This memoir began as answers to some questions toward a biography of Isaac Bonewits. This year marks the thirtieth year of ADF’s work, and in a few days I’ll be celebrating it at the Wellspring Gathering, with ADF Druids from across the continent (and maybe further). I thought that I might edit up an article to make some of this public in advance of the much more ambitious project, and this weekend seems timely.
This is a highly personal view on the events of those early years. There was perhaps more rancor than I have expressed, at times, but many friendships have stood the test of time since, even if paths have diverged. The work of organizing is the ditch-cutting and rock-hauling of our spiritual path. May the gods and spirits bless the laborers.
Part 1 – Prehistory of Me
I’m a working class guy from a steel town in NE Ohio. I was raised in the 50s and 60s, came of age in the 70s, nurtured on Rock-n-roll, the New Left, the counterculture and the occult. I was 16 in 1971 or so, when I hitch-hiked across the border into Toronto for a taste of adventure. Among other sights, I encountered my first real ‘occult shop’. In it was a book I hadn’t seen before, called “Real Magic” – the edition with the great big diploma in Magic and Thaumaturgy on the back of the dust-jacket. Wow, a modern book on the occult, and the guy in the pic looked young. While I had to use the little money I had for food on my journey, I soon secured a copy in its first popular paperback edition.
Here’s a funny thing. The paperback edition of Real Magic came out in maybe 1972, and in it the dedication was made to the “Members of the Mage’s Guild of the Middle Kingdom of the Society for Creative Anachronism.” So when I joined the SCA in 1973 I was instantly interested in learning whether and how it connected with occultism and Paganism. Apparently Isaac had attempted to found a magician’s guild in the Society, with very limited success. Isaac was remembered in the Middle Kingdom as “Isaac the Unlikely”, though I can’t say whether he took that name himself, or had it bestowed upon him.
In about 1977 I moved to Cleveland, Ohio. In about 1978 I joined my first non-initiatory circle of Wiccan-syle Paganism. Incidentally, when I finally met the HP of the sponsoring coven, he was a fellow I’d known in the SCA. At about the same time, I became one of the founders of a Discordian cabal or something, called the Chameleon Club. About 20 friends came together to work on organizing events, entertainment and parties, based around the ideas of Robert Anton Wilson, Timothy Leary, Aleister Crowley and their ilk. As early as 1978 we were managing events in greater Cleveland, including visits by Selena Fox and Jim Alan, which brought together Pagans from the NE Ohio area before ‘Pagan Festivals’ had begun.
The Starwood Festival was founded in 1981 by the Chameleon Club. We founded a winter event, held in a state park with cabins and hotel facilities, a few years later. I don’t quite recall whether Isaac was at the very first Winterstar, or the second. He appeared in 1984.
Following the first Starwood, at Lughnassadh of 1981, I moved from Cleveland to Providence Rhode Island. I moved house to pursue the traditional Craft with a coven that had a focus on Gaelic Pagan deities, and my Celtic interest turned from Welsh to Irish. Even before meeting Isaac I was likely to appear at festival rites in white robes, a torc (which I had learned of in the SCA) and a staff.
In Summer of 1984 I returned to Ohio. In the meantime I had met Isaac.
Isaac wasn’t at the late-70s and early-80s events I attended. He had attended the Llewellyn “Witch-meets” in the mid-70s (a bit before my time), but as far as I know his first appearance at a more modern Pagan event was at the Winterstar Symposium in 1984. (Was he at PanPagan ’80? My impression is no.) When we learned that we could get Isaac out to one of our events I was delighted.
Isaac’s appearance at Winterstar was just one season following his formal announcement of the founding of ADF at Samhain of 1983. I remember him at that event promoting his new idea to a fairly receptive audience, including people who are still members today. I found Isaac funny, bright and interesting. Being an organizer of the event I was able to get some time with him, and discovered a shared interest in Celtic lore as well as world occultism. My response to his pitch on ADF was that I was busy developing a new coven of my tradition, and didn’t have time for another system. Of course Isaac’s ideas were quite raw at that time. I did become peripherally involved with the organization, writing a bit for the first newsletter.
Isaac would continue to appear at Starwood events throughout the rest of his life. I was never an intimate local friend of his. Rather I knew him at events, through long sessions of ale and theology and other bullshit. For quite some time we were both festival horn-dogs, though I went monogamous while Isaac never did. Nevertheless I enjoyed Isaac’s company and he was a regular guest at our camps.
2 – Early Me & ADF Timeline
Let me outline my early history with ADF.
• 1984 – I meet Isaac at Winterstar, and tell him I have no time to organize a Grove in Cleveland. That will remain my answer for the next 6 years or so.
• 1985ish – I work with Isaac, Tony Taylor, Ellen Hopman, etc doing one of the first big public ADF rites, at Pagan Spirit Gathering; long talks there about Celtic Reconstructionist ideas. (The Pagan Druidic organization Keltria would schism from ADF in the next year or so, over issues of Celtic-only and closed-circle policies.)
• 1986ish – Isaac appoints me to the ADF BoD. I serve an undistinguished year, then resign, because I was busy. Throughout, I was hanging with Isaac some at festivals and exchanging ideas. I also knew other ADF folks from the period.
Incidentally, throughout the middle and late 80s I was writing and leading public rites in a sort-of Celtic Wiccan format. My coven became close to another coven in the area, and together we did several events. Later I would enter a relationship with the priestess of that coven, Liafal, and together we would dive into ADF.
• 1989 – Stone Creed Grove (SCG) founded in Cleveland by Paul Maurice and others. Newly divorced, I attend the first public rite that Fall Equinox, and jump in to meetings and organizing. Being the almost the only person with full understanding of the ADF liturgical order, (along with JD Labash, perhaps) I begin writing and teaching rituals.
• 1991 – SCG hosts the first Wellspring Gathering at Brushwood. Wellspring is the first dedicated ADF festival, and we get a good attendance from the NE, where most ADF ferment is happening.
2 – RDNA and the Founding of ADF
All of that was before I knew Isaac, but I’ll tell you what I know.
Isaac’s primary conflict with the RDNA was his desire to make a real Pagan religion and do real occultism. The original RDNA types were more like anti-clerical dissenters from chapel than Neopagans, and Isaac was just too religious for ‘em. He tried several direct offshoots, but didn’t get any traction.
As I understand it, he was kind of out of the Druid biz when he met a new friend (Shennain Bell) and they discovered a mutual interest in Druidism. That led to a NYC study group in which Isaac developed a new liturgical model, based in part on previous RDNA liturgy, but also on research into ancient forms, and his own analysis of what makes a good ritual (he had a sharp mind for such things). From my friend and long-time Pagan organizer Larry Cornett I’ve had some description of the early work of the ADF proto-group that met in Central Park in 82/83.
So ADF was an effort to make a new Druid system based on all the ideas that Isaac had been working for, with no previous elders to nay-say him, and with rules meant to keep him in charge as things got going.
3 - What were the first-wave goals of ADF?
1: An independent tradition of Neopagan Druidism. There would be no claims to ‘lineage’ or inheritance – ADF was a new thing, made by scholarship and artistic inspiration. ADF would be based on the best scholarship available, and be willing to adjust its work when scholarship changed opinion.
2: Formal organization and public presence. ADF was about making public Pagan congregations which would be charged with providing regular open worship to the local Pagan community. There would be paid membership, formal training and a hierarchy based on recognition of achievement. Eventually there would be public temples of worship owned by ADF Groves.
3: Trained Professional Clergy. ADF would provide a way for dedicated people to make a living as Pagan clergy. Isaac made no bones about hoping that he would be one of the first of those. He certainly hoped to end up making enough to be a full-time Archdruid. It never happened.
The motto was “Why not excellence”. The truth is that public Pagan ritual often wasn’t very good. Methods cooked in circles of 5 – 15 people just don’t serve up very well to 50 and more. Consensus decision-making and formal egalitarianism become more and more difficult in larger groups, and Isaac envisioned citywide congregations of dozens if not hundreds of members. So Isaac taught the practice of good scripts, real rehearsals and skilled performance of ritual. He encouraged artistic and scholastic excellence, discarding a lot of leftover 19th century baggage.
Isaac was raised Roman Catholic, and I think it’s fair to say that while he rejected the church’s theology and policy he rather envied its organization. Isaac wanted a system in which a Pagan could enter an educational system, finish training and be given a job (or a shot at a job) as a priest. That’s what I think he would have wanted for himself as a young man had his religious sensibilities made it possible, and it’s a sentiment I can appreciate.
Isaac never cared for political correctness. In a decade when feminist theory and post-marxist anarchist organizations were strong, he proposed a gender-blind formal hierarchy with majority-rule elections. In a religious path that often taught that money and religion don’t mix he proposed building local bank-accounts and renting spaces.
Mainly, we’ve lowered our expectations about the money. The first three goals above remain firmly in place, though we’ve realized that we’re a long way from paying priests or owning buildings for the most part.
We remain committed to public Paganism, local worship and formal training. Nothing has moved quickly, we’ve had small restarts, but we continue to move ahead, still guided by Isaac’s original vision. (…and that’s really the case, not just rhetoric – we refer to his original intention documents pretty often…)
5 - What were the early challenges in the growth of ADF?
In ADF’s first decade it struggled to extend its reach beyond Isaac’s circle of friends and co-conspirators. The early publication, “Druid’s Progress” was run as a ‘zine’ in the 80s style, and was intermittent at best. Interested folks met at festivals. During the 80s there were various Grove start-ups, but very little model or precedent for what a Grove would be like. Isaac’s model often did not match that of the start-up groups, and Groves came and went from the roster. The liturgical order itself was revised two or three times by Isaac between 84 and 91ish, as well.
The first Wellspring Gathering was the beginning of the real growth of the organization. Before Wellspring there were probably 5 working Groves, a year later, twice that. Once solitaries saw that there was something really happening, more Groves were founded.
I think that Wellspring was the first time that Isaac had seen an ‘orthoprax’ ADF liturgy done by someone other than him, and with no scripts. Over the next several years I made it my task to help reform and refine Isaac’s ritual outline. For many years we held a roundtable on the liturgy at Wellspring, and new and experienced Grove organizers would compare notes and get ideas. As a result, a few years later Isaac made me ‘Chief Liturgist’ of ADF by fiat.
I’ll digress to say that I feel confident that I have had some influence on ADF liturgy:
I de-emphasized the use of extensive non-english recitations. Isaac had written and performed the first script in both English and Irish. I found the idea quite clumsy, especially for public rites, and while we retained a few key phrases in Irish the rites were done mostly in English. I introduced the giving of material offerings. Isaac’s script had called for three passings of a cup, one each for three classes of spirit. In an effort to make the work more friendly to larger groups (always a goal) I replaced that with the giving of material offerings. We poured ale on the ground or into a bowl for the Dead, birdseed or shinies for the Landwights, and scented oil into the fire for the Gods. A bowl of oil with a ladle became a standard part of the rite.
As time went by we came to agree that this had been a Good Idea. It returned an archaic feel to the rites that brought juice of a kind none of us had felt in years of Wiccan rites. I’ll admit to lifting it, at least in concept, from Hindu rites and also from some Asatru customs of pouring offerings, as well as from actual accounts of ancient Euro practices. It has become a defining characteristic of our style by this time.
All that said… challenges. The early challenges (say, 1984 – 1994) were mainly logistical and organizational. ADF was a big-ideas attempt, anchored by one guy in his living room (and his able wife, Deborah Lipp, I must add). This never really worked very well. In many ways the biggest obstacle to early ADF was Isaac. He demanded to remain the chief officer, and to appoint the Board of Directors himself, for the full nine years that his original design called for. Four or five years in, a growing membership was howling pretty loudly for elections. I very much doubt that the membership would have voted anyone else as Archdruid, but members wanted control of the other officer positions. The member ferment produced the first elected Mother Grove position, the Member’s Advocate, still a working seat.
Isaac had set a challenging publication goal. He wanted a quarterly journal as well as a bi-monthly newsletter. On occasion that actually happened. But the rate of burn-out for the production of small magazines is well-known, and keeping a reliable editor was always an issue in the first years. A number of membership years went by pre-internet with very little paper in hand for a member’s dues. This was probably the major source of member discontent.
A couple of years after, the nine years of the first phase of Isaac’s plan had passed. It is greatly to Isaac’s credit that he did in fact open the Board of Directors to direct election, while retaining the AD-for-life status that he had written in to the original documents. I was the first elected Vice-Archdruid. I think I have never bragged on it much, but Isaac recruited me to run for that post, telling me that he trusted me with the vision of ADF. I served on the BoD in some capacity for the next 7 or so years.
6 - Isaac's resignation as Arch-Druid
Of course, Isaac’s neuro-muscular disease is probably the main reason that he resigned. However, his position had become quite stressful. ADF had become quite contentious, with a dispute rising between more formal reconstructionist members and Groves and more Neopagan or liberal members. There was, not for the first time, real push-back against Isaac’s ideas of open public worship in favor of a kind of neo-tribalism. There was real pressure on Isaac to submit himself to election. The growth of the organization led to various growing pains, including members who wanted ADF to act as various sorts of religious court, dispute resolution, etc.
All of this added up to enough stress to be bad for Isaac’s weakened system. We were also at a good point in ADF organizing. We had good officers – Skip Ellison was a kick-ass scribe, and John ‘Fox’ Adelman was also busy organizing the pile of paper from Isaac’s first decade as AD.
I got a call from Deborah Kest on a January morning. She had gotten to her email first, and called me to say “Isaac resigned… you’re Archdruid!”
To what extent did he really resign?
He not only in fact resigned, he really, truly did resign. I never got a call from the little bugger, bless him.
Skip and Fox stayed in touch as Isaac turned over the paperwork, but it was probably 4 or 5 years before we saw him at a national meeting again, and he kept his nose entirely out of the reforms that followed his resignation.
To be clear, Isaac never resigned from ADF. He became inactive for some while following his resignation, but I think we started to see him again at events in the early 00s. In 2002 he was one of six ADF priests to receive full ordination as part of a ‘grand-mothering’ kick-start to our clergy training program. By that time he was again an active voice in the religion and theology end of our work.
Isaac was received back gladly when he came. The organization’s culture was glad to view him as the ‘extinguished flounder’ as he always said, and he was glad to take the off-duty kibitzer role. He was always a fine ritualist, and helped us make a team that could kick some ritual ass in public festival rites.
7: The first Archdruidic Election
(In the interest of discretion I will mention only the names of the victors of the political fray that followed Isaac’s resignation)
Thus I found myself sitting as chair of some of the very first live-chat AOL Board of Directors’ meetings. The stress that had produced Isaac’s resignation included the difficulty of getting volunteer officers to complete a three-year term. Isaac designed for continuity, but life gets in the way. At the time meetings were reduced to some six or seven voting board members.
For years the MG meetings had been held as multi-hour conference-calls, costing hundreds of dollars per meeting. Now we had this new chat format, with almost no custom, structure or management tools available. In early phases non-MG members could not be kept out easily, and even the all-caps rule was barely understood. So we had a brand new style of circus, and a dewy-fresh Archdruid.
I did not intend to stand for election . That was a miscalculation on Isaac’s part – he expected me to take the chair. I had just launched a new business with partners, hoping to get out of hourly-wage living. My wise and noble wife said to me, sez she: “You can open a new business or be Archdruid, not both”. Unable to defeat that logic, I chose not to stand.
The by-laws specified, at that time, that there were two ways to become a candidate for Archdruid. One could either be nominated by the Mother Grove (the board of directors), or gather petitions among the members. At one of the first meetings that I chaired, a faction appeared that was prepared to nominate a candidate.
Here was my first error. The election was mine to manage under the by-laws, but I’m not the dictatorial type, really, and my mantle was still damp. Had I had my wits about me I would have tabled the effort of this faction by fiat, pending review. I was, myself, unable to think of any qualification their candidate might have had at the time, yet here was a cadre of known members with a plan. The plan was pushed through, and the MG nominated their candidate.
John ‘Fox’ Adelman had been active in Ohio Pagan circles for some while, and then thrown himself into ADF organizing. He volunteered to be Isaac’s administrative assistant, leading to his appointment as ‘President’ of ADF – a title without standing in the bylaws but reflecting the consensus at the time that administrative work should be moved from the Archdruid’s desk to a more secular officer. Fox was well-known among those actually managing the org, and had begun establishing a thriving Grove in his home region. He was an obvious choice for a candidate.
My second error – I did not move quickly to repair the results of that first meeting and allow Fox’s candidacy. He didn’t stand up plainly and say “I want it”, and the days ticked by until certain deadlines had passed, making that original faction feel safe in having accomplished their goal. Discovering that Fox was indeed interested in the position (we still hadn’t reached the email-by-default, instant messaging stage of tech) I was forced to pull a fast one, and push through a vote that extended the deadline for petitions for candidacy. Fox was able to produce the signatures with ease, but the original faction was offended that the rules had been bent to allow an actual race. I don’t feel bad about it.
8: Archdruid Fox
Rev John “Fox’ Adelman (one of the only members to complete the original priesthood training program, prior to his election) won the election with 70+% of the vote, and a new Mother Grove was seated. Isaac was gone, and there was no excuse for not making some of the changes we had been boiling up for the past few years. It was a radical moment, but most of the leadership approached it with Isaac’s original goals clearly in mind. Here’s what we did.
We suspended the original ADF Clergy Training program. The history of that program really deserves a chapter of its own, but not just here. Design difficulties and organizational bottlenecks had made it a millstone. We suspended it in favor of the notion of a series of guilds, a model we still use to some degree.
We ended the promise of a bi-monthly newsletter, and combined print communication into a single quarterly magazine. At this point we still could not predict what the internet would mean. We did succeed in regularizing our print communication – eventually.
In a series of leadership retreats we invented the Dedicant Work. This amounted to the first step in replacing the former training program. It remains a valuable resource for members.
This brings us roughly to the end of ADF’s first ten years, with Fox in the AD chair, and provides a good place to end my narrative for now.
9 – Isaac and ADF
ADF is Isaac’s creature. He shaped it from early days, and it largely holds that shape today. It has grown well-past him, of course, and we are growing past the Original Gangsters of 1994 into a group of leaders who never actually met Isaac. Because of rules and models that Isaac made certain to include, change will be gradual, and the past will be remembered for some time as things change.