Exactly 100 years after Swedenborg began his ruminations, an 18-year-old apprentice shoemaker from Poughkeepsie went into a trancelike state and wandered into the Catskill Mountains, where he claimed he met the spirit of Swedenborg and a second-century Greek physician named Claudius Galen. Although poor, uneducated, and seemingly ill-equipped for oration, Andrew Jackson Davis began lecturing throughout New York on spirit communication and theosophy while dictating dense books such as The Principles of Nature; Her Divine Revelation; and a Voice to Mankind, said to be passed to him by Swedenborg and other spirit guides.
On March 31, 1848, Davis dictated the message, "The good work has begun -- behold a living demonstration is born"; it was the day that the parents of Kate and Margaret Fox reported their daughters' first communication with a spirit responsible for supernatural knocking in their Hydesville, N.Y., home. Within a few months, the otherwise "sober, respectable Methodist" sisters had become national sensations, and modern Spiritualism was born. The notion of spirit communication seized the imagination of the Western world as only the arrival of telegram communication had a few years earlier. Churches and Spiritualist societies sprang up throughout the United States, Europe, and South America. Séances and the consequent explorations of clairvoyance, clairaudience, clairsentience, spirit raps, table-tipping, levitation, automatic writing and painting, and ectoplasm materialization became staples in the salons and drawing rooms of such respected characters as Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Sir William Crookes, an eminent physicist who claimed to have watched famed Scottish medium David Dunglas Home float out the window of his building's top floor, hover 70 feet over the street, and return through another window. In the U.S., where Spiritualist churchgoers were occasionally threatened with lynching by fundamentalist mobs, the National Spiritualist Association of Churches was born.
Currently, there are no fewer than eight Spiritualist churches in the Bay Area, with numerous lyceums and programs for instruction in mediumship and spiritual healing. I am drawn to experience a service at the Golden Gate Spiritualist Church, a white Baroque-style mansion that sits on a grassy knoll accented by gumdrop-shaped evergreens on the corner of Franklin and Clay. Two tiers of Georgian white marble stairs lead to a foyer lined with Italian pink marble. Beyond the solid oak doors, an intimate auditorium lies bathed in the lustrous glow of redwood paneling and a circular skylight of stained glass. I arrive unannounced and talk to no one. I just settle into one of the many empty red-velvet theater seats and listen as Sammy Artista strums hymns on his guitar. The Rev. David F. Burr, the assistant pastor who is leading tonight's midweek service, stands at the speaker's platform looking like a character from a Flannery O'Connor story -- crisply ironed suit, thick head of ashen hair, pronounced cheekbones, and shining, somewhat indefinite, eyes. He nods and smiles in that warm, disembodied, spiritual way as I move toward the Healing Chapel where most of the congregation sits in silence amid Persian rugs, soft lamplight, and tall, gray-haired Spiritualist healers in freshly pressed suits. A grainy black-and-white portrait of the Rev. Florence S. Becker hangs over a glass case filled with porcelain elephants.
Becker founded the Golden Gate Spiritualist Church in 1924, after serving as pastor and president of the First Spiritual Temple (on South Van Ness between 17th and 18th streets) for a decade. She appears as elegant and capacious as the room in which we now sit. Resting in one of many high-backed chairs, I soak in the old photographs, books, fireplace, organ, and all the Victorian knickknacks, which were so commonplace during the Golden Age of Spiritualism, and easily imagine Jules Verne chuckling in the corner. One of the healers invites me to the center of the room, where he places his fingertips lightly over my forehead and cranium while standing in silence, ostensibly channeling a healing spirit from the other side. I notice a slight chill, then the same sort of warmth and lightheadedness one might experience during Reiki massage.
The evening, slated as an "all-message service," starts with two hymns sung painfully out of key and a recital of the Declaration of Principles, among them, "We believe in Infinite Intelligence," and, "We affirm that the existence and personal identity of the individual continue after the change called death." Then the three mediums are introduced.
Marie McDermott, an attractive woman who had a near-death experience in the eighth grade that led her to an unequivocal belief in life after death 30 years ago, begins the evening. The details in McDermott's descriptions seem somewhat vague: There's a motherlike figure; she's larger than life and she's lifting you up, lifting you up. Her spirit messages are somewhat routine: Just hold that chin up; you'll come through everything OK; take small steps forward. But her style is gentle and affirming, and the recipients of her messages are intensely grateful.
Sonny Gee, on the other hand, is like the Dr. Jang of the spirit world; he's a firecracker of a medium.
"OK, let's go! Little Susie is anxious to get started," he says, grinning far too largely as he points to a woman in the crowd. "There's a very stern woman coming through. She wasn't the sort of woman that traded recipes. She read a lot. That's OK."