Spiritualism in Antebellum America

Spiritualism in Antebellum America

by Bret E. Carroll
Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997. Hardback, xiv + 227 pages.

Historians of American religion have recently displayed a new level of serious interest in alternative spiritualities, past and present, realizing that they have influenced the course of America's radically pluralistic culture and have told American s who they are , virtually as much as "mainstream" religion has done. Bret Carroll's Spiritualism in Antebellum America is a good ex ample of this trend, and fascinating reading it will be for those with a taste {or good scholarly writing and a love of the American past and the manifold varieties of the spiritual quest.

The book is not so much a chronological tracing of the new religion from its beginning in 1848, with the mysterious "rappings" the young Fox sisters heard in their upstate New York farmhouse, up to the Civil War, as it is a thematic study of the new religion in this period, which was something of its golden age. Sensational accounts of mediumship, table-tilting, and spirit trumpets and bells filled the newspapers, and in some places conventional churches were reportedly nearly emptied as seekers swarmed instead to "home circles" and to auditorium programs featuring Spiritualist speakers and "demonstrations."

The chapters of Spiritualism in Antebellum America deal with such topics as "Spiritualist Republicanism," "The Structure of the Spirit World," "The Ministry of Spirits," "The Structure of Spiritualist Practice," and "The Structure of Spiritualist Society." "Republicanism" refers not to the present political party, but to what historians call the "republican" reaction in Jacksonian America against lingering elements of aristocracy, and privilege, in favor of democracy and equality. For many this mood took quite radical forms in the 1830s and 1840s, leading to a rejection of hierarchy and mere traditionalism in religion no less than in the political sphere.

Spiritualism was clearly a beneficiary and expression of this "republican" wave. Anyone could be a medium or form a Spiritualist circle. As Ann Braude has shown in another excellent book on the subject, Radical Spirits, Spiritualism was a movement that offered women opportunities for spiritual leadership and se lf-expression on important issues at a time when they were denied them in virtually all other churches, as well as in affairs of state. Spiritualism was closely connected with most of the progressive guises of the time: abolition of slavery, feminism, socialism, temperance, prison reform, and the decent treatment of Native Americans.

Historians have also come to see how much America in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century was, in the title of a recent book by Jon Butler, Awash in a Sea of Faith. The conventional religions, and even the famous frontier revivals, were only parts of this mix: there were also Deism, magic, Unitarianism, Mormonism, Transcendentalism, occultism, communalism, and then Spiritualism, But against this melange the emergent scientific and industrial revolutions presented yet another challenge, that of sheer materialism. One response to it was what Carroll calls "technical religion," of which he presents Spiritualism as a prime example.

Spiritualists offered their faith" as the most "scientific" of religious as well as the most "democratic." Not only could it he practiced by anyone, but its claims could also be tested by anyone. One could, in principle, check the veracity of what mediums reported about the lives of departed loved ones, or inspect the seance room for hidden props as much as one wished; this was one sect that did not depend on "blind faith" in the infallibility of ancient texts or of a privileged priesthood,

Spiritualism was actually a religion for the technological age in a double sense. Not only was it allegedly the first to be fully subject to scientific verification , it was also the first to be spread by means that the new technologies made available: through the mass print media at a time when literacy was finally approaching universality in a few advanced countries, including the US; through apostles no longer limited to foot , horseback, or sail, but able to carry the message throughout the nation and the world in the relative comfort and speed of hurtling steam trains and ocean liners and even to send messages instantaneously by the telegraph , invented only a few years before the Fox sisters' rappings. No wonder Spiritualist publications had such progressive, up-to-date names as the Spiritual Telegraph and Spiritual Age!

Present -day Theosophists will undoubtedly see in all of this, as did the founders of the Theosophical Society, H. P. Blavatsky and H. S. Olcott-both one- time students of Spiritualism-a foreshadowing of their movement, founded in 1875 in the wake of the first great Spiritualist age described by Carroll. Here too was a democratic form of spirituality accessible in principle to persons of both sexes and all classes equally, progressive in spirit and embracing many people seriously interested in world improvement. It too made much use of modern media for its dissemination-one thinks of all the Theosophical magazines, of Blavatsky and Olcott sailing by steamship through the newly-opened Suez Canal en route to India, and on a deeper level of the way in which modern Theosophy sought to resolve the burgeoning Victorian science- versus-religion crisis of faith. Theosophy did this, however, in a way that went beyond what Spiritualism ordinarily had to offer. It did not so much submit its claims and "phenomena" to scientific verification, though there was some of this, as appeal to a deeper and older stratum of wisdom, the "Ancient Wisdom," which was postulated as secreted within all real religion and science and which when unpacked could provide common ground for understanding them both.

The partial truth and sometime excesses of early Spiritualism produced scathing rhetoric from the Theosophical side in the nineteenth century. Today, however, with the polemical passion of early Spiritualism largely spent, one can appreciate antebellum Spiritualism, imperfect though it may have been, for the fascinating and courageous movement it often was. Bret Carroll's book will be an aid to that appreciation.


Summer 1998