Spiritualism has been part of the history of Onset village for well over 100 years. The spiritualist movement first took hold there in the late 19th century, enjoyed a heyday in the early 1900’s, and continues to survive today.
It began with groups of people coming together to communicate with the afterlife. The first group of spiritualists began holding camp meetings on the shores of Onset Bay.
“In Onset itself, thousands in the village here were spiritualists,” said Kathleen Hoffman, pastor of the First Spiritualist Church of Onset. “They actually bought the houses, and they would get together in doing séances. And then, through the time that was going on, they were told to bring it into a religion.”
On October 3rd, 1903, 21 people petitioned the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to become incorporated as a church.
“The petition was granted and a charter was given to them December, 1903,” she said. “This is when the First Spiritual Church on Onset officially became an incorporated church.”
It was one of a number of spiritualist congregations that sprang up in Onset, which continued to grow in national prominence as a spiritualist mecca, eventually attracting mediums, clairvoyants, spirit photographers and other devotees to the small village. Many of Onset’s spiritualist followers had strong connection to the local Native American population.
“A lot of the guides that came in for folks were Indians. And they were very spiritual – they listened to their environment, they were non-threatening, they worked and walked the life of spiritual beings. And so anything with the Indian draws people to it, and it has an energy, just like everything has an energy to it,” said Hoffman.
One of the most unique present-day remnants of Onset’s spiritualist past is a building known as “The Wigwam.” It was built in 1894, and its distinctive wigwam shape pays homage to Native Americans, whose way of life heavily influenced the early spiritualists.
“We, as spiritualists, feel that Native Americans are the first real spiritualists,” said Patricia Craig, the Wigwam’s current President. “They care about each other, they care about the land. They care about not hurting the land. And that’s basically – a spiritualist feels that way. So when the Native Americans pass on, we feel that they come back to us as guides during our lifetime.”
When spiritualism began to boom in Onset, it was part of a larger national movement in that direction.
“There was spiritualism in Boston, they had a lot of spiritual churches in different states. But this started growing as a resort place. They had trains coming in here and everything,” said Craig.
That resort atmosphere eventually began to overwhelm the spiritualist identity of the small village, as more and more Congregationalists, Catholics, Mormons and Methodists began streaming in. At the same time, there was a growing negative backlash as disbelievers sought to expose spiritualism as a hoax.
By 1915, Onset’s heyday as a center of spiritualism was largely over. But the village still clings to its spiritualist past, with congregations like the Wigwam and the First Spiritualist Church continuing to offer regular services, classes, and workshops with visiting mediums and healers.