Review: Free Spirits

Randall M. Miller

Randall M. Miller is Professor of History at Saint Joseph’s University.

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Randall M. Miller, "Review: Free Spirits," Journal of Southern Religion (19) (2017):

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Mark A. Lause. Free Spirits: Spiritualism, Republicanism, and Radicalism in the Civil War Era. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2016. 223pp. ISBN 978-0-252-04030-6.

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Mark Lause has ventured bravely into the surprisingly uncharted terrain of nineteenth-century spiritualism in the context of politics and sectional strife. In doing so, Lause places spiritualism at the center of a young but fast-growing America swirling in self-doubts about the direction and dynamics of a market economy, demographic change, social upheavals, religious enthusiasms, sectional struggle, and the search for guidance and hope. For many people, that search led to spiritualism with its promise that the dead might be reached through mediums, offering comfort but also moral instruction, to the living. For Lause, spiritualism defined the age.

Lause presents a vast array of characters who were spiritualists, aligned with spiritualism, attended séances or other spiritualist performances, or wrestled with the validity, credibility, and utility of spiritualism. He also covers a large swath of nineteenth-century history. His narrative travels from the first rappings of the Fox sisters in upstate New York in 1848 to the legacies of spiritualism in the late nineteenth century. It even bows to Christopher Lasch’s musing on the culture of narcissism and poet Allen Ginsberg’s urgings for America to look at, and discover, itself from the grave. Lause tracks the rapid evolution of spiritualism from its early performance stage, which took many forms and never ended, to its maturing efforts to impose organization on the many and myriad spiritualist camps, gatherings, societies, and interests that spread out from the burned-over district of New York into New England, the mid-Atlantic, and the Great Lakes regions, and then westward across the plains to California. But it did not spread, he notes, to the South.  That region proved largely impervious and often hostile to the spiritualist emphasis on individual rights, expansive liberty, and the fulfillment of the American Revolutionary promise of a free people lighting the way for the world. Indeed, by Lause’s reckoning, it was the spiritualists’ emphasis on bearing a particular liberation witness from the Founding generation, and summoning up their spirits to guide present generations, that distinguished American spiritualism and pushed it toward abolitionism, the Republican party, and radical ideas regarding racial equality, women’s rights, the rights of labor, and land and monetary reform.

In Lause’s eyes, such a movement ran against southern emphases on a conservative social order rooted in slavery, concepts of honor, and respect for established authority. The South was a foil for spiritualists wanting to “free” Americans from the incubus of bondage and the corruptions of concentrated power. The South’s few spiritualists lived on the peripheries, in such places as Missouri and lower Louisiana, and were free thinkers from the European revolutions of 1848, religious seekers of various kinds and, in Louisiana, heirs to the traditions of calling on haunts and spirits to understand and control the temporal world.  They were all outsiders, and in many instances Unionists, or at least anti-secessionists, when the war came. Most of all, the spiritualists’ association with abolition, women’s rights, “free love,” and other utopian communitarian groups, and seeming socialism, among other “isms,” made them anathema in the South.

For Lause, the Civil War proved the great crucible for spiritualists, who came to equate the Union and the Lincoln administration with a higher calling that demanded full support, even to the point of setting aside spiritualists’ antebellum non-resistance and pacifistic inclinations. For spiritualists, as for other northerners, the crisis of the Union became a crisis of faith, and its resolution demanded ever more “radical” solutions to honor the Founding generation’s call for liberty. Spiritualists thus moved toward emancipation, then Radical Reconstruction, and then racial equality as necessary liberations. In this, as Lause tells it, they looked to a reformed state to effect great changes in society. At the same time, the spiritualists’ growing radicalism regarding slavery, race, and Reconstruction made them all the more disgusting and dangerous to white southerners, who conjured up their own images of spirit-rappers as devil worshippers and witches.

It was not for nothing that among the wartime southern caricatures of Abraham Lincoln as devil-possessed was that of Lincoln as a spirit-rapper taking directions from Satan. Lause treats Lincoln’s association with spiritualism deftly, noting that he likely had joined his wife Mary Todd Lincoln in attending séances after the loss of their second son and in his own despair over the death of so many in trying to win the war. Lause also questions some of the postwar memories of various chroniclers who claimed Lincoln practiced spiritualism through and through. Southerners had no such qualifications for spiritualists, who, by their accounting, trafficked in Satanism because they sought the overthrow of civilization as they knew it and promoted black over white.

For all his knowledge about spiritualism, drawn from journals and memoirs of prominent spiritualists, Lause never gives a clear definition of spiritualism, most likely because the definition was never fixed. It was a movement of experience and feeling rather than theology. Its many forms attracted such a variety of people and purposes that it lacked a vital center of belief. Lause does not link spiritualism with other efforts to understand, draw on, and venerate the dead and thereby to guide the living. Lause sometimes loses the reader in his effort seemingly to include every spiritualist or spiritualist association and by his rapid shifting from place to place to extend the compass of supposed spiritualist activity and support. Nor is it evident from Lause’s book if circumstance, condition, conscience, or other factors caused people to take up spiritualism to any degree.

But relating that very confusion and profusion of spiritualists is the genius of Lause’s intriguing work. It captures the energy of a movement that confused while also entrancing Americans during the convulsions of the mid-nineteenth century. Lause invites readers to enter a world where scholars have hardly gone and to take seriously non-traditional expressions of belief. People’s need to believe that life did not end with death both informed and sought to reform much of American social, cultural, religious, and political life.