A Luminous Brotherhood: Afro-Creole Spiritualism in Nineteenth-Century New Orleans

A Luminous Brotherhood: Afro-Creole Spiritualism in Nineteenth-Century New Orleans

A Luminous Brotherhood: Afro-Creole Spiritualism in Nineteenth-Century New Orleans

A Luminous Brotherhood: Afro-Creole Spiritualism in Nineteenth-Century New Orleans


In the midst of a nineteenth-century boom in spiritual experimentation, the Cercle Harmonique, a remarkable group of African-descended men, practiced Spiritualism in heavily Catholic New Orleans from just before the Civil War to the end of Reconstruction. In this first comprehensive history of the Cercle, Emily Suzanne Clark illuminates how highly diverse religious practices wind in significant ways through American life, culture, and history. Clark shows that the beliefs and practices of Spiritualism helped Afro-Creoles mediate the political and social changes in New Orleans, as free blacks suffered increasingly restrictive laws and then met with violent resistance to suffrage and racial equality.

Drawing on fascinating records of actual séance practices, the lives of the mediums, and larger citywide and national contexts, Clark reveals how the messages that the Cercle received from the spirit world offered its members rich religious experiences as well as a forum for political activism inspired by republican ideals. Messages from departed souls including François Rabelais, Abraham Lincoln, John Brown, Robert E. Lee, Emanuel Swedenborg, and even Confucius discussed government structures, the moral progress of humanity, and equality. The Afro-Creole Spiritualists were encouraged to continue struggling for justice in a new world where “bright” spirits would replace raced bodies.

Emily Suzanne Clark is assistant professor of religious studies at Gonzaga University.


One effect of the law of association is known as harmony; and harmony is the soul and element of music. Music is a representation of divine Order; and Order is the Wisdom of the Deity. To establish harmony, therefore, in society, every man must be well instructed and properly situated, so that his movements may accord with the movements of the whole; and thus the movements of the human race will be in concert.

—Andrew Jackson Davis, The Principles of Nature, Her Divine Revelations, and a Voice to Mankind

The march of these events will bring Progress; the Fusion of the Races will happen little by little. the antagonistic elements will harmonize and Concord will triumph over disunity.

—Spirit of French priest Hugues-Félicité Robert de Lamennais to the Cercle Harmonique, 6 October 1871

In the struggle of good against evil, you have in your world both antagonisms which continuously fight. My common sense and my heart directed me; I succumbed under the ball of a fanatical madman if there ever was!

—Spirit of Abraham Lincoln to the Cercle Harmonique, 27 December 1871

According to his spirit, Napoleon Bonaparte was full of regret. Believing himself to be “great” and “powerful” while living, his spirit realized that he was “nothing” when compared to “the immense majesty” of God. When he looked back on his life choices, Napoleon’s spirit was “sad and in despair,” and he grieved “under the multitude of evils” he caused. He wept and moaned over the “great wrongs” he committed during his time on earth. It was only through the grace of God that he experienced any forgiveness. However, in the same communication, Napoleon’s spirit indicated that he was still awaiting God’s forgiveness. He cried out for it. While Napoleon did not identify his present location in his messages, other spirits alluded that Napoleon thought he was in hell. Wherever he was, he was not happy. He found himself “groaning at the foot of the ‘Ladder of Progress’ ”—a series of steps he . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.