It all started in the sleepy upstate town of Hydesville, New York. There, in March of 1848, the Fox sisters—ten-year-old Kate and 14-year-old Maggie—convinced their older sister, 34-year-old Leah, that they contacted a spirit with the ominous name of Mr. Splitfoot who, by raps, knocks, and the cracking of toe joints, conveyed knowledge from the beyond. The sisters would move to Rochester, where they would find patrons in Amy and Isaac Post, two prominent Quakers deeply involved in the progressive politics of the day, including agitation for abolition and suffrage.
What emerged was a potent, powerful, and very strange religious movement known as Spiritualism. A quasi-denomination, Spiritualism holds that death is not the end of life, and that those residents in the domain of the former are still able to communicate to those of us who exist in the realm of the latter. Mediums like Cora L.V. Scott and Paschal Beverly Randolph became as popular as the Fox sisters, drawing crowds of thousands, while their books became bestsellers. It was more than mere entertainment. At one séance—led by the Foxes and attended by Horace Greeley, William Cullen Bryant, and James Fenimore Cooper at New York City’s Barnum Hotel (named for its owner, the showman, politician, and con artist P.T. Barnum)—a spirit tapped out a message to the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison: “Spiritualism will work miracles in the cause of reform.”
As a sentiment, it bears similarity to Democratic primary candidate and spiritual guru Marianne Williamson’s contention that she will “harness love for political purposes.” A bestselling New Age author, Williamson’s audience dwarfs that of the Fox sisters, who could have only dreamed of the sort of platform they’d have gotten on Oprah. Williamson’s books, A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of “A Course in Miracles” and Healing the Soul of America: Reclaiming Our Voices as Spiritual Citizens, have been bought by millions. In Healing, Williamson spelled out her political beliefs in calls for Americans to “awaken from our culture of distraction and re-engage the process of democracy with soulfulness and hope.” Much as the Spiritualists held there was a spectral realm that connected all people regardless of race and gender, Williamson contends there is a “universal force that, when activated by the human heart, has the power to make all things right. Such is the divine authority of love: to renew the heart, renew the nations, and ultimately, renew the world.”
For those unfamiliar with Williamson, the rhetoric of the “divine authority of love” might seem strange among policy-minded candidates like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. When considering Democratic candidates of the left or of the center, Williamson occupies a lane of her own. But whether or not she fits in on the debate stage, something about Williamson’s rhetoric struck a chord with viewers, who made her the most searched candidate name on the Internet in 49 states (the lone holdout being Montana, where residents googled to find out who their own governor was).
Beltway pundits who didn’t watch The Apprentice couldn’t see Trump coming, so they could possibly be blindsided by the popularity of Williamson, even though she’s had an audience of millions for decades. At Vox, Matthew Zeitlin wrote that Williamson “can plausibly claim to represent a demographic swath of the public—and a growing one at that,” in the form of those who self-identify as spiritual rather than religious. Though her candidacy was initially treated as a joke—not least because of her Long Island lock-jaw accent (despite being from Texas)—commentators have started to discuss Williamson with a bemused respect.
Yet, with that attention comes an increased focus on her past writings. Noah Berlatsky accused Williamson as engaging in “neo-liberal victim shaming” which “masks a mean-spirited individualism.” At The Guardian, Stefanie Marsh referred to Williamson as “The left-wing version of Donald Trump.” And Zach Beauchamp of Vox
emphatically stated that she “has no business being on the debate stage.”
Much of the criticism of Williamson has rightly focused on the ambiguous winks she’s given to anti-vaxxers, but broader assertions about her beliefs miss an important mark. Berlatsky’s claim that she is the “natural outgrowth of an individualistic, reactionary ideology which calls first for internal spiritual renewal rather than systemic cultural and political change,” makes an ahistorical argument. Intellectual descendant of the Spiritualists that she is, Williamson is a figure for whom internal spiritual renewal and systemic change are intimately connected. One need not agree with Williamson’s prescriptions, but to slur her politics as inherently “reactionary” is to misapprehend the Spiritualist tradition.
Though it’s reductive to draw a straight line from Spiritualism to Williamson, the author-candidate does continue a tradition of occultism (broadly constituted) as connected to social activism. More than just providing accounts of the supernatural, figures like Scott and the biracial Randolph used their platform to advocate for suffrage, abolition, and socialism. As with Williamson, they flirted with dangerous pseudo-scientific charlatanry—Scott denied the reality of evolution, and the founder of Christian Science, Mary Baker Eddy, denied the efficacy of modern medicine. Regardless, nineteenth-century Spiritualism was inextricably connected to reform in the years around the Civil War, which helped to popularize and promote a transformative political agenda in New England, the mid-Atlantic, and the Midwest.
Spiritualism was fermented in the heady brew that flooded the “burned-over district” of upstate New York in the early nineteenth century, when a series of religious revivals known as the Second Great Awakening would radically alter American religion. Drawing on European Romanticism, Emersonian self-reliance, and American Transcendentalism, the movement’s occult vocabulary spoke to American aspirations and anxieties in a manner that the arid Enlightenment-era rationalism of the nation’s founding simply did not. In 1863, the Spiritualist Religio-Philosophical Journal called for “the regenerative work of enlightening and spiritualizing the masses” for the express purpose of “heal[ing] the breach” caused by the war; today, Williamson is using comparable language. None of this is to say that the candidate deserves your support or your vote (she hasn’t earned mine), but it is to say that dismissing Williamson without understanding the history and appeal of her rhetoric would be foolhardy.
Decades after the popularity of the Fox sisters had waned, Maggie admitted that their story was an elaborate hoax. But, while their cacophony of knocks and pops may have been counterfeit, the intense emotions they expressed weren’t. In confronting the looming horror of the Civil War, many Americans found a fuller summation of their hopes and fears in Spiritualism than in something more sober. In Williamson’s comments on reparations and America’s shameful foreign policy in Latin America, she does something similar. There is an important wisdom in Williamson’s debate-night declaration that “If you think any of this wonkiness is going to deal with this dark psychic force of the collectivized hatred that this president is bringing up in this country, then I’m afraid that the Democrats are going to see some very dark days.” Blanch at the diction all that you want, but such language is commensurate with the struggle people now perceive. The country would do well to listen.