Many, maybe most, early Progressive Friends were involved in spiritualism. It was not a church; one did not need to join. Two features of spiritualism’s appeal in the mid-nineteenth century deserve mention here: perhaps above all, it gave solace to the bereaved, assured them that dead loved ones were at ease, and not beyond the love of the living. And in that era, when deaths from illness were much more common than now, especially among the young, this was no small thing.
A striking example of this is our Rhode Island renegade, Elizabeth Buffum Chace. She was the wife of a prosperous textile manufacturer; but all her affluence and “privilege” did not save her first child, born in 1829, or the next four after him: all five died, one after another, in infancy or shortly afterward.
As the fifth one faded, Chace penned a rhymed plea
“Oh! no, it cannot, cannot be;
My darling babe will live.
He must not go away from me,
He is the last of five. . . .
And, much and often have I prayed,
That so it might not be;
That in a little coffin laid
This one I ne’er might see.
“Oh! Father, spare him longer yet,
Our lonely home to cheer.
We’ve often said it was for this
That Thou hast sent him here.”
But it was not to be. Then, says her biographer:
“It was almost inevitable that Spiritualism, in its dawning day, should attract the yearning interest of a woman, five of whose babes had wandered into the forest of Unknown Wilderness. Mrs. Chace saw a pillar of cloud taking shape before her on her darkened pathway and followed it for a score of years, sometimes believing, sometimes doubting, sometimes hoping that messages floated backward to her from her lost children. For two or three years in the early period a sweet young girl dwelt in her home, who had or seemed to have the mysterious power of a “medium.” Later, a younger son of Mrs. Chace’s seemed also thus endowed.
“Certainly, these things did happen when there was no possibility of intentional fraud; namely, Mrs. Chace and a few intimates, including the “medium,” would sit around a small but not too easily moved table; they would place their hands upon it, and, after two or three minutes of silent waiting, the table would begin to rock, and, so far as concerned the consciousness of the sitters, without their muscular effort.
“Then Mrs. Chace would repeat the alphabet, and the table would stand still and only tip to call attention to particular letters. The letters taken in that designated order did spell words, and the words did come in proper sentence relation to each other, and the sentences did carry rational significance.
“Mrs. Chace, certainly, for a time, believed quite simply in it all as genuine revelation. She taught her living children [she had five more] that there were no fairies, but that the spirits of their own dead brothers and sisters whom they had never seen were their special guardian angels. It was a pretty faith, a real household cult, and, since it was taught and accepted sincerely, it did no harm, were it true or were it only one of the numberless human imaginations of the truth.
“I think Mr. Chace never quite accepted the Spiritualistic faith. The Quaker Inner Light sufficed for him, but he was not opposed to his wife’s opinion and perhaps his own sometimes approached it. . . .
But in later life, Spiritualism, as such, ceased to influence her. She never quite disavowed belief in it; she said only, “It used to seem true when we were receiving those communications from the children.” In the last twenty years of her life she said little about that long, noonday passage of her soul through a valley wherein dreams and hopes moved like almost visible phantoms beside her.”
Besides the crushing feelings of loss, Elizabeth Chace also had to contend with the lingering legacy of New England Puritan theology. Its stern predestinarian vision dictated that most humans were doomed to spend eternity in the torment of hellfire, regardless of their personal innocence or guilt. Babies too? Some said yes, others squirmed and fudged. The uncertainty was a torment to many who did not consider themselves of Puritan stock, yet still lived and breathed in that atmosphere.
Pioneer Wesleyan writer Charles Wesley excoriated this dismal doctrine in a 1741 poem, “The Horrible Decree”:
O HORRIBLE DECREE
Worthy of whence it came!
Forgive their hellish blasphemy
Who charge it on the Lamb . . . .
The righteous God consigned
Them over to their doom,
And sent the Saviour of mankind
To damn them from the womb . . . .
They think with shrieks and cries
To please the Lord of hosts,
And offer thee, in sacrifice
Millions of slaughtered ghosts:
With newborn babes they fill
The dire infernal shade,
“For such,” they say, “was thy great will,
Before the world was made.”
A skeptical view of Calvinist theology
Spiritualists vociferously rejected this notion, and claimed that their spirits confirmed their rebuttals. And comforting the bereaved was a steady draw for new “investigators” as Americans passed the midpoint of the century.
One other important point: many of the early stars of the Spiritualist movement were also strong supporters of most of the Progressive reforms: abolition, women’s rights, temperance. That and their combination of a “scientific” performance and an affinity for the new lecture circuit that the Progressive groups offered was an irresistible combination.
But all was not roses for spiritualism and reform. Not a few of the “investigators” became utter devotees, forgetting about any other concern. This was the case when Boston abolitionist Parker Pillsbury sent this gloomy report from the 1857 Michigan Friends of Human Progress session:
“The greatest good accomplished at this meeting, perhaps, was to separate the Anti-Slavery cause from a morbid, mawkish Spiritualism, that had infested it like the potato-rot, and was almost working its ruin. . . . There were some gone-to-seed, professed Abolitionists among them, whose anti-slavery seemed not to have been very vital, for they have mostly discontinued their anti-slavery papers, too often leaving arrearages of from one to five or six dollars unpaid. , , ,
“These disciples of Spiritualism appeared much annoyed, all of them, at the introduction of anti-slavery into our discussion. Many of them seemed to assume the meeting as their own . . . . Some would not hear us patiently, if at all; and others declared they would not have come to the meeting, if they had known it was to be open to any thing but their favorite idolatry. It is certainly not too much to say, that there is not a more bigoted and intolerant class in the whole sisterhood of sects, than this type of so-called spiritualists.”