The Founding Fathers are Back from the Dead: 19th-Century Spiritualism and the American Civil Religion
By E. H. Messamore
The 4th of July brings with it the usual paeans to the foundational principles of the republic along with affirmations of its special destiny. Independence Day represents the holiest day in what sociologist Robert Bellah in 1967 dubbed America’s civil religion—a trans-denominational sanctification of the symbols, historical figures, and values of the American republic and its celebration of providential history. While subsequent scholars have taken issue with aspects of Bellah’s theory, different strands of this discourse run throughout American history to the present (see Stievermann 2016). Invocations of the Founding Fathers signal variably an affirmation of America’s exceptional history or an admonition to live up to its founding principles. The Founders are rhetorically resurrected from the dead to serve the needs of the present. But what happens when they literally return, dispensing wisdom and guidance from beyond the grave?
This is precisely what happened with the popular nineteenth-century religious movement known as Spiritualism. At its most basic, Spiritualism was (and is) the belief that the dead retain their identity and communicate with the living. Scholars have demonstrated how American Spiritualism pulled together previous European and American currents of esotericism, ghost lore, popular science, Deism or “freethought,” and liberal Protestantism. Spiritualists themselves, however, understood their modern-day movement as having been inaugurated in 1848 by the mysterious rapping sounds experienced by the teenaged Fox sisters, Kate and Margaret, in their family home in Hydesville, New York, allegedly caused by spirits. The girls soon rose to fame as the ‘mediums’ through which the spirits communicated. Others followed, and the 1850s and 60s became the high-water mark of Spiritualism in the US before it declined in the second half of the century (Nartonis 2010), with elements persisting today in New Age spirituality.
Notoriously difficult to count, with little to no organization, Spiritualists claimed that their adherents numbered in the millions – doubtless, an exaggeration – while critics feared the rapid rise of the new infidelity. The Unitarian and Transcendentalist Theodore Parker wrote in his journal, “In 1856, it seems more likely that spiritualism would […] become the religion of America than in 156 that Christianity would become the religion of the Roman Empire, or in 756 that Mohammedanism would be that of the Arabian populations” (Weiss 1864: 428).
The religion of America indeed. While Spiritualist séances are best known for their efforts to commune with deceased loved ones, the numerous messages received from key figures in American history and the way in which Spiritualists described their religion in the language of American liberty and democracy speak volumes as to the discursive flexibility of the American civil religion and its intimate connection to religion more broadly.
A Spiritual Declaration of Independence
A striking example of the confluence of Spiritualist religiosity and national ideology can be found in the pronouncements of the clairvoyant seer, Andrew Jackson Davis, whose 1847 trance revelations formed the theological backbone of the movement. In an 1851 piece published in the Spirit Messenger, a major Spiritualist periodical, Davis issued a new Declaration of Independence. This time, it was not the King and Parliament who were the subject of the Declaration’s grievances. Instead, it was hypocritical and outdated Christian theology that drew the ire of Davis’s pen.
“We hold it to be a self-evident truth […] that Nature is the only perfect and unalterable ‘Revelation’ which the Deity has ever given, or ever will give, to mankind” (Davis 1851: 337), Davis announced in condemnation of churchly, organized religion. Of the latter, Davis declared that, in violation of American values of individual liberty and freedom of conscience, “It dogmatically asserts Nature and Reason, and Conscience even, to be subordinate to ecclesiastical authority” (339). The original Declaration’s framework of natural rights in the face of external and arbitrary authority legitimized Spiritualist religion, itself grounded in natural law, by placing it in continuity with American ideals. Davis also reinforced the sacred, quasi-scriptural nature of the Declaration by citing it in support of his utopian spiritual goals. His criticism of the tyranny of the churchly standing order became an exercise in American revolutionary ideals replayed in a spiritual key: a type of “spiritualist republicanism,” as Bret Carroll calls it (see Carroll 1997: 35-59). As one admirer later wrote of Davis in 1876, one hundred years after the Revolution, “Gen. Washington broke the sceptre of kings, […] A. J. Davis severed the wand of priesthood” (Cook 1876: 161).
But the Fathers did not just speak through the nation’s founding documents. They sacralized America’s destiny directly through Spiritualist mediums, who channeled their spirits. John W. Edmonds, a New York Supreme Court justice, whose highly publicized conversion to Spiritualism in 1853 caused a scandal and forced his resignation (Carroll 1997: 118), shared communications from none other than George Washington. Through Edmonds, Washington issued dire warnings about the corruption, self-interest, and “absolutism” subverting the holy purpose of the republic. Such corruption “has stolen into the temple of Freedom and taken up its abiding-place even in the presence of its holy altar, mingling its selfish aspirations with the prayer for liberty that would otherwise have ascended untainted” (Edmonds 1855: 459).
Fittingly, Washington spoke in the time-honored tradition of the American Jeremiad. This is a rhetorical formula through which the speaker warns of the consequences of straying from the nation’s original covenant and urges a return to this divine purpose. Through this criticism, the audience’s status as the chosen people of God is paradoxically reaffirmed and renewed (Stievermann 2016: 96-97). “[W]e may try, ere it be too late,” Washington urged, “to restore the virtue of the past in the place of the corruptions of the present; bring back our government to its original purpose” so “that in the exercise of their rights as freemen” the people “may be swayed by purity of principle, rather than the cravings of cupidity” (Edmonds 1855: 460-61). Through a direct invention from the spirit world, delivered with the incontestable moral authority of Washington, the sacredness of America – underscored by the imagery of ‘temple of Freedom’ and ‘holy altar’ – is assured even as the nation is critiqued.
Policing the Borders of the Civil Religion
But invocations of the civil religion do not just affirm belonging to the national compact; they also delimitate who is excluded. On April 14th, 1861, two days after the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, marking the outbreak of the Civil War, the star medium Cora Hatch took to the stage at Dodworth’s Hall in New York and delivered a lecture on the Declaration of Independence, controlled by the very spirit of Thomas Jefferson. As historian Ann Braude (1989) has noted, mediumship afforded women unique opportunities to speak publicly – a radical act in mid-nineteenth-century America – so long as they delivered their messages under the influence of a (usually male) spirit. Hatch (née Scott) – young, beautiful, articulate, and catapulted to fame from adolescence in the mode of a modern-day child star – could thus lean on the authority of Jefferson to present a conciliatory vision of America in a moment of crisis, even as her youth and femininity provided a sort of counter-authorization for her message and shielded her from direct criticism for its content. After all, who could believe that this twenty-year-old beauty could ably lecture on the Declaration’s political implications without external spiritual guidance?
While the reputation of Spiritualism is with all manner of radical reform, Hatch’s Jefferson was surprisingly conservative when it came to the national covenant. Though the principles of the Declaration may be universal, spirit Jefferson explained, its intended applicability was limited to “the free peoples of the colonies.” “Prisoners and chattels […] were not included in that Declaration” (Hatch 1861a: 8). Contrary to what “fanatics” claimed, it “had nothing to do with this question of slavery, for it made no reference to the African, any more than to the Indian or Malay” (Hatch 1861b: 3). Thus, blacks and other non-whites did not belong to the body politic, nor did they partake in the promise of its civil religion. The boundaries of the civil religion are always contested, and here Hatch’s Jefferson drew the line, firmly excluding blacks in the name of national unity and compromise. While many abolitionists criticized the failure of the republic to extend its founding ideals to blacks – consider, for example, Frederick Douglass’s famous 4th of July speech (1852) – Hatch, on Jefferson’s authority, denied the promise of America was ever meant for them in the first place.
Seeking to diffuse the conflict, Hatch-Jefferson blamed extremist minorities on both sides. The true cause of America’s present woes was “a diversity of sectional and moneyed interests”: “fanaticism, on the one side, and such deep bigotry on the other.” The country’s sacred document was free from blemish. “[T]he Declaration has no more to do with the present state of things in your country than has the constitution of France or Italy,” Jefferson averred. With Jefferson’s spirit lifting the Declaration above the mire of sectional politics, both sides were invited to lay aside as unimportant the issue of slavery – “an institution which will finally destroy itself; or, if not, will do no harm” – and step back from a fratricidal war in which both “parties must either exterminate each other, or become awakened to a sense of their mistakes” (Hatch 1861b: 3). Hatch’s invocation of Jefferson and the Declaration was calculated to heal the divide between North and South under the auspices of the greater American civil religion, but it could only do so at the expense of excommunicating enslaved blacks.
The Association of Electricizers and the New Motor
The Founding Fathers engaged in other posthumous projects beyond apologetics for slavery, however. They were also active in the invention of new technologies for the betterment of humanity. Andrew Jackson Davis, for example, informed Spiritualists that the system of “raps” through which many spirits communicated, known as the “spiritual telegraph,” operated along electro-magnetic principles and was an innovation of Benjamin Franklin, America’s inventor-empiricist par excellence (Davis  1868: 77-83).
More ambitiously, in 1853 a group of spirits calling themselves the Association of Electricizers contacted the reformer and Universalist minister turned Spiritualist, John Murray Spear, with the plans for a perpetual motion machine, known as the New Motive Power or New Motor. The New Motor was a veritable mechanical messiah, which would channel the unlimited energy of the universe and inaugurate a new era of peace and prosperity. Spear and his followers constructed the machine on a hill overlooking Lynn, Massachusetts, using nearly two thousand dollars’ worth of copper, zinc, and wood. Its parts symbolically corresponded to the human body as well as to the male and female principles. Standing in a chain, the group worked to impart the motor with their own magnetic energy, while a specially chosen woman, “the Mary of a new dispensation,” ceremonially birthed the spirit that was to animate the “electrical infant” (Buescher 2006: 96-104, 110-16). Here was a new technological Savior, analogous to Jesus but built on American soil at the behest of its most famous inventor. Through Franklin’s intervention, America became the center of the world’s redemption history. American technological know-how and narratives of progress were made manifest in a version of the civil religion that seamlessly enfolded the mythology of the Founding Fathers into beliefs about the United States’ exemplary role in the world.
Sadly, the machine did not live up to its creators’ expectations. As one commenter demurred, it “can not turn a coffee-mill” (Robinson 1855: 342). According to Spear, after the machine was relocated to Randolph, New York, a mob descended on it, destroying it in a fitting allegory for the martyrdom of Christ (Buescher 2006: 136-39).
The above examples represent just a smattering of the numerous instances in which Spiritualists communed with the spirits of the Founding Fathers and prominent politicians – Abraham Lincoln after his death, for instance – who weighed in on spiritual matters and the national destiny. While Spiritualists believed traces of their religion could be found worldwide and throughout history, they almost invariably imbued their understanding of sacred history with American ideology surrounding individual judgment and liberty and situated their nation as the culmination of spiritual progress. For Spiritualists, the so-called civil religion was both a set of discourses to draw from (thereby reinforcing) as well as a literal reality to be actualized in history. Not for America alone, the 4th of July heralded the future independence of the world from spiritual tyranny.
About the Author
Everett Messamore is a postdoc at the Heidelberg Center for American Studies at Heidelberg University, where he received his Ph.D. and M.A. He specializes in nineteenth-century alternative religions and reform. His latest project is on alternative esoteric gospels and scriptures in the long 19th century, part of a larger research project, “De/Sacralization of Texts,” funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG). He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or via LinkedIn.
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Davis, Andrew Jackson. “Declaration of Independence.” The Spirit Messenger 1, no. 43 (May 31, 1851): 337-40.
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———. “Thomas Jefferson on the Declaration of Independence. A Lecture by Cora L. V. Hatch, at Dodsworth’s Hall, New York, Sunday Evening, April 14th, 1861. Concluded.” Banner of Light 9, no. 7 (May 11, 1861): 3.
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Detail from “Apotheosis” (1865). Image used here with kind permission of the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum of Lincoln Memorial University, Harrogate, TN. Source: fords.org