Spiritualism and Religious Experience

John B. Buescher. The Other Side of Salvation: Spiritualism and the Nineteenth Century Religious Experience, Skinner House Books, 2004.

A study of the defection of leading figures of the Universalist denomination in nineteenth century America to Spiritualism might seem to be unbearably dull, surely of interest only to historically minded members of that denomination. That it is not, is due to the plethora of strange characters that are discussed here. Many would be today regarded as UFO contactees and abductees, people who claimed contact with the supernaturals who endorsed their own contemporary social, religious, scientific and sexual concerns. For many of these people, already attached to a liberal form of Christianity, part of the appeal of Spiritualism was that it offered a modern, "scientific" and "progressive" faith, which they contrasted with the "outworn superstitions" of traditional forms of belief.

Among the characters noted here were John Bovee Dods (original name Johannes Bonfils) whose house became the centre of all sorts of poltergeist phenomena, and who had spiritual visitations which look like sleep paralysis episodes; Andrew Jackson Davis, the autodidact precursor of Spiritualism; and above all John Murray Spear, who founded a strange sex cult, engaged in what today would be called performance art, and built a mysterious living machine which seems to have been intended to be a universal replicator. As the century neared its end, Spiritualism lost its radical edge and mass interest faded as it became more respectable. -- Peter Rogerson.


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