Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Shakers, Spiritualism and Séances: Part II

Spiritualism was of great interest to the Shakers and many went to presentations about the topic. For those unfamiliar with Spiritualism, it is the belief that the living can communicate with those who have passed on, often using psychically sensitive individuals called mediums.*

In the mid nineteenth century, two Shaker brothers went to observe the Fox Sisters in action. We believe that “Elder Richard” is a reference to Richard Bushnell and the “Brother Frederic” is Frederick Evans, both of the Mount Lebanon Shaker Community. A letter from 1850 offers a very detailed description of their experience.

July 1850
Elder Richard and Brother Frederic attend meeting with us this evening and relate the singular manifestations which they witnessed both in New York and at Stratsburg, Connecticut. While in New York they went to see the family of Fox girls for the purpose of witnessing the “mysterious rappings” as they are universally called. They witnessed the questions that were asked by others and heard the answers that were given. Those that asked the questions were well satisfied that there was something supernatural about it, as the questions which were asked and answered related to matters which were known to none but those that asked the questions themselves. Elder Richard asked questions something after this manner:
Question: Are disembodied spirits capable of corresponding with spirits that are embodied?
Answer: In the affirmative by rapping.
Question: Are any of my relatives present?
Answer: Yes
Question: Who is it?
Answer: Your mother.
Question: What is her name?

These questions were multiplied to quite an extent, entering into the particulars as to where she lived before her departure from this world, the name of the town she lived in etc, etc., all of which were correctly answered. Elder Richard said that they were not obliged to spell the word out by the alphabet but could receive answers equally as well by [writing] the question upon a slate or paper and [answering] the question thus. If my mother is present, what is her name? He remarked that previous to his asking this question he had written down names indiscriminately, some of which were his relatives and some were not. He then took his pencil and began to trace the column downwards and the moment he touched his mother’s name there was a rap. In this manner he received the answers in relation to the name of the town in which she lived etc, etc.

This is truly a singular manifestation; it appeared from the intelligence displayed that something more than blind chance governs it; the hand of the source of intelligence undoubtedly is in it and that it may effectively open the eyes of mankind and convince them of the fact so thoroughly understood by believers- the close proximity of departed spirits- their attendance as guardians, etc is much to be desired. And that it may finally terminate in causing all to be troubled for their sins and bring many into a closer relation to God is my prayer.

This conclusion of this passage is truly fascinating as it details why many of the Shakers were open to psychics and séances. They were not defying their religion or beliefs; rather, they felt they were utilizing Spiritualism to further promote it.

* For more information on the Fox Sisters and Spiritualism, please see Nancy Rubin Stuart’s fascinating book The Reluctant Spiritualist: The Life of Maggie Fox. An article the Fox Sisters from American History Magazine is available at: