In 1918, Mary Bell Mack founded the Spiritualist Church of the Soul. At this time, the word “spiritualist” had a specific meaning. It meant that this church conducted seances in which mediums attempted to communicate with the dead.
The spiritualist movement was more open to leadership by women than mainline religious groups. That was true on a national and international level, with figures like Emma Hardinge Britten, and it was true in Cincinnati, with religious leaders like Martha Haupt and Lula Steele.
Mary Mack’s maiden name was Bell. She was born in Nicholasville, Kentucky. After a brief, first marriage to Ross Mack, she moved to Cincinnati. She seems to have been in Cincinnati by 1898, when a woman named Mary Mack is mentioned in the Cincinnati Post as having attended seances by a spirit medium named Lillie Tieman. When Tieman was accused of fraud, Mary Mack spoke in Tieman’s defense.
In 1918, Mary Bell Mack founded her church, giving herself the title of Bishop.
The following year, Mary Bell Mack married Samuel Knox. They had a big wedding at Allen Temple, and they invited everyone – the invitation was printed in The Union newspaper.
At the wedding, Bishop Mack was attended by a bridal party of “24 crowned mediums.” Given the headgear that Bishop Mack is wearing in our only known photo of her, this must have been an impressive sight indeed. Many white people were present, including the officiant – a well-known spirit medium named Rev. Hattie B. Rymer.
Yet despite this quite remarkable ceremony, the groom, Samuel Knox, poor man, somehow had absolutely no idea what he was getting into. Only a few years later, this item appears in the Cincinnati Commercial Tribune:
“Samuel Knox, who says he is a Baptist preacher, sued for divorce from Mary Mack Knox … charging that a few days after they were married, July 23, 1919, she assumed a domineering attitude and would allow him no privileges in their home. It also is charged that she neglected their home by attending meetings of a ‘spiritualistic religious sect’ of which she claimed to be the head, and that she entertained members of this sect at her home and finally installed several of them there to live.”
Knox’s request for divorce was granted.
Mary Mack didn’t just create a single congregation, she created a denomination. In 1929, the Cincinnati Enquirer reported of Mack that “she has organized 14 churches, in which she has ordained men and women who are ministers, preachers, and elders, under her personal direction.” There were congregations in Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, and Pennsylvania.
In 1927, Bishop Mack purchased a building (now gone) as her church. The church was at 633 W. 8th Street, near Cincinnati City Hall. At an annual conference of the denomination in Cincinnati in 1933, “One of the impressive features of the gathering was the parade from the birthplace of the church to its present site in Eighth Street.”
In 1937, Mack purchased a magnificent, ten-room Victorian home at 3243 Beresford Avenue in Walnut Hills. (The house is now gone, though a few street-view photos remain). Also in 1937, she traveled to Chicago for meetings of the “Modern Spiritualist Institute,” and she is described in a news article as a previous graduate of the Institute, though little is known of this organization.
The composer George Russell knew Mary Mack in her later years and attended some of her services. Russell loved the music there, which he described as “more primitive than gospel,” with “fierce rhythms.” Russell recalled that members of the congregation “would get the tongue and faint and have water thrown on them.” But Russell, as quoted in his biography, didn’t mention anything about mediums or seances, and it is possible that at some point Bishop Mack had transitioned to spiritual practices that were somewhat more mainstream. She died in 1945.