A Luminous Brotherhood

Afro-Creole Spiritualism in Nineteenth-Century New Orleans

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Emily Suzanne Clark
  • Chapel Hill, NC: 
    The University of North Carolina Press
    , September
     280 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Readers’ whose interest in nineteenth-century New Orleans Spiritualism was initially piqued by Robert Cox’s Body and Soul: A Sympathetic History of American Spiritualism will be pleased with this comprehensive and meticulously researched study. Author Emily Suzanne Clark’s Luminous Brotherhood examines the Cercle Harmonique, a group of Creole men who practiced spiritualism between the Civil War and the Reconstruction. While spiritualism has been a movement most often associated with white Protestant women in the Northeast, the Cercle Harmonique was unique in that it was comprised of Afro-Creole Catholic men in the South. As with their Northeastern counterparts, members of the Cercle Harmonique were educated, questioned the status quo, and were concerned with social justice and equality. Also, like their counterparts, the Cercle Harmonique allegedly consorted with the spirits of influential American leaders such as President Lincoln. However, unlike the white spiritualist establishment, the Cercle Harmonique communicated with the spirits of Catholic saints, and the Brotherhood was more specific in its beliefs about race—arguing that the biggest obstacle to achieving social harmony was the prevalence of racial prejudice. Recognizing that the issue of race is mostly elided in “mainstream” spiritualism, Clark makes this a focal point of her study, highlighting significant differences.

The opening chapter of the Luminous Brotherhood, “The Creation of the Cercle Harmonique” discusses members of the Brotherhood—a small, tight knit group, most of whom were part of a prominent Creole family: the Reys. This chapter helps to situate the family historically and socially, contextualizing the Brotherhood in terms of Northeastern spiritualism. For instance, Clark references the famous New York medium Emma Hardinge Britten and the mutual respect she cultivated with the Brotherhood (22). We learn that the Reys were from a highly literate, moneyed, and mostly Francophone class, but nevertheless occupied a vexed place in New Orleans society because they did not quite fit into either white or black worlds—a problem that became particularly pronounced when the Civil War was over and they were no longer recognized to be in a class of their own, but considered to be “free blacks.” Although they did own slaves—and some had volunteered to fight for the Confederacy—various members of the Rey family surrendered to Union soldiers, eventually joining the Union forces. In séances, the spirits of Union leaders appeared as heroes, while the Confederate dead appeared before séance sitters to apologize for their wrongdoings. Most significantly, during these séances, the Brotherhood received information about an ideal world in which race was not a factor, and they believed that in death, they would leave the “raced body” behind in favor of a “bright spirit.”

In chapter 2 Clark traces many of the difficulties that the Rey family would have experienced as Creoles in nineteenth-century New Orleans. “The Disharmony of New Orleans City Life” covers key events immediately following the Civil War, in particular, the Miner’s Institute Riot between “free blacks” and white supremacists. Chapter 3, “Spiritualism and Catholicism,” is perhaps one of the most illuminating sections of this book in that Clark maps doctrinal tensions between spiritualism and Catholicism, and explains why Catholicism was so heavily critiqued within the Cercle Harmonique, and how the Brotherhood—all originally practicing Catholics—accounted for their relationship with the church. The Brotherhood believed that priests were duplicitous and hypocritical, and believed that they needed to protect themselves and others from a dominant Christian establishment that often collaborated with white supremacists for material gain and political power. Yet, despite these critiques, members of the Brotherhood had been raised within Catholic families and could not let go of some of Catholicism’s central tenets. For instance, St. Vincent de Paul, patron saint of charity appears frequently in séances held by the Cercle Harmonique. The spirits of Catholic priests appeared in séances also, to apologize to the people. and to confess their social transgressions.

Chapter 4 is entitled “The Spiritual Republic and America’s Destiny.” Here, Clark emphasizes that despite the social and political proclivities of the Cercle Harmonique, the spirits were unanimous in their disapproval of slavery and the need for equality and personhood for everyone. This chapter helps to set the scene for one of the most compelling sections of the book. Chapter 5, “The Spiritual Republic in the Atlantic Age of Revolutions,” moves beyond New Orleans and considers nineteenth-century civil rights movements across the Francophone world. This chapter details how the Rey family and the Cercle Harmonique saw themselves as part of a global transatlantic movement in their fight for social equality, referencing many of the sources for their ideas—including literature popularized during the French Revolution. The Brotherhood was well versed in French arts and letters, which prompted them to reflect on their own participation in social oppression.

The Brotherhood was at its most active between the Civil War and the Reconstruction, but by the 1870s it had begun to disband. Clark speculates on reasons for this, but does not veer away from her most intriguing arguments, particularly the assertion that the Brotherhood helped disseminate powerful political ideas that played an essential social role in Afro-Creole culture—and in the civil rights movement—during that period. One of Luminous Brotherhood’s many strengths is that Clark aims to contextualize the Brotherhood historically, socially, and politically in ways that are informative and thought provoking not only to historians and scholars in religious studies, but across different disciplines. Finally, Clark has made an enormous contribution to an area of scholarship long identified as having been under-researched.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Elizabeth Lowry is lecturer in writing, rhetoric, and language at Arizona State University.

Date of Review: 
February 28, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Emily Suzanne Clark is Assistant Professor of religious studies at Gonzaga University.


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