Antebellum Spiritualism and the Civil War

By Kyle Schrader ‘16

This post is part of a series featuring behind-the-scenes dispatches from our Pohanka interns working on the front lines of history this summer as interpreters, archivists, and preservationists. See here for the introduction to the series.

Victorian Séance circles to commune with the dead were popular expressions of Spiritualism. Photo Courtesy
Victorian Séance circles to commune with the dead were popular expressions of Spiritualism. Photo Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Spiritualism in Antebellum America prepared many Americans to actually accept the deaths of loved ones in a superior way. In books such as This Republic of Suffering by Drew Gilpin Faust, Spiritualism and its infusion into American society is seen to have enabled many Americans to come to terms with loved ones’ deaths through the belief that a “Spirit World” existed and that life after death was better. Unlike the other Christian movements of the nineteenth century and earlier, however, the Spiritualist movement guaranteed and, indeed, “proved” the existence of an afterlife to many people (even those as mainstream as President Lincoln).

As a Pohanka intern at Seminary Ridge Museum, Kyle Schrader is spending his summer researching antebellum spiritualism. Photo credit Kyle Schrader.
As a Pohanka intern at Seminary Ridge Museum, Kyle Schrader is spending his summer researching antebellum spiritualism. Photo credit Kyle Schrader.

Though Spiritualism may have had an effect on the Civil War, the War’s effect on Spiritualism was far greater. The War caused the movement to cease many of its activities, reducing its public presence and awareness as the war raged on. When the war ended, people sought comfort in national pride, spiritual unity, and organized religion. Spiritualism was far too unorganized (as the founders wanted) to attract people after being out of the public spotlight for so long. Thus began the recantation movement that damaged Spiritualism’s strength and nearly disbanded the movement altogether.

There is an even more interesting link between Spiritualism and the War, however, that of location and morals. Spiritualism was far more popular in the more radically changing North than it was in the more seemingly stagnant white South. Spiritualism placed an extreme emphasis on good personal morals so that the body could exist in the Spirit World wholly after death. This morality linked the Spiritual movement with the perfectionist impulses of the Abolitionist movement, contributing to zealous fervor in the North and fear of the religion in the more traditional and (in the eyes of the abolitionists) “immoral” South.

Interestingly, the causes of the war and the movement were not dissimilar. The nineteenth century brought with it great advances in technology and societal structure. These advances included but were not limited to mass production, railroads, newspaper culture, the rise of the working class, new rational/scientific discoveries and new socio-political ideologies. All of these new phenomena created stresses in everyday life, leading not only to people rejecting the material world in search of a higher existence (Spiritualism) but also to people becoming restless and questioning presupposed realities (such as slavery and the sanctity of the Union). Modernization, and the societal stresses it created, played a key role in both the creation of the Spiritualism movement (as both a return to a mystical way of thinking as well as a departure from more strict Protestant teachings) and the outbreak of the Civil War.

Leave a Reply