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The concept of the supernatural event, which underlies the contemporary concept of the paranormal, has long had a part in religion. Colonists immigrating to North America brought with them traditions shaped by New Testament and medieval beliefs that the physical world is open to the influence of spiritual beings: God, angels, and demons. It was believed that God miraculously manifested his salvific power in the life of Jesus, and continued to intervene through occasional wonders wrought by saints. Furthermore, there was a widespread assumption that certain human beings could wield magical power either good, bad, or neutral. Magical systems are based on a view of the world as having correspondences, or "sympathy," between different things or different orders of being, making possible action at a distance in space or time—for example, the belief that the utterance of a curse or a blessing has an unmediated impact for ill or good on its object.

The Colonial and Antebellum Periods

By the fifteenth century, beliefs about the supernatural tended to become polarized, with both ordinary and extraordinary events often interpreted as being due to demonic activity. For three centuries paranoia supported by religious authorities manifested in waves of witch-hunts, including, in North America, the notorious New England trials and executions of 1692 and earlier. At the same time, however, there remained many people who considered various magical practices, such as astrology and the use of protective amulets, to be consistent with Christian beliefs.

Enlightenment rationalism and reaction to the witch-crazes caused beliefs in psychic phenomena and in the effectiveness of magical practices to wane in the eighteenth century, particularly among the educated and the powerful in society, though they continued much longer at the level of folk belief.

Nonetheless, there were significant religious movements stressing supernatural events and powers. The Shakers, immigrating to North America in 1774 under the leadership of Ann Lee, reported and highly valued various supernatural experiences such as clairvoyant visions and healing. From 1837 to the late 1850s, Shakers claimed visions of heaven and trance messages from Mother Ann and other first-generation pioneers as well as from angels and biblical prophets.

The successive waves of Protestant evangelical revivals also were accompanied by purportedly supernatural events (though many evangelicals did not welcome such phenomena or accounts of them). Among the evangelists, eighteenth-century Methodist itinerant clergy, for example, reported a number of precognitive dreams; a Calvinist clerical family claimed visions of Christ and Lazarus-like near-death experiences. Nineteenth-century revival converts experienced such phenomena as Christic visions, divine light flooding their surroundings, and nature glowing with celestial splendor. Many also believed that the life transformations (such as abrupt disappearance of addictions) in their ensuing lives were due to divine intervention.

The style of Christianity that developed among enslaved African Americans was influenced both by the revivals and by fragments of magical beliefs and practices retained from African religions. For example, praying to the Lord against the master was not altogether different from explicit practices of "conjure" and Witchcraft. That these beliefs and practices could embody genuine power is evident from Harriet Ross Tubman, conductor on the Underground Railway, whose autobiography tells of apparently successful praying-against as well as several instances of answered prayer in the form of telepathic warnings that enabled her to evade capture during her nineteen journeys of liberation.

Mormonism arose in the 1820s and 1830s in the upstate New York setting of competing evangelical groups. Its founder, Joseph Smith, Jr., reported that, guided by an angel, he found a cache of golden plates that he translated by means of a stone having supernatural powers. Some later Mormons practiced healing by laying on of hands, and reported near-death visions giving knowledge of the afterlife.

Mesmerism with its trances and healings, and Swedenborgianism with its beliefs in spirits and an afterlife were both influential in the early nineteenth-century United States, laying the groundwork for the Spiritualist movement, which began in 1848. One of the most important tenets of Spiritualism was the possibility of bringing messages to the bereaved from deceased loved ones, and it was here that paranormal knowledge—accounts by mediumistic communicators of specific events that the medium could not have known about normally—was highly valued when it was perceived to have happened. Spiritualists faced much opposition from mainstream religion.

The Years 1865 to 1961

Spiritualists tended to deprecate institutional religion as dogmatic, and recommended their own approach to the issue of life after death as comfirmable by scientific investigation. A few scientists and scholars rose to this challenge, but by the time the societies for physical research were established in the 1880s, the scientific study of mediumistic communication had largely separated from spiritualism as a religion. The societies continue to the present, and a number of prominent researchers (parapsychologists) have come to hold that there is in fact ample social-scientific evidence (if not proof) from the study of mediumship and other psychic phenomena that human personality does survive death.

It was parapsychologists who found the term "supernatural" too vague and freighted with religious overtones, and coined "paranormal" to refer to events that appear to violate taken-for-granted basic principles: the dependence of mind on brain, and the limitations on the ways one mind can interact with another mind and with matter. "Supernatural" and "paranormal" are not coterminous concepts; with the increase of knowledge, some healings or visions considered supernatural in previous centuries would not be considered paranormal today. In many cases there is insufficient information about a given historical case to settle the issue.

Another instance of the paranormal may be found in Pentecostalism. Pentecostalism is a renewal movement, whose members now number in the millions, that began at the turn of the twentieth century in Topeka and Los Angeles with glossolalia—"speaking in tongues"—by members of Holiness Movement churches. These incomprehensible utterances, though considered supernatural, are not definable as paranormal except when (as sometimes claimed) the speaker is using a recognized, unlearned language. Other characteristic activities were healings by laying on of hands; "prophecy" and "wisdom"—that is, spontaneous admonitions or homilies; and "discernment of spirits," seeing visions of spiritual beings. These manifestations sometimes involved apparent telepathy and clairvoyance.

Second Half of the Twentieth Century

In the 1960s and 1970s, Pentecostalism, under the name of charismatic renewal, appeared (and continues) in both Protestant and Catholic mainline churches, with the same basic phenomena. Unsurprisingly, much controversy resulted.

In Roman Catholic charismatic groups, these phenomena overlap with visions of the Virgin Mary and resulting pilgrimages to such places as Conyers, Georgia; Bayside, New York; and Santa Maria, California. In connection with Marian pilgrimages there have been reports of paranormal healings in response to prayer, of photographs showing inexplicable light, and of rosary beads of ordinary metal turning to gold—spontaneous modern alchemy. Church authorities are very slow to endorse these manifestations.

Metaphysical trance communications that have come to be known as "channeling" sometimes were accompanied by paranormal knowledge; an example is the well-documented work of Edgar Cayce, who diagnosed the ill health of hundreds of persons unknown to him. Beginning in about 1970, channeling was to become a major feature of the New Age movement, which envisions a radical transformation of the individual and of society. Different groups have used varying means toward these goals: meditation, exploring purported past lives, claimed contact with angels or spiritual guides. Many of these groups report and value paranormal phenomena as providing evidence for the truth of their beliefs; a few, however, consider such powers to be a temptation from the path to self-realization.

In sum, religious movements in North America, for the most part marginal, have manifested a range of beliefs, practices and happenings, that they consider supernatural; some of these in fact can be understood as paranormal. Traditional mainline churches tend to resist these developments.

See alsoAfterlife; Angels; Astral Planes; Astrology; Channeling; Devils, Demons, and Spirits; Glossolalia; Magic; Marian Devotions; Near Death Experiences; New Age Spirituality; Occult, The; Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity; Psychic; Spirit; Spiritualism.


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Gudas, Fabian, ed. Extra-Sensory Perception. 1960.

James, William. The Varieties of ReligiousExperience. 1903.

Raboteau, Albert J. Slave Religion: The "InvisibleInstitution" in the Antebellum South. 1978.

Robert Ellwood Gracia Fay Ellwood