Spiritualism ushering in women emancipation
Posted on Sunday, 22 December, 2013 | 0 comments
Columnist: Kathleen Meadows
Many spiritualists today don't know that the mid-19th century spiritualist movement was the axis and engine of the feminist movement. In manner of dress, rights to speak in public forums, to own their own money, to be spiritual leaders, and to declare a woman's right to equality, the spiritualists cleared the path. Spiritualism was also instrumental in forwarding the abolitionist revolution. Black churches in Washington, D.C. welcomed the white medium Cora Richmond in their pulpits, something no white evangelical church ever did. A Methodist exhorter from Mississippi concluded that the "negro character" was "intuitive, inspirational, religious, and altogether mediumistic," implying that blacks shared with women the characteristics that made them susceptible to spirits.
Power, illusion, and cultural prescriptions for goodness, morality and gender are highlighted in this intriguing study and I hope this article stimulates a keen excitement in some of you to pursue this line of query further.
Spiritualism burst into the western world, spreading throughout western global society faster than any religion in her/his tory. "The only religious sect in the world...that has recognized the equality of women is the Spiritualists." History of Women's Sufferage, edited by Elizabeth Stanton and Susan Anthony. Not all feminists were Spiritualists, but all Spiritualists advocated women's rights, and women were equal to men within Spiritualist practice, polity, and ideology. By providing a form of spiritual inspiration in which truth revealed itself to individuals without recourse to external authority, Spiritualism became a magnet for social and political radicals throughout the nineteenth century.
At its peak, Spiritualism had more than eleven million followers out of a population of twenty-five million in the US alone by the mid 19th century. Almost fifty per cent of the US population were Spiritualists. It remains a challenging topic for research for several reasons.
Mediums and their Challenges
- The mediums who were doing the bulk of the work were women. They were young and in many cases illiterate,
- The Comstock book burnings of the early 1920's made a project of burning any material related to what it considered unsuitable or threatening to the status quo, bringing Spiritualism to the top of the list! It was illegal to possess certain books pushing whatever was written into private collections.
Spiritualism was the child of scientific naturalism and rational explanation. Early adherents held a fervent hope that science had ushered in the tools to prove spirit return, and sought to establish both the survival of the spirit and its materiality through strict adherence to the empirical method.
Spiritualists openly courted scientific investigation intending to prove to the world that spirit return was a fact, not a belief system. But two problems emerged when it was noticed among spiritualists that a séance wouldn't be successful if there were sceptics among the "sitters". It became clear to spiritualists that an open attitude of positivity serves to amp the chances at a successful connection with spirit.
To further exacerbate the issue, the testing methods employed by psychic investigators were too often abusive to the young female medium. Reminiscent of the earlier witch hunts, mediums were bound to chairs, put in small cupboards, often immodestly clad supposedly to assure sitters they weren't hiding any tricks in their skirts. The physical and emotional strain put on these young female mediums was often torturous. Despite this stress, mediums were expected to provide proof that they communed with the spirit world.
The other problem was the fact that spirit communication is decided and enacted by the spirits not the medium. A conundrum for any practicing medium. Often accused to falsity and deceit there was enormous pressure put upon mediums to perform. Managers who were often a male relative (father, brother, husband) were more than a little thrilled at the financial returns brought in by a gifted medium; there were sitters whom had potentially traveled great distances to hear from their loved ones with high expectations; and there was the critical eye of spiritualism's enemies anxious to have their "scientific scepticism" affirmed.
The Fox sisters "rappings" in Hydesville New York in 1848 have been identified as the beginning of modern spiritualism. This is a misnomer propagated probably because it was a movement that burst on the scene in the US and from there galloped to Canada & England. Although the Fox sisters' experience converted many influential people and provided the model for other mediums, they never participated actively in the movement they began. They never appeared at conventions, contributed to publications, or cooperated with those interested in promoting the spiritualist cause. In the late 1880's one of the them recanted in fact their whole experience saying it had been a hoax, and then later recanted the recant. As more intelligent communications appeared from other sources, the public lost interest in the Foxes and their raps.
These young women lived not far from Hopedale which was a Christian utopian community striving to create a society based upon a purist construct of democratic principles of fairness and equality and priorities and values which favoured non-materialism and benevolence. The notion of communicating with spirits was not new to this community. What is important to note is that communicating with those who had passed to spirit was not new at all.
Modern Spiritualism planted its spiritual seed a century earlier with Swedenborg but he had declared himself uniquely gifted. Following in a long tradition of the specialness of masculine enlightenment. What was spiritually corrected a hundred years later, was the message that anyone could be a medium, and it was a process that particularly favoured women over men.
The messages from spirit repeatedly exhorted listeners to bring equality between the sexes, to acknowledge the primary directive of SELF salvation, and further described a different afterlife scenario. All of these messages and more, were problematic for sustaining the status quo. For example, if we accept the premise that loved ones in the spirit world can and do communicate with us (and there is more than enough evidence to support this hypothesis) then what does that mean for us when we pass to spirit? That we will continue to remain close to our loved ones still here? That we in other words will continue to BE here. If we don't leave then what happens to our descendents will be forever our concern.
Even in our modern world, this adds ominous emphasis to the green slogan that we borrow this world from our children!
God is both Mother and Father in spiritualism. In all nine major religions, which also suited the imperatives of state, God is a father. This means that the male human has been given divine sanction for his privileged access to resources, opportunity and power.
Women rather than men became the message bearers, the voice of spiritual authority and the access to divine inspiration. Equality between the sexes was forwarded from the spiritualists as a spiritual imperative from the spirit world meaning that it was divinely inspired. Spiritualists said, as one advocate put it, that "woman's freedom is the world's redemption." As investigation of the manifestations swept the nation, Spiritualism became a major - if not the major - vehicle for the spread of women's rights ideas in mid-century America. Making it institutionally public enemy number one.
"Spiritualism has inaugurated the era of woman," Mary Davis proclaimed. She recalled the common birth date of the new religion and women's rights in 1848. Spiritualist conventions called for the "Emancipation of women from all legal and social disabilities." Consistently those who assumed the most radical positions on woman's rights became Spiritualists. Spiritualism and woman's rights spread simultaneously through the network of Quaker abolitionists that produced the first supporters of both movements.
Spiritualism's greatest contribution to the crusade for woman's rights lay in the new role of spirit medium. While reformers spoke of woman's autonomy, mediumship cast women in the central public role in the new spiritual message. Far from requiring guidance from men, mediums led both men and women on the path to spiritual truth. In mediumship, women's religious leadership became normative for the first time in the her/history of western civilization.
Male manifestation is central to all major religions. The voice of God speaks through Buddha, Zorastor, Mohammed, Krishna, Mosses, Jesus, Bahaullah who represent the central figures of the religion that is formulated around their lives and teachings. Spiritualism followed a number of inspirational speakers (trance mediums) who brought messages from highly evolved and advanced spiritual teachers. If we carry this anomaly to its logical outcome, what does a manifestation of God actually do but bring messages to the world from the unseen world? The notion that only men bring forth "the word" ended with Swedenborg.
Spiritualists described a spiritual existence in the afterlife made up of a reality you create. What you think about will be what is - everything is thought and love is the fuel. Our soul continues to grow. It is ignorant spirits who commit wrongs against others and they require education not punishment. There are various spheres we go through once in the spirit world - spiritual spheres of healing, education, productivity, purpose and accomplishment.
The church could not denounce that spirit didn't commune with people - there were too many instances of this described in the sacred writings. What they did instead was declare that the force communing with mediums was of a dark, evil nature. In effect it was the Devil himself that was communing with these mediums. After all who else would speak with these "prostitutes" which of course they were, clad in evocative clothing, and accepting money for their gift. Only the discerning eye could grasp the hypocrisy in these criticisms.
The place of worship was relocated to the home from church, or temple. Spirit circles gathered around parlour tables, a most appropriate place for women to preside. This decentralized religious practice making it difficult to formulate organizations and institutions where financial empires could be erected and sustained. In fact, trance mediums repeatedly announced that church doors would soon close!
Spiritual healing was a part of many a medium's gifts. There was nothing new about the notion of spiritual healing. When it was discovered that many gifted mediums were also capable to healing the sick and did so in a far less invasive manner than the "bleeding", doctors were doing in the mid-1800's, thousands flocked to their doors seeking respite from their physical agony. This set the growing medical business squarely against them. Many mediums were committed to mental hospitals (husbands finding willing doctors to get their medium wives in line who were threatening to divorce them) and were unable to secure their own release. Many spent a lifetime locked in a mental hospital. Doctors were just beginning to gain power with the growing fascination for science and saw Spiritualism as their competitor.
It was a commonly held belief among the medical community that disease of the woman's reproductive system was attributable to women's willful departure from traditional roles in particular, that of mediumship. In one case the appearance of mediumistic hysteria was attributable by the doctor to the "patient's excessive mental exertion, she having contracted a taste for philosophy." The medical society deemed mediumship a manifestation of a medical disorder causing rebellion against gender roles. On the other hand, Spiritualism taught women to exercise self-healing properties of her own nature and to develop a more egalitarian relationship with her doctor.
Most established religions teach that your soul will go to a profoundly different place from this world when you pass to spirit - nirvana, heaven, paradise, hell - and the nature of that afterlife place will depend on the moral code brand you abided while here. Both in Christianity and the Muslim faith there is also a notion of Judgement Day whereby at the end of days all will be judged according to sin and good. Reward and punishment has become a key component of population control.
In the belief called reincarnation, born in the east and picking up phenomenal speed in recent years in the west, punishment will involve a return to the earth plane to compensate for the sins you committed here. Goodness in this life will help bank dharma points that you'll be rewarded for in your next life. Gather enough dharma currency and you won't have to return to earth at all. As with many notions of afterlife and morality, re-incarnationists seek to explain injustices committed by humans to the divine plan. The caste system of India has been neatly packaged, justified, and engineered by this notion of reincarnation. Those who must live their lives as "untouchables" have committed sins in a past life which must be accounted and paid for with a lifetime of suffering and deprivation.
Perhaps this also explains its burgeoning popularity in our global western privileged class wealth scenario, whereby westerners enjoy a luxury of material wealth unprecedented in the her/his story of human kind while other countries live in shocking conditions of deprivation and suffering. It calms the twinges of guilt as we glance ever so wincingly at other parts in the world whereby a glass of water is a luxury to be thankful for. We must have been very good souls indeed to enjoy the abundance we now do in this life! Or better yet, many western re-incarnationists favour a romantic notion that they are descended from royalty, spiritual masterhood, and/or great fame. Our spiritualist ancestors did not teach or bring forth messages that supported notions of re-incarnation.
The mid to late 19th century ushered in a new age of science (Darwin's Origin of Species in the 1880's) and religion. It was the age of enlightenment the effects of which we continue to witness and be influenced by in our modern world. The seeds of modernism, psychoanalysis, communications, human rights, longevity were all brought from the unseen world to the seen in this most glorious age which had been prophesied for thousands of years.
The her/his tory of religion has taught us that the further we move in time away from the original spiritual message, the more it morphs, disintegrates, and ultimately decays. Spirituality is a dynamic force and has the power to alter the consciousness of humans, the course of our collective destiny and ultimately our ability to thrive. It's temple is the heart, its expression is in the actions we take every day of our lives. As spiritualists today let us honour our legacy by standing up against the winds of conformity. Let us rally around and fiercely support those gifted mediums amongst us and continue to lead the way forward to an equitable and spiritually centred world.
Kathleen has a Master's degree in Religion & Culture from Wilfrid Laurier University. Her academic focus was women's spirituality, and the writings of Carl Jung. Kathleen is a full time practicing psychic and Spiritualist in Victoria, BC where she lives with her life partner Erich Rock. You can read more about Kathleen's relationship to Spiritualism at www.psychicanada.com. Article Copyright© Kathleen Meadows - reproduced with permission.
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