Spiritualism and Feminism – Part 1

by Janet Hosmer, PhD

 

The religion now known as ‘Modern Spiritualism’ officially and literally burst through to the world in the small village of Hydesville, New York, late in March of 1848. The phenomena that began when young sisters Maggie and Kate Fox reported ‘rappings’ on the walls of their home, has grown into a religion that currently, according to the International Spiritualist Federation, has both individual and group members in over 35 countries worldwide.  The National Spiritualist Association of Churches, (NSAC) describes the religion on their website, (nsac.org) as follows, “Spiritualism is the Science, Philosophy, and Religion of continuous life, based upon the demonstrated fact of communication, by means of mediumship, with those who live in the Spirit World.  Spiritualism is founded upon a Declaration of Principles, nine in number, received from the Spirit World by means of mediumship. They provide a firm and tangible foundation on which to base the knowledge of Spiritualism.” Although not listed as one of the top ten religions of the world, there are many who have a belief in spirit communication, even though they are not a registered member of the Spiritualist religion. The number of believers, understandably because of the fraud found in this particular discipline, is difficult to ascertain.

Now back in 1848, and not twenty five miles away from the initial rappings heard in Hydesville, the feminist movement had their First Women’s Rights Convention at the Wesleyan Chapel in Seneca Falls, New York on July 19 and 20 – just a few short months after spirit began communicating with women in that same geographic area. From the handful of women who began to stand up for themselves, grew a cohesive network of individuals who were committed to changing society in the United States by demanding rights that were equal to those of their male counterparts in all areas. A group of strong and outspoken women who this paper will show, were regular attendees at séances given by the many mediums in the area, and were pivotal to the beginnings of a movement that ultimately led to a woman’s right to vote in this country.

Is it coincidental that these two major events in the history of the United States occurred at the very same time?  Did women finally find their voices and the strength to use them only after counsel with spirit? Did the readings from the Fox sisters, and readings from other women who found that they also had mediumship qualities give the women of that era the strength to finally stand up for equality in that Victorian male dominated world? Although the women’s uprising in most circles is attributed to ‘Renegade Quakers’, a deeper look reveals that it was indeed spirit communication that played a key role in the unprecedented social change events taking place in the mid to late 1800’s in Upstate New York, and throughout the world.

The United States in the mid to late 1800’s was in cultural and spiritual upheaval after the Second Great Awakening in the early part of the century, which consisted of renewed personal salvation, and participation in revival meetings. The revivals were instituted by the various religious sects as the people had been questioning their interpretation of God for many years. Understandably, this was a time of abolitionists, suffragettes and radical religious groups. SkepticWiki which defines itself as “the encyclopedia of skepticism, science and reason” describes the era like this at http://www.skepticwiki.org/index.php/Spiritualism, “It was an environment in which many people felt that direct communication with God or angels was possible, and in which many people felt uncomfortable with notions that God would behave harshly — for example, that God would condemn un-baptized infants to an eternity in Hell.”  Judith Wellman, when talking about the women’s movement in The Road to Seneca Falls (2004), portrays the time as follows, “In July 1848, revolution was in the air. As Americans confronted dramatic economic and social change, they had to redefine old values to meet the demands of a new world.” Society, especially in the United States, was definitely changing and changing rapidly. It was like the prelude to a big storm – you know something’s coming, but you’re not aware of how powerful it can be. Ann Braude says in Radical Spirits – Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth Century America (1989), “Spiritualism was a religious response to the crisis of faith experienced by many Americans at mid-century.”  It seems clear to one looking back at those tumultuous times, the stage was certainly set for spirit to break through the veil between planes and be heard.

The events in Hydesville in 1848 are marked as the beginning of what is now known as Modern Spiritualism, however spirit communication has been present in various forms since before biblical times.  Eastern religions that are thousands of years old have beliefs based in the fact that the soul exists long after the body has fulfilled its mission, and communicates back to the physical world. Even the Christian Bible makes reference to mediumship and spirit communication in many places. Todd Jay Leonard in Talking to the Other Side: A History of Modern Spiritualism and Mediumship (2005) states, “The Bible, according to Spiritualists, has numerous examples of mediumship which they believe lend credibility to their movement.”  He continues, “At the very least, however, enough references to mediumship-like occurrences are found in the Bible which certainly does, in part, offer the serious researcher and scholar points of reference to explore further.”  

When speaking of Spiritualism in more modern times, Arthur Conan Doyle thoroughly describes in The History of Spiritualism (Echo Library 2006), how the Swedish seer Emanuel Swedenborg, the Scottish born Edwin Irving, and New York’s Andrew Jackson Davis communicated with spirit and had paranormal experiences before the rappings were heard by Kate and Maggie Fox in 1848. It was the Fox event however, and the brashness and shrewdness of Leah Fox Fish, Kate and Maggie’s older sister and manager that forced humankind to finally listen to what spirit had to say.

Margaret and Katherine Fox were fourteen and eleven respectively when they woke their humble Methodist parents because they were hearing noises in the walls of the small wooden shack they called home.  The noises really shouldn’t have come as a complete surprise, since the rural house they had lived in for only a short twelve months was reportedly haunted and had been evacuated by the previous tenants. The noises and pounding went on for weeks, terrorizing the children and the family before young Kate challenged the rappings by asking the entity they called ‘Mr. Splitfoot’, since they believed the spirit to be that of the devil, to repeat the snap of her fingers. To everyone’s amazement each time eleven year old Kate would snap her finger, a single rap was immediately heard.  If she snapped twice, two raps came back. Communication with the beyond was established at that moment!  The ‘beyond’ happened to be the spirit of a peddler, Charles B. Rosna.  Mr. Rosna, who was murdered on the premises and buried beneath the house, was the first of many spirit entities to quickly come through as it turned out.  (As a side note, many years later human bones were found when the foundation of the house was being torn up, collaborating the girls’ story). Neighbors began to rush from all around the area to the small wooden house, and after days of communication, someone suggested a code in order to get questions answered. Now they had language with which to really communicate and ask questions. Maggie and Katie Fox became the initial spokespersons for the spirit world, and with their sister Leah leading the way, brought their first messages to the world at Corinthian Hall in Rochester, New York.

There is little information regarding the content of the messages received by those attending the numerous séances that where held in Upstate New York in the months following the first communication from spirit.  While the young girls broadened the scope of their travels to far away places, and news of this uncanny communication ability spread, increasing numbers of women were finding that they too could receive messages from the spirit realm. Arthur Conan Doyle states in The History of Spiritualism (Echo Library 2006), “In one of the early communications the Fox sisters were assured that ‘these manifestations would note be confined to them, but would go all over the world.’ This prophecy was soon in a fair way to be fulfilled, for these new powers and further developments of them, which included the discerning and hearing of spirits and the movement of objects without contact, appeared in many circles which were independent of the Fox family.” He continues, “In an incredibly short space of time the movement, with many eccentricities and phases of fanaticism, had swept over the Northern and Eastern States of the Union.” The phenomena indeed was becoming quite widespread.

 

Part 2 will be in the March issue!