“There is probably nobody living more qualified to write this work and nobody who has explored the available sources and contemplated the social meaning of nineteenth century spiritualism more completely than John Buescher. His contribution in this area is unprecedented and vital." —Mark A. Lause, University of Cincinnati
"John Buescher has written a lively, richly-detailed account—and sometimes free-swinging critique—of one of nineteenth-century America's most idiosyncratic and radical religious leaders. By turns warmly sympathetic to Spear and his spiritualist colleagues, then harshly critical of their ‘neo-gnostic’ tendencies, Buescher both tells a good story and draws many inferences for present-day religious and cultural debates. Even those who might draw different conclusions should be informed and engaged by the tale he tells." —David W. Wills, Winthrop H. Smith '16 Professor of American History and American Studies, Amherst College
"Grounded in seldom-used primary sources, this is a rigorously researched, clearly written, and fascinating biography of an important nineteenth-century radical. This volume on John Murray Spear is a valuable and necessary step to uncover the lived experience of spiritualism." —Stephen D. Andrews, Indiana University
John Murray Spear was one of nineteenth-century America's most interesting characters. A leading social agitator against slavery and capital punishment, Spear also became the nation's most flamboyant spiritualist, inventor of “spirit machines,” and advocate of free love. In his captivating biography, John Buescher brings to life Spear's superlatively odd story. While no photograph or engraving of Spear exists, and his letters and personal papers are scarce, Buescher recreates in this book a sympathetic, even heroic, figure who spent the most energetic decades of his career absent, in a sense, from his own life, displaced by other spirits.
Born in 1804, John Murray Spear started his career as a Universalist minister. Later he was a close colleague of William Lloyd Garrison and Theodore Parker in the abolitionist movement, an operator on the underground railroad in Boston, an influential leader in the effort to end the death penalty and to reform prison conditions, and a public advocate of the causes of pacifism, women's rights, labor reform, and socialism. Buescher chronicles Spear's work as an activist among the New England reformers and Transcendentalists such as Bronson Alcott, Lydia Maria Child, and Dorothea Dix.
In midlife Spear turned to the new revelation of spiritualism and came under the thrall of what he believed were spirit messages. Spear's spirits dictated that he and a small group of associates embark on plans for a perpetual motion machine, an electric ship propelled by psychic batteries, a vehicle that would levitate in the air, and a sewing machine that would work with no hands. As Buescher documents, Spear's spirit-guided efforts to harness technology to human liberation—sexual and otherwise—were far stranger than anyone outside his closest associates imagined, and were aimed at the eventual manufacturing of human beings and the improvement of the race. Buescher also examines the way in which Spear's story was minimized by his embarrassed fellow radicals. In the last years of his life, retired by the spirits and regarded by fellow Gilded Age progressives as a visitor from another age, if not another planet, Spear helped organize support for anarchist, socialist, peace, and labor causes. Spear's life, an odd mixture of comic absurdity and serious foreshadowing of the future, provides us with a unique perspective on nineteenth-century American religious and social life.