Review: A Luminous Brotherhood

Jamil Drake

Jamil Drake is Assistant Professor of Religion at Florida State University.

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Jamil Drake, "Review: A Luminous Brotherhood," Journal of Southern Religion (19) (2017):

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Emily Suzanne Clark. A Luminous Brotherhood: Afro-Creole Spiritualism in Nineteenth-Century New Orleans.  Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016. 280 pp. ISBN 978-1-4696-2878-3.

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American Spiritualism brings to mind familiar historical figures such as Emanuel Swendenborg, Franz Mesmer, Andrew Jackson Davis, Margret and Kate Fox, Issac and Amy Post, and Mary Todd Lincoln. Emily Clark’s A Luminous Brotherhood extends the study of American Spiritualism to include the Cercle Harmonique (Harmonic Circle), an Afro-Creole group of predominantly male Spiritualists who engaged in séances in New Orleans beginning in 1858 and petering out by the 1877 Compromise. Her attention to this cadre of learned, wealthy, and bilingual black spirit mediums challenges the discourse of American Spiritualism, moving it beyond those who were “white, Northern, and Protestant.” Clark centers her attention on the Cercle Harmonique’s séances practices and their communication with a range of predominantly male, transnational, and interracial spiritual consorts that included Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Abraham Lincoln, John Brown, Saint Vincent de Paul, and Toussaint Louverture. A Luminous Brotherhood is an original accomplishment that highlights how racial politics in post-Civil War New Orleans shaped nineteenth-century séances.

Clark argues that the Cercle Harmonique was a spiritual medium for a “democratic spirit world,” meant to steer the Republic on a course of equality, justice, and harmony. This argument connecting Spiritualism, democratic egalitarianism, and social reform places Clark in the company of Ann Braude, Bret Carroll, and Robert Cox. The Cercle Harmonique called the principle of the spiritual world that guided them the Idea—a “concept that meant humanitarian progress, equality, egalitarianism, brotherhood, and harmony” (5). The Idea empowered and encouraged the Cercle Harmonique to work for egalitarian republicanism in order to alter the disharmonious racial oligarchy that governed the material world. The American Republic needed to mirror the democratic spirit world, cultivating the “mutual respect” and “harmony” of all humanity. Clark organizes most of the book around the Idea, highlighting its influence on the Cercle Harmonique and their critique of the material conditions of the racial and religious oligarchy. She rightly emphasizes the transnational character of the Idea, linking the Cercle Harmonique to a broader spiritual network of Enlightenment philosophers and revolutionaries in the French and Haitian Revolutions.

Clark argues that understanding post-Civil War New Orleans is essential to fully comprehending the séances. “The spirits guiding the Cercle Harmonique,” she asserts, “…advised [them] to combat the violence, vice, and disharmony of their city” (51). After the Union Army took control in 1862, New Orleans remained fraught with political corruption and division, often descending into violence, death, and bloodshed. Among many violent incidents, the Mechanics Riots of 1866 involved an ex-Confederate mob of local whites (“with the help of local white police and firemen”) who raided the interracial Republican convention at the Mechanic Institute, leading to the death of over forty people, most of them black. According to Clark, the violence turned locals into “martyrs” who died on behalf of the Idea. These martyrs often explained to the Cercle Harmonique that although they were “killed as mad dogs by the furious mob,” they did not die in vain. Reverend Jotham Horton, who perished in the riot, explained that the “blood of the friends of freedom is not to be lost to the sacred cause of Justice” (61). Spirit martyrs like W.R. Meadows reaffirmed to the group that the Idea’s “progress cannot be stopped.” Clark notes how the spirits also extended their “social commentary” to the unequal gender relations amid the flourishing prostitution economy and placage arrangements that bound black and mixed-race women to sexual exploitation in New Orleans. The spirits’ instructed the Cercle Harmonique to promote gender equality in their everyday lives.   

The spirits and séance practices also captured the ambivalent relationship between the Cercle Harmonique and Catholic tradition. Catholicism is often understudied in American Spiritualism, yet the Cercle Harmonique grew in New Orleans’ colonial context of French (and Spanish) Catholicism. The spirits embraced an anticlericalism that criticized the Catholic religious hierarchy and their material greed, and the spirits showed that the “hierarchical institution of the Catholic Church and the spirit of republicanism were at odds, in large part because of the assumed authority of the priests” (105).  For instance, the spirit of Saint Vincent de Paul criticized Jesuit priests as “dictators of conscience.” Spiritualism resisted the religious despotism of the Catholic Church and presented the way to the eternal truth of free thought, harmony, and republicanism. Yet Clark rightly shows that the Spiritualists’ communication with the past Catholic priests simultaneously reveals how they “did not abandon their local and familial [Catholic] religious heritage” (89).  

 A Luminous Brotherhood adds to the study of American Spiritualism by showing how those “without a white racial advantage envisioned the spirit world” (11). Clark states that A Luminous Brotherhood is the “first text to examine a community of black Spiritualists” (11). Yet, I wonder: what is the “black” in the “community of black Spiritualists,” beyond the fact of the Cercle Harmonique’s skin color and their encounter with racism in post-Civil War New Orleans? To be sure, it is a delicate task to explain the uniqueness of black Spiritualists without losing sight of how they were shaped by larger social currents of American history. A rich scholarly tradition, from Zora Neale Hurston to Claude Jacobs, references black “spiritual” or “supernatural” practices in order to disaggregate the particularities of the black experience in the U.S. It would have been interesting for Clark to spend more time fleshing out the Afro-Creole Spiritualists’ relationship to the African (and Native) indigenous spirit worlds (especially Voodoo) that informed black Catholicism and Protestantism in New Orleans by the second half of the nineteenth century. Were the black Spiritualists precursors to Mother Leafy Anderson’s Eternal Life Christian Spiritualist Association and other Spiritualist congregations that flourished in New Orleans in the first half of the twentieth century? It is unclear how the Cercle Harmonique’s Spiritualism and republicanism were different from a few of their white and northern counterparts. It also would have been helpful to hear about the Afro-Creole Spiritualists association with other non-Creole (and non-Catholic) black and economic populations, and to further unpack the ways the former understood their racial and economic identities in New Orleans. How did they understand their racial identities even as they privileged the soul over and against their racial bodies while their communication with the raceless spirits reflected brightness or lightness that was, as Clark briefly notes, “visually akin to whiteness?” Attention to the social history could have addressed the complexities of race and class that shaped the Cercle Harmonique in New Orleans. Despite these questions, Clark’s A Luminous Brotherhood is an original achievement and contributes substantially to the study of American Spiritualism within the history of American racism.