Spiritualism was a nineteenth-century social and religious movement that derived its appeal from spirit communications and evidence in support of Survival After Death. Spiritualism did not begin as a religion but became one, appearing at a time of interest in bringing science and religion together. Fraudulent Mediums and the inability of science to validate the claims of spiritualism soon led to a decline in interest. It remains, however, a vigorous religion around the world, especially in Britain, the United States, and Latin America; many Latin Americans follow an offshoot of spiritualism called Spiritism.
The official birth of spiritualism is considered to be 1848 when the Fox Sisters of Hydesville, New York, became famous for their Rapping communications with alleged spirits. The popular interest that made their fame possible had earlier been primed by the psychism-based movements of Swedenborgianism and mesmerism. The former, based on the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg’s visionary trance visits to the spirit world, and the latter, based on paranormal phenomena exhibited by mesmerized (hypnotized) subjects, began in Europe in the late 18th century and were imported to the United States. Both movements carried direct contact with the spirit world to the masses.
Of the two earlier movements, mesmerism was by far the more popular in America. Audiences would gather to witness “somnambules,” as mesmerized subjects were called, report their visions of the spirit world and Demonstrate “higher phenomena” such as telepathy, Clairvoyance, Automatic Writing, Mediumship, precognition, xenoglossy (speaking in an unlearned foreign language), psychometry and psychic healing. Their mediumship of communication with the dead was especially fascinating to the public at large. The lecture circuits became filled with various prophets of the new age, among them Andrew Jackson Davis, who delivered lectures in trance on his “harmonial philosophy,” concerning the fate of the soul after death.
Following the sensation of the Fox sisters, mediums and mystics and spiritualist journals proliferated. The public devoured “visions of the spirit world,” and virtually anyone could become a medium and communicate with the dead. Séances became the rage. Early Séances were mostly rappings and spirit messages, but many sessions became more entertaining in order to attract a steady flow of ever-larger audiences. To Demonstrate the verity of the spirit world, mediums performed paranormal physical feats, such asLevitation, Apports, and Materialization. Trickery was not uncommon, but exposure of fraud did little to dampen early public enthusiasm.
Not all Séances were public performances; many spiritualists also conducted private Home Circles for the purpose of serious study and development. By 1855, spiritualism claimed 2 million followers and was a religion on both sides of the Atlantic.
Spiritualism held that the soul, in a vehicle that was a duplicate of the physical body, survived death and made an immediate transition to the spirit world. Communication with these souls became possible through mediumship. Generally, spiritualism rejected the doctrine of Reincarnation (some adherents of Reincarnation joined the spiritist camp). Today, spiritualists are divided on the question of Reincarnation, with some believing in it and others not.
From its beginnings as a religion, spiritualism had an uncomfortable relationship with Christianity. Some Christians denounced it as Satanic, openly harassed spiritualists, and attempted to have spiritualism banned by law. Some spiritualists believed in breaking away completely from Christianity, while others sought the endorsement of the Christian Church by advocating beliefs in Christian tenets. Mediums, most of whom were women, often were shunned by family and friends.
Spiritualism gave women the opportunity to take on new roles. In Victorian England, this meant freedom from many constraints, since entranced mediums were thought to be controlled by spirits and therefore not directly responsible for their actions. In the United States, this fact, coupled with the doctrine of social equality espoused in spirit teachings, attracted leaders of the women’s suffrage movement. Several important suffragists, including Victoria Woodhull, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Harriet Beecher Stowe, were spiritualists. Susan B. Anthony was much inclined in that direction as well.
When scientists began investigating spiritualist phenomena— specifically mediumistic communications and feats—it was hoped that spiritualist tenets would be proven. Even many of the investigators, who were among the leading scientists of the day, hoped to find Scientific proof for the existence of the soul and its immortality. However, Scientific proof was, and remains, elusive. What scientists did uncover was trickery on the part of many mediums, especially those who claimed to materialize spirits.
Systematic investigations began as early as the 1850s but did not become well organized until 1882, when the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) was founded in London. Although the SPR was soon followed by an American branch (which eventually became independent), the American Society for Psychical Research (ASPR), the more extensive research went on in England rather than in the birthplace of spiritualism. Psychical researchers encountered some of the same prejudices as did mediums, and many saw their academic and Scientific careers suffer because of criticism and ostracism from their peers.
By the turn of the 20th century, spiritualism ceased to be a widespread, cohesive movement. It never became sufficiently organized to coalesce; dissension, internal politics and the exposure of frauds took their toll. Public interest also began to wane when science was not quickly forthcoming with proof of spiritualist tenets. World War I brought thousands of bereaved back into Séances; however, the heyday of the physical medium was at an end by the 1920s.
Interest in spiritualism continued on a smaller and quieter scale on both sides of the Atlantic and elsewhere in the world. In the 1930s, Psychical Research left the Séance circle and moved into the laboratory (see J.B. Rhine).
Although scientists were unable to prove the existence and survival of the soul, the early psychical researchers did much to establish that paranormal phenomena do occur and also made great contributions to an understanding of consciousness.
Modern spiritualist churches thrive in Britain, the United States, Brazil, and other countries. Many are modeled on Protestant churches but without an organized ministry. Emphasis is given to spiritual healing (laying on of hands, energy transfers and prayer) and mental mediumship; a few mediums still perform physical feats.
Mental mediumship can include trance messages relayed from spirits to the congregation and trance delivering of sermons. Some spiritualists work with spirits of the dead, while others espouse contact with highly evolved discarnate beings that is more characteristic of Channeling.
Spiritualists consider their religion to be also a science; many say that spiritualism has Scientifically proved spiritual phenomena.
The two largest spiritualist organizations in the world are in Britain: the Spiritualist Association of Great Britain and the Spiritualists’ National Union. The religion had no legal status prior to 1951 due to an old law, the Witchcraft Act of 1735, which enabled the prosecution of mediums as witches. In 1951, that act was repealed and replaced by a Fraudulent Mediums’ Act.
The largest organization in the United States is the National Spiritualist Association of Churches of the United States of America, founded in 1893 and based in Cassadaga, Florida. A spiritualist camp continues to be run year-round there. During the summer, a second camp, Lily Dale Assembly, is open in Lily Dale, near another town named Cassadaga, in upstate New York. In Canada, the largest organizations are the Spiritualist Church of Canada and the National Spiritualist Association of Canada. Besides offering spiritualist worship services and healing, the camps have lectures and run workshops on developing mediumship.
- Anderson, Roger I. “Spiritualism Before the Fox Sisters.” Parapsychology Review 18 (1987): 9–13.
- Barrow, Logie. Independent Spirits: Spiritualism and English Plebians, 1850–1910. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986.
- Blum, Deborah. Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death. New York: Penguin, 2006.
- Brandon, Ruth. The Spiritualists. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983.
- Braude, Ann. Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth Century America. Boston: Beacon Press, 1989.
- Brown, Slater. The Heyday of Spiritualism. New York: Hawthorn Books, 1970.
- Douglas, Alfred. Extrasensory Powers: A Century of Psychical Research. London: Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1976.
- Gauld, Alan. The Founders of Psychical Research. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1968.
- Jackson, Herbert G., Jr. The Spirit Rappers. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1972.
- Moore, R. Laurence. In Search of White Crows. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.
- Oppenheim, Janet. The Other World: Spiritualism and Psychical Research in England, 1850–1914. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.
- Ortzen, Tony. “Spiritualism in England and America.” In The New Age Catalogue. New York: Doubleday/Dolphin, 1988.
- Owen, Alex. The Darkened Room: Women, Power and Spiritualism in Late Victorian England. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990.
- Pearsall, Ronald. The Table-Rappers. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1972.
The word spiritualism is used to refer to the belief that people can communicate with spirits of the dead; when capitalized, the term refers to religions or movements that are based on this view. During the mid-nineteenth century in the United States, Spiritualism became a widespread social movement, thanks largely to the widely publicized activities of two girls, the Fox sisters, who demonstrated in front of audiences their apparent ability to communicate with spirits. (Many years later the sisters confessed to being frauds, although they subsequently retracted their confessions.) Eventually the Spiritualism movement spread to England as well.
But even as it spread, Spiritualism had many critics, particularly after some people professing to be spirit communicators, or mediums, were proved to be frauds. Consequently, participants in the movement, known as Spiritualists, decided to band together, forming their own churches and private communities where they could share their beliefs and practice mediumship without fear of criticism or ridicule. The most notable Spiritualist community is Lily Dale, created near Buffalo, New York, in 1879. Only Spiritualists can buy a home there, but every summer the community conducts workshops on spirit communication that visitors can attend.
The fact that this community still exists today, even though interest in spiritualism declined during the first half of the twentieth century, can be attributed to the New Age movement, which began in the United States in the 1970s. Many New Age adherents believe that individual human consciousness can survive apart from the physical body, even after death. Consequently, Spiritualists can be found in many New Age communities as well as in Spiritualist communities.
- the Fox sisters
- Lily Dale
- Physical and Mental Mediums
- New Age
The Greenhaven Encyclopedia of Paranormal Phenomena – written by Patricia D. Netzley © 2006 Gale, a part of Cengage Learning