LILY DALE TIMELINE
1850: Jeremiah Carter founded the Religious Society of Freethinkers (RSF) founded in Laona, New York, to experiment with mesmerism and mediumship, and to explore metaphysical ideas.
1873: Willard Alden set aside a tract of land on his property for the express purpose of exploring mediumship.
1877: The spirits instructed Jeremiah Carter to “prepare a camp meeting” devoted to mediumship on Alden’s land.
1879: RSF members incorporated the Cassadaga Free Lake Association, and began clearing land for a “People’s Camp Meeting” on the shores of Lake Cassadaga.
1879-1900: The camp swelled to a small settlement of thirty-seven acres.
1891: Speakers Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton visited the camp.
1892: Susan B. Anthony gave a second talk at the camp.
1893: The National Spiritualist Association of Churches was founded. Its first president, Harrison D. Barrett, was a Lily Dale resident.
1903: The Cassadaga camp was renamed the City of Light, in homage to the electrification of the United States.
1905: Susan B. Anthony gave her third and final talk at the camp.
1906: The City of Light was renamed the Lily Dale Assembly.
1955: Lily Dale’s Healing Temple was built on land where Oskenonton, a Mohawk healer, once set up his tipi.
1980s: Lily Dale aligned itself with the “New Age” movement.
1988: Fellowships of the Spirit was founded.
2011: The HBO documentary, No One Dies in Lily Dale (directed by Steven Cantor) was released.
Today’s small town of Lily Dale in upstate New York was established in 1879 as a meeting place for both Freethinkers and Spiritualists. It began as the brainchild of two members of Laona’s Religious Society of Freethinkers (RSF), an organization founded in the early 1850s to promote the open-ended exploration of extraordinary states of consciousness, such as mesmerism and mediumship. As early as 1873, RSF member Willard Alden had moved that a tract of land on his property in nearby Pomfret be set aside exclusively for the Society’s experimentation with mediumship. In 1877, fellow RSF member Jeremiah Carter had a visionary experience in which his spirit guides directed him to “prepare a camp meeting” during the summer months on Alden’s land (LaJudice Vogt 1984:2). Alden was happy to oblige, but he died the following year. Rather than pay his son a portion of the admission fees for the continued right to use the Alden property, the Freethinkers opted to purchase nineteen acres of adjacent land on the shores of Lake Cassadaga. Incorporating themselves as the Cassadaga Free Lake Association, they began clearing it to build the camp that is now known as Lily Dale. In 1881, they resumed hosting a summer camp devoted to the ongoing exploration of mediumship.
With the patronage of wealthy donors, the Cassadaga Free Lake Association bought additional land, and built a permanent settlement on the campgrounds. By the turn of the century, the site featured 198 Victorian-style houses, two grocery stores and bakeries, a meat market, hardware store, post office, bowling alley and billiards hall, library, and printing press. To accommodate summer guests, it also included a four-story, eighty-room lodge (named the Maplewood Hotel), [Image at right] and an auditorium seating up to 1,500 guests (still in use today). In 1903, the camp changed its name to the City of Light (an allusion to its newly installed, state-of-the-art electric lighting) and again in 1906 to the Lily Dale Assembly. Building continued into the early twentieth century, and the camp swelled to its present size of 172 acres. By this time there were hundreds of Spiritualist camps throughout the nation, but Lily Dale had gained the reputation for being the most luxurious of them all.
The founders of Lily Dale did their part to steer the camp in the direction of middle-class propriety. The Cassadaga Free Association prohibited the sale of alcohol on the campgrounds, and conceded to the selling of cigars in the 1890s only after a long debate. Furthermore, it regularly invited well-established mediums and advocates of Spiritualism from the movement’s antebellum days. The bourgeois sensibilities of Lily Dale’s founders went a long way in securing the financial backing of upper-class donors. But by no means did they speak for the entire camp. As its fame spread, Lily Dale came to attract Spiritualists of all stripes. These included former members of John Murray Spear’s Harmonia community in Kiantone, New York, where members had heeded spirits to dig for remains of an ancient civilization of Celtic, web-footed Indians. They also included a Spiritualist from Chicago named C.A. Burgess, who appeared at the camp in 1912 to teach healing classes allegedly based on techniques he had learned from Pawnee elders in the Great Plains. Shortly after Burgess’ arrival, a Mohawk man from Kahnawake, Quebec, named Oskenonton joined the Lily Dale staff. Together with Burgess and, later, medium Jack Kelly, Oskenonton taught healing classes in a lecture hall and in a wigwam erected on the eastern edge of the camp.
Up until the mid-twentieth century, Lily Dale offered public demonstrations of both mental and physical mediumship. In the first case, mediums received messages from the spirits, either while awake or in trance, and communicated them to their intended sitter in the presence of onlookers. As part of this practice, Lily Dale continued an antebellum Spiritualist tradition of showcasing trance speakers, whose spirit guides addressed various social issues of the day, usually from a politically progressive point of view. Indeed, Lily Dale distinguished itself early on as a community committed to championing democratic ideals, inviting Susan B. Anthony to lecture in its auditorium on three separate occasions: in 1891 (together with Elizabeth Cady Stanton), 1892, and 1905. Physical mediumship also helped to make the camp famous, at least initially. In addition to its displays of materializing spirits and levitating trumpets, Lily Dale was renowned for its “precipitated spirit paintings,” artful portraits of deceased loved ones that slowly manifested on blank canvasses under the “control” of the adept medium duos, the Bangs Sisters and the Campbell Brothers. Such carnivalesque displays began to fall out of public favor, however, as exposés of fraudulent mediums, both at Lily Dale and nationwide, began to mount in the early twentieth century. By 1950, Lily Dale mediums were practicing mental mediumship only, and public performances of physical mediumship never returned to the camp.
In 1893, American Spiritualists met in Chicago to form the National Spiritualist Association of Churches (NSAC), recasting Spiritualism as an institutionalized religion. Six of the fourteen delegates sent to the convention from New York were from Lily Dale, and the NSAC’s first president, Harrison D. Barrett, was a Lily Dale resident. It is useful at this juncture to recall that prior to 1893, Spiritualism had struggled to secure its foothold in American society as a religion, leaving any practicing medium vulnerable to charges of legerdemain, witchcraft, and/or mental illness. On the one hand, the establishment of the NSAC represented a political gain for Spiritualists, securing them the same rights and status as practitioners of pre-established traditions. On the other hand, the codification of Spiritualism into a set of fixed doctrines or “principles” (see below) foreclosed any further metaphysical speculation on the origin and nature of mediumship, which had previously lent the movement much of its vitality and jouissance.
The NSAC’s vision of Spiritualism as a religious denomination came eventually to define the mid-twentieth-century culture of Lily Dale. In 1940, its Declaration of Principles appeared in the annual brochure for the first time in the camp’s history, and stayed there for the next thirty years. By 1943 at the height of World War II, the Dale was promoting Spiritualism as “an all American religion.” In 1955, it unveiled its new Healing Temple, a sanctuary for energetic healing, the Spiritualist version of the laying-on-of hands. Built on the site where Oskenonton had once set up his tipi, its plain and white-steeple exterior resembled a rather generic Congregationalist meeting house. Gone from Lily Dale were its earlier rendezvous with progressive political reforms, playful experimentations with mediumship-as-performance-art, and the camp’s original Freethought ethos of ascertaining for oneself the ultimate significance of spirit communication.
Lily Dale’s present-day culture did not take shape until the 1980s, when a contingent of mediums reasserted the camp’s origins in Laona’s Religious Society of Freethinkers, and in the process aligned its Spiritualist teachings with the so-called New Age movement of their day. Evidence of this transformation is recorded in the camp’s annual brochures. In 1983, for example, Lily Dale began to offer classes in “An Aesthetic Experience in Environmental Awareness,” “Discerning the Aura,” and “The Rainbow Revelation” alongside NSAC-sponsored courses in mediumistic development. In 1987, the camp marketed itself as “established in 1879 by Free-Thinkers. . . dedicated to metaphysical education,” rather than as a center for the study of Spiritualism per se. And in 1988, Lily Dale medium Elaine Thomas founded her own, independent Spiritualist church, the Fellowships of the Spirit, blending NSAC teachings with practices and/or philosophies drawn from Transcendental Meditation, hypnosis, and Hindu yoga.
Today the NSAC headquarters are located on the grounds of Lily Dale, but it is no longer the dominant framework in which to understand mediumship. On the contrary, the camp’s present-day emphasis on Spiritualism as a path to personal spiritual growth continues the New Age ethos of the 1980s into the twenty-first century. Visitors are at liberty to make of mediumship what they will, freed from even the most general doctrinal parameters of Spiritualist principles. This most recent embodiment of Spiritualism at Lily Dale is more in keeping with the original vision of the Laona Freethinkers than its mid-twentieth century instantiation.
In 1899, a journalist from The Catholic World who traveled to Lily Dale noted that there was “no fundamental doctrine in Spiritualism,” or at least none that he could ascertain from his visit to the camp (Earle 1899:506-07). Reflective of their Freethinking milieu, Lily Dale’s mediums could only agree that “all around us are spirit forms with whom we may hold immediate converse, solace ourselves with their company, find guidance in their counsels, and courage in the thought of their victory. In everything else concerning the nature of these spirits, their origin, their destiny, their manner of manifesting themselves, all is chaos” (Earle 1899:506-07).
If we substitute “diversity of opinion” for “chaos,” this observation seems accurate enough; eclecticism has long been a part of Lily Dale culture. A short sampling of titles donated to the its Marion Skidmore Library [Image at right] records the many lines of metaphysical speculation that mediumship set in motion over the decades. Donations include collected 1870-1873 issues of the Phrenological Journal, studying head formations to ascertain personality types; the 1914 edition of Dr. L.W. de Laurence’s Book of Magical Art, Hindoo Magic, and Indian Occultism; a copy of Allen Putnam’s Witchcraft of New England Explained by Modern Spiritualism bequeathed in 1893; a translation of the Upanishads, donated in 1931; and James Churchward’s The Lost Continent of Mu, bequeathed in 1953, on antediluvian history.
During the early decades of the camp, annual programs also reflected the wide range of religious interests among Lily Dale’s visitors. In 1894, Lily Dale inaugurated a tradition of featuring regular speakers on Asian religions, with the invitation of Virchard R. Gandhi, a Jain teacher from India. In 1897, British leader of the Theosophical Society, Annie Besant, spoke during the summer season. In the meantime, the camp’s newspaper, The Sunflower, published weekly from 1898 to 1911, featured regular articles on psychic science, palmistry, astrology, hypnotism, and Asian religious thought. Articles on “America’s Small Debt to India” (January 23, 1904), “The Universe a Living Magnet” (June 10, 1905); and reports on astral travel to other planets, such as “Has Visited Planet Mars” (February 6, 1904) and “A Journey Through Space” (in four parts, May 14 – June 5, 1906), complimented the paper’s main offerings on spirits and mediumship.
As discussed above, from the 1940s through the 1970s Lily Dale attempted to reinvent itself as a center of religious education, rather than a space of metaphysical exploration. Judging from its promotional literature, the camp emphasized doctrinal unity with a greater emphasis during this time than at any prior time in its history, fixing the meaning of mediumship within the parameters of the NSAC’s nine principles of Spiritualism:
[Approved by the National Association of Spiritualists in 1893:]
1. We believe in Infinite Intelligence.
2. We believe that the phenomena of Nature, both physical and spiritual, are the expression of Infinite Intelligence.
3. We affirm that a correct understanding of such expression and living in accordance therewith, constitute true religion.
4. We affirm that the existence and personal identity of the individual continue after the change called death.
5. We affirm that communication with the so-called dead is a fact, scientifically proven by the phenomena of Spiritualism.
6. We believe that the highest morality is contained in the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”[Added in 1909:]
7. We affirm the moral responsibility of individuals, and that we make our own happiness or unhappiness as we obey or disobey Nature’s physical and spiritual laws.
8. We affirm that the doorway to reformation is never closed against any soul here or hereafter.[And in 1944:]
9. We affirm that the precepts of Prophecy and Healing are Divine attributes proven through Mediumship (Awtry, 1983: 9-20).
While there are many resident Lily Dale mediums today who would be perfectly comfortable with the NSAC explanation of mediumship as an “expression of Infinite Intelligence,” they no longer speak for all. Some residents identify primarily as atheists, some as feminists, and others as parapsychologists, finding ample justification for these divergent beliefs in the underdetermined mystery of mediumship. As for today’s visitors to the camp, these come from a wide variety of religious backgrounds, including “spiritual but not religious,” and interpret the phenomenon of mediumship through whatever cosmological lens they bring with them.
If we must locate Lily Dale somewhere on the American religious map, the most appropriate place would be within the domain of what Catherine Albanese has called “metaphysical religion.” Dating back to classical antiquity and revived during the late Italian Renaissance, metaphysical cosmologies espouse a pantheistic or panentheistic vision of the Universe-as-God or God-within-the-Universe, which in NSAC terms corresponds to the notion of Infinite Intelligence as expressed in and through natural phenomena.
Lily Dale opens its gates to the public at the end of June, and remains open until the end of August. During this time, the central rituals of the camp are its demonstrations of mental mediumship, particularly the public “platform readings” held three times a day at outdoor venues, and once a day as part of a formal Spiritualist service held in the auditorium. They are free and open to the public, typically include between one and two hundred participants, and feature a number of mediums who take turns delivering messages, allegedly from departed spirits, to members in the audience. The mediums are either registered by the Lily Dale Assembly, visiting mediums, or those in formal training under Lily Dale mediums. They typically offer little or no explanation of their own religious or spiritual beliefs, leaving interpretative authority to audience members. These demonstrations also serve as advertisements for individual mediums, should participants wish to have a private reading with any one of them.
The other regular, daily offering at Lily Dale is the healing service, held twice a day at the Healing Temple. At these services, which are also free and open to the public, members of the audience can receive energetic healings, which are not unlike Reiki sessions, from registered mediums. Those so interested may sit on chairs set up at the front of the Temple, where several mediums are gathered. Apart from a brief introduction, there is no liturgical structure to the services; members sit quietly awaiting their turn, while soft, ambient music plays in the background.
At any given time during the summer season, there are a number of other activities at the camp, ranging from workshops on a variety of spiritual practices aimed at psychic and spiritual development (e.g. drumming circles, meditation sessions, sweat lodge ceremonies, etc.) to lectures on the history and philosophy of Spiritualism, to experimental forays into trance or physical mediumship. As the schedule of events changes from one season to the next, no two visits to Lily Dale are exactly the same.
Lily Dale is one of the few surviving Spiritualist camps [Image at right] left in the United States, drawing today an estimated 30,000 visitors every summer. According to New York state law, it is a hamlet, or unincorporated district, within the town of Pomfret. Since its inception in 1879, it has been owned and controlled by its own incorporated association (today’s Lily Dale Assembly) with a periodically elected board of directors and president. Lily Dale also has its own post office and volunteer fire department.
In order to own property within the Dale, a resident must first be accepted as a member of the Lily Dale Assembly (LDA), the requirement for which is to be a member in good standing in a Spiritualist church for at least one year. If somebody who is not a member of the Lily Dale Assembly inherits property in Lily Dale, they must either sell it to someone who is, or else become an LDA member themselves. Due to the harsh conditions of upstate New York winters, most residents of Lily Dale live elsewhere during the off-summer-season months.
In order to work as a medium in Lily Dale, one must first become registered with the Assembly, which entails undergoing a series of tests by established mediums designed to ascertain the accuracy of the readings. Once registered, a medium can work professionally (i.e. for a fee) out of his or her home. It should be noted that not every Lily Dale resident is a medium, but every registered Lily Dale medium is a resident of the community.
Insofar as the fortunes of Lily Dale are bound to those of Spiritualism more generally, one of the most pressing issues facing the camp today is maintaining its cultural relevance. The future of organized Spiritualism does not look promising. The 2001 American Religious Identification Survey, conducted by the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, estimated the total number of self-identified Spiritualists in the United States at around 116,000 members. This number represents a miniscule fraction (less than one percent) of the total population.
In 2005, a California Spiritualist named Carter McNamara prepared a report for the NSAC entitled “A Response to the President of the NSAC’s Call for Feedback on: ‘Why Is Our Attendance on the Decline in Our Spiritualist Churches?'” While highlighting the cultural appeal of Spiritualist practices and its “philosophical emphasis on natural law and personal responsibility,” the report did not mince words in characterizing the NSAC as “administratively and scholastically out of date, and socially out of touch. . .[with] no apparent plans to substantially evolve” (Caterine 2015:313). Spiritualist churches administered by the NSAC were, in his analysis, suffering from “founder’s syndrome,” entrusting too much responsibility to a single individual, in this case, their ministers. Socially, the structure of NSAC churches had not changed to accommodate the needs and lifestyles of their twenty-first century congregants, and scholastically their literature had not evolved past early-twentieth century concepts and language. Overall, the report was dire: if Spiritualism did not reinvent itself, it was sure to die away.
In hindsight, the decision by some of Lily Dale’s mediums to align the camp’s Spiritualist heritage with the interests of the 1980s New Age was a fortuitous one indeed. Having broadened its scope beyond the denominational to include New Age metaphysical pursuits, Spiritualism entered into dialogue with a wider range of religious, psychological, and alternative healing discourses that continue into the early twenty-first century under the rubric of “spiritual but not religious.” Thus the camp may survive as the last outpost of Spiritualism even if the rest of the religion fades away. The biggest remaining challenge facing Lily Dale would then be the disintegration of face-to-face community wrought by social media. It is a testimony to the adaptability of mediumship that it has been able to go online with little apparent change in accuracy or power; today mediums regularly conduct readings via Skype or Facetime, just as they have for decades via telephone. But this raises the question of whether Lily Dale itself, as a physical site in the non-virtual landscape, will continue on into the future. It is quite conceivable, however, that Lily Dale could reinvent itself again sometime in the future as an online religious community.
Image #1: Maplewood Hotel.
Image #2: Marion H. Skidmore Library.
Image #3: Forest Temple.
Image #4: Houses in Lily Dale.
Awtry, Marilyn. History of National Spiritualist Association of Churches. 1983. National Spiritualist Association of Churches.
Caterine, Darryl. 2015. “Between Two Worlds: Transformations of Spiritualism in Contemporary Lily Dale.” Pp. 294-316 in Handbook of Spiritualism and Channeling, edited by Cathy Gutierrez. Leiden and Boston: Brill.
Earle, E. Lyell. 1899. “Lily Dale, the Haunt of Spiritualists.” Catholic World 68, January.
LaJudice, Joyce and Paula M. Vogt. 1984. Lily Dale Proud Beginnings: A Little Piece of History. No Publisher.
Albanese, Catherine L. 2007. A Republic of Mind and Spirit: A Cultural History of American Metaphysical Religion. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
Caterine, Darryl. 2011. Haunted Ground: Journeys Through a Paranormal America. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger/ABC-CLIO Publishers.
“Ingenious Frauds at Lily Dale Seances.” New York Times, March 8, 1908.
Judah, J. Stillson. 1967. The History and Philosophy of the Metaphysical Movements in America. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press.
Lawton, George. 1932. The Drama of Life After Death: A Study of the Spiritualist Religion. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1932.
Leonard, Todd. 2005. Talking to the Other Side: A History of Modern Spiritualism and Mediumship. Lincoln, NE: iUniverse Inc.
Lewis, James R. and Gordon Melton, eds. 1992 Perspectives on the New Age. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
Richard, Michael P. and Albert Adato, 1980. “The Medium and Her Message: A Study of Spiritualism at Lily Dale, New York.” Review of Religious Research 22:186-96.
Wicker, Christine. 2004. Lily Dale: The True Story of the Town That Talks to the Dead. San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco.
8 January 2019