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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 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, “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 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.
At that time, abolitionists who were Quakers were having a difficult time with their faith, as it supported slavery. Many left the Quakers and formed a group that they called the ‘Congregational Friends’. Wikipedia corroborates the connection between Spiritualism and the women’s movement with the following entry, “Amy and Isaac Post, Hicksite Quakers from Rochester, New York, had long been acquainted with the Fox family, and took the two girls into their home in the late spring of 1848. Immediately convinced of the genuineness of the sisters’ communications, they became early converts and introduced them to their circle of radical Quaker friends.”
Trish Wilson writes on the website, Feminista: The Journal of Feminist Construction, “Women and children of the Victorian era were considered the legal chattel of fathers and husbands. Spiritualism provided them with a means of obtaining their own power and financial security.” In a similar vein, Ann Braude tells us in Radical Spirits – Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth-Century America (2001), “What distinguished spirit mediums from other religious women who rose to public roles at certain moments of enthusiasm within their religious communions was their commitment to women’s rights.” Braude also states, “At a time when no churches ordained women and many forbade them to speak aloud in church, Spiritualist women had equal authority, equal opportunities, and equal numbers in religious leadership. While most religious groups viewed the existing order of gender, race and class relations as ordained by God, ardent Spiritualists appeared not only in the women’s rights movement, but throughout the most radical reform movements in the nineteenth century.”
In Other Powers-The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull (1998), Barbara Goldsmith writes, “By the 1850s, a group of female trance speakers were among the first women permitted to speak in ‘promiscuous assemblies,’ which meant gatherings of both sexes. Speaking with the authority of the spirits but without personal responsibility for what they said, these women could not be censored for their statements. Since the spirits were guiding them, they had courage, for they spoke the truths of a greater power. Women, no matter how ill-educated, could now transmit the wisdom of spirits as diverse as Socrates and Benjamin Franklin: Not surprisingly, the rights of women were very much on the minds of these great thinkers.” Robert Egby, in an article found on his online Parapsychic Journal entitled, ‘The Footsteps of the Foxes’, states the following, “The events at the Corinthian Hall promoted the cause of Spiritualism and clairvoyants and mediums who had been quietly working in private came out into the open adding to the growing power of this fledgling religion — Modern Spiritualism.” And as spirit continued to speak, women began to speak as well. They learned to trust their own feelings, and stand up for the equality that they felt was their right.
When talking about the Women’s Movement, Todd Jay Leonard in Talking to the Other Side: A History of Modern Spiritualism and Mediumship (2005) says, “From the very beginning of the movement, Spiritualism has served to empower women to be independent and has given them a platform in which to pursue a professional life as clergy, mediums, and businesswomen. The movement has always treated women equally, and many Spiritualism women were instrumental in demonstrating to get the right to vote for women during the Suffrage Movements in the United States.” Nancy Rubin Stuart tells us in The Reluctant Spiritualist – The Life of Maggie Fox (2005), “Several Quaker abolitionists had gathered first at the home of Jane and Richard Hunt and than at the M’Clintock’s fine brick house in Waterloo. The organizers, who included Mary Ann McClintock, Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Matilda Wright, formalized their ideas for women’s suffrage around the mahogany parlor table where the raps would later reportedly be heard.” She continues, “The subsequent meeting at the Seneca Falls Universalist Wesleyan Church on July 19-20 would ignite the women’s suffrage movement, setting the stage for a seventy-two year battle that resulted in the 1920 passage of the Twenty-First Amendment. Among the hundred men and women who ultimately supported its resolutions, some were already sympathetic to Spiritualism – Amy Post, Sarah Post Hallowell, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Mary Ann and Thomas M’Clintock, and Sarah Burtis.” The name that is most associated with regards to the women’s movement in later years is of course Susan B. Anthony. Although not a Spiritualist herself, she was a close friend of Elizabeth Cady Stanton for years, and was a frequent speaker at women’s conventions in LilyDale, New York, a Spiritualist community founded in 1879.
Additional confirmation of how spirituality and spirit communication played a large part in the women’s movement is found in Judith Wellman’s The Road from Seneca Falls (2004). She writes, “In their search for wholeness, the M’Clintocks and several other Congregational Friends went beyond worldly concerns. In the new spiritualist movement, they explored the permeability of boundaries between life and death. As early as 1841, they had experimented with ‘animal magnetism,’ a kind of clairvoyance which transported them to other places within this world. Now impressed by the rappings heard by the Fox sisters outside Rochester, New York, they began to hold regular séances in their home. Other women’s rights supporters, especially among the Quakers, also joined this movement. Isaac Post, Amy Post’s husband, collected testimonials from people who had attended the Fox sisters’ séances and concluded that, indeed, the rappings they heard came form the spirit world. By 1851, Isaac Post himself had become a medium.”
Interestingly enough, information on the Women’s Rights National Park website makes no reference to Spiritualism or spirit communication, although many of the names listed on the site as leaders and visionaries in both the women’s movement and the anti-slavery movement in that time were regular attendees at séances, if not mediums themselves.
Unfortunately, the dark shadows that were cast upon Spiritualism at that time, and even in current times, are more than likely the reason. We do know that Kate and Maggie Fox were interrogated and tested over and over again to prove the legitimacy of their supposed communications with spirit. From their first public demonstration in Corinthian Hall in Rochester, the two young girls – led by their older sister Leah, were continually sought after for readings and at the same time harassed and tested relentlessly by those who believed they were frauds. And the public had good reason to worry! The greedy and less than honorable of the people of the time saw an easy way to prey on those who had recently lost a loved one and wanted to believe in proof of the afterlife.
In later years, Maggie, after living an adult life plagued with alcoholism and harassment, told the world that the rappings heard in Hydesville when she was just a child were all a charade cooked up by her sisters and herself. She later recanted her admission of fraudulent behavior, but the damage had already been done. It all started out with disagreement among the sisters after alcohol abuse had become a part of their lives some thirty years after the initial spirit communications from Mr. ‘Splitfoot’. The atmosphere during those years of turmoil where blame-casting and revenge, and a break in the family finally ensued. Much like any family quarrel, each of the women wanted only peace for herself. Arthur Conan Doyle states when referring to how the women behaved throughout the more difficult times, “Let it then be clearly stated that there is no more connection between physical mediumship and morality than there is between a refined ear for music and morality. Both are purely physical gifts.” What Doyle meant I believe was that the women’s public embarrassments had nothing to do with their ability to transmit spirit communication.
Regardless, even though Spiritualism claimed to have two million followers by the late 1800’s, it was condemned by leaders of organized religions, and there were attempts to get laws passed to prevent mediums from practicing. Todd Jay Leonard in Talking to the Other Side: A History of Modern Spiritualism and Mediumship (2005) writes about the troubles encountered, “Many mediums were ostracized by family and friends, mainly because of the religious ban. Starting in the late 1850’s in Great Britain, and in the 1880’s in America, investigators began looking into and exposing the many fraudulent mediumship schemes that were operating in both countries, further sullying Spiritualism’s image.”
It’s understandable that historians wanted to keep any connection to spirit communication limited or completely out of our history books and classrooms. Most always the strange happenings occurring during that time in our history were attributed to the craziness and religious frenzy of the era, or just plain fraudulent behaviors and fame seekers. It is truly unfortunate however, that spirit isn’t given more credit for having had such an integral role when making these great strides in equality for humanity. Strides not only based on gender, but on race and creed as well.
We’ll never really know what went on inside those dark séance rooms in Upstate New York in the mid 1800’s. Were the attendees only asking to communicate with loved ones who had passed to the other side, or were they asking for advice from powers that they realized were greater than themselves? Were they made aware of ‘who they really are’ and given the confidence to move forward? Were those Victorian women led by the spirits of women who had gone before them and wanted to share their own voice as well? We really don’t know.
But, we do know that Amy and Isaac Post, strong in the anti-slavery movement with a busy house on the Underground Railroad, and signers of the Declaration of Sentiments in Seneca Falls, were close friends of the Fox family, and brought the girls to their home regularly. We also know that Elizabeth Cady Stanton was a strong voice in the movement, a regular at séances, and a good friend of Susan B. Anthony, one of the most prominent leaders of the women’s movement. And we know that the M’Clintocks, also very active in both the women’s as well as the anti-slavery movement were many times found around a table in a darkened room waiting for spirit to speak. Putting all of the pieces together certainly suggests that spirit and Spiritualism, although not totally responsible, can be touted as a considerable catalyst in the movement that gave women the right to vote in this country.
And where are Spiritualism and Feminism now? Some religious scholars believe that a Fifth Great Awakening, (the Third and Fourth happening in the 1880’s – 1900 and 1960’s – 1970 respectively) is imminent in the foreseeable future, as these periods of heightened spiritual activity are typically seen during times of social unrest and confusion. There is a growing list of events occurring simultaneously at this time in our history, all of which unfortunately are too extensive to be covered fully here. However, they include, but certainly are not limited to, the ongoing translations and interpretations of the Dead Sea Scrolls found in the middle of the 1900’s; the uncertain role of Mary Magdalene in Christian history – and Christian history itself – based on recently uncovered gospels; the massive changes to our planetary environment through global warming and the depletion of its resources; the discovery by Quantum Physicists that there is indeed an unseen controlling force at the very core of our being; and the predictions of the changes to come in 2012 by the ancient Mayans. Without a doubt, the time is definitely ripe for an Awakening. And, interestingly enough, as we move into 2009 we’ve already had a female candidate for the office of Commander in Chief of these United States. The women who fought hard and long for their equal rights in 1848 must be so very proud. Who do you think will hear their rappings this time?