Radical spirits

Adventist scholar Laurel Damsteegt has done a thorough study into the relationship between Spiritualism and feminism in the nineteenth century. Much of that study centers on statements by Ellen G. White. It is well known that Mrs. White supported the abolitionist and temperance movements, but not the women’s rights movement. An obvious question arises—why not?

One possible answer might be found in Professor Ann Braude’s book from 1989 entitled Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth-Century America (Indiana University Press). Braude is at this time Senior Lecturer on American Religious History at Harvard Divinity School.


Braude notes that the women’s rights movement and Spiritualism began in the same year, 1848, only miles apart, in New York State.

Each movement sought for radical change in the traditional relationships between men and women. Both movements denounced the conventional thought about gender and religion that prevailed in the middle of the nineteenth century. Well-known leaders of the women’s rights movement, such as Lucy Stone, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Victoria Woodhull, and Lucretia Mott, were not Spiritualists, but many people associated with them were.

According to Braude, some feminists remained close to their respective churches and agitated for women’s ordination. For women who found their churches hopelessly chauvinistic, separation became necessary. To keep a semblance of faith, but determined to abandon patriarchy, a few women moved on to witchcraft, goddess worship, or Neopaganism. 

Looking back at the mid-century movement from the vantage point of the 1880s, feminist historians noted that Spiritualists were the only reformers who recognized the equality of women in religious leadership roles. In fact, equal leadership was one of the most important goals of Spiritualism. Braude writes, “Spiritualist women had equal authority, equal opportunities, and equal numbers in religious leadership” (3).


The Fox sisters, who experienced mysterious “rappings” in their Hydesville, NewYork home in 1848, were already known by at least two Quaker reformers. Quakerism had weak institutional structure, accepted the validity of “inner light,” and viewed with skepticism all religious organizations. This outlook made some Quakers ready supporters of the Fox sisters; but in yielding to inner light over external truth, they added something new—acceptance of communication with the dead.

Braude writes, “Mediumship was closely identified with femininity” (23). Some mediums were male, but the stereotypical medium was female. This fact closely connected Spiritualism to the idea of home and family. Séances could take place around a kitchen table or in the comfort of a living room. For Spiritualists, the domestic setting was diametrically opposed to the male-dominated churches.


Since Spiritualists were not formally organized, their numbers are hard to measure. Their writings were voluminous, however, so millions of Americans were influenced to at least some degree. Braude indicates that religious progressives were the most likely supporters of Spiritualism. 

Spiritualism and liberal theology came together in one particularly important way. One author of the period wrote that “’Spiritualism is undermining the authority of the Bible in the minds of what are called common people faster than all other causes put together’” (Braude, 28). Liberal theology had already de-emphasized the concept of the punishment of the wicked and highlighted brotherly love. Both Spiritualists and liberals rejected redemption, the resurrection, and the need for Christ.

Spiritualists told stories of their sad days as young people caught in a depressing orthodoxy. In this way, they wanted to show that Spiritualism was a comforting release from the churches. Among Spiritualists, the view of the home as a purely feminine environment where motherly feelings dominated began to undercut the traditional place of the father. He was no longer the head of a household. Instead, he was thought of as spiritually contaminated by his mixture with the dirty world of business. Fathers became, in their minds, identified with a wrathful God and a harsh theology.

One result of this new attitude toward fathers was that children became sentimentalized angels instead of budding sinners who needed male influence in their lives. Spiritualism offered a kinder, gentler world of natural goodness in which there was no need for male leadership.


Spiritualism denounced authority of all kinds—in the family, in the church, and in the government. In the churches, male ministers and the Bible were the binding forces. In the séance, such forces did not exist.

Spiritualism joined with many other groups in seeking all kinds of reform, but the reform that was uppermost was the liberation of women from male authority. Braude writes that “Spiritualism became a major—if not the major—vehicle for the spread of woman’s rights ideas in mid-century America” (57). She continues, “Raps reportedly rocked the same table where Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton penned the ‘Declaration of Sentiments,’ which formed the [Seneca Falls] convention’s agenda” (58).

Braude says, “The two movements shared many leaders and activists. While not all feminists were Spiritualists, all Spiritualists advocated woman’s rights” (58). Gender roles were attacked: “Spiritualist reformers found adherence to prescribed gender roles inconsistent with the principle of individual sovereignty” (61). The most radical reformers “found immoral attempts at coercion in virtually everything associated with Protestant religious practice: in the hierarchies of denominations, in the exercise of discipline over church members, in the power of the clergy, and in the use of the Bible as the test of truth” (62).

Spiritualists developed the notion that women were morally superior to men, and that even though women were deeply involved in churches, they were being unfairly denied ordination. Women were seen as more sensitive and innocent than men, and thus more pious. This is one reason that women were valued as good mediums. Young women were especially delicate and innocent, it was thought, and they made a sensational impression on the public stage, especially if they were physically attractive.


If Ann Braude is correct in her historical analysis, it is not surprising that Ellen White would have avoided any connection to the women’s rights movement. The reasons can be easily inferred.

Mrs. White probably felt that the feminist movement of her time was demonic and offered no real advancement for women. The Bible had already described the role of women in marriage (see the “beloved” of the Song of Solomon); the role of women in crucial duties both inside and outside the home (see Prov. 31); the rights of women to fair treatment (see Gen. 31:50); and the equality of men and women before God (see Gen. 1:27 and Gal. 3:28). For Ellen White, the women’s movement in her time was simply a dangerous distraction for the people of God.