3032 Spiritualism and Religious Naturalism

Sponsor: Unitarian Universalist Psi Symposium

Speaker: Rev. Aaron Payson

Prepared for UUA.org by: Chris Sealy, Reporter, Margy Levine Young, Editor

Feeding the apparently insatiable hunger of Unitarian Universalists (UUs) for knowledge in all things religious, the Rev. Aaron Payson offered a workshop on spiritualism and religious naturalism. It was sponsored by the UU Psi Symposium, which is drawn to the esoteric arts, including ESP, meditation, healing techniques, and dreamwork.

Payson believes there's a renewed interest in religious naturalism, which is a belief in the natural order as understood by ongoing scientific investigation. Religious naturalism honors the process of discovery about the world that "compels adherence to deep levels of wonder and awe." Spiritualism, on the other hand, has as its distinguishing feature the belief that the spirits of the dead can be contacted by the living, and that those spirits are capable of providing guidance in secular and spiritual matters.

Payson is particularly fascinated by 19 th century Universalist and medical clairvoyant Andrew Jackson Davis, calling him the John the Baptist for the spiritualist community. Davis was largely written out of the history of spiritualism, Payson argues, because he became a critic of the spiritualist movement when it devolved to public séances and spiritualist performances.

Davis lived from 1823 to 1911, a period of evolving science, evolving religion, evolving industry and an evolving nation - what Payson called restless ferment. Spiritualism became prominent in the 1840s with the belief that spirits were actually matter, although very fine matter. Andrew Jackson Davis argued that these spirits could be empirically proven. Many Universalists were drawn to spiritualism because of a desire to scientifically prove universal salvation.

Davis was born in New York , the youngest of six children. His mother had strong religious faith along with strong superstition. He described her as "never doubting the incomprehensible." Davis had a number of psychic experiences in childhood. His career as clairvoyant began at age 17 when he volunteered to by hypnotized. In an apparent trance, he diagnosed illnesses and prescribed treatments. He would continue doing so for the rest of his life. (At some point his "spirit guides" advised him to ask for a fee for these gifts.)

Davis published 30 volumes on his philosophy of spiritualism, the best known being The Principles of Nature, Her Divine Revelations . As he had only five months of formal education, Payson suspects that Davis 's wives (he was married three times) may have been largely involved in the writing.

Eventually, Davis turned against the popularization of spiritualism, saying he loathed the entertainment dynamic. Public séances had become extremely popular in the mid 19th century. He continued to meet with patients, but privately. His legacy must be viewed against background of American form; he as an uncompromising enemy of sectarianism.