Monday, October 31, 2016

The Spirit(ualism) of Massachusetts

Happy Halloween! Salem, Massachusetts may be considered America’s “spookiest town” today due to its well-known past, however, that was not always such the case as the Halloween traditions that are familiar to us now were not always accepted customs due to the rigid practices of the Puritan’s Protestant belief systems. It wasn’t until the second half of the 19th century that the influx of Irish and Scottish immigrants to America helped popularize Halloween, whose origins are presumed to date back over 2,000 years to the annual Celtic festival of Samhain. For centuries, “All Hallow’s Eve” has been widely thought by many who believe to be the day when the veil between this world and the spirit world is at its thinnest point.

What may not be as known is that the adoption of these ancient Halloween celebrations and traditions into the mainstream culture in the United States also coincides with the rise of the Spirtualism movement. This influential movement at that same time in history started in the 1840’s in upstate New York and soon spread to Massachusetts. Spiritualism is defined by as “the belief or doctrine that the spirits of the dead, surviving after the mortal life, can and do communicate with the living, especially through a person (a medium) particularly susceptible to their influence.”  The longest lasting and most influential spiritualist newspaper of that era, Banner of Light, with a nationwide circulation happened to be published in Boston from 1857 until it ceased publishing in 1907. While perhaps not as famous as the well-established community of Lily Dale in western New York, two Massachusetts villages have the distinction of starting as popular Spiritualist summer camps—Onset Bay Grove (now known as Onset Village) in Wareham and Lake Pleasant in Montague. Lake Pleasant, founded in 1870, claims to be the oldest continuously existing Spiritualist center in the United States and both Onset Village and Lake Pleasant today still host spiritualist churches and treasure their open communal spaces and rich sense of community traditions in the “spirit” of their founding.

The State Library’s historical collections happen to be rich in materials on Spritualism as the fascination with the supernatural was a phenomenon that captured both the imagination and skepticism of the nation in the late 19th century as it probably still could be said to do still today here in the 21st!