Andrew Jackson Davis is often referred to as the "John the Baptist" of modern Spiritualism, for he preached the advent of spirit communication in the United States with an evangelical fervor. Davis grew up in extreme poverty in Blooming Grove, New York, a small hamlet along the Hudson River, the only son in a family of six. His mother was illiterate, but highly religious, and quite likely encouraged her frail, nervous son to receive visions and to hear voices early in life. Davis's father was afflicted with alcoholism and barely managed to provide any sustenance for his family in his trade as a weaver and shoemaker. Only one of the family's five daughters survived to adulthood.
When he was 12, Davis's clairvoyant impressions and spirit voices manifested convincingly enough to persuade his father to move the family to Poughkeepsie. Five years later, in 1843, Davis attended a demonstration on mesmerism conducted by Dr. J. Stanley Grimes. Mesmerism, usually defined as an old-fashioned term for hypnotism, developed out of the theories of certain physicians in the sixteenth century that humans could project and control their animal magnetism, sometimes inducing trance states in themselves or in others. In the 1760s, Dr. Franz Anton Mesmer (1734–1815) began healing patients with what he believed was the result of animal magnetism's effect on a kind of "universal fluid" that flowed between the stars, the human body, and everything on the planet, but which today would likely to be attributed to light trance states and the power of suggestion.
With Davis's childhood experiences of hearing spirit voices, it is not surprising that he was found to be a good subject by a local tailor named William Levingston, who had decided to experiment with mesmerism on his own. Once Davis had entered an altered state of consciousness, he seemed to have the ability to see through the human body and to diagnose the cause of illnesses and medical disorders. Within a short period of time, Andrew Jackson Davis was being proclaimed as the "Poughkeepsie Seer." Men and women were coming from miles around to draw from his magnetic powers, and Levingston abandoned his tailor shop to devote all of his time to overseeing Davis's healing ministry.
On the evening of March 6, 1844, Davis experienced a life-altering event that would direct the course of his personal destiny. All he claimed to remember was being overcome by some power that made him feel as though he were literally flying through the air. When he regained consciousness the next morning, he found himself in the Catskill Mountains, 40 miles away from Poughkeepsie. Had the spirits transported him through the air and deposited him there in the mountains? Or had he walked 40 miles in one evening while in a trance? And why did he suddenly awaken to find himself in this particular spot?
While Davis claimed never to learn the answer as to how he got to that particular setting in the Catskills, he soon learned the reason why. He said that first the spirit of the Greek philosopher Galen (129 C.E.–C. 199c.e.) materialized before him, then the spirit of the Swedish seer Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772), both of whom provided him with mental illumination and spiritual revelation. From that day onward, Andrew Jackson Davis set forth on an extensive lecture schedule, proclaiming the advent of spirit communication for humans everywhere. He claimed a great cosmic doorway was being opened, and ministers from the spirit world would soon be making themselves available for contact with those individuals who wished to gain from their wisdom and inspiration.
While on tour, Davis met Dr. S. Silas Lyons, an experienced mesmerist, who was able to induce a deep trance state in the Poughkeepsie seer. In November of 1845, with Lyons as the mesmerist, Davis as the prophetic voice, and Reverend William Fishbough as the stenographer, dictation was begun on The Principles of Nature: Her Divine Revelations and a Voice to Mankind. The process lasted for 15 months, and often small crowds of enthusiastic men and women, including such luminaries as American writer Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849), bore witness to the words as they poured forth from the entranced Davis.
In 1847, the book was published and was received eagerly by a public seeking new revelations from a modern prophet. Although some critics pointed out many similarities to the writings of Swedenborg concerning creation, philosophy, and religion, Davis' champions replied that the seer was a man of modest education who had never read the works of the great Swedish mystic. Davis had, in fact, only five months of formal schooling. However, there should be little mystery if the Principles of Nature contained echoes of Swedenborg, for it was his spirit who had manifested with Galen to inspire Davis. Due to the success of his book, Davis began issuing Univercoelum, a periodical which was published from 1847 to 1849 and was devoted to clairvoyance, trance phenomena, and his Harmonial Philosophy.
On March 31, 1848, it is said that Davis predicted the coming of modern Spiritualism when he reported that he had awakened that morning hearing a voice telling him that the good work had begun: "About daylight this morning a warm breathing passed over my face, and I heard a voice, tender and strong, saying, 'Brother, the good work has begun. Behold, a living demonstration is born.' I was left wondering what could be meant by such a message." Although Davis and his followers would not ally themselves with the Spiritualist cause until 1850, it would often be pointed out that the Fox sisters first challenged "old Splitfoot" on March 31, 1848, and that the "voice, tender and strong," had obviously been referring to their "living demonstration" of spirit communication.
In July 1848, after creating a bit of scandal for the conservative times, Andrew Jackson Davis married Catherine Dodge, a wealthy heiress, who was 20 years his senior. Their union was unhappy and brief, and she died in 1853, leaving her estate to Davis. Davis continued to lecture and teach his Harmonial Philosophy for many years. At the age of 60, he acquired a medical degree, but soon thereafter he retired to Boston, where he ran a bookshop and prescribed herbal remedies to his patients. Andrew Jackson Davis died amidst his books and herbs in 1910, a quiet ending to the full life of the "John the Baptist" of the Spiritualist movement.