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| Profile | Beliefs | Controversies | Links | Bibliography |

I. Group Profile
  1. Name: Spiritualism
  2. Founder: Emanuel Swedenborg
  3. Date of Birth: 1688-1772
  4. Birth Place: Sweden
  5. Year Founded: Swedenborg started his work in 1744, but modern spiritualism was made popular in the U.S. by the Fox sisters in 1848.
  6. Brief History: Even before modern spiritualism was founded in 1848, many of the ideas of this belief system were already in circulation. The Swedish scientist Emanuel Swedenborg is credited with being the first significant practitioner and promoter of the central tenets of spiritualism.

    Swedenborg claimed to be able to communicate with spirits and travel through the spirit world, and his followers believed that he was a highly skilled medium. He wrote many books on his experiences, though he said that the books were not written by himself. Rather, he claimed they were inspired by spirits and angels from the spirit world. Some of his books, he claimed, were inspired by infants. He also claimed to have developed skillful powers of clairivoyance and psychic ability. From his study of dreams, Swedenborg concluded, came predictions of future events.

    Swedenborg demonstrated his ability before Queen Louisa Ulrica of Sweden. He told her that he knew about a secret correspondence that she had had with her brother while he was still alive because he was able to communicate with his dead spirit. Swedenborg also helped people find things that deceased relatives had left for them. (Toksvig, 185)

    The idea that spirits actively help people and that mediumship can prove the existence of an afterlife was developed by Swedenborg and ultimately led to modern spiritualism. Another main idea of spiritualism, the idea that one can develop one's soul through doing good out of love for God and shunning evil, was also developed by Swedenborg. Swedenborg combined these ideas with Christianity, while later on modern spiritualism would be more all encompassing.

    After Swedenborg's death, a medium named Andrew Jackson Davis is said to have channeled Swedenborg's spirit in 1844 so that Swedenborg could continue his work. In New York, he gave lectures while in a trance and they were published as The Principles of Nature, Her Divine Revelations, and Voice to Mankind. This included "an evolutionary account of the origin and growth of the universe, a system of mystical philosophy, and an account of the relations between the spirit and the material world. . ." (Nelson, 53)

    Swedenborgians, as his followers came to be called, have survived as organized religious groups. The two primary groups in the United States go by the name of the Church of New Jerusalem.

    Modern spiritualism dates to March 1848 in Hydesville, New York. On December 11, Mr. and Mrs. John and Margaret Fox and their daughters, Catherine and Margaretta, moved into a house that was rumored to be haunted. The family experienced unexplained noises such as rapping sounds. The girls devised a system of communication with the entity making the noises. Specified numbers of raps meant "yes," "no," or different letters of the alphabet. Eventually they discovered that the communicating spirit was a man named Charles B. Rosna, who had been murdered by the previous owner of the house.

    Reports of these strange communications became known to the public and hundreds of people flocked to the house to witness the supernatural phenomena that occurred. More spirits began to communicate with Margaretta and Catherine, and the two went on tour to promote spriritualism. Eventually, other people began to practice being mediums. In 1853, the first Spiritualism Church was founded and within two years Spiritualism claimed to have two million followers. (Anomalies Article: Spiritualism)

  7. Sacred or Revered Texts: Neither Swedenborgianism nor modern spiritualism explicitly identify sacred texts, but some of the writings of Swedenborg have been particularly important in developing Spiritualist ideas. Two especially important books by Swedenborg are The Heavenly Arcana and The Apocalypse Revealed .
  8. Cult or Sect: Negative sentiments are typically implied when the concepts "cult" and "sect" are employed in popular discourse. Since the Religious Movements Homepage seeks to promote religious tolerance and appreciation of the positive benefits of pluralism and religious diversity in human cultures, we encourage the use of alternative concepts that do not carry implicit negative stereotypes. For a more detailed discussion of both scholarly and popular usage of the concepts "cult" and "sect," please visit our Conceptualizing "Cult" and "Sect" page, where you will find additional links to related issues.
  9. Size of Group: Gordon Melton reports that the two major Church of the New Jerusalem groups have only a few thousand members each. Modern spiritualism is manifest in many small organized groups, but is widely practiced under different names. Studies of the paranormal indicate that large proportions of the American population believe in contact with the dead, but do not necessarily participate in organized efforts to do so. Spiritualism substantially takes the form of a client cult. Virtually every community of any size has individuals who offer various kinds of Spiritualist services. Probably no more than a small proportion of the population engage in the activities of Spiritualists, and most of those are only occasional clients. Spiritualists have found an audience for their services as the result of the expansion of television channels. Psychic Friends Network is an example of this. There is no way to know the number of persons who actively participate in some form of Spiritualism , but it is certainly much greater than the number who participate in organized "church" groups.
II. Beliefs of the Group

    The main belief of Spiritualists is that a spirit world coexists overlapping the material world. When a person dies, his or her soul moves to the spirit world and will continue to progress for eternity. Each progression of the soul takes it closer to God. People can develop their souls through developing spiritual qualities in either this world or the next. Spiritualists' belief in the afterlife differs from other religions such as Christianity in that they believe the spirits of the dead can communicate with the living through mediums and psychics, and that they actively act as guides to help the living develop their souls.

    Spiritualism has several main priniciples that its followers abide by. These can vary in number from seven to nine depending on their source. Here are some according to New-Age On-Line Australia

1. The Fatherhood of God: God is infinite and permeates everything. He has infinite love, He is perfect, and people are a part of God.

2. The Brotherhood of Man: Service to other people is a way to improve one's spirit. A person should not do good things for other people just to improve themselves, he or she should do good out of pure unselfishness and love for other people and God. Bringing about "economic security, peace, charity, and culture" to other people are great ways to enhance one's own spirit and those of others.

3. Communion of Spirits and the Ministry of Angels: The essence of human beings is their spirit, and this makes the spirits of the departed able to communicate with people. The subconscious is the spirit, and so most people are not aware when a dead spirit is guiding them. However, those people with a close link between the conscious and unconscious (mediums) are aware of these spirit guides. This is how Spiritualists know the soul is immortal, and that people stay essentially the same when they die.

4. Continous Existence of the Human Soul: The soul exists for eternity, and spiritualism proves this by communicating with those who visit from the spirit world. People should not live their lives with merely the material world in mind, they should live in terms of their eternal life. The soul continually progresses through different planes of existence to serve and become closer to God.

5. Personal Responsiblity: People are responsible for their own thoughts and actions. People have to atone for evil acts and negative thoughts, and continually strive to lead a moral life.

6. Compensation and Retribution for all Good and Evil Deeds Done on Earth: This principle can be summed up in the cliche "what goes around comes around." All the evil a person does will lead to painful struggles in either this life or the spirit world, and all the good they do will lead to happiness and spiritual advancement.

7. Eternal Progress Open to Every Soul: There is always progress to be made, and what one must accomplish never ends. Primitive instincts trap people in the material world, and so people must struggle against these to reach a higher spiritual consciousness.

    Other Spritualist Ideas:

1. Vibration: Everything and everyone in the universe vibrates. Turmoil and negative feelings cause low (slow) vibration, and happiness and love cause high (fast) vibration. You can sense the vibrations in a room, object or person. God has the highest vibration of all. Mediums are able to communicate with the spirit world because they can raise their vibration high enough to contact it.In this way, mediums are able to give messages from departed spirits to their living relatives and friends.

2. Healing: Spiritual healing is related to the concept of vibration. The healer raises his or her vibration to allow positive healing energy to course through them. Positive thoughts and actions create positive energy throughout the world, and the healer draws on this. The healer acts as a channel for healers from the spirit world. A healer can heal by working on someone's aura who is with them, or heal someone far away through meditation. According to Spiritualists, spiritual healing can alleviate physical and emotional problems.

3. Psychics and Predicting the Future: Spirits in the spirit world can see more variables in a person's life, and so can give accurate predictions on what is most likely to going to happen to that person in the future. Spiritualists are quick to say that psychics do not tell what is definitely going to happen, just what is most likely to happen.

4. New Age Connection: Spiritualism has contributed significantly to the more generalized new age movement. The New Age movement is a vague term for an ecclectic group of ideas that derive from Eastern religious traditons, Western religious traditions, and Paganism. In general, New Agers believe spirituality is very individual and that all people are divine. Some New Agers believe even the trees and earth are divine, and others believe in reincarnation. The way the New Age movement has derived itself from spiritualism is in some of its methods of developing spirituality. Many New Agers believe in spiritual healing, channeling, ESP, dream interpretation, and many other psychic and supernatural phenomeona as ways of developing spirituality by contacting spirits or getting in touch with one's past lives. Thse are all methods spiritualists use to communicate with the spirit world. Spiritualism is often referred to as a new age religion.

III. Issues and Controversies

    Claims of fraud: Many people believe that the channeling abilities claimed by many spiritualists are fradulent. Psychics often speak very fast when channeling and are said to be good at reading people's responses to see if they are saying anything that rings true. They then make educated guesses about the situation. For instance, when a psychic finds out there was a death in someone's family, he or she may correctly say that the death occurred in a hospital (since this is often the case.) They may mention a dead child's love for stuffed animals (which is true of many children). Adler Skeptics say that mediums rattle off vague statements while in a "trance" until they hit on something that rings true for their customer. Then they just make educated guesses about what happened.

    In one study, a linguist recorded various mediums who claimed to be channeling spirits from various times and places in history. (Roberts) When the linguist studied the accents these mediums took on while claiming to channel the spirit, she discovered that the accents often did not match the time and place from which the spirit was said to come from. Often times, a medium's accent would change while channeling the same spirit. Skeptics say this shows that mediums and psychics are frauds.

    Many skeptics have said that people easily agree with what they're told. According to Jill Neimark in "Do the Spirits Move You?"

      "The tendency for people to agree with what they've been told at readings has been dubbed the Barnum effect, in honor of P.T. Barnum's line, 'There's a sucker born every minute.' A legendary test of the Barnum effect was offered in Paris in the 1970s, by Michel Gauquelin, who placed an ad offering free personal horoscopes. Later, 94 percent of the recipients rated their horoscope accurate. Each person had received the same horoscope, that of one of France's most notorious mass murderers. The Barnum effect is heightened incredibly in one-on-one readings, simply because of the way most psychics approach them. Many offer a kind of messianic authority that both elevates and deflates the listener, and that may veer from warmly embracing to hostile -- an all-knowing blend of mothers milk and a slap in the face."

    Appeal to women: Spiritualism, since its beginning, has always especially appealed to women. Women spiritualists greatly outnumber male spiritualists and there are many reasons. Women have traditionally been left out of leadership positions in religions such as Christianity and Judaism. Cultic movements that involve experiences like possession have often attracted women. While church hierarchy leave women out, religions where spirits chose to possess whomever they want often end up appealing to women because being a medium can give them a crucial role to play in religion. The lack of structure in spiritualism has also attracted women since the lack of hierarchy prevented male dominance. With modern spiritualism's founding in the 19th century, channeling and alternative healing gave women religious leadership and a voice they did not have in other main religions. (Baer) The grouping of Spiritualism with other New Age religions has also encouraged a link between spiritualism and feminism. The New Age movement often looks to ancient religions for its ideas. Many women have started to reject traditionally patriarchical religions by worshipping a Goddess instead of a God. Many women spiritualists prefer to think of God as a Goddess. (Lefkowitz)

IV. Links to Spiritualist Web Sites

    The Spiritualist Religion Page
    This website is a good introduction to Spiritualism, and is written for people who may have never heard of this religious movement. It has links to other sources, and includes a paper the author wrote called "Spiritualist Basics" which explains many of the principles and concepts of Spiritualism. - 1/19/2011 update: this site moved to:

      Good sections of this site:
      Spiritualist Basics
      As I mentioned earlier, this is a paper which explains many concepts of Spiritualism. - 1/19/2011 update: this site moved to:

    The Story of Spiritualism
    This site gives a history of Spiritualism starting with Swedenborg and going through the Fox sisters. It gives a time line of Spiritualist history that goes through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It gives names of prominent Spiritualists and offers information on the Society for Psychical Research.

    The Seven Principles of Spiritualism
    This gives a detailed explanation for the Seven Principles of Spiritualism that I mentioned earlier.

    Anomalies Article: Spiritualism
    This site gives a brief history of Spiritualism beginning with the Fox sisters and going through the nineteenth century.

    What is Spiritualism?
    This site gives information on Spiritualists' view of death. It also talks about "spirit guides" and how they convey their teachings to Earth.

    First Spiritual Temple
    This is the webpage of the First Spiritual Temple in Brookline, MA. Information about the church, its history, its services, and events are available here.

      Good Sections of this site
      What is Spiritualism?
      This site offers Spiritualist views on the afterlife and on how spirits interact with the physical world. It also gives a brief history on Spiritualism's origins. It also gives a link to information on EmanuelSwedenborg.

    National Spiritualist Association of Churches
    This website provides links to local Spiritualist churches which have websites, and offers the addresses to Spiritualist churches all over the country. It has addtional pages explaining the principles of Spiritualism and its history.

    Universal Spiritualist Association
    This website gives some information on the Universal Spiritualist Association, which is a large organization consisting of Spiritualists from all over the nation. It gives an address and telephone number to contact them and offers some basic information on spiritualism.

    Harmony Grove Spiritualist Association
    This is another association of Spiritualist churches. This website gives information on Spiritualist events around the country and tells what the Spiritualists are currentlydoing. It also offers valuable information on the basics of Spiritualism, its history, and how mediums and psychics work. It also offers links to other spiritualist sites.

      Good Sections of this site
      What is Spiritualism
      This page gives some of the principles of spiritualism and gives a declaration of its principles.

    Spiritualist Churches on the Web
    This website give links to websites of Spiritualist churches in the U.S.

    Spiritualism- Masterpiece of Deception
    This site offers some criticisms of Spiritualism from a Christian perspective.

    This is an entry about Spiritualism in an encyclopedia.

    New Age Movement
    This site offers information on what ideas, both ancient and modern, have contributed to the New Age movement in general. It relates some of the concepts for Spiritualism to New Age in general.

    Psychic Phenomena
    This site offers some theories on psychic phenomena. It also gives examples of psychic prophecies.

    Church of New Jerusalem; Swedenborgianism
    This is the Swedenborgianism profile page which is a part of the New Religious Movements page that this Spiritualism website is a part of. It offers a brief overview and history of Swedenborg and his religion, and has a similar format to this webpage.

    The Swedenborgian Church
    This is one of the main Swedenborgian webpages. It is maintained by a Swedenborgian church in Massachusetts and offers information on both this church and others in the U.S. It also gives biographical information on Emanuel Swedenborg and an overview of the beliefs of the Swedenborgians today.

IV. Bibliography
Select articles are available through Searchbank for people based in an institution with a license.
  • Adler , Jerry. 1998.
  • "Heaven's gatekeepers: They give the people what they want: talkative spirits and a laid-back God."
  • Newsweek. (March 16): 64.
  • Baer , Hans A. 1993.
  • "The limited empowerment of women in black spiritual churches: an alternative vehicle to religious leadership."
  • Sociology of Religion . (Spring)65.
  • Carroll, Bret E. 1997.
  • Spiritualism in Antebellum America. Bloomington, IN: University of Indiana Press.
  • Capron, E.W. 1855.
  • Modern spiritualism: Its facts and fanaticisms, consistencies and contradictions.
  • Boston: Bela Marsh. Reprint ed. 1976. New York: Arno Press Inc.
  • Fornell, Earl Wesley. 1964.
  • The unhappy medium . Austin: University of Texas Press
  • Lefkowitz , Mary. 1992.
  • "The Twilight of the Goddess: Feminism, Spiritualism, and a New Craze." The New Republic. (August 3): 29.
  • Melton , Gordon. 1996.
  • Encyclopedia of American religions . Detroit: Gale Research. pp. 641-642.
  • Neimark , Jill. 1996.
  • "Do the Spirits Move You?" Psychology Today . (September-October): pp. 48-49.
  • Nelson , Geoffrey K. 1969.
  • Spiritualism and society . New York: Schoken Books, Inc.
  • Roberts , Majorie. 1989.
  • "A linguistic 'nay' to channeling." Psychology Today . (October): 64.
  • Swedenborg, Emanuel. 1907.
  • The Apocalypse Revealed . Vol. 1-2 Boston: Massachusetts New-Church Union.
  • Swedenborg, Emanuel. 1918.
  • The Heavenly Arcana . Vol. 1-20 Boston: Massachusetts New-Church Union.
  • Toksvig , Signe. 1948.
  • Emanuel Swedenborg, scientist and mystic . New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • Spritualist Basics.
  • The Story of Spiritualism.
  • The Seven Principles of Spiritualism.
  • Anomalies Article: Spiritualism.
  • What is Spiritualism.
  • What is Spiritualism?
  • Spiritualism- An Historical Perspective.
  • First Spiritual Temple.
  • Spiritualism.
  • New Age Movement.
  • Psychic Phenomena: New Age Spiritualism.

Created by Hilary Chaudhuri
For Soc 257: New Religious Movements
Spring Term, 1998
University of Virginia
Last updated: 07/24/01