Thursday, March 3, 2011

First Spiritual Temple - Exeter Theatre

First Spiritual Temple, Exeter and Newbury streets.

Spiritualism stands in an odd place in American culture. When considered at all, it generally gets associated with Ouija boards and Hollywood seance scenes from 1930s-40s movies. Beyond that, you might have seen reference to Harry Houdini debunking spiritualists and psychics. This is actually a shame, because there is much more to the story of Spiritualism than 20th Century frauds and fiction plot devices.

The subject of Spiritualism is beyond the scope of this blog, but I would encourage anyone interested to dig in and read up on this fascinating topic. Here, I'll just give a taste of the subject. Spiritualism began in New York during the 1840s, in what was known as the 'burned over district.' In an atmosphere of religious ferment, people began to contact spirits of the dead, through table rapping, and later direct communication with mediums. In time there would be levitating trumpets and 'spirit closets,' but there was much more to Spiritualism than illusions and tricks

Spiritualist meetings hosted some of the very first public speeches made by women in the United States. With no male hierarchy, Spiritualism allowed women the opportunity to take leadership roles in public for the first time. Spiritualism became closely associated with women's suffrage and abolitionism in the years before the Civil War. Many of the earliest leaders of what we would consider the women's rights movement were also Spiritualists.

Over time, interest in Spiritualism waned. The Civil War and exposure of fraudulent mediums both lessened interest in the subject. Eventually Spiritualism was seen more as a parlor game than a religion, but interest did remain at a lesser level. While a lack of hierarchy was once a virtue and attraction for Spiritualism, organized churches did come about. The photo above shows one of them.

The first Spiritual Temple was built on Exeter street at Newbury street. Built in 1885, it had a short life in its intended purpose, and by 1915 it was transformed into a movie theatre. The Exeter Theatre was a favorite Boston movie house until 1974,* when declining attendance caused it to quietly shut down. It has had multiple tenants since then. Surprisingly, the Spiritualist church society did not sell the building at the time the theatre opened. The group is apparently still active, and their web site informs us that they were the operators of the cinema through all those years. There's an interesting story to be told there, no doubt.

*Correction: Ron Newman reports "The Exeter Street Theatre closed in 1984, not 1974."


  1. The Exeter Street Theatre closed in 1984, not 1974. See .

  2. I think the Spiritualists stopped operating the theatre in 1974, but it then reopened as part of the local Sonny & Eddy's Theatres chain for another ten years.

  3. That would explain it - thanks Ron. I'll be posting a link to the Cinema Treasures site in a future entry. Great site.

  4. This is the theater that ran "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" for years. I lived at the other end of the block on the same side of the street. After the theater shut down it became a Waterstones bookstore for a couple years and now it's condos I think.

  5. "...Built in 1885, it had a short life in its intended purpose, and by 1915 it was transformed into a movie theatre."

    Actually, the Spiritual Fraternity continued to host classes, lectures and Spiritualist teachings in the "First Spiritual Temple for 89 years, until 1974, when they sold the building and moved their church meetings to Brookline, MA.

    The glass and metal addition was added on the Newbury Street side in 1974 for Friday's Restaurant, and Conran's Furniture was the next commercial use (prior to WaterStone's Bookstore) of the former sanctuary after the Theatre closed.

    Even though most people associate Spiritualism with late Victorian society, the primary elements and phenomena of Spiritualism can be traced through diverse world religions, dating back thousands of years through to the present day.

    1. And I meant to add -- Rev. Stephen Fulton of the First Spiritual Temple, worked as the Chief Projectionist at the Exeter Street Theatre before he became a member of the Church, developed abilities in physical mediumship, and was ordained as an a minister for them!