Monday, November 1, 2010

A Spooky Universalist Halloween Story (October 31, 2010)

I want to tell you a family secret, a secret the Universalist historians don’t want you to know. Have you ever seen a movie where a bunch of well dressed old-timey people are sitting around a table holding hands while a medium calls on the spirits of the dead: “rap on the table if you can hear us” the medium says. Well, chances are that at least one of those folks at the table were Universalists. In fact, there’s a decent chance the medium was a Universalist, maybe even a Universalist Minister. Then you know how later in that movie, someone will say, “Bah, this is hogwash! You’re tapping on the table yourself!” Chances are that guy was a Universalist too.

You see, back in the 1800s there was a new religious movement sweeping the nation- it was called spiritualism. Now it was nothing new for folks to have experiences in which they understood themselves to be having visions of those who had died, or to have communications with celestial spirits. It seems to me that over the past few thousand years of western culture, depending on the current fashion, these visions have been treated either as demonic and evil, mystical, or signs of mental illness. It was generally the position of Christian folks before this time that all voices or visions were demonic; so most folks did not mention their experiences to any but a trusted friend. But in the mid 1800s several different persons, such as the Rev. John Dods, Universalist minister, began to speak of their experiences.

As a 13-year-old boy, Dods had seen a vision of his father, who had died 2 years before. His father said “The spirit world was not what people supposed- that great darkness and error hung over the religious world – that the sects differed as widely from the truth as they did from each other – but that a new era of light was soon to dawn on earth.” When Dods told his family, they laughed, and when Dods was next visited by his father, the vision advised him not to tell anyone about the visits saying “The world is not yet prepared to receive them” And so Dods hid his experiences for many years, though they caused him to re-think his conservative beliefs. Dods beliefs changed particularly about the fate of souls after death, since the ones who appeared to him seemed glorious, not suffering in hellfire as his old theology would lead him to believe.

In 1824, the “hauntings” began. “Sounds like the striking of heavy stones forcibly thrown against the building, rumbling sounds, explosions as of a cannon near the house, violent shakings of the whole building, the movement of various articles of furniture, even to that of a bed with a heavy man upon it, across the room, with great force.” Even relatives and visitors noticed the strange happenings “One of the curious gentlemen visitors encountered something like an invisible cannon ball, which fell from the ceiling; rolled, hopped, and bounded about the room, up and over the furniture and careening off the walls; and then hopped up on a bed, where the apparent depression of its weight on the bedclothes moved from the head to the food of the bed. A gentlemen in the room walked towards the bed… but one of the company caught hold of his arm, and said ‘Do not touch it for your life’ It then dropped on the floor, and rolled out of the side of the house.”

So it was his experience of these visitations, or hauntings, that drew Dods to convert to Universalism and to become a Universalist Minister. To Dods these hauntings were “Evidence of a providence whose saving grace extended to all” Then in 1836 Dods saw an exhibition of the French Mesmeric Charles Poyen St. Saveur. He became enthralled both with mesmerism, and with electricity, which was considered a related field. Remember, the study of electricity was an exciting new field in the 19th century, and by the second half of the century, the field of Electrical engineering was emerging, with such greats as Thomas Edison turning this field of study into a viable electrical light bulb in 1879. Dobs believed that “Electricity was the body of god, and all spirits God’s emanations.” He worked for a while with the theory that these visions were actually an electrical or mesmeric phenomenon- that they were in some way all in the mind, and worked for years to prove his theory, until in the 1850s a new series of spirits revealed themselves to him, He became a speaker and preacher in the field of “electrical psychology” just as the brand new spiritualist movement was emerging.

What is spiritualism? It was a movement growing out of Christianity that in some ways thought of itself as a scientific movement. Science was going through some exciting revelations in those days; such luminaries as Charles Darwin were in the midst of their groundbreaking research. “[Spiritualism] treated even the spirit as natural phenomenon susceptible to scientific explanation and manipulation.” [p. 17]What if we could use science, use direct experience to prove once and for all the nature of God? What if we could use the brand new knowledge of electricity or speak directly with St. Peter to pose our theological questions to him directly? And in fact Spiritualism did seem to provide external validation of the Universalist idea that all souls could be saved, since many of the spirit messages were of the Universalist theology even when given by non-Universalist mediums. [p. 93]

This was at the time, the cutting edge of religion. And the churches in the area now called the St. Lawrence District were the hotbed of religious radicalism. Elmira, Utica, Glens Falls, Poughkeepsie, Canandaigua, Buffalo, Albany, Oswego, and Auburn are all congregations who play a role in the Spiritualist movement. Remember this was the heady days of the Abolitionist movement and women’s suffrage, and both Universalists and Spiritualists were active in these movements for justice. Their radical egalitarianism and sense that a new progressive theology was in harmony with their work for progress in the world. Dozens of Universalist ministers became spiritualist mediums or healers. They felt that Universalism had begun to calcify, relying on revelations from other generations. They felt that any generation could encounter new revelations of religious truth, and that the truth learned from interactions with the spirits would help them connect past present and future. They could use these modern spiritual techniques to help clarify religious truth, and guide us all into the future. Their visions were not only theological in nature, but often scientific, since they believed things of the spirit were subject to natural law. In fact, it was the spiritualists who were strong advocates for Evolution, often lecturing on paleontology and archeology during a spiritualist lecture. Some of the more conservative Universalists found this uncomfortable in their theology. What did this mean for the progression of human souls after death, if all animals were on a path of evolution?

Historian John Buescher in his book "The Other Side of Salvation" compares the early spiritualist movement to the early history of universalism, when pietistic small groups and study circles formed the core of the movement as the message was spread by itinerant preachers. Spiritual séance groups could be seen the same way, gathering in a circle in a member’s home, hands held around a circle calling on the spirits together. Buescher remarks that “spiritualism renewed the sense of the spirit that had begun to disappear from their faith. Heaven was not far way from earth; the spirit (and the spirits) was close by. Angels were busy in the world” Some Universalists found Spiritualism a natural evolution of Universalism. Others were not so sure- not sure how much to believe, not sure what to make of the séances and speakers they heard. Said Rev. William Allen Drew of the much-touted Rev. Andrew Jackson Davis, a spiritualist medium “His whole art is shown to be the art of humbuggery and nothing else.”

The Universalist church was split over these events. There was a strong reaction from the more conservative of our brethren. In a Universalist publication based in New York called “The Christian Messenger” Rev. Thomas Jefferson Sawyer proclaimed “They know themselves to be rank infidels, and yet persist in claiming to be Christians.” He said, “Let Universalists be on their guard” against this “duplicity “ and “Knaves” [41] He was one who called for all the Universalist associations to withdraw their fellowship from ministers who associated with Rev. Davis. And many did. It lead, in fact, to a time of creedal tests, if you can believe such things possible in our movement. In fact much of this debate happened here in our home territory; the New York Convention of Universalists voted that no minister could come from another Universalist district into their convention unless they “subscribed to it’s creed” [p. 60] And the Buffalo association of Universalisms adopted a creedal test in the early 1850s. Many Universalist ministers were either “De-fellowshipped” or withdrew from fellowship when their Convention adopted such creedal tests. Many went on to be freelance spiritualist lecturers. Some congregations left the association to become Spiritualist congregations. By 1948 Dod, the minister who experienced the hauntings in our story, was no longer in fellowship with his Universalist Convention.

But the Susquehanna Association of Universalists resolved “Several of our ecclesiastical bodies have established tests of fellowship hitherto unknown in our denomination, and in our opinion inconsistent with the freedom of human mind and the liberty of thought, speech and opinion.” A reporter in 1879 asked a Universalist Minster, who himself was a spiritualist and his wife a ‘partial medium,' and who estimated 1/3 of his congregation were spiritualists, “Why don’t you call yourself a Spiritualist” and her responded “I could not get a living, I have 4 children and they must be educated. Were I to leave my pulpit and become a traveling lecturer, what would become of my family?” [p. 119]

So why would Universalist clergy risk their livelihood with this movement? Universalist Minister Rev. Byron Brittan retorted on behalf on the spiritual camp that they believed “the granted old prophets, Jesus and his Apostles, absorb and monopolized all the revelations of God; and hence, that [all] we poor followers of the 19th century get is second-handed, stereotyped forever!” [p. 43] Theodore Parker was not a spiritualist, but was interested in the movement. He wrote about it “Every man bearing within ‘lively oracles’ the present witness of God.” “The Spritualists are the only sect that looks forward and has new fire on its hearth.” [140]

Other Universalist ministers took the route of trying to evaluate the rappings and furniture movement at séances. Some worked actively to expose frauds. Daniel Mason Knapen exposed local mediums that were found to be stealing jewelry and other valuables from those at séances. [p. 98] Rev. Charles Chauncey Burr toured denouncing spiritualism and “expose[ing] its adherents and practitioners as “weak, insane, deluded creatures.” 2 magazines expressed the poles of the movement The Banner of Light “made little effort to distinguish sincere mediums from deliberate frauds.” On the other hand the Religio-Philosophical Journal steered away from the more sensational phenomena like levitation and disembodied voices and noises. In the late 1800s they turned their attention to investigating séances to expose frauds. They championed a “more scientific psychical research” [p. 124]

There are 2 themes I see in all this. First, it reminds us of the perennial tension between religious establishment and novelty even within so radical a religion as Universalism within a couple of generations from its settling on these shores. Now they were instituting creedal tests, de-fellowshipping ministers, and refusing to rent their buildings to Spiritualists because they were not proper Christians. They expressed strongly that the bible was all the spiritual wisdom that any proper Christian needed. The spiritualists on the other hand, found the church had become stuffy and calcified. They were returning to the small circles of the early days of Universalism, where they could be comforted by their sense of connection to loved ones who had died. They were craving that “direct experience” that is our first source of our tradition today. They believed that a new generation could still discover new truth, and experience new revelation.

But even in the biblical times folks rarely believed the prophets and visionaries. How is a person to tell the difference between newly revealed truth and ordinary claptrap? This is our second theme, and it’s the theme I was trying to get at with my silly children’s story today. Sometimes those in authority refuse to listen to us, even when we are right, so how can we tell when the authorities are right and when we should trust ourselves? Whether that authority is the church, or a spiritualist telling of a vision she has seen. Or even, if we ourselves have strange visions, how can we tell what to make of them?

Many contemporary UUs have had powerful spiritual experiences they would be hard pressed to explain. Many folks keep these secret for fear of being judged. It is also true that many UUs have also been betrayed or hurt by religious experience, and so are skeptical of all such things. This is a particularly important tension for us as a movement today- to keep our minds open, while also guarding against “idolatries of mind and spirit”. I think this is a question that can never be resolved one way or the other. Instead we live into that tension, and keep our minds open and also questioning.

The spiritualist movement has largely been left out of our history books, even the history of our own movement. Seances are not so popular any more, and we no longer us the electrical engineering to try to understand the nature of god. We leave these unfashionable practices out of our story when we tell it. But surely the creedal tests, the de-fellowshipping of ministers and the loss of many Universalists from our movement left their mark on our history. Mediums and Mesmerism are completely gone from our religious tradition. But let us keep the wisdom we gained from that part of our history - the lesson about the importance of not letting our movement become calcified and rigid. Let us be open to new revelation, and let us be wary of humbuggery even as we are open to new truth.

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