- Upstate Cauldron: Eccentric Spiritual Movements in Early New York State by Joscelyn Godwin
By Joscelyn Godwin, Albany: Excelsior Editions, State University of New York Press, 2015, 386 pages, $90.00 Cloth, $29.95 Paper.
On the night of March 6, 1844, Andrew Jackson Davis came to his senses seven feet off the ground, lying atop a brush altar somewhere in the Catskills. In the morning, he walked forty cold miles back to his lodgings in Poughkeepsie, retracing the route along which he had been supernaturally carried the evening before. Along the way, he had a series of visions. They culminated in a graveyard rendezvous with the classical Greek physician Galen, who showed him a magical walking stick filled with medical remedies, and with Emanuel Swedenborg, who promised to teach him “the interior realities of all subordinate and elevated things.” That evening, an exhausted Davis had himself “magnetized as usual” for a mesmerism show, but he announced a change in his regular program. From now on, he would minister exclusively to the sick. Later in life, he would study at a regular medical college in New York City. In the intervening decades, however, he published elaborate theories important to the growth of the Spiritualist movement.1
Joscelyn Godwin’s Upstate Cauldron is full of stories like Davis’s. They take place in a hybrid New York landscape: a modern space that various putative prophets have laced with esoteric spiritual meanings. Andrew Jackson Davis’s visions, unfolding at precise temporal and physical locations, and mixing supernatural, scientific, and commercial modes of thought, are typical of the diverse “eccentric spiritual movements” Godwin chronicles. [End Page 248]
Most histories of spiritual ferment in New York focus on the antebellum “burned-over district” of the western and central regions, or else highlight the Erie Canal and the Hudson River as a corridor between that district and New York City. Godwin, however, effectively defines the upstate region as the entire state northwest of the Bronx. His study of “early” New York begins with the revolutionary era and ends with the first decades of the twentieth century—except for a concluding chapter, which takes the reader to Woodstock and Ithaca during the 1960s. This breadth of scope gives the book its originality. Upstate Cauldron amounts to a survey of the state’s eccentric spiritual history.
Godwin, a musicologist who has published many books on Western esotericism (including an English translation of the 1499 Hypnerotomachia Poliphili), proves a lively and well-informed guide to this terrain. He conducts a mostly chronological tour, organizing each short chapter around one or more spiritual leaders whose work he summarizes and contextualizes well. The tour begins with Mother Ann Lee and Jemima Wilkinson, the Publick Universal Friend, both of whom emerged from revolutionary-era Quakerism as messiahs for a sexually egalitarian divine kingdom. It continues with the Seneca prophet Handsome Lake, who led a theologically syncretistic but morally puritanical movement that helped maintain Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) identity after the American Revolution. Later chapters examine “sleeping preachers” who occasionally appeared in the antebellum era; the esoteric roots and Masonic influences of early Mormonism, drawing on the work of John Brooke, Richard Bushman, and Michael Homer; the eschatology of the Millerites; and the struggles of perfectionist utopian communities at places like Sodus Bay and Oneida.
Around the mid-1840s, for reasons Godwin does not explore, the character of the movements described in the book changes. The earlier groups, for all their eccentricity, generally grew from Christian traditions or showed keen interest in the Bible. Later movements were, if not avowedly secular, either scientific or pagan in tone. Godwin notes this shift (116–17) but does not suggest a cause, though elsewhere he alludes to the influence of Charles Darwin. Although the utopian communities of the 1840s included one openly irreligious group at Skaneateles, the shift mostly seems to have taken place under the auspices of Spiritualism. The Spiritualist movement manifested itself in the informal speculations of some abolitionists [End Page 249] and feminists; in the early careers of the rather tragic Utica sex magician Paschal Beverly Randolph and the...