Seeing how the church triumphed over the New Age movement of the 1850s can help us in the 1990s.

Dozens of Christian books have decried today’s New Age movement. But many have missed an important historical precedent: A massive spiritist movement in the United States during the 1850s espoused many of the same doctrines and practices—pantheism, channeling of spirits—that characterize today’s New Age movement. The success of the nineteenth-century church in responding to that movement contains lessons for contemporary Christians.

Though largely forgotten now, midnineteenth-century American “spiritism” was much remarked upon at the time. New York businessman George Templeton Strong in 1854 thought spiritism was nonsense but its popularity extraordinary: “What would I have said six years ago to anybody who predicted that … hundreds of thousands of people in this country would believe a new Revelation, hostile to that of the Church and the Bible?”

Physician Thomas Nichols wrote that “nothing within my memory has had so great an influence. It has broken up hundreds of churches and changed the religious belief of hundreds of thousands.” In 1854, author Orestes Brownson counted 300 spiritist clubs in Philadelphia alone and complained that “the infection seizes all classes, ministers of religion, lawyers, physicians, judges, comedians, rich and poor, learned and unlearned.”

Newspapers expressed similar amazement at spiritism’s rapid spread. The Cincinnati Daily Times noted in 1854 an “astonishing” expansion of spiritism, with adherents found “on every street and corner of the city.” The New York Times in 1855 noted spiritism’s “rapid extension and wide-spread effect” and called it “the new Mahomet, or the social Antichrist, overrunning ...

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