If conservatives, in their reverence for tradition, are often temped by fundamentalism, liberals, with their love of innovation and multiculturalism, have had a historic vulnerability to spiritual quackery. It may not be visible in our national politics, where only one side routinely claims supernatural guidance and communion with heavenly voices. But on the ground, almost all lefty enclaves have congeries of gurus, faith healers, and metaphysical fad dieticians. Sometimes this stuff seems like remnants of the 1960s and ’70s, but it actually goes back a lot further—to a nineteenth-century progressive spiritual efflorescence that continues to have deep effects on American religious life.
In the late 1800s, during a time of widespread technological innovation and religious demystification, all sorts of religious innovators believed that science was on the verge of unlocking the secrets of the spirit world. Thomas Edison imagined creating machines to test physic powers and communicate with the dead. Clarence Darrow, the great scourge of fundamentalists, frequented séances and mediums, straining to believe. In England, the militant feminist and atheist Annie Besant stunned intellectual society by converting to theosophy, the Hindu-inflected grandparent of modern new age movements. And in Chicago in 1899 or 1900, Ida Craddock, feminist, secularist, and marriage reformer, declared herself pastor of the Church of Yoga. In his new book, Leigh Eric Schmidt, a historian of religion, uses Craddock’s life to illuminate this fascinating period in American religious history, when free thought, mysticism, Eastern religion, and sexual liberalism all rubbed up against each other, often provoking hysteria and repression from America’s designated moral guardians.
Craddock’s life was in many ways a waste—troubled, marginal, and short. When she went to war with Anthony Comstock, he won—and she committed suicide at the age of forty-five, in order to escape a likely five-year prison sentence on obscenity charges. It is actually her lack of greatness that makes Schmidt’s book so interesting and valuable. Biographers usually present those who transcend their eras and circumstances, not those who are crushed by them. But the latter are surely more numerous, and also more revealing about the human toll of religious and sexual rigidity. For all her quirkiness and audacity, Craddock was ultimately a tragic figure, a brilliant woman who spent her life making desperate attempts to escape an intolerably narrow fate. “Though she claimed…that there was nothing she wanted ‘half so much’ as ‘the perfection of my intellectual work,’ those labors always remained tenuous and inevitably amateurish,” writes Schmidt. “Craddock would achieve no scholarly standing to speak of, but her failure—that proved virtuosic.”
It was the University of Pennsylvania that first condemned Craddock to a life of dilettantism. Growing up in Philadelphia, she had a passion for learning, but almost all universities were closed to women. She struggled to gain admission to Penn, and did well on the grueling entrance exams—four days of written tests on ancient and modern geography, mathematics, English, Latin, and Greek, followed by a day of oral examinations on Cicero and Horace. She was able to win the support of the majority of an important faculty board, but her efforts to pry the school open to women were finally thwarted by an Episcopal bishop who served as a university trustee. For two years after her rejection, she besieged the university with appeals, but they were ignored.
Instead she became an autodidact, frequently supporting herself with secretarial work while she devoted herself to various intellectual and mystical enthusiasms. Like many women stifled by Christian Puritanism, she searched for a more liberating tradition in an idealized Orient. She was particularly fascinated by the turn-of-the-century scholarly ferment around sex worship and fertility cults. Locked out of the academy, she entered the fray in conventional and at times absurd ways.
Craddock first invited Comstock’s ire when she took up a defense of belly dancing, an art which caused a national scandal after performances at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. Comstock, a prissy American Savonarola who devoted his life to the suppression of vice, had been horrified by the sight of bare undulating midriffs, and wanted such displays banned. Craddock took him on in the pages of Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, arguing that not only was belly dancing not obscene—it was holy. The dance, as Schmitt writes, “was actually a ‘religious memorial’ that offered a venerable, edifying, and much needed blend of sexuality and spirituality.” Craddock even suggested it would make an excellent “pre-nuptial educator of our young people.”
Craddock went on to turn her defense of belly dancing into a pamphlet, in which she explained that such movement “trains the muscles of the woman in the endurance desirable in the wife … and therefore increases her capacity, not only for receiving, but also for conferring pleasure.” This was shocking on several levels. Not only was she defending a dance dismissed as Oriental filth, she was also making a visionary case for a woman’s entitlement to orgasm. Her mother was so shocked that she tried—unsuccessfully, for the moment—to have her daughter institutionalized.
Unfair as that was, Craddock’s writing did contain a spark of madness. As a single woman, she had to explain how she knew so much about sex, and she did so by claiming to have a spirit husband, a dead man called Soph who she had married in October 1892. “Whether my psychical experience be a fact or an hallucination, I can truthfully say that I have gained from it a knowledge of sex relations which many years of reading and discussions with other people never brought me,” she wrote.
This delusion—or religious vision—adds an interesting layer of ambiguity to Craddock’s life. Schmidt, a hugely talented historian but a clunky writer and storyteller, handles it awkwardly, putting off the questions it raises until the final chapter. As his book follows Craddock’s adventures—a stay in London working for the social reformer William T. Stead, an abortive attempt to launch her Church of Yoga in Chicago, a career as a marriage counselor offering frank advice about sex, along with hospitalization, trials, and imprisonments—the questions about her personal life and her sanity remain mysterious.
Schmidt finally broaches these questions in a chapter about her posthumous career as a famous psychoanalytical case study. The militantly secularist psychoanalyst Theodore Schroeder made his name writing about Craddock, who he described as a “Religio-Sexual Maniac” driven mad by a combination of sexual repression and mysticism. His theory is not exactly groundless, but he was too sexist to see that if anything drove Craddock insane, it was not supernaturalism itself—it was the patriarchal restrictions that drove her to seek supernatural solace.
Besides, Schmitt makes a convincing case that Craddock’s relationship with Soph was not necessarily crazier than other varieties of religious experience. To Craddock, he was a dream companion, a tender intellectual comrade who nurtured her ambitions as no earthly man ever had. He was her version of a guardian angel, and her raptures with him have analogues in the mystical traditions of many religions, including Christianity. On some level, she understood that while he was real to her in spiritual terms, he was not real in the empirical sense—certainly not as real as the unread books that she wrote. “I could say good-bye to my husband with a far less aching heart, than to have my manuscripts perish out of the world, unpublished,” she wrote towards the end of her life.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about her strange self-created matrimonial religion is the real wisdom she derived from it. “Religion and sex-love, indeed, are but two reservoirs of emotion, which, standing side by side in every one’s life, not only tend to frequently overflow into one another, but are also connected with one another below the surface by subtle and as yet not wholly discovered channels,” she wrote. This insight is far from crazy. Perhaps the maddest thing about Ida Craddock’s beliefs was her unshakeable conviction that if she expressed them, there would still be a place for her in the world.
Michelle Goldberg is the author, most recently, of The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power and the Future of the World.