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Religion and Spiritualism
Importance of Faith
Susanna Moodie and Catharine Parr Traill, like many women of their time and background, were sustained throughout their often challenging lives by a deep Christian belief in God's purpose and providence. No matter how difficult the struggle to survive, or how deep the pain of loss or illness, Victorians like Susanna and Catharine, brought up in the Church of England, never doubted that God would give them the strength to endure and overcome their trials.
Catharine's Unwavering Anglicanism
Of the two sisters, Catharine was the most consistent in her adherence to the Church of England. Throughout the family's years in the backwoods, with no clergy nearby, all the Traill children were baptized at St. John's Anglican Church in Peterborough. After 1838, when the Traills left the backwoods, the family name appears in the church registers of each small community they moved to. Traill's letters often refer to the local Anglican minister, to other parishioners and to church activities. They also quote frequently (if not always accurately) from the Bible. Faith was a life-long comfort to Catharine, who spent almost half of her 98 years as a relatively poor widow. During that time she mourned the deaths in adulthood of her two eldest sons and her youngest daughter, as well as the loss of all her sisters and brothers. In her later years we often see Catharine ponder God's purpose in keeping her alive to witness such sadness, but her faith in that purpose never wavered.
Susanna's Practical Faith
Susanna, though she never wavered in her belief in God, did from time to time explore other denominations of Protestantism. In her youth she was briefly and enthusiastically converted to the nonconformist Congregational Church in Wrentham, a village near Reydon Hall, much to the horror of her conservative and traditional family. However, she seems to have returned to the Church of England by the time of her marriage a year later at London's St. Pancras Church. Her first child, Katie, was baptized at St. Margaret's Anglican Church in the village of Reydon in February, 1832. Throughout her Canadian years in the bush and in Belleville, Susanna seems to have pursued a practical path with respect to public worship, choosing to attend services and churches as they presented themselves, rather than to adhere to one denomination that might only be able to meet infrequently. In Belleville, for a short time, she and her husband attended the Congregational chapel (see Town Life), but for the most part they divided their worship between Anglican and Presbyterian congregations.
Closely allied to religion, and to the Victorian preoccupation with death and the hereafter, was the mid-century phenomenon of Spiritualism. Adherents to this movement believed that they might make contact with loved ones who had died and passed over to another dimension of existence. The usual means for making such contact was through the services of a medium at a séance or gathering of those who believed in Spiritualism. Both Susanna and John Moodie read a great deal about it; John, especially, sought to understand it "scientifcally" and wrote long letters to the Spiritual Telegraph and Fireside Preacher of New York in the late 1850s, discussing his own experiences and experiments with spiritualism.
The Moodies became interested in séances in the mid-1850s, at first as a way to contact deceased family members (see John Moodie's "Spiritualism Album," page 13, in which Moodie reports contact with Johnny, their drowned son) and old friends. They were visited in Belleville in the summer of 1855 by Kate, the youngest of the "Rochester Rappers," the celebrated Fox sisters. The Moodies' daughter, Agnes, served as an effective medium on many occasions (see "Spiritualism Album," July 1857), something which, in later years when Agnes had become an Ottawa society woman, worried the Album's custodian, Kate Vickers (see note by C.M.M.Vickers in "Spiritualism Album"). Catharine Parr Traill also acted as a medium when she visited the Moodies in Belleville, though Susanna reported to Richard Bentley in a letter dated May 2, 1858, "her spirits often abuse her and call her ugly names" (see "Spiritualism Album," December 1857 and March 1858). Susanna herself had become a medium that spring (see "Spiritualism Album," April 1858) and by the late summer had succeeded in communicating with her beloved drowned son (see "Spiritualism Album," September 1858).
The Moodies' obsession with Spiritualism began to wane in the late 1850s and seems to have completely disappeared by the mid 1860s when controversy surrounding the authenticity of unscrupulous mediums, including the Fox sisters, was raging.