Redeeming the Dead

Death: The King of TerrorsMost accounts of spiritualism describe its aim as helping individuals overcome the fear of death.  When they became convinced that spirits were real, and had found happiness, they gained mastery over death, if they had feared it as oblivion.  And, when they made contact with the spirits of loved ones who had already died, they were most often reassured that they were not suffering, but were happy.  In effect, this redeemed the dead themselves from the Hell that hung like a cloud over Calvin’s spiritual descendents.  Spiritualism, in this sense, effected a victory over the doctrine of eternal punishment.  Instead, it offered an afterlife of light and love, of progress, development, and happiness.

A Voice from the Grave

Shining Ones Who Dwell in Light

Spiritualism had another aim for a believer, however.  One could help those who had passed over make progress.  One could tell them of new revelations that had not occurred by the time they had died.  They could be disciplined, rectified, brought to holiness, redeemed, reconciled with a new era.  The spiritualist could be motivated by a desire to help others—the spirits themselves.

Spirits could both teach and be taught, comfort and be comforted, redeem and be redeemed.  They could be updated for the times.  The spirit of the atheist Thomas Paine gave clergyman Charles Hammond a tale in which spirit-Paine described his conversion to a belief in immortality and in God.  John Wesley’s spirit conveyed to mediums his afterlife conversion to a belief in universal salvation.  The skeptical electrical experimenter Michael Faraday’s spirit dictated to mediums books from the beyond about the etheric world.  The deceased editor of the Springfield, Massachusetts Republican, Samuel Bowles, whose newspaper had never been overly enthusiastic about spiritualism, sent back “reports” from the afterlife, through medium Carrie Twing, in which he encouraged journalists to be kinder to spiritualism, and acted as a travel correspondent to the earth’s inhabitants, detailing Heaven’s features.

A Progressed Spirit-Bowles Visits a Progressed Spirit-Sprague

Harvard Professor Louis Agassiz participated in an investigation of mediumship and pronounced it a fraud. A few years after the professor’s death, spiritualist Allen Putnam published a book purported to be dictated by Agassiz’s then-repentant spirit.  The spirit of Universalism founder John Murray contacted John Spear, explaining how his views had changed since his death to include a concern for social reform and abolitionism.  Theodore Parker’s spirit spoke soon after his death, explicitly embracing spiritualism.  So did Edgar Allan Poe, who also delivered new poetry through the mouths of various mediums.  Mark Twain, who, in his earthly life, was skeptical about spiritualism, a few years after his death offered a new novel through a medium’s Ouija board, and Jesus himself used the new spiritual telegraph to reveal the “true” story of his life.

The Dead Regain Their Voices—

Post-Mortem Confessions: Being Letters Written through a Mortal’s Hand by Spirits Who, When in Mortal, Were Officers of Harvard College: with Comments, by Allen Putnam. Boston: Colby & Rich, 1886.

Messages from the Superior State; Communicated by John Murray, through John M. Spear, in the Summer of 1852. Containing Important Instruction to the Inhabitants of the Earth. Carefully Prepared for Publication, with a Sketch of the Author’s Earthly Life, and a Brief Description of the Spiritual Experience of the Medium. By S. C. Hewitt.  Boston: Bela Marsh, 1852.

Spirit Life of Theodore Parker, through the Inspiration of Sarah A. Ramsdell. Boston: Rand, Avery & Co., 1876.

Light from the Spirit World; the Pilgrimage of Thomas Paine and Others to the Seventh Circle in the Spirit World, by Charles Hammond. Rochester: D. M. Dewey, 1852.

Jesus Christ, a Fiction. Founded upon the Life of Apolonius of Tyana. The Pagan Priests of Rome Originated Christianity; New and Startling Disclosures by Its Founders, and Full Explanations by Ancient Spirits. Transcribed by M[ichael] Faraday. Springfield, MA: Star Publishing Co., 1883.

Autobiography; by Jesus of Nazareth. S.L.: J. P. Cooke, 1894.

[Mark Twain (spirit)]. Jap Herron: A Novel Written from the Ouija Board; with an Introduction, The Coming of Jap Herron. New York: Mitchell Kennerley, 1917.

Mark Twain and the Ouija Board Lawsuit, at

All these were efforts (unsuccessful or not) to redeem the dead for the present.  The medium was the instrument for teaching the dead modern doctrine, for bringing the revered ancients in line with new truth.  The land of the dead became missionary territory, a place where reforming philanthropists could exert their efforts for those who had already gone there.  Often, the spirits were the revelators, and the happy afterlife was the revelation to those on earth, but often the converse also was true—those on earth could raise up those in the other world.

Unsympathetically viewed, spiritualists were co-opting ancient authority for their own new visions—dressing them up in George Washington’s uniform or the robes of Saint Paul in order to extort respect for them.  Sympathetically viewed, spiritualists were convinced that the ancient authorities, already so far in advance of the world when they died, would certainly have come to new truths before anyone else, if not in fact have been the source of these new truths.  And those who were still here in the flesh could reveal to those spirits who were not so advanced these new truths—justice, love, joy, salvation, and temperance.

This was akin to Joseph Smith’s establishment of the “sealing” or baptizing of the dead, whereby the living saints could liberate the dead and, in effect, ritually convert them to Mormonism.  He formalized this in the Mormon Temple ceremony he initiated in Nauvoo in 1842.  Indeed, the new Temple ceremony itself depended, one might say, on Smith’s conversion of Ancient Masonry to Ancient Mormonism.

Shaker Spiritualism

Not far from Joseph Smith’s boyhood home in Palmyra, New York, had been the Shaker settlement at Sodus Bay.  The Shakers, even in their early days in America, recognized spirits who often came to “Mother” Ann Lee and her followers to be taught the gospel that their revelation, through Ann Lee, had initiated and which the deceased had not known in their own time.

David, you know not what you feel.  I see the dead around you, whose visages are ghostly and very awful.  Their faces almost touch thine.  If you did but see what I see, you would be surprised [. . .]  Be of good comfort, and be not cast down, for the dead gather to thee for the gospel, which thou hast received.

—Ann Lee to David Slosson, Testimonies of the Life, Character, Revelations, and Doctrines of Mother Ann Lee, and the Elders with Her, through Whom the Word of Eternal Life Was Opened in This Day, of Christ’s Second Appearing, Collected from Living Witnesses, by Order of the Ministry, in Union with the Church. Hancock, MA: J. Tallcott & J. Deming, 1816:240.

Beginning in 1837—years after Ann Lee’s death—and lasting almost ten years, during a period that the Shakers came to call the “era of manifestations” or “Mother Ann’s Work,” the spirits of famous people of the past, and the spirits of various tribes and peoples and nations of the world paid visits to the Shakers, where they took over the Shaker brethren and sisters, “personating” them.  Inhabiting their “instruments,” they were counseled by the Shaker elders, and brought into submission to the law, and, essentially, converted to being Shakers.

A Return of Departed Spirits of the Highest Characters of Distinction, by a Member of the Shaker Community at Watervliet, New York

An outsider described one of these sessions in which the dead returned, and both taught and were taught by the Shakers:

A Revelation of the Extraordinary Visitation of Departed Spirits of Distinguished Men and Women of All Nations, and Their Manifestation through the Living Bodies of the “Shakers,” by a Guest of the Community at Watervliet

First Meetinghouse at WatervlietShakers were also personated by spirits of their teachers—including Ann Lee—who came back to revivify and purify their current religious life, but Mother Ann in her spiritual visits also taught some new doctrines—admonishing her followers to Teetotalism, for instance.

Shakers were also personated by spirits of people who might be objects of Shaker missionary (or at least philanthropic) activity—Indians, for example, and South Sea Islanders—whose rambunctiousness and ignorance could be remedied while they were contained in the bodies of their Shaker “instruments,” by counseling them or making them move in accord with the Shaker worship dances.

Irrational Natures Tamed, by Hervy Elkins

Having the spirits counseled by the elders and the larger community tamed the manifestations and brought them in line with the hierarchy of existing authority, and tamed also any implied challenge to that authority from the elevation of prophesying young girls, for example, over the elders.

Let Us Leap, by David Lamson

Shakers experienced spiritualist manifestations on a large scale long before spiritualism appeared in the outside world. A Return of Departed Spirits of the Highest Characters of Distinction was published by a member of the Shaker community at Watervliet, just outside Auburn in 1843, years before Andrew Jackson Davis became a celebrity or before the Fox Sisters’ rappings.

The Manifestation of Spiritualism among the Shakers, by Henry Blinn

Was this Shaker “era of manifestations” the real beginning of “modern Spiritualism”?  Certainly the phenomena reported by the Shakers were related to the phenomena associated with spiritualism in the larger culture.  But it was not identical—as Henry Blinn noted, the séance circle was not a feature of Shaker spiritualism, nor did Shakers’ early attempts at “materialization” of spirits go beyond the kind of ritualized shadow puppetry described above by David Lamson.  Also, compared to spiritualism in the world outside, Shaker spiritualism had more Biblical content.  The messages mediated to the Shakers from the spirits often took the form of prophetic books, and Shaker mediums often experienced uncontrollable jerks and other kinds of repetitive movements resembling those common among Methodists and Baptists at revival gatherings.

Meetinghouse at Mount LebanonMost important for distinguishing Shaker spiritualism from “modern Spiritualism” elsewhere, Shaker spiritualist phenomena were manifested in the context of—and integrated into—the religious practices and beliefs of the Shaker community, which had a very tightly disciplined and controlled social and doctrinal structure.  Spiritualism in the outside world was not necessarily religious or incorporated into any existing church community or practice.  Spiritualists in the outside world had to struggle to put together their own organizations and traditions.  The essential experience of most spiritualists was a personal one, not grounded in a lasting community outside the séance circle, and consisted of a possibly very secular revelation—perhaps merely meeting another individual, albeit a disembodied one.

The missionary aim of spirit-contact in Shaker spiritualism is most apparent in the messages given to the world through Shaker “instruments.”  Shakers received several long discourses meant by their heavenly authors to be delivered to all the rulers of the world, counseling them to repentance and righteousness.  These were actually published by the Shakers and sent all over the world, where they were received with not quite the fanfare that the Shakers would have liked.

A Holy, Sacred, and Divine Roll and Book, from the Lord God of Heaven, to the Inhabitants of Earth

The Divine Book of Holy and Eternal Wisdom, Revealing the Word of God

These were prophetic books, much like those of the Old Testament.  They do not tell about the glories of the other world, but come from the other world, and call for repentance in this one.  Considered with the visitations of spirits of various nations, the heavenly instruction to disseminate these books all over the globe suggested to the Shakers that the other peoples and nations of the world would be coming to them like ambassadors to declare their fealty and submission, or to receive enlightenment, like the Magi who traveled to Bethlehem.

In addition, Shakers were not eager to tell the world outside their communities about the unusual spiritual phenomena taking place in their midst—many of the communities closed their meetings to outsiders during the period of “Mother Ann’s Work.” Nevertheless, those outside seem likely to have been aware of the spiritual phenomena in the Shaker settlements, if by no other means than the testimony of people who had left the Shakers.  The large number of spiritualists in Auburn, New York, for example, lived next to the Shaker community at Watervliet.  The Mount Lebanon community was not far away.  The very active spiritualist community in Cleveland was near the Shakers’ North Union settlement, and Boston’s spiritualists were just across the river from Harvard’s Shakers.

Letter to Horace Greeley, Editor of the New York Tribune [May 1, 1851]

Meredith Bridge, N. H., April 18, 1851.

Mr. Greeley—Dear Sir: Much interest has been excited here, during a few weeks past, by the appearance, in this village, of those wonderful phenomena which are now attracting so much attention in various parts of the country, and are more commonly designated by the title of “Mysterious Rappings.”  The “medium” is a young lady of about nineteen years of age, for several years a resident among the Shakers at Enfield, N. H., but now a member of the family of Mr. Hiram Clifford, who is residing temporarily in this place.  Some years since, while at Enfield she was accustomed to falling into a state of somnambulic ecstasy, or trance, when (as she alleged, and as the Shakers believed,) she had visions of heaven and was made the “instrument” of divine communications.  The interviews, which are held daily, with what purport to be spirits, in higher spheres of existence, have been quite numerously attended, not only by those acting from the impulse of aimless curiosity, but also by the serious, dispassionate and intellectually cultivated portion of our community.  In many instances the demonstrations are truly astonishing—the names of persons, of whom, while living in this world, the “medium” could have had no personal knowledge, (as the visitors are satisfied by irrefragable proof,) being spelled out, letter by letter. [. . .]

Yours truly,
J[ohn] Prince
[Pastor of the Universalist Society in Meredith Bridge]

Also, as Lamson pointed out in his description of the “Mountain Meetings” at the Mt. Lebanon settlement, a few spectators were allowed to see even some of the most bizarre of the Shaker manifestations.

At length one very interesting woman, who had been quite conspicuous in these singular displays, was led forward by two aged sisters, and commenced a promenade of the enclosure immediately before the spectators, and, with the most violent gesticulations, she cried out at the extremity of her voice that “she” was the veritable Ann Lee returned from the grave, that the day of judgment was at hand, and that the great Babylon would shortly be destroyed, and called upon all to be ready to meet the terrible day of the Lord.  These sentences, accompanied by the most violent and extravagant gesticulations, she continued to repeat for about twenty minutes, varying occasionally the phraseology, but not differing in the sense.  It was altogether one of the most singular sights we have ever witnessed.

—Mr. J. W. S. Howe, “A Day in the ‘Holy Mountain’ with the Shakers of New Lebanon,” The Albion (New York), reprinted from The Utica Opal, undated, but probably 1843-1845 [in volume 4 of the Shaker scrapbooks from North Union, Ohio, in the Library of Congress]

A few years after spiritualism appeared in the outside, however, Shakers began telling many people out in the world about what had occurred in their own communities, and claimed that the advent of spirits into their communities was a precursor of their appearance elsewhere.  Shaker Frederick Evans, an elder in the Mount Lebanon community, became an especially forceful and prolific expositor to the outside world of the features of Shaker spiritualism.

Frederick Evans Claims Priority for Shaker Spiritualism

From the mid-1850s, spiritualism in the culture at large fed back into Shaker spiritualism, with Shakers adopting many of the terms and practices of spiritualism elsewhere, and many outside spiritualists studying the history of the phenomena among the Shakers, especially the inspiration of songs, dances, and drawings.

What is now known as Modern Spiritualism is accepted by them as a fact.  They assert that all phases of mediumship were common among them several years prior to the first raps at Hydesville, and that its advent to the general public was then foretold.  In its higher phases it is still sometimes exhibited.  Witness the sweet, pathetic yet simple melodies which come, “The gift of the spirit,” as they believe, to one or another, either in private or in public worship.  A brother or a sister at such times is inspired to sing a new song to new music, which, when written down, becomes a permanent possession.  A large book has been published, consisting of these inspirational hymns, which is in constant use.

Cyrus O. Poole, Spiritualism as Organized by the Shakers.  s.n., 1887?: 10-11.  [Reprinted from the Banner of Light, and “delivered before the Brooklyn, NY Progressive Conference, Oct. 1st, 1887.”]

During the 1870s and 1880s, Frederick Evans also became a frequent contributor to the Religio-Philosophical Journal, expounding Shaker doctrine to spiritualists, as well as a missionary of sorts to his own Shaker community of the reality and importance of the spiritualist phenomenon of materialization, explaining it as having Biblical and Shaker precedents and as the final stage of spiritualism and the beginning of the End of Time.

The Millennium Will Commence with Angels’ Food

Evans was so firm a believer in the spiritualist phenomenon of materialization that he organized a series of ten long séances at Mt. Lebanon, and invited outside medium William Eddy (who brought two assistants with him) to use special cabinets built by Shakers at Mt. Lebanon.  Into these, Eddy as medium, withdrew in the dark, and then was locked inside.  During the ten séances, a total of thirty-one spirits, both Shaker and non-Shaker, materialized and roamed about the meeting-house, to the “entire satisfaction” of the Shakers who attended.

Access to the Tree of Life

By the mid-1860s, the Shaker settlement at the North Union Shaker settlement south of Cleveland, held monthly services with the spiritualists in the area.  Most of the time these meetings were cordial:  Each group tended to avoid obvious points of contention—most particularly, how to understand sexuality.

The Old Subject of Propagation

During the decades of the 1870s and 1880s, spiritualists and Shakers were in close enough communication to hold joint conventions—such as one in Cleveland in January 1871, organized by spiritualist James Martin Peebles and Shaker George Albert Lomas, Elder of the Watervliet community and Editor of The Shaker.  These were reported by the mainstream press.  In 1877, the Shaker community at Mount Lebanon published a long message that Peebles received from the spirit of Mother Ann Lee under the title Oriental Spiritualism.  Peebles and Evans went on a lecture tour together to England in 1887 and addressed large audiences there, although they were shunned by most of the clergy.

For further study of the Shakers—

Stephen J. Stein, The Shaker Experience in America: A History of the United Society of Believers.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992, especially pages 165-200 and 320-328.

France Morin, editor, Heavenly Visions: Shaker Gift Drawings and Gift Songs.  New York: The Drawing Center, 2001.

Large research collections of original Shaker materials can be consulted at the Western Reserve Historical Society in Cleveland and (through an endowment from Shakers) at the American Society for Psychical Research in New York City.

The New York Public Library’s Bibliographic Research Guide on the Shakers

Shaker Manuscripts online, from Pass the WORD Services

Shaker Historic Trail, by the U.S. National Park Service


[ Ephemera Home] [ Spiritualist Listings ]