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Spiritualism's Radical Roots

by Madis Senner


My understanding of Spiritualism, particularity in its early days, has changed dramatically since I first began my effort to restore Spirit House, a nationally registered historic home in Georgetown, NY (southern Madison County) that was a Mecca of Spiritualism in the mid 19th century. Instead of a world of mediums, psychics and spiritual peddlers, I see a very radical movement that helped liberate and raise consciousness. It clearly, or at least elements of it, need to be considered part of the “burnt-over” period in upstate NY when a great awakening of spiritual and social justice flourished that helped change the world and still reverberate today.

The Burnt over District

During the nineteenth century the area along the old Erie Canal route was a hotbed of spiritual awakening and social action. It was the birthplace of the women’s movement, which began with the Women’s Rights Convention in 1848 in Seneca Falls. Abolitionism was strong and the area was referred to as “Northstar Country” for all the freedom seekers that found refuge here. There were a host of other initiatives from free speech to food reform as well as Utopian communities and other social experiments.

It was also a time of great spiritual and religious awakening. Charles Grandison Finney, a lawyer by trade, had an epiphany in North Adams one day and became a minister and is credited with starting America’s Second Great Awakening. Joseph Smith created Mormonism. It was also the birthplace of the New Age movement. A variety of protestant offshoots or denominations sprouted. The area was also referred to as the “Burnt Over District” because the spiritual wildfires burned passionately and what was born one day seemed to be burnt over by something new the next.

The founding of Spiritualism

Long before the Fox sisters heard their spirit rapping’s in Hydesville, NY (near Rochester) in 1848 and the Spiritualist mania of the mid 19th century began, there was Emanuel Swedenborg in Sweden. Swedenborg, born in 1688, was a scientist until 1741 when at the age of 53 he began to have mystical experiences. This culminated with his spiritual rebirth and the cataloguing of the unseen or spiritual world. He became a traveler in this world, visiting heaven and hell and communicating with its inhabitants. While he reaffirmed eternal life he also shattered the conventional wisdom of the day by empowering people with the possibility of communication with the spirit world.

Anton Mesmer, a French physician, contributed to the belief in an unseen world through his doctrine of “animal magnetism” that there was an energy transfer between animate and inanimate objects. He also developed, “mesmerism” or what we call today, hypnotism. Mesmerists would put people into trance for health reasons and to communicate or gain knowledge of the spiritual world. They provided a vehicle and means for communication to this other dimension.

Andrew Jackson Davis, the Poughkeepsie Seer, appeared on the national stage a few years before the Fox sisters and has been called Spiritualism’s “St. John the Baptist.” It is said that he had an epiphany on a hill outside of Poughkeepsie; the next day found himself 40 miles away in the Catskill Mountains claiming to have encountered Emanuel Swedenborg and Greek philosopher and physician Galen. Like Edgar Cayce he began to do healings using his clairvoyance. Based upon revelations received he published the Principles of Nature in 1847 in which he presented a cosmology of the unseen world and noted how Spirits communicate with us, “[a]nd the world will hail with delight the ushering in of that era when the interiors of men will be opened, and the spiritual communion will be established." This work would serve as the doctrine or scriptures for Spiritualism.

So the ground was fertile when the Fox sisters heard their rapping’s in 1848. They popularized the movement causing its membership to surge into the millions. Under the auspices of their sister Leah they also commercialized it (Slater Brown.)

A Radical Movement

Spiritualism became the rage and saw many converts or participants to it for a variety of reasons. It empowered people and liberated them from the control of the church that saw itself as the sole medium to the divine. It offered hope and intimacy with the divine and salvation compared to the Calvinist doctrine of predestination and said that we are all evolving and could determine our own destiny. It also offered the hope to communicate with deceased relatives at a time of high mortality, particularly after the Civil War.

It also empowered women. Mediums were primarily women and were given prominence and spoke publicly which was unheard of at the time. Not surprisingly many advocates for women’s rights became Spiritualists. Ann Braude in her book Radical Spirits notes that the popularity of Spiritualism within the women’s movement saying, that while many women’s advocates were spiritualists, not all were, but all Spiritualists were women’s advocates.

Spiritualism would become involved with many social causes, many of which burned passionately in the Burnt Over District.

Heaven on Earth

As Spiritualism began to catch fire people began to practice mediumship and communication with Spirits among small circles of friends. These people were earnest and passionate about their practices as are many people are still today. However, others saw the opportunity for fortune. Several became mediums for profit and began employing theatrics. Fraud became increasingly rampant as Spiritualism grew.

While the Fox Sisters were taking Broadway by storm, others saw Spiritualism as an agent of liberation and as a break from the materialism of the modern world, not as a profit-making venture. John B. Buescher in his book The Other Side of Salvation: Spiritualism and the Nineteenth Century Religious Experience notes that there were several strains, or minor movements within the larger Spiritualist movement.

One of those strains saw communication with Spirits as means for making a better world, or a heaven on earth. Buescher notes:

“Many...who turned to Spiritualism sensed a biblical millennium, which manifested itself in plans for egalitarian utopias where humans mingle with angels or become angels themselves. Thus, Spiritualism was not just a means of contacting the spirits of the deceased or of exploring the afterlife. Rather, it meant the opening wide of a gate between a perfect Heaven and an imperfect Earth. This idea provided a link between spiritualism and social reform. “(Page 123)

Many social reformers believed that angels could help guide them in bringing about a better world, or that Spiritualism opened up a higher mind. “Spiritualists gave voice to an enlightened progressivism and were among the era’s strongest proponents of the liberation of all people from oppressive bonds and limitations. Spiritualism was simultaneously idealistic, liberal and anarchic.” (ibid page 151.)

Ann Braude notes that “The Spiritualist network, including Progressive Friends, assembled large audiences for radical causes.” (Page 69) Abolitionisms, Women’s Rights, Free Speech, Food Reform, were some of the causes.

The Fire Burned Out

The spark or consciousness that had burned brightly within Spiritualism as a vehicle of divine transformation began to wane as the decades progressed. It increasingly began to be associated with the money grabbers, circus performers and fraudsters that were bilking the public. While the ranks of Spiritualism would continue to grow until early in the 20th century, the social reformers and dreamers were long gone from the movement by then.

Braude notes that public wrath began pouring on mediums within Spiritualism during the 1870’s (Page 181). One of the first critics was Andrew Jackson Davis. Madame Blavatsky, who would go on to found Theosophy, similarly would aggressively expose fraud and bogus theatrics.

Buescher notes “by the 1880’s, reform advocates were often either members of mainstream liberal churches...or were anarchists or atheists….By that time, much of Spiritualism had devolved into stage magic or where co-opted by its later competitors.”(ibid page 235)

While many would passionately and earnestly continue to devote themselves to Spiritualism, the stigma of the charlatans and money grabbers would dwindle their ranks as well.

A New Age

When I reflect on Spirit House and Timothy Brown, who advocated things such as Free Speech and community by opening up Spirit House to all, I see him as being part of the Social Reform segment of the Spiritualist movement. Had he built Spirit House a few decades later he would probably have advocated for one of the liberal Christian or progressive alternative Spiritual strains then flowering. During his time Spiritualism was a popular vehicle for spirituality and social reform while the Burnt Over period in New York State raged. It was emancipating.

So how does one honor the tradition of Spiritualism that Brown and other social reformers espoused?

I don’t see it as embracing the Spiritualism that exists today, which seems focused on communication with Spirits and little if any interest in, social reform or social justice causes.

Instead, I think that we need to view the intent and consciousness that drove Brown and other Spiritualist reformers. They saw the possibility of being inspired by the divine or developing one’s inner faculties and working with the mystical to help transform the world. We must embrace that consciousness to see how we can give it strength or manifest in this world of ours no matter how it is adorned. We must, as they did, look at ways of bringing about Heaven on Earth, and then we will be similarly embracing the divine that inspired them.

Bibliography

Ann Braude, Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women's Rights in Nineteenth-Century America.

John B. Buescher, The Other Side of Salvation: Spiritualism and the Nineteenth-Century Religious Experience

Slater Brown, The Heyday of Spiritualism.

The preceding was from the inauguaral issue of the Spirit House Society’s Messenger, their quarterly newsletter. If you are interested in subscribing to the Messenger please email madis at: spirithousesociety@gmail.com

Madis Senner is on the Steering Committee of the SHS (www.spirithousesociety.org). He is author of The Way Home—Making Heaven on Earth (O-books) that details the mystical world, our dynamic relationship with each other and Mother Earth and how our collective thoughts/consciousness works to create our reality. He has a website dedicated to Mother Earth and sacred sites in upstate NY: www.motherearthprayers.org


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