LATHAM, N.Y. — You've never seen a church like this one. No sign on the lawn out front. No inspirational messages. No "Jesus Saves." Not even "Have a Nice Day!"
Inside, no stained glass, no holy objects, no crosses.
Look again. There is a scroll on the wall with a "declaration of principles." Principle 1: "We believe in Infinite Intelligence."
Principle 5 launches your mind into a new orbit: "We affirm that communication with the so-called dead is a fact, scientifically proven by the phenomena of Spiritualism."
The National Spiritualist Assn. of Churches also has a history like no other church. No savior or messiah here. The association evolved rapidly from its origins near Rochester a scant 140 years ago when three sisters claimed to produce spirit "rappings."
Katharine, Margaret and Leah Fox of Hydesville so amazed neighbors in their central New York community that their reputation soon spread. Some heard in their mysterious thumpings a clear signal that communication with the dead was possible. Some suspicioned that it was the devil's work. Others caught the pungent aroma of a hoax.
Horace Greeley a Fan
Their growing fame carried them to Albany and finally New York City, where they attracted the interest of some notable people, including Horace Greeley, founder and editor of the New York Tribune.
Greeley witnessed the sisters' "rappings" when they came to New York City in the spring of 1850. He eventually came to believe in spiritualism, hosted the Foxes on their trips to the city, wrote favorable stories about them and even sponsored their lectures. He participated in the seances of the so-called New York Circle of early American spiritualists.
Margaret Fox eventually admitted that the sisters' "rappings" were fraudulent, produced by the cracking of joints in their toes and fingers. But many spiritualists today insist that Margaret was paid to disavow the rappings.
In any case, seance circles did begin to form in an effort to conjure up those percussive spirits--whatever they were--and those small groups grew into a national organization incorporated at the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago. Today, the association claims 300 camps, societies and churches around the country--with affiliated groups in 39 nations. The church in this Albany suburb is one such group, with the same prerogatives and tax-exempt status as any other recognized church in the country.
'Heard Around the World'
"The rappings at Hydesville were the rappings that were heard around the world," Alice Hughes said recently. Hughes, at 99 one of the oldest Spiritualist ministers in the nation, co-founded the Capital District Spiritualist Church in 1978 with Stephen Robinson.
The Capital District Spiritualist Church concerns itself largely with helping members develop their own psychic abilities, according to Robinson, who serves as full-time, salaried minister. He said the goal is to find "the ultimate truth, made of intelligence, which is essentially creative."
The church holds Sunday services, much like other churches. There are "lectures" that sound like sermons, hymns and, of course, a chance for everyone to drop a few bucks into a basket.
Messages From Spirit World
But the similarity ends there. People begin to come forward with messages for one another. They are allegedly messages from the spirit world--warnings, exhortations and encouragement.
The seances held regularly in the basement of the church focus even more exclusively on honing the sixth sense and talking with the hereafter. At one recent seance, about two dozen people sat in the traditional circle in total darkness while "The Planets," by Gustav Holst, a turn-of-the-century English astrologer and composer, provided otherworldly Muzak. Participants were told to imagine a beach. Then they were instructed to let their minds drift away from that beach and into the clouds. Soon, they were mentally motoring among the stars.
No spirits materialized that evening--at least none visible to one first-time visitor. But circle members, many of whom were also attending their first seance, did manage to sense some apparently accurate facts about one another based only on a first name.
Psychic development takes on more rigor at the church's Psychic Studies Institute, which is one of the church's major sources of income, along with fund-raisers and voluntary member pledges. The institute offers instruction in such abstruse topics as psychometry and telepathy exercises; clairvoyance, clairaudience and trance, and the phases of physical and mental mediumship.
The classes brought Hillary Kramer of Clifton Park into the church four years ago. She now teaches at the institute and sports a business card as a "registered medium and psychic."
"I had never thought of myself as psychic," she said. But, she added, "I knew I was intuitive."
Like many members of the church, Kramer was reared in a traditional religious setting. However, she felt a desire for something beyond her Jewish upbringing.
Rejects Concept of Death
Of spiritualism, she said: "The difference I would see between this and most religions is there is no death, that you live on and can communicate with the dead. We believe that there's another world, a spirit world that's on another vibration but that's here--a higher vibration, let's say."
She also likes the emphasis on individual moral responsibility and freedom from doctrine. "There's no such thing as committed sin, so to speak," she said. "The only sin would be how you view it."
Detractors have often seen spiritualism as diabolically inspired. But Robinson said the church actually accepts no devil.
The result is a church with a distinctly ecumenical, freewheeling spirit.
"There's a positive feeling that sometimes you don't find in other places of worship," Kramer said.