This notorious religious movement, believing that the spirits of the dead can be contacted by mediums and provide perfect guidance in all worldly and spiritual matters due to their location on a higher plane of existence, was at the height of it popularity between the 1840s and 1920s. The first documented accounts can be traced to the Burned-Over District in upstate New York in 1840. Something not that out of the ordinary for this part of the world. This area had seen Millerism (Seventh Day Adventists) and even Mormonism plant their early seeds in the fertile landscape.
The Spiritualism movement focused on an environment where everyday individual had a direct line with God or his angels. In fact, from a religious perspective the love of god may have never been higher, as a large part of population found it unbelievable that God had the ability to cause despair. The leaders and organizers drew guidance from the writings and teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg and Franz Mesmer for detailed knowledge of the afterlife.
During his life, Swedenborg would commune with spirits in a trance state, describing the structure of the spirit world he discovered. This was important to the Spiritualists because he outlined the hierarchal path of a spirit on his way to heaven or hell and the notion that a person could interact directly to god via a deceased loved one.
From the outside looking in, Mesmer may be odd choice to follow Swedenborg. However, for the organizers of Spiritualism it was a mark of genius. He did not claim to have religious insights like Swedenborg; in fact, he was more of a showman, adding hypnotism as a way of inducing trancelike states.
One the finest examples of this combination at work during the movement was by hypnotist, clairvoyant and faith healer Andrew Jackson Davis, who fashioned his Harmonial Philosophy after the works of Swedenborg and Mesmer. He reached the peak of his popularity when he penned The Principles of Nature, Her Divine Revelations, and a Voice to Mankind, during a trance in 1847. This manifesto went on to become the bible of the Spiritualism movement
While we have talked about the earliest roots of Spiritualism, most spiritualists will mark March 31, 1848 as the beginning of their movement. What makes that day so important? On that date, the Fox sisters, Kate and Margaret, of Hydesville, New York claimed to make contact with the spirit world for the first time. What made this communication unique was that they claimed to contact the spirit of a murdered peddler through audible tapping, rather than during a trancelike state with an apparition. This revelation struck a chord with Americans thrusting the Fox sisters into the spotlight and at the heart of a spiritual awakening.
Many of the early followers of Spiritualism were radical Quakers and others caught up in the reformation movements of that era. These reformers were uncomfortable with established churches because those churches did little to fight slavery and even less to advance women's rights. Women were particularly attracted to this movement, because it gave them important roles as mediums and lecturers. In fact, Spiritualism provided one of the first forums in which American women could address mixed public audiences. Cora L. V. Scott (1840–1923) was a popular trance lecturer prior to the Civil War. She was bright, young and beautiful with a stage appearance that would captivate the audience. On stage, she would fascinate men with the contrast between her physical girlishness and the lucidity she spoke on spiritual matters.
Once this movement took hold, it quickly spread throughout the world, especially in the United Kingdom. By 1853, many afternoon teas amongst the nobility involved some form of séance in which spirits would communicate with people seated around a table by tilting and rotating the table. During this time, a French academic and spiritualist follower Allan Kardec streamlined the movement’s ideals into a philosophical system. His books, written in the last 15 years of his life, became the textual basis of a religious movement called Spiritism, which is still followed by millions in Latin countries today.
Following the Fox sisters lead, demonstrations of mediumship, séances and automatic writing proved to be a profitable venture and highly popular entertainment venues. Like the work of Mesmer, showmanship played an increasingly important role in of Spiritualism, and the visible, audible, and tangible evidence of spirits escalated as mediums competed for paying audiences. Unfortunately, this increase in evidence eventually led to the movement demise. In a quest to gain paying customers, mediums turned to fraud, creating evidence to astound the hungry spectators.
During the 1920s, professional magician Harry Houdini even undertook a crusade against fraudulent mediums. Throughout his crusade, Houdini was adamant that he did not oppose the religion of Spiritualism itself, but rather the practice of deliberate fraud and trickery for monetary gain that was carried out in the name of that religion.
Nevertheless, the appeal of Spiritualism remained strong throughout the early 20th Century. Mostly due to the rising casualties of war and the increasing desire of equality emerging in the United States and Europe. These appeals led to conversion for many influential members of society including socialist and atheist Robert Owen and author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.