Lily Dale Assembly: Spiritualist Practices in the 19th and 20th Centuries

Hypnotic Séance 1887 by Richard Bergh

Hypnotic Seance, 1887, by Richard Bergh

Lily Dale Assembly is dedicated to understanding the science, philosophy, and religion of Spiritualism. Spiritualists believe that individual personal identity continues after death, that those in the spirit world can communicate with the living through a medium, and that healing and prophecy are expressions of God. Throughout Spiritualism’s history, the methods by which mediums would communicate with the spirit world have changed. Spiritualist practices of the past that focused on the physical manifestation of spirit  have given way to a modern emphasis on mental mediumship.

People seek out communication with spirit for a variety of reasons. They may hope for a message from a loved one who has passed on, seek to ease the pain of their grief, desire healing, or want proof of spirit contact or the continuity of life. Mediums communicate with spirit using a variety of approaches. According to the National Spiritualist Association of Churches:

The Phenomena of Spiritualism consists of Prophecy, Clairvoyance, Clairaudience, Gift of Tongues, Laying on of Hands, Healing, Visions, Trance, Apports, Levitation, Raps, Automatic and Independent Writings and Paintings, Voice, Materialization, Photography, Psychometry and any other manifestation proving the continuity of life as demonstrated through the Physical and Spiritual senses and faculties of man. (1950)

Since the founding of the modern Spiritualist movement in the mid-1800s, the manner in which messages from the dead are received has seen shifts and changes. Initially Spiritualism was dominated by the physical manifestation of spirit, in which a spirit physically directed a medium’s actions or communicated independently by moving an object or making noises. Later, mental mediumship became more common, with the medium seeing, hearing, or sensing messages, then conveying that information to the intended recipient.

Early Reports of Spirit Communication

The Fox Cottage, Hydesville, NY

The Fox Cottage, Hydesville, NY

The birth of the modern Spiritualist movement is identified as having occurred when Kate and Margaret Fox first heard spirit rappings in 1848. After hearing a series of knocks in their Hydesville, NY house, the sisters began to communicate with a spirit the girls nicknamed “Mr. Splitfoot.” The spirit rappings could signify yes or no in response to a question, or a certain number of raps would indicate a letter of the alphabet. When the Fox sisters later began to conduct public séances they would convey the meaning of spirit rappings to their audience.

The society that eventually came to found Lily Dale Assembly emerged after a Dr. Moran of Vermont was invited to Laona, NY to give a series of talks on Mesmerism in 1844. Dr. Moran’s talks inspired local residents Jeremiah Carter and William Johnson to later conduct experiments emulating his work. It was during one such experiment that Jeremiah Carter entered a trance state and began to communicate as a spirit entity identified as Dr. Hedges. This event spurred greater interest in connecting with spirit, leading to the Society of Spiritualists and Liberals to be organized in 1850. This group was the predecessor to the First Spiritualist Society of Laona that eventually founded what is known today as the Lily Dale Assembly.

Physical Manifestations of Spirit

The experience of a spirit physically manifesting itself in some way was much more common at the turn of the century than it is today. Forms of physical mediumship that were popular in earlier times included slate writing, spirit paintings, spirit photos, automatic writing, and spirit trumpets.

Lily Dale spiritualist practices Abraham Lincoln slate

Slate writing purported to be from the spirit of Abraham Lincoln through the mediumship of Pierre L.O.A. Keeler, from the Lily Dale museum

Slate writing manifests as either the drawing of images or writing of text. The process typically involves two chalkboard slates (either separate or hinged), which were shown to be blank. They would be placed on a table with a piece of chalk or slate pencil. The slates were placed together during the séance or demonstration, and the spirits would be invoked. Once opened, the slates revealed spirit writing and/or drawings.

Lily Dale practices Spirit painting

An example of spirit painting, 1893, from the Lily Dale museum

In addition to slate writing, spirit paintings and spirit photographs were also produced by mediums. In precipitated spirit painting a work of art would materialize on a canvas during a séance without the use of a human hand. Spirit photography would capture the image of a ghostly entity, usually in the background of a sitter.

Automatic writing, also as known spirit writing or trance writing, involves a spirit guiding the medium’s hand in order to communicate handwritten messages. Some writings could be quite elaborate. Automatic writing can occur either when the medium is in a trance or in a waking state, with external spirits operating through the writer.

Lily Dale spiritualist practices Seance Trumpets

Spirit trumpets from the Lily Dale Museum

Spirit trumpets were used in the period when physical mediumship was at its height. The trumpet is a lightweight tin or aluminum cone. The trumpet would levitate in a darkened room and spirit voices would emanate from it. Spiritualists who practice these phenomena contend that ectoplasm is created during the séance, which amplifies the voice of the spirit and raises the trumpet.

In the early 1900s Spiritualist séances focused on the physical manifestation of spirit. This turned mediums into entertainers because it required a level of showmanship. A lot of fraud took place because it was easy to falsely create physical phenomena.

The Lily Dale Museum houses a fascinating collection of physical manifestation of spirit. There are examples of slate writing, precipitated spirit painting, and spirit trumpets from the past. The museum provides an interesting glimpse into the history of Spiritualism and Lily Dale.

Mental Mediumship

By the second half of the 20th century, the Spiritualist movement was focused more on mental mediumship. Due to historical misuse of physical mediumship, Lily Dale Assembly only allows mental phenomena to be practiced on the grounds. Mental phenomena focuses on communication in which a medium gets a reading from a spirit and then passes that that information on to the recipient. Mental mediumship takes place within the consciousness of the medium, who then shares those messages verbally with another person. Mediums communicate by seeing or hearing spirits, receiving mental impressions or thoughts, or by way of physical or emotional feelings.

Lily Dale spiritualist practices Inspirational Stump postcard

Inspirational Stump, Lily Dale

Some mediums have developed more than one way of communicating with spirit. Mediums with clairvoyant abilities can see spirits. The spirits may see the spirit moving about the room or they may see the spirit in their mind. The ability to hear spirits is known as clairaudience. The medium may hear the spirit voice as though the person is in the same room speaking to them, or the spirit may communicate as a voice in the medium’s mind. Clairsentience is the ability to sense the presence of spirits and what they are saying. The medium may sense the spirit through internal feelings or through physical sensations such as touch, smell, cold, or a breeze. The medium may feel the presence of the spirits and sense messages from specific spirits. None of these phenomena are experienced by the recipient of the message, only by the medium. The medium must verbally convey the spirit message.

Spiritual Healing

Spiritual Healing has become a significant practice within the Spiritualist church. The National Spiritualist Association of Churches provides a definition for a Spiritual Healer:

A Spiritualist Healer is one who, either through one’s own inherent powers or through mediumship, is able to impart vital, curative force to pathologic conditions. A Spiritualist Healer works with the spirit, mind, emotions, and the body of the recipient.”

The Healing Temple, Lily Dale

Lily Dale’s Healing Temple was built in 1955

In spiritual healing the removal of negative stress and emotion is intended to bring about holistic healing. Spiritualists recognize the medical community as an instrument of healing, and therefore work in cooperation with Western medical practices.

Absent healing aims to heal from a distance through positive prayer. In contact healing the healer lays his or her hands on the recipient, serving as a conduit for spiritual energy. In spirit healing, the healer relieves conditions related to the recipient’s spirit rather than their physical body.

Present-day Services at Lily Dale

At Lily Dale Assembly the visitor can attend group readings or private readings. At group readings the medium may describe the spirits they’re sensing or information they’re receiving and ask if anyone in the audience connects with what’s being shared. The medium may directly address a member of the audience, often asking, “May I come to you?” and then sharing a message received in spirit. During the summer season there are free daily message services at Inspiration Stump and Forest Temple. There are also weekly fee-based circle readings in which a medium conveys messages to a small group of sitters.

Private readings can be arranged with a registered medium. Before becoming registered in Lily Dale, mediums go through testing by the Board of Directors. Only registered mediums can give private readings on the grounds.

In terms of Spiritual Healing, the Healing Temple provides a place to renew spiritual and physical energies. Spiritual healers also work with individuals seeking healing. The temple has a book in which a person can request absent healing on behalf of themselves or others. Prayer requests are taken all year long by calling Lily Dale Assembly.

Lily Dale practices houses on park

Summer in Lily Dale

The summer season at Lily Dale Assembly runs from the end of June to the beginning of September, during which time there are entrance fees, but visitors are welcome all year round. Individual readings and healings can be arranged by appointment throughout the year.


In this series, we explore different facets of Lily Dale Assembly and Spiritualism:

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7 thoughts on “Lily Dale Assembly: Spiritualist Practices in the 19th and 20th Centuries

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