Steven Engler



1767:  Franz Anton Mesmer began to practice medicine in Vienna using “magnetized” water as a cure.

1784:  The Marquis de Puységur discovered “magnetic somnambulism.”

1787:  Swedenborgians in Sweden reported regular communication with spirits of the dead via mediums in mesmeric trance.

1849 (November 14):  The Fox sisters held the first public demonstration of Spiritualist practices in Rochester, New York.

1857:  Allan Kardec published Le Livre des Esprits (The Spirits’ Book) in Paris.

1858:  Allan Kardec founded La Revue Spirite (the key Kardecist journal) and the Société Parisienne des Études Spirites (the leading association and institutional model).

1858–1862:  Kardecist publications began to be printed in Mexico, Brazil and Chile.

1872:  Kardecist Spiritism began to attract interest in Puerto Rico.

1877:  The first Kardecist group in Argentina was founded.

1882:  The first Kardecist group in Venezuela was founded.

1890:  The First Brazilian Republican Penal Code (1890) criminalised Spiritist activities and “curandeirismo” (magical healing/curses and divination).

1944:  Brazilian medium Chico Xavier published Nosso Lar, a best-selling psychographed afterlife autobiography of the spirit André Luiz.

2018:  A rift between social conservatives and progressives developed in Brazilian Kardecism.


 Kardecism is a doctrinally and ritually developed variation of nineteenth-century Spiritualism (the séance movement). It began in France in the mid-1850s and spread to Latin America in the 1860s, where it continues to have its largest impact, especially in Brazil.

Popular religious and healing practices around the world include the ritualized practice of communicating and interacting with disembodied entities, while in a trance state; and this has formed part of various European esoteric traditions for more than two millennia (Laycock 2015). Such entities include the souls or spirits of dead humans, in addition to animal and plant spirits, spirits of disease, gods, divine spirits, djinn, angels, demons, extraterrestrials etc. These entities can be helpful, harmful or irrelevant; they can be good, evil, or morally ambivalent; they usually have trans-mundane knowledge and/or supernatural powers.

Spiritualism is generally seen as having begun in the U.S. in 1848 or 1849: on March 31, 1848 the Fox sisters (Leah, [1813–1890], Maggie [1833–1893] and Kate [1837–1892]) first contacted the spirit world; and on November 14, 1849, they offered the first public demonstration of interaction with spirits of the dead. Communication with dead people in esoteric contexts had become prominent over six decades earlier as a side-effect of mesmeric trance, beginning with the work of Armand-Marie-Jacques de Chastenet, Marquis of Puységur (1751–1825), a follower of Franz Anton Mesmer (1734–1815). In 1784, while magnetizing patients for healing purposes, Puységur discovered what he called “magnetic somnambulism” (which later came to be called “hypnosis”), arguably inaugurating the modern era of “psychodynamic psychology and psychotherapy”:

Beginning with the Marquis de Puységur, magnetic somnambulism revealed an alternate consciousness that is intelligent (capable of understanding and making judgments), reactive (aware of what is happening in one’s environment and capable of responding to those events), purposeful (able to pursue its own goals), and co‐conscious (existing simultaneously with ordinary consciousness). This understanding of the alternate consciousness amounted to a new paradigm for defining the dynamics of the human psyche (Crabtree 2019:212).

Theological and spiritological frames for this phenomenon were soon developed by esoteric thinkers, notably Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772). By 1787, Swedenborgians in Sweden were reporting regular communication with spirits of the dead via mediums in mesmeric trance (Gabay 2005:86).

As Spiritualism exploded onto the religious landscape in the U.S. in the 1850s, it had impacts abroad, especially in the U.K. (where it arrived in 1852), as well as in Canada and other British settler nations. It developed in a unique direction in Iceland, where it continues to be prominent (Dempsey 2016). Spiritualism’s séance and “table-turning” events became a huge public phenomenon in France in 1853–1854; Kardecism developed from there, when Hippolyte Léon Denizard Rivail (1804–1869) became interested (Aubrée and Laplantine 1990). Rivail was involved in phrenology and Mesmerism, including research into clairvoyance and trance states.

Writing as Allan Kardec, [Image at right] Rivail systematized French Spiritisme in The Book of the Spirits (1857), subtitled, Containing the Principles of the Spiritist Doctrine Concerning the Immortality of the Soul, the Nature of Spirits and Their Relationships with Humankind, Moral Laws, the Present Life, the Future Life and the Destiny of Humanity – According to the Teachings Given by Highly Evolved Spirits through Several Mediums – Received and Coordinated (2011 [1857]). The book consists primarily of questions posed by Kardec along with answers provided by spiritually evolved spirits, as psychographed (transcribed during a light trance) by a team of mediums. (Kardecist books are often published with named spirits as their authors, and with the name of the medium in smaller print.) [Image at right] Four other books by Kardec also form part of what is, in effect, a canon: The Book of Mediums (1861); The Gospel according to Spiritism (1864); Heaven and Hell (1865); and Genesis: Miracles and Predictions according to Spiritism (1868). Other important French Spiritiste writers of the period include Léon Denis (1846–1927) and Gabriel Delanne (1857–1926).

Kardec drew on mesmerism (e.g., non-contact manipulation of “magnetic fluids” in people, especially through the ritual of passe), Christianity (e.g., God as efficient and final cause, Christ as the most elevated previously incarnated spirit, and charitable works as a standard of spiritual evolution) and esoteric traditions (e.g., the doctrine of many worlds and reincarnation, the latter also perhaps influenced by Asian religions). (There are rare references to Hinduism, Taoism and Islam in the key publication of early French Spiritisme, the Revue Spirite; there appears to be no reference to Buddhism [Campetti Sobrinho 2008].) Kardec considered Spiritism to be a science and philosophy not a religion: communication with the dead is a natural reflection of the dual constitution of reality, material/visible and spiritual/invisible.

The dramatic impact of Spiritisme in late-nineteenth-century France resonated with other religious and intellectual developments of the time: in Catholicism a pious upsurge of interest in angels, purgatory, and Marian apparitions; in esotericism an emphasis on empirical study, e.g., Eliphas Lévi (1810–75); in the emerging field of psychiatry an interest in the interiority of the psyche; and, more generally, ideas of science, progress, and social reform (Engler and Isaia 2016). Kardec may have been a Freemason (Guénon 1972 [1923]:37), but this question remains open (Lefraise and Monteiro 2007). These points of resonance, especially with Catholicism and progressivism, shaped the reception of Kardecist Spiritism in other countries, most significantly in Latin America. Helena Blavatsky (1831–1891), cofounder of modern Theosophy, was an adept of Spiritualism and influenced by Mesmerist and Kardecist ideas; and this has been a key line through which Kardecism has had an impact on other esoteric traditions, including the New Age movement.

Kardecism is common throughout most of Latin America and the Caribbean. Influenced directly by French Spiritisme, the first Kardecist publications in Mexico date from 1858, in Brazil from 1860 and in Chile from 1862 (Hernández Aponte 2015:109–111). Justo José de Espada founded a Spiritualist group in Uruguay in 1858 and a successor group in Argentina in 1872; the first Kardecist sociedad espiritista was founded in 1877; and surveys in 1887 and 1912 reported many thousands of members and fifty or more groups (Gimeno, Corbetta, and Savall 2013:88, 86, 79–80). (Many Kardecist groups and Kardecist-influenced new religious movements are active in Buenos Aires today [Di Risio and Irazabal 2003].) Influenced by Spanish Espiritismo, the first Kardecist group in Venezuela was founded in 1882 (Hernández Aponte 2015: 112). Mesmerist demonstrations are recorded in Puerto Rico from 1848 and séances from 1856, with Kardecist publications sparking interest in that tradition from 1872 (Hernández Aponte 2015:122).

In Brazil, an important development resulting in a sharp distinction between orthodox Kardecism and popular invocations of spirits was the foundation of the Brazilian Spiritist Federation (FEB) in 1884. The First Brazilian Republican Penal Code (1890) criminalised Spiritist activities and “curandeirismo” (magical healing/curses and divination) (Maggie 1992). In part, this legislation was the culmination of recent professionalization in Brazil’s medical community (Schritzmeyer 2004 69–81). The Brazilian Spiritist Federation (FEB, founded in 1884) lobbied government during the Empire and, after 1889, the Republic in order to protect the literate elites who practiced Kardecism (Giumbelli 1997). The FEB’s insistence on distinguishing between “true” and “false” spiritists (and journalistic echoes of these claims) played a supporting role in the processes of marginalization, repression and criminalization that constructed “low spiritism” (often Afro-Brazilian) as a marginal religious category (Giumbelli 2003). In Brazil, state repression of “low” Spiritisms and Afro-Brazilian traditions was prominent during the “New State” dictatorship (1937–45) of Getúlio Vargas. Elite Kardecism escaped relatively unscathed, though many centres were closed: “the state and the medical profession were not as successful with Kardecian and other ‘scientific’ Spiritists as they were with the ‘low Spiritists’ who had recourse to Afro-Brazilian magic” (Hess 1991:160; Maggie 1992). In part this reflected the political value of nationalist discourses in Kardecism (See the discussion of Nosso Lar in the following section). Some other forms of Spiritism, broadly defined, sought protection under the Kardecist umbrella: e.g. certain groups in the heterogenous religion of Umbanda went through a process of de-Africanization in order to emphasise affiliation with Kardecism (Oliveira 2007). Comparable legislation was passed and enforced in many countries: for example, many laws against the “dangerous others” of esoteric traditions in Argentina were passed in the late nineteenth-century, with persecution hardening after 1921 (Bubello 2010:97–114).

Kardecism is found almost exclusively in Europe and its settler colonies. National groups in Europe consist of from hundreds to a few thousand members: e.g., French Spiritisme, Italian Spiritismo, British Spiritism, Finnish Spiritismi, Romanian Spiritismul, Spanish Espiritismo, and others; there are groups in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the U.S. (Aubrée and Laplantine 1990:289-331; CESNUR 2017; Spiritist Group n.d.).

Brazil has the largest number of Kardecists in the world. 3,800,000 Brazilians (two percent of the population) self-identified as members on the 2010 census. (The Brazilian Spiritist Federation estimates that as many as 30,000,000 Brazilians, many of them Catholics, regularly attend study sessions and rituals.) Important Brazilian mediums have included Adolfo Bezerra de Menezes (“the Brazilian Kardec”: 1831–1900), [Image at right] Francisco Cândido “Chico” Xavier (1910–2002) and Yvonne do Amaral Pereira (1926–1980). Brazilian Kardecismo has diverged from French Spiritisme. The latter remains a small philosophical/scientific movement (Union Spirite Française et Francophone website. n.d.). Brazilian Kardecism has become a large and thriving religion with a central emphasis on spiritual therapy: e.g., emphasising healing and miracles, reflecting mixture with popular, especially Afro-Brazilian, practices, and sometimes sanctifying leaders, due to their reputation as healers (Damazio 1994:154; Silva 2006). Brazilian kardecistas, like French Spiritistes, tend to see their tradition as more philosophy and science than religion. However, a dramatic increase in the size of Kardecism between the censuses of 2000 and 2010 (from 1.3 percent to 2 percent of the Brazilian population) reflects, in part, a shift away from kardecistas self-declaring as having “no religion” on the national census (Lewgoy 2013:196–98).

Brazilian Kardecism has been shaping the global Kardecist community to the point that Kardecist Spiritism is arguably now a “Brazilian religion” (Santos 2004 [1997]). Kardecist groups have been established in many countries among Brazilian emigrant communities; and prominent contemporary Brazilian mediums, like Divaldo Pereira Franco (1927-) [Image at right] and José Raul Teixeira (1949–), have growing international impact through books, lectures and the Internet (Lewgoy 2008; 2011). This increasing transnationalization of Brazilian Kardecism reflects the decline of a nationalistic myth of origin, as found especially in the works  of key medium/author Chico Xavier, and a growing emphasis on “spiritual health and well-being” and “the happiness of the spirit” (Lewgoy 2012). This latter shift, “from Spiritism to self-help” (Stoll 2006:267), is illustrated by Kardecist moralistic novels, a popular sub-genre of books on “spirituality.” For example, Zíbia Gasparetto (1926–2018), author of over two dozen books as a medium, became a consistent presence on Brazilian bestseller lists, selling millions of copies and reaching an audience far beyond Kardecist circles (Stoll 2006:264). Her son, Luiz Antonio Gasparetto (1949–2018) took Kardecism in a different direction: spending time at the Esalen Institute; becoming well-known in Europe through a series of speaking tours in the 1980s; breaking with official Kardecism (as represented by the Brazilian Spiritist Federation) due to, in his view, its antiquated and moralistic approach; founding what is in effect an esoteric spa, with his “Life and Consciousness Space”; developing a sort of Kardecist theology of prosperity, linking spiritual progress and worldly goods; and emphasizing the use of social media (e.g., Luiz Gasparetto Facebook page. 2022; Stoll 2006).

There are many examples of the emergence of Kardecist-influenced new religious movements. For example, in Argentina, Spanish Kardecist, Joaquín Trincado Mateo (1866-1935) founded in 1911 the Escuela Magnético-Espiritual de la Comuna Universal (Magnetic-Spiritual School of the Universal Commune), combining Kardecist and Theosophical ideas (Bubello 2010:91). Nicaraguan revolutionary Augusto César Sandino (1895-1934) joined this group in Mexico, and it had “a profound and lasting impact on his life, thought, and strategy” (Navarro-Génie 2002:80). In Brazil, the “Temple” of the Legião da Boa Vontade (Legion of Good Will), with its associated Religião de Deus (Religion of God), presents Kardec as just one source of revelation in an “unrestricted ecumenism” that includes many esoteric and New Age elements (Dawson 2016 [2007]:45–48). Waldo Vieira (1932–2015), who worked closely with the most famous Brazilian medium Chico Xavier, left Kardecism in the late 1960s and founded Conscientiology (first called Protectiology) in 1988: his tradition cultivates out-of-body experiences, mixing Kardecist and New Age ideas (D’Andrea 2013).


Spiritualism (as opposed to Spiritism) is often pragmatically focused on allowing living and dead people to communicate with their loved ones, with little emphasis on developing a doctrinal basis for this practice. Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke excludes it as a type of esotericism for this reason: “Spiritualism’s lack of a coherent philosophy other than the implication of life beyond the veil of death tend[s] to disqualify it as a variety of esoteric philosophy” (2008:188). This is unfair to Spiritualism, which does sometimes include such doctrinal development, for example, in the work of Andrew Jackson Davis (1826–1910) and in many Spiritualist Churches. However, it suggests the value of distinguishing Spiritualism from the more general category of Spiritism.

Though “Spiritism” and its translations are used in a variety of ways in different religious cultures, it is usefully defined as referring to esoteric traditions that place prominent emphasis on communication with the spirits of the dead. In this light, Spiritualism, Kardecism, Umbanda (Engler 2018, 2020), Mexican-American curanderismo (Hendrickson 2013) and hundreds of other traditions, like Cao Dai in Vietnam (Hoskins 2015) are types of Spiritism. Candomblé, Santeria and related Afro-diasporic traditions in the Americas are not, because communicating with the dead is a marginal aspect and because they do not share in the loose family of characteristics that characterize esoteric traditions (e.g., levels of mediation between humans and the divine, ontological and epistemological correspondences between these levels, the transmutation of practitioners through ritual, flexible borrowing of characteristic from other esoteric traditions, and a reflexive relation between social functions of secrecy and these other characteristics). (The key source for this broad approach to defining esotericism is the work of Antoine Faivre [e.g., 2012 {1990}]).

It is also useful to make a related and relative distinction between horizontal and vertical relations between the living humans and spirits. In horizontal relations, the dead are like us, at our level; and in vertical relations, they are powerful and (usually) helpful spiritual beings. With horizontal relations, the only significant difference between the living and the dead is death itself. With vertical relations, the dead are more advanced, with a significantly higher state of level of spiritual development and knowledge: they communicate primarily to offer spiritual assistance to the living. (Sometimes they are seen as significantly less developed and potentially harmful. This underlines the idea of a scale of development.) Spiritualism emphasizes horizontal and Kardecism vertical relations, though both are present in both.

Kardecism maintains the core beliefs of nineteenth-century French Spiritisme. God (one, and good) created all human souls equally in an innocent state, and our purpose is to progress, spiritually and ethically, as we face the expiating challenges of a series of (re)incarnations on this world (and others). There are no entities other than God and created spirits, no angels or demons. Charity is the core virtue and marker of spiritual evolution. Disincarnated souls (both those awaiting their next resurrection and those sufficiently advanced to require no further incarnations) work compassionately with earthly mediums in order to help their less evolved incarnate fellows with their spiritual progress. Mediums receive (vertically-oriented) messages from more highly evolved spirits, as part of God’s plan of universal spiritual progress. Jesus is a created spirit like all of us, but he proceeded with unmatched speed on the path of spiritual evolution and was the most developed spirit to ever incarnate in this world. The spiritist view of Jesus is more like that of a bodhisattva in Buddhism than of the agent/victim of an Atoning sacrifice in Catholic Christianity; there is no concept of Original Sin in Kardecism.

The concept of “spiritual progress” characterizes each spirit’s individual trajectory from creation to perfection, over a series of incarnations, until a point is reached at which incarnation is no longer needed, and advancement continues only at an elevated spiritual plane:

God created all Spirits in a state of simplicity and ignorance, that is, without knowledge. He gave them each a mission, with the goal of enlightening them, making them gradually achieve perfection through the knowledge of truth, and bringing them closer to Him. Eternal and unalloyed happiness lies, for them, in this perfection. Spirits acquire this knowledge by passing through the trials that God imposes on them. Some accept these trials with submission and arrive more quickly at their destiny’s end. Others undergo them with murmuring and so remain, through their own fault, far from that promised perfection and happiness. … In each new existence, the Spirit takes a step on the path of progress. When it has divested itself of all its impurities, it has no further need for the trials of bodily life (Kardec 1860 [1857], §115, §168).

Kardecism does not believe in demons or any other form of essentially evil spirits. There is no spirit possession:

A Spirit does not enter a body as you enter a house. It assimilates itself with an incarnate Spirit that has the same defects and the same qualities, in order to act jointly. But it is always the incarnate Spirit that acts as it wills on the material with which it is clothed. No Spirit can take the place of another that is incarnated, because the Spirit and the body are linked during the period of material existence (Kardec 1860 [1857]: §473).

Kardecist mediums do not consider themselves to be “possessed by” but rather to be “working with” spirits. They generally describe their state while doing this work as fully conscious, with a voluntary relaxation of the will that allows spirits to communicate, usually through automatic writing.

Kardecist views of afterlife states are exemplified in a book by Francisco Cândido “Chico” Xavier (1910–2002), the most famous and influential of Brazilian Kardecists. (For a French Spiritiste view, influenced by Brazilian Kardecism, see the Centre Spirite Lyonnais website 2015). His more than 400 “psychographed” books have sold over 50,000,000 copies, with all proceeds donated to Kardecist charities: this led to his being honoured as a philanthropist by the Brazilian Senate in 2020 (Agência Senado 2020). In 1944, Chico Xavier  [Image at right] wrote a moralistic and to an extent nationalistic novel, Nosso Lar (Our Home): psychographed autobiography of a highly evolved disincarnate spirit, André Luiz (2006 [1944]). It became his most well-known book, a landmark of Brazilian popular literature and a highly successful 2010 film. The title of the novel refers to an afterlife destination for Brazilian spirits, a city inhabited by spirits and geographically situated above Rio de Janeiro, though on a higher spiritual or vibrational plane. The plot of Nosso Lar moves from the earthly death of the protagonist (the spirit, André Luiz, who “authored” the book) through his on-going education in spiritual ideas and charitable practices, to the culminating moment when he earns citizenship in the spiritual colony. The novel thus traces the trajectory followed by spirits after their death.

Nosso Lar serves as a sort of Brazilian national heaven. It is one of several colonies located above Brazil, and one of many found throughout the world: “national and linguistic patrimonies still linger here, conditioned by psychic boundaries”; Nosso Lar is an “old foundation of distinguished Portugueses who disincarnated in Brazil in the sixteenth century”; (Xavier 2006 [1944]: 155, 157). Another example is the “spiritual city” or “colony” of Alvorada Nova, said to be situated above the port city of Santos, near Brazil’s largest city, São Paulo (Glaser 1992). This Kardecist image of (one level of) the afterlife is also found in some centres of “white,” Kardecist-influenced Umbanda.

Nosso Lar is one of two types of afterlife “colonies”: it provides a place where spirits prepare for a return to a new incarnation; a higher afterlife state exist for those who have already evolved spiritually to the point where no further incarnations are required.

Kardecism also believes in a lower afterlife destination that is very much like Catholic purgatory: the Umbral. (Kardec discussed the doctrine of purgatory in order to underline the expiatory function of the Earth [1865: Chapter 5].) André Luiz first spent an indeterminate time in this zone “situated between the Earth and the heavens, a painful region of shadows, constructed and cultivated by the human mind, as this is generally rebellious, lazy, unbalanced and infirm…” (Campetti Sobrinho 1997:877). Colonies like Nosso Lar are placed near the Umbral (in vibrational terms) in order to help the spirits who wander there. Most of these, in time, can be led up to the higher plane of the spiritual colony:

The Umbral functions … as a region for the emptying out of mental residues, a type of purgatorial zone, in which creatures burn off in phases the deteriorated material of the illusions that they have accumulated in great quantity, through their failure to appreciate the sublime opportunity of their terrestrial existence. … [I]n the dark regions of the Umbral are found not only disincarnate humans, , but veritable monsters…. Divine Providence acted wisely in allowing the creation of this department around our planet. There you find compact legions of indecisive and ignorant souls, those not sufficiently perverse to be sent to more painful colonies of reparation, nor sufficiently noble to be led to elevated planes. There gather in groups the rebels of our species. … Notwithstanding the shadows and anguish of the Umbral, divine protection is never lacking there. Each spirit remains therefore as long as is necessary. For this … the Lord raised many colonies like this one, consecrated to spiritual work and aid (Xavier 2006 [1944]:81–82, 217).

Brazilian Kardecism has developed the idea, found in Kardec’s work, that departed spirits maintains relations with those who they were close to in life. Kardec’s spirit interlocutors informed him that, after leaving its worldly existence,

the Spirit immediately reencounter[s] those that it knew on Earth and who are already dead … according to the affection that it had for them and they for it. Often, they come to meet it on its return to the world of the Spirits, and they help to clear away the bonds of matter. It also reencounters many that it had lost to sight during its sojourn on the Earth. It sees those who are in error, and it goes to visit those who are incarnated (Kardec 1860 [1857]:§160).

In Brazilian Kardecism, each spirit works on its spiritual progress over a series of lifetimes as part of a small group of related spirits; the roles may change, but the small ensemble cast remains intertwined, lifetime after lifetime. The popular Brazilian idea of twin souls (almas gêmeas) is related to this: each spirit has an ideal romantic partner, and multi-incarnational romances are a staple of the best-selling genre of Kardecist novels (romances espíritas).

This shift toward the personal in Brazilian Kardecism is visible in the domestication of the religion:

primarily since the 1950s … a Kardecism was constructed that had its anchor not only in the Centre [the public space of ritual and study], but also in the home as an existential, ritual and moral space: a Kardecism no longer restricted to elite urban men, but one that incorporated aspects of a popular, family-centred and maternal religiosity; a Kardecism destined to captivate a public accustomed to the more oral and popular style of Catholicism, cultivating personal saints, believing in the force of prayers and simpatias [magic spells, primarily used to affect romantic relationships], and often reserving these practices for the domain of mothers. (Lewgoy 2004:42; original emphasis).

In contrast to French Spiritism (still a small quasi-philosophical/quasi-scientific movement)  Brazilian Kardecism has become a large and thriving religion. The key difference between the two is the latter’s emphasis on spiritual therapy. This is especially pronounced if we consider Brazilian Spiritisms like Kardecism and Umbanda as belonging to a single “mediumistic continuum” (Camargo 1961:94–96, 99–110; See Bastide 1967:13–16; Hess 1989). Yet many Brazilian Kardecists, like French Spiritists, see their tradition as more philosophy and science than religion. That said, a dramatic increase in the size of Kardecism between the censuses of 2000 and 2010 (from 1.3 percent to 2 percent of the Brazilian population) reflects, in part, a shift away from a historical trend in which many Kardecists self-declared as having “no religion,” given their view that they practice a philosophy and a science, not a religion: Kardecists seem to increasingly see themselves as belonging to a religion (Lewgoy 2013:196–98).


The most common Kardecist activity is group and individual study of classic Spiritist texts, especially those of Kardec, along with public lectures and discussion of related themes. Many religious traditions have been influenced by Kardecism, and the extent to which Kardec’s books remain important is a key marker of the degree of that influence. For example, in Umbanda (an Afro-esoteric Brazilian spirit-incorporation tradition) Kardecist doctrine is central to all groups (and a minority have no African elements) (Engler 2020). At the Kardecist end of the spectrum of Umbandas, mediumship training begins with months of study of Kardec’s books.

Trained mediums work in closed sessions (often through automatic writing) with highly evolved spirits who (1) give advice to help in the spiritual evolution of those incarnate in the less evolved material realm or (2) bring specific messages from recently departed individuals. The most common type of Kardecist publication consists of collections of the former type of communications. All people have a natural capacity to communicate with the spirits that surround us, and Kardecism offers means to perfect one’s mediumship, allowing for more controlled and uniformly positive interactions with the spirits. Dedicated mediums generally establish working relationships with specific spirits, including important mediums of previous generations. Afro-descendent and indigenous spirits have generally been considered relatively unevolved and continue to play only a small role in orthodox Kardecism (that most strongly rooted in Kardec’s works).

Public meetings generally end with those attending receiving passe from advanced practitioners. [Image at right] In this ritual (derived from Mesmerism and comparable to reiki) the recipient sits in a quiet low-lit room and a medium stands in front of them, passing their hands above the recipient’s head and upper torso without contact. This is believed to transfer positive magnetic fluids or energies either from the medium or from the spirits via the medium (these being two distinct forms of passe). Passe is also given to groups. The ritual is used as a healing technique, with mediums visiting patients in homes and hospitals in order to “give passe as an act of charity. In Brazil, items of clothing (belonging to those who are ill or in need of protection from potential negative energies) are brought to Kardecist centers and imbued by passe with positive magnetic fluids or energies. What is in effect the same ritual (blessing of clothing as a form of healing and protection) is found in Umbanda, popular Catholicism and Neo-Pentecostal churches.

There are no exorcism rituals, because there is no spirit possession. However, unevolved spirits are believed to cause “perturbation”: they interfere with living individuals, through maliciousness, vengefulness, ignorance or confusion. Their presence results in negative magnetic fluids, with consequences that range from mild emotional disturbance (easily handled when the person affected has some training as a medium) through “fascination” (serious distortions of thought that are not recognised as caused by a spirit) to “subjugation” (in which the spirit deprives their victim of autonomy). The cure is ritual “disobsession,” which involves treating both the victim and the offending spirit, primarily helping the latter to understand that their negative actions are standing in the way of their own spiritual development. Disobsession is also found in some centres of “white” and esoteric Umbanda.

This view of encumbering spirits is related to a more general cultural beliefs in spirits. In Brazilian popular religiosity for example,, an encosto is a somewhat malignant spirit that ‘leans’ on a person, e.g. causing them to become confused and forgetful. ‘Encosto’ is also used to refer to the resulting state of quasi-possession. Disobsession is also known as ‘desencosto’ in some Kardecist contexts.

Mediums also receive (horizontally-oriented) messages from recently disincarnated spirits (dead people). In Brazil, for example, those mourning recently diseased family members might receive a visit from a Kardecist with a psychographed message received in a recent session from the departed loved one. I have interviewed people in Brazil who rejected this initial message as false and received no more, and to others who accepted it as true and continued to received messages from their loved one. One family showed me a binder filled with letters from a departed child: the parents felt they were able to accompany their child’s growing up in the afterlife, year after year, and preparing for their next incarnation.

Two letters from dead murder victims, psychographed by Chico Xavier, played key roles in Brazilian legal cases in the 1970s. In the first case, a posthumous letter from the victim led his mother to drop an appeal; and the judge stated that the letter had provided additional support for his judgment that the accused was innocent (Souza 2021:47). In the second case, a posthumous letter from the victim was considered so accurate in its details of the crime that it was accepted as part of official court documents. The judge’s sentence, finding the death to be accidental, stated the following: “We must give credibility to the message…, although legal circles have not yet acknowledged anything of this sort, in which the victim himself, after his death, reports and provides data to the judge, and so informs sentencing” (Souza 2021: 50).

Material charity is a central practice in Kardecism: members support and volunteer at hospitals, homes for the elderly, orphanages etc. This charitable work, like many aspects of the religion, reflects, to an extent, its middle- to upper-class social location. From a critical perspective, “the fact that charity focuses especially on the poorer classes signifies not an emphasis on potential expansion but a moment for the affirmation of social distance” (Cavalcanti 1990:151–52, translated).

Kardecism shapes a wide variety of spiritual healing practices in Brazil, notably psychic surgery (Greenfield 2008). For example, the medium Zé Arigó (José Pedro de Freitas: 1922–1971) [[Image at right] became world famous for psychic surgeries and other treatments, all performed (while the medium was in a trance) by the spirit of a German physician and surgeon, Doctor Fritz (Comenale 1968). Since Arigó’s death, Doctor Fritz continued his healing work through other mediums (Greenfield 1987). This emphasis on healing also visible in the many new religious movements that draw on Kardecist ideas.


In organizational terms, Kardecism is a series of local voluntary associations as opposed to a hierarchical church-like institution. In 1858, Kardec founded both the key Kardecist publication, La Revue Spirite, and the Société Parisienne des Études Spirites (SPEE). The SPEE model was taken up in other countries: it was a clearing house for information and a willing partner, but it did not manage the operations of federated member groups. National Spiritist associations (often more than one in each country) continue to provide educational resources and support the distribution of publications. Informal on-line research strongly suggests that the number of such organizations has increased dramatically in the past twenty years.

Kardecism has remained relatively stable in its beliefs and practises, granted the shift to a greater focus on healing in Latin America, especially in Brazil. Overall coherence and continuity results primarily from three factors. First, a shared emphasis on the texts of nineteenth-century French Spiritisme, especially Kardec’s works, constitutes a de facto normative orthodox core. Second, Kardecism shares socially conservative values with many societies, especially in Latin America, which leads to a valuation of tradition (Betarello 2009:124). Third, Kardecism has a tendency to hybridize with other traditions, especially with esoteric and Afro-diasporic traditions in Latin America.

This third factor helps us understand Spiritisms in Latin America more generally. Orthodox Kardecism reinforces its traditionalism in an ongoing effort to distinguish itself from emerging hybridized traditions. Mexico illustrates this tension. The first Congresso Nacional Espírita, rooted in Kardec’s works, gathered 2010 people in 1906 (Garma 2007: 100). Seventy years later, a president of the Mexican National Spiritist Centre, writing as a “kardeciano,” underlined that Spiritism is rooted in Kardec’s texts and argued that it is a scientific, philosophical and moral system, not a religion (Alvarez y Gasca 1975). El espiritualismo trinitario mariano (Marian Trinitarian Spiritism) is a far more popular hybrid Spiritism that mixes indigenous and Catholic elements and focuses on therapeutics: it began in 1866 and continues strong today (Echániz 1990). In the 2000 census, 60,657 people (0.07 percent of the Mexican population, with members in all states) self-identified as “spiritualistas” of this tradition (Garma 2007:102). Other countries offer comparable examples. Kardecism arrived in Cuba in the 1860s and Kardecist Espiritismo cientifico soon became distinct from Espiritismo cruzado (“crossed” with Afro-Cuban traditions) and Espiritismo de cordon (with strong Catholic influences) (Espirito Santo 2015; Palmié 2002; Millet 2018). Puerto Rico offers a contrasting example, in which Mesa Blanca (“white table” Kardecism) blurs into popular brujería (healing magic), Catholicism, and Yoruba-rooted Santería of Cuban origin (Romberg 2003). In Brazil, Umbanda (a closely related but distinct type of Spiritism) has taken on the role of site of hybridization with other traditions (Engler 2020). This is correlated with Kardecism’s emphasis on normative orthodoxy in that country.


Since its advent in Latin America, Kardecism has been associated primarily with white, literate, upper-class segments of national societies. In Brazil, for example, it remains a primarily urban phenomenon, and its members have the highest literacy and education rates and the highest average incomes, after Jews and Muslims, of any religious group in the country: the number of Kardecists in the top income brackets and with post-secondary education is almost two-and-a-half times the national mean; the number of those working in administration or public service or who are themselves employers is twice the mean (Jacob et al. 2003:105).

Kardecism’s vision of universal human spiritual progress embeds socially contingent ideological presuppositions. There is a correlation between Kardecism’s class positioning and its discomfort with indigenous and Afro-descendent spirits. (Relations between race and class are especially complex in Brazil [Fry 1995–1996; Sansone 2003; Magnoli 2009].) This discomfort was linked to the emergence of Umbanda in the 1920s, when spiritually evolved, racialized spirits are said to have been rejected by Kardecists, leading to Umbanda’s becoming the tradition in which they play leading roles.

Kardecism continues to express socially conservative views, reflecting in part its members’ divergence from demographic norms. For example, attitudes toward sexuality in Brazil reflect the dominance of heteronormative views: e.g. in one of many recent meditations on Nosso Lar, sexuality independent of the goal of reproduction is considered to be devoid of meaning and homosexuality a lack of “equilibrium” (Baccelli and Ferreira 2009:255, 302). Attitudes toward homosexuality constitute one of several dimensions along which spirit possession religions in Brazil present a spectrum (Engler 2009: 561): Afro-Brazilian traditions, most notably Candomblé, usually offer a hospitable environment for alternative sexualities; Umbanda varies from more accepting at the Afro- Brazilian end of its range to much less so at the Kardecist end; Kardecism generally sees homosexuality as abnormal, with charitable tolerance the norm (many leaders and mediums are gay men); Neo-Pentecostal churches tend to see non-heterosexual desire as pathological and demonic (Landes 1947; Fry 1982; P. Birman 1985, 1995; Natividade 2003; Natividade and Oliveira 2007; Gárcia et al. 2009).

Reflecting these facts, Brazilian Kardecism has experienced significant internal tensions in recent years, between a majority of political and social conservatives and a minority of progressives (Arribas 2018; Camurça 2021). The initial division echoed tensions that sharpened in Brazilian society after the decisive victory by social conservative, not “far right,” Jair Bolsonaro in the 2018 presidential election. It was sparked by leading medium Divaldo Franco’s response to a question on “gender ideology” at the 34th Congresso Espírita do Estado de Goiás in February, 2018, which was posted on YouTube (Franco 2018).


Image #1: Allan Kardec.
Image #2: The Spirits Book.
Image #3: “The Brazilian Kardec,” Adolfo Bezerra de Menezes (1831–1900).
Image #4: Brazilian medium Divaldo Pereira Franco (1927-).
Image #5: Brazilian medium Chico Xavier (1910–2002) in a session of automatic writing.
Image #6: The Kardecist ritual passe (non-contact form of manipulation of “energies” or “magnetic fluids”).
Image #7: Brazilian medium and psychic surgeon Zé Arigo (José Pedro de Freitas: 1922–1971) treating a patient, with the assistance of the spirit Dr. Fritz.

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Publication Date:
6 April 2022