Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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Religious and social movement based on the belief that it is possible to communicate with the deceased after their bodily death.

Although mediumship exists in many societies, the American Spiritualist Movement was launched in 1848 with mysterious knockings in a house in Hydesville, New York. The phenomena, thought to be caused by spirits, attracted much publicity and stimulated similar phenomena in other locations. Spiritualists demonstrated mediumship, table tipping, and a wide variety of extrasensory and psychokinetic phenomena. Although many mediums were revealed as frauds, some caused scientific investigators to believe in paranormal phenomena. The Society for Psychical Research in England and the American Society for Psychical Research were founded to investigate paranormal claims. By the turn of the century, spiritualist phenomena became less prevalent and the movement declined. Theosophy can be regarded as a combination of spiritualism, Western mysticism, and Asian religious doctrines. Of the 500-600 cults listed in J. Gordon Melton's Encyclopedia of American Religions (Gale 1989), there are over 100 theosophical and spiritualist groups.

A significant contribution to social scientific research on the Spiritualist Movement has been made by Geoffrey Nelson in Spiritualism and Society (Schocken 1969). He surveyed members of a central-England district of the British Spiritualist National Union in 1968. He found that they wished to understand "psychic gifts," are dissatisfied with Christianity, are influenced by parents and friends, and seek healing and comfort. They tend to be middle class, occupationally mobile, and widowed. Further studies examined the role of the medium and the ideology of modern spiritualism. Other contributions that may be mentioned are Loggie Barrow's Independent Spirits (Routledge 1986) and Swatos and Gissurarson's Icelandic Spiritualism (Transaction 1996).

The Spiritualist Movement, which lasted into the early 1900s, may be viewed as a Western manifestation of the physiological propensity for humans to perceive that they can communicate with spirits through a standardized set of procedures (rapping, table tipping, trance, and so on). Throughout history and all over the world, humans have found that a small percentage of those within their group seemingly have anomalous capacities. The demonstration of these talents leads to belief in spirits, souls, and life after death (see McClenon 1994).

James McClenon


R. S. Broughton, Parapsychology (New York: Ballantine, 1991)

A. Gauld, The Founders of Psychical Research (New York: Schocken, 1968)

A. Gauld, Mediumship and Survival (London: Heinemann, 1982)

J. McClenon, Wondrous Events (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994)

F. Podmore, Mediums of the Nineteenth Century (New Hyde Park, N.Y.: University Books, 1963, originally published as Modern Spiritualism , 1902).

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