Often dismissed as a nineteenth-century curiosity, spiritualism in fact influenced the radical social and political movements of its time. Believers filled the ranks of the Free Democrats, agitated for land and monetary reform, fought for abolition, and held egalitarian leanings that found powerful expression in campaigns for gender and racial equality.
In the new UIP title Free Spirits, Mark A. Lause considers spiritualism as a political and cultural force in Civil War era America. Lause reveals the scope, spread, and influence of the movement, both in its links to reformist causes and its ability to amplify previously marginalized voices. Rooting spiritualism’s appeal in the crises of the time, Lause considers how spiritualist influences, through the distillation of the war, forced reassessments of the question of Radical Republicanism and radicalism in general.
As Lause shows, one of the crises of the time—often overlooked because of the Civil War—concerned a new phase of the war against Native Americans. Spiritualists more than any other group crusaded for Native American justice and worked to expose the brutality and corruption whites visited upon various native peoples. As Lause writes:
The agitation of [Spiritualist and Indian rights advocate John] Beeson and the spiritualists continued after the desperate 1862 Indian revolt in Minnesota and its brutal repression exposed any self-delusion that Northerners had not been involved in the oppression of Indians. . . . Hearing of the repression of the Winnebagoes, one spiritualist said simply, “No wonder the avenging hand of Justice is laid heavily upon the nation at this time for its manifold sins.” After some concern that whites in the affected area would stop reading the Banner because of the position it took, Beeson promised five new subscribers “for every ‘Banner of Light’ dropped by Minnesotians, because of kind words relative to the red man.” Late in 1863, as the conflict had become very explicitly a war for slave liberation, spiritualists again pointed west, urging for “ample justice . . . to our red brethren.”
Spiritualist activism did not stop at speeches and writing, either:
March 1864 saw one of the most remarkable meetings of the war. Spiritualists and their allies occupied Congress in a meeting on behalf of the Indians. On behalf of those in the war-torn Indian Territory, a missionary declared that “their fields are laid waste, their cattle carried off, and they left in the most destitute condition. The women and children were driven to pick up the grains of corn and oats left after feeding the Union horses.” They—if not Congress—actually listened to the fact-finding report of Augustus Wattles, George E. H. Day, and Elijah White of Oregon, the commissioners appointed to investigate Indian affairs and make proposals for change. Their experience confirmed Beeson’s claim that “the frauds practiced upon the red man, are not, as yet, for some cause, permitted to come before the public.”