- A Luminous Brotherhood: Afro-Creole Spiritualism in Nineteenth-Century New Orleans by Emily Suzanne Clark
From amid the hothouse of religious growth and diffusion that characterized the nineteenth-century United States, Emily Suzanne Clark has constructed a compelling narrative of an exceptional faith community intertwined with its surrounding socio-religious context. In A Luminous Brotherhood: Afro-Creole Spiritualism in Nineteenth-Century New Orleans, Clark explores the philosophies and ideals of the Cercle Harmonique, a collection of Afro-Creole Spiritualists active in New Orleans from 1858 to 1877. She argues that the Cercle Harmonique's recorded spirit messages reflect an "egalitarian republicanism" and racial struggle that paralleled the trajectory of optimism and ultimate failure of black social and political progress in the Civil War and Reconstruction-era South (p. 6).
Clark organizes A Luminous Brotherhood into "concentric circles" of contextual analysis, focusing respectively on the Cercle Harmonique's membership and leading mediums, the group's social and political surroundings in mid-nineteenth-century New Orleans, the dynamics of Afro-Creole Spiritualism vis-à-vis Catholicism, the Cercle's appeal to American articulations of republicanism, and the mobilization of transatlantic revolutionary memory to secure egalitarian progress (p. 18). In some ways, the Cercle Harmonique was a study in tension and paradox. Mediums envisioned an egalitarian, harmonious society even as they were increasingly marginalized alongside freedpeople after emancipation. Afro-Creole Spiritualism positioned itself in sharp contrast to its adherents' Catholic heritage, especially the perceived greed and concern for power evinced by the Catholic Church. Nevertheless, Clark contends, the Cercle Harmonique had "resonances of Catholicism" and even had a patron saint in the spirit of Vincent de Paul, one of the group's most frequent spirit visitors (p. 19). The spirits told the mediums of a paradise without race that awaited them, but the luminous hierarchy of enlightened spirits belied a fixation on whiteness and lightness as fundamental ideals once the material body was shed. The spirits generally renounced violence, but abolitionist crusader John Brown was revered, and Maximilien de Robespierre's spirit taught that violence in pursuit of noble aims was sometimes necessary, if regrettable.
In several key principles, however, Clark finds consistency among the Cercle Harmonique and its supernatural mentors. The "Idea," a concept that emphasized progress, equality, and fraternal harmony, served as the Cercle's central basis (p. 5). Moreover, the Idea required action, and the spirits typified a postmillennialist theology that reflected both optimism for earthly progress and the need for human action to spur that process of reform and perfection. Finally, the Afro-Creole mediums carried on a long-standing tradition of republican and egalitarian opposition to oligarchy and structural discrimination. Just as Robespierre, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Charles de Montesquieu, and Toussaint Louverture had stood against the ancien régimes of their day, the Cercle [End Page 189] Harmonique—guided by the shades of revolutionary forerunners—combated the new ancien régime of southern white enslavers and Black Codes.
Clark effectively and efficiently covers the concentric scope of A Luminous Brotherhood. Her primary source material is derived overwhelmingly from the Cercle's séance records; she translated and transcribed a prodigious number of those manuscripts, almost all of which were written in French. Her handling of New Orleans politics and society, especially in narratives of the 1866 Mechanics' Institute riot and the 1874 battle of Liberty Place, is particularly strong. Clark infrequently succumbs to the temptation of overreaching her evidence as she does once when she presumes a sexual dalliance based on a spirit's vague admonition of his son. And historians of religion may wish for some comparison of the Cercle Harmonique's beliefs with those of nineteenth-century Universalists, as they seem to have much in common. Overall, however, these are minor quibbles. A Luminous Brotherhood is an excellent and versatile contribution to the fields of nineteenth-century race, religion, and social history that will prove useful for graduate and upper-level undergraduate courses.