::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::
 
 

Who Was Kersey Graves?

by John Benedict Buescher
 
 


In February 1974, Madalyn Murray O’Hair lectured listeners of the American Atheist Radio’s program on the subject of American Freethinker Kersey Graves, the author of the 1875 book, The World’s Sixteen Crucified Saviors.  O’Hair knew almost nothing about his life, but she could hardly wait to tell her audience about his ideas on religious history, because they were so amenable to her own.  “I have been wanting to give you the story of these sixteen gods for some time,” she said.  “However, I thought that I should find out something about the author first.  I have now given up on that.”  So she put forward his “discoveries,” without knowing who he was beyond the fact that he had lived in Indiana. [1]  Graves’ writings supported his claim that Christianity was a fraud perpetrated on the credulous by the unscrupulous, who created the story of Jesus Christ out of bits and pieces of earlier myths about “world saviors.”

To this day, Graves’ controversial books continue to be quoted and debated.  They even show up in the pseudo-scholarly background of Dan Brown’s popular recent novel The Da Vinci Code, but the question of who he was remains unexplored. [2]  A little research into his background reveals that he is a thin pole indeed on which to hang the mantle of historian of religion.
 

Kersey Graves was born in Brownsville, Pennsylvania, on November 21, 1813.  His parents were Quakers, members of the Redstone Monthly Meeting in Fayette County.  His father was Enos Graves (or Grave or Greaves) and his mother was Elizabeth [“Betty”] Jones.  Kersey was the seventh of eight children.  His family, with the families of a few of his uncles, moved to Wayne County, Indiana, just north of Richmond, in 1816, when Kersey was still an infant. [3]  The area was settled by Quakers as early as 1803.  It is home to the Quaker-affiliated Earlham College.

In 1828, the community of the Society of Friends in the Richmond area split, as did Quaker communities across the country.  One faction followed the Quietistic and severely anti-doctrinal teachings of Elias Hicks (1748-1830).  The Hicksite faction called itself simply “Friends,” and the other faction called itself “Orthodox Friends.” [4]  The Orthodox objected to Hicks’ denial of the doctrines of the divinity of Jesus, the Atonement, and the divine authority of the Scriptures.  When Hicks visited the Richmond Quakers that autumn, he and his followers spoke to “a multitude of people assembled,” as he put it.  It was “a precious meeting, in which truth was triumphant, and ran as oil over the assembly, breaking down all opposition, and melting a great portion of the assembly into tears of contrition.” [5]  For a while the Graves kept their affiliation with the Orthodox Whitewater Quaker Meeting.  But son Kersey would eventually outstrip even the Hicksites in his journey away from Christian orthodoxy.

Newspaper accounts said of Kersey that, “At an early age he manifested a love for history and scientific studies” and that he “received an academical education.” [6]  Actually, he attended school no more than three or four months in his life.  Nevertheless, “in spite of this [he] became, by reading, a well educated man.” [7]

One of Graves’ oldest acquaintances was David Winston Jones, an Orthodox Friend.  Jones had an exchange of letters with Graves in The Richmond Telegram after Graves had later published his books on religion.  In this exchange, Jones charged him with “a fulminating expansion of elongated veracity,” especially in how Graves had publicly represented his own education.  Jones, in his Quaker youth, had shared that education with Graves.  It was nothing more, Jones explained, than what had occurred in a backwoods “pole-cabin school house,” a “tenement made of unhewn saplings,” supplemented by a few more months in a Richmond school where Graves haphazardly pored over elementary Latin and Greek.  Graves did not deny this, except to say that after “graduating” from—he admitted that by this he simply meant leaving—the log cabin school, he had studied at other unspecified institutions, clearly not precluding, as one of them, the little brick Richmond schoolhouse.  Describing that experience, Graves wrote, in a self-consciously humorous tone:
 

After having paid some attention to Latin, I occupied several months in digging among the roots of Greek literature; but my father finally set me to digging among another kind of roots, and I gave it up.  I studied so hard in trying to master those old, dead languages, (Latin and Greek,) that my loving mother grew uneasy for fear that I would “go crazy” by such severe mental labor.  But I consoled her with the idea that I would not have far to go to get there; that to “go crazy” I would have but a short road to travel. [8]


At the age of nineteen, Graves began teaching school in Richmond.  He continued in that career off and on, both in Indiana and in rural Ohio, for more than two decades.  In his later years he also farmed, on land a few miles north of Richmond. [9]  From his early twenties, he also took to the lecture circuit, for various progressive causes, which he studied through self-guided reading.

Kersey was an advocate of the abolition of slavery, and a public lecturer on the subject, sometimes encountering hostility from his audiences.  He was among the organizers and first members of the Richmond Anti-Slavery Society in 1837, the local branch of the American Anti-Slavery Society. [10]  He was elected the corresponding secretary of the Indiana Liberty Party in 1842, the political party that was formed from a coalition of slavery abolitionists who (unlike William Lloyd Garrison and his associates) accepted the political process, in a strategic coalition with anti-Catholic Nativists. [11]  Graves was interested in propagating many of the moral reforms of the time.  As one account put it, “He spent a number of years in traveling, and was an active worker in language reform [i.e., phonetic spelling]; he also lectured on phrenology and kindred things.” [12]

In August 1844, he joined a group of about fifty utopian settlers who gathered in Wayne County, Indiana, under the guidance of Quaker abolitionist and radical reformer John Otis Wattles to found a commune they called “Union Home.”  Kersey wrote about the settlement to abolitionist and socialist John Anderson Collins, who had also started a short-lived utopian community at Skaneateles in New York, and who had begun publishing The Communitist.  Quaker historian Thomas Hamm explains:
 

Grave[s] described the little group as “a few sectarians, several infidels, some religious nothingarians.”  All were dedicated to diet reform, although, Grave[s] acknowledged, “we have a few who are sighing for the ‘flesh-pots of Egypt.’” But it was, according to Grave[s], a happy group, “a band of true-hearted reformers.”  “I never before enjoyed such pure unsullied pleasure—never before felt so perfectly at home,” he told John O. Wattles. [13]


In the same month that he left for Union Home, Kersey was disowned by the Whitewater Monthly Meeting.  The minutes declared that he “has neglected the attendance of our religious meetings, has manifested disunity with our Society, has been active in bringing about a separation and has had meetings set up contrary to the discipline of our religious society.” [14]  His father and mother had been disowned the previous March for having joined another society—the Hicksites’, most probably. [15]

Even by the time Kersey had joined Union Home, he was moving in the most radical Freethought communities within Quakerism.  Union Home disintegrated in less than a year, but Graves continued as a colleague of Wattles, endorsing, for example, his envisioned manual labor school that would be at the center of several new utopian communities, each of which failed after short experiments. [16]

Among the newfangled health-connected reforms with which the Union Home settlers experimented was probably mesmerism, one of the “kindred” subjects to phrenology.  In the other utopian socialist communities of the time, including Brook Farm and Skaneateles, with which Union Home was loosely associated, residents practiced trance induction.  Wattles himself became so enamored of mesmerism that he formed a Mesmeric Brotherhood at a later short-lived utopian community he founded and named “Excelsior,” south of Cincinnati on the Ohio River.  Erratic Universalist minister, trance lecturer and mystic Thomas Lake Harris visited the Brotherhood there in 1848.  He appears to have converted the group, including Wattles, to the full-fledged spiritualism of which he was a herald, the belief that the dead and the living had begun to converse through spirit mediums in séances. [17]

Kersey married Quaker Lydia Michener in July 1845 at Goshen Meeting House in Zanesfield, Logan County, Ohio. [18]  Lydia had been born on January 18, 1814, the daughter of Benjamin Michener and Abigail Stanton.  The Goshen Meeting House, by this time, had become the center of the Congregational Friends, who were on the very fringes of Quaker society.  More radical than the Hicksites, they were dedicated to a constellation of reform and social causes, including antislavery, woman’s rights, socialistic utopianism, health reform, Temperance, and Peace.  The Micheners were members of this community.  It was the soil in which Wattles’ Society for Universal Inquiry and Reform grew. [19]  Kersey and Lydia lived at first in Harveysburg, Ohio, where Wattles had founded his Prairie Home community.  At Harveysburg all five of their children were born. [20]  They afterwards moved back to Richmond, Indiana, and bought a farm.

Kersey had been reared in the dissenting tradition within Protestantism, and in the Quaker intensification of the individual’s inner light.  This tended to construe any creeds, clergy, or ecclesiastical forms as unnecessary hindrances to God’s work in the world.  Within Quakerism, the Hicksite separation led a move toward Quietism, in which the inner world of the individual’s spiritual life reigned supreme, and external forms, works, conventions, and customs were rendered invalid.  The Congregational Friends with whom Graves now associated found themselves in a theological position that was to the left margins, even of the Hicksites.  Many of them—including Graves—continued their “coming out” of the forms of traditional religion until they found themselves completely separated from anything that resembled, not only “Papistry,” but Christianity, and even from any belief in God at all.  For Graves, belief in religion corrupted the truth.  Accordingly, an adherence to the principle of truth required a belief in the mere material world, as known through science—an apotheosis of the Enlightenment project of the eighteenth century.

This explains Graves’ self-consciously evolved infidelity, anti-Christianity, and anti-theism.  It also explains his writings’ heavy reliance on sources from the anti-clerical Deists of the Enlightenment.  An intensification of the antinomian aspects of his Quakerism hastened his departure from Quakerism itself, and allowed him later to deny that he had ever been much of a believer and to assert that he was mostly uninfluenced by his Quaker upbringing.  “I will confess I was born a Quaker christian, without my consent or consultation,” he wrote.  “Hence, in my youthful days I was (religiously speaking) a Quaker by trade, but I did not work much at it.” [21]

Kersey set out in his little bark of infidelity into the sea of comparative religion with his writing of The Biography of Satan, published in 1865 by the Chicago-based spiritualist newspaper, The Religio-Philosophical Journal. [22]  It presented Satan as a deliberately constructed and harmful myth.  Although he discounted his Quaker upbringing on his beliefs, his project to discount the traditional understanding of Satan and to redeem him from damnation, as it were, echoed remarks on Satan that Elias Hicks had earlier made and which were well known among Hicksites.  Kersey appears to have composed the book during a period of several years, during which he was incapacitated for public lecturing.  On the occasion of the book’s publication, however, he announced himself to the progressive religious community, not just as a skeptical infidel and atheist, but also as a spiritualist who was prepared to deliver lectures on that subject as well.  As he advertised in The Religio-Philosophical Journal:
 

I am now prepared to receive calls to lecture in support of the Harmonial or Spiritual Philosophy and theological reform.  Being incapacitated for years by ill health, for public speaking, I am scarcely known recently in this field of labor; but flatter myself that I am now able to aid in some measure to roll on the great “Car of Reform,” as its rumbling wheels, spanning the broad gauge of humanity, go dashing through the world, promising soon to begirt the whole earth. [23]


During this time, Graves became a well known activist for the cause of spiritualism and an organizer and proselytizer on its behalf.  A letter from him to the Religio-Philosophicall Journal (February 4, 1871) demonstrated his commitment:
 

A Grand Scheme—Who Will Aid It?
By K. Graves

It is proposed to kindle up the fires of Spiritualism in every county and city, town and village in the State of Indiana, by a new mode of operation.

We propose to send out the angels of Truth and Love, to draft all the Spiritual speakers resident in the state, arm them with the “sword of the spirit,” and send them into the field to battle for the cause, as soon as the warm and genial rays of a vernal equinox shall dispel the chilling blasts of winter, and call down the “fire of heaven.”

Where halls, churches, court houses, market houses, dwelling houses, mills or shops are not procurable, we will proclaim the grand truth of the New Gospel of the angels, on the streets and in the adjoining groves. Catching a hint from the movement recently inaugurated by some of the orthodox churches, we will preach in the streets from the doorsteps, or on good’s boxes or auction blocks, or from the tails of wagons, carts and wheel barrows.

We will do this in the evening, after the sun has retired behind the western hills, and the shades of evening have called home the busy actors in the great drama of life.  During the day, if the weather is suspicious for the work, we will “blow the trumpet of Gabriel,” and call the people together in the adjoining groves which skirt God’s own spacious temple planted by “his own right hand,” in the days of yore, a temple which has no bars, no bolts, no locks, and no keys, and no orthodox trustees to guard it.  There in this beautiful temple, carpeted with smiling flowers, and shaded by the green curtains suspended from the overarching boughs which perpetually wave their assent and approbation to the glorious cause, we will pour the living truths of the age into the minds of the people assembled, and feed some of the hungry souls now crying for spiritual bread.

We have learned in our recent travels and vocal labors in Indiana, that there are now many thousands of men and women in this state who are prepared to listen and to receive the grand truths and principles of our Spiritual gospel, as soon as the opportunity is presented.  The harvest is very great, but the laborers in the field are few.

It is proposed to have the state districted, and to send from two to five speakers into each district, to visit every point where an audience can be obtained, and with instruction to publish a report of their labors in the Spiritual papers.  It is expected the speakers will be forward in calling on the friends of the cause, wherever they may find them, to aid in carrying forward this glorious enterprise, and that they will be prompt in lending a hand, and letting it slip occasionally into the pocket.

It is believed that with this arrangement, the whole state can be canvassed in from one to three months, and that with “a long pull, and a strong pull, and a pull all together,” Indiana can soon be pulled up to the door of the kingdom.  Ire to hear soon from all the speakers who reside in the state, and respectfully require them to favor us with their views of the enterprise, and state the time when it will be more convenient for them to go in the “good gathering army” of public speakers.

Address Byron Reed, of Kokomo, Hancock County, or the undersigned.  The Banner of Light, Am[erican] Spiritualist, and other Spiritual papers, will please republish this article, that the suggestion may reach others states, who, it is hoped, will adopt similar arrangements, that the whole country may be presented with the grand truths of the New Dispensation.

Richmond, Ind.

In 1875, Colby and Rich, the Boston publishers of the spiritualist newspaper, The Banner of Light, published Graves’ The World’s Sixteen Crucified Saviors. [24]  Four years later, they also published his Bible of Bibles. [25]

He wrote these books in order to expound a conspiracy theory: that Christianity was a lie, a deception perpetrated by priestcraft.  It was a fiction, he asserted, created out of the common, primitive superstitions and myths that were already present around the time of Jesus.  Far from being a unique, historical event, the life of Jesus, as it was described by the Christian tradition, was nothing but a pastiche of myths deliberately borrowed from other cultures, all of whom possessed their own stories of “crucified saviors.”  The historical Jesus, according to Graves, was simply a misunderstood spirit medium, whose followers turned him after his death into a Christ, savior, redeemer, and god.

Kersey, however, did no original research in the ancient traditions to which he alluded in his books.  He was, after all, thoroughly incapable of conducting such research, having virtually no foreign language training and no direct access to original sources—either literary or archaeological.  Shortly after he published his books, Cincinnati clergyman John Taylor Perry sifted through Graves’ sources.  He found that even though Graves claimed that he had relied on two hundred works, these were all filtered to him through a short list of primary sources, all of which overtly propagandized a Deist, atheist, or occultist agenda.  They were part of a widely disseminated, standard library of Freethought literature.  They included Tom Paine’s The Age of Reason, Master Freemason, self-described phallus worshipper, and amateur antiquarian Godfrey Higgins’ Anacalypsis, heretical clergyman Robert Taylor’s The Diegesis, Constantin-François Volney’s The Ruins; or a Survey of the Revolutions of Empires, Louis Jacolliot’s The Bible in India, and Ernest Renan’s “romance,” The Life of Jesus. [26]  These sources already had worked over random bits of facts and fabula, stringing them together out of context.  Kersey took them and created his own extravagant speculations from them. [27]

He organized them around a theory of nefarious oppressors—in organized Christianity as a whole and especially in the Catholic Church—who, he believed, had fabricated a fictitious savior out of primitive fairy tales.  The belief was consistent with the explicit Rosicrucian syncretism underway in Royal Arch Freemasonry during the nineteenth century, which deliberately revived ancient Gnostic teachings as a challenge to the Church.  Gnostics described the world as ruled by demented gods, who had created it as a prison and a deceitful simulacrum of heaven.  In a Gnostic inversion of Genesis, those who rebelled against the world’s ruling powers—now identified with orthodox religion—beginning with Adam and Eve inspired by the wise serpent, were being faithful to the highest truth.  The theme would be continued and developed in spiritualist writings as equally fanciful as Graves’ books, such as in poet and spiritualist lecturer Gerald Massey’s 1883 work, The Natural Genesis. [28]

DeRobigne Mortimer Bennett, atheist and Freethought radical, distributed Graves’ The World’s Sixteen Crucified Saviors, advertising it this way:
 

The amount of mental labor necessary to collate and compile the varied information contained in it must have been severe and arduous indeed, and now that it is in such convenient shape the student of free thought will not willingly allow it to go out of print.  But the book is by no means a mere collation of views or statistics; throughout its entire course the author follows a definite line of research and argument to the close, and his conclusions go, like sure arrows, to the mark. [29]


Graves’ book, however, was not an original endeavor, for other Freethinkers of the time, in the avant-garde of radicalism and secularism, had written similar attempted refutations of Christianity.  Their works were circulated with the aim of agitating the laboring classes.  Universalist clergyman John Greenleaf Adams reviewed and praised John Perry’s rebuttal of Graves’ book “of blazing pretension.”  Adams wrote that, “The positions refuted [by Perry] are those which compose the stronghold of the infidel workingmen throughout the country, and hence deserve the special attention of the clergy.” [30]

Nevertheless, even Theosophist founder Helena Blavatsky—herself a writer of syncretistic, comparative religious histories, and also inspired by Godfrey Higgins’ Anacalypsis—thought little of Graves’ work.  In Isis Unveiled, her own effort to out-Higgins Higgins, she noted the absurdity of Graves’ claim that anyone had ever believed that Gautama Buddha or Apollonius—two of his sixteen saviors—were actually “saviors,” except in the loosest sense of the term, or had been, in any sense, crucified.  She also faulted Graves for relying on Orientalist visionary Sir William Jones (1746-1794) in some of his “hazardous speculations.”  She concluded,
 

We are in the nineteenth century, not in the eighteenth; and though to write books on the authority of the earliest Orientalists may in one sense be viewed as a mark of respect for old age, it is not always safe to try the experiment in our times.  Hence this highly instructive volume lacks one important feature which would have made it still more interesting.  The author should have added after Prometheus the “roman,” and Alcides the Egyptian god [. . .] a seventeenth “crucified Saviour” to the list, “Venus, god of the war,” introduced to an admiring world by Mr. Artemus Ward the “showman.” [31]


Freethought radicals after Graves’ time would split regarding spiritualism.  Most of them, by the turn of the twentieth century, had embraced a straightforward materialism.  This has influenced us, perhaps, to assume that earlier Freethinkers were generally as hostile toward spiritualism, as they were toward any religious belief in spirits.  On the contrary, throughout the mid- and late-nineteenth century, radical Freethought and spiritualism were often closely allied, especially in their opposition to orthodox Christianity.

Graves judged that he was demoting Jesus, in the sense of denying that he was God.  However, in asserting that Jesus was a spirit medium, Graves was not dismissing him or implying that he was deluded.  He was only saying that Jesus’ followers misunderstood him—Jesus was only a spirit medium and a psychic adept.

Graves was both an atheist and a spiritualist, even if he was not a spirit medium himself.  Most spiritualists of the time believed that the phenomena of spirit séances—the communications from the spirits of the dead, levitations, telepathy, and so on—were not supernatural miracles, but were actually natural, although not yet understood by science.

All of this has allowed Graves’ books to continue to find readers today among anti-religious secularists who tend toward atheism, and scientific positivism.  But they are also popular today with New Age writers, occultists, and spiritualist channellers, who rely on a conspiracy theory approach to the history of religions, a “hermeneutics of suspicion.”

One group that has championed Graves’ work has been the Afrocentric movement.  One of its founders, John Glover Jackson (1907-1993), noticed a passage in Graves’ book that repeated Higgins’ earlier claim that Jesus was a Black African. [32]  Higgins had based his claim on fragmentary reporting that travelers to old churches in the Southern Mediterranean had reported that many images of Jesus in these churches were dark.  Graves repeated and elaborated Higgins’ claim.  It has attracted those possessing the a priori conviction that Whites have deliberately submerged evidence of the high civilizations of Africa.

Those who have approved of Graves’ written work—without knowing who he was—have often wished to assume that he was an unbiased, clear-headed, careful, and well-qualified student of ancient cultures and religions, a scholar, as they have described him, and an historian of religion.  In his own time, he was sometimes accorded the title “Professor,” but this was only because of his job teaching school in Richmond.  “His memory was remarkable and his mental acumen great,” it was recorded, but this did not make him more than a largely untutored enthusiast. [33]  His wife Lydia “helped her husband in his writing,” his son later said, and he and his siblings helped their father copy his manuscripts. [34]

Graves went to extraordinary lengths to force his data into his ideas.  He fabricated facts altogether when he could not find what he needed to develop his arguments.  Simply put, he had a rather large axe to grind, which he intended to wield against the Christianity from which he had become an apostate.  “In early life,” a eulogist noted, Kersey “was much interested in religion, and his friends hoped he would enter the ministry, but his researches in oriental religious history convinced him that the popular theology embraced some errors.” [35]  He “became dissatisfied with popular theology quite early in life, and used his pen to correct what he believed to be errors.” [36]  A Graves genealogy says of Kersey merely that he “forsook the Quaker faith and Christianity and wrote infidelic and atheistic books.” [37]  In fact he was quite explicit about the goal he had in writing.  He wrote, he said,
 

[. . .with] the hope it will ultimately effect something towards achieving the important end sought to be attained by its publication—the banishment of that wide-spread delusion comprehended in the belief in an incarnate, virgin-born God, called Jesus Christ, and the infallibility of his teachings, with the numerous evils growing legitimately out of this belief—among the most important of which is, its cramping effect upon the mind of the possessor, which interdicts its growth, and thus constitutes a serious obstacle to the progress both of the individual and of society. And such has been the blinding effect of this delusion upon all who have fallen victims to its influence, that the numerous errors and evils of our popular system of religious faith, which constitutes its legitimate fruits, have passed from age to age, unnoticed by all except scientific and progressive minds, who are constantly bringing these errors and evils to light. This state of things has been a source of sorrow and regret to every philanthropist desiring the welfare of the race. And if this work shall achieve anything towards arresting this great evil, the author will feel that he is amply compensated for the years of toil and mental labor spent in its preparation. [38]


Although Graves discounted his Quakerism, his anti-orthodoxy is similar to Elias Hicks’ conviction that what passed in the world for Christianity was the “antitype” of truth.  Hicks preached about “the danger and disadvantage of resting in the forms and empty shadows of the law state; and continuing in the traditions and ceremonies introduced into the professed Christian Churches, in the time of the apostacy from primitive simplicity.” [39]

The Richmond Democrat described him as “a close student and an independent thinker.” [40]  Nevertheless, while he may have been earnest or sincere in his beliefs, he was also overconfident about his powers of discerning hidden designs and patterns in extremely meager and dubious collections of data.  At the same time, he does not seem to have appreciated how tenuous his sources were and how precarious almost all of his intuitions and speculations were.  It is not unreasonable to imagine him in his rural Indiana barn, tacking onto the walls all around him fluttered pieces of paper with random notes on them, looking for a flash of intuition that would make sense of them all.  It would have resembled something like the fevered garage ruminations of John Forbes Nash in A Beautiful Mind.

It is tempting to attribute some of Graves’ arrogance about his “findings” to the extreme inner light convictions in which his spiritual life developed.  Elias Hicks had preached against “a departure from the only sure foundation of true and real Christianity, the light within, or spirit of truth, the immediate revelation of the spirit of God, in immortal souls of men and women; the only and alone true teacher of the things of God under the gospel.” [41]  With Graves, a similar conviction was nourished toward solipsism by the comfort that spiritualism gave to the phenomena produced by inspiration, self-justifying revelations.  In such a situation, contrary evidence would be minimized, and the reality checks inherent in the Scientific Method that Graves admired would be all but impossible.

His dream-like method—almost an exercise in free association—not only suggests a kind of spiritualistic trance narrative, but also raises the question of his mental stability.  His anti-religion books came out of a period of years of an unspecified illness that, as he said, had “incapacitated” him for public lecturing.  During this time he struggled internally with religion as a “cramping” of the mind.  In this light, his writings can be viewed as the product of a kind of self-imposed psychotherapy for his severe mental distress.  His later, ostensibly humorous, remark that his mother, when he was a child, thought that his intense studies might make him crazy—and that he was already close to that—perhaps revealed more than he realized.

That Kersey’s wife Lydia was reported to have helped her husband with his writing may be significant.  With many spiritualist couples during this time, the husband gained a public reputation as a writer on progressive topics, while the wife, as a spirit medium, provided the “inspiration” for his writing. [42]  There is no direct evidence of this concerning the Graves family.  But if this common arrangement applied to the Kersey and Lydia, we should regard Kersey’s books—at least in their untethered central theses and their flights of analogy—as having been created in trance.  Whether this afflatus is to be attributed to Lydia, however, or to Kersey alone does not change the fact that what Kersey presents in his books as arguments built on tangible evidence is often akin to a dream narrative whose diaphanous elements are linked by accidental similarities.

Another amateur Orientalist and spiritualist of the time, James Martin Peebles (1822-1922), also used Higgins’ Anacalypsis for his “inspired” investigations of the past.  His biographer described the research that Peebles did, as if a band of revelating angels had escorted him into a dark, hidden, Hermetic Museum—ultimately, his own mind—where everything of the past, present, and future was jumbled together, and where everything was therefore related to everything else:
 

A band of spirits, some of them very ancient, and all lovers of antiquity, desirous of blossoming into life “all things new and old,” has directed his mind and his steps adown the sombre walks of the past, amid the brooding silence of buried civilizations.  The pyramids had voices for him; the obelisks glared forth a hidden mystery in their inscriptions; rocks and tombs, scepters and swords, dust and ashes all bore traces of oracles that once built kingdoms and empires, all were prints of events readable under the spirit-vision of his guides . . .  . [43]


The result of Peebles’ amateur spirit-guided researches was Seers of the Ages, published in 1869, before Graves’ works, but perfectly consistent with their syncretism, and also heavily reliant on Higgins’ Anacalypsis.  It portrayed the history of religions as the result of a chain of religious personages—partly real and partly mythical—manifesting through the Ages.

Other researchers’ subsequent accumulation of mountains of information about the different cultures and ancient beliefs that Graves described has eroded his claims of connections and similarities among them—claims already clearly seen by many of his contemporaries as dubious. [44]  It is even more obvious now than it was during his own time that none of the sixteen “crucified saviors” that he listed were ever believed to have been crucified or to have been a savior closely analogous to Jesus.  Moreover, Graves fabricated some of the sixteen “saviors”—not deliberately, it seems—simply based on his misapprehension of references in some of the books he was using, thinking that a word, for example, referred to a particular person, but did not in fact. [45]
Graves’ “private life was of exceptional purity and the verdict of those who knew him best is that he was a good and pure man.” [46]  “He lived an upright life,” said another. [47]  There is also evidence of his humor, in the following little story printed by The Richmond Evening Item a few years after his death:
 

There is a name which is sometimes applied by men in quarrels, and which generally lowers the man who uses it more than the man to whom it applies, though the latter generally considers it provocation to fight over.  One of the funniest cases of its use was years ago, when some one called the late Kersey Grave a “----- old s----- of a b----” in the post office.  Mr. Graves looked the fellow square in the eyes, and retorted “Well, sir; I am surprised; and I haven’t confidence enough in you to believe it!” [48]


Graves spent most of his later years lecturing for the causes of Freethought, atheism and spiritualism, but by 1878 he had already turned to another progressive cause—currency reform—and he focused his polemical writings as an active apologist for the Labor Greenback Party. [49]  The Greenback newspaper, The Richmond Weekly News, afforded him an opportunity to make his opinions on labor and currency issues public through publishing his correspondence during 1880-81. [50]  During these final years of his life, he was also a regular correspondent (“associate-editor”) of The Indianapolis Globe, “an anti-tariff paper.” [51]

Kersey Graves died at his home just north of Richmond on September 4, 1883. [52]  He “had not been suffering from any regularly defined disease, but his vital forces, which had long been overtaxed, finally became exhausted and the ‘lamp went out for want of oil.’” [53]  His funeral was at home and was “largely attended.”  He was buried in the Old Goshen Meeting House Cemetery near Middleboro, Indiana (the Quakers had let go of the cemetery some years prior and was then being used by non-Quakers as well).  His wife Lydia died on March 19, 1889 at home and was buried alongside her husband. [54]

Graves died as he had lived, holding the beliefs that he had propounded in his books.  The Richmond Telegram wrote:
 

The deceased had become famous as a writer on religious subjects and as a recognized infidel, leaning toward Spiritualism, was regarded by many with less disposition to doubt and investigate for themselves, as a lost man; but God knows, as do those on earth who knew him well, that he was as honest a man as can be found among the supposedly saved.  What he said, wrote or did he thought was right, and he was as indifferent to evil report as he was antagonistic to hypocrisy. [55]


It is ironic, then, that, claiming to be a rationalist who had uncovered deliberately suppressed truths, he was driven to phantasmagoric claims about mythological transmissions and borrowings throughout the world. [56]  His scholarship is now more than a century old, and he relied on other scholarship decades older still, but he is still often cited by those intent on debunking Christianity.  Nevertheless, many of Graves’ facts have turned out to be false, based on analogies he posited between things he took out of their original literary or historical contexts.  As a result, many of his “insights” cannot be traced back into the past that he tried to describe.


    [1] Madalyn Murray O’Hair, “Kersey Graves – American Atheist,” American Atheist 34, no. 7 (July 1992): 65-67, reproduced as American Atheist Radio Series, program 280, February 2, 1974, transcript at http://www.atheists.org/Atheism/roots/graves/

    [2] Graves’ The World’s Sixteen Crucified Saviors, for example, appears to have been the source for Dan Brown’s “fictional fact” that Mithras was believed by his ancient devotees to have died and to have been buried in a “rock tomb”—Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code (New York: Random House, 2003), 232.

    [3] John Macamy Wasson [“A Native”], Annals of Pioneer Settlers on the Whitewater and Its Tributaries, in the Vicinity of Richmond, Ind., from 1804 to 1830 (Richmond, Ind.: Telegram Printing Company, 1875), 37.

    [4] Dr. John T. Plummer, “Reminiscences of the History of Richmond, Indiana,” part 4, in A Directory to the City of Richmond, containing names, business and residence of the inhabitants, together with a historical sketch (Richmond, Ind.: R. O. Dormer and W. R. Holloway, 1857).

    [5] Elias Hicks, Journal of the Life and Religious Labours of Elias Hicks, Written by Himself, 3rd edition (New York: Isaac T. Hopper, 1832), 417 (meeting on October 12).

    [6] “Funeral of Kersey Graves,” Richmond Evening Item, September 6, 1883, p. 3, col. 2.

    [7] History of Wayne County, Indiana, together with sketches of its cities, villages and towns, educational, religious, civil, military, and political history, portraits of prominent persons, and biographies of representative citizens, vol. 1 (Chicago: Inter-State Publishing Company, 1884), 639, and Henry Clay Fox, Memoirs of Wayne County and the City of Richmond, Indiana, vol. 1 (Madison, Wisc.: Western Historical Association, 1912), 393.

    [8] Kersey Graves, “Reply to David Jones,” Richmond Telegram, May 15, 1879.

    [9] 1880 Federal Census, Wayne, Wayne County, Indiana.

    [10] “An Early Anti-Slavery Record of Wayne County,” The Radical (Richmond, Ind.), May 5, 1870, vol. 13, no. 18, p. 1, which reproduces the original constitution of the Richmond Society and a list of its signatories.

    [11] Thomas D. Hamm, God’s Government Begun: The Society for Universal Inquiry and Reform, 1842-1846 (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1995), 133.

    [12] “Funeral of Kersey Graves,” Richmond Evening Item, September 6, 1883, p. 3, col. 2.

    [13] Hamm, 133, citing Graves’ letter to Collins’ Communitist (Mottville, N.Y.), November 13, 1844, as well as two other letters of Graves, one to the Pennsylvania Freeman (Philadelphia, Penn.) [newspaper of the Anti-Slavery Society of Pennsylvania], October 17, 1839 (“The Cause Abroad”), and one to the Free Labor Advocate [and Anti-Slavery Chronicle] (New Garden, Ind.) [newspaper of Quaker abolitionist Benjamin Stanton’s “Free Labor Movement”], August 31, 1844.

    [14] Willard Heiss, ed. Encyclopedia of American Quaker Genealogy, Volume 7: Abstracts of the Records of the Society of Friends in Indiana, Part 1 (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society, 1962), 108; Whitewater Monthly Meeting, Men’s Minutes 1843-1855, Wayne County, Indiana (Copied by Allen County Public Library, 2001), p. 53 (August 28, 1844), 57 (September 25, 1844), 60 (October 23, 1844), and 62 (November 27, 1844).

    [15] Heiss, 43, 108.

    [16] Hamm, 129-136, citing Wattles’ Cincinnnati-based Herald of Progression, March 1846.

    [17] Thomas Lake Harris, “Progress in Cincinnati,” The Univercoelum and Spiritual Philosopher (New York), April 15, 1848; see also, “Rev. T. L. Harris in Cincinnati,” The Trumpet and Universalist Magazine (Boston), February 12, 1848.

    [18] William Wade Hinshaw, Encyclopedia of American Quaker Genealogy, 1750-1930 (Richmond, Ind.: Friends Book and Supply House, 1936), Vol. 4, 1286.

    [19] Highland Home, an offshoot of Wattles’ Prairie Home Community, was founded near Zanesfield in 1844.

    [20] Robert S. Fogarty, Dictionary of American Communal and Utopian History (Westport, Ct.: Greenwood, 1980), 187.  Kersey and Lydia’s children were Benjamin Michener (born March 1, 1847), Sarah Elizabeth [“Lizzie”] (born July 19, 1849), Edwin (born October 6, 1853, died October 14, 1854), Alonzo Jehu (born September 20, 1856), and Elma (born February 3, 1859).

    [21] Kersey Graves, “Reply to David Jones,” Richmond Telegram, May 15, 1879.

    [22] Kersey Graves, The Biography of Satan; or, a historical exposition of the devil and his fiery dominions, disclosing the oriental origin of the belief in a devil and future endless punishment (Chicago: Religio-Philosophical Publishing Association, 1865).

    [23] “Another Lecturer in the Field,” The Religio-Philosophical Journal, November 11, 1865.  I have found no evidence for the nature of Graves’ long illness.  The “Harmonial Philosophy” refers to spiritualism in general, and to the ideas and writings of spiritualist seer Andrew Jackson Davis in particular.

    [24] Kersey Graves, The World’s Sixteen Crucified Saviors; or, Christianity before Christ; containing new, startling, and extraordinary revelations in religious history which discloses the Oriental origin of all the doctrines, principles, precepts, and miracles of the Christian New Testament, and furnishes a key for unlocking many of its sacred mysteries, besides comprising the history of sixteen Oriental crucified gods, etc., etc. (Boston: Colby and Rich, 1875).  On the web at http://www.infidels.org/library/historical/kersey_graves/16/index.shtml

    [25] Kersey Graves, The Bible of Bibles; or, Twenty-seven “Divine revelations:” containing a description of twenty-seven bibles, and an exposition of two thousand Biblical errors in science, history, morals, religion, and general events; also a delineation of the characters of the principal personages of the Christian Bible, and an examination of their doctrines (Boston: Colby and Rich, 1879).

    [26] Thomas Paine (1737-1809), The Age of Reason (1794); Godfrey Higgins (1773-1833), Anacalypsis: An Attempt to Draw Aside the Veil of the Saitic Isis: or an Inquiry into the Origin of Languages, Nations, and Religions (London, 1836); Rev. Robert Taylor (1784-1844), The Diegesis; being a discovery of the origin, evidences, and early history of Christianity, never yet before or elsewhere so fully and faithfully set forth (Boston: J. Gilbert, 1832); Constantin-François Volney (1757-1820), The Ruins: or A Survey of the Revolutions of Empires (New York: William A. Davis, 1796), trans. of Les ruines, ou Méditation sur les révolutions des empires (Paris, 1792); Louis Jacolliot (1837-1890), The Bible in India: Hindoo Origin of Hebrew and Christian Revelation (New York: Carleton, 1870), trans. La Bible dans l’Inde (Paris 1869); Ernest Renan (1833-1892) The Life of Jesus (trans. of La Vie de Jesus, Paris 1863).

    [27] John T. Perry, Sixteen Saviours or One? The Gospels Not Brahmanic (Cincinnati: Thomson, 1879).  This was originally serialized in the Cincinnati Gazette, and then, with a reply from Graves and a further rejoinder from Perry, in the Richmond Telegram.  Perry had addressed the New Hampshire Historical Society the previous year on the subject of historical methodology, with Graves in mind—The Credibility of History: Annual Address before the New Hampshire Historical Society, June 12, 1878 (Cincinnati: n.p., 1878).

    [28] Gerald Massey, The Natural Genesis; or, Second Part of A Book of the Beginnings, containing an attempt to recover and reconstitute the lost origins of the myths and mysteries, types and symbols, religion and language, with Egypt from the mouthpiece and Africa as the birthplace, 2 vols. (London: Williams and Norgate, 1883), part of which was republished separately as The Historical Jesus and the Mythical Christ, or Natural Genesis and Typology of Equinoctial Christolatry (Springfield, Mass.: Star Publishing Company, 1886).

    [29] Advertisement by Bennett in the back of radical spiritualist, free-lover, and ex-Adventist minister Moses Hull’s The Question Settled: A Careful Comparison of Biblical and Modern Spiritualism (Boston: William White, 1869) [William White and company was another Boston spiritualist publisher].

    [30] Universalist Quarterly and General Review (Boston), October 1879, 463.

    [31] Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Isis Unveiled: a master-key to the mysteries of ancient and modern science and theology (New York: J. W. Boulton, 1877), vol. 2, 341-342n.  Artemus Ward was the pseudonym of humorist and writer Charles F. Brown, whose fictional protagonist was an untutored traveling exhibitor of wax figures of historical interest.

    [32] John Glover Jackson, “Was Jesus Christ a Negro? A Rationalistic Review” (1933).  On the web at http://www.africawithin.com/jgjackson/jgjackson_was_jesus_christ_a_negro.htm

    [33] History of Wayne County, 639.

    [34] “Former Teacher Here Is Studied,” Palladium-Item, February 5, 1939, sec. 2, p. 1, cols. 2-4.

    [35] “Funeral of Kersey Graves,” Richmond Evening Item, September 6, 1883, p. 3, col. 2.

    [36] History of Wayne County, 639.

    [37] Roger Avery Stubbs and Rena May Stubbs, Some Grave People in America, 1673-1973 (Long Lake, Minn.: The Author, n.d.), 13.

    [38] Kersey Graves, preface to the second edition (1875) of The World’s Sixteen Crucified Saviors.

    [39] Hicks, 353.

    [40] “Death of Kersey Graves,” Richmond Democrat, September 13, 1883, p. 3, col. 2.

    [41] Hicks, 412.

    [42] To mention just a few of these couples—Stephen Pearl Andrews and his wife Esther, Jesse Babcock Ferguson and his wife Lucinda, Nathaniel Hyer and his wife Frances, Alonzo Eliot Newton and his wife Sarah, and John Stowell Adams and his wife Harriet.

    [43] James Martin Peebles, Seers of the Ages; Embracing Spiritualism, Past and Present; Doctrines Stated and Moral Tendencies Defined (Boston: William White, 1869), vi-vii.

    [44] The Reverend Perry’s rebuttal of Graves’ works relied to some extent on the solid scholarly pioneering work of F. Max Müller.

    [45] For a debunking of some of Kersey’s claims:
http://www.Christian-thinktank.com/copycat.html (which is not focussed on Graves per se, but on the more general idea that Jesus was just a fiction) and even, at the same “Infidel Library” website that makes Graves’ book available: http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/richard_carrier/graves.html

    [46] “Funeral of Kersey Graves,” Richmond Evening Item, September 6, 1883, p. 3, col. 2.

    [47] History of Wayne County, 639.

    [48] The Richmond Evening Item, June 22, 1886.

    [49] Graves listed himself in spiritualist newspapers, among the trance speakers and mediums, as an “inspirational lecturer,” e.g., The Banner of Light, August 17, 1878 and The Religio-Philosophical Journal, May 15, 1880.  For his anti-Republican Party, pro-Greenback sentiments, see Kersey Graves, “Forty-one Acts of a Republican Administration, which are Robbing and Ruining the People to Gratify the Greed of Rings and Money Kings,” Richmond Weekly News, December 4, 1880, 2, and December 11, 1880, 3; revised and republished as Robbing by Law: Forty Robberies of the People by the National Government (San Francisco: John C. Murphy, 1888).  His letters on this subject appeared infrequently, from 1878, in the Richmond Telegram.  Throughout 1879, however, his correspondence to the Telegram was focused on the controversy over his published books on comparative religion.

    [50] Such as, “The Revenue Laws a Swindle,” Richmond Weekly News, May 14, 1881, 1; and “More Alarming Facts for Laboring Men,” April 9, 1881, 1.  For an example of a response to Graves’ polemics, see Thomas Haines Dudley, A Reply to Kersey Graves’ Comparison between Protection and Free Trade in the United States (N.p.: n.p, 1883).

    [51] Fox, 393.

    [52] Obituaries: Richmond Evening Item, September 6, 1883, p. 3, col. 2; Richmond Telegram, September 16, 1883, p. 3, col. 5; Richmond Democrat, September 13, 1883, p. 3, col. 2; biographical essays or notes also in R. E. Banta, comp., Indiana Authors and Their Books, 1816-1916: Biographical Sketches of Authors Who Published during the First Century of Indiana Statehood, with Lists of Their Books (Crawfordsville, Ind.: Wabash College, 1949); History of Wayne County, 639; George P. Emswiler, Poems and Sketches: consisting of poems and local history; biography; notes of travel; a long list of Wayne County’s pioneer dead, also many names of those who lost their lives in defense of their country during the late rebellion (Richmond, Ind.: Nicholson, 1897), 421.

    [53] “Death of Kersey Graves,” Richmond Telegram, September 16, 1883, p. 3, col. 5.

    [54] Wayne County, Indiana Death Records Index, 1882-1920, vol. 1, 286.

    [55] “Death of Kersey Graves,” Richmond Telegram, September 16, 1883, p. 3, col. 5.

    [56] Just two recent examples—on the side of New Age pantheists, Tom Harkur, “Have-Your-Say,” Toronto Star, March 21, 2004, F7, uses Graves to criticize Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ because the movie does not tell the truth-according-to-Graves about the meaning of the Cross; on the side of advocates of a Nubian Christ, Kwaku Person-Lynn, “Our Heritage: Buddha and Krishna—African Deities,” Sentinel (Los Angeles), March 15, 2000, A11, proposes the thesis implied in its title, citing Graves as authority.

::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::

[ Ephemera Home]