Why you should care
Because there’s more to the history of electricity than the lightbulb.
The Rev. Aaron Bickley stood on a rough wooden crate inside his revival tent in the middle of an open field in Salem, Ohio. It was the summer of 1875, and the sun blazed mercilessly over the holy man’s makeshift church. He could tell that his parishioners, most having come out of bored curiosity, were becoming drowsy and disinterested. Suddenly, a young woman in the crowd stood up, perfectly erect, and pointed her dainty finger toward a boy waiting to be miraculously healed by Bickley. The boy, supposedly cured, later reported that he felt as though he had been “hit by an electric current.” The woman then proceeded to zap several other attendees before falling to the ground, exhausted. Bickley said the woman had become a lightning rod upon which the Spirit concentrated His “electric battery through her magnetism.”
This story, recounted in an essay called “Electricity and Religion,” from 1876, is one of countless examples of how electricity was incorporated into the religious landscape. Much like the so-called “cargo cults” of the South Pacific Islands that, when first exposed to modern technologies during World War II, erected religious monuments in the shape of airplanes and radio telescopes, certain 19th-century groups in England and America began to worship electricity as it revolutionized the Western world.
With its weird, invisible powers and suggestion of vitality and mind power, electricity played a major role in the religious imagination.
Erik Davis, Author
“Religions are constantly balancing tradition and change,” says Erik Davis, author of TechGnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information. “With its weird, invisible powers and suggestion of vitality and mind power, electricity played a major role in the religious imagination.”
In America, one of the more scandalous examples of electric religion was the Oneida Community of New York. Founded by John Humphrey Noyes in 1848, the Protestant commune believed that Jesus Christ’s power was a form of liquid electricity that could be transmitted to believers through touch. As the most intimate form of touch is sex, the group also believed that, if they had enough of it, they’d create a spiritual battery that would make them immortal and create heaven on earth. So the community encouraged polygamy, orgies and generally engaging in as much sexual activity as possible. Needless to say, the Oneida members were a happy bunch, and the commune lasted more than three decades.
Across the pond, English author Marie Corelli inadvertently created an electrified offshoot of Christianity called “The Electric Creed” in her best-selling novel A Romance of Two Worlds. Originally intended to be a work of fiction, the book contained a chapter that explained how the immortal soul, heaven and even Christ himself were all made of pure electricity. It goes so far as to compare Christ to the telegraph. “Earth and God’s World were like America and Europe before the Atlantic Cable was laid,” it reads. “God’s Cable is laid between us and His Heaven in the person of Christ.” After her readers started to actually devote themselves to telegraphic Jesus, Corelli willingly assumed the rule of guru, stating in 1896 that if she didn’t believe wholeheartedly in “The Electric Creed,” she wouldn’t have written it.
But the most electrically charged sect of all was the 19th-century invention known as Spiritualism. Spiritualism started in 1848, when Margaret and Kate Fox of Hydesville, New York, claimed to have made contact with the ghost of a murdered drifter. Their communication with this lost soul consisted of a series of rappings and tapping deeply reminiscent of Morse code, or the electric language that was used to send the first telegraph (which curiously read “What Hath God Wrought!”) just four years earlier in 1844. Telegraphy and Spiritualism were so linked that communication with the dead was often called “the spiritual telegraph.”
Many Spiritualist leaders interpreted the invention of the telegraph and the explosion of new technology that electricity ushered in as acts of otherworldly intervention. American seer Andrew Jackson Davis taught his followers that electrical communication mirrored the spiritual union of the angels and would usher in a new enlightened era of human existence. Davis and his disciples would often stand in a circle holding a metal “telegraph” cable that they would use to send transmissions to the dead or higher beings.
The famous medium Emma Hardinge Britten, who died in 1899, claimed that humanity’s sudden connection with the dead was the result of an astral communication device created by some of the world’s greatest deceased minds. One of the founding fathers of electricity, Benjamin Franklin, was even said to have communicated plans of a spirit technology that would usher in a new social order on earth from beyond the grave.
And it wasn’t just religious fringe groups that found divinity in electricity: Some of the 19th century’s greatest minds also bought into a tech-Utopian brand of spirituality. Both Thomas Edison and Guglielmo Marconi, the inventor of radio, agreed that wireless transmission would one day facilitate communication with the dead.
Today, the wireless world of the internet is filled with the ghostly avatars of deceased social media users that we continue to send messages to and tag in photos long after death. Perhaps, at least in a poetic sense, the electric religions of the 19th century weren’t so far-fetched.