Art Beat: John E. Fetzer's Spiritual Quest

Sep 12, 2018

Owner John E. Fetzer consults with Detroit Tigers manager Mayo Smith at Tiger Stadium in Detroit in April 1968
Credit Alvan Quinn / AP Photo

Most of those who have heard of John Fetzer usually know him as the former owner of the Detroit Tigers. Some in Michigan, and especially in Kalamazoo, know a little about Fetzer’s other interests: broadcasting, and spiritual exploration. In his new book, John E. Fetzer and the Quest for the New Age (Wayne State University Press, 2018), Western Michigan University professor Brian Wilson digs much deeper to reveal what very few knew about the Michigan entrepreneur.


“I think what really interests people is the title of the book,” Wilson says. “I get to introduce people to his spiritual search, which lasted a lifetime. Even his closest colleagues in his businesses and baseball didn’t know the full extent of it.”

Wilson got access to the archives at the Fetzer Institute to do research for his book. The Institute was established in Kalamazoo to carry Fetzer’s insights gained from his lifelong seeking into what he hoped would be a future global spiritual transformation. From his Seventh Day Adventist roots, Fetzer went on to explore spiritualism, Theosophy, Freemasonry, parapsychology, UFOs, and the "New Age," as it was known in the 1980s.

Credit Wayne State University Press

“The term ‘New Ager’ today has become a term of abuse,” Wilson says. “It seems to signify a kind of shallowness. There definitely has been a kind of shift in New Age spirituality. John Fetzer talked about the New Age before the New Age Movement was called that. What he meant by it was that individual spiritual transformation, which is what he was looking for himself, should always be in service of global spiritual transformation. There was always this sense of community and service, not just your own inner journey.”

Although Fetzer usually kept a strict separation between his businesses and his spiritua exploration, the two did occasionally cross. He brought the practice of Transcendental Meditation into the locker room of the Detroit Tigers. Although he was careful never to impose his views on others, some of the players continued to practice meditation on their own because they felt it helped their game.

Fetzer came to Michigan in 1923 to build a radio station for Emmanuel Missionary College, now known as Andrews University, in Berrien Springs. He built and operated the station, and met Rhea Yeager, who he married. Rhea worked alongside him as program director and secretary, for many years in broadcasting. That first station eventually evolved into WKZO radio and television, and Fetzer Broadcasting based in Kalamazoo.

Brian Wilson is also the author of Dr. John Harvey Kellogg and the Religion of Biologic Living and Yankees in Michigan. He is a professor of American religious history at WMU.

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