Heaven's Bride: The Unprintable Life of Ida C. Craddock, American Mystic, Scholar, Sexologist, Martyr, and Madwoman.
Heaven's Bride is a model for the writing of American religious history. Impeccably researched. Elegantly written. Deftly connects the religious journey of a single individual with broader cultural trends. And above all, a fun read.
Heaven's Bride comes just five years after Leigh Eric Schmidt's illuminating narrative of the restless souls who, since Ralph Waldo Emerson, have struggled to link mystical yearning with free-ranging intellectualism. In Ida Craddock he finds a poignant example of how these dual commitments have played out in our individual and collective journeys. Few of us have ever heard of Ida Craddock. Yet in Schmidt's telling of her story, Craddock was both creature and creator of the cultural currents that have swept so many Americans away from Christian orthodoxy and toward secular activism, religious eclecticism, and the pursuit of personal wellbeing. Ida Craddock embraced all of these in brash, innovative ways. She was a self-described student of phallic antiquities, pastor of the Church of Yoga, sexologist, libidinous priestess, and martyr for the cause of religious liberty. Pursuing such countercultural interests came at a price. Craddock's mother repeatedly tried to have her committed to a mental institution. She was eventually sentenced to prison following her conviction for public obscenity. Her life on the nation's cultural margins ultimately led to her suicide at the age of forty-five. Through all of this Ida Craddock embodied the passions and pathos that gave rise to what we today refer to as quest or seeker spirituality.
The ill-fated trajectory of Ida Craddock's life affords a fresh look at the plight of intelligent women in the late nineteenth century. In 1882 the University of Pennsylvania denied her eloquent appeals for admissions, forever cutting her adrift from the academic foundations she so deeply craved. Her self-directed studies led her to ancient mythology, pagan fertility rituals, comparative religion, and eventually Tantra and other forms of Asian esotericism. While most yogins extol a life of austerity and sensual restraint, Ida Craddock found in Tantra confirmation of her own discovery that mystical sensation is all but synonymous with sexual pleasure. Even as a Methodist youth Ida had observed that images of Jesus as the "lover of my soul" frequently prompted teenage girls to respond to revivalists' urgings and publicly give themselves to Christ. What distinguished Craddock, however, is that she never surrendered her body and soul to Christ. Instead, she eventually proclaimed to have entered into marriage and erotic intercourse with a discarnate entity in the spirit world named Soph--the principal evidence used by her protagonists to prove her alleged insanity.
The sexual pleasure Craddock obtained from her spiritual intimacies with Soph enabled her to become an expert in sexology. She railed against the era's prevailing sexual mores. Couples went into marriage wholly ignorant about their own or spouse's bodies. Their sexual lives were further complicated by religious conceptions that intercourse was permissible only for procreation. Craddock set out to reform Protestant prudishness through a series of writings, public lectures, and a newly chosen career as a sexual counselor. Her writings and lectures were blunt and anatomically specific. In this era obscenity laws were hopelessly obscure. Zealous prosecutors could attach the label of obscenity to anything that might make an impure impression on the most innocent member of a community. As a consequence Craddock spent most of her life plea bargaining her way out of the numerous obscenity charges brought against her even though what she wrote, said, and taught wouldn't raise an eyebrow today.
The beauty of Ida Craddock's life--or rather the beauty of Schmidt's carefully crafted narrative--is that it can variably be located in the histories of women's liberation, alternative spiritualities, or sexual revolution. Not to be overlooked, however, is that Craddock's life is also a case study in the history of religious liberty in the United States in the very years that Protestantism lost its accustomed hegemony over the educated middle class. At the heart of this story is the book's protagonist, Anthony Comstock. Comstock was head of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice whose mission was to protect citizens from the dangers of obscenity and blasphemy. In Craddock he met his match. The two baited one another, sparred, and won alternate rounds in their ongoing match until Comstock could ultimately claim victory when Craddock was sentenced to a three-month term in prison. The fault lies partially with Ida Craddock herself. Her penchant for inflammatory rhetoric caused many middle-class citizens to feel that their way of life was threatened and thus prompted them to conflate her experimental religiosity with charges of obscenity. But historical perspective is not particularly kind to the likes of Comstock who show us just how mean-spirited religious orthodoxy rapidly becomes when it seeks to suppress those who publicly question its truth claims. Schmidt helps us see how the pursuit of score-settling vengeance all too often masquerades itself as a campaign for the preservation of holiness.
Leigh Eric Schmidt has rescued Ida Craddock from the far periphery of American religious history and spotlighted how a whole nation's spiritual restlessness often gets played out in the life of a single woman. In doing so he illuminates another daring agenda for future scholarly investigation. How do we best explain "theomaniacs" like Ida Craddock who imagine
themselves in love with invisible spiritual beings like angels, Jesus, Soph, or the Virgin Mary? Or, how do we best account for other "erotomaniacs" who fixate on these invisible love objects, become prone to visions or hallucinations, and become liable to sensations of amorous excess? The world of religion is fraught with such people even today. Schmidt's careful examination of Ida Craddock will prove a helpful start toward future investigations of this perplexing historical puzzle.
Robert C. Fuller
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Author:||Fuller, Robert C.|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2011|
|Previous Article:||The Myth of American Religious Freedom.|
|Next Article:||The Mormon Menace: Violence and Anti-Mormonism in the Postbellum South.|