In religious matters my aim has been to do right….

Jeptha H. Wade (1811–1890)

In religious matters my aim has been to do right, and to learn the truth, and as far as possible reach correct conclusions, and act accordingly — J.H. Wade

Jeptha H. Wade approached religion with a practicality and rationalism that placed him outside the norm among his neighbors on Euclid Avenue in Cleveland, Ohio. A long section of Jeptha’s handwritten autobiography in the library archives of the Western Reserve Historical Society (MS 3292 Jeptha H. Wade Family Papers Series 1) is dedicated to what he terms “religious matters.”

Growing up in Romulus in upstate New York, Jeptha attended a strict Presbyterian church, founded by his parents, and future in-laws. Children were subjected to corporal punishment on a regular basis.

…most of it was done in obedience to what parents in those days thought to be a religious duty — the quotations of scripture in justification of it are still ringing in my earsSpare the rod + spoil the child” and “was not Solomon the wisest man”? and I am sorry to say, it was nearer the rule thanthe exception, for parents to show their religious zeal in obeying this barbarous falsehood more than in any other way.

Jeptha, in his late 70s when he wrote the autobiography for his grandson Homer Wade, was critical of any religious system that used punishment — immediate or the threat of punishment in the form of damnation — as a motivator.

Jeptha left Romulus in his early teens, and, as far as is known, never again lived in that place with his family. He may or may not have attended church as he pursued his various apprenticeships, and after his marriage it is not unreasonable to think that the young couple might have attended church services but there is no direct evidence of it in any of the surviving materials. However by that time it is probable that Jeptha had already developed the strong feelings about organized religion:

I was never given to believing in absurdities or impossibilities, simply because others did, or because it was found in some book, or taught by priests hired for that purpose, each one teaching the particular dogmas to which he is limited by his sectarian school, whether believing it himself or not. I want assertions pertaining to so important a matter as our eternal existence to bear the same scrutiny of reason and common sense as another less important subjects

Wade and his second wife, Susan Fleming Wade, grew up in upstate New York, in a region so known for its religious revivals and formation of religious movements that it has historically been referred to as the “burned over” district. Though the couple moved to Michigan in the 1840s and then to Ohio in the late 1840s they kept in touch with family members in Upstate new York . And both seem to have become fascinated with the Spiritualist movement that swept the country in the second half of the 19th century.

Susan’s motivations are less well understood than those of her husband, a few existing letters survive — at least one of which appears to be — at first glance — simply a normal letter to a friend or relative but upon closer reading is to one gone ahead.

Although Jeptha does not specifically state his belief in spiritualism in his 1889 autobiography. He does talk at length about his beliefs. Jeptha is a rationalist. He was a pioneer in the telegraph movement at a time when the ability to send messages across wire must seemed magical to most people. Jeptha understood thepurely mechanical process but believing as he did in the concept of the other side — of life continuing after death — it is not surprising that he takes a pragmatic approach to conversing with his dead.

Both Jeptha and Susan used the services of what were termed “writing mediums” — individuals with the ability (whether real or made up) to channel the correspondences sent to them in a closed and sealed letter (think Johnny Carson as Carnac the Magnificent) to the appropriate recipient of the letter in the Spirit world and then through means known only to themselves to automatically channel the reply which was written down and sent back.

In the mid 1850s, in a letter to his son Randall, then at the Kentucky Military Academy Jeptha notes — matter of factly — that he has been in touch with the boy’s mother — dead more than 20 years — as well as with Randall’s infant sister, Frances, who was born in in August 1833 and lived for less than a month.

Although the collection of surviving letters has been curated a number of times there are enough of these spirit letters to confirm that Jeptha believed he was communicating with the dead for more than four decades. His letters are quite mundane, particularly after the death of his son Randall in 1876. Jeptha turns to Randall for advice on investments, genealogical issues, and questions of character about those still among the living. In one of Randall’s replies he consoles his father for his beliefs:

It is a pity some great electrician like Edison does not apply himself to spiritual magnetism and show the world that there is only a step between the known and the unknown. You can set your mind at rest that this is true and spirits can come back to earth without harm to themselves or their friends…

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Holly Witchey

Holly Witchey

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Holly Witchey Ph.D, is an art historian and museum professional and educator. She is Executive Director of Cleveland Philanthropy.