Hearing Things: Religion, Illusion, and the American Enlightenment

Leigh Eric Schmidt, Author Harvard University Press $57.5 (336p) ISBN 978-0-674-00303-3
The narrator in the hymn ""Amazing Grace"" speaks of finding God in terms of sensory experience: ""Was blind but now I see."" This innovative study narrates a fall from sensory grace. According to Schmidt, a historian of American religion at Princeton University, Christians once inhabited a rich soundscape, what critic Marshall McLuhan called ""the magical world of the ear."" They heard heavenly voices, conversed with spirits and debated demons, and when they were called to preach, the voice of the Lord was loud and clear. The occasional prophet excepted, few people today seriously advance such bold claims. Who silenced the angels? For an answer, Schmidt turns back to the 18th and 19th centuries to look at Enlightenment philosophers and traveling ventriloquists, at acoustic engineers, anatomists and alienists, each of whom demonstrated in his own way the structures that undergirded claims of the miraculous. In later years, mystics and psychical researchers co-opted rationalist claims, and asserted that mechanical devices such as telephones and telegraphs were authentic means for communicating with spirits. But they proved to be lonely voices in an increasingly disenchanted sound stage. This densely argued, fascinating story features a panorama of colorful characters, from the Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg to the traveling showman William Frederick Pinchbeck and his Pig of Knowledge. Schmidt's study offers an important chapter in the genealogy of the modern religious imagination. (Sept.)
Reviewed on: 09/04/2000
Release date: 09/01/2000
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