From the outside, this small, rural community in upstate New York looks like many others in the state. Victorian cottages cozy up to one another in various shades of green, white, and yellow. Large red oaks dot sidewalks, stretching their long limbs into a vibrant canopy. But look a bit closer and you’ll start to see the “Medium Open” signs or stumble upon the Healing Temple or the community’s pet cemetery. Welcome to Lily Dale, America’s oldest Spiritualist community.
Lily Dale was founded in 1879 basically as an adult Spiritualism summer camp. People would come, set up tents, and then wait for the dead to arrive. Seances, message services, and classes followed. Back in the late 19th century, Spiritualism was flourishing, with more than a million followers. Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, actress Mae West, even Thomas Edison (maybe) all joined in. The basic tenet of the religion is that “life is continuous—in other words, we never die, we just change states of being. As a science, Spiritualism is committed to proving the continuity of life by communicating with spirits who have passed on,” writes Lily Dale medium Janice Dreshman.
What began as that tented summer commune now is a small hamlet, with about 250 permanent and semipermanent residents, many of whom are registered mediums. For about $80 to $100, you can sit down with a Lily Dale medium as he or she relays messages from family members and friends who’ve passed on, at least until your half-hour is up.
All Lily Dale mediums are members of what’s called the Lily Dale Assembly, made up of members from around the world. And while all members are Spiritualists, not all members are mediums. Some members live and work in Lily Dale. Others don’t. All members can vote on Lily Dale building decisions, community matters, and who is elected to the Assembly’s Board of Directors.
The Board doesn’t allow just anyone to waltz in and start giving readings, though. Lily Dale requires all mediums to go through a rigorous testing process to be registered and allowed to set up shop. Today, there are 36 registered mediums at Lily Dale. Some, such as Gretchen Clark, have grown up in the community. Most, though, have bought homes and moved in. Regardless, all the mediums at Lily Dale had to hone their skills and pass numerous tests before they were allowed to charge visitors for readings.
In the early days of Lily Dale in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, becoming a registered medium “was based totally on competency,” says Elaine Thomas, a registered Lily Dale medium for 37 years. If you could talk to dead people, you were in. To become a medium today though, “there’s a lot of volunteerism,” says Dreshman, who’s been a registered medium since 2005. Many of the programs on offer at Lily Dale are only possible because community members donate their time.
Maybe this is the year to try it yourself --The Spiritualists' Handbook: A concise and extensive guide to Spiritualism and all its practices