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Spiritualism and the Language of Universal Religion in Nineteenth-Century America

Messamore, Everett

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Abstract

This dissertation adds to the current scholarship surrounding the construction and popular diffusion of the modern concept of religion. While the construction of this concept has deep historic roots, it emerged fully during the nineteenth century as closer contact and cultural exchange through colonialism fostered comparisons of faiths to each other in search of commonalities. Religion was increasingly understood both as an abstract category—divorced from its exclusive identification with Christianity—to describe the various systems of faith in the world as well as a true and eternal essence. Additionally, some entertained the utopian dream that the true essence of religion could be realized in history thereby creating a universal religion for all mankind.

Historians have traditionally associated such broader understandings of religion with eighteenth-century Deists in England, American Transcendentalists, liberal Protestants more broadly, divines of religious academies like Harvard Divinity School, and, more recently, esoteric movements like the Theosophical Society and New Thought. A similar emphasis on the universality of religion and an optimism regarding the impending spiritual unity of the human race can be seen in the loose religious movement known as Spiritualism. Unlike Transcendentalism or academic comparative religion, Spiritualism represented a broad and democratic movement that cut across class, gender, and race. Though the emphasis on eastern religion was far more pronounced in Theosophy and New Thought, Spiritualism, emerging in the mid-nineteenth century, prefigured and influenced them both.

As such, this dissertation argues that Spiritualism was an important force for popularizing and democratizing new comparative ideas about religion that had previously existed as part of a more elite and educated discourse. Spiritualists, though lacking a binding creed or theology, generally agreed that there was a timeless and true essence of religion that had been partially expressed in the various historical religions of the world. Thus, other religions and their scriptures could be fruitfully compared and wisdom extracted from them, though Christianity typically remained the implicit standard for comparison. With a pronounced faith in progress and a religious fervour shared by the surrounding revivalistic culture of nineteenth-century America, Spiritualists hoped to transcend sectarian boundaries and—with the help of spiritual guides— inaugurate a new era of peace and social reform under the auspices of their quintessentially modern and rational religion.

Item Type: Dissertation
Supervisor: Stievermann, Prof. Dr. Jan
Date of thesis defense: 9 November 2018
Date Deposited: 03 Dec 2018 09:24
Date: 2018
Faculties / Institutes: Neuphilologische Fakultät > Dekanat Neuphilologische Fakultät
Subjects: 130 Paranormal phenomena
200 Religion
220 Bible
230 Christian theology
290 Other and comparative religions
Controlled Keywords: Spiritualismus, Spiritualismus <Theologie>, Mesmerismus, Davis, Andrew Jackson, Naturreligion, Weltreligion, Universalreligion, Religionsvergleich, Esoterik, Metaphysik, Religionswissenschaft, Amerikanistik, USA, Transzendentalismus
Uncontrolled Keywords: Spiritualism, Spiritualist, Nineteenth Century, America, United States, Religion, Comparative Religion, New Religious Movements
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