- A Luminous Brotherhood: Afro-Creole Spiritualism in Nineteenth-Century New Orleans by Emily Suzanne Clark
Among the reformist movements of the mid-nineteenth century, Spiritualists gathered to hold séances that circumvented patriarchal and racist denominations and social organizations within the United States. The dead provided a glimpse of an ideal, egalitarian world. Emily Clark provides a landmark critique of a rare archival source, the message books of black Spiritualists active in New Orleans from 1858 to 1877. Clark translates the spirit messages received by the few dozen French-speaking Creoles of color who formed the Cercle Harmonique. All permanent members were men, though women occasionally joined their gatherings. Clark manifests their worries and aspirations as they struggled with questions of slavery, civil war, and racially motivated political violence.
While the historiography concentrates largely on white Spiritualists of Protestant backgrounds in the North, Clark skillfully unpacks the over thirty large message books to reveal how Afro-Creoles of Catholic backgrounds in the South gave a distinct twist to the belief system. Spiritualists embraced "the Idea" (p. 5). The spirits urged the living to cast aside prejudices and embrace a "republican egalitarianism" [End Page 691] that mirrored the afterlife (p. 6). The meticulous records kept by Henry Louis Rey, a freeman born in New Orleans of San Domingue parents, show that the "idealized spiritual world was not really real until it was written down" (p. 36). Furthermore, the "identities of the spirits who came to the Cercle Harmonique sometimes disclose more about the group and their practice than the content of the spirit messages" (p. 39). After all, the message of the spirits remained consistently hopeful of humanity's progress toward egalitarianism. Clark explains that the "luminous brotherhood of spirits was harmonious because the spirits had been purified of prejudice and intolerance, either through their actions in the material world or through a purgatory-like period in the spirit world called retribution" (p. 48).
Clark's careful categorization of the spirits attending the séances is the strength of her study. The spirit messengers reveal both who the Cercle Harmonique revered for bringing the world closer to the Idea and who they forgave for earthly faults. The spirits "grounded" the membership during chaotic times (p. 65). Fallen Union veterans of African descent, such as Captain André Cailloux who died in battle in May 1863, often emphasized sacrifice. Victims of the attack on the interracial political gathering at the Mechanics' Institute in New Orleans in July 1866 also gave heartening messages of racial progress. French revolutionaries like Robespierre, venerated Catholics like St. Vincent de Paul, and prominent Americans such as Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and John Brown urged resilience. So too did fallen Confederates such as General Albert Sidney Johnston and Lieutenant Colonel Charles Dreux, the first Louisiana officer killed in combat. These Confederates lamented their support of slavery. Their "apology … confirmed that the physical victors of the Civil War were also the moral victors" (p. 121). Membership in the Cercle Harmonique nevertheless declined in the mid-1870s as the resurgence of white supremacy undermined the faith of these Afro-Creoles.
Though Clark gives ample attention to the influence of Catholicism, she largely ignores any influences of voodoo despite mentioning Rey's distant family ties to voodooist Marie Laveau and white officials' [End Page 692] raids of séances as illegal voodoo gatherings during the antebellum period. Otherwise, Clark ably contextualizes the Cercle Harmonique's Spiritualism within New Orleans and the Atlantic world during the nineteenth century. Her study gives valuable insight into Afro-Creole thought in Louisiana. Clark's book conjures forth the aspirations of a unique community struggling to gain freedom and equality at a time of hope and, ultimately, despair. Scholars of the nineteenth century will want to listen closely to these voices.
ANTHONY J. STANONIS teaches at Queen's University Belfast. He is the author of Creating the Big Easy: New Orleans and the Emergence of Modern Tourism (2006) and...