the title. The first comes from L. Frank Baum, the author of The Wizard of Oz fame, and is an early science fiction novel. It was called The Master Key and subtitled An Electrical Fairy Tale. It told of the adventures Rob and the Demon of Electricity. This was published in 1901.
Another book came out at around the same time Haanel was working on his correspondence school. Its advertisement showed a book and a man reading a book inside an hour glass. The advertisement read:
The Master Key ~ Reveals Things You Never Thought Possible. The Hour Glass of Success. You Will Never get Another Book Like “The Master key”.
It was written by L. W. de Laurence and published by The de Laurence Company of Chicago, Illinois, USA, in 1914. To quote a few lines from it will show obvious similarities with Haanel’s The Master Key System.
“THE MASTER KEY is divided into Six parts: contains Thirty-seven full Chapters embracing Thirty-five Lessons of graduated difficulty covering Forty individual numbered Exercises in which the fundamental principles of Concentration and Mental Discipline are fully explained.”
L. W. de Laurence, whose full name was Lauron William de Laurence, was an American author, publisher, and owner of a supply mail order house in Chicago. He has been accused of plagiarism and the illegal publication of various occult works. The number of publications by this man seems to be considerable.
De Laurence was active at the same time as Haanel and was in fact only two years younger than him. De Laurence, who was born in 1868 and died in 1936, had connections with AMORC. It is unclear whether there was any connection between the two authors.
This then brings us to the main influence of Charles F. Haanel’s: the New Thought Movement.
When you read Haanel’s The Master Key System, it isn’t long before he starts to use terms that can be cross-referenced. To be fair to Haanel, many quotes he uses have nothing to do with the New Thought Movement. He was a man of his time and a well-read one. He used references from eminent people of the 19th Century and talks about the inventions of that time and the early years of the 20th Century. Other quotes come from the Bible but all are rather enigmatic and symbolic which could point to being influenced by New Thought writers, the Christian Scientists, the Freemasons, or the Rosicrucians. There are several hints of a possible knowledge of Hinduism, but it is unclear of Haanel’s exact knowledge of that subject as references like Pranic Energyor Pranic Ether may be from the Rosicrucian teachings or possibly, and more likely, Theosophy.
There are several words and phrases that may be of interest:
- “The Great Architect of the Universe”
- “Secret Place of the Most High”
- “Universal Mind”
- the “I”
- “The Law of Attraction”
The “Great Architect of the Universe” is a phrase often used to represent God or Supreme Being by Christians, Freemasons, and Rosicrucians. It may go back to the Middle Ages or beyond. Thomas Aquinas used a similar phrase but with “Grand” instead of “Great”.
“Secret Place of the Most High” can be found in the Bible in Psalm 91:1 –
He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.
The concept of the “I” also seems to have its origins in the works of early German philosophers. It would seem that “I” was the first principle of Johann Gottlieb Fichte’s Wissenschaftslehre – “Doctrine of Science”.
The phrase that is on the tip of the tongues of many today is “The Law of Attraction”. Like the other terms used by Haanel, this was probably not of his own inventing. It seems to have come to light first in the works of William Walker Atkinson (1862 – 1932) and particularly in Thought Vibration or The Law of Attraction in the Thought World published by The New Thought Publishing Co., Chicago, Illinois, USA, 1906. Though the phrase itself is much older, its meaning became somewhat different with Atkinson and Haanel.
The Law of Attraction also appears in the syllabus of the S.R.I.A. — The Society of Rosicrucians. However, it is not known how old this syllabus is and it is likely that it is quite modern. The S.R.I.A. was formed in 1909 with the idea of teaching to the general public rather than Masons as with previous Rosicrucian groups. Some other aspects of the S.R.I.A. syllabus bears similarities to Haanel’s works. However, it may be that both this syllabus and Haanel’s ideas are from an older source – or a just coincidence. It is unknown which came first.
Ultimately it may be possible to trace the idea of the Law of Attraction back to certain phrases that were put into the mouth of Jesus Christ in the New Testament of the Bible.
Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened. (Matthew 7:7-8, King James Version)
Another book that cannot be ignored was published in 1908 and was called The Kybalion: Hermetic Philosophy by Three Initiates and published by The Yogi Publication Society, Masonic Temple, Chicago, Illinois, USA. It cannot be ignored that this book may have played a part in the development of Haanel’s The Master Key System. It certainly wasn’t a collection of lessons and exercises, but the wording throughout this book is remarkably similar to Hannel’s publications. At one point the phrase “Mental Chemistry” is used. And though there is nothing in the title remotely similar to Haanel’s work, the phrase “Master Key” is used in the Introduction and several times in the body of the book. The Kybalion also delves into the power of thought.
…(T)he Hermetic Philosophy is the only Master-Key which will open all the doors of Occult teachings…. One of the old Hermetic Masters wrote, long ages ago: ‘He who grasps the truth of the Mental Nature of the Universe is well advanced on the Path to mastery.’ These words are as true today as at the time first written. Without this Master-Key, Mastery is impossible, and the student knocks in vain at the many doors of the Temple…. The Principles of Truth are Seven; he who knows these, understandingly, possesses the Magic Key before whose touch all the Doors of the Temple fly open.
It is believed that The Kybalion is not some ancient document but was written by William W. Atkinson and the other “Initiates” have been guessed at as Paul Foster Case and Mabel Collins. Atkinson was certainly active in the years leading up to the publication of The Master Key System and it is hard to believe that Haanel would not have known of either the man or his works. Master Key Arcana includes short pieces from the writings of several members of the New Thought Movement, including William W. Atkinson, James Allen, Florence Scovel Shinn, Henry Drummond and Phineas P. Quimby.
Whether Haanel was influenced by Atkinson, or any other members of this Movement, though, is another thing all together and it is difficult to be sure what his sources were.
Much of Haanel’s life is a mystery. Not many records were kept or preserved and the lack of many living descendants who knew him add to us not knowing much about him. I have researched and examined Haanel’s life as much as possible. His thorough biography can be found at www.haanel.com.
Researching Haanel’s influences and their play on his works is somewhat easier. As was noted at the beginning of this article, when the times in which Haanel lived are examined, you can see the influences and how Haanel used those influences to shape his thoughts and his works.
In the time period in which Haanel lived, the self-help/personal development movement (although not called by those terms) was quite large and actually very similar to what we have today. As the saying goes, the times may have changed but things remain the same. By some counts, Haanel was a somewhat important player, although he never had the infamy of Blavatsky or a few others of the time.
It was all of these elements (at least) that came together in Haanel’s mind to form one of the greatest books about personal development.
Read this book and more because you want to, not because you have to.