American Socialism Travels: Western New York’s Spiritual Ultraists. By: Mitchell JonesRead Now
Andrew Jackson Davis circa 1847
John Humphrey Noyes argued the utopian socialist movement in America was a continuation of the Second Great Awakening and the teachings of Methodist minister Charles Finney. While many of the socialists of the Owenite and Fourierist periods were atheists or freethinkers, the earlier and more institutional communist societies were religious. Christian groups like the Shakers, the Zoarites and the Amanas all lived communally in America before secular socialist Robert Owen first visited in 1824. Noyes believed socialism should not be separate from religion. The revivalist religious tradition inspired individuals to reform their souls. For Noyes, only religion provided sufficient “afflatus” or collective motivation to carry out the work that socialism required. He wrote:
And these movements - Revivalism and Socialism - opposed to each other as they may seem, and as they have been in the creeds of their partizans [sic], are closely related in their essential nature and objects, and manifestly belong together in the scheme of Providence, as they do in the history of this nation. They are to each other as inner to outer—as soul to body—as life to its surroundings. The Revivalists had for their great idea the regeneration of the soul. The great idea of the Socialists was the regeneration of society, which is the soul's environment. These ideas belong together, and are the complements of each other. Neither can be successfully embodied by men whose minds are not wide enough to accept them both.
He argued that these two elements, spiritual enlightenment and worldly communism, were present in the early Christian church, concluding:
Doubtless the Revivalists and Socialists despise each other, and perhaps both will despise us for imagining that they can be reconciled. But we will say what we believe; and that is, that they have both failed in their attempts to bring heaven on earth, because they despised each other, and would not put their two great ideas together. The Revivalists failed for want of regeneration of society, and the Socialists failed for want of regeneration of the heart.
Religiosity was a common response to the economic changes taking place in Upstate New York in the 1820s. Rochester, New York was an epicenter of economic growth driven by the Erie Canal. According to historian Carol Sheriff, “From a middle-class perspective, the Canal had become a haven for vice and immorality; the towpaths attracted workers who drank, swore, whored, and gambled…. These canallers provided a daily reminder of what fluid market relations - and progress - could bring.” By the 1830s, many Rochesterians felt the market revolution encouraged an increasingly sinful lifestyle. The drinking, violence, racism and misogyny characteristic of canal worker culture in Western New York had devastating effects on the workers’ health, security, safety and prospects for social mobility. Historian Peter Way argues that while working class communities offered a measure of solidarity and autonomy to canal workers that the market did not offer in the 1820s, they just as often encouraged anti-social behavior that divided the working class and kept them in a subjugated position. Faced with working class culture’s failure to uplift their economic station, conscientious laborers turned to the religious radicals of the business class who had both the motivation to seek a new economic system and the economic power to put such a new system into place.
Western New York became a fertile atmosphere for experimental views of society. Mobile tent revivals had already swept through the region as part of the first Great Awakening in the 1730s and 40s. By the 1820s, the Western frontier near Rochester, New York was the epicenter of the Second Great Awakening. Itinerant Methodist minister Charles Finney, who came to Rochester in 1830 on a mission to save Rochesterian souls, was the standard-bearer for the Second Great Awakening.
Although his doctrine spoke to a broad range of trends in society to which people could relate, initially Finney’s appeal was not necessarily theology. Finney refused a theological scholarship at Princeton in 1870 because he believed traditional clerical training was out of touch with the common people. He argued it rendered the preacher ineffective. Finney’s style was unorthodox. He was direct, at times even confrontational. He addressed the audience as “you” rather than a more general pronoun. He used simple, vernacular language and made frequent use of repetition. His sermons were never written down. He improvised based on the reactions of his audience. All these methods elicited an enthusiastic, emotional response from those who came to listen. At the time these methods were known as “ultraism.”
To 19th century onlookers, ultraism was a system of actions, mannerisms and attitudes that fostered new and controversial religious doctrines. Ultraism was exemplified in the “New Measures” Finney employed at his services. So influential was Finney’s ultraism that it soon became the standard for new preachers.
Essential to the new measures were new approaches to prayer. Prayer was social while at the same time personal. Men and women prayed in groups together. It was an offense against God to communicate with Him in generalities. Each parishioner must make a “prayer of faith,” a specific request inspired by a desire to see the Lord glorified.
Despite Finney’s disdain for stuffy theology, perfectionism and millenarianism were key theological doctrines of the Second Great Awakening that directly influenced the emergence of utopian socialism. Christian perfectionism was the idea that humankind could achieve perfection on Earth. Millenarianism was the belief that Jesus Christ would return to Earth for a second time and he would rule for a thousand years. Perfectionist millenarians argued true servants of God must create a paradise on Earth to pave the way for the thousand-year reign of Jesus the Lord. Historian Paul Johnson writes:
The millennium would be accomplished when sober, godly men - men whose every step was guided by a living faith in Jesus - exercised power in this world. Clearly, the revival of 1831 was a turning point in the long struggle to establish that state of affairs. American Protestants knew that, and John Humphrey Noyes later recalled that, ‘In 1831 the whole orthodox church was in a state of ebullition in regard to the Millennium.’
Radical ministers John Humphrey Noyes and James Boyle were part of the Second Great Awakening movement. Boyle joined the socialist Northampton Association alongside self-freed abolitionist Sojourner Truth. The Northampton Association later became a wing of the New Church, an emergent religious movement based on the teachings of 18th century Swedish Lutheran mystic Emanuel Swedenborg. Noyes, originally a Congregationalist, on the other hand, formed the Oneida Community of Bible Communists in Oneida, NY in that revolutionary year, 1848. Boyle was one of the first to join Noyes’ bible communist community. These examples make it clear that the attempt to establish a Heaven on Earth led some to believe that a radical restructuring of society was necessary and become leaders in the movement.
According to Brisbane, socialism took hold in Western New York because it was the fulfillment of the heaven on earth perfectionist preachers like Finney promised. He wrote:
It will no doubt be gratifying to those who take an interest in the great idea of a Social Reform, to learn that it is spreading very generally through the State of New York…. The conviction that Association will realize Christianity practically upon earth, which never can be done in the present system of society, with its injustice, frauds, distrust, and the conflict and opposition of all interests, is taking hold of many minds and attracting them strongly to it.
Brisbane saw the utility in appealing to the religious sentiments of Western New York’s residents. He discovered Charles Fourier’s ideas in 1830, the year before Finney’s big revival. He adapted Fourier’s theories to the sensibilities of an American audience, focusing mainly on his economic program and avoiding his libertine sexual ideas. He spoke to Americans about social problems that affected them rather than risk upsetting those with conservative views toward religion and marriage.
Although most Fourierists upheld the truth of the teachings of Jesus Christ, they distrusted organized religion. The Fourierist Phalanx newspaper argued Christian preachers tried to uphold a theoretical virtue while ignoring the “depraving influences” that induced individuals to turn away from the Christian path. The author explained, “The Truth of Christianity has not yet acted upon false human societies and transformed them - establishing the reign of justice and peace and harmony in the place of the reign of discord and evil.” The Fourierists argued that they were the ones who would accomplish the social mission of Jesus Christ: “the social redemption and elevation of mankind on earth.”
Fourier taught that all individuals have “passional attraction” and that philanthropically minded people must shape society to be in harmony with such attractions. He believed society must nurture these innate passions in order to make labor attractive. Attractive labor would smooth over the contradictions in society and achieve universal harmony. Passional attraction was akin to God’s holy spirit. If humanity was to be in harmony with God’s plan they had to base society around passional law. Albert Brisbane believed that once society reached this harmonic stage the divinity of everyday life would replace the old religions.
Massachusetts radicals associated with the transcendentalist utopian community at Brook Farm went as far as to create their own church devoted to Fourier’s teachings called the Religious Union of Associationists in 1847. It became known as the Church of Humanity under the leadership of Unitarian minister William Henry Channing. The group taught a syncretic blend of biblical Christianity and Fourierist philosophy. They even put on elaborate rituals venerating both Jesus Christ and Charles Fourier as saints.
However, by 1847, Channing and many other religious Brook Farmers largely converted to a liberal reading of Swedenborgianism. Perhaps coincidentally, spiritualist medium Andrew Jackson Davis, the so-called “Pougkipsee Seer,” reported he had met Emmanuel Swedenborg’s ghost in 1844. The ghost told him to reach out to Brook Farm in order to help with their Christian efforts. By 1847, Davis was one of the key spiritual leaders at Brook Farm. A writer for the Perfectionist Oneida Circular explained, “Swedenborgianism went deeper into the hearts of the people than the Socialism that introduced it, because it was a religion. The Bible and revivals had made men hungry for something more than social reconstruction. Swedenborg's offer of a new heaven as well as a new earth, met the demand magnificently.”
Emanuel Swedenborg, portrait by Carl Frederik von Breda
The Swedenborgians had been welcoming to utopians since Robert Owen convinced the Swedenborgians of Cincinnati, Ohio to form the Yellow Springs Community with him in 1824. Swedenborgians participated in other Owenite communities as well. A New Church journalist reported that Swedenborgians were involved in nearly every Fourierist phalanx. John Humphrey Noyes reported, “[I]t is not too much to say that their Fourierism, if it had lived, would have had Swedenborgianism for its state-religion.” Homeopathic practitioner Charles Julius Hempel wrote of Fourier and Swedenborg in 1848, “The doctrines of these two great men cannot remain separate. Their union constitutes the union of Science and Religion.”
However, in their treatises to the public, the Fourierists expressed no interest in an official church. They presented their creed as both democratically eccumenical and the true fulfillment of Christ’s prophecies. Bribane promised that under a harmonian order:
[T]he most perfect Freedom of Opinion will exist, and a true sentiment of Tolerance be inculcated. Every individual will enjoy his religious opinions precisely as he wishes and without restriction. The Association will build a Church, and if there are persons who entertain particular religious views, the Association will furnish them halls, where they can render thanks to the Creator of the Universe as they feel and judge proper.
The Fourierist Clarkson Phalanx was particularly successful in applying Brisbane’s principles of ecumenical association. Members were of a range of different religions. A member of each religion was on the gospel committee, which oversaw religious services. Clarkson phalangist John Greig explained:
As for religion, we had seventy-four praying Christians, including all the sects in America, excepting Millerites and Mormons. We had one Catholic family (Dr. [Edwin Arthur] Thellers), one Presbyterian clergyman, and one Universalist. One of our first trustees was a Quaker, one Atheist, several Deists, and in short a general assortment ; but of Nothingarians, none ; for being the first time in our lives, we spoke out, one and all and found that everybody did believe something.
Greig made sure to mention that everyone, regardless of faith, loved the atheist. The Clarkson Phalanx’s mixing of religions was remarkable. Other communities that had tried ecumenical association, including earlier Owenist communities and even Clarkson’s rival Sodus Bay Phalanx, suffered contention and strife over religious differences. The ecumenical harmony at the Clarkson Phalanx interested John Humphrey Noyes. He did not believe a community could stay together without a common religion. The Clarkson Phalanx seems to have partially diminished Noyes’ disbelief. He mused:
One feature of Mr. Greig's entertaining sketch deserves notice in passing, viz., his cheerful boast of the multiplicity of religions in the Clarkson Association, and the wonderful harmony that prevailed among them. The meaning of the boast undoubtedly is, that religious belief was so completely a secondary and insignificant matter, that it did not prevent peaceful family relations, even between the atheists and the orthodox.
He made a point of mentioning that religious disagreement was one of the main flaws that lead to the downfall of the Sodus Bay Phalanx in an attempt to debunk Grieg's boasts. However, he was baffled by the reports from his own disciple regarding the religious situation at Clarkson.
The Fourierists’ fascination with Swedenborg led to a general embrace of spiritualism on the American left. British author Arthur Conan Doyle wrote of Swedenborg:
In spite of all his theological symbolism, his name must live eternally as the first of all modern men who has given a description of the process of death, and of the world beyond, which is not founded upon the vague ecstatic and impossible visions of the old Churches, but which actually corresponds with the descriptions which we ourselves obtain from those who endeavour to convey back to us some clear idea of their new existence.
Conan Doyle disagreed with some of Swedenborg’s assumptions. However, he acknowledged his laying the foundation for spiritualism. According to Conan Doyle, the Shakers were the link between Swedenborgianism, socialism and spiritualism. Conan Doyle described the Shakers’ practice of receiving visionary gifts. Native American spirits were frequent spiritual visitors to the Shakers. A participant at one of these events explained, “One or two elders might be in the room below, and there would be a knock at the door and the Indians would ask whether they might come in. Permission being given, a whole tribe of Indian spirits would troop into the house, and in a few minutes you would hear ‘Whoop !’ here and ‘Whoop !’ there all over the house.” Lewis Henry Morgan also made frequent appearances in Shaker gift trances. Conan Doyle concluded, “This episode of the Shaker manifestations is a very distinct link between the Swedenborg pioneer work and the period of Davis and the Fox sisters.”
Scottish clergyman and founder of the Catholic Apostolic Church, Edward Irving, himself known for visions and speaking in tongues, became another link between socialism and spiritualism. Irving became interested in Robert Owen’s socialist communities in the 1820s. Conan Doyle wrote, “Irving and the stalwarts who were loyal to him wandered forth in search of new premises, and found them in the hall used by Robert Owen, the Socialist, philanthropist, and free-thinker, who was destined twenty years later to be one of the pioneer converts to Spiritualism.”
By 1854, formerly atheist Owen even converted to spiritualism after holding sessions with American medium Maria B. Hayden. Owen claimed to have met with the ghosts of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson in order to enlist their help to supplant “the present, false, disunited and miserable state of human existence, for a true, united and happy state... to prepare the world for universal peace, and to infuse into all the spirit of charity, forbearance and love.” Owen believed Spiritualism held to power to unlock human potential so people would naturally begin to establish the kind of socialist utopia he had envisioned.
Owen’s son Robert Dale, raised atheist, also converted to spiritualism around the same time. He wrote:
[O]n the 4th March, 1856… I witnessed for the first time, with mingled feelings of surprise and incredulity, certain physical movements apparently without material agency. Three weeks later, during an evening at the Russian Minister’s, an incident occurred, as we say, fortuitously, which, after the strictest scrutiny, I found myself unable to explain without referring it to some intelligent agency foreign to the spectators present - not one of whom, it may be added, knew or had practiced anything connected with what is called Spiritualism or mediumship. From that day, I determined to test the matter thoroughly.
Robert Dale Owen wrote two books on spiritualism: Footfalls on the Boundary of Another World in 1859 and The Debatable Land Between this World and the Next in 1872. The Owens had scientific, skeptical ways of seeing the world. Their inquiries into spiritualism apparently satisfied their conditions for revision of previous views based on new evidence.
While spiritualism was coming into vogue in the 1850s, another religion with origins in Western New York was also growing. The angel Moroni visited the prophet Joseph Smith in Palmyra, NY in 1823. The introduction to the Book of Mormon states, “On September 21, 1823, the same Moroni, then a glorified, resurrected being, appeared to the Prophet Joseph Smith and instructed him relative to the ancient record and its destined translation into the English language.” Throughout that decade, Smith claimed to have frequent visitation with angels who inspired him to pen the Book of Mormon. Between 1830 and 1844, angry mobs ran Smith’s followers out of Palmyra, NY, Kirtland, OH, Jackson County, MO and finally Nauvoo, Iowa where a mob killed Smith. They were hated for their radical theology and polygamist marriage relations. Today, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has their headquarters in Salt Lake City, Utah. However, they still own the historic site in Palmyra where Joseph Smith first received the revelations that led to the creation of the church.
The Second Great Awakening was a key subjective condition that allowed Western New York to transform from the burnt over district of revivalism to the volcanic district of utopian socialism. After the 1840s, Western New Yorkers once again looked to religion to do what secular institutions had thus far been unable to do: create a better world.
Fox Sisters Historical Site and Spiritualist Utopia
Depiction of Fox house
According to legend, on March 31st, 1848 two sisters, Kate and Margaretta Fox, decided to respond to the mysterious rapping that had kept the family awake at night. The rappings were thought to be construction going on down the road, but fifteen year old Margaretta and eleven year old Kate decided to try and communicate with them. They said, “Do as I do,” and clapped three times. The rappings rapped three times. The event is said to be the birth of the Modern Spiritualist movement.
The Fox sisters: Margaretta, Kate and Leah. Title: “Mrs. Fish and the Misses Fox: The Original Mediums of the Mysterious Noises at Rochester Western, N.Y.” Lithograph after a daguerreotype by Appleby, Rochester, NY
Kate and Margaretta later claimed they were communicating with a peddler named Charles B. Rosna who told them he had been murdered in the home. According to the sisters, Rosna told them he had been murdered by the man who owned the home previous to the Foxes for being overly friendly with his wife.
Foundation of the Hydesville Fox home. The building was moved to Lilydale in 1916.
News of the sisters’ abilities reached Amy and Isaac Post, radical Hicksite Quakers in Rochester, NY who called on the sisters to move to the city, promising to support their careers as itinerant mediums. Kate and Margaretta moved in with their sister Leah in Rochester who soon became their business manager. They first demonstrated the rappings in Rochester’s Corinthian Hall on November 14th, 1849. They soon caught the attention of radical newspaper magnate and congressman Horace Greeley, himself interested in a variety of religious and reform movements from Fourierism to Universalism. Greeley introduced the sisters to the New York socialite scene where they developed a taste for wine and brandy. The sisters eventually would struggle with alcoholism.
From there the spiritualist movement grew and became a national sensation. The Fox sisters and their imitators held seances in most major cities.
In 1888 the sisters rejected spiritualism. Margaretta wrote in an 1888 letter to Greeley’s newspaper the New York Tribune:
That I have been chiefly instrumental in perpetrating the fraud of Spiritualism upon a too-confiding public, most of you doubtless know. The greatest sorrow in my life has been that this is true, and though it has come late in my day, I am now prepared to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God! . . I am here tonight as one of the founders of Spiritualism to denounce it as an absolute falsehood from beginning to end, as the flimsiest of superstitions, the most wicked blasphemy known to the world.
Magician Harry Houdini took an interest in the Fox sisters’ skills. Margaretta told him, “When we went to bed at night we used to tie an apple to a string and move the string up and down, causing the apple to bump on the floor, or we would drop the apple on the floor, making a strange noise every time it would rebound. Mother listened to this for a time. She would not understand it and did not suspect us as being capable of a trick because we were so young.” As for the peddler who accused the home owner of his murder Margaretta told Houdini:
They [the neighbors] were convinced that some one had been murdered in the house. They asked the spirits through us about it and we would rap one for the spirit answer ‘yes,’ not three as we did afterwards. The murder they concluded must have been committed in the house. They went over the whole surrounding country trying to get the names of people who had formerly lived in the house. Finally they found a man by the name of Bell, and they said that this poor innocent man had committed a murder in the house and that the noises had come from the spirit of the murdered person. Poor Bell was shunned and looked upon by the whole community as a murderer.
Kate too wrote in the New York Herald, “I regard Spiritualism as one of the greatest curses that the world has ever known.”
I asked Tracy, a member of the Spiritualist Church and caretaker of the Hydesville property, why she believed Margaretta would recant. She explained that interest in spiritualism had waned by the 1880s and Margaretta found it difficult to maintain her financial well being along with her alcohol habit. Houdini promised her a great deal of money to help him with his book A Magician Among the Spirits. Tracy argued she was clearly materially motivated to collaborate with Houdini.
In 1904, after both of the sisters had passed away, the Fox’s Hydesville home was moved to the Spiritualist community at Lily Dale, New York. The peddler’s bones were indeed found in a part of the wall that looked like it had been built for the purpose of hiding a body. Despite Margaretta’s recantation, at least one of the sisters’ claims was indeed vindicated.
Part of the foundation where a false wall was built to hide the bones of the peddler who was killed in the Hydesville home. An excavation of the basement was done after the March 31st, 1848 event, but nothing was found. The bones were discovered in 1904 after the cottage was moved to Lily Dale, NY.
In 1847, a group of spiritualists led by John Wattles attempted to restart the utopian socialist community of Utopia, Ohio. Utopia was started as a Fourierist Phalanx in 1844. The Fourierist community only lasted a few years. It was then reorganized by Robert Owen’s former comrade, Josiah Warren, the first American anarchist.
The anarchist project at Utopia, OH also failed, offering Wattles and his followers an opportunity to build a Lily Dale-like community in Ohio. Wattles and his wife, former Quaker Esther Whinery, brought about one hundred followers with them to Utopia. In December of 1847, the Ohio River flooded. Several families sought refuge in the communal building but the building’s structural integrity did not hold under the force of the water. Seventeen out of the thirty-two individuals that took refuge in the house died, including several entire families. According to legend the Spiritualists prayed and prayed for the floods to recede as they met their doom. The remaining spiritualists refused to leave. However, the river did not relent. According to Esther Wattles, “a whirlwind that carried the water from the river, 40 feet high” decimated what remained of the community. One historian wrote in 1880, “This disaster, occurring at night and during a terrible storm, struck terror into the hearts of the people. The history of the community from its inception to its calamitous close is the most tragic event that has ever occurred in the country.” John and Esther Wattles had to concede to the river, but they still did not give up. They continued to scout locations for a spiritualist community in the West.
This underground church built by Wattles and the Spiritualists is now all that remains of Utopia, OH. It is today known as an extreme tourism site and ghost town. Image source: http://ohiokayak.blogspot.com/2012/11/is-it-really-utopia-along-ohio-river.html
Spiritualist John Wattles
Today Modern Spiritualism continues to attract followers. The Plymouth Spiritualist Church in Rochester, NY is still active and has regular services.
Hydesville no longer exists. It is today near the town of Newark, NY.
Lily Dale Assembly
In Robert Owen’s spiritualist treatise The future of the Human race; or great glorious and future revolution to be effected through the agency of departed spirits of good and superior men and women Owen listed newly discovered facts that he believed would alter the course of human history for the better:
That the disclosure to men of the means of direct immediate communication with spirits of departed good and superior men, has opened the means to society by which the invisible material conditions in which to place all born of man may be greatly improved
Lily Dale was built as a beacon for spiritual energy that would collect and flow from Lake Cassadaga out to the world. Robert Owen believed this mission was in line with his socialist ideas.
The first rumblings of Mesmerism came the same year as the explosion of Fourierism in Western New York. In 1844, a man known only as Doctor Moran came from Vermont to Laona, New York to demonstrate the practice of Mesmerism. Mesmerism, discovered by 17th century doctor Franz Anton Mesmer, was the belief in a transference of energy, or animal magnetism, between all living things. Mesmerists believed they could manipulate the animal magnetic field to move objects, heal and have other effects on humans, animals and plants.
William Johnson, the son of Laona’s Methodist minister, attended Dr. Moran’s demonstration and learned enough to heal Jeremiah Carter, who was not at the demonstration, of his consumption. Carter learned from Johnson how to enter a trace through a mesmeric state. Others throughout the town discovered they had trance inducing powers. The town welcomed outsiders to weekly spirit communication demonstrations. They formed the Religious Society of Freethinkers, a spiritualist society, in 1855.
In 1879, spiritualists formed the Cassadaga Lake Free Association, a camp meeting to gather spiritualists from around the world for the practice and demonstration of their craft. The residents had annual camp meetings and built permanent dwellings in the area. In 1880 they dedicated their association to “free speech, free thought and free investigation.” The community continued to grow through the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They changed their name to The City of Light in 1903 and then finally to Lily Dale Assembly in 1906.
I went with my family to Lily Dale in May of 2021. It was near my daughter’s birthday, so we shelled out the $100 to get her a reading with one of the mediums there. I, as her parent, was allowed to sit in on the session. There were hits and misses. At times it seemed as though she really was communicating with our relatives that have passed. At other times it seemed like she was stretching to try and make what she said fit our situation. Psychics, mediums, tarot readers are all versions of psychotherapists. Psychologist Carl Jung was not afraid to acknowledge this fact. Jung was influenced by spiritualism in his early days. Author F. X. Charet argues in the book Spiritualism and the Foundations of C.G. Jung's Psychology that elements of Jung’s psychological theories such as the concept of psychic energy, were influenced by his early preoccupation with spiritualism. Even if one does not believe in the supernatural, there is still a use of spirit communicators. They can foster a connection to the past, a sense of community, a respect for the law of love and a new perspective on current situations.
Although we had already been to Hydesville and saw the foundation, we were not able to see the Fox family’s actual cottage where the famous “Rochester rappings” took place. In 1915, spiritualist devotee B. F. Bartlett purchased the Fox family’s cottage in Hydesville. However, he could not purchase the land. Spiritualists took the cottage apart and transported it in parts on the Erie Canal. Lily Dale dedicated it as a shrine to spiritualism in 1916. In 1955, it burned down. According to spiritualist Reverend Arthur Myers:
Four o’clock in the morning, September 21, 1955, I sit here in my home staring dejectedly into emptiness. I have just witnessed the end of a cottage. An era is ended, an historical relic important to the whole world has been consumed by outlaw yellow flames. An international shrine leveled in a few short minutes to the category of memory. The Fox Cottage is no more.
The Forest Temple at the Dale began as little more than a clearing and some benches in the woods in 1892. In 1914, spiritualist Benjamin Bartlett had a chapel built. He dedicated the structure to his mother. Today spiritualists reveal spiritual messages every day at 4:00pm at the Forest Temple during the regular camp season, which goes from the last week in June until the end of August.
Spiritualist Marion Skidmore began collecting books camp goers brought to Lily Dale in the 1880s. She began the library at Lily Dale in 1886. Today the library houses a collection of around 1,300 spiritualist books. Unfortunately, the library was closed on the day we went.
The Inspiration Stump
The Lily Dale pet cemetery
Chief Os-Ke-Non-Ton of the Mohawk nation was one of Lily Dale’s most famous residents. He became famous as a singer and performed concerts around the world in the 1910s and 20s. During the 1930s and 40s, Os-Ke-Non-Ton held healing circles in a wigwam at Lily Dale.
On our way through Lily Dale, we got gas in sovereign Seneca nation territory. The Senecas and the Mohaws were both members of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy.
Andrew Jackson Davis circa 1847
Andrew Jackson Davis became one of the most well known itinerant spiritualists. When he was a boy, Davis claimed to have heard voices in the fields. When his mother died, Davis had a vision of her in heaven. On March 6, 1844, Davis claimed to have entered a trance and been transported from Poughkeepsie to the Catskill Mountains. During this incident, the spirit of Emmanuel Swedenborg guided him back to civilization. Swedenborg told Davis to meet with the Fourierists of Massachussetts.
Davis became a socialist. Later on, socialist Albert Brisbane was often one of Jackson’s witnesses at his trance demonstrations. Davis spent that last third of the book Principles of Nature, which he claimed to have written in a trance state, advocating a form of socialism similar to Fourier’s formula. Davis recommended the establishment of cooperative communities and collectivized economic planning:
Then they must inquire into the various modes and plans of organizing and combining labor; how much labor it is proper to be- stow upon any given object ; at what time it should be bestowed, and how many can labor profitably to accelerate its accomplishment. Knowing these things, and adopting the proper plans of proceeding, they should call to their assistance as many laborers as can properly and profitably be employed.
Davis believed this Fourerist-like system would bring the greatest fulfillment to mankind:
Their interests will consist, not in the accumulation of needless wealth, but in happiness — which each person will enjoy, from being so situated as to render others happy. Not for the purpose of speculating upon community will the association labor, but to ameliorate the condition of the mechanic and the various professions, by supplying their wants abundantly, and at a price which falls within their resources.
Although he did not call it such by name, he praised Fourierism under the name “Agricultural Association:”
In this manner can labor be condensed, made attractive, profitable, and elevating. And this is the rudimental step toward establishing among the tillers of the land a reciprocal movement, and a privilege of assisting themselves and community to a more congenial and use- ful existence. This may be called an ‘Agricultural Association,’ They will discover that they have the advantage over all individuals of like occupation in society, and that they will be enabled to supply the requirements of a populous village with more ease and profitable- ness than any dealer, merchant, or speculator.
The Lily Dale Spiritualist Assembly dedicated the Andrew Jackson Davis Lyceum at Lily Dale, located on the Children’s Acre, to Davis on July 15,1928. Today there is a maze, playground and campground in the area. According to the sign outside, the Lyceum has been used as a Sunday school and Community Center. Meetings are still held at the Lyceum during the camp season.
Hill Cumorah and the Sacred Grove
Joseph Smith, Jr. was a mystical treasure seeker from a family of mystical treasure seekers that used “seer stones,” rocks, to read secret messages from spirits. Fawn M. Brodie’s 1945 biography of Smith, No Man Knows My History, portrayed Smith’s religious awakening as a continuation of his mystical treasure seeking and earlier swindling ways. Historian Alan Taylor argues that mystical treasure hunting was a fairly widespread practice in early New York that “met the needs of some people who felt troubled by their culture’s increasing premium on possessive individualism and religious voluntarism, by promising both quick wealth and a sense of power over the supernatural world.”
Taylor reports on Joseph Smith Junior, the Latter Day Prophet, and his father’s occult activity:
To fend off the guardian spirits, the seekers laid out protective magic circles, or, better still, three concentric circles, around the digging ground. For some seekers a surrounding groove scooped out with a silver spoon or incised with a sword blade sufficed. The failure of these relatively simple circles encouraged experimentation with evermore elaborate designs. In 1833, William Stafford of Manchester, New York described one of Joseph Smith, Sr.’s magic circles:
Both Smith’s parents and his grandfather reported having visions and communicating with God. In 1820, Joseph Smith Jr. entered the Sacred Grove next to his family’s farm in Palmyra, New York. God and Jesus came to him and reported that all the churches had turned their backs on them. Smith was being called to start his own church. In 1823, the angel Moroni came to him and told him he could find the golden plates, a breastplate and the seer stones that would help him interpret the plates on the Hill Cumorah. Smith returned to the hill four times, but only on the fourth attempt was he able to obtain the plates. He translated and interpreted them into what became the Book of Mormon in a cabin on the Smith Farm estate.
Most Western New Yorkers are aware of the Hill Cumorah. If they have not been there personally, they are probably familiar with the flocks of pilgrims that made their way to the small town of Palmyra every summer to watch the famed Hill Cumorah pageant that told the story of how Mormon, the prophet, left golden plates for the Angel Moroni to later reveal to Joseph Smith.
There is a theological debate within the LDS and Reorganized LDS (RLDS), a splinter group, over the canonical veracity of the claim that Cumorah in New York is the same Cumorah as is mentioned in the Book of Mormon. This debate has centered around the story of a cave within the hill. Smith was said to have left the plates and other religious treasures inside this cave. There is no such cave in the Hill Cumorah. However, Brigham Young and other early Mormons wrote of the significance of Cumorah in New York as a most sacred site.
The Hill Cumorah’s significance in the restoration of the gospel goes beyond its being the ancient repository of the metal plates known as the Book of Mormon. In the second half of the 19th century, a certain teaching about a cave in the hill began surfacing in the writings and teachings of several leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In their view, the hill was not only the place where Joseph Smith received the plates but also their final repository, along with other sacred treasures, after the translation was finished. According to some of those leaders, Joseph Smith and others returned the plates to a cave in the Hill Cumorah after he finished translating them. At least 10 different accounts, all secondhand, refer to this cave and what was found there.
1841 engraving of Cumorah
Packer then examines each account in detail. He concludes:
It is apparent that several of the early brethren viewed Joseph’s receiving the plates at the hill as the beginning of a war between good and evil. The unsheathed sword may therefore have been a sign that the struggle that began at Cumorah was still going on and that with the completed translation of the plates, the side of righteousness had just gained a powerful weapon in the war against evil—the Book of Mormon. It seems very fitting that the Lord, also known as the “man of war” (Exodus 15:3), would want Joseph Smith and others to know that this mortal experience is indeed a war and that He will conquer the enemies of righteousness. This may have reassured the Saints that divine help was on their side. Within the context of then-current events, namely, severe persecution of the fledgling church, the sword served as an effective teaching tool to emphasize that the Lord’s side would be victorious despite the apparent overwhelming odds against it.
The LDS Church has recently announced that they will no longer be sponsoring the Hill Cumorah Pageant or pilgrimages to Hill Cumorah. LDS members told me that it is no longer an effective recruitment tool and the church has decided to put their resources into other things. The LDS members told me that they believed that the site would grow in significance as a historical and sacred site as the hindrance of the big public pageant is removed. Because of Covid-19, the final pageant, originally postponed until July 2021, has been cancelled indefinitely.
As I climbed the steep hill up to the monument a dark cloud blew over and covered the sky. It had been a sunny day until that point. When I got up to the statue of Moroni the dark clouds were especially ominous. I got the idea that God did not want me there.
The Sacred Grove is a short drive down the street from Hill Cumorah. It is also the historic site of the Smith Family Farm. According to the LDS History website:
The Sacred Grove in Palmyra, New York, is the site where Heavenly Father and His Son, Jesus Christ, visited young Joseph Smith in 1820. That visit, often called the First Vision, was the founding event of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Sacred Grove was part of the farmland originally owned by the Smith family, and today it is a healthy and peaceful forest that is open to the public year-round. Winding paths provide many places for visitors to contemplate the event that occurred here. …
As I entered the Sacred Grove it started pouring rain. As I passed a sign that literally said, “If there is a thunderstorm please exit the Sacred Grove immediately due to unsafe conditions.” I walked through the Grove meditating. It really was a beautiful and dare I say spiritual place. The rain was pouring down and I got completely soaked. As I exited the Grove the rain let up and the sun came out. It was a very strange experience. I don’t think I would call it a religious experience, but it was perhaps spiritual in a purely symbolic, coincidental way.
American socialist radicals have defended and even in some cases joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The American anarchist Dyer Lum wrote a treatise defending the LDS church and their polygamist practices entitled Utah and Its People: Facts and Statistics Bearing on the “Mormon Problem” in 1882. Lum visited Utah in 1879. He was impressed that Mormons could have transformed this desert land into a thriving civilization. Lum attributed their success to their theo-democratic, communitarian principles. He wrote, “...I do not believe this could have been accomplished by individual effort, that settlers isolated from each other, without mutual aid and assistance, would never have undertaken so great a task and could not have accomplished it.” Lum concluded by appealing for tolerance and compassion for the polygamist Mormons lest the anger and iron fist of power directed toward them come after the anarchists next:
Whatever we may think of polygamy as a social system, let us be careful how we act, and not fashion a handle for an axe which may one day striker nearer home when weilded by other passions….
Lum was not the only radical leftist that the LDS Church attracted. Historian Erik J. Freeman writes:
In 1851, Pierre Isodore Bellanger, a romantic socialist and former Icarian communist, Preached the doctrines of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints to a multitude of farmers and workers in rural France. A crowd of ‘more than one hundred persons’ in the small town of Le Grade-Lucé eagerly gathered around this new missionary, listening to his message in the pouring rain from ‘half past two until ten at night.’ John Taylor, the Mormon apostle that converted Bellanger and other socialists in Paris, believed that interest in Mormonism served as evidence of ‘the advancement of the Redeemer’s Kingdom’ on the European continent.
Bellanger was one of many socialists that embraced the Mormon religion. Freeman explains:
In 1847, Engels with fellow German radicals Karl Marx and Karl Schapper, referred to ‘Mormons’ as ‘a religious sect based upon communist principles.’ … During the nineteenth century, Mexican Fourierists, French Icarians, German-speaking Harmonists, along with working-class radicals from Great Britain all chose to convert to the LDS Church. More than 88,000 people converted to Mormonism from the laboring and lower-middling classes in Europe from 1830 to 1890.
The basis for socialism’s connections with Mormonism is the doctrine of the united order. In 1834, Joseph Smith commanded, “Verily I say unto you, my friends, I give unto you counsel, and a commandment, concerning all the properties which belong to the order which I commanded to be organized and established, to be a united order, and an everlasting order for the benefit of my church, and for the salvation of men until I come,” after seeing that some of his followers were suffering from poverty. In 1874, Smith’s successor, Brigham Young, instituted the United Order of Enoch. According to the Encyclopedia of Mormonism:
He organized the first United Order at St. George, Utah, on February 9, 1874. The last known Church-authorized United Order was organized at Cave Valley, Chihuahua, Mexico, on January 9, 1893. In the interim more than 200 united orders were organized in LDS communities in several mountain states, including Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Arizona, and Nevada, mostly in 1874 and 1875. This ambitious attempt to establish a utopian society was both a direct response to the forces that threatened LDS economic and political independence and a final effort by Brigham Young to build the ideal community envisioned by Joseph Smith....
Over the years Mormons, because of their socially conservative, pro-American beliefs, have become more right wing. Today, Mormons are said to be disproportionately represented in the CIA, FBI and ATF. Recruiters say Mormons are sought after because their patriotism, foreign missionary work, respect for authority, language abilities, abstention from intoxicants and relative honesty make it easy for them to get security clearance. According to journalist Sarah Laskow:
There have been Mormon FBI agents since early in the bureau’s history. Some accounts allege that J. Edgar Hoover had a particular interest in recruiting Mormon agents: one well-known Mormon leader, J. Martell Bird, served in Hoover’s heyday, from the 1940s through the end of the ’60s, and there’s a famous story of a Mormon agent who, in 1940, just five years after the modern FBI was born from an earlier Bureau of Investigation, was tasked with supporting the agency’s first double agent, in Germany.
The memory of the 2012 election is still fresh enough that most remember when Mitt Romney became the first Mormon to be endorsed for President by a major party. Most are not aware that in 1984 the socialist Peace and Freedom Party of California and the leftist Citizen’s Party endorsed an excommunicated Mormon, Sonia Johnson.
Johnson was born in 1939. She became the fifth generation of her family to be associated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. In 1977, she started agitating for the Equal Rights Amendment, a proposed amendment to the United States Constitution that would recognize equality on the basis of sex and gender. The ERA was ultimately defeated by right wing legislators. There is still no amendment to the US Constitution that recognizes equal rights for women and denounces gender discrimination. Johnson founded a group called Mormons for ERA. In 1979 she gave a speech entitled “Patriarchal Panic: Sexual Politics in the Mormon Church” at a meeting of the American Psychological Association publicly denouncing illegal LDS lobbying efforts against passage of the ERA. The incident brought negative publicity to the LDS Church, so she was excommunicated in December of 1979. The excommunication letter contained inaccuracies and inconsistencies.
She ran for President of the United States on the Citizen’s Party ticket in 1984. The Citizen’s Party was a big tent progressive party that sought to unite socialists, environmentalists and left of center liberals in an electoral coalition. The Peace and Freedom Party and the Pennsylvania Consumer Party also endorsed her.
Although religion has been used as an opium for the people to hide the scars of their suffering, it has also been a historically progressive cry of the oppressed creature. Radical religiosity need not lead to radical social, political and economic policy, necessarily, as the LDS example shows. However, historical examples like that of spiritualism have shown that new ways of thinking about the world in metaphysical terms may help platform new social, political and economic ways of thinking. Susan B. Anthony, for example, visited Lily Dale and spoke there on women’s suffrage. Shrewd socialist revolutionaries today can take heed of the religious ultraists of the past as examples of how to grow interest in the movement. Instead of taking a judgemental position when it comes to the religiosity of the proletariat, socialists can take a radical eccumenical approach, respecting the diverse religious traditions of the working class. Further study into historical religious ultraism may also open new possibilities for militant entryism and coalition building with organizations of faith.
 Noyes, A History of American Socialisms, 26.
 Noyes, A History of American Socialisms, 26.
 Noyes, A History of American Socialisms, 26.
 Noyes, A History of American Socialisms, 27.
 Carol Sheriff, The Artificial River: the Erie Canal and the Paradox of Progress, 1817-1862, (New York: Hill and Wang, 2000), 138.
 Way, “Evil Humors and Ardent Spirits,” 1400.
 Paul E. Johnson, A Shopkeepers Millenium: Society and Revivals in Rochester, New York, 1815-1837, (New York: Hill and Wang, 2004), 121.
 Whitney R. Cross, The Burned-Over District: The Social and Intellectual History of Enthusiastic Religion in Western New York, 1800-1850, (New York: Harper and Row, 1965), 154.
 Cross, Burned-Over District, 158.
 Cross, Burned-Over District, 173.
 Ibid., 174.
 Ibid., 173.
 Ibid., 175.
 Ibid., 179.
 Johnson, A Shopkeeper’s Millennium, 110.
 Christopher Clark, The Communitarian Moment: the Radical Challenge of the Northampton Association, (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2003), 30.
 Cross, Burned-Over District, 190-191.
 Noyes, History of American Socialisms, 268.
 Bestor, “Albert Brisbane - Propagandist,” 138
 “Exposition of Views and Principles,” 10.
 “Exposition of Views and Principles,” 10.
 Charles Fourier, The Social Destiny of Man or The Theory of the Four Movements, (New York: Gordon Press, 1972), 117.
 Guarneri, The Utopian Alternative, 141.
 Guarneri, The Utopian Alternative, 281.
 Noyes, History of American Socialisms, 540.
 Noyes, History of American Socialisms, 538.
 Noyes, History of American Socialisms, 61-62.
 Guarneri, The Utopian Alternative, 72.
 Noyes, History of American Socialisms, 550.
 Charles Julius Hemple, The True Organization of the New Church as Indicated in the Writings of Emanuel Swedenborg and Demonstrated by Charles Fourier, (New York: William Radde, 1848), 12.
 Albert Brisbane, Association: Or, A Concise Exposition of the Practical Part of Fourier’s Science, (New York: Greeley and McElrath, 1843), 10
 Noyes, History of American Socialisms, 280.
 Noyes, History of American Socialisms, 280.
 Noyes, History of American Socialisms, 284.
 Arthur Conan Doyle, The History of Spiritualism, (London: Cassell and Co., 1926), 16.
 Conan Doyle, The History of Spiritualism, 31.
 Conan Doyle, The History of Spiritualism, 32.
 Conan Doyle, The History of Spiritualism, 17.
 Conan Doyle, The History of Spiritualism, 31.
 Frank Podmores, Robert Owen : a biography, (New York: Appleton, 1907), 604-605.
 Robert Dale Owen, Footfalls on the Boundary of Another World: With Narrative Illustrations, (United Kingdom: Trübner, 1860), xiii.
 “Introduction,” The Book of Mormon, (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, 2013), vii.
 Richard Lyman Bushman, Mormonism: A Very Short Introduction, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 10-11.
 Doyle, The History of Spiritualism, 58.
 Harry Houdini, Houdini: A Magician among the Spirits, (New York: Arno Press, 1972).
 Harry Houdini, Houdini: A Magician among the Spirits, (New York: Arno Press, 1972).
 Houdini, Houdini: A Magician among the Spirits.
 “The Fox Sisters Property/Hydesville Memorial Park.” Haunted History Trail of New York State. Accessed May 21, 2019. https://hauntedhistorytrail.com/explore/the-fox-sisters-property-hydesville-memorial-park.
 “Utopia, Utopia, Ohio.” RoadsideAmerica.com. Accessed May 21, 2019. https://www.roadsideamerica.com/story/11893.
 Randy McNutt, Finding Utopia: Another Journey into Lost Ohio, (Kent, OH: Black Squirrel Books, 2012), 16.
 “What Happened to Utopia?” Spectrumlocalnews.com. Accessed May 21, 2019. https://spectrumlocalnews.com/nys/central-ny/untangled-with-josh-robin/2019/04/26/what-happened-to-utopia–nys.
 McNutt, Finding Utopia, 19.
 McNutt, Finding Utopia, 19.
 Robert Owen, The Future of the Human Race: Or a Great, Glorious, and Peaceful Revolution Near at Hand, to be Effected Through the Agency of Departed Spirits of Good and Superior Men and Women, (United Kingdom: Effingham Wilson, 1854), 53.
 Ron Nagy with Joyce LaJudice, The Spirits of Lily Dale, (Lakeville, MN: Glade Press, 2017), xiv.
 Adam Crabtree, Animal Magnetism, Early Hypnotism, and Psychical Research, 1766–1925 – An Annotated Bibliography, (White Plains, NY: Kraus International, 1988), introduction.
 Nagy, The Spirits of Lily Dale, 1.
 Nagy, The Spirits of Lily Dale, 5.
 Nagy, The Spirits of Lily Dale, 9.
 Paula Vogt, Lily Dale: Proud Beginnings, (Lily Dale, NY: Dale News, 1984), 90.
 Arthur Myers, “Fox Cottage Burns: September 21, 1955,” (Lily Dale: Lily Dale Museum, ND).
 Nagy, The Spirits of Lily Dale, 88-89.
 Conan Doyle, The History of Spiritualism, 37.
 Conan Doyle, The History of Spiritualism, 40.
 Robert W. Delp, "Andrew Jackson Davis: Prophet of American Spiritualism," The Journal of American History 54, 1 (1967): 44.
 Andrew Jackson Davis, The Principles of Nature, Her Divine Revelations and a Voice to Mankind, (Boston: William White and Co., 1871), 747.
 Davis, The Principles of Nature, 750.
 Davis, The Principles of Nature, 748.
 Fawn Brodie, No Man Knows My History, (New York, 1993).
 Alan Taylor, “The Early Republics Supernatural Economy: Treasure Seeking in the American Northeast, 1780-1830,” American Quarterly 38, 1 (1986): 6.
 Taylor, “The Early Republics Supernatural Economy,” 6.
 Richard Lyman Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005).
 Cameron J Packer, “Cumorah’s Cave,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, 13, 1 (2004): 50.
 Packer, “Cumorah’s Cave,” 57.
 “Sacred Grove: Palmyra and Manchester, New York,” Latter Day Saints Church History, Accessed June 9, 2021, https://history.churchofjesuschrist.org/subsection/historic-sites/new-york/palmyra/joseph-smith-family-farm-site-and-sacred-grove?lang=eng.
 Dyer Lum, Utah and Its People: Facts and Statistics Bearing on the “Mormon Problem,” (New York: R. O. Ferrier and Co, 1882), 2.
 Lum, Utah and Its People, 47.
 Erik J. Freeman, "’True Christianity:’ The Flowering and Fading of Mormonism and Romantic Socialism in Nineteenth-Century France," Journal of Mormon History 44.2 (2018): 75.
 Erik J. Freeman, “The Mormon International: Transnational Communitarian Politics and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 1830-1890,” 2020, Communal Studies Conference, Virtual, September 30, 2020, Communal Studies Associationr.
 Joseph Smith, “Revelation to Joseph Smith,” April 23, 1834, History of the Church 2:54.
 “United Orders,” Encyclopedia of Mormonism, (New York: Macmillan, 1992), 1493.
 Sarah Laskow, “Why Mormons Make Great FBI Recruits,” Atlas Obscura, November 4, 2015. https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/why-mormons-make-great-fbi-recruits.
 Linda Sillitoe, “Church Politics and Sonia Johnson: The Central Conundrum”, Sunstone Magazine, 19, (1980).
Mitchell K. Jones is a historian and activist from Rochester, NY. He has a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and a master’s degree in history from the College at Brockport, State University of New York. He has written on utopian socialism in the antebellum United States. His research interests include early America, communal societies, antebellum reform movements, religious sects, working class institutions, labor history, abolitionism and the American Civil War. His master’s thesis, entitled “Hunting for Harmony: The Skaneateles Community and Communitism in Upstate New York: 1825-1853” examines the radical abolitionist John Anderson Collins and his utopian project in Upstate New York. Jones is a member of the Party for Socialism and Liberation.
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