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Religious ecstasy

Rediscovering a 19th-century freethinker who melded the sacred and sexual

Ida Craddock hoped to help others reach ecstatic states of mind and body, both in her work as a pastor in what she called the Church of Yoga and as a sex counselor. Ida Craddock hoped to help others reach ecstatic states of mind and body, both in her work as a pastor in what she called the Church of Yoga and as a sex counselor. (Special Collections Research Center, Morris Library, Southern Illinois University)
By Kate Tuttle
Globe Correspondent / December 19, 2010

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In today’s America, sex and religion are often seen in opposition to each other, and there’s a long history of that battle, from the Puritans to the Protestant establishment’s investment in antiobscenity laws. But for some on the vanguard of the progressive era, freedom meant mingling of sexual and spiritual expression. Ida C. Craddock, writer, lecturer, sometime pastor and counselor, was among what her biographer calls “an advanced band of troublemaking inquirers,” a freethinker who “imagined a sexual revolution in specifically sacred terms.” Her work and life are barely known today, but in this brilliant new book by Leigh Eric Schmidt, a professor of the history of religion at Harvard, modern readers may find themselves not only captivated by a fascinating character but also intrigued by ideas considered obscene and blasphemous in their time.

Born in Philadelphia in 1857, Craddock was the only child of a father who died when she was young and a mother who spent years trying to have her committed to a mental institution. She grew up in a conventionally Protestant environment, spending her summers at a Methodist beach community in New Jersey and attending a Quaker day school the rest of the time. From a very young age, her intense intelligence, curiosity, and self-possession set her apart, and by the time she would have been expected to marry she was already in the midst of the first of many losing battles as she tried to overcome the University of Pennsylvania’s ban on women undergraduates.

The time of amateur scholars was just ending, and Craddock’s inability to get a college education would hamper her for life, a point Schmidt makes painfully obvious when describing the low-paying, low-status jobs she took to survive and the series of lowly studies in which she researched and wrote a “pile of unpublished manuscripts . . . (on everything from lunar mythology to heavenly bridegrooms to animal traits).”

Despite her lack of academic credentials, Craddock had a knack for attracting attention, starting with her public lectures on belly dancing, a scandalous entertainment first seen in the United States at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Condemned by many upstanding citizens, investigated by Anthony Comstock, founder of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, the danse du ventre, as it was called, found a devoted defender in Craddock, who argued that American culture had much “to learn from heathen nations,’’ especially when it came to sex and its relationship to spirituality. Craddock, writes Schmidt, “saw in belly dancing a brilliant fusion of spiritual idealism and erotic abandon,” similar to the phallic worship seen in ancient forms of religion, which would become her next research interest. Unlike establishment male scholars, who saw phallic worship as a vestige of primitive religion and proof of their own Christian superiority (they worshipped the soul, not the body), Craddock’s work looked at phallic references in Christianity’s history, which she saw as a powerful tool for the suppression of women. She wanted to topple the phallic, yes, but replace it with a spirituality grounded in the female body, writing of “ancient Yonic deities” that had been lost to time. As Schmidt writes: Underlying the apparent “grossness” of ancient forms of sex worship, Craddock insisted, had been “a primitive wonderment, a delight, and finally a veneration of the attributes which distinguish man and woman from one another.”

Craddock was no esoteric scholar, however; her work always looked toward improvements in the here-and-now. As a freethinker and secularist, she sought to return both religion and sexuality to a place of protected privacy and individual freedom, while as a woman increasingly attracted to spiritualism and mysticism, she hoped to help others reach ecstatic states of mind and body, both as a pastor in what she called the Church of Yoga and as a sex counselor in private practice. It was as a sexologist that Craddock finally met her professional and personal downfall; after years of being hounded by Comstock and his deputies, whom she referred to as “the Holy Fathers of the American Inquisition,” Craddock was convicted of the federal crime of sending obscene material (in this case, a marriage manual titled ”The Wedding Night”) through the mail.

“I have only tried to put forth plain facts, which every person ought to know,” she said in her own defense. “I am not ashamed myself to speak plain truths plainly.”

In “Heaven’s Bride,’’ Schmidt nimbly sketches both Craddock and the intellectual, political, and social landscape in which she did her work. His portraits of her contemporaries — both friend and foe — illustrate a moment in American history that’s been somewhat overlooked and seems ripe for rediscovery. Who can resist, after all, an era in which sex education, marital egalitarianism, and religious revival were among the hot topics? As Schmidt points out, even though Craddock was surely “an American original,” she flourished in a milieu filled with “Free-Love radicals, women’s rights advocates, amorous communitarians, eclectic physicians, Social-Purity reformers, Divine Science speculators, and avant-garde literati” — a roiling stew of ideas and movements. “She was out there on a limb,” he writes, “and yet she had plenty of company.” For her part, Craddock loved this ferment but clearly yearned for consolation beyond the grave as well, in a heaven she described in one of her only noncontroversial books, where “women earned their own livings, wore what they wanted without being counted immodest, and did not ‘have to bother about cooking.’ ” If there’s any justice in the universe, that’s where she’s residing today.

Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.

HEAVEN’S BRIDE: The Unprintable Life of Ida C. Craddock, American Mystic, Scholar, Sexologist, Martyr and Madwoman By Leigh Eric Schmidt

Basic, 335 pp., illustrated, $28.95