Spiritualism as a movement grew out of an intense religious fervor that gripped New York state in the mid-1850s that also gave birth to Mormonism and Christian Science. Spiritualism also shares characteristics of transcendentalism, the hallmark of 19th-century American philosophy.
Shades of Spiritualism run through American literature - Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Harriet Beecher Stowe. Many Victorians turned to séances as families lost loved ones young in the Civil War. Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln hosted séances in the White House following the death of their son Willie.
Today, Spiritualism is a religion, and "a beautiful one," says Judy Ulch, a medium at the Wonewoc Spiritualist Camp. While communication with the dead is the best known of Spiritualism's beliefs, its other tenets are less unusual - and quite progressive.
Spiritualists support freedom of religion, freedom from discrimination (including on the basis of sexual orientation), women's rights, the right to die, planned parenthood "and the widest dissemination of sex and hygiene knowledge, to the end that poverty and social diseases may be eliminated."
They oppose industrial oppression, capital punishment, and "war in any form." With regard to abortion, the church believes "it is the individual's right to make an informed choice in the matter as she alone would be responsible for her actions."
Spiritualists believe in evolution, not "individual creation"; the Bible story of Earth's creation "bears no relation whatever to scientific facts." And they reject the concept of damnation, eternal or otherwise.
It's a positive philosophy, emphasizing opportunities for growth. The religion's symbol is the sunflower, which "turns its face toward the light of the sun" just as Spiritualism "turns the face of humanity toward the light of truth." Of course, this tends to be overshadowed by the communication-with-the-great-beyond angle.
And one more thing. "We're not trying to convince anyone of anything," says Ulch. "Take what you need and leave the rest. We don't go door-to-door, we don't advertise. We don't push anything."