The Spiritualist Movement: Bringing the Dead Back

Charles F Emmons. Handbook of Death and Dying. Editor: Clifton D Bryant. Volume 1. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2003.

Definitions and Cross-Cultural Perspective

Although my central purpose in this chapter is to analyze the social functions of the spiritualist movement that began in the United States in the 1840s, it is appropriate that I first establish some generic definitions. These definitions will also help to provide some perspective on what is a controversial subject in Western culture by presenting it in cross-cultural context.


Taken broadly, the term spiritualism could refer to any religious worldview that considers living things to have souls or spirits (Tylor 1871; Lowie 1924). This does not necessarily privilege human beings as the only possessors of souls. In fact, the National Spiritualist Association of Churches (NSAC) of the United States explicitly changed the wording of its “Declaration of Principles” in 2001 to refer to “souls” rather than “human souls,” as the group wanted to avoid the implication that only humans have souls (Sharon L. Snowman, secretary, board of directors of the NSAC, personal communication, October 17, 2001).

More particularly, however, the term spiritualism connotes a focus on contact with the spirit world. Means of contact might be through spirit mediumship but may also include related concepts, such as spirit possession, dreams, apparitions/ghosts, paranormal physical effects (moving objects and the like), ancestor worship, divination, and synchronicities taken to represent after-death communications. Reasons for the living to encourage such communication vary; they include not only information exchange but also healing and other physical benefits.

Shamanism Versus Mediumship

On a world scale, the anthropological concept of the shaman has been used to refer to a religious specialist who manipulates the spirit world in order to heal the sick (Eliade 1964; Nicholson 1987; Drury 1991). Spirit medium refers to a specialist who contacts spirits for information. However, sometimes shamans do mediumship as well, and the terms overlap in the literature.

Before I address the cultural variations in the concept of spirit mediumship, it is worthwhile to comment on its cultural universality. Mediumship probably exists in some form and to some degree in virtually all societies. However, it tends to be more institutionalized in societies that venerate ancestors (Emmons 1982).

In regard to the techniques used by spirit mediums, it is interesting to observe how similar they are cross-culturally. Mediums generally go into some type of altered state of consciousness, often into varying degrees of trance, bordering on or including spirit possession. Even if not in trance, they often use the help of spirit guides or “controls,” spirits who work with and for the mediums, contacting other spirits and passing on their information (Emmons and Emmons 2003).

Mediumship can be analyzed from both conflict and functional perspectives. An observer taking the conflict perspective would emphasize the dynamics of inequality involved in the institution of mediumship, whereas one taking the functional perspective would emphasize the logic of mediumship within the cultural system. Another perspective is that of symbolic interaction, through which one might observe the face-to-face process of spirit medium interacting with client (sitter).

One attempt to find a general conflict theoretical explanation for direct involvement with the spirit world on the part of the living is displayed in I. M. Lewis’s classic article “Spirit Possession and Deprivation Cults” (1966). Lewis writes, “Women and other depressed categories [of people] exert mythical pressures upon their superiors in circumstances of deprivation and frustration when few other sanctions are available to them” (p. 318). As we shall see later, this is a particularly useful interpretation for the activities of American spirit mediums, most of whom were women, during the spiritualist movement of the 19th century.

However, it is also important to examine the functional relationship of institutions of spirit mediumship with the rest of a culture. In the Chinese case, mediumship is an information-gathering tool; one uses it to find out what one’s ancestors want in the afterlife (Emmons 1982). A Chinese person traditionally goes to a medium (e.g., a mun mai poh, “ask-rice woman”) with a cup of rice from his or her kitchen to identify the particular family. Through the medium, the individual may discover (nowadays in Hong Kong, for example) that his or her deceased uncle wants a Mercedez-Benz with a CD player and lots of money. The family member may promise to burn an offering of a paper-and-wood effigy of such a car and some “hell bank-notes” in return for a positive outcome in the public housing lottery. Lineage members are thought to help each other in both directions across the divide between this world and the next.

On a micro level, this institution may help alleviate the anxiety individuals may feel over their success, even in modern urban Hong Kong. In a broader, macro perspective, spirit mediumship and ancestor worship have been more prominent in areas of south China that have practiced large-scale wet-rice cultivation, often managed by particular lineages or clans. Ancestor worship provides solidarity by inducing cooperation among people who share ancestors back as many as five generations.

In other cases, spirit mediumship has had political, even revolutionary, significance. Lain provides a good example of this for another culture area—Zimbabwe in East Africa—in Guns and Rain (1985). Although the case that Lain describes is relevant to Lewis’s idea of deprivation cults, historically, powerful political leaders have consulted more powerful mediums than have people of lower status in Zimbabwe. The same is true for China, in that mediumship and ancestor worship seem to have trickled down from exclusively elite involvement initially to the eventual involvement of lower-status groups (Emmons 1982).

For Native Americans, spirit mediumship had both personal and social movement significance, both of which can be seen in the life story of Black Elk (1988), who lived from 1863 to 1950. The Ghost Dance was a movement mainly among Plains Indians, from 1885 through 1890, in which spirits of the ancestors were to return and lead the people against white domination (Kehoe 1989). The influence of Native American culture continues into the present among white spirit mediums, many of whom claim to have Native American spirit guides.

Not only are there variations in the meanings and functions of spiritualism across cultures, there are also significant changes within particular cultures over time (something to be aware of in the American case). For example, Morris (2000) shows that spirit mediumship in northern Thailand has been transformed through the forces of modernization in politics and mass media.

Questions for the American Case

This is a good point at which to reflect upon the general “social problems” that death causes, as a way of preparing for discussion of more specific questions about the nature of American spiritualism. Notice that this subsection of this volume is titled “Keeping the Dead Alive,” and that the subtitle of this particular chapter is “Bringing the Dead Back.” Why might it be important socially to keep the dead alive and to bring them back to communicate with the living through the services of a spirit medium?

As I have noted above, spirit mediumship can be a political tool. Lewis’s (1966) theory of deprivation cults stresses the use of spirit possession and mediumship by subordinate groups as a means of undermining the authority of dominant groups. However, elites have also used mediumship as a source of supernatural power, as in ancient Greece when kings consulted the Oracle at Delphi, even if the mediums themselves were women of low status. Could some version of this conflict approach help to explain the American spiritualist movement?

Another social reason for communicating with the dead is to provide continuity in the institution of the family. In many societies, the eldest members of a family or lineage have greater power than younger members and also provide a connecting link for solidarity among their descendants. In the Chinese case this was particularly significant as a part of ancestor worship in the context of wet-rice cultivation, but it continues as a cultural survival tool with practical functions in modern urban Hong Kong as well.

Of course, American culture is quite different from Chinese culture; compared with Chinese, Americans have both less respect for elders and greater economic independence as individuals. Therefore, we should expect spirit mediumship to be less significant in the United States than it is in China and, when it exists, to be more oriented toward personal emotional concerns. In other words, we should expect American mediumship to focus on easing individuals’ fears of dying and of losing their loved ones to death.

When I was doing participant observation research with a spirit medium in Hong Kong in 1980, I asked the medium to contact my aunt as an example. Returning several times for further sessions, I was recognized by some of the medium’s other clients (all Chinese women) in the waiting room. Not realizing that I knew the Cantonese language, and assuming evidently that I relied on an interpreter in the séance room, one woman in the waiting room laughed and said, “The Westerner’s here again to chitchat with his auntie!” Her gentle ridicule was based on a clear cultural difference: Chinese would normally use a medium only for practical reasons, not because they missed the company of their departed relatives.

One other significant cultural characteristic is relevant to any examination of American mediumship: the dominance of science over religion and magic in Western societies. This is not to say that American society is completely secularized in all of its institutions. However, spirit mediumship is considered far less legitimate in modern Western societies than it is in others. This should lead us to ask how it is that spiritualism managed to flourish in the United States in the 19th century, and how it survived and even revived in the 20th and 21st centuries. (For a discussion of how spiritualism has been less condemned in Iceland than in other Western countries, partly due to its being more closely associated with a scientific attitude early on and partly due to special attitudes about religion among Icelanders, see Swatos and Gissurarson 1997.)

Interrelated with the issue of scientific legitimacy is the phenomenon of the popular culture of the paranormal that thrives in the Western mass media. What should we make of the popular entertainment context of spirit mediumship today? Case in point: A sign posted at a “psychic fair” held by a Spiritualist church in a fire station states, “Readings are for entertainment purposes only.”

Origins of the Spiritualist Movement In the United States

Tracing the social history of American spiritualism is a complex matter, as would be tracing the history of any diffuse religious social movement. Throughout all of its changes over the past 153 years and more, spiritualism has always had multiple associations and meanings (essential sources on this subject include Braude 1989; Cross 1981; Moore 1977; Carroll 1997; Doyle [1926] 1975; Owen 1990; Lawton 1932).

From a collective behavior perspective, the structural conduciveness (Smelser 1962) that provided fertile soil for religious social movements like spiritualism lay in the rapidly changing social climate of western New York State in the early 19th century. The Erie Canal, completed in 1825, brought economic development and a rapidly growing, mobile population to the area (Cross 1981:3-77). Not only spiritualism but several other religious and ideological movements grew to a significant degree out of western New York by 1850; these included Mormonism, Millerism (later Seventh-Day Adventism), abolitionism, and feminism.

Spiritualists today trace the beginnings of their religion to an occurrence of alleged spirit mediumship in 1848 involving the Fox sisters in Hydesville, New York, near Rochester. To be sure, this was not the only or the earliest case in the region (for others, see Doyle [1926] 1975). Although the details are variously described in the literature, the stories agree on some basic points: Margaret Fox, age 14, and Kate Fox, age 11, heard rapping noises in the family’s cottage. Kate, attempting to imitate the sounds, clapped her hands and said, “Mr. Splitfoot, do as I do” (Doyle [1926] 1975:1:66). The mysterious sound followed with the same number of raps as the child’s claps. A code was worked out, and this led to a message that the spirit was that of a peddler who had been murdered in the house for his money and buried in the basement.

For our purposes, it need only be said here that the story spread as various Quakers, Universalists, and Swedenborgians promoted the sisters and their phenomena. The craze of spirit rapping and table tipping (putting hands on a table and waiting for spirits to move it) diffused rapidly within a few years, across not only the United States but Europe as well, and especially England. A confession of fraud by Margaret Fox in 1888 (which she retracted in 1889) provides to this day a foundation for the debunking of the Fox sisters’ claims, although the matter is much too complicated to warrant such an easy dismissal.

As Cross (1981) points out, the Fox sisters helped create “a new religious enthusiasm” from what had been a “liberal, intellectual, somewhat rationalistic movement” in American Swedenborgianism (pp. 344-45). The spiritual ideas of Quakers, Universalists, and other “freethinkers” were also loosely connected in this emerging religious social movement.

More specifically, however, Andrew Jackson Davis was to the ideology of spiritualism what the Fox sisters were to the phenomena and practice of spiritualism. Davis, born in 1826 in Orange County, New York, had a vision in 1844 in which he met the ancient Greek physician Galen and the prominent 18th-century Swedish scientist Emanuel Swedenborg, who also wrote extensively as a mystical/spiritual philosopher (Davis 1859). From that point, Davis moved from giving psychic messages and diagnoses to actual healing. He would examine people and prescribe unusual remedies; for example, he recommended putting warm rat skins over the ears as a cure for deafness. In 1845, at age 19, he began to lecture in trance and to write books in language that was seemingly too sophisticated for someone with less than a year of formal education.

George Bush, a New York University professor and America’s top expert on Swedenborg at the time, examined Davis and decided that he was an authentic marvel. Bush verified that Davis could dictate in Hebrew, Arabic, and Sanskrit, languages that Davis supposedly could not have known, but that Bush thought he might be channeling from Swedenborg or others (Moore 1977:11). A century later, social historian Whitney Cross (1981) took a less charitable view, referring to Davis as “a yokel from Poughkeepsie” and saying that “with Bush’s aid [he] in considerable measure plagiarized Swedenborg’s writings” (p. 344). Whatever the case, Davis became a major figure in the spiritualist movement, writing books about the spirit world and natural law, such as The Univercoelum and Harmonia, between 1848 and 1850 (Davis 1859:296-307, 420-36).

Radical Correlates of Spiritualism

Throughout the 19th century in the United States, spiritualism became associated with several radical causes in opposition to dominant institutions and powerful groups, especially mainstream churches and patriarchy. These causes included the abolition of slavery, health reform, temperance, marriage reform, reform of attitudes toward sexuality and reproductive rights, women’s suffrage, and dress reform for women (Braude 1989).

Of course, spiritualists were far from unified on these issues, but there was a tendency, especially for adherents of feminist causes, to accrete to spiritualism because Spiritualist churches and assemblies were among the few places in which women could have a voice. Interestingly, spiritualism can be seen as an old example of a “new” social movement, in that it was rather broad in its class base and promoted empowerment and consciousness-raising over a wide range of interconnected issues. If feminism today is a new social movement, then spiritualism in the 19th century is an even better example of such a movement.

In fact, 19th-century advocates of women’s rights risked ridicule from moderates when they spoke to spiritualist groups, as Susan B. Anthony did several times in the 1890s at Woman Suffrage Day in Lily Dale, the Spiritualist camp located about 55 miles southwest of Buffalo, New York (Braude 1989:196). Unlike more moderate feminists who had to concentrate on restricted battles they had a chance of winning, such as suffrage, spiritualists tended to be all-purpose, noncompromising radicals.

Focusing on the religious/spiritual core of spiritualism, the main issues that drew especially women to spiritualism in the first place had to do with death and the continuity of life after death. Those who rejected, for example, the idea of infant damnation (for babies who died unbaptized) sought comfort in more liberal Protestant theology, the rural cemetery movement (1850s), and the possibility of contact with the spirit world found in the emerging movement of spiritualism (Braude 1989:49-55).

One of the ironies of this situation is that in the 1850s, when spiritualism was spreading in the United States and Britain, women found a voice in the movement that they did not have elsewhere. Spiritualist women were able to speak in public in a trance state at a time when women in general, even feminists, were not. Because the spirit was in charge, women trance speakers could not easily be accused of stepping out of their legitimate passive domestic roles. This practice resulted in both the spread of spiritualism through enthusiastic audiences and some loosening of the restrictive role of women (Braude 1989: 82-98).

The downside was that the trance state fell under the medical definition of psychological abnormality. This was one of many ways in which spiritualism was labeled as deviant, part of the social control process mobilized against the spread of spiritualism as a religious social movement in the 19th century (Owen 1990:143-67). Even in the 20th century, until recently, anybody who spoke as if channeling another spirit entity was a good candidate for a diagnosis of multiple personality (or dissociative disorder).

Spiritualist Organization and Antiorganization

Throughout the history of spiritualism in the United States, there has been a tension between contradictory tendencies for and against organization. To a great extent, spiritualists early on were reacting against established, male-dominated Protestant churches and did not wish to create their own dogmatic structures. Carroll (1997), however, argues that spiritualism before the Civil War was more organized than has been generally believed. The more spiritualists attempted to organize nationally in the 1860s and 1870s, the more conflict they generated over issues of the validity of spirit mediumship and the status of women in the movement (Braude 1989:164-91).

Estimating the number of spiritualists in the United States at any given time is extremely difficult. Even defining what qualifies a person to be counted as a spiritualist is difficult. In 1932, the sociologist George Lawton stated that the Census of Religious Bodies in 1926 counted 50,631 enrolled members in 611 affiliated Spiritualist churches and societies, but that “no reliable index is available…of the number of independent” ones (pp. 143-56). Lawton estimated 10 to 15 nonenrolled for every enrolled member.

The National Spiritualist Association of Churches, first convened in Chicago in 1893, headquarters located now in Lily Dale, New York, was the largest association of Spiritualist churches in 1926 and still is today. It counted 45,000 members in 334 churches in 1890, 41,000 members in 543 churches in 1926 (Lawton 1932:146), and 2,500 members in 112 churches and associations in 2000 (National Spiritualist Association of Churches 2001). However, in 2001 there were 22 Spiritualist organizations other than the NSAC in the United States with unrecorded numbers of member churches, in addition to many other independent churches.

There is no way to test assertions that there were many millions of spiritualists in the United States in the 19th century. It is generally recognized that there was a decline in spiritualism from the 19th century to the 20th, punctuated by periods of greater interest at times of war, when more people attempted to contact relatives and friends who had died untimely deaths. Lawton’s estimate for 1926 would yield fewer than a million spiritualists, less than 1% of the U.S. population at that time.

Of course, especially because of the opposition to formal organization among many spiritualists, it is necessary to consider forms of involvement aside from formal church membership. Spiritualist activities have included lectures, assemblies, summer camp meetings, psychic fairs (nowadays), classes and workshops, and home circles and séances, in addition to regular church services. Add to this the consumption of mass media on the subject (books, magazines, films, radio programs, and now popular television shows such as Crossing Over with John Edward).

At the height of the spiritualist craze in the 1850s, table tipping and séances around the dining room table were the equivalent of popular board games. It appears that much of this activity was taken about as seriously as the use of Ouija Boards in the late 20th century—which is to say, for the most part, not very.

Functions of Spirit Mediumship

Allegedly, contacting the spirits of the dead has been the centerpiece of the spiritualist movement, although spiritual healing and philosophical development have been quite significant as well. One of the difficulties in attempting any sociological analysis of diffuse social movements such as spiritualism, however, is that it is even more problematic to characterize the involvement of individuals at the micro level. Whatever cultural themes apply as useful generalities at the macro level, there can be many variations on each theme and differences in value priorities within local minicultures. For much of the 19th century, these ethnographic details have been lost. However, data are available on recent mediumistic activity, based mostly on participant observation and ethnographic interviews (see Emmons and Emmons 2003; unless otherwise noted, the information about and quotations from interviews with mediums presented in the following subsections are taken from this work).

Proving the Continuity of Life

“Proving the continuity of life” is the main purpose of spirit mediumship, as expressed by most mediums today. This is formally recognized in the “Declaration of Principles” of the National Spiritual Association of Churches: “We affirm that the existence and personal identity of the individual continue after the change called death … [and] that communication with the so-called dead is a fact, scientifically proven by the phenomena of Spiritualism.” In the 19th century, this principle was a reaction against the doctrine of infant damnation. Today mediumship functions as part of grief management, a salient theme in recent popular books about mediumship by George Anderson, James Van Praagh, and Rosemary Altea, in addition to books about after-death communications that do not necessarily involve spirit mediums.

Although mediums believe it is appropriate to bring through messages of love and advice from the dead, there is generally a taboo against forecasting a person’s impending death. Mediums who feel that they are picking up such information either ignore it or encourage the living to visit or to give extra care to the person whose death is apparently imminent. A few of the 40 mediums interviewed for our study emphasized that mediumship helps people have a more positive attitude toward their own death. Spiritualist funerals provide good illustrations of the belief that death is a cause for grief but not a reason for fear or despair.

Helping and Healing

Another very commonly stated function of mediumship is to “help people,” in the generic sense of providing guidance, counseling, and healing. Mediums frame this in a holistic perspective by saying, “It’s all about healing,” meaning that mediumship and hands-on healing, both of which are part of Spiritualist church services, are directed toward healing body, mind, and spirit.

One restriction on the physical aspect of the healing function, however, comes from mediums’ fears of being accused of practicing medicine without a license. In his observations of the activities in the Spiritualist camp at Lily Dale, New York, in 1929, George Lawton (1932:337-43) recorded some very negative statements by healers and mediums about the medical profession. Such is not the case today. Instead, at public message services, mediums typically offer clear disclaimers before they bring forth any statements about the health of the living. For example, “I am not a doctor, and I cannot diagnose or prescribe. However, I think it would be a good idea for you to see your doctor to check on your liver.” Most mediums’ comments regarding health are positive, such as “I feel a lot of healing going on through this area,” or “Make sure you keep up that walking.”


Moving along a continuum from more spiritual to more secular functions of spirit mediumship, at some point helpful advice from the spirit world turns into “fortune-telling,” a derogatory label from a spiritualist perspective. This includes such things as information about relationships, career, and money. Especially when this type of advice is not taken very seriously, another function of mediumship enters: entertainment, in private readings and especially at public message services, where there is often some expectation that messages will be amusing for the rest of the “audience” (congregation).

In their 1974 study of Lily Dale, sociologists Richard and Adato (1980:191) surveyed 57 visitors, only 4% of whom mentioned the death of a relative as a reason for their coming to Lily Dale, compared with 47% who mentioned seeking “guidance and knowledge.” It is difficult to know exactly what these respondents understood by “guidance and knowledge,” but these data tend to confirm our recent observations that visitors are more interested in “fortune-telling” or “practical magic” than they are in “proving the continuity of life.”

People who go to Lily Dale for private readings and public messages are not necessarily Spiritualists (25% identified themselves as such in Richard and Adato’s study). When asked if they would like to ask questions, after the medium has already brought through some information, sitters are more likely to ask about their love lives and jobs than about dead relatives. Consequently, mediums often say that they do more mediumship on the platform (in public services) and more “psychic” message work in private readings.

Spiritualist mediums, then, present an ideology in which “proving the continuity of life” is most important. However, many of their clients do not necessarily share a Spiritualist perspective or care about mediumship at all, and may frame the activity as psychic fortune-telling. In this sense, Chinese clients go to mediums for similar reasons, “practical” ones (such as getting rich with the help of their ancestors), although the Chinese clearly frame their actions differently—that is, in terms of the system of ancestor worship and spirit mediumship.

Subcultures of Knowledge

As I have pointed out above, the concept of communicating with the dead is problematic in the United States today, with our modern, scientific, secular culture. Nevertheless, the practice of spirit mediumship has survived for more than 150 years and has been interpreted variously in different subcultures. In most of these subcultures, the key issue is, predictably, death, as well as the question mark that lies beyond it, what parapsychologists refer to as the issue of “survival.”

In this section, I examine and compare four partly conflicting but overlapping knowledge subcultures: scientific debunking, social/behavioral science, parapsychology, and some spiritual perspectives. I approach these subcultures in order roughly from most scientific to most religious. (For a general analysis of debunking or “skepticism,” parapsychology, and contemporary spirituality—the “New Age” movement—see Hess 1993.)

Scientific Debunking

In this discussion of scientific debunking, I refer especially to work by the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) and its journal Skeptical Inquirer. In contrast to members of the social/behavioral scientific subculture, considered next, debunkers are explicitly interested in the question of whether a particular paranormal phenomenon (in this case, a surviving soul or spirit) has an objective existence; they conclude that there is no evidence that it does. However, they are also likely to see paranormal beliefs as dangerously irrational; they do not consider that such beliefs may have positive social functions.

It is more difficult to compare debunking with parapsychology and spiritual views. However, members of all three of these subcultures have acknowledged that, at least in some instances, there have been deceptive or fraudulent practices in mediumship. The authors of some articles published in Skeptical Inquirer have analyzed the “cold reading” techniques of mediums who apparently assimilate information from sitters through body language and conversational cues, or by asking “fishing” questions and manipulating the conversation. Others have attacked the paranormal by attempting to demonstrate that particular phenomena can be produced through fraudulent means (such as by trick magicians).

Social/Behavioral Science

I have discussed some aspects of the perspective of the social/behavioral science subculture above, including, for example, Lewis’s (1966) deprivation theory of cults and the treatment of mediumship associated with Chinese ancestor worship (Emmons 1982). These represent, essentially, conflict and functional theories of spirit mediumship.

Although most social scientists would probably deny that they take any position on the truth status of mediumistic claims, there seems to be an implicit assumption in most of the sociological/anthropological literature that otherworldly experiences have only symbolic, socially constructed, rather than objective, reality (Howell 1989). Nevertheless, some anthropologists have written about their own paranormal experiences in the field. Psychologists have usually seen trance mediumship mainly in terms of multiple personality or dissociative disorder.


Parapsychology is unique in that it straddles science and the paranormal. It emerged as a field in the latter half of the 19th century out of the curiosity of scientists and spiritualists about mediumship. Moore (1977) discusses this history, including the 1882 founding of the Society for Psychical Research in London, a very prestigious organization that included eight fellows of the Royal Society (such as Alfred Russel Wallace) and literary elites such as Alfred, Lord Tennyson. In 1926, Arthur Conan Doyle (1975) wrote a sympathetic review of spiritualist mediumship and the controversies surrounding its investigation. Gauld (1982) provides an excellent more recent overview of this subject, which has received much less attention by parapsychologists in the past half century.

For those mediums who do not appear to be frauds and who provide impressive evidential material, parapsychology offers essentially two explanations: telepathy and survival of the spirit. The thorniest theoretical problem arises when the concept of super-ESP (extrasensory perception unlimited by time or space and not dependent on mental telepathy) seems to account for everything that might be thought to come from contact with the spirit world. Gauld (1982) concludes that the super-ESP hypothesis seems unconvincing in a number of cases, and that there is “a sprinkling of cases which rather forcefully suggest some form of survival” (p. 261). Other modern parapsychologists have tended to be more dismissive of spirit mediumship as evidence for survival (Emmons and Emmons 2003).

Spiritual Perspectives

That there are spiritual perspectives on mediumship might appear to be obvious, given that spiritualists have long emphasized that mediumship provides evidence for the continuity of life. However, spiritualists have also been bothered by one of the problems noted by parapsychologists: How is one to know that a medium is not accessing information through some form of ESP (telepathy with the living or clairvoyance directly of present or past events) rather than through a spirit contact?

Another problem for spiritualists is the possibility of unreliable, even deceitful, messages from the other side. Swedenborg, the intellectual ancestor of much spiritualist thought, wrote in 1748 that a person “must beware lest he believe them in anything. For they [the spirits] say almost anything” (quoted in Anderson 1993:289). Most mediums today de-emphasize the problem of visitation by evil spirits, yet they feel protected if they say a prayer and set their intention for only “the highest and best”; often, they ask for a “white light of protection” while doing mediumship (Emmons and Emmons 2003).

Other challenges to spiritualist mediumship have come from other spiritual movements that have tried to distance themselves from at least part of what mediums were doing. Although spiritualists borrowed from the Transcendentalists, Emerson and Thoreau showed disdain for spiritualism, which Emerson referred to as the “rat hole of revelation” (see Moore 1977:25, 38, 52-54). Theosophy, an outgrowth of spiritualism in the late 18th century, represented an attempt to reform spiritualism and elevate its status, partly by encouraging the channeling of a higher class of spirits (Prothero 1993).


Spiritualism is a virtually universal religious phenomenon that centers on contact with the spirit world through spirit mediums. It tends to be more institutionalized in societies that practice ancestor worship, but it can have a wide variety of functions and may be used as a source of supernatural power in politics. Spirit mediumship is especially problematic in Western societies such as the United States, due to the dominance of scientific rationality in these cultures.

Spiritualism in the United States can be seen from a variety of perspectives and has had a diffuse set of meanings over its long history. Especially in the 19th century, it represented an array of radical impulses, both sacred and secular. On the sacred side, it rebelled against infant damnation and male patriarchy in formal churches. On the secular side, it overlapped feminism, abolitionism, and other movements. Attempts to explain and test spiritual mediumship can be categorized as falling within four subcultures: scientific debunking, social/behavioral science, parapsychology, and, of course, spiritual perspectives.

Peeling away some of the social/cultural elaboration of this religious social movement, what does spiritualism say about death? The central claim of American spiritualists is that mediumship shows evidence of “the continuity of life,” which is a denial of the finality of death. In the United States, this belief can help individuals and families with the grieving process when loved ones die. In other cultures, where the social organization of the wider community is more important than the grief of individuals, spiritualism may allow the dead to preserve social continuity, in terms of lineage solidarity, or give supernaturally sanctioned political power to either elites or deprived groups.

Spirit mediumship seems anachronous in modern industrial societies. The American spiritualist phenomenon changed in the 19th century from craze to social movement to organized church. In the 20th century, its culture blended with New Age channeling, psychic phenomena, and fortune-telling, although Spiritualist churches continued to exist on a small scale. Within this larger, redefined context, mediumship can be expected to flourish in an alienated mass society that shows symptoms of spiritual revival and increased interest in the paranormal.