If you’ve been thinking more about dead people lately, you’re not alone.
This week is a traffic jam of religious and cultural events celebrating the dearly departed. From the Mexican festival of Dia de los Muertos and the Christian observances of All Saints’ and All Souls’ days to the Pagan commemoration of Samhain, many hearts and minds will be fixed on the afterlife over this Halloween and the next couple days.
But for a religious movement known as Spiritualism, communing with the dead is an everyday occurrence — and a cornerstone of the faith.
Spiritualists believe that not only does life continue beyond the death of the physical body, but these spirits can communicate with the living, providing guidance for today and the future.
“Our loved ones are in spirit and they are only a thought away,” says the Rev. Lorina Pyle, pastor of First Spiritualist Church of San Diego, whose roots date back more than a century. “We are never alone and spiritual help is available through request.”
Pyle, who was raised Christian, “accidentally stumbled” upon First Spiritualist in City Heights about 20 years ago. “Everything I had been taught told me that being there was wrong, but there was something feeding my soul,” she recalls.
She began taking classes, eventually becoming one of the church’s ministers, as well as a certified medium, trained to help convey the messages from the spirit world through “readings.”
More on that later. First, let’s start with two young girls who history credits with helping launch all this.
In 1848, Maggie and Kate Fox, ages 14 and 11, announced that they had been communicating with the spirit of a dead man who once lived in their farmhouse in Hydesville, N.Y.
After showing how they decoded the spirit’s series of raps into tangible messages, the girls became local celebrities. Under the management of an older sister, they went on the road, demonstrating their newfound skills to packed audiences and inspiring waves of others across the country to do likewise.
Never mind that 40 years later the sisters confessed it was all a hoax, and then recanted the confession a year later. Either way, modern Spiritualism was well on its way to becoming part of America’s religious landscape.
“There were thousands, if not tens of thousands, of people who believed that they were genuine and their confession had been coerced,” says Phil Stevens, a retired cultural anthropologist from the University of Buffalo who has studied Spiritualism.
The sisters, and the movement they helped spawn, had managed to harness two powerful beliefs: that a soul lives on after the body dies and these souls are interested in communicating with the living. Both beliefs, Stevens says, are universally human and as old as humanity itself.
Where the sisters lived also may have contributed to their success. In the early 1800s, that region of upstate New York was the Silicon Valley of religious fervor, having already given birth to two other new religious movements — which we now know as Seventh-day Adventists and the Church of Jesus Christ-of Latter-day Saints.
Seances became the rage, with some high-profile participants — like Mary Todd Lincoln, who reportedly held them in the White House after their 11-year-old son died. The Civil War, with anxious family members searching for sons who had gone off to war, further fueled the popularity.
Meanwhile, true believers began to organize.
The San Diego Spiritual Society, precursor to First Spiritualist Church, was formally organized in 1885 for what it said were religious, benevolent and social purposes. Eleven years later, Harmony Grove Spiritualist Association held its first camp meeting on a plot of land west of Escondido.
Before the 19th century was over, the National Spiritualist Association of Churches (NSAC), along with an educational academy, were founded. But if anyone had hopes of uniting the diaspora, it was not to be.
Spiritualism has no central authority, like a pope or a presiding prelate. Demographics also are elusive, although one outside survey estimates adherents comprise less than a half-percent of our population.
While the NSAC counts about 2,100 members among its 80-plus churches and camps, it also notes that there are multiple associations today. Plus, many congregations don’t belong to any of them, opting instead to be independent. An online roster compiled by a Spiritualist church in Kansas lists eight groups in San Diego County, none of which are on NSAC’s membership.
However, Spiritualists do tend to share some common concepts, says the Rev. Stacy Kopchinski, who serves on the NSAC board and is the administrator of the Morris Pratt Institute, the training academy formed at the end of the 19th century.
Do they believe in God? “Absolutely,” says Kopchinski from the institute’s headquarters in Milwaukee. “We just don’t believe in an anthropomorphic God. It’s more of a consciousness or an energy source.”
Heaven? “We embrace the other side, the spirit world.” She balks at a literal hell, but concedes “how we act here will have consequences for where we go next.” Some Spiritualists describe this spirit world as having several spheres, like rungs on a ladder. The better you behave in this life, the higher the sphere in the spirit world.
Jesus? “Jesus was the master teacher,” says Kopchinski, who was raised Catholic but became a Spiritualist as a young adult. “He just knew his pure purpose was to prove we live forever and we have to be good and we are all God’s children.”
Golden Rule? That’s a big one for Spiritualists. “If anything is a purpose, that’s it,” she says.
Perhaps the most talked about aspect of Spiritualism is its belief in mediums as the messengers between this world and the spirit world.
Harmony Grove’s training program requires that the education committee and its director approve its mediums, as well as healers and ministers, says the Rev. Glenn Haddick, who is the former education director there.
“Part of our certification process includes feedback from our congregation and the public in the form of written affidavits vouching for the efficacy of the student’s skills,” Haddick explains.
But there isn’t any one formula for connecting with the spirits. Some mediums, for example, may use prompts like a pendulum or tarot cards.
Haddick, an ordained minister and third generation Spiritualist, says he often will get metaphorical images while doing a reading for someone. Other times, he’ll get “a paragraph of information that all of a sudden comes into my consciousness and I’m able to describe that and talk about that for a few minutes and then something else eventually comes up.”
Pyle, First Spiritualist’s pastor, talks about learning how to tap into the electromagnetic energy in each of us and all around us. This energy emits various levels of vibration, she says. “It’s like you become a radio station and you learn how to adjust your frequency with those you are communicating with.”
Mediums say they concentrate on beneficial messages.
“Our goal as mediums is to help them connect to their higher selves so they can make positive choices,” says the Rev. Kimberly Hicks, pastor of Fraternal Spiritualist Church in Kensington. “The whole point is you want to make it easier for them.”
What if it’s bad news? “I think you have to be really, really careful about divulging what you think might be bad information,” Haddick cautions.
Hicks, who was raised in a nondenominational Christian church, points out that no matter what guidance is offered, mediums realize that each person ultimately has free will. “And they get to make the choice for themselves.”
Heresy vs. acceptance
More-traditional religions aren’t fans of Spiritualism.
Detractors denounce it as heresy and occultism, pointing to verses in the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian New Testament that condemn trying to talk to spirits as “detestable” and an “abomination to the Lord.”
While Spiritualists offer Bible verses of their own to bolster their pleas for acceptance, they also would like to see more education about their faith.
“Amazingly enough, a lot of people don’t even realize that Spiritualism is a religion,” Hicks laments.
From her office in Wisconsin, Kopchinski says she’s seen the looks from other clergy when she talks about her beliefs.
“Any true Spiritualist would admit that yes, there is some fraud and yes, there are some bad things,” she acknowledges. But she points out there also are bad ministers and wrongdoing in other faiths. “Don’t just go by the Wikipedia definition because there’s way more to our movement, our religion, our science, our philosophy than anybody ever imagined.”
Dolbee is the former religion and ethics editor of The San Diego Union-Tribune and former president of Religion News Association. Email: [email protected].