A recent researcher’s request led me to a small collection of rare 19th Century American Spiritualist publications in our holdings.
Spiritualism, simply defined as talking with the dead or communicating with spirits, grew in popularity in the second half of the 19th Century. In contrast to popular congregational American religions of the day, Spiritualism emphasized the individual’s unique relationship to the divine, decentralizing spiritual communication and challenging religious authority. This rejection of the spiritual hierarchy so common in mainstream religions, naturally fostered and appealed to an anti-authoritarian spirit in its practitioners. With the emphasis on the individual spirit and the divinity of every human soul, the Spiritualist movement drew progressive political and social activists advocating for the rights of all humans, including the abolition of slavery and women’s rights.
Ann Braude, author of Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth-Century America, writes about the impact the Spiritualist movement had on social change and 19th Century print culture:
“Spiritualists’ advocacy of unpopular causes as well as their individualism made them staunch advocates of a free press. They perpetuated the Garrisonian tradition of viewing the columns of newspapers as an open forum for discussion and free inquiry. The movement was determined to provide ‘a Free Platform…for all those who desire to give utterance to the burning thoughts that well up in their inmost souls as the highest conception of the truth’ (Banner of Light, 26 July 1862). This zeal to allow all human thoughts to be aired, no matter how unconventional, encouraged editors to accommodate a broad range of political positions. In addition to abolition and woman’s rights, various Spiritualist periodicals espoused free love, socialism, marriage reform, children’s rights, health reform, dress reform, and vegetarianism. The advocacy of so many ‘isms’ made editors feel a certain urgency about the need for their publications, and getting out a paper in itself assumed the status of a reform activity. S.S. Jones, the editor of the Religio-Philosophical Journal, viewed the press as a powerful instrument of reform. He told Spiritualists that ‘the most potent means in their power to accomplish…the elevation of human character and the alleviation of the downfallen and the oppressed everywhere…is found in the printing press’(Banner of Light, 3 March 1865, p.3).” News from the Spirit World (PDF), 1990.
One article in The Kingdom of Heaven, published in Syracuse, NY January 1874, titled “Spiritualism and Revolution” expresses some of the radical ideals of the movement: “Revolution signifies change. And spiritualism, which is far more than the mere manifestations and raps of individualized spirits…has come to revolutionize all the unjust and unequal institutions of man—to equalize and harmonize all man’s relations with man.” This article calls for the revolution to “rid the world of religion, and human governments, and all institutions that are founded in force and monopoly.”
Due to the decentralized nature of 19th Century Spiritualism and Spiritualist publications, it is difficult to find full runs of these often short-lived publications. The Amherst College Archives & Special Collections holds single or multiple issues of The Wise-Man, Banner of Light, Positive Thinker, The Progressive Age, Spiritual Rostrum, The Sower, and more. You can locate these publications in our online library catalog with the subject heading “Spiritualism — Periodicals.”
These pamphlets, magazines, and newspapers document a significant period in American religious history, as well as illustrate the expansion of American political thought. The publications in our collection provide insight into the dovetailing of Spiritualism and the growing advocacy for human rights in 19th Century America.