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The Roots of the New Spirituality: Spiritualism, Emerging Worldviews 16

In the previous article, we looked at New Thought as one of the roots of the New Spirituality. In this article, we will consider Spiritualism and its close cousin, Spiritism. The Origins of Spiritualism Spiritualism is based on the premise that the spirits of the dead can communicate with the living, typically through special individuals known traditionally as mediums. As such, it has a great deal in common with shamanism, though its roots are different. Spiritualism began in the “Burned Over District” in Upstate New York, an area where revivalism during the Second Great Awakening led to such emotional excesses that many concluded that the revivals were nothing but mass delusions. During the same period, however, the region also birthed religious movements such as the Millerites (who eventually morphed into various Adventist groups), the Mormons, and the Oneida Society, among others. In this region, two sisters named Margaretta and Catherine Fox began conducting seances in 1848 in which they claimed to communicate with spirits. The proof of this was a rapping sound that was loud enough that it could be heard in large halls. These seances generated quite a bit of interest (and controversy) at the time and were a key catalyst for the Spiritualist movement. in 1888 one of the sisters publicly confessed that the whole thing was a hoax and showed how she produced the sounds, but the following year the Spiritualists pressured her into recanting her explanation. Nonetheless, the sisters were ruined and died in poverty. Spiritualism, however, continued. The Growth of Spiritualism Many of the early Spiritualists came from a radical Quaker background. They were often ardent abolitionists, supporters of the rights of women and of Native Americans, and socialists. Early practices included seances, automatic writing, and trance lectures. Many of the most popular early mediums were women. Spiritualism surged in popularity with the Civil War. The massive numbers of casualties and the gruesome photographs of battlefields led people to try to contact their lost loved ones. Another surge came after World War I, particularly in Britain. Despite constant debunking of fraudulent claims of mediums by professional magicians such as Harry Houdini, the movement continued to be popular, particularly among the upper classes. Most Spiritualists accepted the idea of evolution with some important modifications. If Darwin is correct and we are simply evolved animals, it is difficult to see how we have immortal spirits; thus, Spiritualists tended to support the idea of spiritual evolution coinciding with our biological evolution in this life and then continuing in the next. Not all Spiritualists agreed with this, however, with some opting instead for a form of pantheism. As early as the 1890s, the Spiritualists began institutionalizing. Various Spiritualist churches developed, with formal academic training in Spiritualist practices beginning in the 1920s. Since then, Spiritualists were instrumental in creating the field of parapsychology. Independent mediums, or channelers as they have been called more recently, have continued to be popular in some circles and were an important element in the New Age Movement, particularly in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Spiritism Spiritualism is largely an Anglo-American movement. Its offshoot, Spiritism, developed in France and then spread across the world. It is especially strong in Latin America. Its founder, Alan Kardec, was influenced by the Fox Sisters and early mediums, and by Mesmer’s ideas of animal magnetism and faith healing discussed in the earlier article on New Thought. Spiritism puts a great deal of emphasis on reincarnation. Spiritism believes that spirits are born into this world and are repeatedly reincarnated to atone for mistakes made in previous lives, to perform missions, and eventually to reach perfection. This is a key difference with Spiritualism: while some Spiritualists accept reincarnation, not all do, and those who do, do not necessarily agree with Spiritism’s interpretation of it. According to Spiritism, all people are influenced by spirits, but most don’t recognize it. They sense them as a kind of intuitive nudge toward a particular action. Some people—mediums—are especially sensitive to the spirit world and are able to interact with it. Spiritism is arguably closer to a philosophy than a religion. Spiritists acknowledge the existence of God, which they define as “the Supreme Intelligence and the Primary Cause of everything”—a definition which could indicate influences from New Thought or New Thought’s sources. But Spiritism has no specific rituals or practices and only advocates the kind of ethical principles found in many religions. Kardec considered it a science studying the relationship between spirits and human beings, and some Spiritists thus follow him in considering it a philosophy based on what they consider to be a science. Reincarnation, channeling/mediums, and belief in spirits, including the spirits of the dead, have become part of the New Spirituality. But there are other roots as well, including Eastern religions and Western esoteric and occult traditions. We turn to these in the next articles.

09/30/19

Glenn Sunshine

In the previous article, we looked at New Thought as one of the roots of the New Spirituality. In this article, we will consider Spiritualism and its close cousin, Spiritism.

The Origins of Spiritualism

Spiritualism is based on the premise that the spirits of the dead can communicate with the living, typically through special individuals known traditionally as mediums. As such, it has a great deal in common with shamanism, though its roots are different. Spiritualism began in the “Burned Over District” in Upstate New York, an area where revivalism during the Second Great Awakening led to such emotional excesses that many concluded that the revivals were nothing but mass delusions. During the same period, however, the region also birthed religious movements such as the Millerites (who eventually morphed into various Adventist groups), the Mormons, and the Oneida Society, among others.

In this region, two sisters named Margaretta and Catherine Fox began conducting seances in 1848 in which they claimed to communicate with spirits. The proof of this was a rapping sound that was loud enough that it could be heard in large halls. These seances generated quite a bit of interest (and controversy) at the time and were a key catalyst for the Spiritualist movement. in 1888 one of the sisters publicly confessed that the whole thing was a hoax and showed how she produced the sounds, but the following year the Spiritualists pressured her into recanting her explanation. Nonetheless, the sisters were ruined and died in poverty. Spiritualism, however, continued.


Most Spiritualists accepted the idea of evolution with some important modifications. If Darwin is correct and we are simply evolved animals, it is difficult to see how we have immortal spirits; thus, Spiritualists tended to support the idea of spiritual evolution coinciding with our biological evolution in this life and then continuing in the next.


The Growth of Spiritualism

Many of the early Spiritualists came from a radical Quaker background. They were often ardent abolitionists, supporters of the rights of women and of Native Americans, and socialists. Early practices included seances, automatic writing, and trance lectures. Many of the most popular early mediums were women.

Spiritualism surged in popularity with the Civil War. The massive numbers of casualties and the gruesome photographs of battlefields led people to try to contact their lost loved ones. Another surge came after World War I, particularly in Britain. Despite constant debunking of fraudulent claims of mediums by professional magicians such as Harry Houdini, the movement continued to be popular, particularly among the upper classes.

Most Spiritualists accepted the idea of evolution with some important modifications. If Darwin is correct and we are simply evolved animals, it is difficult to see how we have immortal spirits; thus, Spiritualists tended to support the idea of spiritual evolution coinciding with our biological evolution in this life and then continuing in the next. Not all Spiritualists agreed with this, however, with some opting instead for a form of pantheism.

As early as the 1890s, the Spiritualists began institutionalizing. Various Spiritualist churches developed, with formal academic training in Spiritualist practices beginning in the 1920s. Since then, Spiritualists were instrumental in creating the field of parapsychology. Independent mediums, or channelers as they have been called more recently, have continued to be popular in some circles and were an important element in the New Age Movement, particularly in the late 1980s and early 1990s.


According to Spiritism, all people are influenced by spirits, but most don’t recognize it. They sense them as a kind of intuitive nudge toward a particular action. Some people—mediums—are especially sensitive to the spirit world and are able to interact with it.


Spiritism

Spiritualism is largely an Anglo-American movement. Its offshoot, Spiritism, developed in France and then spread across the world. It is especially strong in Latin America. Its founder, Alan Kardec, was influenced by the Fox Sisters and early mediums, and by Mesmer’s ideas of animal magnetism and faith healing discussed in the earlier article on New Thought.

Spiritism puts a great deal of emphasis on reincarnation. Spiritism believes that spirits are born into this world and are repeatedly reincarnated to atone for mistakes made in previous lives, to perform missions, and eventually to reach perfection. This is a key difference with Spiritualism: while some Spiritualists accept reincarnation, not all do, and those who do, do not necessarily agree with Spiritism’s interpretation of it.

According to Spiritism, all people are influenced by spirits, but most don’t recognize it. They sense them as a kind of intuitive nudge toward a particular action. Some people—mediums—are especially sensitive to the spirit world and are able to interact with it.

Spiritism is arguably closer to a philosophy than a religion. Spiritists acknowledge the existence of God, which they define as “the Supreme Intelligence and the Primary Cause of everything”—a definition which could indicate influences from New Thought or New Thought’s sources. But Spiritism has no specific rituals or practices and only advocates the kind of ethical principles found in many religions. Kardec considered it a science studying the relationship between spirits and human beings, and some Spiritists thus follow him in considering it a philosophy based on what they consider to be a science.

Reincarnation, channeling/mediums, and belief in spirits, including the spirits of the dead, have become part of the New Spirituality. But there are other roots as well, including Eastern religions and Western esoteric and occult traditions. We turn to these in the next articles.

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