Spiritualism got its name in the 1850s. It was fashionable with both men and women across every social class, and, in fact, what differentiated it from other major organized religions of the time was the significant role played by women and lay people. It was accessible even to those on the religious margins.
Spiritualism became widespread and common as a form of entertainment through the mass media, having been written about in various publications, like the Scientific American, the New York Herald, and the New York Times. Historically, spiritualism was organized in small groups or private sessions with mediums conducting séances. Larger gatherings were also held for public demonstrations. In the 1860s and 1870s, you could sit for spirit photographs, or take part in séances “for kicks,” where ghosts appeared, voices spoke, and messages wrote themselves.
In the 1880s, it’s estimated that there were 8 million spiritualists across the US and Europe. And while the spiritualist movement didn’t organize as a church, associations appeared in various areas of the US after the Civil War. The National Spiritualist Association (later the National Spiritualist Association of Churches) was organized in 1893.
How did other religious organizations react? The church associated the practice with witchcraft. Protestant bodies were anti-spiritualist, and the Holy Office of the Roman Catholic Church decreed, in 1898, that spiritualistic practices be condemned. Despite all this, spiritualism thrived. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, there were 250,000 practicing spiritualists in the US.
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