What is Spiritualism?

A Mature Andrew Jackson DavisSpiritualism was a movement that formed around the belief that the spirits of departed mortals had begun to communicate with the living, and that the living could converse in a systematic way with the land of the dead.  Spiritualists and others have pointed out that this belief has existed in many times and places as an integral part of religion.  Nevertheless, what came to be called “modern Spiritualism,” considered as a self-consciously distinct movement, began in a particular time and place and carried with it a particular constellation of beliefs and practices.

It began after the publication in 1847 of the visionary Andrew Jackson Davis’ The Principles of Nature; Her Divine Revelation; and a Voice to Mankind, purported to have been delivered through Davis, acting as a clairvoyant medium, from the spirit of 18th century visionary Emanuel Swedenborg.  It was a utopian excursus, describing an evolutionary cosmology that included the progressive development of human societies and religions.

Word Picture of Andrew Jackson Davis

Andrew Jackson Davis and His Wives

The other event that spiritualists recognized in retrospect to have sparked the growth of spiritualism was the excitement caused by the establishment of a “practical” method of communicating with spirits through a kind of psychic telegraphy.  Certain sensitive intermediaries or “mediums” could act as a bridge between the dead and the living, conveying messages back and forth.  This was demonstrated in the popular imagination by three young sisters named Fox in the town of Hydesville, New York, nearby Rochester.  As dated by later spiritualists, on March 31, 1848, the youngest Fox sisters began communicating with disembodied spirits who answered the girls’ questions through rapping sounds, whose patterns could be painstakingly decoded.

The Fox House Moved to Newark, NYAs “spirit circles” or séances developed, the methods used for communicating became more efficient and included the “translation” of messages via the medium’s automatic writing or trance speaking.  The spirits sometimes conveyed their intentions through uncanny exhibitions of such phenomena as the levitation, materialization, or manipulation by “the invisibles” of “ponderous bodies” such as furniture, musical instruments, or the participants themselves.  In a wider sense, spiritualists saw the workings of spirits in the whole range of human artistic and literary creation and scientific invention and innovation, all of which relied, to some degree, on the “inspiration” of ideas.

The First Public Lecture on Spiritualism

Spiritualism was closely allied to the radical wing of the social and religious reform movements of the time, all of which imagined new, and more perfected versions of human society.  The tenor of the age made spiritualism appear not as a conservative throwback to primitive superstition, but as a progressive and even scientific avant garde, a liberal, optimistic, anti-authoritarian remake of conventional religion, a rational bridge between matter and spirit.

Spiritualist Alonzo Eliot Newton (1821-1889), like others, turned his pen to the difficult task of distilling what spiritualism was.  His job was made more difficult because he wrote his description in the form of a religious tract, intended for distribution to promote and explain spiritualism to non-spiritualists.  The irony in this was that many spiritualists regarded spiritualism as an alternative to the missionizing, dogmatic churches or even to Christianity itself, and Newton and his wife Sarah had themselves been ejected from the Edwards Congregational Church in Boston because Sarah’s development as a visionary medium, and the oracular power it gave her, had threatened the authority of the pastor and the church hierarchy.  Alonzo was a professional writer and editor, a friend of other literati such as Walt Whitman and Bronson Alcott.  After becoming a spiritualist, he co-edited the Boston-based spiritualist newspaper The New Era and The Spiritual Age, and edited The New-England Spiritualist.

Not surprisingly, he took a minimalist approach in his tracts, deliberately leaving open the question of spiritualism’s relation to Christianity.  Nevertheless, the very fact that spiritualism had come into its own to such an extent that Newton was commissioned to write tracts on it, suggests that these were written and published after the first flush of spiritualist excitement in the culture had peaked and it has begun to take on the shape of a denomination or organization, perhaps in the late 1850s or early 1860s.

Newton’s implied defense of spiritualism against the charge of promoting sexual license and immorality also suggests the same date of composition.  “Free love” was periodically associated with spiritualism from the mid-1850s.

A. E. Newton.  Two Tracts: Tract No. 1 (“Spiritualism Defined”); Tract No. 2 (“What Does Spiritualism Teach?”) Boston: Bela Marsh, n. d.



[The following Definition of Spiritualism and its Practical Bearings has been in substance endorsed by many of its prominent advocates, and adopted by large bodies of Spiritualists in convention. It is put forth in the present form, in order to meet the want of a brief yet comprehensive statement of the meaning and scope of this great modern movement, which may be put into the hands of inquirers, and serve to correct prevalent misapprehensions on the subject.]

I—Meaning of the Term.

The term SPIRITUALISM, in modern usage, often means no more than the alleged fact of spirit-intercourse; or, to express it in full—that human spirits have a conscious individual existence after the death of their physical bodies, and can and do, under suitable conditions, manifest themselves and communicate with persons in the body. Those who believe this to be a fact are termed Spiritualists, whatever else they may believe or disbelieve.

But the term is also applicable to a System of Philosophy or Religion recognizing this as a cardinal fact. When thus applied, it may be defined as follows: —Spiritualism embraces all truth relating to the spiritual nature of man, its constitution, capabilities, duties, welfare, and destiny; also, all that is or may be known relative to the spirit-world and its inhabitants, to God the Father of Spirits, to spiritual influences of whatever kind, and to all the occult forces of the universe, which are spiritual in their nature.

This broad department of truth, however, is but imperfectly understood as yet by even the most capacious minds of earth. Hence wide differences of opinion exist among Spiritualists on various questions of philosophy and religious duty. No system yet put forth receives general acceptance. Men can see alike on such questions only as they arrive at like states of mental and spiritual growth.

REMARKS—As thus defined, Spiritualism is no narrow superstition, but an all-comprehensive System of Truth. It includes all true Philosophy, all true Theology, all true Religion, and lies at the basis of all true Science. It should not be identified (as it often is) with the individual opinions of its adherents or prominent advocates, who are liable to mistakes; nor even with the teachings of disembodied spirits, for these appear to differ as widely in their theories as do spirits in the body. None of them should be received as authoritative teachers, since each can present, at best, only his own views of truth, and these are necessarily limited by his capacities and stand-point of observation. Every individual soul must determine for itself what is truth and what is duty—in doing which, it should of course seek all available aids, both from external teaching and internal inspiration. —A belief in modern Spiritualism does not require (as some have supposed) a disbelief in the Bible as rightly interpreted, nor a rejection of Christianity in its best significance; but it throws a flood of light over these and all other ancient religious records and systems, leaving every person free to form his own estimate of their value.

II—Its Practical Aim

Though Spiritualism cannot now be defined in all its details, yet its grand practical aim may be stated as follows: the quickening and growth of the spiritual or divine nature in man, to the end that the animal and selfish nature may be subordinated, and all evil or disorderly affections overcome; in other words, that the “works of the flesh” may give place in each individual to the “fruits of the spirit;” as a consequence of which, mankind will become an angelic Brotherhood, and the “kingdom of heaven come on earth.”

REMARKS—It follows that no theory or practice which tends to abrogate moral distinctions, or to give supremacy to animal desires, by whomsoever countenanced, can with any propriety be considered a part of Spiritualism. And no person can be entitled to the name of Spiritual-ist, in its full meaning, who does not adopt and practice sentiments which are spiritual (that is, refining, purifying and elevating) in their tendency. Conscientious Spiritualists, however, cannot be strictly bound nor rightly judged by the often superficial and arbitrary rules of popular morality. It behooves them to penetrate beneath the surface in respect to all questions, and to be governed by a higher law than popular opinion. They must be expected to obey the voice of God, speaking in their own highest intuitions, rather than that of man, where the two come in conflict. —The quickening and growth of the spiritual and subordination of the animal in man, all penetrating minds will perceive, is practically the same thing that is inculcated by the Church in her mystical doctrines of “regeneration,” “sanctification,” etc. The result sought for, though the mode of its accomplishment may be variously understood, is plainly indispensable to a perfect human character and a harmonious human society. Thus the ultimate aim of Spiritualism is identical with that of real Christianity—namely, the redemption of man from the dominion of evil.

III—Its Relation to Specific Reforms

Since man’s spiritual growth and welfare, in this life and the future, is believed to depend in some measure on his physical health, his habits and surroundings, as well as on his beliefs and motives of action, all departments of Human Improvement and Practical Reform come legitimately within the scope of a broad Spiritualism. Hence earnest and philanthropic Spiritualists cannot fail to take a deep interest in the promotion of objects like the following, though they may differ in regard to methods of action:

1. Physiological Reform in general, whether as relates to injurious habits of food, drink, dress, etc., or to erroneous systems of medication—to the end that every human body may be made a fit temple for the indwelling spirit, and a healthful instrument for its use.

2. Educational Reform—that body, mind and spirit may be unfolded and cultivated symmetrically, and by the use of the most enlightened methods.

3. Parentage Reform—that every child may be secured its right to a healthful organism, and an introduction to life under favorable circumstances.

4. The Emancipation of Woman from all civil and social oppressions—that she may freely choose her own occupations, and become best fitted to be the mother of noble offspring.

5. The equal Enlightenment and consequent ultimate Liberty of all human beings, and the Abrogation of all Oppression, civil inequality, domestic tyranny, and mental or spiritual despotism—because freedom is the birth-right of all, and the instinctive demand of every growing spirit.

6. Theological and Ecclesiastical Reform—since deliverance from error and from external authority are requisite to the best spiritual advancement.

7. Social Reform and ultimate Reorganization—because the present selfish and antagonistic relations and institutions of society are unsuited to a higher spiritual condition.

Lastly, in any and every effort, calculated, in their individual judgments, to improve the condition of mankind.

REMARKS—Few individuals may be qualified to labor in more than one department of so broad a field; and it is natural that any one should consider that portion of the work to which he feels strongest attractions the most important. The broad-minded and catholic-hearted Reformer, however, will rejoice in all well-meant work, and recognize as brethren all honest and unselfish laborers.

IV—Its Bearing on Organizations

While Spiritualists have no general organization, or authoritative creed, and cannot consistently combine for the purpose of controlling each others’ opinions, or setting bounds to inquiry; yet they may properly associate for such objects as the following: the promulgation of what they deem important truth—the promotion of fraternal intercourse—and the affording of mutual encouragement and aid in a true life.

REMARKS—Such associations (which will of course assume some organic form, the more simple and natural the better) may subserve all the useful ends of which church organizations are capable, and have none of the objectionable features which have commonly belonged to the latter.

A WORD TO THE READER—You may have been repelled by what you deem the errors and follies of modern Spiritualists—and perhaps with good reason. But please consider whether your objections lie against real Spiritualism and its legitimate aims as herein defined, or only against its counterfeits and perversions. If the latter, you have but to give the world a truer definition, by presenting a more correct philosophy, and exhibiting a more spiritual life. A. E. N.


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[In Tract No. 1, Spiritualism is defined as properly embracing ALL SPRITUAL TRUTH, whether relating to Man, God, the Spirit-World and its Inhabitants, or to Spiritual Influences and Forces of every kind. It is the purpose of these pages to state the prominent facts or truths in particular, with some of the logical results therefrom, which have been established by modern Spiritual Phenomena, independently of the testimony of Spirits; thus showing the error of the common allegation, that “nothing can be learned from Spiritualism, because Spirits are unreliable.” Observe, that the teachings of Spiritualism should be distinguished from the teachings of Spirits and of Spiritualists, as both these are finite and fallible.]

I—Scientific Propositions

Modern Spirit-Manifestations and attendant psychical phenomena are believed to establish beyond successful dispute the following scientific propositions:

1. Spirit-Intercourse—That human beings disrobed of flesh do, under suitable conditions, manifest sensibly their presence, and communicate intelligibly with mankind.

2. A Future Life—That man is more than an earthly being—that he is capable (at least) of surviving the death of the earthly body, and of living on as a conscious identity, in a form invisible to the natural eye.

[Footnote: Spirits doubtless always have bodies of some kind; and the spirit-body is now understood to be, not a misty, incomprehensible, “airy nothing;” but an organized structure, in the form of the earthly body, and composed of elemental or aromal matter, real and potential though invisible, as is the aroma of a flower or an apple.]

In other words, that the present life is but the vestibule to a future and perhaps an endless succession of lives.

[Footnote: It is the theory of some Spiritualists, and probably of some Spirits also, that there are human beings who do not attain a future life; of others, that though all live on for a time, yet some (the unregenerate or incorrigible) will eventually to an utter extinction of individual consciousness. It cannot be claimed that spirit-manifestations give demonstrative proof on either side of this question; for none will venture to affirm that every human being who has ever existed has demonstrated a life after death—much less, an endless life. Simple analogy, however, would indicate that if one lives on, all do, unless an essential difference in primary constitution can be shown. And manifestations from child-spirits, as conclusive as those from adults, show that continued existence is not a privilege of earthly maturity alone—The claim often made, that Spiritualism demonstrates Immortality, in the sense of endless conscious existence, is an evident mistake—since endless consciousness can be demonstrated only by experiencing it. Future life only is proved—with a presumption that since personal consciousness survives physical death, it will survive all future changes. Whether extinction is ever possible, must be determined by other evidences.]

3. The Spirit-World—That there is a spirit-world, of many conditions—a “house of many mansions”—which appears as real to the spirit-senses as does the material world to the material senses; and which embraces beings of all the grades and qualities known on earth. Hence, that physical death causes no radical change in mental or moral character.

4. Locality of the Spirit-world—That the spirit-world is ever present, around and within us; so that we are or may be constantly associated with, influenced by, and under the cognizance of, invisible beings. In fact, that we are now in the spirit-world, as really as we ever shall be, only that our senses are ordinarily unopened to its realities.

5. Powers of Spirits—That Spirits have the power of acting upon the human mind or nervous system, to produce various results; also, under certain conditions, upon inanimate objects, so as to overcome the power of gravitation and cause a variety of movements at will.

6. Spirit-Senses—That human beings are endowed with senses adapted to perceiving the beings and objects of the spirit-world; which senses, though closed through the earth-life in most persons, are at times opened in some.

7. Inspiration and Spiritual Gifts—That inspirational utterances and spiritual gifts, like those reported in ancient times, are again within the actual experience of humanity.

II—Philosophical Deductions

The foregoing facts, together with well-determined principles of the human constitution, afford a rational basis for the following philosophical and theological conclusions:

1. Ancient Inspiration and Miracles Credible—That inspiration and other miracles (i.e., wonders) of spiritual power affirmed in ancient scriptures, are, at least so far as paralleled in our day, rationally credible; moreover, that they were not the privilege of a past age alone, but are a perpetual heritage to the race.

2. Not Infallible—But that neither inspiration nor miracles of themselves impart infallibility to what is spoken or confirmed by them—since both may proceed from finite and fallible sources, and all inspirations from whatever source are necessarily transmitted through fallible instruments. Hence, that no inspired message, in this or any other age, can have plenary Divine authority to us farther than it expresses TRUTH to the individual consciousness, which is God’s judgment-seat within.

3. Heaven and Hell—That heaven and hell, or happiness and misery, in the future life, as in the present, depend not on locality, arbitrary decree, or special favoritism, but on internal moral states, or real character—goodness and purity constituting heaven, and selfishness and lust constituting hell. Hence, there must be as many grades or societies in each as there are shades of moral character—all persons being as happy as their characters will allow them to be.

4. Future Progression—That, since growth through successive stages is the law of the human being in the present life, it may be inferred that unfoldment, expansion, or progression through endless successive stages, is the destiny of the human spirit.

[Footnote: That progression may be, and in many cases is, from bad to worse (at least, through an indefinite cycle or aeon of existence), is affirmed by some; while others assert only a progression in good or in happiness for all. The mere opinions of Spirits cannot decide the question. It must be settled by the laws of our mental and moral constitution. A proper view of the whole subject cannot be given within the limits of these pages. It may be considered in a separate tract.]

5. Miracles in harmony with Law—That all authentic miracles or wonders of the past, though in a sense super-natural, have been produced in harmony with universal laws, or the general order of the universe.

6. All Force Spiritual—That all the phenomena of visible nature, such as Motion, Life, Attraction, Organization, Dissolution, etc., are the product of invisible or spiritual forces, acting in and upon visible matter.

7. Man not an Orphan—That man must be the offspring of a Source possessing all the essential attributes manifested in himself; that is, of an intelligent and affectionate Being (as distinguished from a lifeless principle or impersonal force), capable of loving and of being loved, and who thus sustains to all the tender relation of Universal Parent.

III—Moral Results

A rational Spiritual Philosophy, as above outlined, with the enjoyment of elevated spirit-communion, tends manifestly in well-disposed minds to the following practical results:

1. To give a realizing sense of spiritual verities, such as cannot result from mere belief in ancient testimony; and thus to raise the thoughts and aspirations to a higher life; and impart a just estimate of earthly things.

2. To give a rational and inviting conception of the future life, banishing painful fears of death, and excessive mourning for the deceased.

3. To stimulate to the worthiest possible employment of the present life, in view of its momentous relations to the future, and of the constant supervision of “a great cloud of witnesses”—the loved and sainted ones gone before.

4. To put us on guard against seductive and evil influences from the spirit-world, against which ignorance is not security; and to prompt to earnest endeavors, by lives of angelic purity and unselfishness, to maintain constant fellowship with the good and noble.

5. To arouse the mind to the largest and freest inquiry, especially into all subjects vitally related to man’s spiritual nature and welfare; at the same time delivering from all bondage to external authority, compelling every one to exercise his own God-given truth-determining powers; thus making every man more A MAN, and bringing him nearer to God, who reveals Himself in the highest intuitions of the truth-loving soul.

6. To quicken and wisely direct the affections—keeping alive a tender interest in the departed, promoting charity, toleration, teachableness, fraternity, and all angelic graces.

7. To enkindle religious emotions and stimulate philanthropic impulses—giving, through realized angelic ministry, an immediate sense of the Divine existence, omnipresence, and parental care, with the encouraging assurance that the redeemed and exalted of our race, instead of retiring to idle away an eternity of inglorious ease, are actively co-operating in all labors for human good.

REMARKS—Many will ask, What does Spiritualism teach respecting those prominent doctrines of Christianity, Regeneration, Atonement, Salvation by Christ, Divinity of Christ, Trinity, Resurrection, Judgment, etc.? Answer: It teaches whatever is written in the moral constitution and spiritual needs of the human soul. But persons, whether in this or the spirit-world, are able to interpret these teachings only to the extent of their own experiences and intuitions. Hence there are both Spiritualists and Spirits who regard the doctrines named as but worthless dogmas of an ancient superstition; while others consider them expressions of eternal truths, often misunderstood, indeed, but sooner or later to be recognized by every spiritually growing soul. An exposition of what is deemed their true significance cannot be attempted here. The best interpreter of spiritual things is spiritual experience. “Know thyself,” and thou shalt understand all mysteries. A. E. N.


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