'Nemesis Of The Pulpit': The Church Vs. The Spiritualists On Unobscured

Saint Teresa of Avila Church, Bodega, California, USA

Unobscured, a podcast by Aaron Mahnke, chronicles the spiritualism movement of the 1850s. During this time, people all over America were stricken with religious seizures and trances, claiming to be able to speak with spirits. These spirits used the mediums to lecture on the nature of the universe, to speak with their loved ones, and to heal and dispense advice from beyond the grave. In last week’s episode, we learned how many grifters and con men used this movement to make an easy dollar, and some of the most famous spirit guides were found to be frauds. In spite of that, spiritualism only grew in popularity, even crossing the ocean to gain a foothold in Italy, Spain, and England. This episode focuses on the churches’ response to levitating mediums and knocking spirits, which would lead to contentious religious conventions, derision on the Senate floor, and even would-be assassins.

 

Mediums and spirit guides had been impressing (and concerning) people already before Daniel Hume started levitating, but his spectacular séances would convert many onlookers: tables would spin, Daniel would float in the air, cold hands would be felt on people’s faces, lights flickering on and off. Even skeptics like “British writer William Makepeace Thackeray, who called spirit communication, ‘A dreary and foolish superstition,’" Aaron says, “came around when the table began to spin. 'Whether or not the spirit communications had been dire humbug and imposture,’ he said, the manifestations he witnessed were ‘undeniable.’" With such shows of force, it’s no wonder spiritualism was growing in popularity. They even had supporters in the Senate, like James Shields, who introduced legislation to study the miracles being witnessed in séances. His petition was signed by 15,000 people, but even so, the Senate just laughed at him and called spiritualism “a delusion.” 

But some weren’t laughing: the church. Many spiritualists were of Christian faith, coming from Methodist, Baptist, Catholic, and Quaker backgrounds, and for some historians, it’s clear why they were drawn to it: “Christians are taught, in many contexts, that they should try to communicate with benevolent spirits who are looking after them, who are looking down from heaven to lead them in positive directions,” historian Ann Braude points out. “So the ideas of spiritualism should not be so foreign to Christians, and in many cases they're not.” But the churches themselves weren’t as charmed, as Oliver Wendell Holmes made clear when he declared them "the nemesis of the pulpit." Historian Emily Clark offers a potential reason for this hostility: spiritualists were “taking religious authority away from formal church structures and the traditional purveyors of religious authority...and placing it in the bodies, the hands of mediums themselves...they could see it as a dangerous threat."

Antique illustration of seance session

So they decided to fight back. When Maggie Fox, who was famous for hearing the spirits knock on the walls to convey messages, went to Troy, New York to hold séances, she was beset by attackers. They followed her to the house she was staying in, firing at her and trying to run her off the road. She had to barricade herself in the house for several days until her sister Leah could rescue her.  

Other times, it seemed it was the spiritualists who picked the fight. When harmonic philosopher and trance healer Andrew Jackson Davis was in Hartford, Connecticut, he and other mediums blasted a prominent minister for “unsound teachings” and “insufficient thinking.” Then, they “put out a public challenge to all the pastors in the city to join them in a public debate about spirituality.” The religious leaders didn’t attend, but they sent their congregations to heckle the speakers and disrupt the convention until the mayor canceled it in fear of violence. For these angry mobs, “the links were clear between spiritualism and reform movements like abolition and women's rights, and it created the kind of disorder they expected from Satanic rituals and atheist freethinkers.” 

But spiritualism wasn’t done yet. Learn about Maggie Fox’s tragic romance, a spiritual skeptic who turned out to be a powerful spirit guide, and what Pope Pius IX had to say about the whole thing, on this episode of Unobscured.

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Photos: Getty Images

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