A Long History
Why Were Americans Interested in the Supernatural?
The Rise of Spiritualism
Two events occurred in the late 1840s which provided a national stage for Americans’ discussions of the supernatural world. In 1847, Andrew Jackson Davis published The Principles of Nature; Her Divine Revelation; and a Voice to Mankind. The book introduced large numbers of Americans to Spiritualism—the belief that the souls of the dead remained in close touch with the material world and that they could communicate with men and women (1). In the next year, two sisters living in Hydesville, New York, Margaret and Kate Fox (they would later be joined by a third sister), claimed that they “...contacted the spirit of a dead peddler” (2). They began to offer séances--a gathering of people intent on contacting the supernatural realm--which were immensely popular and contributed to the exponential growth of Spiritualism in the United States during the 1850s and 1860s. “Just before the Civil War spiritualists and non-spiritualists alike estimated the number [of Spiritualists] as two or three million (out of a U.S. population of 30 million)” (3).
Spiritualism’s meteoric rise was due to a number of factors. On the one hand, the movement benefited, at least in the beginning, from the popularity of antebellum, religious groups like the Swedenborgians and the Mesmerists whose traditions were “...receptive to spiritualist ideas” (4). One of these groups, the Shakers, began consorting with ghosts well before the Fox girls made this practice famous (5). Some researchers have argued that Spiritualism was “...one of the last fruits of a period of remarkable spiritual innovation that witnessed the scorched earth beneath the boots of Millerites and Mormons, perfectionists, and above all, evangelicals, as they sacralized the American landscape” (6). At the same time however, it represented the first stage in the commercialization of the supernatural; a process which began to gain momentum during the latter part of the 19th century.
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