Spiritualism was, first and foremost, a religious movement. We can gain some sense of its appeal from the materials dealing with popular ideas of death and dying. But that is, at most, half of the story. The other half lies in the declining hold of certain forms of Protestantism at mid-century. More specifically, we need to look at Unitarianism and its Universalist offshoot. Cora Hatch was a product of this tradition.
A clear indicator is her A Discourse on the Immutable Decrees of God, and the Free Agency of Man, which she delivered in the City Hall, Newburyport, Mass., Sunday, November 22d, 1857, and which was phonographically reported by James M. Pomeroy.
These are our conceptions. Man is free to do right or wrong. The truth has been presented to him, error has been presented to him; he is free to judge which he will take; but only free inasmuch as Deity is Infinite Goodness; and as there is no infinite principle of evil, he cannot go in that direction beyond the moral limits of the soul, whilst in goodness he can go onward forever, to Jehovah. He is here to judge which he will take, right or wrong, but at the same time he is not free to make the wrong permanently triumphant, for it can never be so. The right is the infinite, and consequently it always predominates over ignorance, error, and darkness. [pp. 22-23]
It is easy to track the source of these ideas. They derived from William Ellery Channing, a leading Unitarian minister and the founder of Universalism. Hatch and her "spirit guides" acknowledged as much:
"But," says one, "that is Universalism. It is simply the doctrine that Universalists preach." We are not aware, precisely, what are the views entertained by Universalists, upon this subject. But, most certainly, it is our opinion, whether it be Universalism or the belief of any other class of men. It is certainly our fixed belief.
Later in her long career, in an authorized biography, Hatch, by then Cora L. V. Richmond, would affirm that she had spent her life advocating the ideas of the Rev. Adin Ballou, a Universalist minister and founder of the utopian community of Hopedale, Massachusetts, where Hatch had lived for some months with her family while a child. Ballou edited The Practical Christian, a reform newspaper which advocated woman's rights, abolition, temperance, the water cure, regular exercise, and a host of other causes in addition to Universalism. Cora's father was a great admirer of Ballou and brought his family to Hopedale in the hope of receiving his imprimatur to launch a similar community in the West. In the authorized biography she would claim Ballou's son, Adin Augustus, who died at nineteen, as one of her two principle spirit guides.
What Hatch added to Channing and Ballou was a dose of Swedenborg, the eighteenth-century Swedish scientist and mystic who wrote that there was a spiritual analogue to each and every temporal reality. Swedenborg inspired virtually every Spiritualist of the mid-nineteenth century. One can gain an understanding of how they adapted his ideas via her rendering of the Experiences of Judge J. W. Edmonds, in Spirit Life. Swedenborg's popularity extended beyond the Spiritualist. Emerson discussed him in several of his lectures and included him in Representative Men. Why would Emerson and so many others turn to Swedenborg? One answer is their sense of emptiness within their own religious tradition.
Alexis deTocqueville caught the essence of the matter in a interview he and Gustave Beaumont had with Channing:
'But are you not afraid,' I said to him frankly, 'that by virtue of purifying Christianism you will end by making the substance disappear? I am frightened, I confess, at the distance that the human spirit has travelled since Catholicism; I am afraid that it will finally arrive at natural religion.'
'I think that such a result,' returned Mr. Channing, 'is little to be feared. The human spirit has need of a positive religion, and why should it ever abandon the Christian religion? Its proofs fear nothing from the most serious examination of reason.'
This exchange took place in the early 1830s. Twenty years later, a young Thomas Wentworth Higginson preached his inaugural sermon as pastor of Worcester's Free Church. Higginson was, like Emerson and Theodore Parker, a self-acknowledged disciple of Channing. Yet he, like them, had abandoned all belief in the "proofs" of Christianity. "Here lies the great difficulty. Let the simple truth be told. The time has come when an earnest and fearless inquirer can no more study the Bible and believe in its verbal inspiration, than he can study astronomy and believe that the sun moves around the earth." What had happened? Part of the answer lay in the new Biblical scholarship, particularly the work of Augustus Neander, author of History of the Christian Religion and Church during the first three centuries (Phil., 1843) and The Life of Jesus Christ (New York, 1848). As Higginson put it:
It is not possible that any collection of various books by various writers at various times can be assumed as a whole and so consulted, without introducing the utmost confusion into all moral questions. It has almost come to be a proverb, "You can prove anything out of Scripture." There are, all told, not less than fifty different sects in this country, each claiming to sustain itself by the Bible, to the exclusion of all others. And in all great moral questions, as War, Slavery, Temperance, Capital Punishment, it is unquestionably far easier to decide what is or is not right, than to ascertain what is or is not Scriptural.
Lucretia Mott, the noted abolitionist and woman's rights advocate, put the matter even more bluntly. Commenting on the Rev. Antoinette Brown's efforts to reconcile woman's rights with Paul's language about wives being "subject" to their husbands in the New Testament, she said that "it would not be profitable to consume too much time with the Bible argument." Saint Paul and the other Apostles, she suggested, might "have imbibed some of the spirit and ignorance of their age on the subject."4 Tocqueville's concern, in short, had borne fruit, at least among "advanced" thinkers. Unitarianism and its offshoot Universalism had become merely "natural." What remained was not the "substance" of Christianity but the sentiment of religion. Emerson, in his "Divinity School Address," his own valedictory to the ministry in 1838, gave early voice to this. He claimed that the ground of religion was "the intuition of the moral sentiment," an "insight of the perfection of the laws of the soul." As an "intuition," it "cannot be received at second hand. . . . It is not instruction, but provocation, that I can receive from another soul."
Some initial reflections:
Historians of Spiritualism rarely or never consult the works of Thomas Wentworth Higginson or Lucretia Mott or others who turned away from the notion of the Bible as the "inspired" Word of God in the antebellum decades. This is so despite the fact that Higginson became, at least for most of the 1850s, a spokesperson for spiritualism and was eagerly claimed as such by such spiritualist newspapers as The Banner of Light and the Spiritual Telegraph. Even so, there is an important clue to its appeal in Higginson's lament that " . . .in all great moral questions, as War, Slavery, Temperance, Capital Punishment, it is unquestionably far easier to decide what is or is not right, than to ascertain what is or is not Scriptural." As Robert H. Abzug has shown in Cosmos Crumbling: American Reform and the Religious Imagination (1994), the three great moral crusades of the era -- abolition, temperance, woman's rights -- all required their adherents to deny the literal inspiration of the Bible or to read particularly troublesome texts, such as the account of the marriage feast at Cana where Jesus performed his first public miracle by changing water into wine, in highly convoluted ways. Mott's comments at the first national woman's rights convention (Worcester, 1850) that, once something has been accepted as true, theologians rush to show that it has always been in accord with the Bible, showed that every deeply religious people had begun to dismiss Scripture as settling moral questions.
This had two effects, both of which made spiritualism appealing. The first was to leave the Higginsons and the Motts open to new ideas and sources of spiritual insight. The second was that spiritualism's appeal to the test of experience, its empiricism, supplied a warrant for its claims the Bible no longer possessed for such reformers. Mott described feeling the presence of William Ellery Channing. The experience was, for her, real. Higginson consulted with the spirit of his late father before accepting the position in Worcester. That experience was also real, for him.