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The Remarkable Life of John Murray Spear, Agitator for the Spirit Land
by John Benedict Buescher
University of Notre Dame Press, 2006
(378 pages, $30.00, hardcover)
reviewed by Anne Barbeau Gardiner
In The Remarkable Life of John Murray Spear, John Buescher draws on a vast array of primary sources to tell the riveting story of an American Faust, a Universalist minister who first gained recognition as a radical abolitionist, labor reformer, and opponent of the death penalty, but who in middle age became a medium for spirits he described as “entirely foreign to his own consciousness.”
A man who once refused to “be bound by party or by creed” but would preach “the Gospel as he understood it,” Spear gave himself body and soul to spirits he thought were those of Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, and other patriots. He began lecturing in a state of trance, speaking of man as “an electrical machine,” Christians as slaves to “the Bible and the churches,” and God as “the great magnet of the universe.”
Buescher, an expert on Far Eastern religions and chief of the Tibetan Broadcast Service of the Voice of America, published an earlier work on American spiritualism in 2004. In this book he follows a key nineteenth-century figure who for decades served as the movement’s hierophant. Spear and his followers, some of them wealthy, engaged in creating futuristic machines and laying out plans for a new society.
Buescher notes that spiritualists of that era were exceptional defenders of abortion, and I will focus on this facet of the book. He assembles striking evidence that these spiritualists justified abortion on the same grounds radical feminists use today: that women have free “choice” in maternity, a right “to their own bodies,” and an absolute “empire” over their unborn child, and that the “unwanted child” is better off dead. Then as now, he shows, abortion was linked to degrading schemes of population control.
Spiritualists were dogmatic about women’s “absolute” rights. At a spiritualist convention in 1858, free lover and medium Julia Branch condemned marriage for giving men “rights” over women’s bodies and insisted that women must choose when and with whom to “assume the maternal function.” Women had “an absolute right to their own bodies,” she declared.
While she did not explicitly endorse abortion, this was an argument other spiritualists used to justify it. For instance, Henry Wright, a Congregationalist minister turned spiritualist, declared in a book revealingly titled The Unwelcome Child (1858) that “the mother’s empire” over her unborn child was “absolute,” and that his fate was her “decision alone to make.”
Stating that he was personally opposed to abortion, Wright went on to justify it thus: It was “forced on the mother when she was pregnant with an unwanted child”; it “could liberate the child from an anticipated lifetime of suffering and bondage in this oppressive world”; it “could be the mother’s supreme, although difficult, act of love for her child” (he believed that John Quincy Adams’s spirit told him this); and all blame for abortion lay on men for their “oppression” of women.
Two other spiritualists, Thomas and Mary Nichols, argued in Esoteric Anthropology that if a woman has “any right in this world it is the right to herself; and if there is anything in this world she has a right to decide, it is who shall be the father of her children and to choose the time for having them.”
The Spirits’ Plans
The spiritualists tied the new liberation of women to population control and eugenic programs. Buescher recounts how it was proposed in The Educator, “the spirits’ encyclopedia for the New Era,” that advanced scientific and industrial techniques be used to bring the “manufacturing” of humans “under large-scale rational control” and that children be “cultured” like “plants in a greenhouse.”
These spiritualists, he notes, applied the same principles to “the production of children” as to “the production of textiles, books or shoes.” They wanted human breeding “industrialized so that the quality and amount of the output could be controlled.” Traditional marriage was dismissed as a “debased state of promiscuity hypocritically masquerading as virtue.”
Spear never drew back in horror from a projected society in which, the spirits said, “a child may be begotten to order, as one begets a spade, shovel, or hoe.” Indeed, he boasted that in such a society, “each woman, if she were pregnant, would have willed it.” He believed, Buescher explains, that “voluntary motherhood” meant “the freedom of the mother to have children when she wished to have them—that is, the right not to have children when she did not wish to.”
But in fact, he continues, the spiritualists’ “voluntary motherhood” required that a woman “be prevented from having children unless others, most especially the community, wished her to do so. . . . The idea entailed both the procreation of ‘improved’ children and the prevention of ‘unimproved’ ones.” Free love, then, had an “internal contradiction”: Women were free to be promiscuous, but not to produce offspring.
It never occurred to Spear that women were degraded by such principles and practices. Of course, the degradation was covered up by flattering language. Spiritualist Eliza Farnham, in Woman and her Era (1864), declared that “women’s spiritual nature was closer to the divine than men’s” and that “women’s ascendancy” would cause the human race “to rise to a more exalted position than ever before.” After taking “control,” women would “divinize” their bodies and spirits to bring forth the new race.
Another spiritualist declared: “It is for WOMAN to start the next political revolution—which will be the grandest the world has ever witnessed.” The spirits also pledged that “free, unfettered mothers” would someday create “new, improved humans” without the need of men.
Not surprisingly, spiritualists also promoted contraception. Buescher observes that the spiritualist physician Edward Bliss Foote invented the word contraception, and his son, another spiritualist physician, the contraceptive diaphragm.
From John Buescher’s groundbreaking and highly engaging life of John Murray Spear, one may conclude that much of today’s promiscuity, attacks on marriage, and advocacy for abortion and eugenics can be traced back to American spiritualism. These home-grown “progressives” with their séances and utopian projects were not the harmless cranks of popular history, but sexual radicals who opened up a Pandora’s box full of moral evils that would plague future generations.
Anne Barbeau Gardiner is Professor Emerita, Department of English, John Jay College, City University of New York. She is the author of Ancient Faith and Modern Freedom in John Dryden?s The Hind and the Panther (Catholic University of America Press) and a regular reviewer for New Oxford Review.