Quaker Theology #25 -- Summer - Fall 2014
An Excerpt from Remaking Friends: How Progressive Friends
Changed Quakerism & Helped Save America, 1822-1940.
By Chuck Fager.
FIVE: “Oh! No, It Cannot, Cannot Be –
My Darling Babe Will Live . . .”
As we turn to spiritualism, it is worth recalling that in one sense,
there was not much new about these soon-notorious manifestations. “It
would be possible,” wrote Rufus Jones in 1921, “to fill an entire book
with instances of remarkable “leadings” and “openings” which marked the
lives of the [leading Quietist] ministers. They saw, or seemed to see,
the inner state and condition of persons before them. . . . They were
more telepathic than the rank and file of the membership were. . . .
Samuel Emlen of Philadelphia (b. 1730, d. 1799) was considered by many
to be a seer. He was remarkably favored with insight into character and
conditions of life, and he was so unerring in his revelations that many
persons were afraid to meet him for fear that he would see through them
and uncover the secrets of their lives.”
And such phenomena among Friends goes back to the very beginning: British Friend John W. Graham, in his 1927 book, The Divinity In Man
said of George Fox that he was “not the first, nor the last outstanding
religious leader through whom ‘mighty works’ and unusual powers have
been manifested.” He then cited Fox’s own statements to show that “he
had trances and visions, had telepathic faculties and premonitions,
effected spiritual healing . . .” Then, of course, there was Fox’s own
Book of Miracles, which was suppressed but the substance of which was
recovered in the last century by the intrepid scholarly detective work
of Henry Cadbury.
To be sure, 19th century spiritualism reflected its very different
social context, and many orthodox believers would indignantly reject
any connection between its raps and writings and the “signs and
wonders” of their preferred saints, classing it with the “witchcraft
and sorcery” that were forbidden by the Bible. But one need only note,
as does Amelia Mott Gummere in her book, Witchcraft and Quakerism, that
the opponents of Fox and early Friends said the same things about them.
Actually, spiritualism and “the Divine Law of Progress” went together like peanut butter and jelly.
How do I know? Because George Fox himself told me.
Well, at least “George Fox” did.
And he didn’t actually say it to me, but rather to Isaac Post, a
Progressive Friend from Rochester, New York, who wrote it down in 1851.
Here’s some of the message:
“Fox”: “I labored earnestly to gather
together a people that I hoped would regenerate the world. I endeavored
to so form our agreements that none could feel restricted by our
articles of faith.
“These were only intended to set bounds to outward conduct; always
intending that progression should be our motto– advancement our life;
and wherever an evil was perceived, duty called us to assail it.
. . .
“Much that I left on record was penned as it were, from the first
dawnings of Light upon my mind–I was in a progressive state, and as
things opened I penned them; many of them being much in advance of my
former views. Instead of taking my writings for a guide, they should be
considered as helps marks for encouragement, and never for a moment as
laws to govern others.”
Spiritualism leaped into public attention among Americans in 1848, that
manic year of revolution and Progressive Quaker exodus. Three teenage
sisters in western New York, Margaret, Leah and Katherine Fox,
began hearing and producing strange rapping noises, which were soon
interpreted as communications from disembodied spirits. As fame –and
controversy– began to swirl around them, they were taken in by Isaac
and Amy Post, and supported as well by Rhoda deGarmo, who was soon to
become the Co-Clerk of the Waterloo Progressive Yearly Meeting.
The Posts not only believed in and defended the Fox sisters. Isaac Post
soon followed their example, becoming a medium himself, with whom the
“spirits” communicated by automatic writing. It seemed he had a knack
for attracting the ectoplasmic attention of many famous persons,
getting messages from George Washington, Ben Franklin, Voltaire and
others, as well as numerous prominent Quakers. By 1852, he had enough
such material to fill a book, called Voices From the Spirit World,
from which the Fox quotes above are taken.
Many of the leading abolitionists were also spiritualists. Progressive
Friends too: besides Rhoda de Garmo, Joseph Dugdale, and many others.
Several of their yearly meetings adopted resolutions, called
“Testimonies,” commending it to the attention of others.
It’s important to note that Spiritualism, while definitely religious
and theological, was not a new denomination. One did not “join” it, get
baptized or sign a creed. When a seance was held, believers and
non-believers alike often attended, and participants were called
“investigators.” Nor was it an exclusive practice; many who talked with
spirits also maintained their conventional church connections,
Methodist, Baptist, even Quaker.
The “investigator” label points to another way Spiritualism aligned
with the Progressive Friends: their commitment to “Progress” was
heavily weighted toward science, and the burgeoning benefits of
empirical investigations and experiments. And the new variety of
seances and trance medium sessions offered a kind of pseudo-empirical
study: one came, one listened and watched, gathered experiential
“evidence,” and one drew one’s own conclusions. Many investigators were
convinced; others not.
One Progressive Friend who stayed in the latter category was Lucretia
Mott; her hardheaded realism was never moved by the raps or by Isaac
Post’s writings. But she did have considerable confidence in
phrenology, another pseudoscience of the day, which purported to reveal
much about a person by the shape of his or her head.
Two other features of spiritualism’s appeal deserve mention here:
perhaps above all, it gave solace to the bereaved, that dead loved ones
were at ease, and not beyond the love of the living. And in that era,
when deaths from illness were much more common than now, especially
among the young, this was no small thing.
A striking example of this is our Rhode Island renegade, Elizabeth
Buffum Chace. She was the wife of a prosperous textile manufacturer;
but all her affluence and “privilege” did not save her first child,
born in 1829, or the next four after him: all five died in infancy or
As the fifth one faded, she penned a rhymed plea
“Oh! no, it cannot, cannot be;
My darling babe will live.
He must not go away from me,
He is the last of five. . . .
And, much and often have I prayed,
That so it might not be;
That in a little coffin laid
This one I ne’er might see.
“Oh! Father, spare him longer yet,
Our lonely home to cheer.
We’ve often said it was for this
That Thou hast sent him here.”
But it was not to be. Then, says her biographer:
Elizabeth Buffum Chace & a grandchild
“It was almost inevitable that
Spiritualism, in its dawning day, should attract the yearning interest
of a woman, five of whose babes had wandered into the forest of Unknown
Wilderness. Mrs. Chace saw a pillar of cloud taking shape before her on
her darkened pathway and followed it for a score of years, sometimes
believing, sometimes doubting, sometimes hoping that messages floated
backward to her from her lost children. For two or three years in the
early period a sweet young girl dwelt in her home, who had or seemed to
have the mysterious power of a “medium.” Later, a younger son of Mrs.
Chace’s seemed also thus endowed.
“Certainly, these things did happen when there was no possibility of
intentional fraud; namely, Mrs. Chace and a few intimates, including
the ‘medium,’ would sit around a small but not too easily moved table;
they would place their hands upon it, and, after two or three minutes
of silent waiting, the table would begin to rock, and, so far as
concerned the consciousness of the sitters, without their muscular
“Then Mrs. Chace would repeat the alphabet, and the table would stand
still and only tip to call attention to particular letters. The letters
taken in that designated order did spell words, and the words did come
in proper sentence relation to each other, and the sentences did carry
“Mrs. Chace, certainly, for a time, believed quite simply in it all as
genuine revelation. She taught her living children [she had five more]
that there were no fairies, but that the spirits of their own dead
brothers and sisters whom they had never seen were their special
guardian angels. It was a pretty faith, a real household cult, and,
since it was taught and accepted sincerely, it did no harm, were it
true or were it only one of the numberless human imaginations of the
“I think Mr. Chace never quite accepted the Spiritualistic faith. The
Quaker Inner Light sufficed for him, but he was not opposed to his
wife’s opinion and perhaps his own sometimes approached it. . . .
But in later life, Spiritualism, as such, ceased to influence her. She
never quite disavowed belief in it; she said only, “It used to seem
true when we were receiving those communications from the children.” In
the last twenty years of her life she said little about that long,
noonday passage of her soul through a valley wherein dreams and hopes
moved like almost visible phantoms beside her.”
Besides the crushing feelings of loss, Elizabeth Chace also had to
contend with the lingering legacy of New England Puritan theology. Its
stern predestinarian vision dictated that most humans were doomed to
spend eternity in the torment of hellfire, regardless of their personal
innocence or guilt. Babies too? Some said yes, others squirmed and
fudged. The uncertainty was a torment to many who did not consider
themselves of Puritan stock, yet still lived and breathed in that
Pioneer Wesleyan writer Charles Wesley excoriated this dismal doctrine in a 1741 poem, “The Horrible Decree”:
O HORRIBLE DECREE
Worthy of whence it came!
Forgive their hellish blasphemy
Who charge it on the Lamb . . . .
The righteous God consigned
Them over to their doom,
And sent the Saviour of mankind
To damn them from the womb . . . .
They think with shrieks and cries
To please the Lord of hosts,
And offer thee, in sacrifice
Millions of slaughtered ghosts:
With newborn babes they fill
The dire infernal shade,
“For such,” they say, “was thy great will,
Before the world was made.”
Spiritualists vociferously rejected this notion, and claimed that their
spirits confirmed their rebuttals. And comforting the bereaved was a
steady draw for new “investigators” as Americans passed the midpoint of
One other important point: many of the early stars of the Spiritualist
movement were also strong supporters of most of the Progressive
reforms: abolition, women’s rights, temperance. That and their
combination of a “scientific” performance and an affinity for the new
lecture circuit that the Progressive groups offered was an irresistible
But all was not roses for spiritualism and reform. Not a few of the
“investigators” became utter devotees, forgetting about any other
concern. This was the case when Boston abolitionist Parker Pillsbury
sent this gloomy report from the 1857 Michigan Friends of Human
“The greatest good accomplished at this meeting, perhaps, was to
separate the Anti-Slavery cause from a morbid, mawkish Spiritualism,
that had infested it like the potato-rot, and was almost working its
ruin. . . . There were some gone-to-seed, professed Abolitionists among
them, whose anti-slavery seemed not to have been very vital, for they
have mostly discontinued their anti-slavery papers, too often leaving
arrearages of from one to five or six dollars unpaid.
“These disciples of Spiritualism appeared much annoyed, all of them, at
the introduction of anti-slavery into our discussion. Many of them
seemed to assume the meeting as their own . . . . Some would not hear
us patiently, if at all; and others declared they would not have come
to the meeting, if they had known it was to be open to any thing but
their favorite idolatry. It is certainly not too much to say, that
there is not a more bigoted and intolerant class in the whole
sisterhood of sects, than this type of so-called spiritualists.”
While wildly popular at mid-century, spiritualism never really became
entirely respectable. In the decades after the Civil War, its mass
appeal began to decline, and it drops out of the records of the
surviving Progressive groups. But it never really went away, and
persists among Friends today, as will be noted later.
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