History of Morris Pratt and His Institute
By Angela Gunshore, MA
Morris Pratt was born on December 13th, 1820, and was one of ten children born to Clarissa Morris and Joseph H. Pratt of Shutesbury, Franklin, Massachusetts. After many of Joseph’s siblings moved to the New York area, the Pratts joined them by 1830. Staying near the family’s village called Pratt’s Hollow in upper New York, Morris, and his siblings were raised with the local Oneida tribe and other New England families in the area. Later some of his brothers would move farther west to seek their fortunes.
By 1850, the Pratt family was wealthy enough to build houses and buy large tracks of land in and around Whitewater, WI. When the railroad line of the Milwaukee to Mississippi Railroad was completed through Whitewater in 1852, the Pratt family’s wealth and name were established. The Pratt family was specifically investing in the land near Lima, WI, and moving to more rural areas for agricultural pursuits. Morris Pratt will reside in Lima, where he will court a fellow New Yorker, Miss Mary Jane Austin while working with his siblings on business endeavors in agriculture.
Morris Pratt before the Civil War
On November 21st, 1850, Morris marries Mary Jane Austin daughter of John and Rebecca (Williams) Austin of Lima, but originally of Albany County, New York. The Austins moved to Lima, Wisconsin in 1846. With Morris’ brother Asaph’s help, Pratt started investing in land and farming in Lima (Lake City Publishing Co, 1894, p. 464).
At the same time, the couple returned to Albany, New York for a couple of months to visit family and there they learned about the Spiritualist movement in Hydesville. Albany became the second stop for the Fox Sisters and Amy and Isaac Post, staying at Delevan Hotel in 1850 to conduct several demonstrations, seances, and lectures (Johnston, 2000). Within three years since the rapping in Hydesville, Albany County was hosting thousands of mediums and seances to demonstrate the Spiritualists’ philosophy, including Andrew Jackson Davis. With the Second Great Awakening occurring at this time, Spiritualists had to publicly claim they were not competing or offering a new religion but only aligning with existing religious ideologies like Christianity and Judaism. They offered dominant Christian religions a way to take their faith to a higher plane. By 1854, over 15,000 New York residents were petitioning Congress to fund scientific studies of spiritualist phenomena, the newspapers called the Fox sisters’ events “Rap-o-mania” (Johnston, 2000).
Pratt and his bride then returned to Wisconsin and started to attend demonstrations at the farm of renowned medium, Cora Scott, in Jefferson County, WI. Soon the farm became a village that hosted Spiritualists from around the nation. Scott and her teacher Mary Folsom (Hayes-Chynoweth) would call their place the Lake Mills Spiritualist Center. This center became Morris Pratt’s new place of Spiritual direction in 1851 (Bednarowski, 1975).
Mary Jane’s mother would transition in 1855 and be buried in Oak Grove Cemetery, some say her death fueled Mary Jane’s interest in the Spiritualist movement. Introduced by Pratt’s older siblings, Nathaniel Tallmadge, the politician, and lawyer who was a US NY Senator in the 1830s and Governor of Wisconsin in 1844 and an ardent follower of the New York Spiritualist movement and personal financier and friend of the Fox sisters and Amy Post, became an influencing factor in the Pratts’ spiritual life (HistoryNet Staff, 2006). One well-known Wisconsin medium, Cora Scott, will move back to New York at the age of 14 in 1853 to work with the Fox sisters and Davis with the financial support of the Pratt family from Wisconsin (The Commercialization of the Afterlife, 2010, p. 44).
Morris Pratt 1865- 1889
Morris Pratt was introduced to seances, spirit knocking, automatic writings, healings and even channeling as early as the 1850s. By 1860, Pratt was hosting gatherings, circles, and lyceums with some of the most renowned Spiritualists of the time. Wisconsin held many gifted mediums who moved within the Pratt group.
Mediums such as Cora Scott Richmond, Mary Folsom Hayes Chynoweth, Victoria Woodhull, and even Andrew Davis were said to have visited the area. With the Panic of the 1873 economic crisis and the backlash against his affiliation with the Spiritualist movement, Morris Pratt became concerned financially. Pratt sought answers from the trance medium Mary Folsom Hayes Chynoweth in the 1880s. By 1883, Chynoweth advised Pratt to invest in the Gogebic Iron Range. Faithfully believing in the Spirit’s guidance from Mary, Morris invested a portion of his wealth in this iron range. With the onset of industrialization and factories, plus the global wars needing iron ore, Pratt instantly became wealthy. He was able to use some of his profits to support his Spiritualist endeavors. He began working with leaders in the Spiritualist community to establish an institute to teach mediumship and healing.
Chynoweth would also profit from this investment and would later move with her family to San Jose, California, where she would construct the Edenvale mansion. In 1888 her grand home would burn to the ground. She would then construct a center where she would teach all who are interested in Spiritualism and, she would use her Spiritual gifts to heal over three thousand people a year until she died in 1905. Her place is now a conference center.
Morris Pratt will use his money to train and teach Spiritualists in Whitewater at his home. In 1888, Morris would design and built his “temple of Science” on the Corner of Center and Third Streets in Whitewater. He had added two apartments on the first floor of the temple. Morris and Mary Jane would live in one apartment while the other apartment would house guest lectures, mediums, and teachers from around the world. The other two floors housed two lecture halls, 12 dormitory rooms, and offices. A séance room was roomed to be on the third floor, painted all in white and only the faithful Spiritualist was allowed to enter (Bednarowski, 1975)
Pratt did not inform the city of the use of this temple and the newspaper speculated for months what the building would be used for. In April of 1889, the first advertisement of the new temple’s dedication and grand opening was published in the Whitewater Register calling the building “M. Pratt’s Sanitarium and Hall of Psychic Science” (Cartwright, 2011) Mrs. A. H. Luther, an Indiana Spiritualist was to help with the dedication and gave a sermon that ridiculed other religions in favor of Spiritualism. Luther’s fiery sermon set the Whitewater community in outrage and the local newspaper debated Pratt’s religion which caused low acceptance for his new center.
Multiple religious leaders would preach against Spiritualism and force Pratt to debate religious issues which he seldom lost. Soon religious leaders left Pratt alone and the events at the center were kept private even from advertising in the local newspapers. Farrell-Bednarowski (1975) believes that Pratt’s financial status was not affected by his Spiritualist temple or activity. In 1894, in the Portrait and Biographical Record of Walworth and Jefferson counties in Wisconsin, the author noted in his report that “Mr. and Mrs. Pratt are Spiritualists in religious belief, and are kind, charitable and benevolent people, devoted to the best interests of humanity. The honesty of purpose and strict integrity of Mr. Pratt is above question, and a well-spent life has won for him the confidence and respect of all with his sanitarium and science hall.”(Lake City Publishing Co, 1894)
Not until well-known mediums ventured to Whitewater, such as W. R. Colby of Indiana, would demonstrations at the center advertise or allow public attendance of these events. He built the temple for the Spiritualists and focused on those who were genuinely interested in the study of Spiritualism. For Spiritualists, the regular Sunday services, seances, classes, and lectures drew hundreds to the Whitewater temple. With the dorms and places to stay, Pratt’s educational center became a mecca for Spiritualist groups in the Midwest. Despite the economic revenue provided by these traveling Spiritualists, the locals of Whitewater were weary of this center and often ridiculed it by calling it “Spook’s Temple” or “Pratt’s Folly’(Cartwright, 2011).
Morris Pratt and the NSAC
1901 NSA convention, Morris Pratt spoke to the National Spiritualist Association and offered to donate his center/temple to the association to train future Spiritualists. The Lecture Hall could seat over 400 people and it housed a dormitory for students. The newly formed NSA, lacking in funds and management, turned down the opportunity to run its center. To preserve his school, he incorporated the school as the Morris Pratt Institution Association.
Morris Pratt later in life
In 1902, Morris Pratt deeded his center, the Morris Pratt Institution Association, to be continued as a Spiritualist school and to offer formal educational classes as well. Soon the school was recognized as the Morris Pratt Institute by trustees and local educators.
In December of 1902, Morris Pratt would transition at the age of 81. His schools would still operate in the original building as a Spiritualist center and a public school until the 1930s.
Morris Pratt’s Legacy
In 1903, Spiritualist minister and medium, Moses Hull would continue Morris Pratt’s dream of creating a training school for the teachings of Spiritualism. With help from his family, Hull would create a successful curriculum, and write many books for the school to use to educate Spiritualists and train mediums. By 1906, the NSA created a division for education known as the Bureau of Education.
English born, Reverend Thomas Grimshaw, would replace Hull as headmaster of the Institute. By 1925, he would also be the Vice President of the board of the National Spiritualist Association. In keeping with the wishes of Morris Pratt, Grimshaw partnered with the NSA and successfully prepared courses for the NSA to use for ordination and certification. He authored the NSAC Spiritualist Manual and Declaration of Principles.
After Grimshaw’s death, Victoria Barnes would continue to run the school until the move to Milwaukee and Barnes would complete the courses on the “History, Philosophy, and Religion of Modern Spiritualism” and “Spiritualism, Philosophy, Mediumship, and Comparative Religion,” (Encyclopedia.com, 2023).
By World War II, the institute would close its doors in Whitewater and rebuild in Milwaukee in 1946. The Whitewater building would be sold to the State Teacher’s College as a dormitory until 1961 when it was demolished. In 1977, the institute was renovated and rededicated under the National Spiritualist Association of Churches as one of its educational schools in its Educational Bureau (Cartwright, 2021). Today, the Institute is still under the NSAC and continues to support the studies of Spiritualism and Mediumship as Morris Pratt intended.
References available upon request from MPI office…