American Spiritualism

A historical overview

From "Cassadaga: The South's Oldest Spiritualist Community," edited by John J. Guthrie, Jr., Phillip Charles Lucas, and Gary Monroe, published by University Press of Florida.

  • Origins and Influences
  • Cultural Contexts

    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.

    Origins and Influences

    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.

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    Bret E. Carroll
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