AskDefine | Define spiritualism

Dictionary Definition



1 (theology) any doctrine that asserts the separate existence of God
2 the belief that the spirits of dead people can communicate with people who are still alive (especially via a medium)
3 concern with things of the spirit [syn: spirituality, otherworldliness]

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. A philosophic doctrine, opposing materialism, that claims transcendency of the divine being, the altogether spiritual character of reality and the value of inwardness of consciousness.
  2. A belief that the dead communicate with the living through a medium having special powers.


the philosophic doctrine, opposing materialism
the belief that the dead communicate with the living through mediums
checktrans-top spiritualism

Derived terms

Extensive Definition

Spiritualism is a religion that began in the United States and flourished from the 1840s to the 1920s—especially, though by no means exclusively—in English-language countries. By 1897, it is said to have had more than eight million followers in the United States and Europe, mostly drawn from the middle and upper classes. The religion's distinguishing feature is the belief that the spirits of the dead can be contacted by "mediums," and can therefore provide living people with information about the afterlife..
Developing for a half century without canonical texts or formal organization, the religion attained a cohesion by way of widely distributed periodicals, tours by trance lecturers, camp meetings, and the missionary activities of accomplished mediums. Many of the most prominent Spiritualists were women, and most adherents supported radical causes like abolition and women's suffrage. By the late 1880s the credibility of the movement had weakened, due to widely publicized accusations of fraud, and formal organization began to appear. Spiritualism still exists today, primarily through the form of the Spiritualist Church in America.

Characteristic beliefs

Spiritualists believe in communicating with the spirits of discarnate humans. They also believe that spirits themselves are capable of growth and perfection, progressing through successively higher spheres or planes. The afterlife is therefore not a static place, but one in which spirits continue to evolve. The two beliefs: that contact with spirits is possible, and that spirits may lie on a higher plane, lead to a third belief, that spirits are capable of providing useful knowledge about moral and ethical issues, as well as about the nature of God and the afterlife. Thus many members will speak of their spirit guides — specific spirits, often contacted, who are relied upon for worldly and spiritual guidance.. Additionally, the concept of Tawassul recognises the existence of good spirits on a higher plane of existence closer to God, and thus able to intercede on behalf of humanity.
Hinduism, though an extremely heterogeneous belief system, shares a belief with spiritualism in the continued existence of the soul after death. But Hindus differ in that they typically believe in reincarnation, and normally hold that all features of a person's personality are extinguished at death. Spiritualists, however, maintain that the spirit retains the personality it possessed during its (single) human existence.
Spiritism, the branch of Spiritualism developed by Allan Kardec and found in mostly Latin countries, has always emphasised reincarnation. According to Arthur Conan Doyle, most British Spiritualists of the early 20th century were indifferent to the doctrine of reincarnation, very few supported it, while a significant minority were vehemently opposed, since it had never been mentioned by spirits contacted in séances. Thus, according to Doyle, it is the empirical bent of Anglophone Spiritualism —its effort to develop religious views from actual observation of phenomena— that kept spiritualists of this period from embracing reincarnation.
Spiritualism also differs from occult movements, such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn or the contemporary Wiccan covens, in that spirits are not contacted in order to obtain magical powers (with the single exception of obtaining power for healing). For example, Madame Blavatsky (1831-1891) of the Theosophical Society only practiced mediumship in order to contact powerful spirits capable of conferring esoteric knowledge. Blavatsky apparently did not believe that these spirits were deceased humans, and in fact held beliefs in reincarnation that were quite different from the views of most spiritualists. dictated to a friend while in a trance state, eventually became the nearest thing to a canonical work in a Spiritualist movement whose extreme individualism precluded the development of a single coherent worldview. Nevertheless, many abolitionists and reformers held themselves aloof from the movement; among the skeptics was the eloquent ex-slave, Frederick Douglass.

Believers and skeptics

In the years following the sensation that greeted the Fox sisters, demonstrations of mediumship (séances and automatic writing, for example) proved to be a profitable venture, and soon became popular forms of entertainment and spiritual catharsis. The Foxes were to earn a living this way and others would follow their lead. In a few cases, fraud practiced under the guise of Spiritualism was prosecuted in the courts. Prominent investigators who exposed cases of fraud came from a variety of backgrounds, including professional researchers such as Frank Podmore of the Society for Psychical Research or Harry Price of the National Laboratory of Psychical Research, and professional conjurers such as John Nevil Maskelyne. Maskelyne exposed the Davenport Brothers by appearing in the audience during their shows and explaining how the trick was done. During the 1920s, professional magician Harry Houdini undertook a well-publicised crusade against fraudulent mediums. Throughout his endeavors, Houdini remained adamant that he did not oppose Spiritualism itself, but rather the practice of deliberate fraud and trickery for monetary gain. Despite widespread fraud, the appeal of Spiritualism was strong. Prominent in the ranks of its adherents were those grieving the death of a loved one. One well known case is that of Mary Todd Lincoln who, grieving the loss of her son, organised séances in the White House which were attended by her husband, President Abraham Lincoln. In addition, the movement appealed to reformers, who fortuitously found that the spirits favored such causes du jour as equal rights. Other prominent adherents included the journalist and pacifist William T. Stead (1849-1912), and the physician and author Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930). In Britain, by 1853, invitations to tea among the prosperous and fashionable often included table-turning, a type of séance in which spirits would communicate with people seated around a table by tilting and rotating the table. A particularly important convert was the French pedagogist Allan Kardec (1804-1869), who made the first attempt to systematise the movement's practices and ideas into a consistent philosophical system. Kardec's books, written in the last 15 years of his life, became the textual basis of Spiritism, which became widespread in Latin countries. In Brazil, Kardec's ideas are embraced by many followers today.
Ochorowicz studied as well, 15 years later, a home-grown Polish medium, Stanisława Tomczyk.

After the 1920s

After the 1920s, Spiritualism evolved in three different directions. The first of these continued the tradition of individual practitioners, organised in circles centered on a medium and clients, without any hierarchy or dogma. Already by the late 19th century spiritualism had become increasingly syncretic, a natural development in a movement without central authority or dogma. In the United States the Spiritualist churches are primarily affiliated with the National Spiritualist Association of Churches, and in the U.K. with the Spiritualists' National Union, founded in 1901. Formal education in spiritualist practice emerged in 1920, continuing today with the Arthur Findlay College at Stansted Hall. Diversity of belief among organised spiritualists has led to a few schisms, the most notable occurring in the U.K. in 1957 between those who held the movement to be a religion sui generis (of its own with unique characteristics), and a minority who held it to be a denomination within Christianity. The practice of organised Spiritualism today resembles that of any other religion, having discarded most showmanship, particularly those elements resembling the conjurer's art. There is thus a much greater emphasis on "mental" mediumship and an almost complete avoidance of the miraculous "materializing" mediumship that so fascinated early believers such as Arthur Conan Doyle.


  • The Spiritualists: The Passion for the Occult in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries
  • Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women's Rights in Nineteenth-Century America
  • Nineteenth Century Miracles: Spirits and their Work in Every Country of the Earth
  • The Heyday of Spiritualism
  • The Other Side of Salvation: Spiritualism and the Nineteenth-Century Religious Experience
  • Spiritualism in Antebellum America
  • The Death-Blow to Spiritualism
  • Paschal Beverly Randolph: A Nineteenth-Century Black American Spiritualist, Rosicrucian, and Sex Magician
  • The History of Spiritualism, volume 1
  • The History of Spiritualism, volume 2
  • An Encyclopaedia of Psychic Science
  • Cassadaga: the South’s Oldest Spiritualist Community
  • Exploring Everyday Landscapes: Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture, VII
  • Podmore, Frank, Mediums of the 19th Century, 2 vols., University Books, 1963.
  • Salter, William H., Zoar; or the Evidence of Psychical Research Concerning Survival, Sidgwick, 1961.
  • Telegrams from the Dead (a PBS television documentary in the "American Experience" series, first aired October 19, 1994).
  • Bolesław Prus, 1847-1912: Kalendarz życia i twórczości (Bolesław Prus, 1847-1912: a Calendar of [His] Life and Work)
  • Talking to the Dead
  • Lily Dale: the True Story of the Town that talks to the Dead
spiritualism in Bulgarian: Спиритуализъм
spiritualism in German: Spiritualismus
spiritualism in French: spiritisme
spiritualism in Hebrew: ספיריטואליזם
spiritualism in Dutch: Spiritisme
spiritualism in Japanese: 心霊主義
spiritualism in Polish: Spirytualizm
spiritualism in Portuguese: Espiritualismo

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

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