Davis, Andrew Jackson (1826–1910)
Medium, channel, and one of the founders of modern Spiritualism.
He was born August 11, 1826, at Blooming Grove, Orange
County, New York. Young Davis had gifts of clairvoyance
and heard voices at an early age. On advice so obtained he pursuaded
his father in 1838 to move to Poughkeepsie, New York
(Andrew would later be known as ‘‘the Poughkeepsie Seer’’).
Up to age 16 he received no formal education. Apprenticed to
a shoemaker named Armstrong, he worked at the trade for two
years.
In 1843 Dr. J. S. Grimes, professor of jurisprudence in the
Castleton Medical College, visited the city and delivered a series
of lectures on mesmerism. Davis attended and was tried as
a subject with no result. Later, a local tailor, William Livingston,
made fresh attempts; he threw Davis into ‘‘magnetic
sleep’’ and discovered that in this state the human body became
transparent to Davis’s eyes, enabling him to give accurate diagnosis
of disease.
In 1844 Davis had a strange experience that was to have an
enduring effect on his life. In a state of semitrance he wandered
away from home and awoke the next morning 40 miles away
in the mountains. There he claimed to have met two venerable
men—whom he later identified as the ancient physician Galen
and the Swedish seer Emanuel Swedenborg—and experienced
a state of mental illumination.
He began teaching and published a small pamphlet, Lectures
on Clairmativeness, about the mysteries of human magnetism
and electricity. He did not include this pamphlet among his
later works but explained in his Autobiography that the title was
meant to be Clairlativeness.
During a professional tour he met a Dr. Lyon, a Bridgeport
musician, and the Reverend William Fishbough. Lyon was appointed
his magnetizer (i.e., mesmerist) and Fishbough his
scribe. With their assistance, in November 1845 Davis began to
dictate his great work, The Principles of Nature, Her Divine Revelations,
and a Voice to Mankind. The dictation lasted for 15
months. Lyon repeated each trance utterance, and Fishbough
transcribed them. They both insisted that except for grammatical
corrections they performed no editing. During the dictation,
the sole means of livelihood for the trio was the seer’s
earning power in giving medical diagnoses. When this proved
insufficient the lady whom Davis later married came to their assistance.
There were many enthusiastic witnesses to the delivery of
the dictation. Dr. George Bush, professor of Hebrew at the
University of New York, declared that he heard Davis correctly
quote Hebrew. The seer’s good faith was also established by his
answers to impromptu questions put to him as tests while he
was in the clairvoyant state. Bush said, ‘‘Taken as a whole the
work is a profound and elaborate discussion of the philosophy
of the universe, and for grandeur of conception, soundness of
principle, clearness of illustration, order of arrangement and
encyclopaedic range of subjects, I know no work of any single
mind that will bear away from it the palm.’’
It was partly due to Bush’s enthusiasm that the book, published
in 1847, was received with such interest. Within a few
weeks of its appearance, however, Bush published a pamphlet,
Davis’ Revelations Revealed, warning the public against being
misled by the numerous errors, absurdities, and falsities contained
in Davis’s work. It was clear to him, he said, that Davis,
although apparently an honest and singlehearted young man,
had been made the mouthpiece of uninstructive and deceiving
spirits. This rapid change of opinion was later explained by
Frank Podmore in his book Modern Spiritualism (1902) as stemming
from the seer’s attitude toward Christianity in the section
of the book on divine revelations, which Bush probably did not
read in advance and which contradicted Davis’s views as expressed
in his Lectures on Clairmativeness.
The book soon went through many editions, which testified
to the appeal of the style and the remarkable qualities of this
extraordinary work. This opening passage about the Creation
is an example:
‘‘In the beginning the Univercoelum was one boundless, undefinable,
and unimaginable ocean of Liquid Fire. The most
vigorous and ambitious imagination is not capable of forming
an adequate conception of the height and depth and length
and breadth thereof. There was one vast expanse of liquid substance.
It was without bounds—inconceivable—and with qualities
and essences incomprehensible. This was the original condition
of Matter. It was without forms, for it was but one Form.
It had not motions, but it was an eternity of Motion. It was without
parts, for it was a Whole. Particles did not exist, but the
Whole was as one Particle. There were not suns, but it was one
Eternal Sun. It had no beginning and it was without end. It had
not circles, for it was one Infinite Circle. It had not disconnected
power, but it was the very essence of all Power. Its inconceivable
magnitude and constitution were such as not to develop
forces, but Omnipotent Power.
‘‘Matter and Power were existing as a Whole, inseparable.
The Matter contained the substance to produce all suns, all
worlds, and systems of worlds, throughout the immensity of
Space. It contained the qualities to produce all things that are
existing upon each of those worlds. The Power contained Wisdom
and Goodness, Justice, Mercy and Truth. It contained the
original and essential Principle that is displayed throughout
immensity of Space, controlling worlds and systems of worlds,
and producing Motion, Life, Sensation and Intelligence, to be
impartially disseminated upon their surfaces as Ultimates.’’
The first part of the book is the exposition of a mystical philosophy,
the second reviews the books of the Old Testament,
contests their infallibility, and describes Christ as a great moral
reformer but not divine. The third advances a system of socialism.
The originality of the book as a whole was never contested.
Bush, however, pointed out a strange coincidence. The revelations,
for the most part, express views similar to Emanuel Swedenborg’s;
the language is in several cases ‘‘all but absolutely
verbal [verbatim],’’ and there is a striking similarity to Swedenborg’s
book The Economy of the Animal Kingdom, a few English
copies of which had just reached the United States.
Bush used this as an argument for Davis’s supernatural powers,
because it was doubtful the book could have reached him.
In fact, Davis believed he was controlled by Swedenborg while
he produced the book. In his publication Mesmer and Swedenborg
(1847) Bush printed a letter from Davis accompanying a
paper written in a cave near Poughkeepsie, on June 15, 1846.
The paper accurately quoted long passages from Swedenborg’s
Earths in the Universe. Bush was satisfied that Davis had never
heard of the book, but it is difficult to believe that Davis had not
read it.
An apparently more serious charge could have been leveled
against Davis’s The Great Harmonia (1852). There are long passages
in the book that correspond with the text of Sunderland’s
Davis, Andrew Jackson Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed.
380
Pathetism (1847). But even Frank Podmore, a noted skeptic, believed
that Davis could not have copied these passages and that
the explanation lay in an extraordinary memory.
The statements concerning astronomy in the divine revelations
section of The Principles of Nature are revealing. In March
1846, when the existence of an eighth planet was yet an astronomical
supposition (the discovery of Neptune, verifying
Leverrier’s calculations, did not take place until September
1846), the book spoke of nine planets. The density of the
eighth planet as given by Davis agreed with later findings. (The
ninth planet, Pluto, was discovered in 1933.) On the other
hand, Davis spoke of four planetoids—Ceres, Pallas, Juno, and
Vesta—whereas there are now believed to be hundreds. He also
said that the solar system revolves around a great center together
with all the other stars. Davis further believed Saturn to be
inhabited by a more advanced humanity than ours, Jupiter and
Mars were also inhabited, and on Venus and Mercury the development
of humanity was less advanced than on Earth. The
three outer planets he declared lifeless.
His prediction of the coming of Spiritualism was often quoted:
‘‘It is a truth that spirits commune with one another while
one is in the body and the other in the higher spheres—and
this, too, when the person in the body is unconscious of the influx,
and hence cannot be convinced of the fact; and this truth
will ere long present itself in the form of a living demonstration.
And the world will hail with delight the ushering-in that
era when the interiors of men will be opened, and the spiritual
communion will be established such as is now being enjoyed by
the inhabitants of Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn.’’
In his notes dated March 31, 1848, the following statement
occurs: ‘‘About daylight this morning a warm breathing passed
over my face and I heard a voice, tender and strong, saying:
‘Brother, the good work has begun—behold, a living demonstration
is born.’ I was left wondering what could be meant by
such a message.’’
The publication of The Principals of Nature made Davis famous
and he was soon surrounded by a band of enthusiasts. As
their mouthpiece, on December 4, 1847, the first issue of the
Univercoelum (apparently coined from Swedenborg’s ‘‘universum
coelum’’) appeared. Universalist minister S. B. Brittan became
editor in chief. Assisting were a number of outstanding
contemporaries, including Fishbough, Thomas Lake Harris,
W. M. Fernald, J. K. Ingalls, Dr. Chivers, and Frances Green.
The object of the publication was ‘‘the establishment of a universal
system of truth, the reform and the reorganization of society.’’
Davis contributed many articles that were later incorporated
into The Great Harmonia.
After 12 months in existence, the Univercoelum absorbed the
Christian Rationalist, a similar organ, however, its publication
came to an end in July 1849. It was succeeded by W. M. Channing’s
The Present Age, a largely socialist organ to which Davis
and his friends no longer contributed. They accepted as their
new mouthpiece The Spirit Messenger of Springfield, Massachusetts,
which was jointly edited by Rev. R. P. Ambler and Apollos
Munn. As Davis’s friends were scattered, other periodicals were
founded and his ‘‘harmonial philosophy’’ was independently
carried on.
About the time the Univercoelum was founded, Davis disposed
of the services of his mesmerizer. By an effort of will he
could by that time throw himself into what he called ‘‘the superior
condition.’’ He also remembered his experiences while in
trance and wrote his subsequent books in his own hand. He disclaimed
dictation by the spirits and said that he could write
them by a process of inner perception. Except for seeing apparitions,
he was unacquainted with abnormal physical phenomena
until 1850, when he paid a visit to Dr. Eliakim Phelps’s
house in Stratford, Connecticut, which was the scene of violent
poltergeist disturbances. In the same year he published a pamphlet
on his observations, entitled The Philosophy of Spiritual Intercourse.
Davis’s teachings left a deep impression on his age. The
Great Harmonia passed through 40 editions. His autobiography
The Magic Staff extended only to the year 1857, but was later
supplemented with a sequel, Beyond the Valley (1885). In 1860
he started the Herald of Progress, a weekly that absorbed the
Spiritual Telegraph. In the late years of his life he had a small
bookshop in Boston. There he sold books and, having earned
a degree in natural medicine, prescribed herbal remedies for
his patients.
Davis died January 13, 1910. He was an important influence
in the early development of Spiritualism, particularly in his association
of mediumistic revelations with religious principles.
His concepts of after-death spheres for departed spirits, which
he named ‘‘Summerland,’’ are still part of the beliefs of many
modern Spiritualists. He influenced most subsequent Spiritualist
movements, including those of Thomas Lake Harris. It even
seems possible that Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘‘Eureka’’ owes its inception
to Davis’s Principles of Nature.
In his practice of diagnosing and treating illness in a trance
condition, Davis also anticipated the rationale of the modern
seer Edgar Cayce.
Sources:
Brown, Slater. The Heyday of Spiritualism. New York: Hawthorn
Books, 1970.
Davis, Andrew J. Answers to Ever-Recurring Questions from People:
A Sequel to the Penetralia. Boston: Banner of Light Publishing,
1862.
———. Beyond the Valley; A Sequel to the Magic Staff: An Autobiography.
Boston: Colby & Rich, 1885.
———. The Great Harmonia. New York: J. S. Redfield, Fowler
& Wells, 1853.
———. The Magic Staff: An Autobiography of Andrew Jackson
Davis. New York, 1857.
———. Penetralia: Being Harmonial Answers to Important
Questions. Boston: Bela Marsh, 1858.
Doyle, Arthur Conan. The History of Spiritualism. 2 vols. London,
1926. Reprint, New York: Arno Press, 1975.
Podmore, Frank. Modern Spiritualism. 2 vols. London, 1902.
Reprinted as Mediums of the 19th Century. 2 vols. New Hyde
Park, N.Y.: University Books, 1963.

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