Seven Years of Grace: the Inspired Mission of Achsa Sprague

From HUNGER MOUNTAIN, Spring 2005: "In My Present Heaven: Achsa Sprague (1827-1862)," by Sara Rath.

"During her lifetime she became one of the best known women in eastern America. Boston, Providence, New York, Philadelphia and Hartford all issued frequent demands for her appearance. 'Notes by the Wayside,' her newspaper column, steadfastly supported equal rights for women and prison reform. She advocated the abolition of slavery and her lyrical poems, signed 'Solitarie,' appeared in leading publications. But Achsa Sprague was best known as an improvisatrice, as she referred to her gift, a medium who delivered messages of hope and comfort from the spirit world while in a state of trance, and her revelations endeared her to followers of Modern Spiritualism, a loosely organized movement that began in America shortly before 1850. Prior to the Civil War she traveled alone by railroad, stagecoach and steamboat throughout New England and as far west as Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Louis, where newspapers carried accounts of her lectures before audiences of thousands....Often away from home, she always kept her room in her mother's house in Plymouth Notch, Vermont, where she died, July 6, 1862, at the age of thirty-four..."

Seven Years of Grace: the Inspired Mission of Achsa Sprague, written as an historical novel, is told from the point of view of Celia Sprague Steen, Achsa's sister and confidante, who moved to Wisconsin in 1853 to teach school near Fond du Lac. The book is drawn from Achsa's personal diary and correspondence, especially letters between her and John H. Crawford, a Great Lakes shipping magnate who fell deeply in love with her and with whom she became involved in a passionate "Free Love" affair. The book will be published in March, 2016 by the Vermont Historical Society and marketing will be shared by the University of Wisconsin Press.

REVIEWS:

From HISTORICAL NOVEL SOCIETY

Lectures were popular entertainment in the pre-Civil War decade. Politicians and entertainers roamed the country, giving speeches on everything from anti-slavery to mesmerism. Achsa Sprague, a young woman from rural Vermont, becomes a highly popular lecturer, and Seven Years of Grace is her story.

Intelligent and strong-willed, Achsa began teaching school in 1839, when she was only twelve. In 1850 she is skeptical of a doctor wielding “spirit forces” but allows him to draw off “infective magnetism” from her body. Illness which has debilitated her for years improves, and Achsa has a vision of angelic Guardians directing her to heal others. This transformation becomes Achsa’s most popular lecture topic, and for seven years she presents herself as a medium to sellout crowds. Putting herself into a trance, she composes epic poetry on request, defends spiritualism and women’s suffrage, and urges audiences to turn from such evils as slavery and brutal prisons.

Sara Rath mined the Vermont Historical Society’s collection for her impeccably-researched historical novel about Achsa Sprague. Based on Achsa’s correspondence and newspaper accounts, Ms. Rath explores the spiritualism fad. Critics decry it as promoting Free Love, and even Achsa comes to question the spiritual love she shares with a married supporter.

Ms. Rath does a great job of creating a very human Achsa from centuries-old letters, and working those excerpted letters into Seven Years of Grace. Many are presented in an elaborate italic appropriate to the era, but tiring to read. However, that’s my only complaint. Fans of antebellum America and the spiritualism craze shouldn’t miss this one.


From SUN COMMUNITY NEWS, Middlebury, VT:

“Seven years of Grace” lifts the veil on Vermont spiritualism

MIDDLEBURY — Mainstream church-going folks of the 19th and early 20th centuries frowned upon the activities of spiritualists. Clergy members were suspect of the belief or quasi-religious practice based on supposed communication with the spirits of the dead, especially through mediums of dubious skill. Maybe they didn’t like the competition for souls? No matter, looking back through modern secular eyes, the practice doesn’t seem any quirkier than talking directly to one’s personal God or viewing the bleeding stigmata of a plaster Virgin.

Back in the 1800s, Vermont was the California of the era with its own New Age outposts of spiritualism such as the Eddy Brothers place in Chittenden and Dr. Solomon Jewett’s spooky house in Weybridge. One Vermont dabbler in things that go bump in the night which we haven’t heard much about was Achsa Sprague. Born in 1827, Sprague lived until the early days of the Civil War. She died in 1862.
Now the Vermont Historical Society (VHS) has published “Seven Years of Grace”, a dramatized account of the real life of Achsa W. Sprague by Wisconsin-based author Sara Rath.

According to VHS Executive Director Steve Perkins, Sprague lectured to large audiences on spiritualism, the abolition of slavery, women’s rights, and prison reform. Sound familiar? It should since most ardent spiritualists would be branded political “leftists” today. Ironically, the only progressive movement of the era which Sprague eschewed was the free-love movement which frowned on religion, marriage vows and monogamy; in some artistic circles, it even celebrated same-sex romance, too.

When she wasn’t reforming men and Southern landowners, Sprague presented herself as a medium, lecturing and singing hymns in a state-of-trance.
According to VHS’s Perkins, “From Plymouth Notch, Vt., Achsa embraced the spiritualist movement and embarked on a seven-year crusade across America. Though she publicly rejected the doctrine of free love supported by many spiritualists, she secretly struggled against the growing love she felt for a married man.”

Perkins said that Sprague left behind a written record rich in description of the Vermont of her era. This record helped craft the new book about the feminist spiritualist.

“Grounded in the extensive collection of Sprague’s papers at the Vermont Historical Society, ‘Seven Years of Grace’ is a fascinating tale that takes you deep into the heart of antebellum American culture,” Perkins noted. “Sara Rath is the author of 15 books.”

Vermont’s John B. Buescher, author of “The Other Side of Salvation”, reviewed ‘Seven Years of Grace’, “It’s a wonderful historical novel. Sara Rath has deeply researched the small but highly influential number of itinerant woman lecturers during the mid-19th century, and she has found a brilliant way to tell Achsa Sprague’s story.”

Rath’s new book was published in Vermont but in collaboration with the University of Wisconsin Press. The Vermont Historical Society awarded Rath its Weston A. Cate Fellowship to support her research on Achsa W. Sprague. She lives in Spring Green, Wis.

Rath kicks off her new book tour at VHS in Monpelier on May 19. Autographed bookplates will be available during the VHS’s Third Thursday luncheon talk May 19 at the Vermont History Museum in Montpelier. More information about the Vermont Historical Society and this book can be found at vermonthistory.org/​store or call 802-828-1414.