Q&A: Erik R. Seeman, Speaking with the Dead in Early America

picture-155-1357242582Today, the Junto features a Q&A with Erik R. Seeman about his new book, Speaking with the Dead in Early America (University of Pennsylvania Press). Seeman is professor and chair of the history department at the University at Buffalo (SUNY) and the author of three other books on religion and deathways in early America and the Atlantic World. He has also published many articles and essays, including in the William and Mary Quarterly, Journal of the Early Republic, Journal of American History, and Church History.

JUNTO: Your book recovers the many ways Protestant Americans, especially women, spoke with the dead from the 17th century up to the well-known rise of séance Spiritualism around 1850. What do you think caused previous historians to miss all of this pre-Spiritualism activity? Did the fact that speaking with the dead was a gendered phenomenon lead to this oversight?

ERIK SEEMAN: Yes, gender is definitely a big part of the story. For the complex of beliefs that I call the antebellum cult of the dead, the sources I use are ones historians have largely overlooked: women’s spiritual journals and sentimental literature.

Take, for example, Sally Hersey’s 200-page journal. As far as I can tell no other scholar has ever used it. Who cares about an ordinary woman’s religious musings, right? Yet in that journal are dozens of prayers Hersey composed to her dead son, daughter, and husband. “Dear departed shade,” she addressed her son, “I shall behold the[e] no more in the land of the living.” That’s not how Protestants were supposed to think about the dead.

JUNTO: There is a fascinating section in the book on the conspicuous presence of ghosts and the dead during the Salem Witch Trials. You use this to draw out the 17th century “science of the dead,” as you term it. What was the “science of the dead” and what does this framework tell us about the speaking with the dead in colonial American life?

ERIK SEEMAN: The science of the dead included efforts by minister-scientists such as Joseph Glanvil in England and Increase Mather in Massachusetts to learn about what happened to the soul after death. These ministers feared the ideas of Hobbes and like-minded materialists who were skeptical about whether the soul even existed. Glanvil and Mather felt it was a short step from “Hobbism” to a denial of God’s existence. Therefore, they became active ghost hunters. They sought credible evidence of the supernatural to prove God’s existence.

These highly educated ghost hunters offer some of the best evidence about seventeenth-century ghost belief – not only that such belief was widespread, but also that many ghosts were known to the people who perceived them. Rather than causing terror, familiar ghosts usually offered comfort to the living, like the ghost of a young man who told his mother, “I am happy.” She then knew that he was in heaven.

JUNTO: Throughout the book, you make use of a variety of printed texts. How did changes in print culture shape how Americans spoke with the dead?

ERIK SEEMAN: Historians used to argue that the rapid growth of newspapers and magazines in the eighteenth century helped usher in modernity – and that one of the defining characteristics of modernity was increasing secularization and skepticism about the supernatural.

I join more recent historians in pointing out that newspapers and magazines were multivocal. Yes, such new media helped spread the ideas of “enlightened” elites who tended to be skeptical about the returned dead. But those outlets also included ghost sightings reported as news, accounts from visionaries who had visited heaven and hell, and poetry and short fictions that represented the living speaking with the dead. The growth of print culture did not necessarily lead to the “disenchantment of the world,” to use Max Weber’s phrase.

JUNTO: At the same time, material evidence is particularly critical to your description of what you call the antebellum “Protestant cult of the dead.” What led you to look at objects? Why was it so necessary for your story?

ERIK SEEMAN: I learned to appreciate the value of material culture while researching and writing Death in the New World (2010). Compared to cultural forms such as music and sex, death leaves behind more traces in the material record. Such evidence is crucial, especially if one wants to reconstruct the mental worlds of non-elites.

So from the beginning of my work on Speaking with the Dead I searched for material evidence of imagined relationships between the living and dead. I found even more than I expected: embroidery, gravestones, mourning jewelry, locks of hair, memorial portraits, and photographs of deceased children.

Combined with written records, material sources show how some people used objects to maintain relationships with the dead. As one woman wrote in 1834 to her dead husband: “My George, my love.  As I gaze upon thy portrait … I feel that thou art at rest, where no sorrow can assail thee.” As with other participants in the antebellum cult of the dead, this woman used objects not just to remember the deceased, but also to facilitate communication with them.

JUNTO: I want to end with a big picture question. Obviously, as you show, the nominally Catholic practice of communicating with the dead survived the Protestant Reformation. Your first book was about laypeople defining their own piety in negotiation with ministers. Is this a story of conflict between lay practice and Church doctrine, and how the laity shaped Protestantism?

ERIK SEEMAN: Speaking with the Dead is definitely about how lay men and women shaped Protestantism. But that doesn’t mean they were always – or even often – in conflict with their ministers. Many clergymen were interested in communication with the dead; as I mentioned, seventeenth-century minister-scientists actively sought stories about ghost encounters from their parishioners.

At other moments, lay men and women spoke with the dead in ways that were invisible to their pastors. It’s almost certain that Sally Hersey’s Congregational minister didn’t read her private spiritual journal in which she prayed to her dead son. If he had, he probably would have been concerned. As another minister wrote in 1807, “at death, we drop all converse with those we leave behind us.”

All this points to the importance of examining material and written sources produced by non-elites. That 1807 quotation comes from a published source easily available through online databases. Reading Sally Hersey’s spiritual journal requires a trip to the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston and hours to decipher her untutored scrawl. Such efforts are crucial to uncovering the complicated relationship between ministerial prescription and lay practice.

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