Arising near Rochester, New York in 1848, Spiritualism became a global phenomenon, and the Irish were involved in the obsession like millions of other Americans. It crested as an American cultural power in the 1870s; arose again in the 1880s; during World War I and again in the 1920s. Spiritualists were at the forefront of Women’s Suffrage, health reform, Temperance Movement and Abolitionist Movement.
This first of four blogs will focus on the history of the movement, the second on the female medium as a profession, and the third on identifying a Spiritualist, and the fourth on the records left behind. Why four blogs on Spiritualism? The main reason is that this is a VERY underdeveloped area in genealogy, so four archived blogs will help many researchers. Second is that it’s Halloween! Spiritualism continues to this day as a religion. However, for the purposes of this blog series, only nineteenth century Spiritualism will be addressed.
Spiritualism produced one of the most colorful chapters in American religious history. Boston and New York City became major centers with Buffalo, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Providence, Rochester and St. Louis as secondary centers.
Spiritualism was birthed when Swedenborgianism, Mesmerism and Fourierism converged into the Harmonialist philosophy of Andrew Jackson Davis (1826-1910). He put his ideas into a workable religion with the arrival of the teenage Fox sisters of Hydesville, New York. On 31 March 1848, Margaret Fox (1833-1893) and Kate Fox (1836-1892) announced that they were communicating with spirits via rappings on a bedroom wall. The rappings were said to be from a man who had been murdered in the house years before. An alphabet was devised by investigators so that the rappings could be translated into words. The Fox sisters began to demonstrate their abilities on stage, reaching celebrity status.
Spiritualism arose during a period when death and disease were everywhere and people were looking for proof of life after dead rather than faith. Many found their proofs through Spiritualism as they felt it could be demonstrated.
Spiritualism would provide leaders in most reform movements; especially Women’s Suffrage. Some historians would state that one of Spiritualism’s most important contributions was that along with Liberal Protestantism helped dismantle Calvinist culture strongly embedded in American life.
For further reading into the history of American Spiritualism, I would recommend the following standard works: Ann Braude, Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth-Century America (2001); Michael F. Brown, The Channeling Zone: American Spirituality in an Anxious Age (1997); John B. Buescher, The Other Side of Salvation: Spiritualism and the Nineteenth-Century Religious Experience (2004); Brent E. Carroll, Spiritualism in Antebellum America (1997); Robert S. Cox, Body and Soul: A Sympathetic History of American Spiritualism (2003); Nancy Rubin Stuart, The Reluctant Spiritualist: The Life of Maggie Fox (2005); Barbara Weisberg, Talking to the Dead: Kate and Maggie Fox and the Rise of Spiritualism (2004).