Spiritualism in Antebellum America

Spiritualism in Antebellum America

Spiritualism in Antebellum America

Spiritualism in Antebellum America


"At a time when the New Age movement is starting to make good on the Spiritualists' vision of America as a 'grand clairvoyant nation', Carroll's work raises provocative questions about the tension betwen freedom and authority in the harmonial religions of today." -- Church History

"... offers the most comprehensive, sane examination of its topic yet available, no mean achievement for a subject long afflicted by religious partisanship and now perhaps in danger of sympathetic attraction." -- Journal of American History

"... fascinating reading it will be for those with a taste for good scholarly writing and a love of the American past and the manifold varieties of the spiritual quest." -- The Quest

"In addition to being an excellent introduction to mid-19th-century Spiritualism, Carroll's work also offers scholars a new vantage point from which to view the religious creativity that was so prominent in antebellum America in general." -- Choice

During the decade before the Civil War, a growing number of Americans gathered around tables in dimly lit rooms, joined hands, and sought enlightening contact with spirits. The result was Spiritualism, a distinctly colorful religious ideology centered on spirit communication and spirit activity. Spiritualism in Antebellum America analyzes the attempt by spiritually restless Americans of the 1840s and 1850s to negotiate a satisfying combination of freedom and authority as they sought a sense of harmony with the universe.


This volume by Bret E. Carroll takes its place alongside a significant and growing historical literature engaged with nineteenth-century spiritualism. By contrast with those who once regarded mediums and instruments, seances and other spiritualist phenomena as subjects for comic relief, pioneering studies by R. Laurence Moore and Ann Braude focused serious attention on this religious movement for all scholars working in social and women's history. Now Carroll moves beyond those instructive studies by analyzing nineteenth-century spiritualism in its early decades as a religious ideology. in fact, he does more than simply add to our understanding: he corrects the standard and conventional reading of spiritualism as an individualistic religious movement that fragmented hopelessly because of its thoroughgoing antistructuralism. in place of that interpretation Carroll argues persuasively for a "spiritualist republicanism" in which the search for order existed in successful tension with spiritualism's individualistic impulse.

Carroll's use of the rubric of "republicanism" allows him to encompass and reconcile the values of freedom and order within spiritualism. These values, he demonstrates, were a central concern of the American culture of the era. in effect, then, overall he succeeds in treating spiritualism as a religion, which is his religious-studies goal, and in contextualizing it in the nineteenth century, which is his historical goal. in this Carroll is strongly and creatively revisionist. Earlier interpreters of spiritualism have paid close attention to its freedom- loving antinomianism, but they have failed to notice its search for and expressions of cosmic and social order. Carroll makes a coherent and effective argument for his case.

In the course of his revisionism Carroll enriches our understanding of both religion and culture. He situates spiritualism in nineteenth-century America within a Swedenborgian subculture that embraced both New England Transcendentalism on the left and the Swedenborgian Church of the New Jerusalem on the right, with the former oriented to freedom and the latter to order. the message is that, by contrast, spiritualists searched for both. Moreover, Carroll's analysis joins another significant historiographical tradition in contemporary scholarship, that represented by the work of Nathan O. Hatch who has underscored the democratizing impulse in antebellum religion. Carroll rereads spiritualist independence and individualism in terms of the democratic ideology of the American Revolution and the American . . .

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