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Record Type: Review   ID: 1186

Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women's Rights in Nineteenth-Century America

Braude, Ann

The author, who is a professor of religion, wrote this book to investigate the "nature and extent of the overlap between the woman's rights movement and Spiritualism" (p. 3) in the 19th-century United States. She wanted to find out why Spiritualism appealed to both men and women who were eager to digress from the traditional social order, including gender roles. Why was spiritualism sympathetic to woman's rights and other seemingly outlandish reforms of the day? The book "explores why and how Spiritualists made this unprecedented departure from accepted views about the proper roles of men and women in religion and society" (p. 3). Although the subject of the book is Spiritualism, Braude says her interest in writing it was in faith, not in spirit communication. She writes: "I want to know why and how people believe the things they believe and how social, political, and religious beliefs combine to form a comprehensive understanding of reality. In all times and places, some people talk to the spirits of the dead, and they persist in doing so whether it is regarded as revelation, heresy, or insanity. I am interested in exploring this phenomenon because I believe that faith is a crucial and little understood element of the social structure" (p. 9).

The first chapter is about Spiritualism's claim to be scientific: to provide empirical evidence for religious claims. The second chapter is about the religious conditions that prompted investigators to look into Spiritualism. It describes the theology of Spiritualism, situating it "within the spectrum of 19th-century attitudes toward death and the hereafter" (p. 6). Chapter 3 deals with the characteristics held in common by the early woman's rights movement and Spiritualism, and the fact that both were tied to the radical wing of the abolition movement. The fourth chapter deals with the role of the medium in order to account for the success of Spiritualism "in accepting and promoting of women's religious leadership" (p. 7). The fifth chapter is on Spiritualism's critique of marriage and its association with free love. The next chapter concerns the nontraditional healing methods used by mediums which conflicted with the (male) medical profession. Chapter 7 is about the decline of Spiritualism as a progressive social force in the 1870s in which it vied with two competing movements: Theosophy and Christian Science. The concluding chapter deals with the influence of Spiritualism on woman's suffrage and especially on the radical wing of that movement. They became "identified with movements espousing a broader reorganization of society" (p. 198). She concludes that Spiritualism's "enduring appeal to reformers, and to others," in the 19th century and today, "lay in its unique ability to satisfy the one dear hope that no other movement could: the abolition of death" (p. 201).

Publisher Information:Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1989. 268p. Bibl: 239-255; Chap. bibl: 205-238; 16 illus; Index: 257-268
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