Matthew Taylor (“Ghost-Humanism,” J19 1, no.2 (2013): 416ff) begins his interesting take on ghosts and nineteenth-century science with this quote from William Gilmore Simms: “we can no longer get a ghost story” because “the materialists” have made “the world . . . monstrous matter-of-fact in latter days.” Taylor writes that Simms’s corollary that the “cold-blooded demon called Science has taken the place of all the other demons” is telling in this regard, but more indicative is the era’s endless fascination with ghostology, or the attempt to identify “a scientific theory . . . reconciling ghosts and natural phenomena.”
Taylor observes that the literature Simms complains of “often were exercises in exorcism, debunking spirits as optical illusions, atavistic reversions, or mental delusions. With equal if not greater frequency, however, they sought to substantiate ghosts’ reality, via everything from the empirical evidence of spirit photography and planchette writing (at times conducted under the auspices of William James and the Society for Psychical Research) to hypothetical proofs involving electrical currents and universal ethers. In each case, ghosts were given flesh—shades brought into the light—through association with known scientific laws and technologies. To borrow Thomas Carlyle’s (and M. H. Abrams’s) memorable phrase: a natural supernaturalism.”
Only slightly outside of Taylor’s thesis lie the Mormons (never mentioned in the article). From Joseph Smith’s early dialog with Revelation (D&C 77), to the near accidental recording of a gloss on a private sermon (D&C 130), the Mormons were ahead of the curve: ghosts were real, so real that they were somehow part of the physical world, as Taylor terms them “invisible macro-biological life forms.” Indeed, Mormon discussions of the universe placed both ends of the divine part of the chain of being, spirits, angels, and the “holy” bodies of God and Christ into a biosphere that looks suspiciously like extraterrestrial copies of the world of terra firma, but extracted from its context.
Taylor says that for some, the advances of science wrote humans as just one more line in the play of a universe winding down to nothingness, while for others, the materialization of ghosts demonstrated “our scientific immortality . . . the extension of human dominion into ever more domains.”
While Taylor’s question at large is as much a literary one as anything: “whether or not there is new life to be found in channeling the voices of the dead” in the sense of works like the one that scared the [heck] out of me as a boy: Ambrose Bierce’s variation on the theme of material ghosts: “The Damned Thing” (1893), “which investigates a man killed in the western wilderness by ‘something unseen’ that ‘blot[s] out’ all beyond it.”
The Mormons never, except in fringe literature, tried to bring science, as it existed then, into full dialog with the spiritual world (certainly people like James Talmage saw nothing wrong with explaining the miracles of the New Testament as the action of physical laws beyond the ken of Galilean Fishermen). Indeed, thankfully in my opinion, mainstream modern Mormonism has done little in the way of defining William Clayton’s version of Joseph Smith’s words (“all spirit is matter”(!)), beyond perhaps reading them largely as a declaration that the spiritual world is real, not a Platonic ideal perhaps. But during the era Taylor defines, Mormons were very specific regarding both the worlds “before” this one, and those “after” it, in terms that could only shock the sensibilities of fellow Protestants.
Orson Pratt’s talk of women bearing children in heaven, taking the common exegesis of Paul to a new level: the heavenly bodies sexually procreate, not in their own image, but in the image of their blood-substitute: “spirit.” Pratt’s universal bio-frame marked out a theological territory never fully discharged from Mormon thought, indeed, it is, now in wonderful Victorian vagueness, celebrated.
But this Mormon physicalizing of the spiritual world, indeed in Taylor’s words, humanizing it, has some consequences that work against other Mormon narratives: the necessity of the body in particular. If spirits are material, indeed bodily material, not just real but real as human doppelgangers, with arms to embrace, eyes to see, ears to hear, fingers to touch, tongues to taste, and even glands to secrete, what is the lesson of more body? True there have been efforts to dehumanize the spirit “body,” but they seem strange appendices to reduce the voltage of an all-material world-a world to be explained by laws of physics that like the Lost Chord of Cosmology, will finally explain the Gravity of Humaness.
Taylor notes (in my mind) that the Mormon conception of the universality of the human paradigm was shared by fictional works on the subject of spiritualism. An 1858 work by Fitz-James O’Brien called the “Diamond Lens” “centers on a man aided by Leeuwenhoek’s ghost to build an infinitely powerful microscope capable of penetrat[ing] beyond the external portal of things” to “a universe of beings…convulsing…with struggles as fierce and protracted as those of men”; even at the level of the ‘original atom,’ he finds a being that ‘possessed the outlines of humanity.'”
Parley Pratt’s universe of matter, all of which has varying levels of virtue, consciousness, feeling, and life is remodeled independently in Herbert Spencer, where another of Bierce’s fright-fests follows a robot made of more “pure” matter of the highest sort, containing free-will as attribute: the shaped stuff murders its maker, Frankenstein-like. Taylor quoting Bierce: “[if] Consciousness [and life are] the creature[s] of Rhythm,” and if, by extension, we are merely “ingenious mechanism[s],” then the exceptionality of humankind, the very being of the human, is irrevocably lost. Thus, whether at the macro or micro scale, “the invisible existences…swarm[ing] about” displace humanity from atop the [material half of the] great chain of being, leaving us in the position of one of Bierce’s Civil War undead who, though “among familiar things[,] is unable to determine his exact place and part in the scheme of things.”
Prattian vital materialism was commonly echoed about the nineteenth century, and Taylor brings other examples to bear that I won’t mention here except to say that [Parley] Pratt’s influence was powerful (within Mormonism–it was ignored in Taylor’s world dimension), overcoming Joseph Smith’s protology in a sense, and through immensely (but little acknowledged) influential Mormon successors like Charles Penrose, fixed in place an almost untraceable interpretive framework that complicates our pictures of reality through an ever present ritual: the search for uniformity.
Anyway, fun article that, without knowing it, has interesting overtones in both nineteenth and twentieth-century Mormonism.
 References to things Mormon in regard to Taylor’s piece are entirely my own construction. Do not blame him for my fancies.
 On Parley and materialism, see Ben Park and Jordan Watkins, “The Riches of Mormon Materialism: Parley P. Pratt’s ‘Materiality’ and Early Mormon Theology,” Mormon Historical Studies 11, no. 2 (Fall 2010): 119-132. Also, Ben Park, “(Re)Interpreting Early Mormon Thought: Synthesizing Joseph Smith’s Theology and the Process of Relgion Formation,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 45, no. 2 (Summer 2012): 59-88.