Spiritualism as a religious movement centers on direct contact with spirits of the departed through mediumship and similar means. In its origin in 19th-century America and its worldwide dispersion, spiritualism offered a prototype of the modern globalization of religion.
The movement began in 1848, when the young Fox sisters reported mysterious rappings—comparable to the recently invented Morse Code—in their upstate New York farm house. They attributed the mysterious sounds to spirit communication. The sensational story was widely circulated and discussed in the print media. Soon, other such incidents were reported, spirit communication largely shifted from raps to voice mediumship, and societies devoted to its practice formed.
Spiritualism was the first significant new, independent religious movement established in the United States apart from Mormonism; and it was the first of many American spiritual exports. Moreover, it saw itself as a new kind of religion, appropriate to the new republic. Spiritualists claimed that theirs was the most democratic of faiths; anyone, whether clerical elite or not, could become a medium. Spiritualism, like Theosophy, Christian Science, and New Thought after it, offered women in particular opportunities for religious leadership closed to them in virtually all traditional religions of the time. Not incidentally, mediums of the 1850s and later often delivered messages aligned with reformist and radical movements of the day: The spirits favored abolition, feminism, penal reform, dress reform, and sometimes utopian communes.
Spiritualism also called itself the most scientific of religions, claiming to be amenable to the scientific testing of its phenomena and of the veridicality of mediumistic messages. It did not, it boasted, depend on unprovable faith in ancient scriptures or traditional priesthoods. In this way, too, the spirits were bringing a new religion to a new nation and a new and better age.
One of the first spiritualist papers in America was significantly called The Spiritual Telegraph, after that just invented device, and in its imminent globalization, spiritualism was in the vanguard of most traditional faiths in its eager use of new technology and its endorsement of “progress” in all fields. It appeared in the first generation of truly widespread literacy even in “developed” countries and was no doubt the first comparable movement widely publicized by mass media in advance of its itinerant preachers. As it journeyed around the world, spiritualism followed lines of commerce and immigration, from America to England and France, then to Australia, New Zealand, and Latin America. Its spread was greatly abetted by the fact that its messengers were among the first such envoys to be able to ride with the relative speed and comfort of steam ships and railways. Famous mediums and lecturers traveled around the world, their arrival always being a sensation in distant outposts of civilization. With upsurges and declines, spiritualism has survived into the 21st century.
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