Bret Carroll’s Spiritualism in Antebellum America: A History Review

Bret E. Carroll’s Spiritualism in Antebellum America seeks to establish American Spiritualism as a unique, new religion of the 19th century. Though scholars often analyze the movement in relation to the cultural and economic changes of the time, Carroll argues for a more inclusive study of Spiritualists’ religious, theological, and ideological impetuses. The former approaches, he acknowledges, are equally crucial to understanding the movement in its full context, but ignoring the “religious and theological questions”—the ideological needs common to antebellum Americans in general—threatens to preclude defining Spiritualism as a “significant phenomenon in American culture”.1 Spiritualism, the author argues, was an important alternative to orthodox Protestantism, not merely a marginal peculiarity that provided experimentalists with the necessary theological platform to compensate for an increasingly democratic and chaotic state. In chapter four, Carroll lays out the metaphysical and cultural architecture that provided Spiritualists with the necessary institutionalized hierarchy indicative of their spiritual republican ideology. As they sought spiritual “freedom and order”, they constructed a fluid, physically closed universe that abided by unwavering natural laws. Consisting of seven hierarchically arranged concentric spheres,2 in accordance with Swedenborg’s cosmos, the Spiritualist universe ironically harkened back to the comforting social structure of a primitive Catholicism (80). Carroll ends his analysis of the institutional metaphors implicit in the movement by likening the Spiritualist world to 19th century reform of schools, prisons, insane asylums, military brigades, and the warm, welcoming Victorian home.3

Bret E. Carroll criticizes R. Laurence Moore’s interpretation of Spiritualism as being incomplete. Moore “emphasizes [Spiritualism’s] appeal to those who feared a lost interest by science in spirit or had recently suffered the loss of a loved one”, but fails, according to Carroll, to explain “the many Spiritualists who established or maintained contact with spirits long after convinced of their reality and independently of the experience of bereavement”.4 The position Carroll takes against Moore seems unlikely, if not impossible, to successfully defend. It hinges on his providing succinct evidence of there being antebellum Americans who approached Spiritualism from a position altogether separate from “the experience of bereavement” or from a sturdy metaphysical self-positioning—an unfeasible task, regardless of the historian’s expertise and resources. Too much of his criticism seems outside the realm of provable, falsifiable evidence. In chapter four, Carroll describes chemist Robert Hare’s experience as a Spiritualist convert.5 Hare, convinced of the materiality of the spirit world through his experiments, becomes a campaigner for the movement, eventually identifying as a theologian over a scientist.6 Given the tension Hare experienced within his own orthodox scientific community over his assertions and his mother’s “’sincere’ Episcopalianism”, one reasonably assumes he could not possibly have harbored a stable conception of his reality. Likewise, Carroll explains that among other things, the death of Andrew Jackson Davis’ mother led the Spiritualist figurehead to “[look] to the spirit world for a home and a mother”7—damning evidence against his criticism of Moore. It appears that Carroll mostly takes issue with Moore’s treatment of Spiritualism as an inauthentic “religion” that vainly sought scientific legitimacy in materiality. If this were his only stated issue regarding Moore’s interpretation, the logical consistency and significant evidence throughout his analysis would suffice to aptly respond to the scholar’s misguided claims. But Carroll takes issue with an improvable, subjective aspect of Moore’s argument and proceeds to provide evidence against his own claims.

1. Bret E. Carroll, “Introduction” and “The Structure of the Spirit World,” Spiritualism in Antebellum America (BF1242.U6 C37 1997), pp. 12.

2. Ibid., 62.

3. Ibid., 81-84.

4. Ibid., 11.

5. Ibid., 70.

6. Ibid., 71.

7. Ibid., 84.

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