Spiritualism in Nineteenth-Century Atlanta
Spiritual communion had been part of Protestant sects in America through the 18th and early 19th centuries, particularly associated with Quaker, Shaker, and Swedenborgian traditions. These sparks of American Spiritualism were fanned into flames by the teenaged Fox sisters of Hydesville, New York, who in 1848 convinced their parents and neighbors that they were able to commune with spirits. As their fame spread so did the Spiritualist movement which became a major topic in America's religious conversation in nineteenth-century America. By 1867, in fact, Spiritualism was considered a major religion, according to some estimates gripping one-third of the nation (Cox, 237). The movement was not followed just by those seeking the comfort of communicating with departed loved ones or seeking proof of eternal life; it was also accepted after careful investigation by notable scholars, scientists and political leaders of the era.
Though the South was not "burned over" by the Spiritualist and other revivalist movements as were areas of New England, the region was definitely affected. Several pages of Wallace Reed's 1889 History of Atlanta, Georgia are devoted to the impact of this phenomenon in Atlanta. Numerous newspaper articles in the Atlanta Constitution during this period report lectures and medium "performances" and record debates on the issues surrounding spiritualist beliefs and activities. A number of cultural factors which Robert S. Cox refers to as an "unusual conjunction of social stresses" created a "spiritual hothouse" that encouraged the development of Spiritualism in the South as throughout the young nation (16-17). Along with race and class issues and increased mobility and urbanization, two primary social factors driving the movement were rapid developments in science and technology and increasing concerns for women's rights.
Technology was rapidly advancing on many fronts during this period--the daguerreotype capturing images and transferring them to tin plates, steam locomotives being propelled at breathtaking speed along rails between population centers, and the telegraph mysteriously tapping out messages that traveled through space. (Spiritual communication was quickly dubbed the "spiritual telegraph.") These developments came at a time, writes Molly McGarry, "when the magical and the technological were often seen as one and the same" (107). New technologies, particularly those involving electricity and magnetism, were welcomed by spiritualists who emphasized scientific logic and saw advances in science as proving the same "ultimate truths" they espoused. Andrew Jackson Davis's "Harmonial Philosophy," for example, taught that God and spirits could indeed communicate with the natural world in an ordered and orderly cosmos by using the elements of nature itself. He encouraged rejecting Christianity's emphasis on the mysterious supernatural and instead embracing an "expanded understanding" that would rely on scientific rationality (Cox 8-9). Excited by new scientific advances, Davis referred to God as the "Holy Magnet of the Universe"; and he and Robert Hale, a leading scientist of the time, both spoke of electricity as the medium through which the Deity spoke to the universe (Carroll 68, 77).
If invisible forces could capture one's image and send messages almost instantly across great distances, the church should surely accept the possibility of a similar connection between the material and spiritual worlds. Christians were, in fact, counted among the most avid followers of the Spiritualist movement. Historians hold that the movement for the most part sat squarely within the confines of the Christian religion and may have been fueled in part by the "Second Great Awakening," a revivalist movement which agreed with the Spiritualist emphasis on a personal spirituality. The leadership of mainstream churches, however, did not approve teachings of the Spiritualists. The Spiritualists, in turn, maligned the leaders of mainstream denominations. The Spiritualists did not, however, reject Christian ideals; rather they criticized the misinterpretations of those ideals, speaking of the church's destroying the soul from within through what the medium James Peebles called "Churchianity" (Cox, 16). The Spiritualists saw the clergy, suggests Bret Carroll, as "mechanical" and too much "influenced by powerful social interests," an attitude reflected in trance-speaker Charlotte Beebe Wilbour's contrast of the "dictatorial and authoritative" pulpit of the organized church with the "democratic pulpit" of the Spiritualists (2, 57).
This "dictatorial pulpit" of the church, of course, offered no platform for women to speak. The Spiritualist movement, however, as other alternative groups such as the Quakers, Shakers, and Seventh-Day Adventists, encouraged women not only to speak but to assume positions of authority. In fact, most mediums in the Spiritualist community were women, who were thought to have a particular openness to spiritual communication. In addition, as Ann Braude reports in her book Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women's Rights in Nineteenth Century America, women excelled in religious leadership when their authority came "from direct individual spiritual contact or experience rather than from office, position, or training." Women in the nineteenth century, though denied theological education and ordination, could not be held back by religious authorities. They were sanctioned by the "spirits who spoke through them" (6, 84).
Women seeking such rights were but one expression of the Spiritualist emphasis on independence and individualism. They encouraged civil rights for all, speaking for abolition, universal suffrage, equal access to health care, and economic reform--all values in keeping with the renewed emphasis on the democratic ideals of the American Revolution.
Questions to consider:
Reproduced for you here are pages from Wallace Reed's History of Atlanta, Georgia (1889) which speak to the concerns about the Spiritualist movement in Atlanta.
You will also find in the archives of the Atlanta Constitution for this period a number of articles covering Spiritualist events, trance speakers, the debates between Spiritualists and the Rev. Dr. Harrison, and news reports of "strange" events purporting to be of the spirit world. To access the Atlanta Constitution Archives, go to GALILEO from the college library pages. From the Database search, click on "A" and scroll down to the Atlanta Constitution (1868-1949). Type "Spiritualism" in the search box; in the "Sort" box, choose oldest first. Please read the following articles: from 1872: Nov 10, Nov 15, and Dec 6; from 1873: Jan 15 and Mar 14; also from 1873, the two debate reports dated May 22 and May 28.
- Why would people have been looking for spiritual nourishment outside of the traditional church at this particular moment in history?
- Reread the statements of the "trance medium," Mrs. Torrey, reproduced in Reed's text. Can you detect anything in her statements or her presence that would be out of keeping with the teachings of mainstream Christianity? What were her critiques of the religious institutions of the day?
- What do you make of Harrison's proposed tests of spirit communication outlined in Reed's text?
- Both the Spiritualist and the anti-Spiritualist claimed science as a proof of their positions. On what grounds might the Spiritualist have made this claim?
- Why might the impact of spiritualism not have been as great in the South as in New York and other northern states?
Works Cited and Consulted:
Atlanta Constitution (1868-1945). Proquest Historical Newspaper. GALILEO. Georgia Perimeter College. Web. 04 May 2013.
Braude, Ann. Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women's Rights in Nineteenth Century America. 2nd ed. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2001.
Carroll, Bret E. Spiritualism in Antebellum America. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1997.
Cox, Robert S. Body and Soul: A sympathetic History of American Spiritualism. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2003.
Goldsmith, Barbara. Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull. New York: HarperPerennial, 1998.
McGarry, Molly. Ghosts of Futures Past: Spiritualism and the Cultural Politics of Nineteenth Century America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008.
Wallace, Alfred Russel. On Miracles and Modern Spiritualism: Three Essays. London: J. Burns, 1875.