views updated May 18 2018


In everyday Spanish and Portuguese, the word espiritismo refers to a wide range of beliefs—including African, Native American, and Western—that have to do with spirits and mediums (people who claim they can communicate with spirits). However, for people more versed in the distinctions among the various spirit-oriented religious and philosophical systems in Latin America, "spiritism" usually refers to the movement founded by the French educator Allan Kardec (born Hippolyte Léon Denizard Rivail).

In the 1850s, Kardec began to attend sittings with mediums, and eventually he codified the spirits' teachings into a multivolume spiritist doctrine that began with his Le livre des esprits (1857; first translated into English as Spiritualist Philosophy; The Spirits' Book). In addition to supporting the idea of communication with the dead via mediums, Kardec also argued in favor of spiritual illnesses, reincarnation, and the existence of a spiritual body (perispirit). He saw spiritism not as a religion but as a philosophy rooted in observation and having moral implications. Kardec embraced Christian morality, but he did not accept key Christian dogmas such as the Trinity and the reality of heaven and hell.

The spiritist movement grew rapidly in France in the mid-nineteenth century, as did its nonreincarnationist sibling spiritualism in the English-speaking countries, and both were propagated in Latin America as well. In Europe and North America, spiritism and spiritualism soon faded into minor sects, whereas in Latin America they encountered a warm reception that was due in large part to the affinities between spiritism and African, Native American, and Iberian folk Catholic magic and religion. The result was, in many places, a Syncretism, or blending of spiritist beliefs and practices with those of the local religions, such as the African religions of the Caribbean and coastal Brazil.

There are many today who follow Kardec's spiritism in a fairly pure form, especially in Brazil, where the spiritist population was estimated at 7 million in 1990. At one extreme of this diverse movement are the intellectuals: doctors, engineers, and lawyers who are more interested in psychical research and alternative medicine. At the other extreme are those who regard Kardec's doctrine as one element in a syncretic religious and healing system. In between are a large number of spiritists who have a frankly evangelical style; they tend to study closely Kardec's The Gospel According to Spiritism, and many view themselves as Christians.

In most countries, there are spiritist magazines and books, and in Brazil there is a huge network of bookstores to support the spiritist press. Spiritist publications include "psychographed" books, that is, texts that the spirits write via mediums in trance states. In Brazil, some of the medium-authors, such as Francisco Cãndido ("Chico") Xavier, have best-seller status.

Spiritists meet in spiritist centers, where they study the works of Kardec and other spiritists, develop their skills as mediums (although not all spiritists are mediums), and provide charitable services. In Brazil, spiritists run outpatient clinics, dental services, psychiatric hospitals, orphanages, pharmacies (sometimes homeopathic), and a number of other free services to the poor.

Spiritist centers also offer spiritual healing, which most frequently involves "passes" (roughly, the laying on of hands) and a type of exorcism known as "disobsession." Spiritists believe that one cause of illness is affliction from earthbound spirits, which attach themselves to people and cause them mental distress and physical illness.

Some mediums have also been known to practice "psychic" or "spirit surgery." One type involves pantomime-like operations over the body of the patient; spiritists operate on the spiritual body without actually touching the patient. Another type involves cutting into the skin with a scalpel or other instrument, usually to remove minor tumors such as lipomas. The latter type is extremely controversial, and in Brazil the practice has been condemned by an association of spiritists who are also practicing medical doctors. They prefer conventional "passes" and "disobsession," as well as alternative psychotherapies such as "past-lives" therapy and neurolinguistic programming.

Spiritists occupy a position of mediation in the religious and class structure (between Roman Catholicism and Native American/African religions), but it is difficult to generalize about their politics and political ideology. Historically, they have suffered persecution by church and state, such as in Puerto Rico before the American occupation and in Brazil during the Getúlio Vargas years. Spiritists defend freedom of religion, rights for religious healers, and various other sorts of liberal freedoms. Spiritist doctrine also maintains that spirits have no sex and that the sex (and sexuality) of "incarnate" humans is a result of the karmic processes of past lives. Because at the spiritual level there are no sexual differences (and the same would apply to race or other biological differences), spiritists believe in human equality.

However, in practice spiritism tends to reveal the patriarchical and Eurocentric values of Latin American elite culture. Most of the positions of high prestige (psychographer mediums and organizational presidencies) are occupied by men, although women occasionally rise to power and prominence as well. In Brazil, spiritist mediums tend not to receive the pretos velhos (old black slave) and Caboclo (Native American) spirits of the more syncretic Umbanda centers, and while spiritists support birth control, they are often adamantly opposed to abortion. However, while older spiritists are often quite conservative, younger and university-educated spiritists tend to be more progressive. Thus, any discussion of spiritism should always keep in mind its tremendous variation across cultures and social strata, as well as its ongoing historical development.

See alsoAfrican-Latin American Religions: Brazil; Candomblé; Syncretism; Vodun, Voodoo, Vaudun.


For Brazil, see David J. Hess, Spirits and Scientists (1991). For Puerto Rico, see Alan Harwood, Rx: Spiritist as Needed (1977); Vivian Garrison, "The Puerto Rican Syndrome in Psychiatry and Espiritismo," in Case Studies in Spirit Possession, edited by Vincent Crapanzano and Vivian Garrison (1977), pp. 383-449; and appendix 3 of David J. Hess, Spirits and Scientists (1991). For Mexico, see June Macklin, "Belief, Ritual, and Healing: New England Spiritualism and Mexican-American Spiritism Compared," in Religious Movements in Contemporary America, edited by Irving Zaretsky and Mark P. Leone (1974), pp. 383-417. On the spiritualist movement in Mexico, see Kaja Finkler, Spiritualist Healers in Mexico (1985).

Additional Bibliography

Fernández Olmos, Margarite, and Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert. Creole Religions of the Caribbean: An Introduction from Vodou and Santería to Obeah and Espiritismo. New York: New York University Press, 2003.

Ferrándiz Martín, Francisco. Escenarios del cuerpo: Espiritismo y sociedad en Venezuela. Bilbao: Universidad de Deusto, 2004.

Giumbelli, Emerson. O cuidado dos mortos: Uma história da condenação e legitimação do espiritismo. Rio de Janeiro: Ministério da Justicia, Arquivo Nacional, 1997.

Herzig Shannon, Nancy. El iris de paz: El espiritismo y la mujer en Puerto Rico, 1900–1905. Río Piedras: Ediciones Huracán, 2001.

Hess, David J. Samba in the Night: Spiritism in Brazil. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.

Hodge Limonta, Ileana, and Minerva Rodríguez Delgado. El espiritismo en Cuba: Percepción y exteriorización. La Habana: Editorial Academia, 1997.

Santamaría, Daniel J. Ocultismo y espiritismo en la Argentina. Buenos Aires: Centro Editor de América Latina, 1992.

Silva, Fábio Luiz da. Espiritismo: História e poder (1938–1949). Londrina: Eduel, 2005.

Stoll, Sandra Jacqueline. Espiritismo à Brasileira. São Paulo: EDUSP: Curitiba: Orion, 2003.

                                             David J. Hess


views updated Jun 08 2018


Belief in the possibility of communication with the spirits of the departed, and the practice of attempting such communication, usually with the help of some person (a medium) regarded as gifted to act as an intermediary with the spirit world. In popular speech the word "spiritualism" is more commonly employed to express this meaning, but its use is here avoided to prevent confusion with spiritualism in its philosophical sense.

Moral Evaluation. Catholic theologians reject the idea that disincarnate spirits can be evoked at will, but they do not, in general, favor any particular interpretation of the phenomena that spiritists claim have occurred. Catholic moralists are agreed that to participate in spiritistic activities is gravely illicit for the following reasons.(1) Spiritistic organizations often constitute a heretical sect that professes doctrines entirely opposed to divine revelation. Frequently spiritists incline to pantheism or some form of theosophy; they generally admit the permanent existence of human personality after death, but they teach a form of metempsychosis for all and deny an eternity of punishment. They consider Christ and the Prophets as only "mediators" of a natural religion. Needless to say, they are opposed to other organized religions, considering them to have only an indifferent value. (2) Sacred Scripture expressly forbids the practice of trying to summon up the souls of the deceased (See Dt 18.1012; Lv 19.31; Lv 20.6, 27). (3) Catholic moralists point to the possibility that many of the things reported in spiritistic séances could be due to diabolical influence, so that to engage in spiritistic practice could, in effect, amount to a kind of trafficking with evil spirits. (4) Spiritistic activity not infrequently causes damage to the health of body and mind.

It is not lawful to have recourse to spiritism as a means of therapy even if a physician thinks that it can produce possible beneficial effects on the psychoneurotic patient. Psychiatry today possesses other shock therapeutic methods that are effective, lawful, and advisable. It is also held to be gravely sinful to act as a medium or to consult one with the intention of finding out something that is not known. It is basically a form of divination, and as such, is contrary to the law of God.

Decrees of the Church. A decree issued by the Congregation of the Inquisition on July 30, 1856, mentioned "evocation of departed spirits and other superstitious practices of spiritism," and exhorted the bishops to employ every effort to suppress these abuses. The reason it called for strenuous and swift action on the part of the bishops was stated: "that the flock of the Lord may be protected against the enemy, the deposit of faith safeguarded, and the faithful preserved from moral corruption." When asked "whether it is allowed either through a so-called medium or without one, and with or without hypnotism, to assist at any spiritualistic communications or manifestations, even such as appear to be blameless or pious, either asking questions of the souls or spirits, or listening to their answers, or merely looking on, even with a tacit or express protestation that one does not want to have anything to do with evil spirits?" the Holy Office replied in the negative to all points in the inquiry on April 26, 1917 (Acta Apostolicae Sedis 9269; T. L. Bouscaren and J. I. O'Connor, Canon Law Digest 1.155).

It is understood, however, that what is condemned is superstitious abuse and that there was no intention to preclude legitimate scientific study, provided there is no recourse to means that are essentially immoral or specifically forbidden.

Bibliography: a. wiesinger, Occult Phenomena (Westminster, MD 1957). r. omez, Psychical Phenomena, tr. r. haynes (New York 1958). a. flew, A New Approach to Psychical Research (London 1953). c. m. de heredia, Spiritism and Common Sense (New York 1922). h. thurston, The Church and Spiritualism (Milwaukee 1933). a. h. m. lÉpicier, The Unseen World (new ed. enl., London 1929). j. liljencrants, Spiritism and Religion (New York 1918).

[m. d. griffin]


views updated May 18 2018


A general term for the belief that the spirits or souls of the dead communicate with the living through a medium or psychically sensitive individual. The term has been used with two quite different meanings in the twentieth century. In conservative Christian circles it is often used as a derogatory term to describe Spiritualism in anticult literature. It is also used as the designation of the followers of the particular Spiritualist teachings of Allan Kardec (1804-1869), a French medium who also had immense influence on the development of Spiritualism in Spain, Portugal, and South America (especially Brazil ). Kardec's thought was distinctive from British and American Spiritualism in the nineteenth century by its advocacy of belief in reincarnation.

Prior to his adoption of Spiritualist beliefs in about 1862, Kardec had been an exponent of animal magnetism and phrenology. He based his new teachings on spirit revelations received through clairvoyants, and so popular were these teachings that they rapidly spread over the Continent. In Britain, however, Spiritism obtained little hold, its only prominent exponent being Anna Blackwell, who endeavored without success to establish the doctrine of reincarnation.

Spiritism and Spiritualism should not be confused, since the adherents of each section were opposed to the tenets of the other. Even in France, where Spiritism obtained the strongest footing, there was a distinct Spiritualist party reluctant to accept the doctrine of reincarnation.

Kardec's Spiritism flourished in nineteenth-century France, and is today well established in South America, especially Brazil, where it is estimated that there are now some four million Spiritists. In contemporary South American Spiritism there is a noticeable tendency to blur formal distinctions between Spiritism and Spiritualism, particularly in Brazil, where all kinds of physical phenomena are manifest, including psychic surgery. The Spiritism of Kardec discouraged such physical medium-ship as materialization in favor of automatic writing, believing this to be a more direct and unambiguous contact with departed spirits.

Modern Brazilian Spiritists also make a distinction between ordinary automatic writing (escrita automotica ), which might involve the medium's own subconscious, and psicografia (dictation from a spirit entity).


Kardec, Allan. Experimental Spiritism: The Mediums' Book. London, 1876.

. The Spirits' Book. London, 1875.

Playfair, Guy Lyon. The Flying Cow: Research Into Paranormal Phenomena in the World's Most Psychic Country. London: Souvenir Press, 1975. Reprinted as The Unknown Power. New York: Pocket Books, 1975. Reprint, London: Panther paperback, 1977.


views updated May 11 2018

Spiritism ★★ Espiritismo 1961

Mother uses one of her three wishes to bring back her dead son. Adapted from the “Monkey's Paw.” 85m/B VHS . MX Nora Veryan, Jose Luis Jimenez, Jorge Mondragon, Rene Cardona Jr.; D: Benito Alazraki.