Speaking with the Dead
Woodbridge, New Jersey, September 2016. The First Presbyterian Church is straight out of Central Casting: white brick, Greek Revival pediment, soaring steeple piercing the steel-gray sky. At the front of the sanctuary my grandfather, Ernest Barany, is sealed inside a gunmetal casket, its color recalling the U.S.S. Becuna he served on in World War II. Because my grandfather was active in this church for decades the place is full, and because he lived well for ninety-one years the eulogists adopt a tone of fond reminiscence rather than unspeakable loss. One man shares stories from the days when Ernie was the star running back on the high school team, known to everyone as "The Ghost" for the way he floated across the field, eluding all tacklers. The youngest eulogist, my twenty-something cousin Katie Rose Barany, rises to speak. "I didn't really plan anything, but I want to share something with you. I'm a millennial, so it's on my phone." She explains that when she used to go to Bible camp every summer, Ernie never forgot to call on her birthday. One time he left a voice mail, and she has kept it over the years, transferring it from phone to phone. She swipes a few times. "Let's see if this works." She holds the phone up to the mic. "Hi, Katie, this is Grandpa." The audience gasps. "We want to wish you a very, very happy birthday. And we hope to see you when you get back, I'm sorry we missed you now, okay?" Dozens of tissues rustle. We weren't expecting to hear Ernie speak today.
Watervliet, New York, spring 1843. The young Shaker woman lies peacefully on a bier. Family members and friends gaze upon the corpse, praying and singing as they say their final farewells. The service, held in the family's house and marked by religion, sentiment, and attention to the dead body, could be the funeral of any white Protestant in antebellum America. Until, that is, one of the female Shakers standing next to the corpse suddenly becomes "as it were entranced, and announce[s] herself to be the Spirit of the departed one," in the words of a sympathetic outside observer. Adopting "a voice sweetly modulated," the visionist comforts the gathered mourners. The deceased woman tells her loved ones that they too can expect to go to heaven when they die. "When the time comes for you to cast off the perishable clay," she says, "your freed spirit will fly to realms of bliss." She also brings a more startling message: "I am not dead." She elaborates that "though my spirit is released from the cold and inanimate clay which lies there, and which it lately inhabited, I am still in your midst." Her spirit, to everyone's delight, will remain a presence among the living.
Dorchester, Massachusetts, January 1668. Mourners stand in the graveyard, near the simple meetinghouse that dominates the town's public life, and gather around Lydia Minot's closed coffin. The thirty-seven-year-old woman has recently died delivering her sixth child. Minot's husband, children, minister, and many others prepare to watch the sexton lower the coffin into the hole he has prepared. But first, someone unfolds a sheet of paper and reads an elegy. Puritans worry that a funeral sermon might seem too much like a Catholic Mass for the dead, but they consider a poem an appropriate way to pay tribute to the deceased and inculcate piety among the bereaved. Standing in close proximity to the corpse, the speaker offers eighteen lines of Minot's imagined words from heaven, which reveal tantalizing details about the afterlife: "New Robes I have, new Company, new Skill / To sing th'new Song." She is wearing new garments, among new friends, singing the song to the Lord that Psalm 96 describes. The mourners' Calvinist faith tells them they can't be sure Minot is in heaven, but on this day they choose to overlook that, reassured by Minot's imagined voice.
Three funerals across more than three centuries, among three religious groups that trace their lineage back to the Protestant Reformation. The dead speak in all three. But wasn't the Reformation supposed to end communication between the living and dead?
It turns out the answer to that question is more complicated than historians have realized. Yes, the Protestant Reformation dramatically reconceived the relationship between the living and dead. In late medieval Catholicism, mourners employed an array of practices to maintain connections with the deceased. Crucial to this was belief in purgatory, a middle place between heaven and hell, where the vast majority of souls went to experience purgation—cleansing by fire—before ascending to heaven. While in purgatory, souls could be helped by the actions of the living: saying prayers, paying for Masses, endowing chantries where priests did the praying. The living could also maintain relationships with saints—the "very special dead," in one historian's phrase—by praying to them, sometimes aided by proximity to the saints' bodily remains, and asking the dead to intercede with Christ on the petitioner's behalf.
In the early sixteenth century, the Reformation abolished purgatory and the veneration of saints. Protestants could no longer help their loved ones' souls in the afterlife and they could no longer enlist the aid of the very special dead. As one recent, comprehensive history of the Reformation puts it, "Protestantism stripped religion of mediation and intimacy with the dead."
At least in theory. In practice, Protestants proved not quite so willing to abandon the relationships with the dead to which they had long been accustomed. The dead, for example, continued to return as ghosts: not just right after the Reformation but in all three centuries this book covers. The theology of ghosts changed—for Protestants, they could no longer be souls returned from purgatory—but ghosts remained a way that laypeople and ministers continued to imagine interacting with the dead. But whereas some people believed their ghost sightings were real, other ways of thinking about the dead were understood to be in the realm of imagination. When people wrote poems that portrayed the dead speaking, or sang songs addressed to the dead, or spoke to portraits of their deceased loved ones, they did not think they were actually communicating with the dead. Nonetheless, Protestants eagerly interacted with the dead through imaginative literature and material culture because doing so fulfilled their desires to continue thinking about their loved ones. This was how the living maintained some aspects of the relationships they had shared with people now dead.
Thus it is important to pay attention to the differences among the three funerals that open this book. All three involved the speaking dead, but only in the Shaker funeral did participants think the deceased was actually communicating with them. When Lydia Minot's family members listened to the poet ventriloquize her, they did not think the elegist was privy to some divine communication. Nor were my family members confused by the source of my grandfather's voice; we didn't think he was actually talking to us. But my experience of that moment's power—the sobs it elicited from me and others—leads me, in an act of historical empathy, to infer that the puritans who gathered around Minot's coffin felt a connection with her when the poet spoke in her voice. You don't need to take my word for it, though. My informants will repeatedly attest, through their actions and writings, that communication with the dead was deeply meaningful, even when it was understood to be imagined.
I discovered this neglected aspect of Protestant belief and practice—this desire for continuing relations with the dead—when I tried to answer what I thought was a straightforward question: Where did séance Spiritualism come from? Or more precisely, How did Spiritualism gain so many adherents so quickly? I had long been struck by how both historians and contemporaries portray Spiritualism as exploding like a supernova in the 1850s, seemingly without warning. After the Fox Sisters of Hydesville, New York, began to interpret the rappings of a spirit in 1848, and especially after they demonstrated their supernatural talents on stage in New York City two years later, legions of Americans tried to communicate with deceased loved ones. As the New York lawyer George Templeton Strong wrote in 1855, "What would I have said six years ago to anybody who predicted that before the enlightened nineteenth century was ended hundreds of thousands of people in this country would believe themselves able to communicate with the ghosts of their grandfathers?" While largely avoiding Strong's condescension, scholars have echoed his astonishment, portraying Spiritualism as a dramatic and surprising break with the past. It was a movement, according to one historian's estimate, that had millions of followers within a decade of its founding.
Even if Spiritualists exaggerated about "millions" of adherents, this seemed a question worthy of investigation. How does a new religion go from zero to many hundreds of thousands of participants in less than a decade? So I began this book as a "prehistory" of Spiritualism, looking for its roots in American culture. I soon became dissatisfied with the answers that historians have offered. Confining themselves largely to the two or three decades before 1848, most scholars point to a short list of antecedents: Emanuel Swedenborg, the Swedish mystic who spoke with angels; the Shakers and their practice of spirit communication; the American incarnation of Mesmerism, which emerged in the late 1830s; and the trance healer Andrew Jackson Davis, the "Poughkeepsie Seer," who gained widespread notoriety in the late 1840s.
These sources all undoubtedly helped pave the way for Spiritualism; they all promoted communication between this world and heaven; all will receive their due in Speaking with the Dead. But could such marginal sources really explain Spiritualism's broad appeal? As late as 1840, the Swedenborgian New Church in America claimed only 850 members. There were a few thousand Shakers, a handful of Mesmerist magazines, and (to the relief of many) only one Poughkeepsie Seer. In fact, for Shakers and other new denominations the influence actually ran in the opposite direction: rather than teaching mainstream Protestants how to speak with the dead, Shakers and Mormons and Swedenborgians built on the preexisting interest in maintaining relationships with the dead.
The more I looked, the more I found that communication with the dead appeared in virtually every genre of source I examined. For the nineteenth century, I found the practice represented in parlor songs, funeral hymns, letters, diaries, and sentimental poems. I turned to earlier sources and found speaking with the dead in elegies and epitaphs, newspapers and witchcraft narratives, sermons and ghost stories and plays. I found writers spanning the full social and educational spectrum, from minister-scientists such as Cotton Mather and Joseph Glanvill to the humble women and men whose heavenly visions filled broadsides on both sides of the Atlantic.
By the time I traced the phenomenon back to the English Reformation, I realized I was no longer writing a prehistory of Spiritualism. Speaking with the dead was so various in its manifestations, so diverse in its goals and audiences, that I could no longer say that all of its expressions were "leading to" Spiritualism. Such teleology did a disservice to the sources and the women and men who wrote them. At that point the book assumed its current form: a history of Protestant communication with the dead before the advent of Spiritualism.
This intellectual trajectory helps explain the book's thematic and geographical limits. The title claims Speaking with the Dead will cover "America," but that exaggerates. The book focuses on people of European descent. African Americans and Amerindians had their own traditions of spirit communication, but they deserve separate treatment. And in researching two previous books, I did not find significant Amerindian or African influences on Euro-American communication with the dead. Moreover, Euro-American postmortem communication is the more surprising story, given how historians have long written about Protestantism as a religion that does not allow interaction with the dead. Finally, to provide coherence and allow for an in-depth examination of sources, the book starts within the relatively narrow compass of New England and then broadens to include the northern colonies and states.
Speaking with the Dead begins with ghost belief in the sixteenth century. Protestant ministers and laypeople alike believed in apparitions of the dead, though ministers—actively involved in a campaign against purgatory, the source of Catholic ghosts—insisted that most ghosts were demonic delusions: apparitions sent by Satanic minions to tempt the unwary into sin. Most laypeople were not so deeply invested in the exact ontological status of a given apparition. If it looked like someone they knew, they assumed it was that person's soul returned from heaven. Starting in the late seventeenth century and gaining speed in the eighteenth, ghost belief gradually diminished, especially among ministers and educated laypeople. Most members of the literati continued to assert that God had the power to send souls back to earth, but they believed God rarely did so. Almost all ghost sightings, elites increasingly insisted, were the result of credulous people being fooled by a shadow, or a dream, or a guilty conscience. For their part, laypeople in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries held a wide range of views, from belief to skepticism and every point in between. To be clear, this is not a linear narrative of the "disenchantment" of the West, to use the German sociologist Max Weber's highly contested term. Instead, ghost belief persisted, transformed, and even gained key elite adherents, all against a background of gradual decline. Indeed, one of my key findings is the surprising persistence of serious, unironic ghost reports in American newspapers through the first half of the nineteenth century.
This story of decreasing ghost belief among the educated is familiar to historians. My narrative breaks new ground, however, in weaving the history of ghost belief together with much broader, previously unexplored ways of portraying communication with the dead in imaginative literature and material culture. Some elegies spoke, like Lydia Minot's, in the deceased's voice; others directly addressed the dead. After 1750, many American gravestone epitaphs likewise represented the dead as speaking or being spoken to. The mid-eighteenth-century "Graveyard School" of English authors explored the connection between the living and dead in verse and prose; later Gothic fiction only intensified the literary focus on corpses and the returned dead. Nineteenth-century sentimental literature—a mainstay of American magazines, especially those marketed to women—depicted dead children speaking from heaven and showed cemeteries as places where the living could make contact with departed spirits. Parlor songs invited middle-class women and men to voice the words of departed spirits. Portraits and photographs of the dead beckoned mourners to imagine conversations with their loved ones in heaven.
All these forms of imaginative literature and material culture responded to and stoked widespread interest in the relationship between the living and dead, what the English clergyman Isaac Watts referred to as people's "Curiosity" about "the Circumstances of our pious Friends departed." Do the dead take an interest in what we're doing? Can they protect us from evil? Do they ever return to earth? Imaginative literature and material culture never claimed to answer such questions definitively but rather served as a forum for people to explore those issues on their own or with a like-minded community of readers, singers, writers, and graveyard visitors.
By the start of the nineteenth century, as ghost belief faded among educated Americans, a new complex of religious ideas emerged about the relationship between the living and the deceased. I call these beliefs a "cult of the dead," using the religious studies definition of a "cult" as a form of veneration focused on a specific figure, such as the early Christian cult of saints or the early modern cult of the Virgin Mary. Ghosts no longer were the main way most people thought about interacting with the dead. Rather, participants in the cult of the dead imagined they were able to maintain postmortem relationships with their deceased loved ones. They held, in tension with three hundred years of Protestant teachings, five distinctive beliefs: bodily remains deserved adoration; the souls of the dead became angels in heaven; those souls could return to earth as guardian angels and hover around the living; cemeteries were locations especially well-suited to communing with the dead; and it was legitimate to pray to the dead, addressing them in diaries using forms almost identical to prayers to God. Participants in the cult of the dead built on key Protestant tenets, including belief in an afterlife populated by the souls of the dead. But they also drew on the imaginative literature and material culture of previous centuries, pushed the ideas found therein even further, expressed their ideas in published poems and short stories and mourning embroideries, and helped expand the circle of believers. A reciprocal relationship thus existed between lived religion and imaginative forms of expression.
The cult of the dead began to emerge, it is important to note, well before the Fox Sisters received their first supernatural message. When reports of the "Rochester Rappings" began to circulate, participants in the cult of the dead most likely responded with knowing nods. They did not need Swedenborg, or Mesmer, or A. J. Davis, or even the Fox Sisters to tell them that communication with the dead was possible. They already acted on that belief in their diaries, prayers, and graveyard visits.
It is also important to point out that the large majority of participants in the cult of the dead were women. A vast, intertwined array of changes in culture and society began in the second half of the eighteenth century and continued in the nineteenth century among the urban and town-dwelling middle classes, altering women's lives in ways that would slowly filter down the social ladder and outward to rural areas. Families became smaller, and in those smaller families companionship and affection replaced patriarchal domination as the ideal of interpersonal relations. As more men worked outside the home, women increasingly took charge of inculcating their children with Christian piety. Even though Second Great Awakening revivalists such as Charles Finney tried to increase the number of male members in churches, women continued to make up a disproportionate share of churchgoers and full members. Mortality rates remained high, and women, as they had for centuries, continued to perform the physical labor of caring for the dying and dead; with the rise of sentimental culture, women increasingly bore a disproportionate share of the emotional labor of grieving and memorialization. This largely female culture of mourning gained widespread representation in popular sentimental literature.
Scholars have long been aware of women's deep involvement in grief work and consolation literature in the nineteenth century. A previous generation was quite critical of the mourning poems and short stories that women so eagerly wrote and read. These scholars insisted that consolation literature, with its implication that all deceased loved ones reached heaven, lacked the "rigor" of earlier Calvinist beliefs. Such literature was, in this view, merely "therapeutic self-indulgence" and "determinedly nonintellectual." My interpretation, by contrast, emphasizes how female authors and readers carved out a cultural space for the sincere expression of grief; even for those not actively grieving, such literature created communities of readers bound by a shared culture of sentimentality. Female and male participants in the cult of the dead thereby constructed a new intellectual system, expressed in literature, material culture, and lived religion, that focused on maintaining postmortem relationships.
In uncovering these relationships, Speaking with the Dead makes its most significant contribution by reconceiving Protestantism as a religion in which the dead are important figures. A concept formulated by the religious studies scholar Robert Orsi is pertinent here. According to Orsi, one should think of religion not as a set of abstract beliefs but rather as "a network of relationships between heaven and earth involving humans of all ages and many different sacred figures together." Orsi's main area of expertise is twentieth-century Catholicism; one can readily see how a religion with Marian apparitions and prayers to St. Jude is indeed a network of relationships between heaven and earth. But Orsi contends that his definition of religion is broadly applicable beyond Catholicism, though he mostly leaves it to others to substantiate that claim. This is the challenge that Speaking with the Dead takes up: showing that in the three centuries after the Reformation, Protestantism was a religion that allowed room for relationships between heaven and earth beyond the ties that connected humans with God.
To use another of Orsi's concepts, this book maintains that Protestantism was not a religion of "absence," as it is sometimes caricatured to be. Orsi shows that since the Reformation, many people (not least Protestant propagandists) have insisted on a simple equation: "Catholics = presence, Protestants = absence," where "presence" refers to "all the special suprahuman beings with whom humans have been in relationship in different times and places." In other words, many people have maintained that Protestantism does not include the "special suprahuman beings" that are so central to Catholicism. But as the evidence in Speaking with the Dead demonstrates, that is a false and polemical understanding of lived Protestantism.
I am not the first historian to claim that Protestantism was a religion of presence (though I am among the first to use that term). Books on providentialism, miracles, ghosts, and heavenly visions in early modern England have demonstrated that the supernatural was an active force in Protestant lived religion. Classic and recent works on the religion of lay New Englanders have shown how witchcraft, faith healing, dreams, and the influx of the Holy Spirit were all part of a Protestant world rich with supernatural activity. Moreover, histories of religion have paid attention to the ways that death shaped early modern Protestantism. What scholars have mostly overlooked, however, is the important role of the dead.
Focusing on the relationship between the living and dead nuances our understanding of early American religion in several ways. Most fundamentally, Protestantism was a religion of presence. The dead remained a part of the imaginative landscape after the Reformation, and suprahuman beings would only increase in religious significance with the cult of the dead's development. Other implications emerge from this most basic one. First, Protestantism was also a religion of materiality and not just the internal acceptance of a set of creeds. Broadside elegies, gravestones, mourning embroidery, locks of hair, and posthumous portraits were all religious objects: when people viewed or handled them, they were better able to maintain relationships with suprahuman beings. Second, although it has been a long time since historians have claimed that puritans practiced unadulterated Calvinism, attention to the dead's presence in elegies, dreams, and ghost narratives offers evidence that people almost never imagined their loved ones in hell, despite Calvin's estimate that only one in a hundred would reach heaven. Third, the history of heaven acquires a new timeline in my telling. Ministers and laypeople were interested in heavenly reunions with loved ones a full century earlier than scholars have previously known. And finally, with the cult of the dead's emergence, lay men and especially women initiated important religious changes. In formulating new ideas about the deceased as suprahuman beings who maintained relationships with the living, participants in the cult of the dead made innovative contributions to antebellum Protestant belief and practice.
But phrasing it that way is far too abstract, as if women and men were chiefly concerned with shaping Protestantism. They were not. Mourners simply hoped to maintain some sort of connection with the departed. Sometimes they spoke to the dead, addressing a portrait of a deceased husband or praying to a dead child. Other times they imagined the dead talking, either in a dream or in a poem. They experienced, as I did at my grandfather's funeral, the power of speaking with the dead.