Leigh Eric Schmidt


On his book Heaven’s Bride: The Unprintable Life of Ida C. Craddock, American Mystic, Scholar, Sexologist, Martyr, and Madwoman

Cover Interview of January 16, 2011

The wide angle

The retrieval of Craddock’s life from the vaults of vice suppression offers an entryway into major religious, cultural, and political issues of her day—and, often enough, of our own as well.

Foremost among these is the religious and moral character of the United States.  No less an authority than the Supreme Court could declare in a decision in 1892 that everywhere in American life there was “a clear recognition of the same truth”: namely, “that this is a Christian nation.”  The ideal of a Christian America still holds sway with a significant portion of the American public—but, as a cultural standard, it was first seriously unsettled by religious and secular challenges posed during Craddock’s lifetime.

Craddock’s unmooring from her own Protestant upbringing provides a parable of a larger cultural transformation:  the disruption of evangelical Christianity’s power to define the nation’s sexual taboos, artistic limits, and sacred canon.

As Craddock drifted away from her natal Protestant faith, she courted both secular activism and spiritual variety.  A leader of the American Secular Union, Craddock pushed that group’s most uncompromising demands for church-state separation, including the purging of prayer and Bible reading from public schools.  She also pressed for a universal “sexual enlightenment” on medical, legal, and educational grounds that looked very much apiece with a secular agenda of advancing scientific knowledge against outworn superstition.

Those initiatives, though, were only half her program.  Unlike the secular revolutions of sexuality that Alfred Kinsey and Hugh Hefner subsequently tendered, Craddock was part of a larger circle of nineteenth-century marital innovators who imagined a sexual revolution in specifically sacred terms.  Seeing no need to blot out all religion, Craddock and her compeers yoked sexual enlightenment to spirituality, the marriage bed to the passions of mystical experience.

That maneuver, however baffling it sounded to secular liberals, carried a silver lining for them in their opposition to Christian statecraft and moral crusading:  Sex, like religion, was made an intimate affair of personal satisfaction and individual liberty, a private matter of the heart.  Human sexuality, once redeemed by spiritual association, could shed the veil of censorship and don the halo of free expression.

Craddock also had to negotiate her way through a rapidly changing intellectual landscape.  At once scholar and seeker, she occupied an ambiguous position amid a series of newly demarcated fields of inquiry, including comparative religions, psychology, folklore, and sexology.

Unlike William James at Harvard, Morris Jastrow at the University of Pennsylvania, or G. Stanley Hall at Clark University, Craddock never inhabited an ivory tower that raised her to the level of reputable academic observer.  Instead, as a love-steeped mystic, adrift and exposed, she herself became the object of scientific scrutiny.

A skilled shape-shifter, Craddock always remained hard to pin down as a specimen, but that elusiveness seemed only to intensify the desire to categorize her.  Was she merely one more case history who could be pigeonholed by the new psychological and neurological sciences—an erotomaniac, nymphomaniac, or hysteric, a victim of an insane delusion of one diagnostic type or another?  Or, was she a latter-day visionary, a weirdly American Teresa of Avila, “the madwoman,” as Hélène Cixous put it, “who knew more than all the men”?

The scales were inevitably weighted against her.  She would lobby hard, and unsuccessfully, to open the liberal arts at the University of Pennsylvania to women.  Thanks, in part, to that early frustration of her collegiate ambitions, Craddock had to make her way as an untethered amateur in a world increasingly controlled by professionals and specialists.

Kept on the intellectual margins, Craddock often delighted in her own unconventionality, well aware that her very extremity allowed her to dramatize one cultural struggle after another:  How much muscle would evangelical Protestantism have to define and enforce the norms of American literary, sexual, and religious expression?  Would women be able to claim academic standing, spiritual authority, and social equality in American public life?  Was visionary experience an empowering capacity or a debilitating clinical symptom?  Was the erotic redeemable, a grace rather than a curse, a spiritual yearning as much an animal appetite?  Those large questions are the durable refrains of Craddock’s story.