The Rise of Contemporary Spiritualism

Concepts and Controversies in Talking to the Dead

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Anne Kalvig
Studies in Death, Materiality and the Origins of Time
  • New York, NY: 
    , October
     118 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Anyone delving into the academic literature on Spiritualism could be forgiven for thinking it is a phenomenon restricted to the past. Since the 1980s, we have seen a growing number of studies exploring the new religion as it existed in the 19th and early 20th centuries, with a particular focus on its relationship to gender and social reform. This, however, has largely come at the expense of studies exploring the movement as it has existed since the Second World War, and particularly as it exists in the present day. It is for that reason that Anne Kalvig’s The Rise of Contemporary Spiritualism is so welcome. 

A professor of religious studies at the University of Stavanger, Kalvig’s focus is on Spiritualism as a contemporary phenomenon in Norway, supplemented with comparative material from Britain. In researching this topic, Kalvig has adopted a mixed approach, drawing upon examinations of emic literature and attendance at Spiritualist events of various kinds in both countries. Acknowledging the diffuse and diverse nature of the movement, she usefully views it through the prism of popular belief and folk religion (9). In doing so she links it to what she more broadly terms “neospirituality,” denoting what is perhaps better (if problematically) known as “New Age” (7–8).

Kalvig’s book covers a range of different issues. Following her introduction, she offers a broad overview of the religion’s history, discussing how it emerged in the United States during the 1840s before spreading to Western Europe. In her third chapter, she discusses the various Spiritualist organizations and practices that can today be found in Norway. Chapter 4 begins with the observation that Spiritualism remains a female-dominated belief system and explores why this might be the case, providing along the way a decent overview of contemporary mediumship. The following chapter brings together discussions of spiritual healing, Spiritualism’s relationship with contemporary shamanism, and its impact on popular culture, while the penultimate chapter delves into various internal controversies that exist within the movement regarding, for instance, the existence of reincarnation and malevolent spirits. In her final chapter, Kalvig uses her experiences at a table-turning session as a means of comparing divergent approaches to what “religion” is, focusing in particular on the contrasting ideas of Ann Taves and Jeffrey Kripal.

One thing that is striking about this book is how short it is. At only one hundred and eighteen pages, it is one of the briefest academic studies that I have read in a long time. That is unfortunate as I feel that Kalvig probably had a lot more that she could have discussed. As part of her research, she attended a range of Spiritualist events and courses in both Norway and Britain, yet there is little or no thick description of what she observed. It often felt like the book skipped over interesting issues very briefly, when it could have benefited from delving into them in far greater detail. The fifth chapter, for example, deals with both Spiritualism’s relationship with modern shamanism and the religion’s impact on popular culture, somewhat unrelated topics that would have been better dealt with in expanded chapters of their own. The impression given—whether accurate or not—is of a book perhaps rushed to meet a deadline. 

A related issue is the book’s comparatively scant engagement with the pertinent academic literature. Several prominent historical studies of Spiritualism—such as those of Alex Owen and Ann Braude—are cited, but some of the material more relevant to Kalvig’s own research is absent. I was particularly surprised to see no mention of Geoffrey K. Nelson’s Spiritualism and Society, a sociological account from 1969 which—prior to this volume—was the most recent monographic overview of Spiritualism as a lived movement in Britain. There is also a broader neglect of literature on esotericism and occultism, material that would have been very germane to Kalvig’s research. Her definitions of these terms are idiosyncratic, at least within the context of academic discussions. It is for instance stated that “esotericism means religious teachings exclusive to the initiated” (7), a definition which appears to derive from some emic usages of “esotericism/exotericism” but which does not reflect the etic use of the term in scholarly discourse. As a result, the book does not really succeed in locating Spiritualism’s place within the broader esoteric milieu, despite the (brief) attention given to Norwegian Spiritualism’s links with modern shamanism and to the wider field of “neospirituality.”

I would also have loved to have seen more reflexive considerations in the volume. In her concluding chapter, Kalvig describes her involvement in a table-turning session at the Arthur Findlay College in England. There, she relates that “with my hands on the table, I am at least certain of one thing: it is not I or my fellow séance participants who are moving this table” (96). This is a brave (and in my view, admirable) statement to make, given the potential repercussions of such an admission. Kalvig briefly discusses how such an experience posed challenges for her role as a researcher, but there is a much broader literature from the anthropology of religion that could have been drawn upon here. Spiritualism is unusual in placing such a strong focus on the manifestation of “strange” phenomena and thereby provides a particularly fascinating arena in which scholars of religion can explore the boundaries of their own dis/belief. 

The comparative neglect of contemporary Spiritualism by scholars of religion has long baffled me. Perhaps it is seen as too small or marginal to attract attention, but many equally small if not smaller movements have received far more interest. Alternately, it may be perceived as being insufficiently glamorous or sexy to compete for academic attention against the likes of Scientology and Satanism. Perhaps also, most worryingly, many scholars avoid studying the movement because they fear that the pervasive prejudices aimed at it—the view that it is an essentially irrational enterprise made up of charlatans exploiting the bereaved—will transfer to them too. As someone who was raised in a Spiritualist household but does not consider myself to be an adherent, I find the omission both surprising and really quite unfortunate. Spiritualism is a fascinating religious movement, both historically and contemporaneously. Thus, what excites me about Kalvig’s volume is the possibilities that it helps open up. While the high cost of this volume will likely prevent it gaining any broad readership, I hope that it encourages many more scholars to pursue research into Spiritualism as a contemporary, lived movement. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Ethan Doyle White is a doctoral student in Early Medieval Religion at University College London.

Date of Review: 
September 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Anne Kalvig is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Stavanger, Norway.


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