Religions and Education in the History of the French Revolution of 1848: Allan Kardec and the genesis of modern spiritualism.

Anderson C. Ferreira Brettas*

The burning of the throne of king Louis Philippe during the French revolution of 1848, Paris 25th February 1848


El llamado ‘espiritismo’, o espiritualismo francés, es una religión muy difundida en Brasil, especialmente en los sectores medios y urbanos de la población. Su alcance se manifiesta en la creencia en la reencarnación y en el contacto racional con el mundo de los muertos, y se organiza y difunde a través de una grandiosa producción editorial. Movimientos similares resuenan en otros países latinoamericanos. El teórico de la doctrina espírita fue el pedagogo y profesor francés Hyppolite León Denizard-Rivail, seguidor de las ideas y acciones del suizo-alemán Johann Henrich Pestalozzi, quien fue considerado en la historiografía especializada como uno de los fundadores de la educación contemporánea y un intelectual activamente dedicado a la educación ya la docencia, con la apertura de escuelas, la organización y publicación de libros de texto y la elaboración y propuesta de proyectos de reforma educativa.
Este artículo busca demostrar las articulaciones históricas entre política y religión, con énfasis en la Revolución de 1848 en Francia (un movimiento burgués inserto en un contexto europeo más amplio de derrocamiento de los tronos absolutistas) y las direcciones del profesor Denizard-Rivail, quien fue entusiasta de las promesas liberales contenidas en el ciclo revolucionario, especialmente en el campo de la ciencia y la educación que propugnaba la secularización de la enseñanza, ante la frustración del entonces curso conservador de la política francesa durante el ascenso de Napoleón III.
El contacto con los grupos espiritistas en París y la aceptación de la existencia de manifestaciones racionales en sesiones esotéricas y posteriormente la adopción del seudónimo de Allan Kardec marcaron las inflexiones en la vida del anciano profesor Hyppolite León Denizard-Rivail, y la historia del misticismo occidental.

Palabras clave

Espiritismo Francés – Allan Kardec – Revoluciones de 1848 – Religión y Política – Johann Henrich Pestalozzi


The so-called “spiritism,” or French spiritualism, is a widespread religion in Brazil, especially in middle and urban sectors of the population. Its scope is manifested in the belief in reincarnation and in rational contact with the world of the dead, and it is organized and disseminated through a grandiose editorial production. Similar movements echo in other Latin American countries. The theoretician of the spiritist doctrine was the French pedagogue and professor Hyppolite León Denizard-Rivail, a follower of the ideas and actions of the Swiss-German Johann Henrich Pestalozzi, who was considered in specialized historiography as one of the founders of contemporary education and an intellectual actively dedicated to education and to teaching, with the opening of schools, organization and publication of textbooks and the preparation and proposal of educational reform projects.

This article seeks to demonstrate the historical articulations between politics and religion, with emphasis on the Revolution of 1848 in France (a bourgeois movement inserted in a broader European context of the overthrow of absolutist thrones) and the directions of Professor Denizard-Rivail, who was an enthusiast of the liberal promises contained in the revolutionary cycle, especially in the field of science and education that advocated the secularization of teaching, to the frustration of the then conservative course of French politics during the rise of Napoleon III.

The contact with the spiritualist groups in Paris and the acceptance of the existence of rational manifestations in esoteric sessions and later the adoption of the pseudonym Allan Kardec marked the inflections in the life of the old professor, Hyppolite León Denizard-Rivail, and in the history of Western mysticism.

Keywords: French Spiritism – Allan Kardec – Revolutions of 1848 – Religion and Politics – Johann Henrich Pestalozzi


1848 was an emblematic year in the history of French spiritism.
In the United States, the “Case of the Fox Sisters” generated enormous repercussions that reverberated in intellectual circles in America and Europe. Kate, Leah and Margareth Fox were daughters of a family of Canadian origin installed in Hydesville County, in the State of New York, and they heard knocking on the walls in their home. The sisters combined knocks to produce the letters of the alphabet and obtained the identity of the one who produced the sounds: a peddler named Charles Rosma who, supposedly, four years earlier had been murdered in that house and buried in the cellar.

Although events considered supernatural are recurrent over time, the Hydesville episodes, which were also described by Arthur Conan Doyle (2006: p.73-96), a writer who was adept at spiritism and the creator of one of the most famous characters in literature, the detective Sherlock Holmes, reverberated to become a kind of foundational myth of the spiritist doctrine.

Arthur Conan Doyle

In 1848, an intense revolutionary wave erupted called “Spring of the Peoples” that ignited agitations and rebellions in the Old Continent and had repercussions in various parts of the world that definitively ended the cycle of monarchical absolutism.

Despite the undoubted importance and reflections of the mystical events of the American sisters, the Revolutions that took place in Europe marked the political conditions for the emergence and advancement of modern spiritualism, with the gradual loss of hegemony of the Catholic clergy and the secularization of laws and customs, as well as the advancement of a “scientistic” mentality. They also marked a profound break in the intellectual and professional career of the person who became the founder of the doctrine of spirits, Professor Hippolyte Leon Denizard Rivail, who later retired from education in the face of the frustrations of the conservative outcome of the 1848 movement and converted to rational and systematic study of relations with the spiritual world and started to sign himself as Allan Kardec, an iconic character in Brazilian religiosity with reflections in Latin America.

This article articulates the relations between religion and politics in history, describes events and aspects that characterized the Revolutionary Days of 1848 in France (a broader movement that marked the overthrow of European thrones) and presents and discusses modern spiritualism and demonstrates and analyzes the inflections of the trajectory of the educator Denizard Rivail, who became the spiritist leader Allan Kardec.

1 – The revolutions of 1848 and the shaking of thrones

“Revolutions of 1848” or “Spring of the peoples” generically denominate the revolutionary wave that occurred in Central and Eastern Europe, which in general terms arose from the successive economic crises of capitalism in its industrial phase and the worsening of the financial conditions of the population in general, particularly for the low representation of the middle classes and the urban proletariat, as well as the national minorities of the Old Continent. Successive attempts at political rearrangements and economic adjustments implemented by reformist monarchs were doomed to failure.

In France, the episodes became known as the “French Revolution of 1848” or the “February Revolution”, which overthrew the “July Monarchy” and established the “Second French Republic” (1848-1851).

Since 1830, the year in which there were also social upheavals and an outbreak of liberal political revolutions, the country had been ruled by Louis Philippe I, monarch of the House of Orléans, who was nicknamed “the citizen king” and “the bourgeois king.” and whose reign represented, on the one hand, the “golden age” of the French bourgeoisie, with the triumph of nationalist and liberal principles. On the other hand, however, his regime progressively hardened in its repression of the republican opposition, which represented the growing discontent of the working class and its approximation with the conservative elements of French society. (HOBSBAWM: 2005).

Luis Felipe I de Orleans por Franz Xaver Winterhalter. 1841

By privileging the interests of the bourgeois class, Luís Filipe intensified social conflicts that aroused the revolt of the poorest populations, the republicans, and the socialists, who were already a relevant presence in Europe. With the fall of this “bourgeois king”, the first president of the ephemeral Second Republic was Louis Bonaparte, nephew of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte.

From France, the movement expanded to the domains of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Germanic Confederation and Italy to the favor of national unifications; other regions of central-eastern Europe were influenced as well. These explosions, marked by the formation of popular barricades, synthesized the profusion of rebellions with liberal, democratic and nationalist ideas.

Even in Brazil, where D. Pedro II, as compared to the previous reign of Dom Pedro I, was able to impress a relative institutional balance with the Pernambuco Liberal Party, the “beach gang”, which rose up against the Cavalcanti command in defense of the expansion of civil liberties. (FAUSTO: 1998, p.176-9).

Strictly speaking, 1848 can be considered the year of the first potentially global revolution, as historian Eric Hobsbawm (1996) pointed out:

In France, the natural center and detonator of European revolutions, the republic was proclaimed on February 24th. By March 2, the revolution had won southwest Germany; on March 6 to Bavaria, March 11 to Berlin, March 13 to Vienna, and almost immediately to Hungary; on 18 March Milan and then Italy (where an independent revolt had taken Sicily). At this time, the fastest information service accessible to anyone (the services of the Rothschild bank) could not bring news from Paris to Vienna in less than five days. In a few weeks, no government was left standing in an area of Europe that is now fully or partially occupied by ten states, not to mention the repercussions in a good number of others. (HOBSBAWM: 1996, p.26).

Moreover, Jean-Luc Mayaud, historian of Lyon 2, summarized the situation in this line: «Historians recognize in 1848 the daughter of 1789 that established the definitive end of the old economic and social system, which innovated with the proclamation of universal male suffrage, finally marked by the spirit of 1848.” (MAYAUD: 1989, p.327).

Also in that year and despite the little importance in those revolutions, Karl Marx and Friederich Engels launched the first edition of the “Communist Manifesto” (1975) from Brussels, and this forty-page document that became one of the greatest bestsellers in the press history of society. After his involvement in intricate Prussian politics, Marx was arrested in September but was acquitted and went into exile in London.

Karl Marx

Karl Marx. Berlin por Carolina Crisorio

In appearance, the revolutions in France and Europe signaled a period of profound social transformations, but in essence, such a perspective was once again frustrated by the projections of bourgeois hegemony.

In the brief six-month period of its outbreak, as Hobsbawm (1996) pointed out, the defeat of the “Spring of the Peoples” was surely predictable. Eighteen months later, all the overthrown regimes were restored, except in France, where the regime of Napoleon III maintained “(…) all possible distances in relation to the revolution to which it owed its very existence”.

In France, after the fall of Luís Filipe and the installation of the Second French Republic with a socialist, Louis Blanc, composing the provisional in a cabinet also composed of representatives of the liberal bourgeoisie and the working class, the presidency fell to Alphonse de Lamartine (1790/1869), who in addition to being a liberal politician, was a writer and poet.

This provisional government, known as the “Social Republic,” ensured important achievements, such as the end of the death penalty, the application of universal suffrage and also articulated the “national workshops,” which were public undertakings that guaranteed employment for thousands of unemployed people in construction, landfills and factories.
In April, with the holding of elections for the formation of the Constituent Assembly, the moderate liberals, a group made up of large rural landowners, won with a large majority that ended the short cycle of alleged social advances; however, although the powerful “Party of Order” managed to defeat the social revolution, it was not able to gain the support of the masses (idem, 1996).

In June, with the polarization between socialists and the bourgeoisie, a new wave of unrest shook Paris.

Alexis de Tocqueville (1803/1859), famous writer and political thinker, had been victorious since the elections of 1839 and was deputy in several legislatures. Of aristocratic origin, his main concern was the maintenance of order. In the classic Souvenirs of 1848, dealing with the outbreak of the June days, the “Count of Tocqueville”, who witnessed of the facts – it is important to highlight –, described:

«Here I am, finally, arriving at the June Insurrection, the greatest and most singular that has taken place in our history and perhaps in any other: the greatest, because during four days more than 100 thousand men engaged in it, and five generals perished. : the most singular, since the insurgents fought without war cries, without leaders, without a flag (…) aimed to change the form of government, but to change the order of society. It was not, to tell the truth, a political struggle (in the sense we had given the word until then), but a class struggle, a kind of servile war. This characterized the February Revolution in facts as socialist theories had characterized it in ideas; or rather, it emerged naturally from these ideas, as a child emerges from its mother, and was due to it nothing more than a brutal and blind, but powerful, effort by the workers to escape the necessities of their condition (which had been described to them as oppression illegitimate) and to use forceps to open a path towards that imaginary well-being (which had been shown to them from afar as a right. (TOCQUEVILLE: 1991, p.149-50).»

Faced with the radicalization of the movement, the National Assembly decreed a state of siege and appointed the Minister of War, General Louis-Eugène Cavaignac, as head of the Executive branch with dictatorial powers to contain popular radicalization.

With a violent repression, the Paris insurgents were contained. In the four days that the fighting lasted, more than 1,500 rebels were killed, more than 12,000 arrested and 4,000 deported to Algeria. Individual rights were suspended, national offices closed and newspapers were suspended.

A new republican constitution was approved, providing for direct suffrage for the legislature with a three-year term and executive power in charge of a president elected for a period of four years.

In the December presidential elections, Louis Napoleon was elected, winning with an overwhelming majority – 5.5 million out of 7.4 million votes – defeating General Cavaignac.

The mandate was marked by the search for conciliation and pacification, and the ideal of progress was highlighted. Institutionally, Louis Bonaparte’s investiture as president would end in 1852; however, in December 1851 he orchestrated a coup d’état that ended the Republic and made him Emperor of France. It was the end of the brief French “Second Republic” and the beginning of the dictatorship of the “Second Empire” (1852/1870), a regime legitimized through a plebiscite, as in the time of Uncle Napoleon.

In one of Marx’s most famous passages about the “repetition of history as a farce”, the philosopher made this reference precisely to this political process:

» Hegel observes in one of his works that all the facts and personages of great importance in the history of the world occur, so to speak, twice. And he forgot to add: the first time as a tragedy, the second as a farce. Caussidière by Danton, Louis Blanc by Robespierre, the Montagne from 1845-1851 by the Montagne from 1793-1795, the nephew by the uncle. And the same caricature occurs in the circumstances accompanying the second edition of the Eighteenth Brumaire! (MARX: 1988, p.329).»


Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

por Jakob Schlesinger, 1831

The writer Victor Hugo, a convinced republican, follows this line of contempt for the figure of Napoleon’s nephew in Napoleon the Little:

«Ah, France rambles. Somehow you have to wake up this nation… talk to the soldier who has a picture of the Emperor in his hut and who votes for anything because of it. These people are good and honest. You will understand. Yes, peasant, they are two, the great and the small, the illustrious and the infamous, Napoleon and Napoleon.» (HUGO: 1996, p.XX).

Alexis de Tocqueville even participated in the government of Louis Bonaparte in 1849, between June and October, when he held the foreign affairs portfolio of the Odilon Barrot ministry. However, he took a leave of absence from the Assembly in 1850 due to health problems and, with the December coup; he denounced what he considered the “Bonapartist farce” and definitively withdrew from politics. (JASMIM, 2005, p.34).
Hobsbawm (1996), in an analysis of the political character of the rise and consolidation of Louis Bonaparte, summarized:

«He would become the first of the modern heads of state who would govern not just by force of arms, but also with that kind of demagoguery and public relations so much more easily operated from the top of the state than anywhere else. His experience demonstrates not only that the «social order» could appear as a force capable of attracting the «left», but also an era or a country where citizens had been mobilized to participate in politics.» (HOBSBAWM: 1996, p.42).

Bonaparte’s government had a base of support rooted in the bourgeoisie, the clergy and the armed forces. It was a period of economic prosperity, with the undertaking of numerous public works, especially in Paris, where Mayor George-Eugène Hausmann built the famous and elegant boulevards and magnificent parks; however, the dictatorship, the marginalization of the legislature and the repression of opposition forces and conservatism characterized the Bonapartist regime.

2 – A Pestalozzian educator in revolutionary France

Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi. Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando Madrid

Hippolyte Leon Denizard Rivail (1804/1869), better known in Brazil by the pseudonym Allan Kardec, was a cultured, methodical man who lived in tune with the great questions posed in his time – the economic transformations brought about by the second industrial revolution, the affirmation of the scientific discourse, the influence of illustration and the predominance of reason and the perspectives of progress and the expansion of education in the genesis of the state and national organization of education.

Born in Lyon into a family with a tradition in the judiciary, Rivail was educated at the school of one of the most influential thinkers in contemporary pedagogy, the Swiss-German Johann Henrich Pestalozzi (1746/1827), at the castle of Yverdun, Switzerland, the same school where the German Friedrich Fröebel (1782/1852), precursor of kindergartens, was a visitor and perfected his humanist education. (BRETTAS: 2012).

Pestalozzi was one of the pioneers in the “psychologization” of education and is recognized in pedagogy, mainly for his efforts to unite the vast theoretical production with practice and with the undertaking of various educational institutions. He was a thinker who emphasized the social character of education, made efforts to accommodate poor students and advocated for public and democratic education.

The young Denizard Rivail was at Yverdon from 1815 to 1822, presumably becoming a disciple and enthusiastic propagandist of Pestalozzi. Facing his unexplored path as the future so-called “encoder of spiritism, Rivail was on his trajectory, he became a teacher, founded schools in France, published several textbooks on grammar, arithmetic, and pedagogy, proposed teaching plans at different times in the troubled French political history, and organized free courses in Chemistry, Physics, Astronomy, Comparative Anatomy and Physiology. (BRETTAS: op.cit).

Regarding the relationship between professor Rivail and the pedagogue Pestalozzi, Jean Vartier, an Italian biographer of Allan Kardec, pointed out: “Pestalozzi can be considered Rivail’s spiritual father, in the same way that Jean-Jacques Rousseau was Pestalozzi’s spiritual father ”.(1971: p.23). Like Rousseau and Pestalozzi, Rivail believed that social problems could be overcome by renewing education.
As an example of these influences, in the introduction to his practical course in arithmetic, Rivail listed the six principles of Pestalozzi’s system that he applied in his work:

«a) cultivation of the student’s natural spirit of observation, calling his attention to the objects that surround him;
b) the cultivation of intelligence, following the path that allows the student to discover the rules by himself;
c) always starting from knowledge towards the unknown, from the simple to the compound;
d) avoid all mechanical attitudes, allowing the student to understand the reason and focus of everything he does;
e) make him feel with his fingers and with his eyes all realities;
entrust to memory only what has already been grasped by intelligence.» (PIRES: 2004, p.88-9).

André Moreil (1986), also a biographer of Allan Kardec, analytically established the influences of the “pedagogue Rivail” in the organization and elaboration of spiritism: “Principles 3 and 5 seem to have been used, word for word, for the elaboration of the Book of Mediums, which proves the extraordinary importance of the Yverdun phase in the life of the future founder of Spiritism”. (MOREIL: 1986, p.36). Henri Sausse (2012), another author who biographed him, highlighted: “It was in this school that he developed the ideas that should make him an attentive and meticulous observer, a prudent and profound thinker”. (SAUSSE: 2012, p.29).

As an intellectual in tune with political and social dynamics and a defender of the secular nature of education, Professor Rivail expressed himself politically about his ideas in the field of education at different historical moments in the country.

In 1828, in the reign of Charles X during the Restoration, he presented a “Proposed Plan for the Improvement of Public Education.” On the cover, he signed “By H.-L.-D. Rivail, disciple of Pestalozzi, director of a school at the Paris Academy, member of several scientific societies”, and highlighted the core of the text: “The proper means for educating youth are a very different science that one should study in order to be an educator, how to study medicine or to be a doctor” (RIVAIL: 1999).

Presented to the French Parliament among several points that emphasized the importance of moral education, the project defended the improvement of public education in early childhood education and emphasized the scientific character of education, even proposing the creation of a “Theoretical and practical School of Pedagogy”.
During the government of Luís Filipe I, actions were taken to implement and develop primary education. In February 1831 a commission was appointed to revise the legislation on public instruction and to prepare a bill for the general organization of teaching. Rivail then forwarded a Memóire su l’ instruction publique to the group, formulating propositions that advocated for freedom of teaching, against university monopoly, and the gap which he believed contained in public establishments – about the emphasis on moral education. (WANTUIL; THIESEN: 1999, p.123).

For the purpose of collaborating with these propositions, the bill was published in a text entitled “Reform plan for exams and youth education centers…,” that suggested measures concerning the organization and orientation of teaching – measures that would bring, according to its understanding, significant improvements in the writing of school books and the adoption of classic works by the university (idem: p.152).

With the revolutionary process of 1848 and the regime that followed the “July Monarchy”, these initiatives were almost entirely aborted.

When raised to the presidency in December, Louis Bonaparte formed a conservative cabinet. One of his ministers was Alfred Falloux, a legitimist and clerical politician linked to the Society of Jesus, which that same year initiated the dissolution of the “national workshops” with the aim of weakening the labor movement. Strictly speaking, the government of Charles X had withdrawn the right to teach from the Jesuits, but even so, the Order had the tolerance of Louis Philippe and Bonaparte. In Falloux’ return to power with Bonaparte, the Jesuit Minister of Education made a vote that was approved in 1850 with the law that bears his name, “Law Falloux,” which under the pretense of freedom of teaching handed over public instruction to the clericals.

That same year of the victory of the Catholic clergy in the government of Louis Bonaparte, Hippolyte Leon Denizard Rivail, then 46 years old and disappointed with the religious inclination of teaching in France and also counting on relative financial stability, ended his activities in field of teaching and began to dedicate himself to studies in the field of esotericism, such as animal magnetism and, later, to turning tables.

3 – Modern mysticism and Professor Rivail’s spiritual journey

The consolidation of the scientific discourse of modernity undoubtedly referred to the dominance of reason over faith, with the preponderance of the experimental method. Between the end of the Enlightenment and the outbreak of the social revolutions of the 19th century in France and Europe there was a profusion of beliefs, secret orders and various mysticisms, some with more or less scientific pretensions, which also brought together intellectuals and politicians from various spheres.

In the second half of the 18th century, the Austrian physician Franz Anton Mesmer (1734/1814) proposed a set of procedures as a healing therapy that consisted of the supposed exchange of magnetic fluids between two living organisms. The system which was disseminated considerably in Europe was called «animal magnetism» or «mesmerism».

Robert Darnton, an American historian specializing in mentalities, especially in the popular culture of the period, in The Hidden Side of the Revolution (1988), analyzed mesmerism in the context of the French Revolution, demonstrating the impact of these ideas on literati and political activists engaged in the revolutionary project.

For Mesmer, who frequented occult and alchemical circles in Austria, there would be a correspondence between the outside world – the macrocosm – and the different parts of the organism – the microcosm; a similar line was followed by the famous mystic Paracelsus. In his medical graduation thesis, Mesmer described planetary influence through a universal magnetic fluid with powers over living matter.

There would be an animal magnetism that would exist in two antagonistic forms, emanating from the right and left sides of the human body. The cure of illnesses would occur by restoring the balance between fluids. Based on these assumptions, he developed a therapy that consisted of fixing the eyes and applying magnetic passes using the hands (FIGUEIREDO: 2007). In the wake of the scientism and rationalism that was typical of the Enlightenment, Mesmer sought to impart an academic character to his theories, which was rejected by medical faculties.

As a young man, Denizard Rivail came into contact with these phenomena of animal magnetism. In 1823, when he was 19 years old, he studied the stages of somnambulism, considered by him as a disturbing mystery, with the application of mesmerism therapy. (SAUSSE: 2012, p.33-4).

In Sweden, the mystic Emanuel Swedenborg (1688/1772), son of a Lutheran pastor and a graduate in mining engineering, was professor of Mathematics at the University of Uppsala and even held positions in the Swedish government. On the death of the father, the family was elevated to the nobility by Queen Ulrica. He is said to have had visions since he was a child, and on a trip to London in 1744 supposed psychic forces blossomed and remained with him until his death in 1772 at the age of 84. (STANLEY: 2007).

Swedenborg wrote books with the description of alleged spiritual spheres and claimed to have visions, premonitions and unfolding of the physical body. His paranormal activities influenced many intellectuals, and among his admirers were intellectuals such as Baudelaire, Balzac and Jorge Luís Borges.

Swedenborg’s spiritualism had resonance in Brazil with the dissemination of centers and entities of mystical studies in this line.

In articulations similar to those operated by Allan Kardec (Rivail), the combination between religiosity considered esoteric and rationality, in 1875 Helena Petrovna Blavatsky founded the “Theosophical Society” in New York in the same year that the Austro-Hungarian philosopher and educator Rudolf Steiner (1861/1925) launched Anthroposophy. In spite of certain variations, they were Christian, reincarnationist approaches and proposed a rapprochement between science and religion.

Strictly speaking, extra-psychic phenomena, such as the notion of a soul separated from the body, the supposed incorporation of said spirits, and the alleged communication with the spirits of ancestors are recurrent phenomena in all societies, obviously with different representations. As sociologist Émile Durkheim in The Rules of Sociological Method (2011), which treats religion as a social fact, pointed out about man’s efforts to understand the various physical phenomena:

Before the first rudiments of physics and chemistry, men already had notions about physical-chemical phenomena that went beyond pure perception, such as those, for example, that we find mixed in all religions. It is because, in fact, reflection is prior to science, which only makes use of it with more method. Man cannot live among things without forming ideas about them; according to which he regulates his conduct. (DURKHEIM: 2011, p.14).

«The spiritualist movement in the United States advanced from the case of the Fox Sisters, in interaction with the Protestantism of different groups and sects through educational approaches, resulting in several publications and formation of study groups. (SILVA, 1997, p.8). The first regular Spiritist organization was formed in New York, on June 10, 1854, being called «Society for the Diffusion of Spiritist Knowledge, among whose members was a judge, Edmonds, and the governor of Wisconsin, Tallmadge.» (DOYLE: op.cit, p.129).

A few years after the events in Hydesville, attempts to reproduce the phenomenon with supposed contact with the dead frequently occurred from the adaptation of “turning tables”, which would soon become a fad and a sensation in social gatherings, mainly in Paris and Lyon. The newspapers announced these strange phenomena without concern for the investigation of the causes.

The so-called “turning table” consisted of a round piece of furniture with three legs, on which the participants invoked the manifestation of supernatural forces. With the belief of a spiritual presence, the table jumped and turned, indicating the letters of the alphabet according to the established codes. Some attributed such effects to “demonic manifestation”, and the Holy Office condemned the tables in 1856 with the allegation that there was interference from hypnotism and magnetism. The “magnetists”, in turn, also believed that the phenomena could be caused by electric or magnetic fluids, or even by some other type of unknown but similar manifestation.

At the end of 1854, Fortier, a friend of Denizard Rivail, told him about the existence of “talking tables”, artifacts that were capable of issuing coherent responses to their interlocutors through codes. Incredulous at first, the professor, who was part of the Society of Magnetism in Paris, shared the same opinion as the magnetists about these turning tables., Furthermore, other descriptions also left him intrigued, such as in early 1855, when Carloti, another close friend, made similar comments about such tables and sessions.

Imbued with skepticism and hesitation, years later Rivail narrated his initial doubts about the acceptance of spiritual phenomena, published in Posthumous Works (2000):

«I was therefore faced with an unexplained fact, apparently contrary to the Laws of Nature and which my reason rejected. Nothing had seen or observed yet; the experiments, carried out in the presence of honorable and trustworthy persons, confirmed my opinion as to the possibility of the purely material effect, but the idea of a talking table had not yet crossed my mind.» (RIVAIL: 2000, p.237).

In May 1855, Hippolyte Leon Denizard Rivail accompanied his friend Fortier to a meeting at Mrs. Plainemaison’s residence. His incredulity was shaken as he saw the tables bounce, slam against the floor, and questions were answered with supposed logic. In the following year, he began to assiduously attend meetings at the Baudin house, in private sessions, but with a large audience.

Rivail’s adoption of the pseudonym Allan Kardec, by which he would be better known in posterity, occurred after one of the spiritist sessions when a medium told him that in past lives he would have been a “druid” in the denomination of Celtic priests and would have been named Allan Kardec. (DENIS: 2001, p.17-9).

In the book What is Spiritism, Kardec clarified what led him to rationally study these new phenomena: “Having acquired, in the study of the exact sciences, the habit of positive things, I probed, scrutinized this new science in its most intimate depths; I tried to explain everything to myself, because I don’t usually accept any idea without knowing the how and why”. (KARDEC: 2003, p.47).

Final considerations

As an heir to the Enlightenment in the best tradition of Pestalozzi and J.J. Rousseau, which was imbued with the liberal spirit, and removed from his professional activities in the face of the direction of French politics, and mainly due to the mix between religious interests and public education – Hippolyte Léon Denizard Rivail imprinted a rationalization on esoteric studies.

Seeing him as a man of his time, methodical and rational, Anna Blackwell (1816/1900) a teacher and writer and the first translator of Allan Kardec’s works into English, described him in the preface to The Spirits’ Book:

«Personally, Allan Kardec was of average height. Strongly built, with a large, round, massive head, sharp features, clear brown eyes, he looked more like a German than a Frenchman. Energetic and persevering, but of a calm temper, cautious, and not imaginative to the point of coldness, incredulous by nature and upbringing, a sure and logical thinker, and eminently practical in thought and action, he was equally emancipated from mysticism and enthusiasm. Devoid of ambition, indifferent to luxury and display, the modest income he had acquired from teaching and selling his educational works was sufficient for the simple style of life he had adopted, and enabled him to devote all the proceeds from the sale to of his spiritist books and the Revue Spirite for the propagation of the movement started by him […].» (BLACKWELL: 2011, p.14).

Conceptually, the French spiritism systematized by Allan Kardec can be understood as a complex system of thought, encompassing philosophical, scientific and religious principles. The central axis is the millenary idea based on the Hindu doctrine of reincarnation and the concrete possibility of communication between the dead (generically classified as «disembodied spirits») and carried out through people endowed with the capacity for psychic trance (the «mediums») during the séance. (HELLERN; NOTEKER; GAARDER: 2007).

In a process of doctrinal syncretism, the essential element of Christianity contained in the gospels is added to the Eastern structural logic of reincarnation: the ethics of charity. Jesus Christ is considered the greatest entity ever incarnated and the spiritual ruler of the planet. Allan Kardec understood that the greatest commandment is love of neighbor and considered this the supreme virtue.

The adoption of the pseudonym Allan Kardec by Professor Hippolyte Leon Denizard Rivail, as Pestalozzi’s disciple, gave inflection to his intellectual trajectory, and to some extent political, which was based on formulations and propositions of ideas and educational projects for French public education; however, far from abandoning his knowledge and experiences, the old professor incorporated methods and pedagogical concepts into the doctrine that founded his later educational utopias.


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* Anderson C. Ferreira Brettas

Professor, Sociólogo e Historiador. Possui graduação em Ciências Sociais (UFMG), licenciatura em História (Simonsen), especialização em Ciência Política (UFF), mestrado e doutorado em Educação (Universidade Federal de Uberlândia). Realizou estágios pós-doutorais na Pontifícia Universidade Católica de São Paulo (História Latinoamericana), e na Universidad del Magdalena – em Santa Marta, Colômbia (História Econômica). Professor do Instituto Federal do Triângulo Mineiro (IFTM), Campus Uberaba, onde atua como docente permanente no Programa de Pós-Graduação em Educação Tecnológica – Mestrado Profissional em Educação (MPET); e no Mestrado em Educação Profissional e Tecnológica da Rede Federal (ProfEPT).
Vice-Presidente da Asociación de Historiadores Latinoamericanos y del Caribe (Adhilac Internacional), líder do Grupo de Pesquisa ‘Mnemosyne – Memórias, Representações & Oralidades na Educação e no Ensino’ (IFTM/CNPq), e integra o CEHAL/PUCSP – Centro de Estudos de História da América Latina da PUC-SP; o Núcleo de Estudos Hispânicos da Universidade Estadual do Piauí (NEH-UESPI); e o Grupo de Pesquisa ‘Nación, Región y Relaciones Internacionales en el Caribe y America Latina’, da Universidad Nacional de Colombia, sede San Andrés.
Desenvolve pesquisas e orientações de dissertações e supervisões de posdoc em educação, trabalho, processos formativos e sentidos do trabalho; intelectuais e a educação; relações entre história e literatura; memórias, narrativas, ditaduras, violência institucional e direitos humanos com ênfase nas representações na educação e no ensino de história no Brasil, Colômbia, Paraguai e El Salvador.
Organiza a coleção «Nuestra América» na Editora Navegando.

Ariadna Tucma Revista Latinoamericana. Nº 13/14. Marzo 2019 – Diciembre 2022

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ARIADNA TUCMA Revista Latinoamericana

ISSN 1853-9467

Revista de la Asociación de Historiadores Latinoamericanos y del Caribe (ADHILAC)