Liberating the Spirit

At the heart of spiritualism was a vision of liberation from all things that bound the human spirit, including death, of course.  Activists in other fields of “reformatory labor” often conceived of their work under a progressive imperative to further the liberation of the individual soul.  It tended to “democratize” religious authority—lessoning that of the institutions of Church and State and placing it in the immediate experience of each person.  Not surprisingly, many reformers were attracted to spiritualism.

Modern spiritualism is what the church and the priesthood know not how to deal with.  They are, in many localities throughout the country, at their wits’ end.  If they deny the possibility that spirits can communicate with us, they strike a death-blow at all arbitrary revelation; if they admit its possibility, they must admit that these communications, often, at least, do come from spirits that were once in the body, or deny the foundation of their faith in the Bible.  In either case, their religious experience and practices must experience an entire revolution.  These spirits, be they what or whom they may, are fast tipping, rapping, writing and talking old ideas out of men’s heads, and new ones into them.  These spirits, be they good or evil, are casting the spirit of war, slavery, drunkenness, sectarianism, patriotism, and hosts of bad spirits out of men’s hearts, and breathing into them the spirit of peace, of love, anti-slavery, total abstinence even from the disgusting weed, tobacco, (the spirits out of the body, all go against tobaccowould that all spirits in the body had decency and good sense enough to do the same,) and of human brotherhood.

Henry Clarke Wright, The Liberator, July 19, 1853.

John Montgomery Sterling, the author of the letter to the Cleveland paper quoted in the linked selection below (“The Great Mystery”), was a Yale graduate, an attorney, an Abolitionist activist and younger associate of Theodore Weld. He had moved to Cleveland and had made his fortune through investment in real estate—including most of what was developed as the fashionable area of Cleveland on Euclid Avenue. Early on, Sterling traveled to Rochester to investigate the spiritualist phenomena associated with the Fox sisters.  At the time he was a well-respected member of Cleveland society. Among other positions he held within the community, was board member of the Eclectic Medical Institute, where he experimented with mesmerism. Sterling became a confirmed spiritualist, and finally a warm supporter of the spirit-guided projects of John Murray Spear, including the experimental reformation of the institution of marriage.

Charles Hammond, the Pastor of the Universalist Society of Rochester (whose “rules of development” are reproduced elsewhere on this website) was also an activist for the Liberty Party in Western New York State when Mrs. Fox and her two youngest daughters, Margaretta and Katie, quit Hydesville and moved to Rochester. His experiences with them—some of them also detailed in this linked selection—converted him and his family to spiritualism.  They were among the first to be convinced by the Foxes, as were Rochester Abolitionists Isaac and Amy Post.

The Great Mystery:  Abolitionists Heed the Rappings

Not long after the Fox sisters’ fame began to spread, they came to New York City and conducted a series of séances.  Among other participants were Abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison and John Greenleaf Whittier.

Garrison became a regular participant in séances.  Abolitionist writer Lydia Maria Child wrote him in February 1857, asking him if he might arrange a séance for her benefit, either at his house or at the house of Francis Jackson, the President of the Boston Anti-Slavery Society.  Jackson’s daughter Eliza (married name Eddy) had become a powerful medium for spirit communications.  Mrs. Child wrote of her request, “I should like to have it kept as much between ourselves as is consistent with granting it.”  Garrison wrote back, “I shall say nothing to any one about your inquiries on the subject of Spiritual Manifestations.  I am a firm believer in the reality of those Manifestations, after the many things I have witnessed, and the various tests I have seen applied; yet I am not a credulous man, nor at all given to the marvellous, and seldom exercise my ideality.  True, there are many discrepencies, incongruities, and absurdities attending those Manifestations; but nothing do I find so puerile, or so preposterous, as the various theories which are stated to account for them, short of a spiritual origin.”

I don’t know whether some spirit has written the above by my hand, or whether I wrote it myself.  I had no such thoughts when I set down to write; but forth they came and put themselves on paper.  Another mystery!

—Lydia Maria Child, letter to Lucy Searle, July 27, 1860.

Garrison, from time to time in The Liberator, more than hinted at his belief in spirit communication, but carefully kept his newspaper focused on the issue of abolishing slavery.

As for ourselves, most assuredly we have been in no haste to jump to a conclusion in regard to phenomena so universally diffused, and of so extraordinary a character.  For the last three years, we have kept pace with nearly all that has been published on the subject; and we have witnessed, at various times, many surprising ‘manifestations’; and our conviction is, that they cannot be accounted for on any other theory than that of spiritual agency.  This theory, however, is not unattended with discrepancies, difficulties and trials.  It is certain that, if it be true, there are many deceptive spirits, and that the apostolic injunction to ‘believe not every spirit,’ but to try them, in every possible way, is specially to be regarded, or the consequences may prove very disastrous.

—William Lloyd Garrison, The Liberator, March 3, 1854.

To the end of his life, his belief in spiritualism remained strong—spiritualist Warren Chase reported meeting him on the street in London shortly before he died, whereupon Garrison pulled out spirit photos to show Chase, with an easy enthusiasm that others might have demonstrated when showing off ordinary pictures of their families.  When Garrison died in 1879, spiritualists were dissatisfied with the funeral services and the sanctioned eulogies given him.  According to the spiritualist press, the eulogizers, such as Wendell Phillips, knew very well what Garrison’s beliefs were regarding the spirits and the afterlife, but pointedly avoided mentioning it, out of a desire to protect Garrison’s reputation in front of the world.  Afterwards, the spiritualist press expended a considerable amount of ink in remedying the omission, printing many reminiscences of Garrison by his spiritualist friends and acquaintances.

Spiritualists Correct the Record about Garrison

Garrison, Child, and Jackson were by no means alone, among radical Abolitionists, in finding themselves attracted to spiritualism.  Among many, many others in the Abolitionist leadership who were active spiritualists were John Collins, Sojourner Truth, Theodore Weld, Gerrit Smith, and Isaac and Amy Post.

Garrison reprinted the following linked article in The Liberator.  By the beginning of 1852, the spark of his interest in spiritualism had already been fanned.  The article is a highly sympathetic account of a séance, at which the medium was a young woman, Adaline Lenora Hoyt, who was a highly talented trance medium and would shortly become a public lecturer on spiritualism.

Thanksgiving with the Spirits

Ada Hoyt FoyeAda Hoyt married and rapidly divorced, but before she did, as Mrs. Coan, she converted Emma Hardinge, a British immigrant then in Boston, to a belief in spiritualism, and also helped develop her into a medium and public lecturer.  Hardinge would become the most famous chronicler of the spiritualist movement.

Eventually Ada married again, and now known as Ada Foye, travelled the country, giving public demonstrations of her abilities as a medium.  Foye’s demonstrations received mixed reviews.  A tour out West as far as San Francisco elicited very favorable reporting from the Oakland spiritualist newspaper, the Carrier Dove, but her performances received barbs from Mark Twain.

Twain’s reporting of a séance with Ada Foye (“Among the Spirits”)

Another stinger from Twain (“Mark Twain a Committee Man”)

Note that Ada L. Hoyt Foye’s name closely resembles “Ada T. P. Foat,” the name of Henry James’ unsympathetic spiritualist character in his novel The Bostonians.  It seems likely, however, that James created his character as a kind of composite, perhaps also thinking of Cora L. V. Scott Hatch Richmond as well as Victoria C. Woodhull.

Not all Abolitionists were spiritualists, by any means.  Jonathan Walker, for example, the ship captain who had been made famous (or notorious) for having tried to help slaves escape from Florida to the Bahamas, but who had been caught and had had his hand branded with an “SS” for “slave stealer,” wrote the following letter to the Liberator, expressing his disdain for spiritualism.  Walker refers in his letter to ex-Methodist preacher La Roy Sunderland, who had once been an activist in the Abolitionist movement, but who, together with his family, had recently become involved in mesmerism and then spiritualism, even conducting séances in their home.  Sunderland accepted donations from those who came to participate, stimulating Abolitionist Edmund Quincy, in another letter to the Liberator, to accuse Sunderland of having abandoned the Abolitionist cause to “sell ghosts by the dollar,” to which Sunderland indignantly wrote in response, wondering what gave Quincy “the right to animadvert upon the affairs” of his family?

The Man with the Branded Hand Rejects the Spiritual Knockings

By the summer of 1858, spiritualism had become strong and organized enough that it was affecting the radical and reform movements throughout the North. More than three thousand reformers of all kinds gathered in the town of Rutland, Vermont that summer.  The Convention was meant to be an “all-reform” convention that looked for ways to join forces, but much of it turned into a debate about the relationship—if any—between spiritualism and social reform. Some saw spiritualism as a comprehensive foundation and a guarantee of radical social reform, providing the energy and rationale for such discrete reforms as Temperance, the abolition of slavery, women’s rights, the abolition of capital punishment, medical reform, the abolition of Sabbath laws, the peace movement, and many other reforms. Some reformers, however, were disconcerted that many of their former co-workers in these causes had seemingly been distracted from the practical work of reform by their new preoccupation with immaterial spirits and the next life. Some of this concern was the result of noticing that some reformers, taking up spiritualism, turned their energies and attention to it as a “cause,” and did not have the same energy for their previous causes.  But part of the issue apparently turned on whether one might expect that the spirits would intervene in a practical way in human affairs, by command or encouragement, and so on, or that the spirits would refrain from intervening and simply give a private (but non-directive) sense of serene confidence in the fact of blessed immortality, that is, that spiritualism would simply “add knowledge to faith.”

Spirits Divining Negro Equality!!

Discussion at the Rutland Free Convention focused on broad religious issues that were commonly raised in the reform community. On the issue of institutional authority versus individual conviction, the spiritualists followed the same radical Protestant dissenting trajectory that drove the Puritans to locate truth in the inner and individual experience of God, and to reject dogmatic authority. As a result, many spiritualists were “come-outers” from the denominations, and, some of them were even  “come-outers” from Christianity itself. It was said at the opening of the Convention that spiritualism was the assent to “the truth of an intercourse between embodied and disembodied human spirits,” and that it was “opposed to all despotism, impurity and sensualism.”  A dilemma appeared, however: finding one’s way by listening only to one’s own inner “monitions” as the voice of authority, appeared to leave one a puppet of other powers and a slave to the spirit voices blowing one about, rather than the sovereign individual that one sought to become.

The mission of the Reformer can scarcely be identified with that of other individuals.  He is placed in a position where the soul is moved and the actions governed by the most pure and disinterested motives.  There is for him no selfish object to be gained, like those which attract the groveling mass.  His reward is not outward—he acquires not wealth, nor honor, nor ease.  His path is not one on which the sunshine may long rest—the frowns, reproaches, and heartlessness of men cast shadows upon his soul.  A spirit of self-sacrifice and devotion to humanity can alone prompt and sustain his efforts.  He must feel amid the darkest clouds of persecution, the majesty and power of Truth.  The inward rather than the external—the spiritual more than the material, must be made the basis of his trust. [. . .] The Reformer should be regarded as an instrument in the hands of angels and of God, to impel man onward to an exalted destiny.  A halo of glory surrounds his brow, though he feels but the crown of thorns.  The reward of interior approbation and spiritual guidance is his, though he feeds upon the husks of poverty, or dwells amid the shadows of earthly sorrow.

—Russell Perkins Ambler, “The Mission of the Reformer,” Spirit Messenger and Harmonial Guide (Springfield, Mass), December 28, 1850.

From another angle, spiritualism took issue, profoundly, with the Puritans, revolting against the Calvinist idea of “endless misery” and of the idea that anyone—and especially children—could be damned by a God who was loving and just.  Spiritualism was  “progressive,” evolutionary, and ultimately optimistic about the destiny of individuals and of society.

Some reformers had no use for any religious, otherworldly focus, but chose to keep their eyes fixed on the pressing need for reforming this world.  One of them was women’s rights activist and atheist Ernestine Rose, who remarked from the podium at Rutland that, “If the Convention was not called for the benefit of man, it is useless; if it is, the moment we come together, the time is not ours to discuss the life hereafter and neglect the life here.”  To which independent clergyman William Goodell, one of the founders of the American Anti-Slavery Society, remarked:

We must first ascertain the truth concerning the immortality of man, before we can know any thing, to any good purpose, of the nature of man, of the responsibilities of man, and of the rights of man. If man is to be like the beast, then who shall say that he has any other than the rights of the beast? But if man shall be an immortal being, if he be destined to eternity, if he be a being of more consequence than all the other beings in the lower world, then his rights become sacred. No man, no community, can really understand their rights, or be in a position to maintain them, unless they have a deep and abiding sense of their future endless existence.

Proceedings of the Free Convention Held at Rutland, Vt., July 25th, 26th, and 27th, 1858 (Boston: J. B. Yerrington and son, 1858): 34.

Methodist minister and spiritualist James Steven Loveland, from Chelsea, Massachusetts, offered a similar remark:

My friend, Mrs. Rose, thinks that the question of the life to come should be held in abeyance until we first attend to the life that is. This, perhaps, would be well, if we knew what the life that is really is. That is, if we were perfectly sure that the life that now is was measured by the bounds of what we term time and space, it would be so; but if the life that now is is but the embryonic manifestation of a life that is to run through the eternal ages, then it is of the last importance that that question should be settled . . . (34)

The comments of spiritualist physician Heman B. Storer, would have stimulated the more “practical” reformers’ fears that spiritualism would divert attention away from causes such as the abolition of slavery:

While I deeply sympathize with the slaves of the south, I also sympathize with those who, all over New England and throughout the land, are subject to a slavery that I consider infinitely worse than the bondage of the African, namely, the slavery to a belief, that the children we love are consigned by God, in a future world, to a torment that shall never end. The fact that children are torn from their parents and sold on the auction-block, has been introduced here as one of the greatest wrongs and injuries that can be inflicted on himself. But what is that, compared with the idea that children are taken from their parents, and are, for all eternity, consigned to hell, and separated from those nearest and dearest to them? Therefore I assert that the subject of Spiritualism has a direct and immediate relation to this question of slavery. [. . .] Spiritualism proves that although the Bible may be kept from the slave, yet a living inspiration may reach to him to-day; that those great principles recorded in the Bible may come to-day to the Southern slave, and nerve him to resist oppression, and bring him out from the bondage in which he has so long groaned. (102)

On the other hand, spiritualism’s ability to empower individuals as their own authorities was producing a forceful advance guard of militant activists for women’s rights, especially their reproductive rights.  Speaking at the Convention on the issue of “maternity, and woman’s rights in regard to it,” Eliza Farnham put in a stronger form an assertion that New York medium Julia Branch had just made at the national meeting for woman’s rightsthat the marriage institution, as it stood, was the primary cause of the unjust oppression of women.  In traditional marriage, as Steven Symonds Foster put it, every husband was a plantation owner and slave-breeder, and every woman a slave.  This formulation of the issue—and any focus on women’s reproductive rights—had been opposed by women’s rights activist and leader Lucy Stone as provocative and counter-productive in the campaign to find public support for women’s suffrage, but many spiritualists were willing to push this more radical version of women’s rights:

. . . the most sacred and important right of woman is her right to decide for herself how often and under what circumstances she shall assume the responsibilities and be subject to the cares and sufferings of Maternity; and man can commit no greater crime against woman as a wife and mother, against his child, against society and against Humanity, than to impose on her a maternity whose responsibilities and sufferings she is not willing to accept and endure. (9)
After the Civil War solved the issue of slavery, the issue of women’s rights became central in spiritualism’s effort to liberate the individual.  Nevertheless, at the same time, political and social radicalism progressively distanced itself from spiritualism, coming to regard it as one more other-worldly religion.  By the beginning of the 1880s, Freethought and Socialistic radicals of various types were declaring their opposition to the influence of spiritualism in the radical movement, using the motto, “One World at a Time.”


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