This essay examines critical modes and dependencies of mid-nineteenth century spiritualism. It looks at the relationship between the ritual dynamics and promotional framings of rappings and séances, and it considers the contested location of those practices within nineteenth-century theories of religion. The argument is threefold: that components of spiritualist practice are better understood alongside certain commercial enterprises; that their examination demands reconsideration of the relative importance of belief, intellection, and criticism in religious ritual; and that, in light of nineteenth-century Americans' own critical thinking on these matters, we understand better the ways in which spiritualism itself became both a location and datum for Americans' definitions of religion. The long-ignored religious theory of P. T. Barnum supports reclamation of the Fox sisters' own ritual practices even as it illustrates the processes by which they were gradually exorcised from American religions, spiritualism, and their historiography. Meanwhile, evidence from court records, newspaper reports, and the professional careers of mediums and their debunkers aids reconstruction of a religious movement that consisted largely, for a time, in the formal recognition of its own skepticism and operational intrigue.
- © 2013 by The Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture