Why did nineteenth-century radicals such as Robert Owen and Alfred Russel Wallace, embrace the philosophy of spiritualism?

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Why did nineteenth-century radicals such as Robert Owen and Alfred Russel Wallace, embrace the philosophy of spiritualism?

The origins of Spiritualism can be traced back to 1848, when two teenage sisters, Kate and Margaret Fox supposedly communicated with the spirit of a peddler who had been murdered in their house fifteen years prior. News of this ‘discovery’ spread like wildfire and very soon people across the country and on the other side of the Atlantic were embracing the philosophy of spiritualism. Spiritualism, according to Alfred Russell Wallace, is the idea that after death, a man’s spirit survives in an ethereal body and commences and apparently endless moral progression. [1] To practice spiritualism is to communicate with spirits through a medium. The following essay will analyse the appeal of spiritualism and specifically why radicals in the Nineteenth-century; such as Robert Owen and Alfred Russel Wallace, embraced this philosophy. By analysing the three key factors of science, religion and socialism, it will be demonstrated that spiritualism was embraced by radicals because it both offered a curious alternative to traditional life, and provided a platform to build an idealistic future for society.

A major reason why so many radicals embraced spiritualism is because this philosophy was a unique platform for expressing socialist opinions. Wallace had long been a social activist. He was very vocal in such matters – in 1881, he criticised the UK’s free trade policies for the negative impact they were having on working-class people.[2] He also wrote on many social and political topics including his support for women’s suffrage, the wastefulness of militarism and his opposition to eugenics.[3] In the late 60s and 70s, Wallace himself was experiencing financial struggles and was concerned about the financial security of his family.[4] In this respect, it is likely that he had a sense of sympathy for other working-class people – furthering his socialist perspective. Like Wallace, Owen was also a socialist. He argued for the subordination of machinery and devised his own ideals for a utopian society called New Harmony, composing of communities of around 500 to 3000 people – mainly agriculture-based and possessing the best machinery, a variety of employment, and based on the principle of common interest[a]. Owen claimed to have contacted the spirits of great figures such as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, claiming that the purpose of such communications was to ‘change the miserable state of human existence’ and prepare for universal peace, charity and love.[5] For devoted socialists such as Wallace and Owen, spiritualism provided a stage for socialism. In fact, spiritualism was in some ways, a left-wing religion that franchised ordinary people. Spiritualism after all relies upon a democratic technology – anyone and everyone can participate in this practice. Additionally, only basic instruments were needed so people were not reliant upon any institution or authority for help. The main investigative tech is the medium’s own body. Many radicals used spiritualism to advance their socialist agendas. Some, under the influence of spirits, produced radical speeches, and spirits tended to be unequivocal in their support for women’s rights. Ultimately, spiritualism could easily be used as an advocacy for equality. This philosophy was a way of providing people with an opportunity to cast off disenfranchising identities and becoming ‘someone else’. The platform that spiritualism provided to voice a certain agenda is a key reason as to why many radicals embraced this philosophy.
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A major reason why radicals embraced spiritualism is because this philosophy was seen as taking power away from the Church. This notion of Primitive Methodism is crucial – some people began to feel that they no longer needed to accept the authority of the Church as they could now achieve spiritual things on their own. One could engage in spiritualist inspiration from their own homes. As Slotten explains, spiritualism appealed to many educated Victorians who no longer found the traditional religious doctrine acceptable, yet were unsatisfied with the increasingly materialistic and mechanical views emerging from Nineteenth-century science.[6] This ...

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