Spiritualism, Attitudes

I’ve read that spiritualism and spiritism started in the 18th or 19th centuries. Folks who take one or both seriously seem to think spiritism isn’t spiritualism. How the ‘isms’ are different depends on who’s talking.

Some say spiritualism is a religion, while spiritism is a social movement. Or spiritism is a science and spiritualism isn’t.1

I’ve seen “spiritualism” used to describe spiritism as practiced by English-speaking folks, particularly Americans. Maybe that’s a common use of the word.

Or maybe it’s just how it’s used in much of what I’ve read.

It’s what I mean by “spiritualism” and “spiritualist.” Usually. Often. Sometimes, anyway. I’m guessing there isn’t a definition that folks on all sides agree on.

I’ve seen several versions of where the beliefs began, too.

Some say they spread from upstate New York’s “burned-over district.” That’d be what started with two kids, an apple and some string. (May 25, 2018)

Whether central and western New York is “burned-over” is debatable. I see what happened as a spiritual hangover after a religious binge episode in the early 1800s. We call it the Second Great Awakening. I don’t know who first used that name or when it caught on.

I’ll be talking about writers and researchers, Salem’s infamous trials and why I think change can be a good idea:

Awakenings and the Morning After

America’s Second Great Awakening began around around 1790 in Kentucky, Tennessee and southern Ohio.

Preachers from assorted denominations affirmed feelings and rejected rationalism. They were enormously popular.

Revivalists revived, postmillennialists predicted the Second Coming. Folks got excited. Very excited. Fervor faded around 1840.

Believers noticed a distinct lack of either End Times or Golden Age.

Charles G. Finney thought folks in central and western New York were through with faith.

Finney, one of the revivalists, said the wild excitement and morning after left many feeling that religion was “a mere delusion.” He called central and western New York a “burnt district.” Maybe he was right. Or not.

Many academics thought he was, at least until recently.

A study published in 1984 said “burned-over district” folks weren’t any more or less religious than most Americans. That’s likely enough. My country had a third and fourth Great Awakening too, at least according to some. And that’s another topic.2


Folks looking at another slice of history say spiritualism’s beliefs started in Europe.

The idea makes sense, although I think the roots go far deeper.

I see my country’s Spiritualism as a homegrown ornamental, spread from imported cuttings. Sort of like kudzu.

Not exactly like kudzu, of course. Metaphors break down at some point. The trick is spotting the cracks before stepping on them. And that’s yet another topic.

Spiritualism and its European precursors strike me as my civilization’s versions of very ancient beliefs. Current forms started taking shape around the 18th century.


George, 1st Baron Lyttelton, published his “Dialogues of the Dead” in 1760. He wrote a sequel, “Four New Dialogues of the Dead,” published in 1765.

The 50-something gentleman had been a Member of Parliament, written poetry and designed landscapes.

What I’ve read strongly suggests that Lyttelton’s political career enhanced his reputation as a poet and landscaper designer. By contrast, if nothing else.

He was raised to the peerage as Lord Lyttelton, Baron of Frankley in the County of Worcester in 1756. I don’t know why. Maybe it was a sort of “lifetime achievement” award.

Lyttelton’s “Dialogues” helped set the standard for later spiritism books. That may not be what Lyttelton had in mind. I’m guessing “not.”

I’m pretty sure Lord Lyttelton was thinking about history and human nature when he wrote “Dialogues.”

“…To the last Lord Lyttelton was poet enough to feel true fellowship with poets of his day….

“…Before Lord Lyttelton followed their example, ‘Dialogues of the Dead’ had been written by Lucian, and by Fenelon, and by Fontenelle…. This half-dramatic plan of presenting a man’s own thoughts upon the life of man and characters of men, and on the issues of men’s characters in shaping life, is a way of essay writing pleasant alike to the writer and the reader. Lord Lyttelton was at his best in it….”
(“Dialogues of the Dead,” Introduction; Lord Lyttelton, edited by Henry Morley; 1889 Cassell & Company edition (1889))

Or maybe the Lyttelton believed he was transcribing chats he’d had with spectral visitors. That doesn’t seem likely, since folks who knew him didn’t think he was delusional.

A century and more later, Lord Lyttelton’s “Dialogues” are still in print. I can see the appeal. The first one included celebrity spirits like Peter the Great and Pericles. He recorded chats with Plato, William Penn and a “A North American Savage.”

The names in Lyttelton’s “Dialogues” remind me of a talk-and-variety show’s guest list. Or Steve Allen’s “Meeting of Minds.”

Dialogues of one sort or another are ancient. Rigvedic dialogue hymns and Sumerian disputations predate Socratic dialogues by over a dozen centuries.3

Again, I think Lord Lyttelton saw “Dialogues” as his thoughts on history and humanity: not séance transcripts.

I’m also sure that he wasn’t trying to start a new religion. Lyttelton apparently was a Christian who had ‘done his homework’ after youthful spiritual roving:

“…He had, in the pride of juvenile confidence, with the help of corrupt conversation, entertained doubts of the truth of Christianity; but he thought the time now come when it was no longer fit to doubt or believe by chance, and applied himself seriously to the great question. His studies, being honest, ended in conviction. He found that religion was true….”
Lives of the Poets: Volume II,” Samuel Johnson (1825))

Folks like Franz Mesmer and Emanuel Swedenborg lived around the same time as Lyttelton. They’re probably much better-known than the British peer.


“Animal magnetism” is how Franz Mesmer’s lebensmagnetismus usually gets translated into English. Maybe “live magnetism” doesn’t have quite the right rhythm for my language.

Mesmer thought he’d found an invisible natural force made by all living beings.

It made more sense in the late 18th century. Humorism was Western medicine’s best theoretical model until well into the 19th century. (May 12, 2017; September 9, 2016)

If “invisible natural force” sounds familiar, it should:

“It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together….”
(Obi-Wan Kenobi, in “Star Wars” (1977))

Humorism and Mesmer’s updated hypothesis weren’t a good match with reality. 20-20 hindsight sees Wöhler’s 1828 research as a turning point. Maybe so, but vitalism and humorism were still working hypotheses for another century.

Mesmer’s clinical studies and (much) later studies didn’t support lebensmagnetismus theory. But researchers did learn how mesmerism works. Étienne Félix d’Henin de Cuvillers called it hypnotism 1820. We still do. It isn’t magnetic, but it’s effective.

Animal magnetism and all that also inspired parts of George du Maurier’s “Trilby” and Robert Wiene’s “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.” And many much-sillier tales. More ridiculous, at any rate. But occasionally entertaining.


Emanuel Swedenborg’s father, Jesper Swedberg, impressed Sweden’s King, Charles XI, a lot.

Charles XI saw to it that Jesper became professor of theology at Uppsala University and Bishop of Skara.

Then Jesper got interested in Lutheran pietism. He criticized the state religion’s views. His “Book of Hymns” was banned. His belief that angels and spirits can and do interact with us hadn’t helped his reputation.

Emanuel Swedenborg learned a lot from his father. He wrapped up studies at Uppsala in 1709, toured Europe, and published an airship design in 1714.

He asked Charles XII — I think they’re up to Charles XV now — to build an observatory in 1716. The king gave him a job in Sweden’s mining board instead.

Swedenborg was mostly into natural science and engineering for the next two decades. Also anatomy, physiology, cosmology and philosophy. He was right, basically, about quite a bit; including neurons and the nebular hypothesis.

He tried merging philosophy and metallurgy in his 1735 “Opera philosophica et mineralis.” Or maybe it’s “Opera Philosophica et Mineralia.” I’ve seen both titles used for the three-volume set.

My point is that Swedenborg was very smart. Think Elon Musk, Steven Hawking and Ram Dass as one person.

Swedenborg started having strange dreams around 1744. He quit his government job in 1747 and started sharing what he thought about Heaven, Hell and points between. Also what’s arguably the most imaginative End Times story to date. (August 13, 2017)

Quite a few folks liked what he said. Maybe his reputation for being really smart helped. He apparently thought his dreams and subsequent visions were a divine revelation.

Swedenborg wasn’t, probably, trying to start a new religion. But that’s what happened. We’ve still got Swedenborgianism as a Christianity knockoff.4

Alias Allan Kardec

Hippolyte Léon Denizard Rivail was born in 1804. He earned degrees in science and medicine and learned several languages.

He’d been raised in a Catholic family and married in his late 20s.

He sounds a lot like me, except I became a Catholic as an adult and majored in history and English. With as much of everything else I could find on the side.

But I’m not nearly as multilingual as Rivail. And I don’t plan on starting a new religion.

Séances were popular entertainment when Rivail was 50-something.

He got curious, wrote a bunch of books about psychic phenomena and mediums, and got spritism started.

Probably. Quite a few folks say Rivail’s pen name is Allan Kardec.

Kardec apparently wrote “The Spirits Book,” “The Book on Mediums” and the other three books in the Spiritist Codification.5

Heritage and Legacy

I figure Swedenborg, Kardec and others used or were inspired by ideas from Western esotericsim, Christian legends, European folklore and Kabalah. All of which grew out of still older beliefs.

It’s complicated. That’s putting it mildly.6

There’s also a philosophical position called “spiritualism.” And a metaphysical belief.7

I’m a Christian and a Catholic, so I think spirit exists. That makes me a spiritualist in the metaphysical sense.

But I’m not a Spiritist or Spiritualist. I don’t do séances. I think Saul’s trip to Endor was a bad idea. (April 29, 2018)

Starting in the late 19th century, some spiritualists formed churches with well-defined beliefs and procedures. Embarrassments like the Seybert Commission report and Mumler’s fraud trial hadn’t helped their public image.8 (April 11, 2018)

Spiritualists weren’t alone.

“…Satanical Practices”

(From Michele Felice Cornè, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Cornè’s “Landing of the Pilgrims.” (ca.1805))

By the mid-19th century, the Puritan image was morphing from paragon of American nobility to fanatical killjoy.

Some truth lay behind both images.

Reality wasn’t, and isn’t, that simple.

“The Obferation of Christmas having been deemed a Sacrilege, the exchanging of Gifts and Greetings, dreffing in Fine Clothing, Feafting and similar Satanical Practices are hereby FORBIDDEN”
(Public notice deeming Christmas illegal. Boston (1659))

“What the Puritans gave the world was not thought, but action.”
(“The Pilgrims” speech, Wendell Phillips (1855))

“Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”
(“A Mencken Chrestomathy,” H. L. Menken (1949))

Folks in 17th century New England weren’t, I think, basically different from those living in today’s New York City, Charlemagne’s Aachen or Plato’s Athens.

I’d expect parents in any era to be concerned if their child had trouble breathing, shouted nonsense, or shook uncontrollably. Today’s New Englander might call a doctor or Poison Control Center.

Our ancestors might have consulted a shaman or herbalist. I figure we’re no more or less rational than they were. But we’ve learned a bit over the centuries. Most of us. Which, particularly for folks like me, is a good thing. (March 19, 2018; November 19, 2017)

Puritans in Salem Village didn’t have television, cable or otherwise, in 1691. But they did have books. Prophecy and fortunetelling seem to have been top topics for preteen and teen girls during the winter of 1691-1692.

Salem Village had earned a quarrelsome reputation by that time. They’d argue with each other and folks in Salem Town over property, grazing and church privileges.

They didn’t like Salem Town’s preacher, so they hired their own.

Three times, shortchanging each one. That made finding a fourth hard, which further frayed already-frazzled local nerves.

Reverend Samuel Parris took the job after Salem village added the parsonage and two acres of land to their offer. Then he went hunting for “iniquitous behavior.” And found it.

I gather that his habit of making upright church members do public penance for small infractions wasn’t appreciated.

The Salem Trials

Salem Village’s routine bickering boiled over in February of 1692.

The preacher’s daughter and a niece screamed. They also made strange sounds, threw stuff and crawled under furniture.

A doctor examined the kids. He didn’t find evidence of disease. Other kids started acting the same way.

What I’ve read sounds like kids having Olympic-class temper tantrums. Or getting at the wrong pills.

Or maybe funny fungi. I don’t know if psilocybin mushrooms grew around Salem. I’d expect hemp tea to have different effects, and that’s yet again another topic.

Folks in Salem Village assumed witchcraft was behind the tantrums, convulsions or whatever. Allegations, accusations and arrests followed.

Formal witchcraft trials started in Salem Town on June 2, 1692. Judges considered spectral and other evidence, followed due process and executed 20 people. A few more died while in custody. Some were pardoned, or found not guilty.

I’ll give the judges credit for giving landowners, beggars and servants equal justice.

Giles Corey, an elderly landowner, didn’t survive pre-trial interrogation.

George Burroughs was convicted of practicing witchcraft and conspiring with Satan. Burroughs was one of the shortchanged pastors, and the only minister executed for witchcraft.

John Willard was a constable who stopped fetching accused witches. That’s not what got him killed. Not officially. Willard was hung for using witchcraft to kill someone’s wife and make another villager sick.

The Salem witch trials and executions were unusual, even for the 1690s.9

They were still landmarks in American history when I was in school. Mostly as something we should never let happen again.

The last I heard, we still aren’t sure what went horribly wrong.

I figure the accusations, trials and hangings were what happens when politics, personal grievances and community frictions run amok. Or maybe the “witchcraft” started in a bad batch of pumpernickel. (July 4, 2017)

Human Nature

A few folks may still think the 1692-93 trials were justified.

I’d like to believe that’s not possible.

But I remember McCarthyism, political correctness and Pizzagate. I suspect spotting crazy ideas is easier when it’s someone else’s panic. (September 10, 2017; July 21, 2017)

Some folks apparently believe that the Antichrist held or holds public office, and may see themselves as the only ‘real’ Christians left.

Others believe that Christianity preaches hate and religion kills people. Some truth is behind today’s perceptions, sadly.

But reality isn’t any simpler now than it was during American puritanism’s heyday. And human nature hasn’t changed.

Sometimes we make dubious choices. Like Saul’s incognito trip to Endor and Emperor Wuzong’s confiscation of temple properties. Some are lethal, like the Jonestown deaths and Heaven’s Gate mass suicide.

But sometimes we make lastingly-useful decisions: like Hammurabi’s law code, the Twelve Tables, and Emperor Gaozu’s and Taizong’s Tang Code.10

I could look at humanity’s blunders and decide that we never learn. I prefer remembering that we’ve occasionally reviewed what’s been done — and decided that we can do better. (May 12, 2018)

We can also rely on at least some folks staunchly supporting attitudes that helped make Salem’s famous trials possible.

Slavery, Spiritualism and Satan: 1865

(From Alfred Gales, via Library of Congress, used w/o permission.)
(Alfred Gale’s “Pictorial Illustration of the Cause of the Great Rebellion” and “Pictorial Illustration of Abolitionism.” (ca. 1865))

“…Abolitionism made the war by electing a sectional President on a Sectional Platform. Its avowed object was to take away the rights of the Slave-States expressly guaranteed to them by the Constitution.
(“Pictorial History of the Cause of the Great Rebellion,” Vol. II, Alfred Gale (1865))

Alfred Gale, the chap who published those 1865 broadsides, didn’t like abolitionism. Obviously.

I don’t know why. Maybe because it polarized politics and religion. Or maybe he thought slavery’s legality should be left to state legislators. Or he thought slavery was a fundamental right. My guess is that states’ rights were his main concern.

Maybe he really thought abolitionism was a Satanic conspiracy. I don’t.

Most Americans living north of the Mason-Dixon line call Alfred Gale’s “Great Rebellion” the American Civil War. In large part, I think, because the Union won.

Calling it the War Between the States or Second American Revolution might be more accurate.

I’m pretty sure it’s still a hot-button issue, particularly for folks whose towns and states suffered from the Union’s “total war” policy and post-war carpetbaggers.

The war didn’t settle the states’ rights issue. America is still divided over how to balance state, federal and local rights. I’m not surprised.

About a third of a billion folks live in my country. We’re not particularly conformist. We probably couldn’t agree on anything: even which ice cream flavor is “best.”

State sovereignty wasn’t the only reason the Confederate States of America joined forces in 1861. Americans were divided over technology, tariffs, territorial control — and slavery.11

The Confederacy lost, the Union won, and a century later we were still cleaning up the mess. We still are. What impresses me isn’t so much that slavery was banned: but that it’s become unfashionable. (February 18, 2018)

Alfred Gale’s heavy-handed appeals to traditional American beliefs suggests that he was a Christian. Or was trying to influence Christians.

I don’t know why he apparently believed state rights were more important than human freedom. That isn’t an option for me. Not if I’m going to take my faith seriously.

“Right Reason”

I think slavery is a bad idea: whether it’s legal or not. The same goes for genocide. A few things are just plain wrong. And a few things are always right. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 19541960, 2313, 2414)

Universal law, “right reason” that doesn’t change, isn’t a new idea. Or uniquely Catholic.

“Right is right if nobody is right, and wrong is wrong if everybody is wrong.”
(“Life Is Worth Living” (1951-1957), Program 19, The Venerable Fulton J. Sheen, via Wikiquotes)

“…True law is right reason conformable to nature, universal, unchangeable, eternal, whose commands urge us to duty, and whose prohibitions restrain us from evil. … This law cannot be contradicted by any other law, and is not liable either to derogation or abrogation. Neither the senate nor the people can give us any dispensation for not obeying this universal law of justice. It needs no other expositor and interpreter than our own conscience. It is not one thing at Rome, and another at Athens; one thing to-day, and another to-morrow; but in all times and nations this universal law must forever reign, eternal and imperishable….”
(“The Tusculan Disputations,” Cicero (ca. 45 BC) Book V, p. 153; translated chiefly by C. D. Yonge (1877) [emphasis mine)

“Allergic to Change”

“Humans are allergic to change. They love to say, ‘We’ve always done it this way.’ I try to fight that. That’s why I have a clock on my wall that runs counter-clockwise.”
(Grace Hopper; quoted in “The Wit and Wisdom of Grace Hopper,” Philip Schieber, OCLC Newsletter (March/April 1987))

“Change is not made without inconvenience, even from worse to better.”
(Richard Hooker, quoted in Samuel Johnson’s “A Dictionary of the English Language” (1755))

I don’t see a problem with having pet peeves and personal penchants. I’ve got at least my share of both. But I see wisdom in remembering that my preferences may not be “universal law … eternal and imperishable.”

Learning to agree with God makes sense. Imagining that God agrees with me, not so much. (Romans 12:2; Catechism, 562, 1783, 2085, 2745)

If I believed today’s America was perfect, I’d resist any threat to the status quo.

My memory’s too good to believe that.

‘The good old days’ before 1965 — weren’t. They’re not coming back. For which I’m duly grateful.

Nostalgic daydreams aside, we’ve never had a Golden Age. Not since the first of us decided to let “I want” overrule “I should.” We’ve been dealing with consequences of that decision ever since. (February 4, 2018)

Getting off to a bad start hasn’t kept us from remembering that we can do better. Or trying, with varying success, to live up to our potential: instead of down to our worst urges. (May 12, 2018; February 18, 2018)

Our societies, our world, this universe are all “in a state of journeying,” moving toward an ultimate perfection. But we’re not there yet. (Catechism, 302)

Part of our job is keeping what’s right in our societies, and changing what’s not. (Catechism, 1917, 19281942, 1825, 1996, 2415; “Laudato si’;” “Gaudium et spes“)

Make that my job. I must work for justice — “as far as possible.” That includes respecting humanity’s “transcendent dignity.” My ongoing inner conversion is important too. (Catechism, 976980, 1888, 1915, 19291933, 2820)

I think Richard Hooker is right: change is inconvenient.

It’s also the only way we will get closer to that ideal society we keep hoping for.

I can’t change the world, or even my nation.

But I can try acting as if I love God and my neighbors. And see everyone my neighbor. Everyone. No exceptions. (Matthew 5:4344, 22:3640; Mark 12:2831; Luke 6:31 10:2527, 2937; Catechism, 1789)

It’s simple, and very far from easy. Believing it with all my heart is harder. But I think it’s worth the effort.

So is learning from past progress. And blunders. And that’s still another topic:

1 Distinctions:

2 Awakenings:

3 Dialogs and an author:

4 Research, ideas and dreams:

5 Miscellaneous background:

6 Old ideas:

7 More distinctions:

8 Image and scrutiny, late 1800s:

9 Remembering Salem, 1692-1693:

10 Ideas and efforts, good and otherwise:

11 War and aftermath:

How interesting or useful was this post?

Click on a star to rate it!

Average rating 0 / 5. Vote count: 0

No votes so far! Be the first to rate this post.

I am sorry that this post was not useful for you!

Let me learn why!

How could I have made this more nearly worth your time?

About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
This entry was posted in Discursive Detours and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Spiritualism, Attitudes

  1. “Opera philosophica et mineralis.” Or maybe it’s “Opera Philosophica et Mineralia” The first means something like “philosophical and mineralogical works”, the second something more like “attention to philosophy and mineralology”. Was Swedenborg a both/and sort of guy? By the way, about twenty years ago I did see a Swedenborgian Church in Portland, Maine, but it went out of business a few years back.

    Thanks again, Brian!

    • My pleasure! I’m no Swedenborg expert – but what I’ve learned tells me that he was very smart, felt neither need nor inclination to focus on a single subject, and possessed considerable creativity. In another era, he might have been called a “Renaissance man.”

      I often see him described as a scientist – – – which I think is accurate, since much of his research was what we call “scientific.” For example, he was among the first to suggest the nebular hypotheses of planetary system formation. His details weren’t spot-on, but we’ve observed planetary systems forming in nebulae – – – pretty much as Swedenborg said they might.

      His metallurgy was sound, but not so revolutionary.

      About his ‘philosophical metallurgy’ – – – which I haven’t studied, so can’t be sure what he thought about it – – – I strongly suspect it made more since in the 18th century. What we call philosophy and science didn’t have a well-defined border at the time.

      We’ve learned, since Swedenborg’s day, that keeping philosophy and metaphysics apart from the natural philosophy we call science – is a good idea. Most of us.

      Which doesn’t seem to keep reporters from interviewing scientists on metaphysical and religious matters. Particularly, it sometimes seems, when the scientist has quirky metaphysical views. And that’s another topic.

  2. There is a Swedenborg church in Boston, near the Capitol. I often walk past it during my lunch hour. I live just one town over from Salem, MA. Interesting post. I’ve never heard the word spiritism before. I think I’ll stick to Catholicism.

Thanks for taking time to comment!