Book Review - Cassadaga The South’s Oldest Spiritual Community

Cultic Studies Review, 9(1), 2010, 254-257 

Book Review - The South’s Oldest Spiritual Community

Joseph P. Szimhart

Cult Research Specialist and Consultant

Pottstown, PA

The following is an excerpt from a brochure advertising what to do in West Velusia County, Florida:

Seer of Spiritualism George P. Colby established Cassadaga in 1875,[1] which has a designated Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places. A Spiritualist Camp Bookstore offers information and workshops by mediums, healers, and preachers. Lecture topics include psychometry, Reiki healing, Celestine Prophecy, and the medicine wheel. The Cassadaga Hotel, established in 1927, offers guest rooms, dining room serving homemade food, café, massage therapist, and hair salon. 2 miles from S.R. 472 on C.R. 4139, connecting to I-4 at exit #54. 35 miles N.E. of Orlando and 25 miles S.W. of Daytona Beach. 904/228-2880.

Cassadaga is the first scholarly study about this extraordinary, century-old community.

Spiritualism as a religious movement appeared in the northeastern United States, where centers or “camps” have survived for more than one hundred years. In the 1890s, a group of spiritualists from the northeast migrated south to establish a new camp in Florida, between Orlando and Daytona. The group established the Southern Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp Meeting Association (SCSCMA) on 57 acres in West Velusia County in 1894. The National Register of Historic Places added Cassadaga to its list in 1991.

Eight contributors to this book carefully present the history, context, beliefs, architecture, and personalities that make up this unique southern community. The book begins with an informative overview of nineteenth-century religion and how the challenge of science inspired occultists to develop a “science” to prove their beliefs. Spiritualists were primarily interested in this “science” to provide evidence of contact with the deceased, to prove life after death. The book mentions that many spiritualist ventures ended in failure because of lack of support. Others were exposed as frauds that amounted to little more than stage magic disguised as spirit contact.

Unlike many books about Spiritualism, Cassadaga has little to say about fraud and exposure. This absence has as much to do with the Cassadaga camp’s ethical structure as it does with the relative harmony the camp experienced with surrounding communities. Cassadaga’s culture and architecture, historically northern in appeal, is unique in a southern context. Cassadaga’s sister community is Lily Dale in New York, established in 1879.

Since the rise of New Age religions and spirituality beginning in the 1960s, Cassadaga has attracted competitive businesses of healers and psychics not approved by the community. However, in keeping with their liberal approach to religion, Cassadagans have tolerated the new neighbors. They have also adapted to trends in New Age spirituality, increasing the community’s commercialism and expanding its services. The book mentions that some tension exists within the community between old-style spiritualists and new members who have a less Christian focus.

Though well established, the community maintains a small-town character. The core of the community is its certified mediums, who are trained for at least two years to contact spirits and give psychic readings. Most are also trained in metaphysical healing arts, with Reiki being popular. But the most important part of training for mediums has been the “continual practice of giving readings and learning to bring through verifiable facts from the spirit world.” In 1996, 18 women and 7 men were working as approved mediums at the camp. The camp is most active in the winter, with dozens of guests and hundreds of tourists coming by on any given day.

The study includes a group biography based on interviews with several residents, and a chapter about one of the community’s most colorful teachers, Reverend Eloise Page. The final chapter is a photographic presentation of activities, ceremonies, and rituals at the camp.

The chapter “No Palaces among Us,” by Sidney Johnston, describes and offers images of Cassadaga’s historic architecture, built between 1895 and 1945. The SCSCMA currently contains 56 historic buildings, many of which are century-old, frame constructions. Three buildings are public or commercial, and the rest are “residences that may contain a reading room.” Most of the buildings consist of a front-facing gable roof with front and rear porches. The designs are simple, with clean, elegant lines. The Cassadaga Hotel, built between 1927 and 1928, is in the mission revival style of Spanish influence. Johnston explains how the SCSCMA designed the camp and landscape to ensure economic viability, and in the process also ensured beauty in harmony between private and public architecture. He describes why Cassadaga has proved to be a success, if success means integration of a spiritual philosophy with a physical retreat that endures as a unique community in America.

To me, the most salient chapter was by Phillip Charles Lucas, who wrote about Cassadaga as a “contemporary therapeutic community.” Lucas describes and interprets the religious system of the Southern Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp Meeting Association — its development and emergence in the community’s ritual life and philosophy. The book accomplishes its purpose of giving the reader a rich insight into Cassadaga from many approaches.

[1] Colby founded the Cassadaga, Florida site in 1875, but the camp appeared 20 years later.