Spiritualism: Then and Now
Spiritualism is the belief that the living can communicate with the dead. Although it is associated with eccentricity from flamboyant mediums and the reputation of wild seances, spiritualism was viewed as a religion by its participants.
Communication with the dead was done through many ways. Seances, trances, automatic writing, and many more. Up until the mid-18th century, those that believed to speak to the dead, were considered witches. They were either sentenced to death or excommunicated from their churches and banished away from their communities. Gee, tough crowd. I’m glad it’s not that way anymore!
Although spiritualism can be found throughout history, the modern-day spiritualist movement became more well known in the mid-19th century. This growth began in the post-Civil War environment as families were desperate to contact their members lost through war. Even Mary Todd Lincoln held seances in the White House.
The modern spiritualist movement began in March, 1848 when Catherine and Margaretta Fox, after encountering numerous disturbances in their new home in Hydesville, New York, where they lived with their parents, devised a way of communicating with a spirit via the use of a tapping system. The sisters claimed to have discovered that the spirit causing the problem had been robbed, murdered, and buried in the house several years prior to the date that the Fox family moved into the home.
Several neighbors were brought into the house to substantiate the fact that the Fox family had communicated with the dead. The press popularized the actions of the Fox sisters and the sisters capitalized on that popularity by turning their abilities to communicate with the dead into a stage act. They attracted the backing of the showman P. T. Barnum, who took them to New York and made them stars. The Fox sisters enjoyed several years of fame as mediums.
The spiritualist movement seemed to take off shortly after the news of the Fox sisters. Their approach to communicate with the dead was an organized method of speaking with those that have passed. Much like the current paranormal teams, knocking (tapping) is a common form of communication. In a current case in Woodstock, CT, this method of knocking was helpful in finding some answers to who was causing the paranormal activity.
The Fox sisters were credited for many spiritual churches. The first church specific to spiritualism was founded in 1849. A small group of spiritualists met in the Corinthian Hall in Rochester, New York, on November 14, 1849. As others realized they had psychic powers, the movement grew. The First Spiritual Temple was established in September 1885.
The spiritual movement made its way across the pond to England in 1852. It was extremely popular during the Victorian and Edwardian eras. In the 1900s, the spiritual movement started to fade. It got a boost after the First World War as many people were desperate to communicate with their soldier loved one. By the 1920s, the movement lost its momentum and hasn’t gained the same momentum it had when it started.
The popularity of Spiritualism lay in the séance. The séance was a popular entertainment among the upper and middle class. There would be a dinner party and for the post-dining entertainment, a medium with a well- perfumed air of eccentricity would seat people around a table after instructing you to hold hands. She would use a mystical incantation to put herself in a trance to bring on the spirits. When the spirits took hold, the medium would speak in a voice different than her own and would move in a much different manner than her own. This indicated that she was channeling a spirit.
Spiritualism Through the 1900s
When the influenza pandemic hit the U.S. between 1918 and 1920, Americans wanted answers. Their questions weren’t limited to what caused the pandemic or might prevent the next one. They struggled with more eternal concerns, such as what happens to us after we die and whether it’s possible to communicate with dead loved ones. There was a sudden resurgence of Spiritualism in the Unites States, Great Britain, France, and elsewhere. Spiritualism promised a window into the afterlife.
After the debunking of the con artists, public interest declined and seances and legitimate mediums were few and far between as World War II approached.
Spiritualism survived because of legitimate mediums and dedicated believers. Psychics accept that spirits exist and have things to share with the living world. Their contact with us is personal and not showy as it was a hundred years ago. For today’s spiritualist, the thrill is in contacting the spirit.
Today’s psychics or mediums, the true ones, aren’t much different from those that were made famous during the onset of the modern Spiritualism movement. Even the sensational psychic has found their way back into the forefront. The palm reader and the tarot card reader have made their way out of the carnival tents and into our everyday lives.
Today, as participants, we want more! Along with connecting with psychics, we want to hear them through audio recordings, we want to see them in photos or videos. Why do we seek to connect with the dead? Is it because we question our own mortality? Spiritualism has come out of the shadows and moved into the light.
No doubt the spiritualism movement will remain under the scrutiny of the skeptic. Spiritualism will continue to endure because there will always be a need. The need to seek the unanswered question. There will always be those that need to speak to their departed loved ones. There will always be the need to seek out our own mortality.