Moses, William Stainton (1839–1892)
Medium and religious teacher who became one of the most
prominent late nineteenth-century British Spiritualists. He was
born November 5, 1839, at Donnington, Lincolnshire. His father
was headmaster of the Grammar School of Donnington.
In 1852, the family moved to Bedford to give young William
the advantage of an education at Bedford College. In his school
days he occasionally walked in his sleep, and on one occasion
in this state he went down to the sitting room, wrote an essay
on a subject that had worried him on the previous evening, and
then returned to bed without waking. It was the best essay of
the class. No other incidents of a psychic nature of his early
years were recorded.
He won a scholarship to Exeter College, Oxford. Owing to
a breakdown in his health he interrupted his studies, traveled
for some time, and spent six months in a monastery on Mount
Athos. When he recovered his health he returned to Oxford,
took his M.A., and was ordained as a minister of the Church of
England by the renowned Bishop Wilberforce. He began his
ministry at Kirk Maughold, near Ramsey, in the Isle of Man,
at age 24. There he gained the esteem and love of his parishioners.
He was remembered for his activity during an outbreak
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of smallpox, when he helped to nurse and bury a man whose
malady was so violent that it was very difficult to find anybody
who would approach him.
His literary activity for Punch and the Saturday Review began
at this time. After four years, he exchanged his curacy with that
of St. George’s, Douglas, Isle of Man. In 1869 he fell seriously
ill. He called in for medical aid Stanhope Templeman Speer.
As a convalescent he spent some time in Speer’s house. This
was the beginning of a lifelong friendship.
In 1870, he took a curacy in Dorsetshire. Illness again interfered
with his parish work and he was obliged to abandon it,
and for the next seven years he was the tutor of Speer’s son. In
1871, he was offered a mastership in University College School,
London. This office he filled until 1889, when failing health
made him resign. He lived for three more years, suffering
greatly from gout, influenza, and nervous prostration. He died
September 5, 1892.
Moses as a Spiritualist
The period of his life between 1872 and 1881 was marked
by an inflow of transcendental powers and a consequent religious
revolution that led him away from the Church of England
and his former distrust of Spiritualism. He had considered all
its phenomena spurious and had dismissed Lord Adare’s book
on D. D. Home as the dreariest twaddle he ever came across.
Robert Dale Owen’s Debatable Land (1870) made a deeper impression.
On Mrs. Speer’s persuasion, he agreed to have a closer look
into the matter and attended his first séance, with Lottie Fowler
operating as the medium, on April 2, 1872. After much
nonsense he received a striking description of the spirit presence
of a friend who had died in the north of England. Charles
Williams was the next medium he went to see. A séance with
D. D. Home and sittings in many private circles followed. Within
about six months, Moses became convinced of the existence
of discarnate spirits and of their power to communicate. Soon
he himself showed signs of great psychic powers. In 1872, five
months after his introduction to Spiritualism, he reported his
first experience of levitation.
The physical phenomena continued with gradually lessening
frequency until 1881. They were of extremely varied nature.
The power was often so enormous that it kept the room
in constant vibration. E. W. Cox describes in his book What am
I (2 vols., 1873–74) the swaying and rocking in daylight of an
old-fashioned, six-foot-wide and nine-foot-long mahogany
table that required the strength of two strong men to be moved
an inch. The presence of Moses seemed to be responsible for
the table’s extraordinary behavior. When Cox and Moses held
their hands over the table, it lifted first on one then on the
other side. When Moses was levitated for the third time, he was
thrown on to the table, and from that position on to an adjacent
sofa. In spite of the considerable distance and the magnitude
of the force, he was in no way hurt.
Objects left in Moses’ bedroom were often found arranged
in the shape of a cross. Apports were frequent phenomena.
They were usually objects from a different part of the house, invariably
small, coming mysteriously through closed doors or
walls and thrown upon the table from a direction mostly over
Moses’ head. Sometimes their origin was unknown. Ivory crosses,
corals, pearls, precious stones, the latter expressly for
Moses, were also brought from unknown sources.
Psychic lights of greatly varying shapes and intensity were
frequently observed. They were most striking when the medium
was in trance. They were not always equally seen by all the
sitters, never lit up their surroundings, and could pass through
solid objects, for instance, rising from the floor through a table.
Scents were produced in abundance, the most common being
musk, verbena, new mown hay, and one unfamiliar odor, which
was said to be spirit scent. Sometimes breezes heavy with perfumes
swept around the circle.
Without any musical instruments in the room, a great variety
of musical sounds contributed to the entertainment of the
sitters. There were many instances of direct writing, demonstrations
of matter passing through matter and direct voice,
and materializations, which, however, did not progress beyond
luminous hands or columns of light vaguely suggesting human
forms.
Moses’ continuing circle was very small. Dr. and Mrs. Speer
and F. W. Percival were generally the only witnesses of the phenomena.
Sergeant Cox, W. H. Harrison, a Dr. Thompson, a
Mrs. Garratt, a Miss Birkett, and Sir William Crookes were occasional
sitters. As a rule, the invisible communicators strongly
resented the introduction of strangers. The physical phenomena
in themselves were of secondary importance. They were
produced in evidence of the supernormal power of the communicators
to convince Moses and the sitters of the spirits’ claims.
Writing in the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research
(vol. 9, pt. 25), F. W. H. Myers asserts that
‘‘. . . they were not produced fraudulently by Dr. Speer or
other sitters. . . . I regard as proved both by moral considerations
and by the fact that they were constantly reported as occurring
when Mr. Moses was alone. That Mr. Moses should
have himself fraudulently produced them I regard as both morally
and physically incredible. That he should have prepared
and produced them in a state of trance I regard both as physically
incredible and also as entirely inconsistent with the tenor
both of his own reports and those of his friends. I therefore regard
the reported phenomena as having actually occurred in
a genuinely supernormal manner.’’
Moses’ character and integrity were so well attested that Andrew
Lang was forced to warn the advocates of fraud that ‘‘the
choice is between a moral and physical miracle.’’ Frank Podmore
was almost the only critic to charge Moses with trickery.
He suggested that the psychic lights at the séances could have
been produced by bottles of phosphorized oil and quoted a report
by Moses himself in the Proceedings of the SPR (vol. 11, p.
45) stating ‘‘Suddenly there arose from below me, apparently
under the table, or near the floor, right under my nose, a cloud
of luminous smoke, just like phosphorous. . .’’ It seems most
improbable that the medium would write such a report if guilty
of fraud, and even Podmore himself concluded ‘‘That Stainton
Moses, being apparently of sane mind, should deliberately
have entered upon a course of systematic and cunningly concerted
trickery, for the mere pleasure of mystifying a small circle
of friends, or in the hope of any petty personal advantage,
such, for instance, as might be found in the enhanced social importance
attaching to a position midway between prestidigator
and prophet—this is scarcely credible.’’
Moses’ famous automatic scripts are known from his books
Spirit Teachings (1883) and Spirit Identity (1879) and from the
full séance accounts he commenced to publish in Light in 1892.
The scripts began in 1872 and lasted until 1883, gradually
dying out in 1877. They filled 24 notebooks. Except for the
third, which was lost, they were preserved by the London Spiritualist
Alliance, where both the originals and typed copies
were accessible to students. They have been complemented by
four books of records of physical phenomena and three books
of retrospect and summary. In his will Moses entrusted the
manuscripts to two friends—C. C. Massey and Alaric A. Watts.
They handed them to F. W. H. Myers, who published an exhaustive
analysis in the Proceedings of the SPR (vols. 9 and 11).
The automatic messages were almost wholly written by
Moses’s own hand while he was in a normal waking state. They
are interspersed with a few words of direct writing. The tone of
the spirits towards him is habitually courteous and respectful.
But occasionally they have some criticism that pierces to the
quick. This explains why he was unwilling to allow the inspection
of his books during his lifetime. Indeed, there are indications
that there may have been a still more private book into
which very intimate messages were entered, but if so it did not
survive.
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Moses’ Controls
The scripts are in the form of a dialogue. The identity of the
communicators was not revealed by Moses in his lifetime. Neither
did Myers disclose it. They were made public in a later
book The ‘‘Controls’’ of Stainton Moses by A. W. Trethewy. Considering
the illustrious biblical and historical names the communicators
bore, Stainton Moses’s reluctance was wise. He would
have met with scorn. Moreover, for a long time, he himself was
skeptical, indeed, at first shocked, and was often reproved for
suspicion and want of faith in the scripts.
Moses emerged as the medium for an organized band of 49
spirits. Their leader called himself ‘‘Imperator.’’ For some time
he manifested through an amanuensis only, and later wrote
himself, signing his name with a cross. He spoke directly for the
first time on December 19, 1892, but appeared to Moses’s clairvoyant
vision at an early stage. He claimed to have influenced
the medium’s career during the whole of his lifetime and said
that in turn he was directed by ‘‘Preceptor’’ in the background.
‘‘Preceptor’’ himself communed with ‘‘Jesus.’’
The identity of the communicators was only gradually disclosed
and Moses was much exercised as to whether the personalities
of the band were symbolical or real. They asserted that
a missionary effort to uplift the human race was being made in
the spirit realms and, as Moses had the rarest mediumistic gifts
and his personality furnished extraordinary opportunities, he
was selected as the channel of these communications. Like ‘‘Imperator’’
and ‘‘Preceptor’’ every member of the band had an assumed
name at first. The biblical characters included the following
names, as revealed later ‘‘Malachias’’ (Imperator),
‘‘Elijah’’ (Preceptor), ‘‘Haggai’’ (The Prophet), ‘‘Daniel’’
(Vates), ‘‘Ezekiel,’’ ‘‘St. John the Baptist’’ (Theologus). The ancient
philosophers and sages numbered 14. They were
‘‘Solon,’’ ‘‘Plato,’’ ‘‘Aristotle,’’ ‘‘Seneca,’’ ‘‘Athenodorus’’ (Doctor),
‘‘Hippolytus’’ (Rector), ‘‘Plotinus’’ (Prudens), ‘‘Alexander
Achillini’’ (Philosophus), ‘‘Algazzali or Ghazali’’ (Mentor),
‘‘Kabbila,’’ ‘‘Chom,’’ ‘‘Said,’’ ‘‘Roophal,’’ ‘‘Magus.’’
It was not until Book XIV of the communications was written
that Moses became satisfied of the identity of his controls. In
his introduction to Spirit Teachings he writes
‘‘The name of God was always written in capitals, and slowly
and, as it seemed, reverentially. The subject matter was always
of a pure and elevated character, much of it being of personal
application, intended for my own guidance and direction. I
may say that throughout the whole of these written communications,
extending in unbroken continuity to the year 1880, there
is no flippant message, no attempt at jest, no vulgarity or incongruity,
no false or misleading statement, so far as I know or
could discover; nothing incompatible with the avowed object,
again and again repeated, of instruction, enlightenment and
guidance by spirits fitted for the task. Judged as I should wish
to be judged myself, they were what they pretended to be.
Their words were words of sincerity and of sober, serious purpose.’’
Later, when the phenomena lost strength he was again assailed
by doubts and showed hesitation. It is obviously impossible
to prove the identity of ancient spirits. ‘‘Imperator’s’’ answer
to this objection was that statements incapable of proof
should be accepted as true on the ground that others that could
be tested had been verified. For such evidential purposes many
modern spirits were admitted for communication. In several
cases satisfactory proofs of identity were obtained. ‘‘Imperator’s’’
statement was therefore logical. It should also be noted
that each of the communicators had his distinctive way of announcing
his presence.
Moses was also well aware of the possible role his own mind
might play in the communications, and observed
‘‘It is an interesting subject for speculation whether my own
thoughts entered into the subject matter of the communications.
I took extraordinary pains to prevent any such admixture.
At first the writing was slow, and it was necessary for me
to follow it with my eye, but even then the thoughts were not
my thoughts. Very soon the messages assumed a character of
which I had no doubt whatever that the thought was opposed
to my own. But I cultivated the power of occupying my mind
with other things during the time that the writing was going on,
and was able to read an abstruse book and follow out a line of
close reasoning while the message was written with unbroken
regularity. Messages so written extended over many pages, and
in their course there is no correction, no fault in composition
and often a sustained vigour and beauty of style.’’
These precautions do not exclude the possibility of the action
of the subconscious mind.
Moses’ life and activity left a deep impression on Spiritualism.
He took a leading part in several organizations. From
1884 until his death he was president of the London Spiritualist
Alliance. The phenomena reported in his mediumship served
as a partial inducement for the founding of the Society for Psychical
Research. He was on its foundation council. Later,
owing to the treatment the medium William Eglinton received
(he was accused of fraud), Moses resigned his membership and
censured the society for what he considered its unduly critical
attitude.
He edited Light, contributed many articles on Spiritualism
to Human Nature and other periodicals, and published a number
of books, primarily developed from his automatic writings,
under the pen name of ‘‘M. A. Oxon,’’ a reference to his degree
from Oxford.
Sources
Berger, Arthur S., and Joyce Berger. The Encyclopedia of
Parapsychology and Psychical Research. New York Paragon
House, 1991.
Gauld, Alan. The Founder of Psychical Research. New York
Schrocken Books, 1968.
Oxon, M. A. [Stainton Moses]. Higher Aspects of Spiritualism.
N.p., 1880.
———. Psychography; or, A Treatise on the Objective Forms of
Psychic or Spiritual Phenomena. N.p., 1878. Reprinted as Direct
Spirit Writing. N.p., 1952.