An Indomitable Woman Friend: Five Dead Babies, Spiritualism & Reform

Adapted from the book, Remaking Friends: How Progressive Friends Changed Quakerism & Helped Save America

Elizabeth Buffum Chace, born in 1806, was a striking example of the Progressive Friends movement. Raised a Rhode Island Quaker, she imbibed the refining spirit from her Quaker forebears, especially a sense of mission to help abolish slavery. But this zeal soon put her at odds with the New England Quaker Establishment. While officially against slavery, the leading Friends, mostly persons of wealth, staunchly opposed the “modern” reformist movements, not only abolitionism, but temperance and women’s advancement as well.

Chase had watched in growing dismay as many abolition-oriented New England Friends were expelled or exiled by this powerful, anti-reform inner circle, and meetinghouses were ordered to exclude any abolitionist-oriented meetings and speakers.

Progressive Friends -- A Continuing Series

By late 1843, she had had enough. The letter she sent in Eleventh Month (November) to Providence, Rhode Island Meeting is still compelling.  It also capsulizes the personal pilgrimage of many other Friends who became part of the Progressive movement. A few excerpts:

Dear Friends: After many months of serious deliberation, attended not unfrequently by severe conflicts, with sincere desires for the direction of the Spirit of Truth, I have arrived at the conclusion that it will no longer be right for me to remain a member of your body.

“By birthright and education connected with the Society of Friends, I very early became attached to the Christian principles it professed, and this attachment, growing with my growth and strengthening with my strength, has remained with me through my riper years, and is now strong, and, I trust, enduring. But when, for many years, I have looked for the fruits of these righteous principles in the proceedings of the Society, or the practice of its most highly professing members, I have been forced to admit that they were not suffered to produce their legitimate effects . . . .

“The pro-slavery position [NOTE:  this “position” was that slavery was evil, but ending it should be left in the hands of God, not pursued by organized human actions, especially abolitionism] assumed and maintained by New England Yearly Meeting, and consequently by its subordinate branches, has, for many years, been a subject of painful regret to my mind; and I long cherished the hope that, the principles of truth and righteousness finally prevailing, this large and influential body would yet come up, with its strong band of spirits yearning to do right, to the rescue of down-trodden humanity. But I have hoped and waited in vain. . . .

“The delinquency of the Society in this respect has, probably more than anything else, been made instrumental in opening my eyes to perceive that many corruptions have become too deeply interwoven with its present organization to be ever separated therefrom, and my firm belief now is that by the hand of Providence they will be removed together.

“The love of dominion and its unlimited exercise by the few over the many, the practical denial to the weak of the right to call in question the authority of the powerful, whose power is too often seen to rest on the influence of wealth and worldly station and on the favor of those possessing these earthly gifts, more than on holiness of heart and life, and the countenance and support given to a blood-stained government are not the least among the abuses which I find so deeply rooted in the Society, that I feel that it would be sinful for me any longer to share its responsibilities.

“In reply to any enquiries concerning the important step I am now taking, I can only answer, that, firmly believing in the doctrine of the immediate influences of the Holy Spirit, I, as firmly, believe that it requires this of me, and I can find no peace in resisting the pleadings of its ‘still, small voice.’ . . .

“With those who, seeing the corruptions, do not believe it to be their duty to withdraw from the Society, I have no warfare. . . .

“Neither have I enmity towards those who sincerely believe that the Society is still in its purity . . . . Some of them are my personal friends, and the fault shall not be mine if they do not remain so. My earnest desire for them is that ‘by a light let in from above’ they may be led to see things as they really are. So let us all seek that we may find the truth; ‘proving all things and holding fast that which is good.’

“And now, one and all, I bid you an affectionate farewell.

ELIZABETH B. CHACE.”

Notwithstanding her resignation, Chace never wandered far from her Quaker upbringing. Her husband, for one thing, retained his membership. The newly-rising Progressive Friends  movement never but an active congregation in New England, but Chace was drawn to the Progressive Friends ethos like an iron filing to a magnet.

Besides their work for reforms, many, maybe most, early Progressive Friends were involved in spiritualism. Spiritualism was was not a separate church; one did not need to join to take part. (A sketch of the Progressive Friends movement is here.) To many it had something of a “scientific” air; participants were often called “investigators,” rather than “believers” — and their seances were “experiments.”

Pennsylvania Progressive Friends
A “Testimony” on Spiritualism from the Pennsylvania Yearly Meeting of Progressive Friends; one of many.

Two features of spiritualism’s wide 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.

Here too, Elizabeth Buffum Chace was a prime example. While she was the wife of a prosperous textile manufacturer, all her affluence and “privilege” did not save her first child, born in 1829, from an early death — or the next four after him: all five died, one after another, in infancy or shortly afterward.

Elizabeth Buffum Chace and Bessie, 1879
Elizabeth Buffum Chace with Bessie — one of the five of her ten children who survived infancy.

 

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.

Table tipping -- 1850s spiritualism
A table-tipping seance, typical of mid-19th century American spiritualism.

“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 personal 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 by God 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 an agony 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 Cartoon about Calvinism

A skeptical view of Calvinist theology

Spiritualists vociferously rejected this notion, and claimed their spirit messengers confirmed the rebuttals. And reassuring the bereaved that lost children & others were not burning in ceaseless flames was a second steady draw for new spiritualist “investigators” as Americans passed the midpoint of the century.

One other important point: while some enthusiasts became so absorbed in spiritualism that they forgot about everything else, many of the movement’s early stars remained strong supporters of most of the Progressive reforms: abolition, women’s rights, temperance.

Cora L.V. Hatch & Andrew Jackson Davis
Cora L.V. Hatch & Andrew Jackson Davis, two popular, reform-minded spiritualist mediums — not Quakers but appeared at many Progressive Friends meetings.

Elizabeth Buffum Chace was one such steadfast supporter, amid her personal losses and domestic duties. She was even, that far north of the slave states, active with the Underground Railroad. She wrote in 1891, in a small book of Anti-Slavery Reminiscences (online here), of an escaped family that once woke the Chaces after midnight, seeking refuge as they made their way toward Canada:

We kept them three or four days, in hourly fear and expectation of the arrival of the slave-catcher; our doors and windows fastened by day as well as by night, not daring to let our neighbors know who were our guests, lest some one should betray them. We told our children, all, at that time, under fourteen years of age, of the fine of one thousand dollars, and the imprisonment of six months, that awaited us, in case the officer should come, and we should refuse to give these poor people up.

She had a sister, Rebecca  Buffum Spring, who was even more adventurous. In late 1859, after John Brown and his armed band attacked the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia),  Rebecca Spring made a daring trip to Charles Town Virginia, where Brown was imprisoned, awaiting execution. She somehow managed to get past all the seething Virginians there, and spent a long day with Brown in his jail cell. She brought him a large parcel of relief supplies: books, clothing, medicine, even flowers.

Elizabeth followed news of Rebecca’s journey, and soon, says her biographer, made her own characteristic gesture; she

“came one winter morning out of [her home’s] front door, and turning, fastened on that door a long strip of black. When asked why she put it there, she answered in a husky tone, ‘Because of what they are doing today in Virginia.’ It was the second of December, 1859, and, perhaps at that very moment, John Brown was riding to the gallows.” 

Even so, when the abolition struggle descended unto warfare,

“. . . Mrs. Chace did not want her sons to enter the Northern army and got her domestic way in that. . . .

“When the war began, notwithstanding her belief that it would end slavery, the action of Lincoln’s government, of some military commanders and of the Federal Congress was so pro-slavery that it was impossible for her to want her sons to enter an army whence fugitive slaves were driven back by Federal bayonets. . . . On August 22, 1862, Mr. Lincoln wrote to Horace Greeley, ‘If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it.’

“. . . I cannot say exactly what opinion Mrs. Chace held in 1861-62 of the legal situation, but . . . being what she was as an individual, she could not think that her young boys had a right to decide for themselves, in opposition to her principles . . . . This scruple . . . must have passed later, but her peace principles remained unabated in force. It was wrong to fight even ‘to make men free.’ She never in the least modified this opinion.

“That is all there is to be said about it; she did not want her sons to act according to opinions which were not her own. Still, I believe, had the war lasted longer, she would have yielded to the more adult conviction and desire of her son Sam. Yet there was also in her opposition some maternal impotence for self-sacrifice, which I think might be pardoned in a woman who had followed five of her children to the grave, and who now, as a mother, was touched in her most easily quivering fibre. 

“It was Sam who wanted to go to the war, and her feeling was peculiar for him, the first of all her ten babies who had survived infancy. She could hardly bear to let him go out of her sight. ‘I know why thee wants to go home,’ said her husband to her when they were together on a summer excursion. ‘Thee wants to be with Sammie.’ How could she let that boy go into peril? How could she let Sam do anything of which she, herself, did not morally approve?

“He tried several times to gain her consent, but lacked just the characteristics which would have made him act without her permission. Perhaps, to some extent, both were justified in their attitude, she in her opposition, he both in his desire and in his passive obedience. He was only seventeen when the war began; only a few months over twenty-one when the Rebellion staggered into the abyss.

“Once she said to him, ‘I think the time will come in which thee will be very glad thee did not go into the army.’

“I suppose she meant that in time he would be glad because he would have accepted her forbidding peace ethic. The boy answered:

“‘No, I shall never be glad that I did not help to save the Union.’”

Yet, if her faith in the rapped-out “messages” from the lost five later faded, her commitment to the Progressive reforms never dimmed, she upheld them to her dying day in 1899. 


Her two-volume biography is: Elizabeth Buffum Chace, 1806-1899, Her Life and its Environment, by Lillie Buffum Chace Wyman and Arthur Crawford Wyman, 1914.

Vol. 1 is online here.       Vol. 2 is online here:

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