Cassadaga: The South's Oldest Spiritualist Community

Cassadaga: The South's Oldest Spiritualist Community

Ed. John J. Guthrie, Jr. Philip Charles Lucas, and Gary Monroe
Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2000. Hardcover, xxi + 241 pages.

Cassadaga, a modest but picturesque community in east central Florida, is one of the most unusual villages in the South. The principal church in town is not of an evangelical denomination, but is Spiritualist. In it one hears not revival preaching, but talk of the soul's endless pilgrimage, and those edifying words may be the voices of departed teachers or loved ones coming to us through the lips of entranced mediums. On the street, general stores and fast-food outlets mingle with plaques advertising mediumship and New Age bookstores.

Cassadaga was established over a century ago as a southern outpost of a Spiritualist camp in upstate New York, and has retained this character through many vicissitudes down to the present, attracting seekers, practicing Spiritualists, and Spiritualist retirees. The present book, written by several hands and attractively illustrated, is a worthy tribute to this exceptional place. Though an academic book by professional scholars, it is rarely dull or inaccessible to the ordinary reader.

One great virtue of the volume is the way in which its cooperative nature enables the reader to look at Cassadaga from several angles. One finds authoritative articles on the history and basic philosophy of the community, on its architecture (with many pictures), and on the activities and spiritual biographies of prominent senior members, fascinating accounts based on extensive interviews. The book ends with a photo essay documenting mediumship, healing, and worship services at Cassadaga. 

In the past, the relations between Spiritualism and Theosophy have often been acrimonious. In particular, Theosophists from Helena Blavatsky on down have pointed out that the entities present in mediumistic seances are usually at best only partial shells of the deceased individual, and may well be deceptive elementals. These concerns are significant and cannot be ignored. At the same time, this book and my own experience as a visitor at Cassadaga make clear that Spiritualists today have much in common with Theosophists. Their bookstores carry many of the same books, their discourse uses terms familiar to Theosophists such as karma and reincarnation (controversial among Spiritualists until recently), and the Cassadaga Spiritualist church has even offered a class on Blavatsky's major work, The Secret Doctrine. Perhaps it is time for Spiritualism and Theosophy, two kindred but long estranged movements, to renew ecumenical outreach and dialogue with each other.


March/April 2001