Mark Alton Barwise

Mark Alton Barwise (June 6, 1881 – May 29, 1937)[1] was one of the only publicly practicing member of the Spiritualist religion known to have been elected to a state office in the United States. Born in Chester, Maine of a mediumistic mother, Barwise became an attorney and nationally prominent member of the National Spiritualist Association (N.S.A.).[2] He wrote extensively on spiritualism, represented the church in court cases, served on its board of trustees, and became Curator of its Bureau of Phenomenal Evidence. Despite his leadership position in a religion outside the American mainstream, he was elected to the Maine House of Representatives from Bangor (Penobscot County) in 1921-24, and in 1925-26 to the Maine State Senate.

from his obituary, 3 June 1939, "Bangor Daily Commercial"

Political careerEdit

Barwise's political career was defined by his championing of a controversial amendment to the state constitution prohibiting the use of any public funds by private institutions. "The Barwise Bill" was widely interpreted as an attack on Maine's growing Catholic school system by the Protestant majority, and was called a "Klan measure" by one newspaper. Although Barwise's ties to the Ku Klux Klan (if any) are unknown, Maine saw significant Klan activity in the 1920s, directed against the local Catholic population, which the controversy surrounding the Barwise Bill only helped inflame. It is entirely possible, also, that Barwise was happy to help inflame this controversy. Within Spiritualist publications, Barwise was an outspoken opponent of the Catholic Church in America, particularly when any representative of the Church opposed legislation Barwise championed. For example, when Cardinal O'Connell declared the Church's opposition to compulsory prohibition, Barwise accused Catholic Church officials of requiring American Catholics to "regard themselves as Catholics first and Americans second," and be willing to oppose civil law when it conflicts with church doctrine. "Real Americans," Barwise argued, have "first allegiance . . . to the Constitution, and not to a Prince of a Foreign Potentate who happens to live in a cathedral palace in Boston."[3] Whatever his opinions of the Catholic Church were, however, Barwise's relationship to the Klan remained ambiguous. In 1923, during what one politician called "temporary hysteria" over increased Klan activity in the Maine, Barwise contributed to the downfall of an anti-Klan bill that he had helped author ("an act to prevent crime by persons masked or disguised") by giving it only "half-hearted support" when it was presented.[4] When asked whether he believed the bill should be enacted, he stated that, while he did care about law and order, he did not care "about the squabbles between the Klan and the Knights of Columbus." "I do not think this legislation is really necessary," he concluded. The bill died in committee.

The Barwise Bill, on the other hand, was defeated in the Maine House in 1923 after heated debate. It was defeated a second time in 1925 after then-Senator Barwise re-introduced a modified version of it. Barwise may have been considered an effective sponsor and spokesman for an anti-Catholic measure precisely because he was not a mainstream Protestant.[5] The year Barwise left state office (1925), his Senate colleague Owen Brewster, who had introduced a similar bill on the same issue, was elected Governor of Maine with Klan support.

Despite its sectarian effects, the Barwise Bill may also have originated from Barwise's personal convictions that church (and not just the Catholic Church) and state be fully separated. He had begun his political career, in 1921, by introducing a bill to repeal an old yet widely violated law requiring businesses to close on Sunday. This was as unpopular with the Protestant majority as with Catholics, and was defeated in the Maine House by a wide margin (107 to 15).[6]

Regardless of whether he was tied to the Klan, Barwise was clearly a racist. At the 1924 NSA convention in Los Angeles, Barwise led the faction which moved to expel the church's many black members and force them to establish a separate association.[7]

Religious ActivitiesEdit

Barwise published numerous essays and short articles on spiritualism, including the 64-page booklet "A Preface to Spiritualism" (1938), and the chapter on spiritualism in Charles Samuel Braden's Varieties of American Religion (1936). With Rev. Thomas Grimshaw, Superintendent of Education of the N.S.A., he organized a correspondence course on spiritualism in the 1930s.[8] He was also associated with "Camp Etna", a prominent spiritualist summer camp outside of Bangor in Etna, Maine, whose charismatic leader was the medium Mary Scannell Pepper Vanderbilt. Barwise contributed an essay to Vanderbilt's 1921 festschrift, Mary S. Vanderbilt: A Twentieth Century Seer (1921).[9]


  1. ^ United States, Selective Service System. World War I Selective Service System Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918. Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration. M1509, 4,582 rolls. Imaged from Family History Library microfilm. Registration State: Maine; Registration County: Penobscot; Roll: 1654011; Draft Board: 2.; "Mark Barwise Dies Thursday at Age of 55," Bangor Daily Commercial, 7 June 1937.
  2. ^ Iowa governor and US senator Harold E. Hughes (1922-1996) was also a one-time spiritualist and self-described "seeker," which became an issue when he was being considered as a possible candidate for President of the United States in the 1972 election. James Risser and George Anthan, "'Personal' Religion of Senator Hughes," The Des Moines Register 11 July 1971, p1; National Spiritualist Association, Centennial Book of Modern Spiritualism in America (1948), p. 123
  3. ^ Barwise, Mark Alton. 'The Catholic Church v. The Constitution,' "National Spiritualist." 8:87 (1926) page 9.
  4. ^ 'No Sensation over Ku Klux Shown in Maine State House,' "Portsmouth Herald." 28 March 1926, page 3.
  5. ^ Lewiston Evening Journal, November 16, 1926, p. 2; Ibid, May 15, 1923, p. 17
  6. ^ Lewiston Daily Sun, February 28, 1971, p. 17
  7. ^ Nevada State Journal, Sept. 26, 1924, p. 1
  8. ^ National Spiritualist Association, Centennial Book of Modern Spiritualism in America (1948), p. 116
  9. ^ Mary E. Cadwallader, ed. Mary S. Vanderbilt: A Twentieth Century Seer (1921)