A historical overview
BY: Bret E. Carroll
However bizarre outsiders might consider Spiritualism and its adherents, the religion expresses the same spiritual longings that move people to join other religious bodies. Belief in immortality, curiosity about an afterlife, and the desire to establish communication with a higher spiritual world are as old and widespread as humanity. Yet modern Spiritualism is also a product of the particular circumstances of 19th-century America. In this respect, it is much like Mormonism, which emerged in the 1820s, and Shakerism, which emerged during the late 18th century.
Most modern Spiritualists pinpoint the birth of their religion to the evening of March 31, 1848, in the small rural hamlet of Hydesville, New York. There, the young girls Kate and Margaret Fox, daughters of a poor farmer, claimed to hear strange knockings that responded to their questions. The questions posed by the Fox family and others led them to believe that the girls were being used as "mediums" of communication by the spirit of a peddler who had been murdered and buried in their basement five years earlier. (A search conducted at the time turned up no remains, though a skeleton was allegedly found in 1904 behind a collapsed cellar wall.) Joined by their older sister, Leah Fox Fish, the sisters claimed to summon a variety of spirits and began to hold regular gatherings for curious investigators.
In November 1849, the Fox sisters hired out Rochester's Corinthian Hall, charging an admission fee. The publicity generated in Rochester attracted the attention of rising showman P.T. Barnum, who invited the Fox sisters to exhibit their mediumship at his hotel in New York City during the summer of 1850, and the famous New York Tribune editor and reformer Horace Greeley, who spread the word of the rappings in the pages of his newspaper. Within a short time, such literary luminaries as James Fenimore Cooper, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Harriet Beecher Stowe were investigating the phenomena of the séance.
As the Fox sisters became nationally renowned, others, mostly women, discovered their own mediumship and held their own séances. Entranced mediums, claiming to be instruments of higher spiritual powers, began to practice spirit healing, speaking and writing, clairvoyance, drawing and painting, moving and levitating objects such as tables, and playing musical instruments. These phenomena gradually pushed the Fox sisters into the background, but they had spearheaded a new national fad and laid part of the groundwork for a new religion based on spirit communication.
Even before the Fox family was first disturbed by noises in the night, the philosophical and theological foundations of Spiritualist religion were being laid in another part of New York State, by Andrew Jackson Davis. Born in the Hudson Valley town of Blooming Grove, Davis was the son of a ne'er-do-well father and a mystically inclined mother. The young Davis floundered as a shoemaker's apprentice until 1843, when he was introduced to the wonders of the trance by itinerant mesmerist J. Stanley Grimes. Intrigued, Davis sought local tailor William Levingston, an experimenter with hypnotism, who discovered that Davis made an excellent subject. In trances induced by Levingston, Davis experienced clairvoyant visions and suggested unorthodox medical remedies. The two men began to travel, attracting curious audiences in New York and New England.
As Davis' travels and contacts widened, so did his trance experiences. By 1844, he claimed to receive wisdom through contact with the spirits of Emanuel Swedenborg, an 18th-century Swedish scientist-turned-mystic, and the ancient physician Galen. These experiences initiated his career as a religious seer and healer. By the close of 1847, Davis had delivered a series of trance lectures that were published that year as "The Principles of Nature, Her Divine Revelations" and a "Voice to Mankind." This massive volume contained his first and most influential statement of an ideology that he and his colleagues called "harmonialism."
Harmonialism drew on a variety of contemporary religious, scientific, and social ideologies. Above all, it drew on the ideas and experiences of Swedenborg (1688-1772), who in 1743 had begun to undergo a series of mystical experiences, during which, he claimed, departed spirits communicated with him and revealed to him the nature of the afterlife. He developed an elaborate theology in which God acted on the universe through spirit mediators.