Sunderland, La Roy (1804–1885)
Methodist minister, abolitionist, and magnetist. Sunderland
was born May 18, 1804, in Exeter, Rhode Island. He was apprenticed
to a shoemaker. He became converted to Methodism
and became a revivalist preacher at the age of 18. He had a reputation
as an orator of great power and was prominent in the
temperance and antislavery movement, presiding at the meeting
in New York in October 1834 when the first Methodist antislavery
society was organized. He was a delegate to the first antislavery
convention at Cincinnati in 1841 and the World
Convention in London in 1843.
In 1833 he withdrew from the ministry and two years later
became one of the founders of Zion’s Watchman, the antislavery
periodical for the Methodist abolitionists in New England. He
edited the tabloid for the next seven years. In 1842 he joined
with a number of his socially active colleagues in withdrawing
from the Methodist Episcopal Church and founding the Wesleyan
Methodist Church. However, at the same time, he was undergoing
a crisis of faith. A noted evangelist, he had come to
feel that his abilities were a result of hypnotic powers. He had
concluded that conversion was a natural, not a supernatural,
action. His line of reasoning led him to the conclusion that religion
was a fraud.
In 1842 he founded and also edited the Magnet in which he
expounded his beliefs in mesmeric power and suggestion. He
made a special study of animal magnetism and mesmerism,
and in 1843 published Pathetism; With Practical Instructions
Demonstrating the Falsity of the Hitherto Prevalent Assumptions in
Regard to What Has Been Called ‘‘Mesmerism’’ and ‘‘Neurology,’’ and
Illustrating Those Laws Which Induce Somnambulism, Second Sight,
Sleep, Dreaming, Trance, and Clairvoyance, with Numerous Facts
Tending to Show the Pathology of Monomania, Insanity, Witchcraft,
and Various Other Mental or Nervous Phenomena.
He moved on to support Grahamism, an early school of natural
diet, and Spiritualism. In 1851, he founded The Spiritual
Philosopher, the first Spiritualist periodical in America. A year
later, the title changed to The Spirit World. Although in the first
issue he criticized the spirit theory and the evidence adduced
on its behalf, he quickly became a believer when his own daughter,
Margarette Cooper, became a medium. His enthusiasm
cooled somewhat in the following year as a result of a hoax
played upon him, and he warned his readers against believing
that all the phenomena ascribed to spirit intervention had necessarily
an extra-mundane cause, as many might be due to unconscious
action on the part of the medium.
Sunderland was also an exponent of phrenology. Of special
interest is the fact that he sometimes exhibited painless tooth
extraction with entranced subjects, and on two occasions even
the dentist was hypnotized. Sunderland’s ideas were mentioned
by James Braid, whose term ‘‘hypnotism’’ eventually won general
consent.
In 1868, Sunderland’s doubts about spirit phenomena returned,
and in his book The Trance and Correlative Phenomena he
states that neither mediums nor spirits have ever been able to
show where human actions end and the real spiritual begins in
phenomena.
In the last years of his life he became an infidel and advocated
atheism. He died in Quincy, Massachusetts, on May 15,
1885, reportedly having a happy end in spite of his disbelief in
any afterlife.
Sources
Sunderland, La Roy. ‘‘An Appeal on the Subject of Slavery.’’
Zion’s Watchman (December 5, 1834).
———. The Book of Human Nature. New York Stearns, 1853.
———. ‘‘Confessions of a Magnitizer’’ Exposed. Boston Redding,
1845.
———. Ideology. Boston J. P. Mendum, 1885–87.
———. Pathetism; With Practical Instructions Demonstrating
the Falsity of the Hitherto Prevalent Assumptions in Regard to What
Has Been Called ‘‘Mesmerism’’ and ‘‘Neurology,’’ and Illustrating
Those Laws Which Induce Somnambulism, Second Sight, Sleep,
Dreaming, Trance, and Clairvoyance, with Numerous Facts Tending
to Show the Pathology of Monomania, Insanity, Witchcraft, and Various
Other Mental or Nervous Phenomena. Boston White and Potter,
1847.
———. Testimony of God Against Slavery. Boston D. K. Hitchcock,
1836.
———. The Trance. Chicago J. Walker, 1868