THE BLOG
01/31/2014 06:06 pm ET Updated Apr 02, 2014

WATCH: New Documentary "The Seer of Poughkeepsie"

One of the most quietly monumental figures of the nineteenth-century was the American trance medium Andrew Jackson Davis (1826-1910), known (sometimes jokingly) in the press as the "Poughkeepsie Seer" for his Hudson Valley, New York, home.

Davis coined the term "Law of Attraction," though in a subtler sense from how it is used today. More significantly, the New Yorker's trance-based dictations, which he folded into several massive books starting in 1847, united the progressive and mystical impulses of the era.

In Davis's vision, heaven, which he claimed to visit ethereally, was home to all the world's peoples, including Jews, Native Americans and people from exotic lands and religions. The medium was indirectly making the case that salvation belonged to no single faith.

Critics scoffed but Davis attracted significant defenders, including the Rev. George Bush, a prominent bible scholar and Swedenborgian minister, who was also a first cousin, four times removed, to the Bush presidential clan. Edgar Allan Poe was an intermittent admirer and critic, and recast themes from Davis's career in some of his short stories, including The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar.

Film students at Vassar College have created an elegant new documentary, "The Seer of Poughkeepsie," in which I, along with other historians of spiritual and social history, explore Davis's life and legacy.

The filmmakers find in Davis's unlikely career the hope for the eventual revival of his home city of Poughkeepsie, a goal that perfectly matches the Hudson Valley seer's social and spiritual vision.