Spiritualism, Slavery, and Whiteness in the 1850s

Carol Faulkner

For the past few weeks, I've been reading polemics and autobiographies by leading nineteeth-century spiritualists, all published at the height of the sectional conflict. Though I'm interested in their ideas about marriage, I find myself distracted by their appropriation of slavery and articulation of their own racial identity. In the context of heated national discussions of slavery and African American rights, spiritualism provided a platform that promoted individual freedom, and, it seems, whiteness. Their use of the "slavery metaphor" won't surprise readers of this blog. In her groundbreaking Radical Spirits, Ann Braude wrote about the tension between the spiritualist and antislavery movements. Spiritualism attracted both white and black believers (also see this blog post from Emily Suzanne Clark), but, despite significant overlap in membership and ideas, activists clashed over priorities. While many white spiritualists opposed slavery, they believed their religion offered the liberation of all humanity, especially white women. And, as Braude noted, spiritualists' commitment to women's rights "could have racist overtones" (78). I think something else is going on. White spiritualists often discussed slavery and race in complex ways, but they ultimately affirmed their status as white Americans.

 As we might expect, spiritualists used slavery as a metaphor to advance their religious and political goals.  In 1861, Warren Chase, a spiritualist and Fourierist from Wisconsin, published his critique of marriage laws, provocatively titled The Fugitive Wife. Written more than a decade after the enactment of the tough fugitive slave law, this choice of title was deliberate. Chase's book was written on behalf of the "thousands" of women suffering in unhappy marriages. Unlike fugitive slaves, Chase argued, these victims of the marriage institution had not aroused national sympathy. Instead of receiving aid on their journey, runaway wives were captured and returned to their husband. Unsurprisingly, he compared marriage to slavery, in which the wife is "sexually a slave to his [the husband's] passions, even to the sacrifice of happiness, health, and often life." Chase discussed serious marital problems that demanded legal action: physical and emotional abuse, rape, and unwanted pregnancies. In contrast to unhappy legal marriages, he offered the model of spiritualist marriages based on mutual, and voluntary, love. Though Chase did not say so explicitly--he didn't have to--his examples of legal and spiritual marriages were between white men and women. Unlike enslaved men and women, whites enjoyed the freedom to choose a suitable marriage partner and the right to marry that individual. Chase's ability to criticize the institution of marriage also relied on white privilege.

Andrew Jackson Davis's autobiography, The Magic Staff, published in 1857, mentioned slavery as a reference for his own spiritual development. Better known as the "Seer of Poughkeepsie," Davis was the son of an intemperate shoemaker and a superstitious but devoted mother. His memoir described his development from an awkward, unhealthy, dim-witted boy to his current "Superior Condition." He first learned about the horrors of slavery as a teenager, but quickly put them out of his mind. After a speech in Rochester, New York, a Quaker (of course) scolded the adult Davis for not addressing slavery. Davis responded by criticizing the antislavery movement: "that is not Liberty which emancipates the African from bondage, and refuses freedom to the unhappily married." Instead, Davis proposed "to shelter flying fugitives in all departments of life--fugitives from false theology, from political bondage, from the slavery of licentious domestic alliances." In contrast to the Quaker abolitionist, he assumed his message offered universal liberation. Similar to a slave narrative, Davis recounted his own path to freedom: from ignorance to clairvoyance, from his dependence on a mesmerist to independent clairvoyance, and finally, to finding "his soul's companion" Mary Fenn Robinson Love (it didn't last, but that's another story). Davis also played with his identity, establishing both his whiteness and otherness. His description of himself is a bizarre combination of recognizable types, such as the editor/reformer, fashionable sporting man, and the upright Quaker. To this everyman, he added a touch of the exotic with his black hair and beard, supposedly like those of "Italian banditti."*

Published in 1859, Eliza Farnham's autobiography describes her personal liberation and her racial transformation. After her mother died, she went to live with a Quaker family in western New York. The wife (she called her "aunt") treated her as a servant and abused her, and the husband was too mild mannered to intervene. Though the couple had promised to educate her, they refused to send Eliza to school. Finally, with the help of her birth family, she leaves and enrolls in a Quaker boarding school. Then, with financial support from her brother, she attends a female academy, where she meets her future husband. To paraphrase Harriet Jacobs, Eliza Farnham's autobiography ends, in the traditional way, with marriage. A striking sub-theme is her parallel journey from blackness to whiteness. In one scene, "aunt" refers to her as "thee little black brat!"After an illness, she describes herself as "bleached" "nearly to the color of my race." When she finally meets her youngest brother, he runs away from her in fear, telling their uncle "if I had thought she was so black, I'd have stayed till it was quite dark." Another relative replies that "she'll be whiter." Indeed, by the end of her memoir, no one would mistake the diligent young student and future wife for a person of color. (For a brief discussion of Farnham's Indianness, see Ellen Carol DuBois's Seneca Falls at Santa Cruz).

Published in the midst of increasingly violent debates over slavery, these spiritualist narratives come across as deliberately obtuse. Still, I find them curious. The authors did not invoke slavery and blackness to show their political identification with African Americans, as some radical abolitionists did, but to establish their racial difference. When they proclaimed their scandalous ideas about organized religion, marriage, or women's rights, their whiteness reinforced their respectability and authority.

*For Davis's evolving, and increasingly hierarchical, ideas about race, see Robert Cox's Body and Soul: A Sympathetic History of American Spiritualism, which examines the emotional and experiential aspects of the spiritualist movement. Cox challenges Braude's conception of spiritualists as radicals in American reform, and instead he highlights "the less well documented voices, the reactionary, and the conflicted among them."


esclark said…
Carol, thanks for these observations about white privilege and Spiritualism. Race and Spiritualism is a really untapped research area and there's a lot going on there. In addition to Cox's work on Davis, Molly McGarry's chapter on Native American spirits in Ghosts of Futures Past are my favorite investigations of this. Much more to do!

I'm looking forward to reading more of your work on Spiritualism and marriage. When might we get to see that?
Carol Faulkner said…
Emily, my research is very much in progress. I'll be giving a paper on Farnham and Mary Fenn Davis at the Berks, but otherwise it will be a while...
John L. Crow said…
Carol, I second Emily's recommendation of McGarry's book and chapter. You may also be interested in Ghostly Communion: Cross-cultural Spiritualism in Nineteenth-century American Literature by John J. Kucichz. He has two chapters that focus specifically on issues of Spiritualism and Africans/slaves, and one chapter that deals with Native Americans. Cathy Gutierrez republished chapter 1 in her edited collection, The Occult in Nineteenth-century America. Another book to check out is John Patrick Deveney's Paschal Beverly Randolph: A Nineteenth-Century Black American Spiritualist, Rosicrucian, and Sex Magician. At different times Randolph both supported and opposed "free love." He was also a supporter of women's right and marriage reform.

I mirror Emily's enthusiasm about your research! Please let us know when there is something we can read!
Carol Faulkner said…
John, thank you for the great recommendations!
This is great - I look forward to hearing more at the Berks next year.

Marla Miller at UMass was on an archives tour with her students and posted a really great Spiritualist find on twitter yesterday. Like Emily says, so much to do!
Wandersmann said…
Thanks for the article, Carol. I have been sitting on my hands over a project I started ten years ago on Warren Chase. Now that I am planning a summer back home in Wisconsin, I am thinking of starting it again. I recall seeing a copy of "The Fugitive Wife" somewhere, but I forgot where. Where did you get your copy?

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