Posted by: emilysuzanneclark | May 21, 2014

Materiality and Afro-creole Spiritualism

I’m currently transitioning my dissertation on Afro-creole Spiritualism in New Orleans into a book manuscript. Here is just a little taste of the material and what I’m thinking about.

On a Friday evening in 1872 a group of New Orleanian Afro-creole men met at the home of Henri Louis Rey. They sat around a modest wooden table with a simple goal: make the world a more egalitarian place. Rey began the meeting by opening a large register book and picking a hand-written essay to read from and then further discuss. Cercle HarmoniqueThe essay had been communicated to them by the spirit of Abraham Lincoln, or maybe this week Rey picked a message from Robespierre or maybe Toussaint L’Overture. Regardless of who delivered the message, Rey’s spoken treatise on it would have highlighted the beauty and importance of the democratic and republican spirit world and the corrupt material world he and the rest seated at the table currently occupied. It was the duty of this group, the  Cercle Harmonique, to imitate the egalitarian world of the spirits here on earth and Reconstruction was the time to do it. After concluding his short lecture, the group felt unified. With this harmony established, the lines of communication between the Cercle Harmonique and the spirit world were open. The medium could begin receiving wisdom from spiritual advisors like Saint Vincent de Paul, Voltaire, John Brown, or perhaps Rey’s deceased father. Like all messages, the group recorded them. As one spirit explained, a medium, as a true apostle of Spiritualism, “must write what is dictated.”

For a community of spirits and Spiritualists who frequently criticized the material world and humanity’s proclivity for “materialism” (that “vile” source of “antagonism”), their practice had a significant material component—the making of their own library. The books in their library were spiritually crowdsourced with messages from hundreds of different spirits inside. The result was thirty-five large register books, which amounts to over eight thousand pages, filled with missives from the spirit world. At the beginning of a meeting, the medium in charge would write the day’s date in the book and then begin recording the messages the Cercle Harmonique received, likely as the message was being conveyed to the medium. The message needed to be recorded in its entirety. The Spiritualist secretary did not use shorthand and the messages don’t seem paraphrased. At the end of each message, a name is signed on the right-hand side of the page like a letter. Many of these spiritual guides are well-known: Lincoln, Voltaire, Saint Vincent de Paul, Daniel Webster, Montesquieu, Robert E. Lee, Pocahontas. Even Lorenzo Dow delivered a message once. Others are less so: the mediums’ deceased parents, local New Orleanian priests, or spirits that remained anonymous.
The record-keeping of the Cercle Harmonique bordered on graphomania. While Spiritualism is typically described by both practitioners and scholars as a religion focused on the spiritual and the non-material, the copious records of the Cercle Harmonique indicate the importance of putting to paper—and thus making material—the spirits’ messages. Transcribing the messages from the spirit world legitimated the perfect, egalitarian world of the spirits and justified the republican outlook of the Cercle Harmonique. Simply put, the idealized spirit world was not really real until it was written down. Once the words of the spirits became tangible, then they became truth.



  1. wow! very interesting I’m here in New Orleans is there a place I came see these books or get more information of these events taking place in New Orleans

  2. I cannot wait to read this when it’s published. The Spiritualism described here reminds me so much of black family Bibles, particularly the way in which “writing makes real” and libraries are formed of anything/everything that may be useful. Anyway, very cool stuff.

    • Hi Richard – Thanks! I think the innovative making of their own texts in African American religious history is a really interesting area. I’m looking forward to seeing your dissertation too!
      We should try to grab a coffee or a beer at AAR and chat.

      • Sounds good. Let’s definitely make that happen.

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