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Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Spiritualism and crime: Negotiating prophecy and police power at the turn of the twentieth century
by Dyson, Erika White, Ph.D., Columbia University, 2010, 520; 3420872
Abstract (Summary)

This dissertation examines the perfect storm of factors motivating the formation of the National Spiritualists' Association in 1893, and the subsequent challenges that prompted NSA leaders over the next forty years to conform the religion to hegemonic conceptions of legitimate religion and social respectability. These challenges included several spectacular scandals that implicated Spiritualists (if not actually involving them); efforts by stage magicians to expose and discredit spirit mediums; and denunciation from pulpit and press. Most damaging, starting in the 1890s, Spiritualist mediums and ministers increasingly faced arrest as fortune-tellers for performing their most meaningful and central religious rite: delivering messages from the spirits of the dead to the living.

The dissertation approaches this topic from two angles, institutional and legal. First, it examines how NSA leaders molded their traditionally anti-creedal and individualistic religion to accepted conceptions of religious practice, citizenship and respectability, particularly those understandings held by judges and legislators. NSA leaders argued that conformity was vital both to Spiritualism's survival, as well as to the defense of NSA members' religious freedoms, even as they framed this strategy in terms of church and state separation. As opposition to the religion intensified, the NSA implemented more rules for religious practice and its members' personal behavior, including the adoption of an internal penal code and the racial segregation of their churches – two innovations, which would have been anathema to their "insistently individualized" predecessors.

Secondly, lawmakers, police and government officials responded to these scandals by targeting spirit mediums and other seers for arrest. Judges and magistrates justified the criminalization of Spiritualists' religious practices as legitimate exercises of police power, while continuing to present themselves as the protectors of Americans' religious liberties. I examine several appellate court cases in which judges weighed the government's duty to ensure public morality and peace, even if it meant curbing their religious practices, against Spiritualist defense of spirit mediumship on constitutional grounds. The dissertation therefore provides insight into early twentieth-century American religious jurisprudence as well as complicates the neat narratives of church and state separation advanced at the time.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Balmer, Randall
School: Columbia University
School Location: United States -- New York
Source: DAI-A 71/09, Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: Religious history, American history, Law, Spirituality
Keywords: First Amendment, Legal history, National Spiritualists Association, Organization, Police power, Spiritualism, Stage magic
Publication Number: 3420872
ISBN: 978-1-124-18569-9
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