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Jason Byassee

If Death Is No Barrier

Spiritualism surveyed.

Bishops in the ancient Christian church did not routinely pass the responsibility of preaching to mere priests. But during worship one day in Jerusalem in the year 240, the presiding bishop did pass the buck. He did this for two reasons. The extraordinary theologian and exegete Origen of Alexandria was present, and could preach if called upon. And a chapter of 1 Samuel just read included the astonishingly strange story of Saul's consultation of the recently deceased Samuel with the help of a medium at Endor. Origen needn't have asked which passage from the four chapters just read the bishop wanted to hear exposited, but he did. "The one about the necromancer," he was told.1

Now, the convenient thing about having a low doctrine of Scripture is that you don't lose sleep over passages you can't square. The higher your doctrine of Scripture, the more explaining you have to do in places like 1 Samuel 28. Origen no doubt saw this clearly. While trying to buy time to think of what to say, he held forth on biblical hermeneutics first: "Is it true or not? To say that it is not true encourages faithlessness, and it will come back to haunt [!] those who said so, but if it is true, it is a problem that requires investigation." No kidding. The obvious question that follows: Is holy writ itself suggesting that however forbidden the pagan practice of consultation with the dead may be—it actually works?

That not a few people now think so is evidenced by the continuing popularity of televised psychics such as John Edward in Crossing Over, weeknight dramas such as Medium and Charmed, a host of popular films (Sixth Sense, The Others, and Just Like Heaven, among others), and storefronts offering Madam Whatshername's readings for five bucks. In my own pastoral practice, a fair number of my parishioners related strange but moving experiences in which they believed they had made some sort of contact with a dead loved one—and this in the face of repeated warnings over the years from camp counselors and pastors alike, who (rightly) caution young Christians against any dabbling in the occult.

The idea that the living can make contact with the dead is as old as human culture, but a specific set of spiritual practices and beliefs called "Spiritualism" has a date of origin and a history—as the books here in review record. Best to start by seeking the dead among the living: Cassadaga is a still-active community of Spiritualists just north of Orlando, Florida. Like many other 19th-century religious movements, early Spiritualists established camps in beautiful natural settings to offer retreats for many and permanent dwelling for some. The photos in Cassadaga: The South's Oldest Spiritual Community show cottages, a dining hall, and meeting places that look for all the world like the Christian camps I grew up attending. This is no accident—for many Americans, religion in the mid-19th century became synonymous with self-improvement and personal growth, which the Spiritualists claimed to provide more efficaciously than anyone else in the religious marketplace.

In this volume, several noted southern historians and anthropologists take Spiritualism with great seriousness, recounting the history of this community in Florida, interviewing elder members who offer testimony to its ongoing vitality, and tracing the development of Spiritualist beliefs. Above all, the founding generation of Spiritualists rejected hell and the Christian understanding of the connection between sin and death. For Spiritualists then and now, death is no interruption in one's life. Indeed, they will often claim it simply does not exist. Rather than an ultimate separation of humanity into saved and damned, Spiritualists hold out for a gradual process of improvement after one's life—rather like the sort of gradual improvement one receives from annual summer visits to a pleasant place like Cassadaga. The afterlife is frequently called Summerland.

While Calvinist dead may be cut off from the living, Spiritualist dead are not—in fact, they magnanimously make themselves available to the living in the form of séances (French for "sittings"), in which they offer encouragement to the living and, above all, proof of the afterlife. Far from dismissing the canons of rational evidence, Spiritualism began with an appeal to demonstrable truth. No need for faith, no need for elaborate religious ritual to get in touch with the divine. The dead are all around us; we simply have to cultivate the skills of mediumship necessary to establish contact with them. The individualism, anti-obscurantism, and anti-authoritarianism implicit in such claims are all deeply American.

The writers who attend contemporary Spiritualist services all remark how much like "normal" church services they are. There are pews, people sing hymns, there's a sermon, and it all takes place on Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights, no less. But the "altar call" results in persons seeking contact with the departed dead, with the help of an "ordained" medium. Cassadaga does "ordain" persons who demonstrate proficiency with mediumship—and bristles at the suggestion that the palm and tarot readers outside the gates of their campus have anything like the legitimacy of their approved mediums.

Still, Cassadaga today has its problems. Like many of the religious phenomena of the mid-19th century (including my Methodism), it has some creaky joints. Most of the interviewees here are quite elderly. They remind me of my old parishioners—friendly, patriotic, given to community service, respected by the surrounding townspeople.

There are disputes in the community, naturally. After a flurry of scandals in the late 19th century, Spiritualists outlawed "physical" manifestations of spirits. You know—tables spinning, spoons bending, musical instruments floating and playing themselves, apparitions (often caught on film), paintings painted by spirits. Those manifestations, originally meant to constitute dramatic proof, had become an embarrassment, giving spirits the ghost-story reputation they maintain in the popular mind (all the spirits summoned in these books, by the way, are entirely friendly).

But seekers who come to Cassadaga are often attracted precisely by these more obvious "proofs" of spirit activity—even as charlatans and fools are attracted to them as well. And many in the community's younger generation are impatient with tradition. They don't understand the Judeo-Christian shell Spiritualism still comes wrapped in. As children of the Sixties or later, they want more diverse religious trappings. Some critics strike at the core of things: "Everybody's so wrapped up in the economy, their health and their loved ones, that they don't care what Uncle Harry has to say anymore."

Cassadaga was spun off from a community in upstate New York called Lily Dale, which was bursting at the seams and wanted to expand southward. In Lily Dale: The True Story of the Town that Talks to the Dead, journalist Christine Wicker takes care to keep the prose entertaining and to offer her interlocutors equal measures of charity and skepticism. The town's neighbors now may denigrate it as "Silly Dale," but Spiritualism did claim millions of adherents once while intriguing many more, including—Wicker says—such luminaries as the author James Fenimore Cooper, the editor Horace Greeley (who coined the term "Spiritualism"), the inventor Thomas Edison, the robber baron Cornelius Vanderbilt, and the actress Mae West (some of these with deep interest, others putting a toe in the water). Early 20th-century thinkers as various as Carl Jung and Albert Einstein, and writers such as Upton Sinclair, were curious enough about the phenomenon to write about it with some sympathy. William James treated it with a surprising degree of deference in his Varieties of Religious Experience—including a famous argument that fraudulent religious practice presumes an originally genuine one. Urban legends persist that police detectives turn to mediums when other options run out—and that such supernatural aid helped capture Ted Bundy.

Wicker wants to treat this with enough sympathy to report on it well. And, sure enough, the mediums with whom she and others speak are seemingly familiar with circumstances of their subjects' lives about which they could have had no firsthand knowledge. One woman is told that a man has a message for her—after which the medium sets her feet and swings an imaginary golf club. Sure enough, the woman and her husband played golf together, and he was always trying to get her to change her stance in precisely that way. She weeps at this message from beyond. The spirit responds via the medium, saying he prefers to see her laughing.

Wicker notes that this is the sort of knowledge passed on—psychological reassurance that a loved one is not gone, and in fact can offer proof of ongoing existence. Just so it can be open to horrible abuse. Parents of dead children frequent mediums in places like Lily Dale. "Parents who have children in spirit almost always bring them," one medium said. Wicker describes a fellow visitor's observation that most of the mediums are quite overweight. She hatches a plot to replace all the signs on the doors announcing "medium" with ones that say "large."

The line between respectful and gullible is thin in a community in which belief in fairies and aliens is common. Why don't the dead pass on something practically useful along with reassurance? (If spirits can be divined to paint pictures, Wicker asks at one point, why don't Leonardo or Raphael report for duty? Lily Dale's financial problems would be solved forever!) Susan B. Anthony, visiting Lily Dale, learned while sitting for a reading that her dead aunt had been brought through. "I didn't like her when she was alive, and I don't want to hear from her now," Anthony said." Why don't you bring someone interesting like Elizabeth Cady?"

In an age in which most religious thinkers are wary of body/spirit dualism, Spiritualists have not yet gotten the memo. One describes death this way: "You're wearing a suit of clothes and you step out of them. You're still you, you just leave this set of clothes behind." Sheer, unmitigated Platonism anyone? More poignantly for Christian observers, Lily Dale's mediums lament that they have to be "comediums" these days—fail to be entertaining and you have no fee-for-service. (Ministers will know what they mean.) And contemporary Americans are so transient that family members may not know their extended relatives anymore: "I might very well be bringing in Grandpa, and no one knows enough about him to believe he's really there." That's a problem distinctive to Spiritualism, and yet it will tug at the hearts of most of us who have dealt with grief at the loss of a loved one.

Both Cassadaga and Lily Dale trace their origin to two young girls in Hydesville, New York, which was barely on the map then, and is not at all now. In Talking to the Dead: Kate and Maggie Fox and the Rise of Spiritualism, Barbara Weisberg tells the story with an eye to contemporary events (to show that the interest of celebrities has not waned: Richard Dreyfuss blurbs the book!), and does so with the palatable prose of Wicker and the footnotes of a scholar.

One night in 1848, the Fox sisters and their parents and siblings heard loud knockings after going to bed in their family's cabin. Whatever was making the noises proved to be intelligent. It could respond to questions, one knock for yes, two for no. The resulting "conversations" became increasingly extravagant, such that the "raps" could knock on specific letters of the alphabet and enunciate entire sentences.

The sisters claimed their source was a certain peddler who had been murdered in that very house during a sales stop while traveling through selling his wares some years before. Quickly observers noted the raps occurred when either Kate or Maggie was present, but not otherwise. They were soon celebrities, given opportunities to speak and demonstrate their ability as mediums before large audiences in cities all over the United States and Europe. In addition to the fortune that came with the fame, the sisters were also subjected to various humiliating trials, including frequent body searches (by male scientists, until their wives had to take over for propriety's sake) and requests to bring the knockings while tied up in extremely restrictive positions. The spirits almost always delivered—though sometimes in ways that confirmed skeptics. A relative of whom the Fox girls were fond was given advice to turn down a new business opportunity and stay nearby. A teacher noticed the raps misspelled words in the same manner that Kate, her former student, did. The Fox girls' father had been a notorious drinker and card-player who was converted by the Methodists during the revivals that swept through the Burned Over District of upstate New York in the early 1800's. When the spirits were asked which sect's doctrine was correct, they produced the right answer in the Fox household: the Methodists!

Weisberg ably sets the phenomenon in its historical context. There had been stories of hauntings before. John Wesley grew up in a household that joked about its poltergeist, and even named him "Old Jeffrey." But the Wesleys didn't ask Jeffrey questions—or at least didn't expect answers. The Fox sisters did, and many others followed in their train. Weisberg also attends to issues of gender. It took a supernatural event then for women to be allowed to speak in public. The Fox sisters could demur; it was the spirits speaking through them, after all. Still, some observers were critical of them primarily because they were acting "inappropriately" for their sex. Furthermore, children were expected to know their place. Their older sister Leah—disapproving voices said—shouldn't have encouraged the girls' speaking and the publishing of books about them, as she did.

And once they matured, their presiding over séances at which men were present became potentially scandalous. Kate and Maggie were pretty, self-composed, and authorities on the spiritual (not to mention wealthy and famous) in a way women normally were not in those days, but the aura of disrepute around women who made their living in darkened rooms never left the Fox sisters, especially since various scientific reports on their veracity depended on eyewitness claims to seeing them disrobed.

The downward trajectory of the girls' lives is predictable. Most interesting for our purposes is Maggie's late-life recantation of the entire thing. The girls had used their knuckles all along, she told a crowd forty years after the original events. They could crack them loudly and undetectably even during all the investigations they had passed. By then, thousands of Spiritualist societies and churches had sprung up based on her original and ongoing experiences. Ralph Waldo Emerson had placed "medium" in the same category as railroad man, landscape gardener, lecturer, and daguerreotypist, as professions invented in the 19th century. The girls' descriptions of the afterlife had helped change the way the dead were cared for. Cemeteries became bucolic places of rolling hills and manicured landscapes instead of foreboding reminders of impending Calvinist doom. There was no going back. Maggie later recanted her recantation—her Catholic husband wanted her to do it. Both women went to their graves insisting on the validity of their experiences, never successfully challenged. (Sister Leah, on the other hand, was once caught in outright fraud.)

"God's telegraph has outdone Morse's altogether." So exclaimed a Methodist minister when the spirits foresaw his son's tragic death hours before he got a telegram saying that had indeed happened. Ministers became sympathetic with or renamed themselves or their churches "Spiritualist" just as often as they became hostile to the Fox sisters' movement. When more "established" religion tries to cut out any place for the supernatural, it will return by some other means. One thinks here of G. K. Chesterton's quip about how the Enlightenment-based refusal of the miraculous does not leave modernity skeptical and believing in nothing, but rather credulous and believing in everything. The Methodists also experienced such tremendous growth in that era and part of the country precisely because they were so "enthusiastic"—a term of opprobrium in those days. The revival preachers emphasized personal and emotionally charged "experience" in their conversions—on which the Fox sisters also played.

The Methodist minister's comment is revealing in another way. The "Rochester rappings" seemed not far from science. The very term "scientist" was coming into use at the same time as the knockings. Dinosaurs had just been named, Charles Darwin's ideas were becoming known, Neptune was recently discovered. When Harriet Beecher Stowe was first puzzled by the rappings, she compared the phenomenon to the aurora borealis—its cause would soon be discovered. Another homage to early modern science Benjamin Franklin's appearance as perhaps the most frequent spirit at these early séances—why wouldn't he be interested in such a marvel?

Later, of course, the advance of science helped to do in Spiritualism. The original rappings could hardly have been so terrifying if the Fox family's cabin had been illuminated by anything other than candlelight. Electricity would leave the ghosts (or knuckle rappers) fewer places to hide. Improvements in medicine would leave fewer bereft parents seeking contact with dead children. Horace Greeley and his wife opened their homes to Kate for a time after the last of their five children had died. Greeley wrote to a friend, "The one sunburst of joy that has gladdened my rugged pathway has departed." Little wonder they would seek such solace—and that later families with improved infant mortality rates and vaccinations would not need to.

Like most religious movements, Spiritualism produced art of its own. The American novelist Elizabeth Stuart Phelps wrote a trilogy of novels whose content is as subtle as their names: The Gates Ajar (1868), Beyond the Gates (1883), and The Gates Between (1887). They were clearly intended to refute the concerns of more "orthodox" Christians that Spiritualism fails to be biblical. The lead character of The Gates Ajar is mourning the loss of her brother Roy in the Civil War. (Spiritualism did especially well after major catastrophes—World War I and the flu pandemic of 1919 also spurred growth.) The town's minister is a good man, but his harsh ideas of the afterlife—his "assurance" that Roy's death is God's will and to be embraced as such—fail to give consolation.

She is much more comforted by her aunt, Winifred, who assures her she will see her brother again. Jesus' words that "they will neither marry nor be given in marriage" does not mean there are no particular attachments between people in heaven—far from it: she can hope for reunion with Roy. Not only that, but the dead are not forgetful of the living. They are all around, trying to communicate with us. She is as assured of these truths as she is of the very existence of God: "Would it be like Him to create such beautiful and unselfish loves,—most like the love of heaven of any type we know,—just for our threescore years and ten of earth?" Not only that, but heaven is a place where laughter is permitted—not just harp-plucking. It is a place of progress and growth, not mere stasis. It is never boring. It is a place where one has what one wants as soon as one wants it. It is, in short, everything good about this life, only more so: "That is the substance, this is the shadow; that the reality, this the dream." Clearly death should be no cause for alarm.

Phelps wrote The Gates Ajar after losing a fiancé who marched south and never came back. In her introduction to the trilogy, the scholar Nina Baym indicates that Phelps' description of heaven closely matches the New England town in which the author grew up—only without any of the pain. It is also, we might note, a sort of consumerist paradise—like a mall with no price tags—a utopia without much in the way of intersection with this world, except for its offer of comfort. It was also spectacularly successful upon its publication. It sold 80,000 copies in the United States, more in England, and was translated into four languages. It also sounds more like most sermons I have heard about death and the afterlife than any orthodox Christian source. Phelps' resolution with these works is to show that death is "God's greatest gift to his human creatures."

Given the schmaltzy nature of this literature, and the silliness of much Spiritualist practice, we should not be surprised that serious scholars have often looked down upon it. Ann Braude changed that in 1989 with the publication of Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women's Rights in Nineteenth-Century America, which appeared in a revised edition several years ago. Braude, now at Harvard Divinity School, argues that the boundaries between "orthodoxy" and "heterodoxy" can cast disrepute on movements that were more helpful for women—like Spiritualism. For it "formed a major—if not the major—vehicle for the spread of women's rights ideas in the mid-nineteenth century." Spititualists' mass meetings offered large and appreciative audiences for advocates of women's rights. And once the women's suffrage movement kicked up in earnest, a battery of seasoned female public speakers was ready to go to bat for it—all Spiritualists. Braude also set out to correct the academy's continuing antipathy for religion in general, and the lingering prejudice that religion and feminism are necessarily antagonistic forces in the culture. She concludes that Spiritualism worked its way out of a job. It began to lose its social clout not so much to new religious "competition" (from Theosophy and Christian Science, for example), though there was that. Spiritualism formed a beachhead for women's rights and then its work was done: "spirit guidance enabled one generation of women to become public speakers, the next generation of women activists did not require the assistance."

Braude also shows, in passing, the effect of Spiritualism on claimants to more orthodox Christianity. Over against the vision of a God of wrath, Spiritualism bequeathed to the rest of us "an image of God as a loving parent, solicitous for the welfare of his children." Over against a doctrine of original sin, Spiritualism's female pioneers insisted that "the innocence of childhood [is] closer to God than the world-sullied character of adults." Braude holds up specific words of comfort offered in a Spiritualist vein: "In that other world your baby and mine will know us—their mothers, else God were not God."

Oliver Wendell Holmes joked that "with the crack of a toe joint," the Fox sisters caused "such a crack of old beliefs that the roar of it is heard in all the ministers' studies in Christendom." His friend Ralph Waldo Emerson worried enough about the influence of the movement to warn against its shallowness in public: it hopes to "get knowledge by raps on midnight tables" and amounted to an effort at "skill without study." And how did his listeners respond, Braude asks? They "followed his lectures with visits to séances." So widespread was the Spiritualist influence that even an evangelical progressive like Frances Willard became interested. And all Christendom indeed was changed: where is there Christianity now without the nice God, stain-free children, and heaven as a celestial family reunion?

Unsurprisingly, Braude's book provoked a host of challengers intending to undo her theses. Robert Cox's Body and Soul: A Sympathetic History of American Spiritualism intends the word "sympathy" in a technical sense. He argues against Braude that Spiritualism did not really do much to advance women's rights. Spirits could always be dismissed as silly, and the mediums consistently reported conflicting messages on social issues. What Spiritualism did do, however, was increase the bonds of sympathy among persons in a changing new nation. In a newly anonymous space like that of the mid-to-late 19th-century urban center, visits from famous figures of America's past or one's family helped those "struggling to cope."

Cox also attacks scholars' tendency to overlook fractures among pioneering Spiritualists. The Fox sisters may have heard the first rappings, but the mystic and disciple of Emmanuel Swedenborg, Andrew Jackson Davis, had his own quite different vision of Spiritualism. It was Davis who gave Spiritualism its elaborate vision of concentric circles in the afterlife, with spirits progressing from one to the next in accord with the goodness of their lives on earth and progress in death. Davis spoke of lower spirits communicating with higher spirits on the way up through the spheres in what ancient Christians would've immediately recognized as a Gnostic cosmic vision.

Not done yet, Cox further insists that Spiritualism was congenitally limited in its reach to burgeoning middle class whites, and that the spirits were oddly silent after the Civil War—despite every other author in this set insisting that national cataclysm was the key early spark to the movement. And he does it all in deliciously academic prose. He speaks here of a related phenomenon—sleepwalking preachers: "I emphasize here a vigorous counternarrative—what might be called a naturalistic countermechanism—in which naturalistic modes of analysis of the physiology and experience of the somnambular body were employed to assert the dominance of spirit and mind over body and, in some versions, to insinuate a stratum of 'occult' phenomenona beneath the veneer of physiology and anatomy." Preach it, brother.

Scholar reacts to scholar in this communio sanctorum. John Kucich's Ghostly Communion: Cross-Cultural Spiritualism in Nineteenth-Century American Literature insists that Spiritualism is far older than the Fox sisters. Think of the Salem witch trials, or Native American ghost dances—hasn't there always been significant traffic with the dead? Not only that, as the examples suggest, isn't that traffic at points of racial or ethnic "liminality"—where cultures and religions clash? Indian and black practice of commerce with spirits was a way of announcing their people's otherness from their white oppressors, a buffer against hegemony: "What appeared to be familiar and recognizable—Catholic spirituality or European witchcraft—to white observers was revealed, through this cross-cultural spiritualism, to be alien, hostile, and laced with the Other." Kucich is interested in what Spiritualist visions have to say about America's points of unity and division. He seconds another scholar's suggestion that ongoing interest in the movement is due to frustration with "the decline of a viable political left," and cites the popular film Dogma with its "anarchic sensibility to launch a frenzied assault on contemporary bourgeois norms." (Note to self: never use the word "liminality" or capitalize Other before complimenting a vapid film in an academic book.)

Braude's work stands out against these others simply because she can write. But she has nothing on Mary Roach, author of Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife. Roach established a reputation as a trippy, engaging writer who does not neglect existential issues with her Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. And like its predecessor, Spook is a refreshing tonic to academia's wordy meandering. Roach wants the evidence for an afterlife that Spiritualism has to offer—and she will blow the alarm when that evidence is funny. For example, she acquires scholarly credentials at Cambridge University's library, and in its hallowed manuscript room she unrolls a ten-by-three foot sheet of ectoplasm. That is, a sort of ghostly goo allegedly emitted from spirits during séances, but widely said, then and now, actually to have emerged from one or the other of the medium's private parts. It's so large that Roach imagines that the "Keeper of Manuscripts and Archives came in drunk one day and got the Shroud of Turin mixed up with Helen Duncan's ectoplasm." Later, during a course for amateur psychics, Roach is told that spirits grow restless at night because they depend on the living for their entertainment. Roach balks at the idea of "heaven as DMV waiting room" and proceeds, accidentally, to guess correctly the layout of the living room of a man from whom she takes a reading. It was the working-class Scottish accent, she surmises. Even from such "correct" readings of the dead, Roach concludes they are "poor conversationalists, given all the novel and mind-blowing things going on in their lives."

It's hard not to turn to sheer silliness when dealing with matters of such absolute import as the truth or falsehood of claims about ultimate human destiny. Spiritualism has always had a disproportionate effect on the wider popular culture because of the fame of its adherents and inquirers. In this way popular films only continue the success of the Fox sisters' speaking tours. Academic investigators are now not less interested, thanks to Braude's work and reactions to it that could easily be multiplied beyond the two mentioned here. Naturally we cannot hope for much more than the sort of sympathetic cultural anthropological approach of Braude and these others. They can take Spiritualism seriously enough on its own terms to write about it for their colleagues, but they cannot tell us whether and how they think its claims true or false.

Christian theology cannot stop short in the same way. Spiritualism does seem like a dessicated version of the medieval Christian practice of addressing prayers to the saints. Some of our authors mention this family resemblance in passing but say no more. For medieval Christians, as for Christians of every era, the dead are not simply gone but are "ever alive to God." Christians do hold that death is an enemy of sorts. The loss of bodily contact with a fellow believer is a cause for grief for those who make up the "body" of Christ. But it is not a tragedy. Death is defeated in Christ's resurrection, and will be destroyed as "the last enemy" at his triumphant return (1 Cor. 15:26). During this interregnum between the tomb and the trumpet, Christians' bodies (quite obviously) remain in their graves, while their souls rejoice in "paradise" with Jesus (Luke 23:43). They will receive their bodies back, the same bodies but transfigured, as Jesus' tomb was empty and his body was supple enough to walk through walls and ascend to his Father.

That sketch could be filled out in a number of different ways depending on one's tradition. The bulk of Orthodox and Catholic Christians have also held that some kind of purification may be necessary after death for most of us. I, for one, can resonate with this—a certain amount of (rather unpleasant) work on my soul feels necessary before I can stand in the presence of a God whose holiness makes him "a consuming fire" (Heb. 12:29). Catholics in the Middle Ages spelled out this nascent patristic belief with an elaborate doctrine of purgatory—envisioned most famously by Dante—in which specific sorts of sins invite specific sorts of purgative cures in anticipation of eternal life with God. Only the saints are holy enough to skip this purgation and go directly to the joy of the kingdom. But this delivery from pain does not mean they have no care for those left behind in the world or in purgatory. Saints are holy, after all. A saint by definition is so full of the love of God that it spills over to her neighbor in every thought and act—could she cease to care merely because her body is dead? Even traditions that do not agree ought to be able to feel the force of that.

It is appropriate, therefore, to ask a saint to pray for you. This is not, technically, a prayer to a saint—every Christian knows there is only one God who should be addressed in prayer (this distinction may get lost in actual practice, but it need not). Beginning with Mary, the mother of the church, and including all the saints the church has birthed, whose stories are told and retold in preaching and teaching, a vast field of "prayer partners" opens up for the Christian. Thank goodness—for one's deceased relatives (most of whom will not likely be saints!) need prayer for help in their purgative ascent through pain on the way to paradise.

The Reformation rightly named the abuse of this system of viewing the afterlife—namely the indulgences sold like "get out of jail free" passes to fund elaborate medieval building projects. Martin Luther's initial indictment eventuated in a broader objection that the entire thing had no biblical foundation. But this dismissal goes too far. If Jesus is our great high priest, interceding for us, as Hebrews makes clear, and if Christians are members of his body, surely the whole body prays for us—even (especially?) those parts temporarily separated from us through death. John Calvin felt the pressure of this sort of argument, against which he insisted that the saints would be too preoccupied with their worship of God in heaven to be willing to be bothered with the prayers of us here below: precisely the image of an uncaring afterlife against which Spiritualism protested.2

Spiritualism can be viewed as an undisciplined reaching out for a basic human need summarily lopped off at the Reformation: some connection with those who have died. This needn't mean a relationship with them in any direct sense—the Spiritualists examined here only had the most banal "information" to pass from the next world to this. Most of the dead will indeed be in need of prayer in some fashion, rather than able to respond to requests for it. But it can mean a sort of honoring of a loved one's memory, a binding to them in prayer that is not broken by death but will continue until Christ's return. There is no blueprint for a Protestant practice of this, I know, and individual believers and theologians don't get to make up such things from scratch. But to give an example I think not harmful: since my mother's recent death I have prayed for God's blessing and hallowing of her. I don't know how this prayer might be responded to. But I do know that the God who gathers all our tears and guards them as in a bottle will not fail to answer this and all our prayers—however potentially misguided (Ps. 56:8).

The basis for this tentative proposal is not anthropological but Christological. That is, it is not because people need comfort after they lose loved ones, true as that is. It is not because the very nature of God is called into question otherwise, as several Spiritualists above allege—as though God is nervously awaiting our approval. It is because the body of Christ, head and members, is more tightly knit together than our members to our head, with the empty tomb as our promise that death does not finally sever this link. Any new practice or theological proposal ought, at the most basic level, submit to a Christological test of sorts—does it bring the church closer to Christ and Christ closer to the church? Naturally we will have great fights determining whether and how something fits that criterion! But it is not a bad place to start.

Just so, Origen figured out a way that a text about a medium summoning the spirit of Samuel could actually be about Jesus. The question for interpreters of his day was whether the Witch of Endor summoned a demon pretending to be Samuel, or Samuel himself. And if the latter, what on earth was the prophet doing in hell? (Purgatory was not an option yet, but the development of doctrine will have to wait for another day.) Origen's answer? Samuel was doing what prophets do, which is to make ready the way of the Lord. Samuel was in hell "to announce my Lord in advance." What could be scandalous about the prophet going where Christ did not disdain to go? And how could Christ not empty himself to the bottom most level of God's creation to restore all things to God? Origen concludes, "Let physicians go to the places where soldiers suffer and enter the place of their stench and wounds; this is what medical benevolence inspires. So the Word has inspired the Savior and the prophets to come here and to descend into hell."3

If death is no barrier to Christ's self-emptying; if, indeed, the transgressing of the boundary of death is the very reason for Christ's incarnation, can we who need help working out our salvation not count on help from those who have worked out theirs more fully? Such may be what these often deluded and always bizarre Spiritualists may have to teach us.

Jason Byassee is an assistant editor at The Christian Century. His book Reading Augustine: A Guide to the Confessions (Cascade) was recently published.

1. Homily 5 on 1 Samuel, in Origen, ed. Joseph W. Trigg (London: Routledge, 1998), pp. 199-210.

2. The saints "do not abandon their own repose so as to be drawn into earthly cares; and much less must we on this account be always calling upon them!" Institutes III.XX.24, in Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion 2, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Westminster, 1960), p. 883.

3. Trigg, Origen, pp. 205, 207.

Books discussed in this essay:

Ann Braude, Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women's Rights in Nineteenth-Century America, 2nd ed. (Indiana Univ. Press, 2001).

Robert Cox, Body and Soul: A Sympathetic History of American Spiritualism (Univ. of Virginia Press, 2003).

John Kucich, Ghostly Communion: Cross-Cultural Spiritualism in Nineteenth-Century American Literature (Dartmouth College Press, 2004).

Philip Charles Lucas et al., eds., Cassadaga: The South's Oldest Spiritual Community (Univ. Press of Florida, 2000).

Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, Three Spiritualist Novels (Univ. of Illinois Press, 2000).

Mary Roach, Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife (Norton, 2005).

Barbara Weisberg, Talking to the Dead: Kate and Maggie Fox and the Rise of Spiritualism (HarperSanFrancisco, 2004).

Christine Wicker, Lily Dale: The True Story of the Town that Talks to the Dead (HarperSanFrancisco, 2003).

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