The Remarkable Life of John Murray Spear, Agitator for the Spirit Land, by John Benedict Buescher

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John Murray Spear was a colourful character who has been largely ignored in histories of Spiritualism, but John Benedict Buescher has rectified that situation in this thoroughly researched and sympathetic biography.  Spear was involved in many undertakings which aimed, not always in a realistic manner, to improve social and spiritual conditions, and his life was marked by his increasingly marginalised engagement with the religious and reformist political movements of the northern United States in the decades either side of the Civil War.

Born in Boston, Mass., in 1804, he trained, after serving an apprenticeship to a shoemaker, as a Universalist minister, but parted company with his parishioners as his radical interests grew, finally abandoning the denomination when he found that his flocks could not follow where he led.  From 1852 he was a Spiritualist trance medium, with a ‘Congress of Spirits’ guiding his actions.  This body contained such luminaries as Emanuel Swedenborg, Daniel Webster, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, among others, and Spear determined to promote ‘their’ vision of the ideal society.

His earliest efforts at social action, while a minister, were to ameliorate conditions in prisons and to help released prisoners reintegrate into society.  From prison reform and the abolition of capital punishment, he moved to campaigning for the abolition of slavery.  Gradually he left direct assistance to individuals behind as his focus widened to address the ills of society in general.  To his fight against racism he added that for women’s rights, becoming an advocate of free love and arguing for the abolition of marriage bonds that oppressed women in domestic slavery.

His struggle to improve society involved a wide range of activities, developing novel technological innovations with spirit guidance.  These were not merely labour-saving devices, they were the physical expression of spiritual forces underpinned by the energy released by sexual relations, with human gestation their analogue.  They were designed to improve the quality of life, but alas placed an unwarranted faith in the principle of perpetual motion.  The most elaborate was a ‘New Motor’, which would, according to the spirit of Ben Franklin, harness the power found in all things and bring freedom from drudgery.  But more, it would in some way allow “spiritual light” to descend from heaven (p.97).  Needless to say it didn’t live up to expectations.  A more modest sewing machine was little more successful because Spear’s spirit contacts never managed to supply a design either sufficiently distinct from or more practical than those manufactured by existing patent holders.

The spirits were certainly fertile in their ideas, but appeared to lack common sense.  Such devices as a furnace providing unlimited amounts of heat, or platforms levitated by mediumistic power, or a ship in the form of a duck moving by means of a vacuum created by electricity, the electricity generated by male and female mediums having sex, never (thankfully) got off the drawing board.  More than once, when it became clear that the principle of a device was unworkable, the construction was, allegedly, conveniently destroyed by a mob, thereby saving the ‘inventors’ the embarrassment of having a clearly useless machine on their hands.

At a time of technological acceleration, Spear and his coterie tried to forge the embodiment of their vision of the new world, but found that their level of practical expertise was no match for their wild utopianism, and the spirit Association of Beneficents supposedly providing advice proved to be no help at all in the end.  Spear’s most successful post-clerical occupation was as a healer, which he pursued for many years, something that did not rely on perpetual motion for its motive force.

While Spear could be credulous, he was at the same time extremely brave, both in enduring some poverty in pursuing his vocation, and physically (he suffered a severe beating from a mob in Portland, Maine, which may have affected his subsequent judgement), as he espoused what were often unpopular causes.  Buescher contrasts his flamboyant approach with staid British Spiritualism which contained far less radicalism, though Buescher underestimates what did exist in England.  Spear saw no distinction between religion and politics, one being the practical application of the other.

Given that Spear seems so odd to modern eyes, it is significant that he was able to retain a devoted following and a number of firm friends.  That says much about his charisma, but also that within the context of his times, his theories could be plausible, even when they involved the production of a perpetual motion machine, or digging a hole 150 feet deep at the community in Kiantone, New York, because spirits had said that treasure and Indian artefacts would be uncovered (they weren’t).  Many attested to his genuine personal goodness, but he was considered a dangerous radical by others as he moved ever leftwards, becoming involved in the First International and eventually adopting quasi-Anarchist opinions in his Transcendentalist emphasis on the autonomous individual, and the illegitimacy of government to seek to control personal behaviour.

This apparent libertarianism, though, was not all it seemed; Buescher notes that the spirit world could be just as authoritarian in its demands as more earthly powers.  A Spearian society would have resembled those fringe communities in which choice of sexual partners and childbearing of members are regulated by the collective (or to be more precise the leader of that collective). Spear advocated a form of eugenics in which human perfection could be attained by obeying the commands transmitted by those who were spiritually attuned.  His unhesitating obedience to spirit messages meant that the implications of his ideas were deeply at odds with the practical humanitarianism he had demonstrated during his early career when he was the “prisoner’s friend” and champion of runaway slaves.

Despite his grand projects for the reformation of society, Spear was unable to see that his brand of Spiritualist radicalism was being left behind as the class struggle focused on material forces in this world, without relying on the next, for its driving force.  Karl Marx characterised Spear’s ilk as “the intrusion into the [First] International of bogus reformers, middle-class quacks, and trading politicians” who attracted “all sorts of middle-class humbug sections, free-lovers, spiritists, spiritist Shakers, etc.” (p.272)

It was obvious that someone like Spear would be anathema to Marx, though Spear could never be characterised as a bogus reformer.  His reformist zeal was genuine, if doomed to failure.  As Buescher points out, Marx’s vision proved no more accurate than Spear’s, though of the two Marx had a superior understanding of society’s mechanics.  Yet when Spear died in 1887, Emma Hardinge Britten bemoaned his association with “those ultra Socialistic institutions which have most unjustly attached an ill odour to the Spiritualism of America.” (p.294)  His attempt at hybridising Spiritualism and radical politics ultimately satisfied neither side.

Spear’s previous neglect has been partly caused perhaps because academics are embarrassed writing about his more eccentric ideas, or because he does not fit neatly into the discourses of Spiritualism and fringe religious movements in the US that have developed in recent years.  Buescher has done an enormous amount of archival research to remedy this neglect, produced an absorbing account of this significant figure, and laid the groundwork for elaborations of the issues his life throws up.  Buescher’s extensive notes are a valuable resource for researchers who want to investigate Spear and his world.

Buescher could have adopted a sneering superior tone in recounting the more extreme views and activities of Spear and his associates, but he is always balanced and sympathetic even when describing yet another public embarrassment for his subject.  It is easy to assume that Spiritualism was (and is) more monolithic than was the case.  This book shows its remarkable variety, and shines a light on the sort of disreputable bits that tend to be ignored in scholarly analyses.  Whether Spear fully deserves Buescher’s sympathy is another matter.

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