When 19th-Century Spiritualists Believed a "God Machine" Would Save Humanity

Benjamin Franklin, whose ghost was said to have contributed some of the instructions for the New Motive Power
Benjamin Franklin, whose ghost was said to have contributed some of the instructions for the New Motive Power
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In the 19th century, Universalist minister John Murray Spear was well-known as a radical prison reformer and defender of the oppressed. From his pulpit in New England, he advocated for nonviolence, the end of slavery and the death penalty, and equal rights for African Americans and women. For his efforts, Spear might have earned his place in history, if only as a footnote. Instead, it was his later, stranger endeavors—notably his attempt to build a mechanical messiah—that made him infamous.

Meet the Spirits

The first sign of Spear's odd new interests began in 1844. That December, after attending a controversial lecture by an anti-Catholic speaker in Portland, Maine, he was beaten by a group of ruffians until he was comatose (Spear had encouraged the audience to speak their mind after the lecture, even if it meant booing the lecturer, and the ruffians apparently disagreed with his position). When he came out of his coma, Spear reported having strange visions and premonitions of the future while unconscious. No one paid much mind to it at first, but as time passed, it became clear something about him was different.

Soon, he came in contact with someone who had a decisive impact on his transformation. In 1847, Spear wrote a review of The Principles of Nature, Her Divine Revelations, and a Voice to Mankind, calling it “the most wonderful work ever made by mortal man.” In fact, the “mortal man” who had written the book, Andrew Jackson Davis, also known as “The Poughkeepsie Seer,” said he had not written it at all. Instead, he claimed the text was composed of communications with deceased scientist and mystic Emanuel Swedenborg and the ancient Greek physician Galen.

Davis was among the first proponents of the Spiritualist movement, a 19th-century religious phenomenon that claimed to offer proof of life after death. The next year, in 1848, when the Fox sisters began communicating with “ghosts” through coded knocking or “table rapping,” the movement spread quickly. Soon, all across America spiritual seekers were experimenting with séances, mediumship, and precursors to the Ouija board.

Whatever affinity Spear also felt for the more otherworldly elements of Spiritualism, at first he was attracted to their humanist convictions: the unjustness of the death penalty and the basic equality of all human beings. Publicly this was what Spear and Davis talked about at their first meeting in 1851, after which Davis praised the minister as a model man for his philanthropy. Privately, though, he recommended Spear open himself up further to the spirits. As Spear later recounted, Davis told him [PDF], “You will meet them! They will come to you."

It was a suggestion Spear did not take lightly. Within a few months, he was not only attending séances but speaking to the dead on his own, delivering spontaneous “channeled” speeches and written messages, including from his deceased namesake, John Murray, one of the founders of American Universalism.

By the end of 1852, Spear's roster of dead “correspondents” had expanded, along with their ambitions. Spear claimed he was the mortal mouthpiece of the “Association of Beneficents,” a committee of deceased luminaries that included John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson, all of whom had decided they could not stand aside as America failed to live up to its revolutionary promise. Jefferson's spirit was particularly voluble: He supposedly said that government leaders who backed slavery were "infernal scoundrels" who should be "shut up in pits of everlasting infamy," and that the country's progress toward liberty had been thwarted by "a nation of thieves" who had stolen "that which is of most value—human rights." Within a year, Spear’s spirits were no longer satisfied by giving advice, and began delivering orders for radical changes to the government and social structure—orders that Spear and his followers, the “Practical Spiritualists,” would attempt to implement.

In 1853, this took the form of Spear’s announcement that these spirits, especially Benjamin Franklin, would share with them their greatest (and posthumous) invention. Spear called it “God’s last, best gift to man.”

The God Machine

The High Rock Tower, Lynn, Massachusetts
The High Rock Tower, Lynn, Massachusetts
Boston Public Library, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

This “New Motor,” or “New Motive Power,” was a generator of sorts. At its simplest, Spear described it as a perpetual motion device that “will have the power to impart its electric forces to any number of machines.” At its most complex, however, it was a God machine, the culmination of what Spear (speaking for “the Association” [PDF]) called “a grand practical movement for the redemption of the human race.”

Naturally, as a direct revelation from the spirit world, this would be no ordinary device. A “living working mechanism,” the New Motor would “bear offspring”: a race of self-replicating, self-powering machines. As a remedy to the so-called “Curse of Adam”—humanity’s need to earn wages and food by the “sweat of [its] brow," as the Bible describes it—the New Motor would bring about Edenic leisure for all people, ending slavery, farming, factory work, and women’s house work. Liberated from daily labor, people would be free to open themselves up to the spirits as Spear had, and to mentally connect with the New Motive Power. Through the etheric transmission of humankind’s collective thoughts, knowledge, and desires, the New Motive Power would remake the world, an action Spear compared to fire boiling a pot of water. In essence, by removing humanity’s material limitations, the New Motor was a God-like machine that would bring out the God-like qualities in man.

For the next nine months, Spear went into daily trances, drawing designs that detailed every aspect of the device. Finally, in 1854, the construction of “the greatest spiritual revelation of the age” began at the High Rock Cottage in Lynn, Massachusetts.

The Practical Spiritualist newspaper, The New Era, detailed the construction of the “electrical infant” that May, claiming the device “corresponded” to the human body [PDF]. The machine consisted of a black walnut table with insulated legs, topped by a series of copper, zinc, iron, and magnetic plates. From there, two magnetized struts rose from either side, suspending magnetized balls on copper chains between them. Later descriptions included details such as hair-like antennae to conduct “etheric power” and metal plate “lungs” that would rust as a symbolic form of respiration.

In all, Spear and his followers are believed to have spent $2000 on its construction (more than $50,000 today) [PDF].

The Mary of the New Dispensation

The strangeness of Spear’s efforts caught the attention of other Spiritualists. When Andrew Jackson Davis decided to see what his old friend was up to, the scene he encountered at High Rock Cottage horrified him.

Describing what he had seen in The Spiritual Telegraph that June, Davis emphasized the Practical Spiritualists’ enthusiasm for their project, stating “[for them] each wire is precious, sacred as a spiritual nerve" [PDF]. He believed that the New Motor was genuinely spirit-inspired and supernatural in origin. But he also left with the impression that something had gone very wrong. Davis, who had first told Spear to speak with spirits, worried that this “model man” had turned into a mad one.

Spear suffered from “the terrible misfortune of being easily imposed upon by his own impulses,” Davis wrote, saying he “mistak[es] them at least two-thirds of the time for ‘impressions’ from higher intelligences.” This delusion, Davis said, had warped whatever actual spiritual messages Spear was receiving into misguided fanaticism, a resurgence of his old religious tendencies. In Spear, the Poughkeepsie Seer saw something frighteningly close to a cult leader, urging his followers on in pursuit of a false messiah.

What disturbed Davis most was “The Mary of the New Dispensation,” Sarah Newton—the wife of one of Spear’s followers—who had been declared the New Motive Power’s “mother” after a series of visions. Upon accepting her role, Newton began living at the High Rock Cottage laboratory full-time in order to maintain an “umbilical link” with the device. There, Spear and the other Spiritualists made daily efforts to “charge” the machine and infuse it with life, with some evidence suggesting these exercises were decidedly sexual.

Eventually, Newton went into “labor.” After two hours of writhing in pain, she reached out and touched the New Motor. Its inner rotor is said to have started moving for a moment, but the promised self-perpetuating motion did not manifest. Although the Practical Spiritualists took the temporary movement as a sign of success, Davis was skeptical. The supposed “virgin birth,” he said, was just the power of suggestion and superstition [PDF].

Disaster—or Spiritual Victory?

Nevertheless, Spear’s followers defended their project. In a rebuttal to Davis’s account reprinted in The Spiritual Telegraph that July, Spear’s collaborator Simon Hewitt said the Motor was still gestating. “Would it not be wiser to wait a little and witness its growth, than to attempt the strangulation of the infant?” he wrote [PDF].

Following Davis’s public disparagement, the Practical Spiritualists became pariahs within their own movement. Worse, Davis's article earned the attention and mockery of the broader public. P.T. Barnum declared the New Motor one of the “humbugs” he was the self-proclaimed prince of, opining, “If things like this are going to happen, the ladies will be afraid to sleep alone in the house if so much as a sewing-machine or apple-corer be about.”

Having exhausted local support, Spear moved the machine to Randolph, New York, hoping to utilize the area’s superior “magnetic” energies for their experiments. The New Motor was taken apart for transport, and once reassembled at its new home, efforts to animate it redoubled.

But then Spear’s work came to a disastrous conclusion. One night, a group of local young men broke into the Practical Spiritualist compound, tore out the machine’s copper “heart,” and threw the New Motor into the local mill pond in pieces.

Or so Spear said. In November 1854, Scientific American wrote, “We do not believe a word respecting a mob breaking into the building and destroying the spiritual machine. We are of the opinion that it was broken by the crafty author of it, whose schemes had come to the exact point of exposing his ridiculous pretensions.”

Despite what looked like a failure to anyone else, Spear and his followers declared a spiritual victory. As Sarah Newton’s husband, Alonzo, wrote in the Spiritualist publication The Educator, the machine was “a model for the embodiment of the idea.”

Until his retirement from mediumship in 1872, John Murray Spear never stopped trying to bring about “the Divine Social State on Earth” that the New Motive Power had promised. This new order was to treat men and women of all races and religions as equals, allow for free love, and help children to be brought up unburdened by outdated ideologies. The New Motor would live again, Spear said, but in its “second coming” it would not be the engine that remade the world. Instead, its completion would be the sign the New Era had finally arrived.

Spears's later years were a return to more earthbound social justice campaigning. He died on October 5, 1887, at the age of 83. His obituary, published by the Spiritualist newspaper The Banner of Light [PDF] and entitled “Transition of a Veteran Reformer,” spoke about the “indefatigable nature of the man who has now gone to participate, as an arisen spirit, in new efforts for human good.” Despite cataloguing his work toward temperance, abolitionism, women's rights, and prisoners' rights, his 39 years of spiritualist practice were condensed into three sentences. There was no mention of the goal to which he had dedicated his life, and which had ultimately escaped him: the New Era, and the machine his spirits had said would bring it into being.

Additional Sources: The Remarkable Life of John Murray Spear; Occult America

10 Products for a Better Night's Sleep

Amazon/Comfort Spaces
Amazon/Comfort Spaces

Getting a full eight hours of sleep can be tough these days. If you’re having trouble catching enough Zzzs, consider giving these highly rated and recommended products a try.

1. Everlasting Comfort Pure Memory Foam Knee Pillow; $25

Everlasting Comfort Knee Pillow
Everlasting Comfort/Amazon

For side sleepers, keeping the spine, hips, and legs aligned is key to a good night’s rest—and a pain-free morning after. Everlasting Comfort’s memory foam knee pillow is ergonomically designed to fit between the knees or thighs to ensure proper alignment. One simple but game-changing feature is the removable strap, which you can fasten around one leg; this keeps the pillow in place even as you roll at night, meaning you don’t have to wake up to adjust it (or pick it up from your floor). Reviewers call the pillow “life-changing” and “the best knee pillow I’ve found.” Plus, it comes with two pairs of ear plugs.

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2. Letsfit White Noise Machine; $21

Letsfit White Noise Machine
Letsfit/Amazon

White noise machines: They’re not just for babies! This Letsfit model—which is rated 4.7 out of five with nearly 3500 reviews—has 14 potential sleep soundtracks, including three white noise tracks, to better block out everything from sirens to birds that chirp enthusiastically at dawn (although there’s also a birds track, if that’s your thing). It also has a timer function and a night light.

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3. ECLIPSE Blackout Curtains; $16

Eclipse Black Out Curtains
Eclipse/Amazon

According to the National Sleep Foundation, too much light in a room when you’re trying to snooze is a recipe for sleep disaster. These understated polyester curtains from ECLIPSE block 99 percent of light and reduce noise—plus, they’ll help you save on energy costs. "Our neighbor leaves their backyard light on all night with what I can only guess is the same kind of bulb they use on a train headlight. It shines across their yard, through ours, straight at our bedroom window," one Amazon reviewer who purchased the curtains in black wrote. "These drapes block the light completely."

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4. JALL Wake Up Light Sunrise Alarm Clock; $38

JALL Wake Up Light Sunrise Alarm Clock
JALL/Amazon

Being jarred awake by a blaring alarm clock can set the wrong mood for the rest of your day. Wake up in a more pleasant way with this clock, which gradually lights up between 10 percent and 100 percent in the 30 minutes before your alarm. You can choose between seven different colors and several natural sounds as well as a regular alarm beep, but why would you ever use that? “Since getting this clock my sleep has been much better,” one reviewer reported. “I wake up not feeling tired but refreshed.”

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5. Philips SmartSleep Wake-Up Light; $200

Philips SmartSleep Wake-Up Light
Philips/Amazon

If you’re looking for an alarm clock with even more features, Philips’s SmartSleep Wake-Up Light is smartphone-enabled and equipped with an AmbiTrack sensor, which tracks things like bedroom temperature, humidity, and light levels, then gives recommendations for how you can get a better night’s rest.

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6. Slumber Cloud Stratus Sheet Set; $159

Stratus sheets from Slumber Cloud.
Slumber Cloud

Being too hot or too cold can kill a good night’s sleep. The Good Housekeeping Institute rated these sheets—which are made with Outlast fibers engineered by NASA—as 2020’s best temperature-regulating sheets.

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7. Comfort Space Coolmax Sheet Set; $29-$40

Comfort Spaces Coolmax Sheets
Comfort Spaces/Amazon

If $159 sheets are out of your price range, the GHI recommends these sheets from Comfort Spaces, which are made with moisture-wicking Coolmax microfiber. Depending on the size you need, they range in price from $29 to $40.

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8. Coop Home Goods Eden Memory Foam Pillow; $80

Coop Eden Pillow
Coop Home Goods/Amazon

This pillow—which has a 4.5-star rating on Amazon—is filled with memory foam scraps and microfiber, and comes with an extra half-pound of fill so you can add, or subtract, the amount in the pillow for ultimate comfort. As a bonus, the pillows are hypoallergenic, mite-resistant, and washable.

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9. Baloo Weighted Blanket; $149-$169

Baloo Weighted Blanket
Baloo/Amazon

Though the science is still out on weighted blankets, some people swear by them. Wirecutter named this Baloo blanket the best, not in small part because, unlike many weighted blankets, it’s machine-washable and -dryable. It’s currently available in 12-pound ($149) twin size and 20-pound ($169) queen size. It’s rated 4.7 out of five stars on Amazon, with one reviewer reporting that “when it's spread out over you it just feels like a comfy, snuggly hug for your whole body … I've found it super relaxing for falling asleep the last few nights, and it looks nice on the end of the bed, too.” 

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10. Philips Smartsleep Snoring Relief Band; $200

Philips SmartSleep Snoring Relief Band
Philips/Amazon

Few things can disturb your slumber—and that of the ones you love—like loudly sawing logs. Philips’s Smartsleep Snoring Relief Band is designed for people who snore when they’re sleeping on their backs, and according to the company, 86 percent of people who used the band reported reduced snoring after a month. The device wraps around the torso and is equipped with a sensor that delivers vibrations if it detects you moving to sleep on your back; those vibrations stop when you roll onto your side. The next day, you can see how many hours you spent in bed, how many of those hours you spent on your back, and your response rate to the vibrations. The sensor has an algorithm that notes your response rate and tweaks the intensity of vibrations based on that. “This device works exactly as advertised,” one Amazon reviewer wrote. “I’d say it’s perfect.”

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Newly Discovered Letter From Frederick Douglass Discusses the Need for Better Monuments

"What I want to see before I die is a monument representing the negro, not couchant on his knees like a four-footed animal, but erect on his feet like a man," Frederick Douglass wrote in response to this memorial in 1876.
"What I want to see before I die is a monument representing the negro, not couchant on his knees like a four-footed animal, but erect on his feet like a man," Frederick Douglass wrote in response to this memorial in 1876.
Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress Photographs and Prints Division // No Known Restrictions on Publication

The removal of Confederate monuments across the country has prompted debates about other statues that misrepresent Civil War history. One of these is Washington, D.C.’s Emancipation Memorial, or Freedman’s Memorial, which depicts a shirtless Black man in broken shackles crouching in front of Abraham Lincoln.

As historians Jonathan W. White and Scott Sandage report for Smithsonian.com, a formerly enslaved Virginian named Charlotte Scott came up with the idea for a monument dedicated to Lincoln after hearing of his assassination in April 1865. She started a memorial fund with $5 of her own, and the rest of the money was donated by other emancipated people.

Sculptor Thomas Ball based the kneeling “freedman” on a photograph of a real person: Archer Alexander, an enslaved Missourian who had been captured in 1863 under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Ball intended the sculpture to depict Alexander breaking his chains and rising from his knees, symbolizing the agency and strength of emancipated people.

But in a newly unearthed letter, Frederick Douglass acknowledged the shortcomings of the scene and even offered a suggestion for improving Lincoln Park, where the statue stands. According to The Guardian, Sandage came across the letter in a search on Newspapers.com that included the word couchant—an adjective that Douglass used often.

“The negro here, though rising, is still on his knees and nude. What I want to see before I die is a monument representing the negro, not couchant on his knees like a four-footed animal, but erect on his feet like a man,” Douglass wrote to the editor of the National Republican in 1876. “There is room in Lincoln park [sic] for another monument, and I throw out this suggestion to the end that it may be taken up and acted upon.”

In 1974, another monument did join the park: a statue of Mary McLeod Bethune, a civil rights activist and teacher who founded the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute (later Bethune-Cookman College) and the National Council of Negro Women. The Emancipation Memorial was even turned around so the monuments could face each other, though they’re located at opposite ends of the park.

mary mcleod bethune monument
Mary McLeod Bethune depicted with a couple young students in Lincoln Park.
Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The new addition might be a much better representation of Black agency and power than Ball’s was, but it doesn’t exactly solve the issue of promoting Lincoln as the one true emancipator—a point Douglass made both in the letter and in the address he gave at the Emancipation Memorial’s dedication ceremony in 1876.

“He was ready and willing at any time during the first years of his administration to deny, postpone, and sacrifice the rights of humanity in the colored people to promote the welfare of the white people of this country,” Douglass said in his speech. In other words, while Lincoln definitely played a critical role in abolishing slavery, that goal also took a back seat to his priority of keeping the country united. Furthermore, it wasn't until after Lincoln's death that Black people were actually granted citizenship.

The rediscovered letter to the editor reinforces Douglass’s opinions on Lincoln’s legacy and the complexity of Civil War history, and it can also be read as a broader warning against accepting a monument as an accurate portrait of any person or event.

“Admirable as is the monument by Mr. Ball in Lincoln park [sic], it does not, as it seems to me, tell the whole truth, and perhaps no one monument could be made to tell the whole truth of any subject which it might be designed to illustrate,” Douglass wrote.

[h/t Smithsonian.com]