Seeing Visions, Hearing Things, and Having Fits

John G. Turner

Thanks for the proclaimed respite, Paul. It will do us all good.

My first week in graduate school, one of my professors assigned The Social History of Truth by Steven Shapin. I spent an entire weekend carefully reading it, underlining furiously, and taking copious notes. By the time my seminar met, I realized I knew absolutely nothing about the book beyond its title. Its entire content had mysteriously eluded me.

It can be tough to visit foreign historiographical territory, even within the field of American religious history. I've been trying to get up to speed on religion in the antebellum United States to provide me with some context in my grapple with Mormonism. Therefore, I'm reading some new books and reviewing some I too loosely perused in graduate school. I found I absorbed Nathan Hatch's Democratization much more than Jon Buter's Awash in a Sea of Faith, for instance, so I've reread Butler. I love his characterization of the antebellum "spiritual hothouse."

Having mostly concentrated on evangelicalism, I find myself challenged by Catherine Albanese's insistence on the "role of metaphysics as a major player in the evolution of the national religiosity." (A Republic of Mind and Spirit) Moreover, although I've encountered histories of the occult in Butler and in various works on Mormonism, I'm staggered at Albanese's detailed and complex accounts of hermeticism, alchemy, and other forms of the occult in the United States. Unlike Butler, she doesn't think magic and the occult became relegated to the "folk" by the end of the eighteenth century. I also found her sections on Spiritualism and Theosophy very illuminating.

In seeking to further understanding these and related topics, I've turned to Ann Taves's Fits, Trances, & Visions, which traces religious and scientific accounts of involuntary movements from the awakenings of the 1740s through William James. As much a contribution to Religious Studies as history, Taves highlights the role of Methodism in American society in ways new to me, such as John Wesley's relatively open stance toward the supernatural, the development of "shouting Methodism," and the beginning healing revivals at the end of the nineteenth century. I found myself taking away insights about everything ranging from Jonathan Edwards to Joseph Smith to clairvoyant somnambules. [If there isn't a recent scholarly biography of Ellen G. White (the adventist prophetess), it needs to be written!]

I'm also very impressed with Leigh Schmidt's Hearing Things: Religion, Illusion and the American Enlightenment. Intrigued by Joseph Smith pronouncing Brigham Young's glossolalia "the pure Adamic language," I learned from Schmidt that disciples of Swedenborg, among others, sought the pure tongue of angels in nineteenth-century America.

Unfortunately, my encounter with Albanese, Taves, and Schmidt -- all very erudite monographs -- leaves me feeling slightly akin to my reading of The Social History of Truth. Although I now have some sense of Swedenborg, Spiritualism, and Theosophy, I've realized not only how influential some of these "alternative" (i.e., not strictly Protestant) movements were but also how difficult they are to understand (at least for me). Perhaps I should have stuck with what Albanese terms the "evangelical thesis." I hadn't been planning on spending time on spiritualism in my American Religious History class this spring but now feel it's essential, so I'm going to have to spend more time digesting these topics. [I'm going to read Larry Moore's book on spiritualism, which I have hitherto neglected -- his Religious Outsiders is one of my all-time favorites, not least for his chapter on Mormonism]. Any suggestions for further reading on these subjects?


Kelly J. Baker said…

Ann Braude's _Radical Spirits_ is a great place to start for Spiritualism. For an interesting literary voyage into popular classifications of the movement, see Megan Chance's _The Spiritualist_. Passages of Chance's work might prove helpful as readings for students. Her details of mediums and their methods are pretty good and somewhat accurate (though she tends to see spiritualism as basically a fraud).

I love teaching spiritualism because my students are fascinated by the movement or see it as a hoax. To get to the root of its popularity is always inviting.

While you are introducing the metaphysical, I would also suggest incorporating Christian Science into the mix. It provides a spiritual foil to the material nature of Mormonism for instance.

Good luck.
Anonymous said…
Juster's Doomsayers is pretty good early context. Curtis's Faith in the Great Physician for later Protestant supernaturalism. Walker's Wayward Saints is an excellent treatment of the limen between Mormonism and Spiritualism.

I've been meaning to read Radical Spirits.
Anonymous said…
On the revivalistic side of things, I wonder how Finney's systematization of supernatural experience in his revivals undercut some of the supernatural mystery present in the earlier American awakenings. I guess that fits into the larger question of how industrialization altered religious practice.

Funny you should be thinking about such things, John. I, too, have been wondering about supernatural phenomena and religious experience. (Is it just because we're nearing Halloween? :)). I recently heard about some research showing that a member of the UCC is far more likely to believe in communication with the dead than a member of the AoG is. Interesting. I suppose that religious traditions that encourage supernatural experience also delineate the "good kind" from the "bad", whereas traditions that are largely silent about such matters may leave a lot more options open.
John G. Turner said…

One of Taves's very intelligent points is that revivalists such as Edwards narrowed the role of the supernatural in spiritual life by accepting that many physical manifestations of the revival (shrieking, collapsing, etc.) were attributable to natural causes. Edwards thought that some might not be, and John Wesley left more room for supernatural explanation. But the net effect was to concede considerable ground to opponents of the revival through categorizing revival excesses as "enthusiasm" and therefore "bad religion." One can imagine that Finney's moves had similar effects, i.e., the more things are attributable to science / natural explanations, the less room remains for the supernatural.
Anonymous said…
Very interesting, John. That makes a lot of sense.

Astounding, isn't it, how much changed in the short time between Cotton Mather and Edwards. The scientific age was indeed a powerful force.

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