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Calling itself a "metaphysical mecca," the small town of Cassadaga, between Orlando and Daytona Beach in central Florida, was established more than a century ago on the principle of continuous life, the idea that spirits of the dead commune with the living. Though the founders of Cassadaga have passed on to the "spirit plane," the quaint Victorian town remains the oldest continuously active Spiritualist center in the South and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1991. While the community has ...
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Calling itself a "metaphysical mecca," the small town of Cassadaga, between Orlando and Daytona Beach in central Florida, was established more than a century ago on the principle of continuous life, the idea that spirits of the dead commune with the living. Though the founders of Cassadaga have passed on to the "spirit plane," the quaint Victorian town remains the oldest continuously active Spiritualist center in the South and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1991. While the community has often been sensationalized and misrepresented, this is the first serious work to examine its history, people, cultural environment, and religious system.
The Context of Cassadaga
A Historical Overview
of American Spiritualism
BRET E. CARROLL
Cassadaga is a small and picturesque central Florida town that is rich with history and resembles many other quaint American towns. A visitor to the place can stroll narrow streets lined with oak trees, admire homes that exude Victorian charm, and meet friendly people who, like most Americans, believe in a loving God and look forward to a happy afterlife. But Cassadaga is distinct from most American towns in that it is a community of Spiritualists. Because we have been encouraged by events of recent years to view small religious groups and communities with fear and mistrust, exploring Spiritualism's historical roots and situating it in its American context should foster greater understanding of the Cassadaga Spiritualist community, its religion, and its place in American life.
However bizarre outsiders might consider Spiritualism and its adherents, the religion expresses the same spiritual longings that move people to join other religious bodies. Belief in immortality, curiosity about an afterlife, and the desire to establish communication with a higher spiritual world are as old and globally widespread as humanity. Archeological, anthropological, and historical evidence suggests that belief in communication between human beings on earth and beings in an afterlife or on a higher spiritual plane has always characterized, and continues to characterize, both Western and non-Western religions.Yet modern Spiritualism was a product of the particular circumstances of nineteenth-century America. In this respect, it is much like Mormonism, which emerged in the 1820s and has become a major worldwide religious movement, and Shakerism, which emerged during the late eighteenth century, flourished and produced several communities of believers in antebellum America, and continues to fascinate and impress Americans in spite of its debatable viability.
The United States of the early to mid-nineteenth century was the site of dramatic change. The political, economic, cultural, and religious life of the young nation, particularly of the Northeast and Midwest, were altered fundamentally, and in many places rapidly by a series of developments, including political and religious democratization; geographic expansion; the rapid growth of a market economy; urbanization; industrialization; the rising authority of science and an empirical method grounded in the study of observable phenomena; and such revolutionary developments as the railroad and telegraph. These changes were accompanied by a high level of cultural and religious ferment. In particular, experimental and sometimes radical religious, social, and scientific reform movements crowded the cultural landscape, especially where the transformation of American life was most pronounced. These movements promoted cosmologies and programs for action designed to impose order on a society whose changing nature made it seem fluid and even chaotic. Many of them promised the achievement of the "millennium"—the utopian state foretold in the New Testament—beginning in the United States.
Western New York lay at the center of these developments. The opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, linking the Atlantic Ocean, the Hudson River, and the cities of the East with the newly settled West, sparked the growth of such new cities as Rochester and rapidly transformed the region. As a result, religious ferment there proved especially intense. The fires of revivalism spreading over the northern and western United States—which emphasized personal experience of the divine and stimulated reform of both self and society—were so recurrent and strong there during the early decades of the century that the region became known as the "burned-over district." Mormonism was born there during the 1820s after a poor young man named Joseph Smith claimed special contact with the spiritual realm and gathered followers who considered him a prophet. William Miller attracted a following with his prophecies of the world's end in 1843. The region was dotted with communitarian experiments, including that established at Oneida by believers in the free-love ideology of John Humphrey Noyes, and those of the Shakers, whose communities experienced a burst of spirit communication during the 1830s. Lecturers and practitioners in the faddish new "sciences" of mesmerism and phrenology, traveled the countryside, offering theories about the organization and workings of the human mind and seeking the cosmic mainsprings of human nature. A host of amateur physicians and self-proclaimed healers hawked an array of alternative medical treatments. The area was a center of radical abolitionist activity during the three decades preceding the Civil War, and the women's rights movement offered the first major articulation of its demands there at the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848.
It was in this hotbed of experimental religious, cultural, and social activity that modern Spiritualism emerged in the late 1840s. Most modern Spiritualists pinpoint the birth of their religion on the evening of March 31 ,1848, in the small rural hamlet of Hydesville, close to both Rochester and the place where Joseph Smith was led to the truths of Mormonism by what he believed to be an angel guide. There, the young girls Kate and Margaret Fox, daughters of a poor farmer, claimed to hear strange knockings that responded intelligibly to their questions. The questions posed by the Fox family and others led them to believe that the girls were being used as instruments or "mediums" of communication by the spirit of a peddler who had been murdered and buried in their basement five years earlier. (A search conducted at the time turned up no remains, though a skeleton was allegedly found in 1904 behind a collapsed cellar wall.) Joined by their older sister, Leah Fox Fish, the Fox sisters soon claimed to summon a variety of spirits, attracted attention throughout the region—especially among radical Quakers—and began to hold regular gatherings for curious investigators.
Many of these investigators sought out the Foxes for entertainment and novelty, or to recover personal relationships ended by death. Many others, however, came with the more serious religious intent of establishing definitive empirical proof of human immortality and of receiving enlightening spiritual instruction from inhabitants of a higher plane. Among the latter were Eliab W. Capron, a Quaker from the nearby town of Auburn, who became an early convert to the movement and its first important publicist and historian, and the Rochester Quakers and abolitionists Isaac and Amy Post. Isaac Post developed an alphabetic communication code that was quickly dubbed the "spiritual telegraph," because it resembled and seemed to extend the marvelous new communication technology that had emerged just a few years before.
In November 1849, the Fox sisters went public with their displays, hiring out Rochester's Corinthian Hall, charging an admission fee, and drawing widespread notice. The publicity generated in Rochester attracted the attention of rising showman P. T. Barnum, who invited the Fox sisters to exhibit their mediumship at his hotel in New York City during the summer of 1850, and the famous New York Tribune editor and reformer Horace Greeley, who endorsed the sisters and spread the word of the rappings in the pages of his newspaper. The favorable attention they received in the metropolis was followed by a national tour through such burgeoning western cities as Cleveland and Cincinnati. Interest and publicity continued, fueled by sensational newspaper stories and the resulting controversy. Within a short time, such literary luminaries as James Fenimore Cooper, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Harriet Beecher Stowe were investigating the phenomena of the séance.
As word of the "Rochester rappings" spread and the Fox sisters became nationally renowned, others, mostly women, discovered their own mediumship and held their own séances. The "spirit manifestations" quickly developed into new forms as entranced mediums, claiming to be instruments of higher spiritual powers, began to practice spirit healing, speaking and writing, clairvoyance, drawing and painting, moving and levitating objects such as tables, and playing musical instruments. In the 1860s and 1870s, the mediumistic repertoire expanded to include spirit photography and visible spirit materializations. These new phenomena gradually pushed the Fox sisters, their humble rappings, and alphabetic communication into the background. But the sisters had spearheaded a new national fad and laid part of the groundwork for a new religion based on spirit communication.
Even before the Fox family was first disturbed by noises in the night, the philosophical and theological foundations of Spiritualist religion were being laid in another part of New York State by Andrew Jackson Davis? Born in the Hudson Valley town of Blooming Grove, New York, Davis was the son of a ne'er-do-well father and a mystically inclined mother. The family moved about a great deal, finally settling in Poughkeepsie. There, the young Davis floundered as a shoemaker's apprentice until 1843, when he was introduced to the wonders of the trance by itinerant mesmerist J. Stanley Grimes. Intrigued, Davis sought local tailor William Levingston, an experimenter with hypnotism, who discovered that Davis made an excellent subject. In trances induced by Levingston, Davis experienced clairvoyant visions and suggested unorthodox medical remedies. The two men began to travel, attracting curious audiences in New York and New England. In Bridgeport, Connecticut, Davis caught the attention of a group of Universalists, including Dr. Silas Lyon and ministers Samuel Byron Brittan and William Fishbough.
As Davis's travels and contacts widened, so did his trance experiences. By 1844, he was claiming to receive wisdom from the spirit world through contact with the spirits of Emanuel Swedenborg, an eighteenth-century Swedish scientist-turned-mystic, and the ancient physician Galen. These experiences initiated his career as a religious seer and healer. By the close of 1847, Davis, working with Lyon as hypnotist and Fishbough as scribe, had delivered a series of trance lectures that were published that year as The Principles of Nature, Her Divine Revelations, and a Voice to Mankind. This massive volume, the first of many books published by Davis over the next thirty years, contained his first and most influential statement of an ideology that he and his colleagues called "harmonialism."
Harmonialism drew, in both its worldview and its adherents, on a variety of contemporary religious, scientific, and social ideologies. Above all, it drew on the ideas and experiences of Swedenborg (1688—1772), who in 1743 had begun to undergo a series of profound mystical experiences that included strange dreams, trances, and clairvoyant visions. During these experiences, he claimed, departed spirits communicated with him and revealed to him the nature of the afterlife. Swedenborg described these visions in Heaven and Its Wonders and Hell (1758), which offered—in a sober and matter-of-fact style that reflected his scientific background—a thoroughly detailed portrait of heaven and hell, each consisting of three hierarchically arranged "spheres," with the pivotal sphere of earthly existence between them. After death, Swedenborg believed, the soul naturally gravitated to the sphere most suited to it, where it remained for eternity. Swedenborg divided his heavens into orderly communities and subcommunities of like-minded spirits drawn together by natural and mutual attraction, while his hells were places of chaos. He developed an elaborate theology in which God acted on the universe through spirit mediators. Swedenborg also devised, in the many other volumes that he published between the 1740s and his death, a new and complex method of scriptural interpretation. By the early nineteenth century, Swedenborg's teaching had spawned in the United States a fully developed sect called the Church of the New Jerusalem (or New Church), which would later contribute several members to the Spiritualist movement.
Spiritualists derived several of their religion's central features and beliefs from Swedenborg's worldview and practices, including the concept of "correspondence" or parallelism between the spiritual and material worlds; a graphic vision of a spirit world arranged into seven ascending "spheres," where the departed soul assumes a position determined by its moral and spiritual state at the moment of physical death; and an understanding of spirits as essential mediators between God and human beings on earth. Foremost, Spiritualists took up Swedenborg's practice of communicating with the inhabitants of the spirit world and made the reception of inspirational spirit messages the central and distinguishing feature of their religion. In this, they departed from Swedenborg's example, democratizing a practice that he had warned should be strictly limited. Spiritualists also rejected key elements of Swedenborg's theology, adapting it to nineteenth-century American notions of progress and upward mobility. They regarded the afterlife not as the static state imagined by Swedenborg or as a place that included a hell of eternal punishment, but as an experience of gradual advancement through the spheres as the spirit was influenced and guided toward eventual perfection by higher ministering spirits. Despite and perhaps because of their deviations from Swedenborg, Spiritualists made him a crucial symbolic figure in their religion and believed him to be a frequent visitor to their séances.
Another major component of Spiritualist ideology and practice derived from the heterodox medical practices developed by Viennese physician Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815) and elaborated upon by his students. Mesmer postulated the existence of an invisible but universally pervasive and scientifically demonstrable magnetic fluid called "animal magnetism," which bound the universe and its contents into a physical and spiritual whole. Mesmer believed that the manipulation of one's personal portion of the fluid during hypnosis—a practice that came to be called mesmerism—could induce physical and spiritual healing. As Grimes and other traveling lecturers and practitioners of mesmerism toured the United States during the 1830s and 1840s, animal magnetism became a national fad—and for those seeking scientific insight into the nature of the human mind and soul, a phenomenon worthy of serious examination. Following the lead of the prominent American scholar and Swedenborg disciple George Bush, who endorsed Davis and suggested that the mesmeric trance had been the mechanism of Swedenborg's communication with spirits. Spiritualists incorporated the magnetic fluid into their cosmology and the trance into their practice. They looked to the fluid, acting in accordance with natural law, to explain the operations of deity on the universe, the ability of advanced spirits to influence and regenerate lower ones, and the ability of spirits to seize control of mediums and to produce the various phenomena of mediumship. They used the trance as the key mechanism of spirit contact and of spiritual and physical healing.
A third important ideological element of Spiritualism was the communitarian philosophy of eighteenth-century French socialist reformer Charles Fourier (1772-1837). He had suggested that social and spiritual harmony required the reorganization of human society into small communities and the establishment of all human relationships—from economic ones to sexual ones—on natural forces of attraction. His followers in the United States attempted in the 1840s and early 1850s to apply his principles through the formation of experimental communities called "phalanxes," particularly in the Northeast and Midwest. Though most phalanxes were very short-lived and all had disappeared by the middle of the 1850s (the Fourierist Union Colony, established in 1870, evolved into the town of Greeley, Colorado), Fourier's ideas continued to influence American social reformers. Through prominent and glowing mention in Davis's Revelations, the ideas of the French social theorist entered Spiritualist thinking. With the publication of Revelations, the combination of Swedenborgianism, mesmerism, and Fourierism to form the harmonial ideology—which comprised the heart of Spiritualist belief—was complete.
Spiritualist ideology stemmed from a number of other sources as well, particularly the new liberal and democratic Protestant theologies that emerged during the nineteenth century to challenge orthodox Calvinist assumptions of human depravity, limited salvation, and an angry God. From Transcendentalism, a radical offshoot of Unitarianism, came a rejection of the special divinity of Jesus—who was understood as a model and teacher for the human race—a belief in the basic goodness and divine potential of every human spirit, and an emphasis on inward contemplation as an essential source of religious insight. From Universalism came a conviction that all human beings would eventually be saved by a good and merciful deity, though Spiritualists followed a schismatic group of Universalists called Restorationists in adding the qualification that nonrepentant souls would require a temporary postmortem punishment in the lowest sphere before beginning their upward ascent. Quakerism contributed to Spiritualism the belief that all people possessed an "inner light" by which the divine manifested its presence in the soul. From broader liberal currents and the growing philosophical emphasis on developmentalism came a rejection of the notion of sudden conversion in favor of gradual spiritual growth. Spiritualists adopted the free-thought conviction that God operated on the universe and could therefore be understood in terms of scientifically comprehensible natural law from which miraculous deviation was impossible. From traditional Christian orthodoxy, meanwhile, Spiritualists derived their belief in divine sovereignty, human dependence on the divine, the reality of an eternal afterlife, and the obligation of living one's life in accordance with a set of absolute moral standards represented by the life of Jesus. Spiritualists also defended their practice of spirit communication in terms of Christian historical tradition and biblical accounts of ancient mediumistic phenomena, although the movement was bitterly divided between those who sought to replace Christianity and the Bible with "modern revelations" from the spirit world (Davis led an iconoclastic "anti-Bible" convention in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1853) and the "Christian" Spiritualists who sought only to supplement Christianity and scriptural authority Another religious influence on Spiritualism, often slighted, is Native American shamanism, which had become familiar to large segments of the American public and could now be interpreted in terms of the far more familiar Judeo-Christian tradition. (The appearance of "Indian guides" at Spiritualist séances was common in the nineteenth century and continues to be a feature of contemporary Spiritualism.) Later in the century, Spiritualism and related movements such as Theosophy increasingly incorporated Asian religious beliefs.
Anxious to promote their new religion, Davis and other adherents of harmonialism capitalized on the sensation created by the Fox sisters. They joined their cause with that of the spirit manifestations by endorsing the controversial phenomena, explaining them in terms of the ideas and practices of Swedenborg and Mesmer, and emphasizing the potential of spirit communication to promote personal growth and enlightenment. The product of this union between harmonialism and the practice of spirit communication was the religion of "Spiritualism," a term popularized by Horace Greeley in the pages of the Tribune. The new religion proved especially appealing to Swedenborgians, Universalists, Unitarians, Transcendentalists, Quakers, Shakers, and freethinkers, and to reformers from such contemporary movements as abolitionism, women's rights, marriage reform, Fourierism and other forms of communitarianism, and mesmerism.
Spiritualists found in their religion an answer to perennial spiritual longings that were given specific form by the antebellum American environment. Several features of American life had combined by the middle of the nineteenth century to produce both an enormous expansion of spiritual opportunity and a profound spiritual malaise. In a development termed by Nathan O. Hatch "the democratization of American Christianity," the republican ideology of the American Revolution had encouraged a questioning of traditional sources of religious authority and exalted the validity of the individual conscience. At the same time, intensifying currents of revivalism and Romantic idealism put a premium on personal religious experience and direct individual contact with the divine. The eighteenth-century Enlightenment emphasis on reason, logic, and experimental investigation as the primary sources of knowledge had generated a respect for science that Spiritualists shared with most nineteenth-century Americans. But it had also encouraged a starkly mechanistic worldview that seemed to exclude the supernatural and stimulated a Romantic response that imagined a warmer and more organic cosmos. Scientists, who enjoyed growing cultural authority in an age of scientific and technological marvels, seemed to encourage scientific materialism by denying the empirical knowability, and often even the very existence, of spirit and the human soul. Religious liberals, who provided the bulk of Spiritualism's leadership, found it increasingly difficult to believe in a personal God and turned instead to abstract and impersonal notions of a natural-law deity. A professionalizing clergy, meanwhile, seemed to sacrifice spiritual vitality and moral leadership as it sought material comfort and the approval of society's elites. Competition among sectarian and denominational organizations in the aftermath of disestablishment, combined with the appearance of several would-be prophets in the democratic religious environment of the early nineteenth century, created a growing variety of belief systems that many in the United States found bewildering. Finally, the intensely competitive economic and political system taking shape in the young republic seemed to many observers to reward the ruthless pursuit of individual self-interest, creating vast economic inequities and sapping the moral and spiritual foundations of national life. Urbanization and industrialization, meanwhile, threatened the communal and republican values that had once contained individual ambition in a framework of mutual obligation.
Excerpted from Cassadaga by . Copyright © 2000 by Board of Regents of the State of Florida. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|1||The Context of Cassadaga: A Historical Overview of American Spiritualism||1|
|2||Seeking the Sweet Spirit of Harmony: Establishing a Spiritualist Community at Cassadaga, 1893-1933||27|
|3||On the Threshold of a New Age: Cassadaga as a Contemporary Therapeutic Community||57|
|4||"No Palaces among Us": Cassadaga's Historic Architecture, 1895-1945||96|
|Glossary of Architectural Terms||134|
|5||Keepers of the Veil: Life Stories of Cassadaga's Senior Residents||137|
|6||The Reverend Eloise Page: Learning a New Language, a Student's Perspective||172|
|7||Photographic Images of the Camp: Activities, Ceremonies, and Rituals||203|
|Editors and Contributors||233|