Male and Female Pastors in the National Spiritual Alliance
How—and where—were women pastors present in the National Spiritualist Alliance?
In 1926, the United States Census Bureau cataloged five Spiritualist denominations. Spiritualism, broadly defined, is a religion that believes people can speak to and hear from the spirits of the dead, who can provide guidance to the living. One denomination of Spiritualism, the National Spiritualist Alliance (TNSA) had fifty-nine congregations across the United States, from Boston, to Miami, to Los Angeles. In 1913, TNSA broke off from the larger Spiritualist group, the National Spiritual Association of Churches, but like its parent denomination it had a large amount of women represented in the clergy.
The map below shows the geographic distribution of male and female pastors in the 1926 U.S. Census of Religious Bodies for TNSA. The map also shows congregations where the gender of the pastor cannot be inferred, and where the congregation had no current pastor. The choice to include four different designations helps show the ratio of women represented in TNSA spiritual leadership, while perserving the ambiguity inherent in the census.
Map of the National Spiritual Alliance in 1926
As this map denomonstrates, women were prevalent in leadership roles in formalized Spiritualist denominations. Twenty-three of fifty-nine congregations lasted a woman as their pastor, or about 39%, with the chance that even more also had a female pastor but did not give the full name on the schedule. Fifteen of fifty-nine leaders were definitively men. The percentage of Spiritualist clergy who were women clergy illustrates that women’s leadership remained important even after the formalization of Spiritualist denominations such as TNSA. This is significant as many Spiritualists fought formalization for decades before the National Spiritual Association and later TNSA formed. Often, formalization of denominations led to decreased opportunities for women’s leadership, and this could have been a concern for many female mediums. However, the percentage of women as pastors in the 1926 Census demonstrate that women continued to have an important leadership role after formalization of the different denominations.
The beginning of the broader Spiritualist movement dates back to 1848, and the preponderance of female leadership in later, formalized Spiritualist groups can be traced to its beginning. Katherine and Margaret Fox, two sisters from the burned-over district in Rochester, New York, began hearing ‘spirit rapping’ in their house. They gained prominence and started touring across the state, holding public seances. Their popularity was controversial: some followers believed that they could communicate with the dead, but others believed the Fox sisters to be either frauds or possesed by demonic powers. Nonetheless, the interest and belief in communicating with the dead continued, and Spiritualism became one of the fastest growing religious movements in the antebellum United States. During these decades, Spiritualism had little to no formal organization, but two methods of practicing Spiritualism proliferated, one called Phenomenal Spiritualism and the other Philosophical Spiritualism.
Phenomenal Spiritualism focused on mediums such as the Fox sisters and their performances of seances, verifying the belief in communication with the dead with experiences. Philosophical Spiritualism came from Andrew Jackson Davis, who was influenced by Emanuel Swedenborg, a Swedish philosopher from the eighteenth century, and his writings about the afterlife. Jackson lectured about the afterlife, believing there was no heaven or hell but “a concentric series of spheres into which all entered and through which all ascended as they grew in spiritual insight,” and sins were shedded, with no punishment, only love and education.1 The living were connected to the dead, and vice versa, through “bonds of affection” and the “power of sympathy.”2
Early Spiritualist leaders were mediums who connected with the spirits of the dead and performed seances, sometimes in large, public venues, as trance speakers. Mediumship gave women largely accepted access to religious leadership. Despite a roughly equal gender ratio, according to a survey from 1859, there were still more women who were mediums than men.3 There were no educational requirements or social barriers, only the ability of a person to communicate with the dead, and women, often young and white, took this opportunity. Though there were female preachers of other denominations, mediumship was tied to femininity in a manner being a preacher never was, especially as passivity characterized the role of a medium.4 During the height of Spiritualism in the United States, abolitionists and women’s rights advocates were frequently connected to the religion, which was viewed by many as radical because of the lack of formal organization and hierarchy and because of the public role it permitted women.
Though there was a decline in interest in Spiritualism after the Civil War, believers began to formalize their practices. Some fought this inclination, but conventions began in 1864, and Emma Hardinge, a medium and early historian of Spiritualism, defined the movement as a religion in 1869.5 Estimates of membership varied wildly in the 1850s and 1860s, from hundreds of thousands of adherents to eleven million—which would have been equal to one-third the population of the United States.6 The National Association of Spiritualists, the first formal association, began in 1893.7 Led by George Tabor Johnson, TNSA broke off from the National Association of Spiritualists in 1913, in large part over disagreements about reincarnation.8 After the split, Spiritualist denominations actually increased their membership by over 50,000, having over 600 churches nationally and likely thousands of female pastors in all Spiritualist denominations by 1926.9
The formalization of the National Association of Spiritualists, and then TNSA, did not lessen the prevalance of women in Spiritualist leadership roles. Instead, it gave women a structured method of acting as clergy with organized congregations that legitimized both Spiritualism and also their role as religious authority. Female pastors in TNSA may have been mediums themselves, combining the earlier role that gave female access to religious authority with institutionalized leadership, allowing them a role that was predicated not on the passivity of a medium but the action of authority. The twenty-three female pastors (at least) represented by this map continued a lineage from Kate and Margaret Fox that included dozens of female mediums who found ways to appear in public and gain platforms through Spiritualism, to women who ran their own church for a belief system that heralded women’s rights long before having formal clergy.
Please use the following as a suggested citation:
Caroline Greer, “Male and Female Pastors in the National Spiritual Alliance,” American Religious Ecologies, Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, George Mason University (2022): https://religiousecologies.org/visualizations/spiritualist-map/, https://doi.org/10.31835/relec.spiritualistmap.
Robert Cox, “Spiritualism,” in Early Republic and Antebellum America: An Encyclopedia of Social, Political, Cultural, and Economic History (Routledge, 2015), 963. ↩︎
Robert Cox, “Spiritualism,” 963. ↩︎
Catherine Albanese, A Republic of Mind and Spirit: A Cultural History of American Metaphysical Religion (Yale University Press, 2007), 235. ↩︎
Ann Braude, Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in America (Beacon Press, 1989), 83. Braude argued that Spiritualism was intertwined with women’s rights and gave women one of the largest public platforms to advocate for reform through the acceptance of female mediumship. Catherine Albanese also wrote, “Still, from its beginning the mass spiritualist movement presents the first major case in which women became acknowledged leaders in a religious milieu. The metaphysical religion of the later nineteenth century would continue to valorize the role of women. Indeed, one reason why American metaphysical religion has been understudied and sometimes flatly disdained by scholars has arguably been its strong female presence and leadership.” Albanese, Republic of Mind and Spirit, 235. ↩︎
Braude, Radical Spirits, 165; Albanese, Republic of Mind and Spirit, 220. ↩︎
Albanese, Republic of Mind and Spirit, 220. ↩︎
Braude, Radical Spirits, 7n. ↩︎
Jeremy C. Young, “Empowering Passivity: Women Spiritualists, Houdini, and the 1926 Fortune Telling Hearing,” Journal of Social History, 48, no. 2 (2014): 345. ↩︎