Comment favourable to
Spiritualism by Millissa Milcart
2 Skeptical comment by B Stett
(Investigator 16, 1991 January)
Spiritualism can be defined as the practices involved in, and stemming from, the survival by the human consciousness of physical death and the ability of such discarnate (ie without a physical body) consciousness to communicate with those who are still physically alive.
The year 1836
Danzig, the last
known executions for witchcraft in the West. This was significant for
rise of Spiritualism because the activities that gave birth to the
movement would at an earlier time have lead to charges of witchcraft.
in general explain the comparatively modern start of what they allege
a movement as old as humanity as a result of a verse in the Bible:
The rise of secularism by the nineteenth century removed this potentially fatal obstacle.
The foundation for Spiritualism, as it exists today in the West, was laid in Hydesville, New York State, in 1848. That year a series of mysterious rappings began to be heard in the small house where the Fox sisters, then teenagers, lived. They maintained that these rappings were caused by the discarnate spirit of a pedlar who had been murdered in, and buried under, the house. Human remains are said to have been found later that year buried under the cellar. This helped to boost what skeptics decreed a teenage prank into what quickly became a new religion and that took North America and Europe by storm.
In 1884 Maggie, one of the Fox sisters, publicly confessed that it was all a hoax. She demonstrated how she had made the rapping noises with her toes. Her sister Kate supported her confession. However, the faithful have reinterpreted these actions. Maggie's confession is seen as that of a broken and alcoholic woman who desperately wanted peace following a lifetime of being hounded by the established churches and the press. Kate's statement was seen as sisterly support.
Thus began the history of modern Spiritualism, a pedigree replete with fraud and failure.
Spiritualism, a movement which offers hope and consolation to many, has built up a coherent theology and a great bank of anecdotal evidence. Many famous mediums have been exposed as frauds but others have not been seen to be dishonest. It is of interest that Maggie Fox, shortly before her death in 1895, withdrew her confession. It is apparent that, at least as far as its history is concerned, Spiritualism is a quagmire for the unwary. Yet, even so, when stripped of the accretion of fraud the movement has still the appearance of a basis in fact in the sense that some mediums, notably Daniel Dungas Home (1833-1886), were investigated and yet never exposed as frauds.
The definition at the beginning of this article succinctly describes the beliefs of modern Spiritualism: the survival of bodily death and communication with the living. Although this is a very attractive basis of belief modern Spiritualism is only I shadow of what it was in the first decades of this century. Followers were then estimated in millions. Now there would be only tens of thousands who believe.
There are varying degrees of differences of belief among Spiritualists. There are Christian and non-Christian Spiritualists; those who accept and those who reject reincarnation; and those who are enmeshed in New Age philosophy and those who are "classical" Spiritualists. These are the major themes of difference with many minor ones. Even given these major differences, however, the structure of basic Spiritualist beliefs is surprisingly uniform and is based on the concept of immortality.
According to Spiritualist theology the real self is an immortal spirit not a physical body. There are variant beliefs concerning the existence of the spirit prior to life in the physical body. These include:
- Existence of the spirit only from birth (or conception);
- A pre-existence in another physical body;
- An eternal pre-existence in the spirit world.
After physical death the spirit lives on in the Spirit World which is divided into a number of "planes" varying in character from heaven as conventionally understood to hell as conventionally understood.
Spiritualism has a basis of salvation by works – the actions in this life determining the relative position or "plane" in the Spirit World attained by the spirit immediately after physical death. But it does not end there as the spirit can progress to "higher" planes within the Spirit World. This progression is based on actions – aided by other denizens of the Spirit World – and thus renders salvation available to all. Believers in reincarnation basically accept this also with the addenda that a combination of the actions of the physical life, and afterwards in the Spirit World, leads to the appropriate station in a new physical life.
What Spiritualism is most famous for, after belief in survival of physical death, is its well known teaching that spirits can communicate with people in the physical world. This is the underpinning of the seance. The seance (French for "sitting") is the setting for communicating with the inhabitants of the Spirit World. The central person in a seance is the "medium". A medium is a person who, via a complicated arrangement, is a communication channel between this physical world and the Spirit World. The medium contacts a discarnate spirit termed a "control" who is responsible for the proper routing of spirit messages. In addition the medium is usually said to be clairvoyant or clairaudient i.e. can either see or hear, at least to a limited degree, into the Spirit World. A typical message from the Spirit World would therefore run as follows: discarnate spirit to control to medium to receiver. Spiritualists are quick to admit that many messages from beyond are garbled, incomplete or inaccurate and they attribute this to cumulative error in the transmission process.
Thus are the basics of Spiritualism. These are interpreted in many ways ranging from the purely mechanical and non-religious (there are, in fact, Spiritualists who are atheists) to the religious in that it is seen as a (true) form of Christianity or even as a denomination in its own right.
Many Spiritualist groups view themselves as Christian and have religious services. In Australia there are many Spiritualist churches that are recognised by the Australian Government in having official marriage celebrants. These groups usually hold regular Sunday services which include hymns, a sermon, and spirit messages. In addition part of the service is devoted to "spirit healing" as Spiritualists commonly believe there exists a supernatural healing power that can be directed to those who still live in a physical body. Usually each church holds a weekly "development class" where potential new mediums are trained. In the United Kingdom, where the movement is much stronger than in Australia, there is also a children's Sunday School which is known as a Lyceum.
Conventional denominations view Spiritualism unfavourably. They see it as wishful thinking, conscious fraud, or the work of demons. This is perhaps understandable since Spiritualism disagrees with conventional religion about the very nature and destiny of man in that irrespective of actions in the physical life all can attain the highest heaven. Conversely some conventional clergymen (especially Church of England) have accepted Spiritualism in modified form as an extension of conventional beliefs.
There is no set creed of Spiritualistic belief, no canon of scripture. Beliefs have developed in an ad hoc manner over the last 140 years and have confronted and adapted Christianity as well as being swallowed up in the miasma of New Age thought. Yet, even then, it is a religion premised on the basic goodness of man.
that there is no death
– only a transition from life to life. Its proponents claim that they
fear by knowledge and mourning by certainty. It has been a perennial
of man that life continues beyond the grave – a belief that science (at
present) can neither prove nor disprove. But Spiritualism endures
of its positive answer to death the common lot of all mankind.
(Investigator 16, 1991
"Did you understand the message?" the old lady asked after each "flower reading". The 16 persons attending the Port Adelaide Spiritualist Church had each deposited a flower in containers next to the pulpit. The "medium" fingered each flower and then gave the owner a message from the spirits. I was told I'm a loaner, have vivid dreams that startle me, used to work on the docks, and that "things are not as you would like them to be."
Some in the audience stated the message they received made no sense or didn't apply. The medium then explained that often the message is about people we know or will know!
About 1¼ hours of the 2-hour meeting went to the flowers and the rest to songs, sermon and announcements.
Seances – where
and her/his clients
sit in the dark and contact the dead – are not part of the Church
but can be arranged separately.
Spiritualism is: "a movement which is characterized by two major beliefs; that the human personality in some form survives death of the body, and secondly that it is possible to communicate with the spirits of the dead." (MAN MYTH & MAGIC, Vol. 6 p. 2656)
Or: "A belief in the frequent communication of intelligence from the world of the spirits, by means of physical phenomena, commonly manifested through a person of special susceptibility, called a medium." (BIBLE READINGS FOR THE HOME CIRCLE, 1896 p. 215)
Spiritualism is not an organization or a denomination, but consists of loosely connected national associations, local societies, home circles and individuals.
Adelaide has seven Spiritualist churches attended by 300 and all Australia has about 70 Spiritualist churches.
Five factors combined to motivate me to find out about Spiritualism and write about it:
ads in the Saturday
religious notices. Then I came across several pamphlets and magazines.
An acquaintance gave me a book titled LIFE IN THE WORLD UNSEEN. I read
an article by John Bonnell, president of the New York Theological
who used to research Spiritualism. At a seance in 1930 he contacted the
great Baptist Bible preacher Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892) and
couldn't name in order Matthew, Mark, Luke and John! The final
was my mother's account of a friend who used to save her money for two
years at a time and then pay $2,000 for a half-hour seance to speak to
her deceased husband.
Spiritualism began in 1848 when two young sisters Margaretta Fox, 13, and Katherine Fox, 11, produced knocking sounds or "raps" as a joke and pretended the sounds were made by the spirits of the dead.
The Fox family lived in Hydesville a village in New York State.
In 1851 Kate confessed the joke to Mrs Norman Culver sister in law of David Fox an older brother. (Brandon 1984) In the same year three professors from Buffalo University also concluded that the raps were "snapping of toe and knee joints". On October 21 1888 Maggie and Kate confessed again, this time in the New York Academy of Music before a packed audience and a committee of 5 five doctors. Maggie duplicated the raps on the platform.
Later Maggie recanted her confession when a rich Spiritualist named Henry Newton gave her accommodation and support. Newton never published the recant because it was incoherent. However, neither the confession nor its withdrawal made much difference to Spiritualism since the movement was already a major phenomenon where skilful mediums earned easy fame and easy fortune.
By 1854 an
using raps had spread across the eastern USA. Professional mediums and
private individuals formed groups and meeting places. Prominent persons
such as socialist and philanthropist Robert Dale Owen
converted to Spiritualism in 1853, became involved. Periodicals were
founded – THE SPIRIT MESSENGER (1849), HEAT AND LIGHT (1851), SHEKINAH
In 1852 Mrs
Spiritualism to Britain
resulting in the first Spiritualist church in Yorkshire in 1854. Other
American mediums followed. Daniel Dungas Home (born 1827, became a
in 1851) went in 1855. Then came P B Randolph, Rev. T L Harris, the
brothers, etc. The person who did most to establish Spiritualism as a
in Britain was Mrs Britten (1823-1899). She became a Spiritualist in
founded THE TWO WORLDS journal in 1887, and helped form the NATIONAL
OF SPIRITUALISTS (1890).
This became the SPIRITUALISTS NATIONAL UNION and represented 500 churches with 15,000 members by 1960. It represents the non-Christian element of Spiritualism. THE GREATER WORLD CHRISTIAN SPIRITUALIST LEAGUE, in contrast, has 200 churches and represents the "Christian" segment.
Raps alone soon lost their novelty.
In 1854 two Iowa mediums introduced "tongues" and "trance speaking". Others introduced jumping and levitating tables. Invisible ghosts began writing on slates and play musical instruments. Aura reading and mind reading commenced.
In 1860 occurred the first "full form materialization" of a spirit in the form of a luminous female figure. In 1862 came "spirit photography". Mediums learned to disappear by melting gradually into the floor or curtains. Of course all such things were done in the dark!
In 1872 Mrs
perfected the Punch &
Judy cabinet – a light tight box – into which the medium could go to
his power when materializing a ghost. Around World War I came ectoplasm
substance alleged to emanate from the medium's body during trance and
by the spirit into hands, arms, heads, etc.
Mrs Hayden, the American medium, and Mrs Roberts, who followed her to Britain in 1853, specialized in raps and table movements. Michael Faraday (1791-1867), Professor of chemistry, tested these ladies using glass rollers and boards on top of the table and demonstrated that hands and not ghosts caused table movements at seances!
The skilful Davenport brothers practised mediumship while tied hand and foot and enclosed in a small cabinet. Their expose came in 1868 when expert knotsters used a secret knot called a Tom Fool's Knot from which the brothers could not escape.
Colchester and Foster were two British mediums who were so blatant in producing fake "manifestations" that fellow Spiritualists exposed the methods used!
Henry Slade, an American medium, tried to milk the British craze in 1876. He was caught out by Professor Ray Lankester and skipped the country to avoid prison!
Mr & Mrs Holmes, originally of Philadelphia, ran a lucrative materialization racket until the ghost of King John was found to be a young neighbour named Katie King.
Dr Monk, a former clergyman turned medium, enjoyed a long career until caught in 1876 with a collapsible rod and other gadgets and imprisoned!
Successful medium Florence Cook (born 1857) was deposed for a while when Mr Volckman grabbed her while impersonating a spirit! Sir William Crookes (1832-1919), scientist and President (in 1913) of the Royal Society, investigated Cook for years starting 1874 and declared the ghosts she produced genuine.
Now, however, it
that Cook and Crookes
cooked up a crooked cock-and-bull story! In 1962 Trevor Hall, a
researcher, concluded that the two had collaborated in a gigantic hoax!
Their reasons were:
- The two were lovers and Crookes, a father of seven, had to keep a lid on the affair;
- To restore the faith of a wealthy old client whose financial contributions were slacking off!
Marthe Beraud was exposed as a fake in Algiers in 1906. She changed her name to Eva Carriere and tried again in Paris where she did seances in the nude. The phantoms she produced were eventually exposed as cut-outs from a magazine called LE MIROIR! She was tested in 1920 by the SPR but in 40 seances produced only a little "ectoplasm" which turned out to be chewed up paper! (Dingwall nd)
D D Home was investigated by Crookes (!) and others and is the only medium never caught in fraud. However, Home only performed when HE was satisfied with all conditions.
Famous "ghost buster" Harry Price (1881-1948) expose numerous spooks but did report a few phenomena which left him baffled. But Price himself was not always above collaboration – for a price! (Dingwall, Goldney & Hall 1956)
In 1958 William Roy whose seance customers totalled 100,000 confessed to fraud and revealed his methods!
could go on
and on but the point
is made! In 1965 the SPR offered £1,000 for a demonstration of
phenomena under test conditions – with no taker so far!
David P Abbott, professional magician and former medium, left Spiritualism and wrote books in 1907 and 1911 about the gadgets and methods mediums use. E J Dingwall and Harry Price also published an expose in 1927 of methods and gadgets.
The "telescopic reaching rod" could extend from 20cm to 2 metres. With it knocking sounds could be made, clients at a seance poked as if by a "familiar" spirit, and floating cardboard "phantoms" or "levitating" objects supported. Some rods were hollow and if the medium whispered through it the voice would "materialize" elsewhere. Sometimes the rod would support a guitar containing a wound-up musical box. In this way a ghost would seem to be playing guitar while floating around the room! Very effective!
Some mediums had mechanical rappers under the floor and operated them with threads!
Self-playing pianos were sometimes used.
Trapdoors under carpets and openings behind wall panels or curtains often enabled "spirits" to enter or "dematerialize" – easily done when the audience is gullible, docile, impressionable, and in the dark!
Mediums often swapped recipes for making ghosts more realistic. One recipe was silk veiling worked through with luminous paint, varnish, odourless benzine and lavender oil. A "collapse into nothingness" was staged by supporting the silk on a stick, retreating behind a curtain, then dropping the silk!
"Ectoplasmic" hands, which Margary Crandon often produced from her body in 1924/25, were (according to Harvard biologists who examined photos of the phenomenon) merely animal lung tissue cut to resemble hands!
At least one medium achieved the illusion of a table following her around by attaching silk Chinese thread and pulling. A gliding effect was achieved if the table had swivelled wheels.
Pictures on canvas seemingly produced by ghosts were arranged using two canvasses – a blank one shown for inspection and the one with the picture brought out during the seance. A better method was to use invisible pictures which became visible when sprayed with the appropriate chemical.
specially wired chairs
so that a confederate who went through clients' bags and coats in the
room could transmit information with morse code!
It often takes a trickster to catch one!
The magicians J N Maskelyne in the 1870s and Trevor H Hall in the 1950s duplicated the stunts of mediums in London's Egyptian Theatre. Maskelyne exposed numerous crooked psychics.
Harry Houdini (1874-1926), famous escape artist and magician, gave seances in 1898. Twenty years later when his mother had died and he wanted to contact her he reacted violently against many fake mediums.
Houdini was part of a committee set up by SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN in 1923 to look into Spiritualism. His toughest case was Margary Crandon who produced apparent psychic phenomena not for money by for the mischievous fun of it. Debate arose among the Committee as to whether Houdini had convincingly refuted Crandon. Houdini won in the sense that public demonstrations of the supernormal took a back seat for 50 years until Uri Geller came along.
American magician James Randi likes to expose psychical frauds. In one case a medium who made tables jump was about to appear on TV. Randi required him to: "sit against the wall, with hands flat on the table and the elbows pressing two pieces of cardboard against the wall." Any attempt to tilt or push the table would cause the cardboard to drop – which indeed occurred! (Randi 1982)
fortune as a medium but
gave up the trade in 1976 and wrote THE PSYCHIC MAFIA. He and his
previously enjoyed many laughs over how easy it was to get money from
The book BIBLE READINGS FOR THE HOME CIRCLE (1896) based its anti Spiritualist case on the following Bible references:
Deuteronomy 13:2-4; 18:10-11
2 Corinthians 11:14-15
2 Thessalonians 2:8-10
1 John 4:1
Do "spirits" of
exist in such a
way at present as to be able to interact with the material world? The
BIBLE DICTIONARY (1982) says:
Christians sometimes cite Spiritualist phenomena as proof of the supernatural. Hereward Carrington (1908) guessed that 98% of the "physical phenomena" of Spiritualism was fraudulent. That leaves 2%! Skeptic Simeon Edmunds admits: "Even the superb Eusapia cheated on occasion but only the superbly rash would deny her some genuine and astonishing phenomena." (1966 p.195) But he also argues: "Again, no scientist who has died seems to have communicated information which has contributed to our scientific knowledge, or which has resolved work left unfinished at his death. This is equally true of eminent men in other fields..." (p. 183)
There are several Spiritualists such as Luis Gasperetto of Brazil who paint duplicates of famous paintings while supposedly under trance. They claim that the spirit of the original painter is working through them. A more mundane explanation is that Casperetto merely has the talent for copying – like the artists who do similar copying jobs on sidewalks in business areas of major cities.
to back belief in the supernatural would certainly have to find other
better evidence to add to it!
I have never have worked on the docks and nor do I have vivid dreams that startle me. My "flower reading" was wrong! What about "things are not as you would like them to be?" Well, would anyone with a conscience claim that the entire world IS exactly how he would like it to be? Statements in flower readings are either wrong, vague or lucky guesses. And there's always the cop-out that the "spirit" is talking about the future or about someone I know or one day will know!
The Spiritualist who gave me LIFE IN THE WORLD UNSEEN stated, "Most material written by Spiritualists is rubbish but this is one of the better books." I read it and found that the post-death world is a perfected replica of our present existence. Clothes don't get dirty; animals don't die or bite; water won't wet you if fall in; there are no strong winds, only scented breezes; fruit is always deliciously sweet and ready to eat; trees grow straight and clean; etc. The book gave not a single evidence or test for any of this. In that sense it was like a science fiction world created by a science fiction writer.
I can't say
whether or not
that friend of
my mother's who paid $2,000 per seance got good value. As regards
I wasn't convinced enough to donate 1 cent to the collection plate!
Abbott, D P 1907 Behind
the Scenes with the
Abbott, D P Independent Voices, Movement of Objects without Contact, and Spirit Portraits. Journal of the ASPP, April 1911.
Anonymous 1896 Bible Readings for the How Circle. International Tract Society, London.
Anonymous Man Myth and Magic. Volume I pp. 2656-2663
Bonnell, J S The Resurgence of Spiritism. Christianity Today, March 1, 1963.
Borgia, A 1975 Life In The World Unseen, Corgi.
Brandon, R 1984 The Spiritualists, Prometheus.
Carrington, H 1908 The Physical Phenomena of Spiritism, London.
Dingwall, E J Report of a Series of Sittings with Eva C. Proc. SPR. Volume 32 pp. 209-343
Dingwall, E J; Goldney, K M; Hall, T H 1956 The Haunting of Borley Rectory. Duckworth, Britain.
Edmunds, S 1966 Spiritualism A Critical Survey. Aquarian Press, Britain.
Hall, T H 1962 The Spiritualists. Duckworth, Britain.
Keene, M L 1976 The Psychic Mafia, USA.
Randi, J 1982 Flim Flam. Prometheus, USA.
Spence, 1988 The Encyclopedia of the Occult, Bracken Books, USA.