Orson Pratt’s Paradoxical Assessment of the Rise of Spiritualism

The Fox sisters, Spiritualism’s first mediums.

In 1848, a Quaker couple named Isaac and Amy Post encountered two young girls who claimed to be mediums in communication with the spirit of a murdered peddler. As long as these girls (the “Fox sisters”) were present, the spirit was able to answer questions by “rapping” out answers on the wooden walls or floor. The Posts concluded that the sisters had some special spiritual receptivity that enabled them to serve as “mediums” for spiritual communication. The Posts viewed this “rapping” phenomenon as powerful evidence of life after death, and started weekly meetings (séances) to communicate with the spirits through the sisters. Some communicants came to the early séances in search of communication with dead relatives. Others asked the spirits religious and political questions—questions about God, the afterlife, and social reform. The Fox sisters were soon joined by a host of other mediums, many of whom went on lecture tours and performed ever-more spectacular spiritual feats such as the levitation of physical objects. Showmanship notwithstanding, “Spiritualism” became a substantive and respectable religious movement with a doctrine that resembled Quaker teachings and with political leanings toward abolitionism and women’s rights.[1]

For my money, one of the most interesting accounts of the rise of spiritualism comes from the pen of LDS apostle Orson Pratt. In 1852, just four years after Isaac and Amy heard their first “raps,” Pratt reported to Brigham Young on the remarkable spread of the Spiritualist movement. Linking the movement to a foreboding increase of “Wickedness & crime,” Pratt took it as an omen of the end times. Paradoxically, he seemed simultaneously enthralled and repelled by the movement’s miracles and achievements:

The Devil is, indeed, exerting his power. Many large & popular papers are being published, devoted to the super-natural spiritual developments. The spirits are not only rapping, but they seize upon the media & force them to write their revelations. Poetry & the most eloquent & sublime effusions are being revealed by the spirits in all parts of the land. In almost every school & family are to be found persons, old & young under the influence of these invisible powers. Chairs, tables, and other objects, are made to move & dance around as so many living beings; & little school children amuse themselves during intermission by raising desks, books, benches, &c. by this invisible power. Thus the power of the devil is increasing upon the land to a fearful extent. The blind, & sick, & lame are being healed by the spirits, & the whole of the U.S. are wandering after the beast, so much so that the message of heaven, revealed by Joseph the Seer, is far in the shade, in their estimation. Well did God say, that he would send them strong delusion, & suffer the same to be established by signs & great wonders, that the people might be damned who reject the truth.[2]


This analysis is fascinating because Pratt admitted not only the reality but also the positive social contributions of Spiritualism’s manifestations while nevertheless dismissing them as demonic imposture. The mediums’ revelations, he wrote, were “eloquent & sublime”—qualities treated in D&C 67:6–8 as evidence of a revelation’s truth. Like Jesus in the New Testament, the mediums healed the “blind, & sick, & lame”—one of the “signs” of a true disciple according to Mark 16:17–18. There are, of course, also scriptural passages that allow for miracles to be rejected as demonic—Pratt cited one—but they turn out to be the very passages used by Protestant detractors to dismiss the miracles of Mormonism.

This highlights, I think, an epistemic quandary in which Christian believers find themselves: Miracles are evidence of religious truth claims, except when they’re not. And there are really no objective standards for deciding when they’re not. Paul told his followers to eschew even “an angel from heaven” who preached another gospel (Gal. 1:8). Is one left, then, with tradition, tribalism, and entrenched belief? Or is there another solution? Should one reject all miracles, as many Calvinists do? Can one accept a wide range of miracles but somehow divorce them from the truth claims they entail? Is there a pluralist position that allows all the miracles and their seemingly contradictory truth-claims to all be somehow true?

Everyone, I think, has to find their own way of grappling with this problem. Even as an atheist, it’s a question I still struggle with. In my study of religion I’ve heard some really striking and persuasive miracle stories from members of several different religious traditions, including people I love and trust. My instinct is to believe them, yet the stories seem incommensurable. Even if I accepted them, I’m not sure what I could conclude from them about religious truth. At the end of the day, I’m at a loss to say much more than that it’s a difficult question and I respect anyone—including Orson Pratt—who engages it honestly enough to be troubled by it, no matter what their ultimate conclusion.

NOTES

[1] Ann Braude, Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth-Century America (Boston: Beacon Press, 1989). The Fox sisters later confessed that they made the rapping sounds by popping their joints. They subsequently retracted this admission, claiming they had falsely confessed out of a desire to be free of the troublesome publicity that came with their gifts.

[2] Orson Pratt, St. Louis, Missouri, to Brigham Young, Great Salt Lake, November 20, 1852, Brigham Young Office Files, CR 1234 1, reel 54, LDS Church History Library.

Comments

Orson Pratt’s Paradoxical Assessment of the Rise of Spiritualism — 10 Comments

  1. Excellent questions, Christopher. Is it possible that, atheist you may be, there’s still some string of Christian or other belief wrapped around your DNA?

  2. Fascinating. I was just reading last night about how rival southern sects dismissed Baptist and Methodist instigated dreams, omens, and healings as the work of the devil (in Heyrman, Southern Cross). And Stapley and Wright hypothesize that one reason Mormon healing rituals came under the purview of the priesthood was to distance/distinguish Mormonism from Pentecostalism. “Yeah, maybe they’re healing people, but we have God’s real authority.”

  3. “This highlights, I think, an epistemic quandary in which Christian believers find themselves: Miracles are evidence of religious truth claims, except when they’re not.”

    Love it.

  4. Chris, very good questions.

    I think one of the things that matters quite a bit in these questions is to ask what sort of purpose these manifestations are being put to and how they are being used.

    Are they being used in a prideful sort of in-your-face proof that “my team is the best team”?

    If so, I’d be naturally suspicious of it since pride and sign-seeking are both things that my own religious ethical system rejects. Also the notion that God can be summoned up – like a genie or something – to help me win Internet debates and get schoolyard respect for me seems awfully trivializing of the dignity and importance I associate with God.

    So motives matter quite a bit.

  5. Likewise, Joseph Smith was originally interested in the Gift of Tongues, but soured on it when his religious gatherings turned into literal zoos of babbling, acting like monkeys, hooting, and screeching. So much so, that you couldn’t get anything else done at all. So you might call his reaction in scaling back the whole business hard-nosed practicality.

  6. So spiritualism had “political leanings toward abolitionism and women’s rights” — curious. I suppose with the Fox sisters front and center in the movement, it would tend to be pro-women’s rights.

  7. There’s a really interesting book on that subject titled Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth-Century America. Highly recommended.

  8. In recent years, there has been a trend towards studying spiritualism and spirit-possession as important facets of women’s history. As the argument goes, this gave them a legitimate place in the leadership of their respective religions which they otherwise could not have had.