Facts to Ponder: Spiritualism in the 19th Century.

Post Published on September 25, 2012.
Last Updated on September 26, 2020 by davemackey.


I am currently reading Catherine Clinton’s Mrs. Lincoln: A Life, which in addition to its fascinating portrayal of Mary and Abraham Lincoln also provides significant sidebars providing insight into the 19th century in the United States. I’d like to share a few tidbits from one such sidebar on spiritualism:

“Struggling against her [Mary Lincoln] overemotional nature, she found herself enthralled by an increasingly popular pastime in Civil War America: spirit circles. These were gatherings organized by mediums who practiced spiritualism, communing with those who had ‘crossed over’–talking with the dead. This belief in contact with the dead was one of the fastest-growing movements in nineteenth-century America, accelerated by the mounting Civil War death lists.”

Catherine Clinton. Mrs. Lincoln: A Life, pg. 182.
Cover of Mrs. Lincoln Book

“The American penchant for belief in the spirit world predated the nineteenth century. It was popularized especially among the Methodists, who believed their leader, John Wesley, had been an early pioneer of the practice of ‘rapping.’ In 1726, Wesley suggested that his childhood home had been haunted by ‘raps and knocks, footsteps and groans,’ and the family had even nicknamed the family ghost…”

Catherine Clinton. Mrs. Lincoln: A Life, pg. 182.

“Some spiritualists branched out from spirit circles to venture into what was termed magnetic healing…One celebrated case in particular helped ally the two: After two years of lying flat in a darkened bedroom after slipping on ice and suffering paralysis, Olivia Langdon was desperate and sought nonmedical treatment. A spiritualist healer was summoned to the girl’s Elmira home, and he prayed over her. After the visit, Olivia rose out of her bed, completely recovered. The spiritualist attributed his miraculous success to the ‘form of electricity passing from his body to his patients.’ (Olivia went on to marry Samuel Clemens, later famous as Mark Twain.)”

Catherine Clinton. Mrs. Lincoln: A Life, pp. 184-185.

“…Judge John Edmonds of New York, became convinced of this new movement’s transcendent significance. Edmonds resigned his position on the New York State Supreme Court to become a medium.”

Catherine Clinton. Mrs. Lincoln: A Life, pg. 185.

“Women disproportionately flocked to spirit circles…Spiritualism was ‘the only religious sect in the world…that has recognized the equality of woman.'”

Catherine Clinton. Mrs. Lincoln: A Life, pg. 186.

“Spiritualism caught fire because it coincided with the deepest needs of American women at midcentury. At a time when nearly half the deaths in New York State were children under five, it is no wonder that grieving mothers sought escape with dreams of Summerland, the spiritualist name for heaven.”

Catherine Clinton. Mrs. Lincoln: A Life, pg. 186.

“The more than two million Americans subscribing to spiritualist beliefs in 1850 would triple their numbers by the summer of 1862…”

Catherine Clinton. Mrs. Lincoln: A Life, pg. 186.

“In 1863, Mary confided to Senator Orville H. Browning…that while visiting a medium in Georgetown (Mrs. Laurie), she had been in contact with her son Willie.”

Catherine Clinton. Mrs. Lincoln: A Life, pg. 187.

“Lincoln did take meetings with spiritualists–even without Mrs. Lincoln present–but this may have reflected his extreme curiosity and courtesy rather than any affinity.”

Catherine Clinton. Mrs. Lincoln: A Life, pg. 187.

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