Spiritualism
A social religious movement founded in the mid-nineteenth
century in New York State. According to the definition adopted
by the National Spiritualist Association of Churches, Spiritualism
is
The Science, Philosophy and Religion of continuous
life, based upon the demonstrated fact of communication,
by means of mediumship, with those who live in the
Spirit World. Spiritualism is a science because it investigates,
analyses and classifies facts and manifestations,
demonstrated from the spirit side of life. Spiritualism is
a philosophy because it studies the laws of nature both on
the seen and unseen sides of life and bases its conclusions
upon present observed facts. It accepts statements of observed
facts of past ages and conclusions drawn therefrom,
when sustained by reason and by results of observed
facts of the present day. Spiritualism is a religion
because it strives to understand and to comply with the
Physical, Mental and Spiritual Laws of Nature[,] which
are the laws of God.
According to the British medium W. Stainton Moses, a Spiritualist
is ‘‘one who has proven for himself, or has accepted on
adequate evidence, the fact that death does not kill the spirit.’’
Spiritualism centers upon two basic teachings the continuity
of personality after the transition of death, and the possibility
of communication between those living on Earth and those
who have made the transition to death. Spiritualism teaches
that death is a new birth into a spiritual body, the counterpart
of the physical, which is gifted with new powers. Spiritualists
claim that their beliefs are based upon scientific proof and communication
with the surviving personalities of deceased human
beings by means of mediumship.
After death, the individual faces neither punishment nor rewards.
Individuality, character, and memory survive and undergo
no change. Continued progression in the new life rests
upon individual fitness. The rapidity of progress is in proportion
to the mental and moral faculties acquired in Earth life.
Every spirit is left to discover the truth for itself. Evil passions
or a sinful life may chain a spirit to the Earth, but the road of
endless progress opens up for these as soon as they discover the
light. Higher and higher spiritual spheres correspond to the
state of progress. The gradation is apparently endless. Communion
with higher intelligences appears to be available, but
the spirits report no particular communion with the deity.
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Origins of Spiritualism
Spiritualism in its modern form dates back no further than
1848 and the Fox sisters. Its practices can be traced to attempts
at spirit communication reaching back to ancient times. Such
attempts at communication with both the surviving consciousness
of the dead and various orders of spiritual beings, both angelic
and demonic, appear in the oldest extant records of cultures
worldwide. It has only been in the last few centuries that
strong doubts about the possibility of life after death and communication
with a spiritual world have arisen.
Spiritualism emerged as a direct counter to such postEnlightenment
doubts, which by the nineteenth century had
become the subject of popular debates and literature.
In his 1993 book, Madame Blavatsky’s Baboon, writer Peter
Washington noted that the true momentum for the movement
was given full vent in America; but, in fact, its roots sprouted
up from people and places all over the world. Washington
noted that it seemed to have found a particular following in
America for certain reasons. He also said that,
The seance offers a new version of holy communion,
in which faith is replaced by evidence, blood and wine by
manifested spirits. It was therefore especially popular
among the Protestant sects fo the east coast of the United
States, deprived as they usually were of any sensuous fulfillment
in their religion and susceptible to any sign of
the workings of divine grace, however bizarre. It is no coincidence
that Hydesville is in the middle of the notorious
‘burned-over’ district of New York State, so called because
of the extraordinary number of religious fashions
that swept through it in the early nineteenth century.
Spiritualism blends easily with millenarian Christianity
though most of its messages were trivial, the expectation
remained that these were merely a prelude to news of
real import from the Other World. Having confirmed its
own existence through the Fox girls, that world was now
expected to come through with the facts about life after
death, immortality, and even the future of mankind.
As Spiritualism formed, it looked to a number of individual
occurrences of Spiritualist phenomena and previous movements
to show its continuity with the past. For example, many
famous outbreaks of an ‘‘epidemic’’ nature, such as that among
the Tremblers of the Cevennes and the Convulsionaries of St.
Médard, which to the beholders showed clear indications of demonic
possession, had in their symptoms considerable analogy
with modern Spiritualism. They were accompanied by spontaneous
trance or ecstasy, lengthy discourses, and speaking in
tongues, all of which are phenomena to be found in the séance
room.
The fluency of speech noted in such outbreaks, especially of
persons lacking any formal education, has been equaled, if not
surpassed, by the outpourings of the unlearned medium under
the influence of a ‘‘control.’’ In such historical cases, the conditions
were generally ascribed to either angelic or diabolic possession,
and most frequently to the latter. Witches were supposed
to converse with the Devil, and many aspects of
witchcraft, notably the part played by persecuted young
women and children, show a relationship to poltergeist disturbances.
These were the connecting link between early forms of
possession and modern Spiritualism. Cases in which children
of morbid tendencies pretended to be the victims of a witch are
to be found in many records of witchcraft.
However much it seemed otherwise, still it was the poltergeist
who showed affinity to the ‘‘control’’ of the mediumistic
circle. For at least the past few centuries, poltergeist disturbances
have occurred from time to time. The mischievous spirit’s
favorite modes of manifesting itself have been similar to
those adopted by spirit controls.
Both poltergeists and spirit controls require a ‘‘medium,’’ an
agent for the production of their phenomena. It is in the immediate
presence of the medium that the phenomena generally
make their appearance. Both also tend to display personality,
even if of an infantile nature in the case of poltergeists. Intelligent
communication has often been reported to have occurred
by means of raps in phenomena attributed to poltergeists.
A related manifestation also believed to be caused by spirits
occurred in the practice of animal magnetism, which was said
to have originated with the alchemist Paracelsus, in favor with
the old alchemists. An actual magnet was rarely used, but was
regarded as a symbol of the magnetic philosophy. This belief
rested on the idea of a force or fluid radiating from the heavenly
bodies, human beings, and, indeed, from every substance,
animate or inanimate, by means of which all things act upon
one another.
While Paracelsus’s students were engaged in formulating a
magnetic philosophy, there were others. They included the seventeenth-century
healer Valentine Greatrakes, who cured diseases.
He claimed such magnetic power as a divine gift and did
not connect it with the ideas of the alchemists. According to
Spiritualist thought, these two phases of ‘‘magnetism’’ united
and climaxed in the work of Franz Anton Mesmer, who published
De planetarium influxu, in 1776, a treatise on the influence
of the planets on the human body. His ideas were essentially
those of the magnetic philosophers. His cures equaled
those of Greatrakes; but he infused new life into both theory
and practice and won for himself the recognition, if not of the
learned societies, at least of the general public. He laid the
groundwork for the discovery of the induced hypnotic trance.
This has considerable significance in Spiritualism.
In 1784 a commission was appointed by the French government
to consider magnetism as practiced by Mesmer and his
followers. Unfortunately, its report only served to cast discredit
on the practice and exclude it from scientific discussion. A detailed
account of the trance utterances of a hypnotic subject was
given in 1787 in the journals of the Swedish Exegetical and
Philanthropic Society. Members of the society inclined to the
doctrines of their countryman Emanuel Swedenborg, who was
the first to identify the ‘‘spirits’’ as the souls of the deceased.
Until the third decade of the nineteenth century, the explanations
of mesmerism concerned themselves almost entirely
with a fluid or force emanating from the mesmerist—and even
visible to the eye of a clairvoyant. In 1823, however, Alexandre
Bertrand, a Parisian physician, published his Traité du Somnambulisme.
In 1826 he published the treatise Du Magnetisme Animal
en France, in which he set forth a relationship between ordinary
sleepwalking, somnambulism associated with disease, and epidemic
ecstasy and advanced the doctrine, now generally accepted,
of suggestion.
Animal magnetism was by this time receiving a good deal of
attention all over Europe. A second French commission appointed
in 1825 presented its report in 1831, which, although
of no great value, contained a unanimous testimony as to the
authenticity of the phenomena. In Germany magnetism was
also practiced to a considerable extent, but rationalist explanations
of the associated phenomena found some acceptance.
There was a class, however, more numerous in Germany than
elsewhere, who inclined toward a Spiritualist explanation of
mesmeric phenomena. Indeed, the belief in spirit communication
had grown up beside magnetism from its conception, in
opposition to the theory of a magnetic fluid.
In the earlier phases of ‘‘miraculous’’ healing, the cures were
ascribed to the divine gift of the person conducting the session,
or the operator, who expelled the evil spirits from the patient.
In epidemic cases in religious communities, as well as in individual
instances, the spirits were questioned both on personal
matters and on abstract theological questions.
In Germany Justinus Kerner experimented with Frederica
Hauffe, ‘‘the Seeress of Prevorst,’’ in whose presence physical
manifestations took place and who described the condition of
the soul after death and the constitution of man—the physical
body, the soul, the spirit, and the nervengeist, an ethereal body
that clothes the soul after death—theories afterward elaborated
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by Spiritualists. Other German investigators, such as J. H. Jung
(Jung-Stilling), C. Römer, and Heinrich Werner, recorded the
phenomenon of clairvoyance in their somnambules. In 1845
Baron Karl von Reichenbach published research he claimed
demonstrated the existence of an emanation, which he called
od or odyllic force, radiating from every substance. This effluence
allegedly could be seen by clairvoyants and had definite
colors and produced a sensation of heat or cold.
Animal magnetism received little attention in England until
the third decade of the nineteenth century. In 1828, Richard
Chevinix, an Irishman, gave mesmeric demonstrations. John
Elliotson, of University College Hospital, London, practiced
mesmerism with the O’Key sisters, who were somnambules,
and although he first believed in the magnetic fluid, he afterward
became a Spiritualist. In 1843 two journals dealing with
the subject—the Zoist and the Phreno-magnet—were founded.
Most of the English mesmerists of the time preferred the magnetist
explanation of the phenomena to the notion of spirit
agency. Within the Spiritualist community, the so-called ‘‘magnetic’’
phenomena were largely attributed to the agency of the
spirits of the deceased.
Spiritualism as a Religious Movement
In responding to the challenge of Enlightenment thinking,
Spiritualism became the first of the new ‘‘scientific’’ religions.
Adherents talked little of faith. Rather, they asserted that they
could prove Spiritualism’s central doctrine of survival of death
through facts, instead of relying on traditions and the revelations
of ancient times. They saw Spiritualism as a progressive
and evolutionary faith reconciling religion with contemporary
science. ‘‘Spiritualism,’’ wrote Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, ‘‘is a
religion for those who find themselves outside all religions;
while on the contrary it greatly strengthens the faith of those
who already possess religious beliefs.’’
Not long after Spiritualism swept America, it began to take
over Europe. According to Washington, ‘‘In the wake of failing
political revolutions in 1848—the very year of the Hydesville
phenomena—it rapidly became part of an ‘alternative’ synthesis
which included vegetarianism, feminism, dress reform, homoeopathy
and every variety of social and religious dissent.’’
He noted that when Harriet Beecher Stowe, famed American
abolitionist, visited Europe in 1853, the seance was ‘‘all the
rage.’’
Early Spiritualists also believed their religion restored primitive
Christianity, pointing to inscriptions in the Roman catacombs
in which the early Christians spoke of the dead as
though they were still living. According to Saint Augustine, in
De cura pro Mortuis, ‘‘The spirits of the dead can be sent to the
living and can unveil to them the future which they themselves
have learned from other spirits or from angels, or by divine revelation.’’
Not surprisingly, much of the movement’s motivation
still rested in anti-Catholicisim—not so different from the antagonism
many Protestant sects harbored without Spiritualism.
Spiritualists do not believe in an afterlife of unchangeable
bliss or eternal damnation. In their perspective, there is no hell
with brimstone and flames of fire as some Christians teach. In
like measure they deny the existence of devils, a final judgment,
and the vicarious atonement. Christ was a great teacher
who descended to set an example. ‘‘It is our task to do for
Christianity what Jesus did for Judaism,’’ said a message received
by W. Stainton Moses from the spirits who allegedly
spoke through his automatic writing. Spiritualists also deny
the resurrection of the physical body, as did the hieracites, a
sect that flourished in the fourth century they maintain that it
is the soul alone that resurrected.
Spiritualism admits all the truths of morality and religion of
all other sects. The moral stance is illustrated in the role of mediums.
Spiritualists tend to maintain that those mediums who
hold séances and become the direct mouthpieces of the spirits
are only supereminently endowed with a faculty common to all
humanity—that all men and woman are mediums to some degree,
and that all inspiration, whether good or bad, comes from
the spirits.
It is in connection with this idea of the universality of mediumship
that the effect of Spiritualism on the morals and daily
life of its adherents is most clearly seen. The spirits are naturally
attracted to those mediums whose qualities resemble their
own. Enlightened spirits from the highest spheres seek ‘‘highsouled’’
and earnest mediums through which to express themselves.
Mediums who use their divine gifts for ignoble ends are
sought by the lowest and wickedest human spirits, or by elementals,
who do not even reach the human standard of goodness.
Indeed, it is claimed that the lower spirits communicate
with the living much more readily than do the higher, by reason
of a certain gross or material quality that binds them to
Earth. As with the full-fledged medium, so with the normal individual;
if one is to ensure that the source of inspiration be a
high one, one must live in such a way that only the best spirits
will control.
In the United States, Spiritualists embraced many socialist
ideals, and many resided in the socialist communities of the
nineteenth century. The loose, nondogmatic approach also allowed
some Spiritualists to embrace a variety of different ideals,
such as free love. In England, where habit and tradition were
more settled, Spiritualists emphasized its compatibility with
Christianity and projected an image of affording a fuller revelation
of the Christian religion. In France, Allan Kardec’s doctrine
of reincarnation blended with the doctrines of Spiritualism
to produce Spiritism, a form of Spiritualism highly
alienated from Christianity.
These varied forms of Spiritualism are held together by two
central beliefs that the soul continues after ‘‘the great dissolution’’
(death of the body) and continually progresses and that
the freed spirit can communicate with living human beings.
The continuity of life after death is, of course, one of Spiritualism’s
most important tenets. It is not a distinctive one, since
most of the world’s creeds and religions also affirm such a belief.
But Spiritualist ideas concerning the nature of the life of
the freed soul are unique.
Spiritualists believe that the soul, or spirit, is composed of
a sort of attenuated matter inhabiting the body and resembling
it in form. On the death of the body the soul withdraws itself,
without undergoing any direct change, and for a period remains
on the ‘‘Earth plane.’’ But the keynote of the spirit world
is progress, so after a time the spirit proceeds to the lowest ‘‘discarnate
plane.’’ From that plane they go on to higher and
higher planes, gradually evolving into a purer and nobler type.
At length it reaches the sphere of pure spirit.
From the comments of mediums speaking in trance, a picture
of the spirit domain has been constructed by Spiritualists.
It is thought to be a somewhat attenuated version of earthly life,
conducted in a highly rarified atmosphere. Automatic drawings,
purporting to depict spirit scenes, afford a description no
less flattering than that gleaned from mediums speaking in
trance, although many such drawings appear imaginative rather
than factual. From their exalted spheres the spirits are said
to be cognizant of the doings of their fellow individuals still on
Earth.
The other central belief of Spiritualism is that the spirits
communicate with the living—primarily through the agency of
mediums—offering their aid and counsel. They can produce in
the physical world certain phenomena that transcend known
physical laws. Most Spiritualists, in seeking proof of the reality
of the creed, have been content with what is described as ‘‘subjective’’
phenomena, including such as trance speaking, automatic
writing, clairvoyance.
Spiritualism was enlivened by more or less sensational physical
manifestations through an entire period of its history.
These found great favor among both believers and psychical
researchers. Their success seemed to promise irrefutable proof
of the extraordinary nature of Spiritualist phenomena, and
they were relatively easy to investigate. They were so intimately
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connected with fraud unfortunately, that any hope for verifying
the phenomena disappeared in the first half of the twentieth
century.
Manifestation of phenomena therefore occupies a central
place in Spiritualism, and the question of the genuineness of
claimed phenomena remains of great importance. It is true, of
course, that paranormal phenomena are also central to the development
of other great religions that have claimed miracles
in support of doctrine. Spiritualists point to the JudaeoChristian
Holy Bible as a book full of accounts of ‘‘miraculous’’
phenomena not essentially different from those demonstrated
by modern mediums—inspired trance addresses, paranormal
healing, apparitions, and prophetic statements. The primary
difference is that traditional religions assume a perspective of
awe in the presence of the occasional miraculous event, whereas
Spiritualists view such events as constant aspects of a mundane
world.
The Literature of Spiritualism
There is vast literature on Spiritualism. Many important
works from the nineteenth century are long out of print. This
literature ranges from mediumistic communications of varied
value, including spirit revelations from automatic writing,
trance sermons, and séances, to personal experiences of investigators
and theories of psychical researchers, to histories of
Spiritualism and attacks on it.
Books that chart the transition from mesmerism and animal
magnetism to Spiritualism are valuable for the information and
opinions of the time. Emma Hardinge Britten’s Nineteenth Century
Miracles (1884) and Modern American Spiritualism (1869) are
full of detailed, hard-to-find information on the events of the
period but are written from the viewpoint of a firm believer and
worker in the field and are sometimes marred by inaccurate
quotations. Alphonse Cahagnet’s The Celestial Telegraph (2
vols., 1851) and Robert Hare’s Experimental Investigation of the
Spirit Manifestations (1856) are also of special period interest.
Autobiographies of mediums are fascinating and well worth
studying for their firsthand subjective viewpoint. A classic work
of this kind is D. D. Home’s Incidents in My Life (1863). Other
popular works of this kind are Estelle Roberts’ Fifty Years a Medium
(1969) and Doris Stokes’s Voices in My Ear (1980).
Various histories of Spiritualism are available, but there is
no single satisfactory work. It is advisable to study different histories,
bearing in mind the commitment of their writers. Cesar
de Vesme’s History of Experimental Spiritualism (2 vols., 1931) is
a comprehensive survey of Spiritualist type phenomena in
many countries from primitive times on. William Howitt’s The
History of the Supernatural (1863) is useful, if simplistic, in tracing
the antecedents of Spiritualism in past ages. E. W. Capron’s
Modern Spiritualism Its Facts and Fanaticism, Its Consistencies and
Contradictions (1855) has special interest as an account of the
movement in its early years.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s History of Spiritualism (2 vols.,
1926) is an important review of the background and history of
the movement, but non-critical in its presentation. Frank Podmore’s
Modern Spiritualism (2 vols., 1902) is a skeptical review,
valuable for its detailed information of early mediumship. J.
Arthur Hill’s Spiritualism Its History, Phenomena and Doctrine
(1918) is useful but fragmentary. A. Campbell Holms’s The Facts
of Psychic Science and Philosophy (1925) is a useful tabulation of
the phenomena of Spiritualism but non-critical in treatment.
In the decades since Spiritualism celebrated its centennial
in 1948, a variety of scholars, primarily sociologists and historians,
have taken a look at the movement and provided valuable
additions to the literature. Foremost is J. Stillson Judah’s The
History and Philosophy of the Metaphysical Movements in America
(1967), which discusses Spiritualism in the larger context of the
movement, from the doctrines of Emanuel Swedenborg to
Spiritualism and then to Theosophy. An excellent modern survey
of nineteenth-century Spiritualism in the United States is
provided in Slater Brown’s The Heyday of Spiritualism (1970);
and British Spiritualism is covered in Geoffrey K. Nelson’s Spiritualism
and Society (1969). Hans Bear supplies a most valuable
discussion of the very neglected spiritual churches, the movement
of Spiritualism in the African American community.
Lamar Keene, a former Spiritualist, documents the continuance
of fake materialization séances in some Spiritualist
churches. Keene’s volume joins a long list of older but still valuable
literature, such as John W. Truesdell’s The Bottom Facts
Concerning the Science of Spiritualism (1884); Julien J. Proskauer’s
Spook Crooks! Exposing the Secrets of the Prophet-eers Who Conduct
Our Wickedest Industry (1932); Harry Houdini’s A Magician
Among the Spirits (1924); and the anonymous Revelations of a
Spirit Medium (1891; reissued by Harry Price and Eric J. Dingwall).
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