Andrew Jackson Davis: The Voice Of American Spiritualism On Unobscured

By Diana Brown

October 10, 2019

Andrew Jackson Davis

America in the early 1830s was in upheaval: Jacksonian democracy had given white men over 21 who didn’t own property the right to vote; the country had undergone the “Second Great Awakening,” which meant less emphasis was put on educated clergymen and more on the common man’s religious experiences and connection to God; and scientific and technological progress was fast-paced, injecting entirely new philosophies about the nature of life and death into American culture: “In the time when the spiritual sciences of mesmerism, animal magnetism and phrenology were popular,” Aaron Mahnke explains, “the ‘right way’ to see the world became less and less obvious.” So perhaps it’s not surprising that in this environment, the religious spiritualism movement found a solid footing. On this season of Unobscured, host Aaron Mahnke, of the hit podcast Lore, will examine this movement in depth, a tale that “touches everything from technology to medicine to the genocide of Native Americans and the murder of a president” and left its imprint on important movements like abolition, women’s suffrage, and labor rights. In this episode, he focuses on one of the stars of the scene: humble cobbler turned trance lecturer and harmonial philosopher, Andrew Jackson Davis.

When he was 16 years old, Andrew got interested in attending a lecture by the phrenologist and magnetizer J. Stanley Grimes, who promised a demonstration of “mesmerism.” These were two new philosophies society was kicking around: phrenology, the idea that “the shape of the human skull reflected uneven development of the brain,” and mesmerism, an idea put forth by the German physician Franz Anton Mesmer. New York Public Library historian Cathy Gutierrez explains, “Why don't stars fall out of the sky, right? Why are planets predictable? Well, they're held in some kinetic tension through magnetic attraction...What Mesmer did was he applied that idea to the human body, so not only the planets, but the tides in the sea, and the waning of the moon, and the flow of this energy through the body could be redirected and redistributed.” Demonstrations of mesmerism drew crowds, who wanted “to witness a mystery.” But when Andrew was magnetized by J. Stanley, nothing happened, leaving him disappointed. Later, though, he met another man named William Livingston, who promised he could do better. The results were astonishing: “Andrew would later say that 10,000 avenues of sensation were illumed as with the livid flames of electric fire, then a sense of intense darkness, a surge of horrible feelings he couldn't put into words, and then a wave of pain.” When he came out of his trance, William and others who had gathered to watch told Andrew that he had diagnosed their wounds, read newspapers held up to his forehead, and expounded on the mysteries of the universe. William told Andrew that he was “clairvoyant,” with the ability to commune with the dead. “As his trances continued, he described in greater and greater detail the way that his vision opened up to the world within the human body,” Aaron says. “He said the fiery light glowing within all life became visible to him.”

Antique illustration of scientific discoveries, anesthesia: Mesmer

150 years earlier, admitting that you could see or speak with a spirit from beyond the grave would have gotten you burned at the stake, but in the 1840s, it made you a messenger for heaven. The rise of spiritualism began, the idea that the living could commune with the departed, getting advice and knowledge from doctors, thinkers, scientists, and religious leaders that “those with eyes to see” could share with others. Andrew was one of the first celebrities created from this movement, but he was far from its only follower. Aaron gets into them all: the abolitionists and spiritualists Amy and Isaac Post, who were thrown out of their Quaker group for hosting an African-American wedding; preacher Adin Ballou, who claimed his dead brother visited him with a command from God; Andrew’s visitations from Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg and the ancient Greek physician Galen, who helped him heal people. “Yes, it's a story about religion,” Aaron says, “but it's so much more. It's a story of idealism and individualism, of poachers and preachers, and of freedom fighters and celebrities...over the course of the 19th century, spiritualism became a kaleidoscope of novel beliefs, courageous people, and world-shaking events.”  

Learn more about the American spiritualism movement, the major thinkers and scholars that influenced the nation, and the world in which this movement took hold, on this episode of Unobscured.

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