Mystery and Possibility: Spiritualists in the Nineteenth-century South Public Deposited

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  • June 3, 2022
  • Schoonmaker, Nancy
    • Affiliation: College of Arts and Sciences, Department of History
  • Spiritualism, the belief that people could communicate with the spirits of the dead, swept through the United States and western Europe in the 1850s. Rooted in mankind's timeless yearning to understand what becomes of the human spirit after death, it was complicated by the mid-nineteenth century's urge to explain the world rationally and scientifically. The rage for scientific explanation was complicating the need to understand life and death within the comforting tenets of unquestioned Christian faith. Spiritualism promised what traditional religion could not: By asking questions of the dead through a medium, people sought proof that the spirits of departed loved ones--and personal immortality--awaited them in heaven. This dissertation examines the interpretation of this phenomenon, long thought by scholars to have been unattractive to southerners because of its association with northeastern reform movements, by individuals in the South. It explores and explains the extent to which white southerners incorporated Spiritualism into their folk, cultural and religious belief systems. It sketches a map of how Spiritualism spread through the South along networks of commerce, community and kinship. Perhaps most significantly, this project brings to light the social, geographic and racial diversity of southerners who took an active interest in parting the veil between this world and the unknown. Did it matter, does it now? Beyond denominational monographs, the history of the South must include studies of southerners' examination, construction, modification and uses of belief if we are to understand what being human meant to them and in turn see more clearly how the South was a part of the national discourse. At the same time, while their northern counterparts were linking Spiritualism with abolition and a host of other reforms, most southerners who communed with spirits seem to have believed that--whatever might be said to the contrary--doing so was every bit as orthodox as evangelical Christianity.
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Rights statement
  • In Copyright
  • Ferris, William
  • Lowery, Malinda
  • Watson, Harry L.
  • Mathews, Donald
  • Brundage, W. Fitzhugh
  • Doctor of Philosophy
Degree granting institution
  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Graduate School
Graduation year
  • 2010
  • This item is restricted from public view for 1 year after publication.

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