by Tim Gilmore, 1/29/2021
1. Bluegrass Séance
At the Spiritual Lighthouse Church, you’d find old Southern preaching, bluegrass mandolin, séances and psychic channeling. The pastors here have almost always been women. It’s a church where congregants sang traditional hymns—“In the sweet by-and-by, we shall meet on that beautiful shore”—and those who inhabited that shore spoke through living ministers.
Marty Hamrick first visited Spiritual Lighthouse Church, Jacksonville’s only remaining Spiritualist church, in 1973. Billie and Gordon Hamrick, Marty’s parents, traveled up and down the Eastern Seaboard, singing bluegrass gospel at Southern Baptist churches. They recorded their own TV show called “Old Country Church” in Charleston, South Carolina from 1955 to 1965. When the Hamricks came through Florida, they often sang at Spiritual Lighthouse.
Though Baptist megachurch preachers like Trinity Baptist Church’s Bob Gray screamed from the pulpit about demons inhabiting rock ’n roll albums, the Hamricks never saw a conflict between being Baptists and having interests other Baptists denounced as “witchcraft” and “the occult.”
“My parents were staunch Southern Baptists,” Marty says, “but my mom had a keen interest and belief in the paranormal. She believed she had psychic visions and dreams and contacts from the spirit realm, all things the Baptist church preached against, so to her, the Spiritual Lighthouse Church was an outlet to explore these things as well as to further her music.”
Spiritual Lighthouse services differed little from most Southern Baptist or Methodist services, except that instead of the Invitation, that culminating session of singing and prayer when Southern preachers ask sinners to walk the aisle and “accept Jesus into their hearts,” the Spiritual Lighthouse Church gave psychic readings from the pulpit.
Spiritualist congregations have always considered themselves Christian, even while Baptists denounced them as satanic. Jacksonville’s most prominent Spiritualist, Anna Fletcher, one of the Jacksonville Woman’s Club’s founders in the 1890s, and her husband Duncan U. Fletcher, twice Jacksonville mayor and 27 year U.S. senator from Florida, were both prominent members of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Jacksonville. Of course Baptists denounced Unitarians too.
Billie and Gordon Hamrick visited the Spiritual Lighthouse regularly for about 25 years. They’d recorded songs like “When I Feel the Spirit, Brother, I’m Gonna Shout!” and “Gonna See My Lord Someday” with the Low Country Gospel Band, their voices that joyous whine of gospel bluegrass, Billie playing guitar and Gordon mandolin. They played at Spiritual Lighthouse for the last time, a special retrospective of their signature songs, sometime around 1995. Marty, who now lives in Windsor, Ontario, has been trying to get a copy of the recording from the church for years. He’d like to add it to his collection of his parents’ recordings, photographs and instruments.
Speaking through a medium to people you’ve loved and lost always seemed to Spiritualists an obvious modern extension of the Gospel. Hadn’t Jesus spoke with and raised the dead? And what of the Rapture, the belief made popular by the Scofield Reference Bible in fundamentalist and Evangelical churches, that Jesus would return to earth to raise the righteous from their lives and from their graves? Even Spiritualist and Theosophical groups who, beginning in the 1950s, saw flying saucers and UFOs as modern technological understandings of angels based their understandings on Bible verses.
So the Hamricks came to the Spiritual Lighthouse to play “Gonna Meet My Lord Someday” and sing, “I’m gonna meet him in the sky. / When I hear that trumpet sound, / I’m gonna tell this world goodbye / Because I know I’m heavenbound.” Spiritualism seemed no more “occult” than the Rapture. As another bluegrass favorite said, “When I die, / Hallelujah, by and by, / I’ll fly away.”
Through the years, Marty Hamrick has experimented with all kinds of photography and videography, even running the projector at the adult Playtime Drive-In Movie Theater in the early 1980s. In a short Super 8 clip from 2002, the last time he visited Spiritual Lighthouse, five or six people sit in folding chairs listening to an elderly man in glasses, an organ and candelabrum behind him. The film jumps and mottles, the man lowers his arms, no audio, and just like that, all those decades are gone.
2. Many Angels, One City
I’m here in time for Sunday afternoon services but mine is the only car in the parking lot. The sky is overcast, the great deciduous oaks leafless. An occasional flurry of light rain mists my hair and my glasses. I’m wearing a mask, but should’ve realized the church stopped holding services during the Covid-19 pandemic.
I walk to the other side of the wooden sign and read, “Spiritual Lighthouse Church. Everyone Welcome, Established 1942.” The pastor is Katie Seltzer, co-pastor Tina McAlister. Interstate 95 roars overhead and the sulfuric stench of Symrise, formerly Millennium Specialty Chemicals, formerly Glidden Company, formerly Standard Turpentine Company burns the inside of my nose like it’s burned throats here and made this mostly black neighborhood smell flatulent for a century.
The church has no windows. Seems like a metaphor or a line from a Charles Simic poem. Made of concrete block, the 1300 square foot sanctuary bears two crosses made of half blocks on either side of its double entrance. The steeple rises, blackened with mold, and its cross points into the grandfatherly oak, tree rejoining tree.
I want to ask the current pastors about Spiritualism’s heritage of seeing women as spiritual leaders. That fact was radical in Spiritualism’s early years. The movement began with the Fox Sisters, Kate and Maggie, 11 and 14 years old, who claimed to receive messages from a man murdered in their Western New York house. Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for president, was a Spiritualist and Mary Todd Lincoln brought séances into the White House. Throughout its three main waves, after the Civil War, after World War I and through the wide-open spiritual experimentalism of the late 1960s and the ’70s, Spiritualism has always been led by women, just as the enigmatic Madame Blavatsky fomented its predecessor, Theosophy, in the 1870s.
“Keep in Mind: Some Have Entertained Angels Unawares,” warned the Tallahassee Democrat headline, on June 19, 1987, for Mary Ann Lindley’s religion column. “Jill Cook is such an angel. At least close to one.” You could tell just by looking at her, Lindley said: “corn silk hair, cheeks peachy as a Key West sunset, a certain radiance, and her trademark whiter-shade-of-pale clothing.” She’d purchased her “polished ivory Jaguar parked out front,” with its bumper sticker, “Not all angels are in heaven,” because she “just wanted to feel prosperous” after being “psychic adviser” for the 1986 movie Poltergeist II: The Other Side.
Cook, an ordained minister at Spiritual Lighthouse Church, described “her gift as the ability to hear and translate the voices of guardian angels, which she believes accompany each one of us at birth, through life, and ‘to the other side,’ at death.” Born on Halloween 1948, she said she’d first experienced her gift as sometimes “traumatic,” sometimes “embarrassing,” but had sharpened it at Spiritual Lighthouse “like developing a muscle in my brain to be in tune with these higher vibrations.”
Grace Brewer and her mother Ida Pierce co-founded Spiritual Lighthouse Church in 1942 after studying with the famous psychic Edgar Cayce. Jill Cook Richards, who now lives in Daytona and does private readings for clients all over the country, says, “I’ve always taken pride in that lineage.” She says, Brewer and Pierce studied with Cayce at his Association for Research and Enlightenment in Virginia Beach. By the time Spiritual Lighthouse began, Cayce was world famous, with Coronet Magazine dubbing him the “Miracle Man of Virginia Beach” in 1943. Though Cayce died in 1944, books like Many Lives, Many Masters and his teachings on Jesus and the lost continents of Atlantis and Lemuria reached wider and wider audiences through the ’70s.
Richards remembers séances with Grace Brewer when she was in training. “We’d sit in the church in pitch dark. Not a peep of light. If light shone through a crack beneath the door, she’d put a towel there to block it out. So we’d sit in the dark and we’d pray and we’d sing. Singing raises the vibrations, increases the energy. So we’d pray and we’d chant ‘God’ or ‘Jesus Christ’ over and over to build up the energy in the room. And the first time I saw anything, I saw a light come into the room. It came in like a giant star, and Reverend Brewer said, ‘That’s your guardian angel,’ and she said my guardian angel’s name was Morning Star.”
3. What Comes Next
When Naomi Burnsed first met William Chris Hansen just after his return from World War II, it was, so she always said, “love at first sight.” They married in Kingsland, Georgia, outside the submarine base, just after Thanksgiving 1947. As Chris’s Navy career took him to Highland Park, Illinois and Virginia Beach, Naomi worked as a nurse’s aide. When they returned to Jacksonville in 1956, they immediately became members of the Spiritual Lighthouse Church. Naomi studied under Grace Brewer through the 1970s and became co-pastor in 1985.
Mary and Jimmy Cox remember the Hansens. I visit them at their yellow bungalow catacorner to the Cosmic Church of Truth on the city’s Westside. Jimmy’s grandparents served on the Spiritual Lighthouse’s board of directors in 1942 and Mary was pastor there in the ’90s. I catch them in the midst of packing. They’re moving to Bell, Florida, population 456, near Gainesville to be near their grandchildren.
Mary looks side to side, slightly frantically, at the six or seven housecats on their front porch. Jimmy runs his fingers across his hairless head and says church attendance has fallen off in recent years. When he was growing up, it was always a full house, as many as 50 people in attendance. The church started in a storefront, long ago demolished, across from Andrew Jackson High School, but moved to its Crestwood Street location in 1959.
Jimmy’s eyes are wide open, gracious. He speaks openly of the dead speaking through the living. He brags, however humbly, of his wife’s special gifts. He explains the difference between the Cosmic Church of Truth, which the Coxes have led for years, and the Spiritual Lighthouse Church. “The Cosmic Church is about one truth, many masters, but Spiritualism comes straight through Christianity.”
Marty Hamrick says Spiritual Lighthouse featured all things dark, mysterious and mystical on top of traditional Southern bluegrass gospel. “It was the ‘Age of Aquarius,’ UFOs and the occult and the paranormal. People were open to things.” In 1973 and ’74, when Marty was in eighth grade at Kirby Smith Junior High, Chris Hansen was his shop teacher, for both Electrical and Mechanical Drawing. “He always had something interesting to talk about,” Marty says, “Astrology, Extra Sensory Perception, UFOs.”
I’m struck by the fact that Anna Fletcher, senator’s wife and Spiritualist crusader, who argued against Harry Houdini, the world’s most famous magician, on behalf of Spiritualism before a Congressional committee, died in Jacksonville the year before Ida Pierce and her daughter Grace Brewer founded the Spiritual Lighthouse Church.
Anna Fletcher believed her deceased mother sent her messages. Among Anna’s favorites: 1. “Love here is higher than the worldly kind.” 2. “For a long time I was earth-bound. I called and called you and could not understand why you did not hear me. Then I realized I was harming you as well as myself.” 3. “They tell me that I am miles away according to earth’s deductions, and yet I know I am right here talking to you.”
I’m not a Spiritualist, but I understand the appeal. It’s true that I take What Comes to Me and write it down. Somebody told Anna Fletcher that all writing was a séance. It’s true I hope somebody reads me, that my words move them deeply and profoundly, hundreds of years after I’m gone. Most of us want to mark the world in some lasting way as we make our way through it. Maybe we’re all Spiritualists after all.