Book: Spiritualism As Modern Witchcraft In New England From 1848 To 1866 by Nathan BeierThis paper was written for history 396: Transformation of the Witch in American Culture. The course was taught by Professor Carol Karlsen in Winter 2009.
1848 found New York to be a hothouse of religious and social innovation. In Seneca Falls, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and other female reformers drafted the Declaration of Sentiments at the first women’s rights convention in American history; in Oneida County, John Humphrey Noyes established perhaps the most successful of the myriad communitarian projects in his socialist, "free love" Oneida Community; and in late March in Hydesville, New York, Kate and Margaret Fox claimed to have heard the mysterious "spirit rappings" that transformed the Fox sisters into national celebrities and heralded the formation of a diffuse cultural and religious phenomenon known as Spiritualism. Spiritualists, who claimed to have established direct contact with the souls of the deceased, articulated a radical religious and social platform that opposed traditional religious establishments and advocated women’s rights. Through their copious publications and popular public lectures and performances, Spiritualists attracted millions of passionate followers and invoked the contempt of many critics.
This paper seeks to understand the antebellum American Spiritualist movement in terms of the ideology and experiences of its members and the scorn it provoked from mainstream Americans. Spiritualism and the backlash surrounding it have received considerable attention from historians, so this investigation takes place with an eye toward America’s Puritan, witch-hunting past. In analyzing the motivations and meanings of attacks on Spiritualism, I consider what lingering elements of Puritanism remained in the worldview of certain New England elites. It is my hope that this approach enhances our understanding of Spiritualism in antebellum America and lends it a greater degree of "deeper historical resonance,"1 to use a phrase from Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum, concerning the enduring presence of the "witch" in American culture.
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Nathan Beier - Spiritualism As Modern Witchcraft In New England From 1848 To 1866