SPIRITUALIST RITUAL AND THE PERFORMANCE OF BELIEF: SPIRIT COMMUNICATION IN TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY AMERICA
Thompson, Robert Charles
Frederik Meer, Laurie
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Spiritualism is an alternative religion focused on establishing contact between living participants and the spirits of the dead, dating to the mid nineteenth century. Drawing on eighteen months of ethnographic research at the Center for Spiritual Enlightenment in Falls Church, Virginia, I analyze the three primary rituals of Spiritualist practice--spirit messages, spirit healing, and unfoldment--and argue that performance is central to Spiritualists' ability to connect with the spirit world in a way that can be intersubjectively confirmed by more than one participant. Spirit messages are performed by mediums to a congregation or audience in order to prove to individual spectators that their deceased loved ones have continued to exist as disembodied spirits after their deaths. Spirit healing is performed by healers who channel the energy of the spirits into participants in order to improve the participant's mental, physical, and spiritual condition. And unfoldment is the process whereby Spiritualists study and practice to be able to make their own direct personal contact with the spirit world. Spiritualism purports to be a science, religion, and philosophy. I consider the intersection between criticism of empirical evidence and entertainment in order to establish how Spiritualists attract newcomers and the intersection between religious belief and ritual participation in order to establish why newcomers choose to become converts. I consider Spiritualism's early history in order to discover the nature of the delicate balance that criticism and belief have established in Spiritualist practice. And, in my analysis of contemporary Spiritualist ritual, I trace the path of the convert from a newcomer with a primarily critical attitude toward Spiritualism to a believer pursuing an increasingly direct connection with the spirit world. I conclude that the live, personal interaction of Spiritualist performance is central to Spiritualists' ability to negotiate a cooperative integration of scientific criticism and religious belief.