Voices of Spirit

History of Spiritualism

Spiritualism is a religious movement that began in the United States and was prominent in the 1840s-1920s, especially in English-speaking countries. The movement's distinguishing feature is the belief that the spirits of the dead can be contacted by mediums. These spirits are believed to lie on a higher plane of existence than humans, and are therefore capable of providing guidance in both worldly and spiritual matters.


Modern Spiritualism first appeared in the 1840s in the Burned-Over District of upstate New York where earlier religious movements such as Millerism (Seventh Day Adventists) and Mormonism had emerged during the Second Great Awakening. It was an environment in which many people felt that direct communication with God or angels was possible, and in which many people felt uncomfortable with notions that God would behave harshly - for example, that God would condemn unbaptized infants to an eternity in Hell.

Swedenborg and Mesmer

In this environment the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) and the teachings of Franz Mesmer (1734-1815) provided an example for those seeking direct personal knowledge of the afterlife. Swedenborg, who claimed to communicate with spirits while in trance states, described in his voluminous writings the structure of the spirit world. Two features of his view particularly resonated with the early spiritualists: first, that there is not a single hell and a single heaven, but rather a series of spheres through which a spirit progresses as it develops; second, that spirits mediate between God and humans, so that human direct contact with the divine is through the spirits of deceased humans.

Mesmer did not contribute religious beliefs, but he contributed a technique, later known as hypnotism, that could induce trances and cause subjects to report contact with spiritual beings. There was a great deal of showmanship in Mesmerism, and the practitioners who lectured in mid-19th century America sought to entertain audiences as well as demonstrate a method for personal contact with the divine.

Perhaps the best known of those who combined Swedenborg and Mesmer in a peculiarly American synthesis is Andrew Jackson Davis who called his system the Harmonial Philosophy. Davis was a practising hypnotist, faith healer and clairvoyant from Poughkeepsie, New York. His 1847 book The Principles of Nature, Her Divine Revelations, and a Voice to Mankind, dictated to a friend while in trance, eventually became the nearest thing to a canonical work in a Spiritualist movement whose extreme individualism precluded the development of a single coherent world-view.

Linked to the Reform Movement

Spiritualists often set March 31, 1848 as the beginning of their movement. On that date, Kate and Margaret Fox, of Hydesville, New York, reported that they had made contact with the spirit of a murdered pedlar. What made this an extraordinary event was that the spirit communicated through audible rapping noises, rather than simply appearing to a person. The evidence of the senses appealed to practical Americans, and the Fox sisters became a sensation.

Amy Post and Isaac Post, Hicksite Quakers from Rochester, New York, had long been acquainted with the Fox family, and took the two girls into their home in the late spring of 1848. Immediately convinced of the genuineness of the Fox sisters' communications, they became early converts and introduced the girls to their circle of radical Quaker friends. It thus came about that many of the early participants in Spiritualism were radical Quakers and others caught up in the reforming movement of the mid-nineteenth century. These reformers were uncomfortable with established churches because those churches did little to fight slavery and even less to advance women's rights.

Women were particularly attracted to the movement, because it gave them important roles as mediums and trance lecturers. In fact, Spiritualism provided one of the first forums in which American women could address mixed public audiences. Cora L. V. Scott (1840-1923) was the most popular trance lecturer prior to the American Civil War. Young and beautiful, her appearance on stage fascinated men. Her audiences were struck by the contrast between her physical girlishness and the eloquence with which she spoke of spiritual matters, and found in that contrast support for the notion that spirits were speaking through her. Cora married four times, and each time adopted her husband's last name. During her period of greatest activity she was known as Cora Hatch.

Another famous woman spiritualist was Achsa W. Sprague, who was born November 17, 1827, in Plymouth Notch, Vermont. At the age of 20, she became ill with rheumatic fever and credited her eventual recovery to intercession by spirits. An extremely popular trance lecturer, she travelled about the United States until her death in 1861. Sprague was an abolitionist and an advocate of women's rights. Yet another prominent Spiritualist and trance medium prior to the Civil War was Paschal Beverly Randolph, an African American "Free Man of Colour", who also played a part in the Abolition movement.

Physical manifestations and fraud

In the years following the sensation that greeted the Fox sisters, demonstrations of mediumship (séances and automatic writing, for example) proved to be a profitable venture, and soon became popular forms of entertainment and spiritual catharsis. The Foxes were to earn a living this way and others would follow their lead. Showmanship became an increasingly important part of Spiritualism, and the visible, audible, and tangible evidence of spirits escalated as mediums competed for paying audiences. Fraud was certainly widespread, as independent investigating commissions repeatedly established, most notably the 1887 report of the Seybert Commission .

Prominent investigators who exposed cases of fraud came from a variety of backgrounds, including professional researchers such as Frank Podmore of the Society for Psychical Research or Harry Price of the National Laboratory of Psychical Research, and professional conjurers such as John Nevil Maskelyne. Maskelyne exposed the Davenport Brothers by appearing in the audience during their shows and loudly explaining how the trick was done. During the 1920s, professional magician Harry Houdini undertook a well-publicised crusade against fraudulent mediums. Throughout his crusade, Houdini was adamant that he did not oppose the religion of Spiritualism itself, but rather the practice of deliberate fraud and trickery for monetary gain that was carried out in the name of that religion.

But despite widespread fraud, the appeal of Spiritualism was strong. First and foremost, the movement appealed to those grieving the death of a loved one: the resurgence of interest in Spiritualism during and after the First World War was a direct response to the massive number of casualties. Secondly, the movement appealed to reformers, who found that the spirits were in favour of such causes du jour as equal rights. Finally, the movement appealed to those who had a materialist orientation and had rejected organised religion. The influential socialist and atheist Robert Owen embraced religion following his experiences in Spiritualist circles. Many scientific men who bothered to investigate the phenomena also ended up being converted. These include the chemist William Crookes, the evolutionary biologist Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913), and the physician and author Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930).

Characteristic beliefs, compared with other faiths

Spiritualists believe in the possibility of communicating with spirits. A secondary belief is that spirits are in some way closer to God than living humans, and that spirits themselves are capable of growth and perfection, and can progress through successively higher spheres or planes. The afterlife is therefore not a static place, but one in which spirits continue to evolve. The two beliefs: that contact with spirits is possible, and that spirits are more advanced than humans, leads to a third belief, that spirits are capable of providing useful knowledge about moral and ethical issues, as well as about the nature of God and the afterlife. Thus many Spiritualists will speak of their spirit guides - specific spirits, often contacted, who are relied upon for worldly and spiritual guidance.

Spiritualism emerged in a Christian environment and has many features in common with Christianity: an essentially Christian moral system, a perceived belief in the Judeo-Christian God, and liturgical practices such as Sunday services and the singing of hymns. The primary reason for these similarities is that Spiritualists believe that some spirits are "low" or mischievous, and delight in leading humans astray. Therefore, beginning with Swedenborg, believers have been cautioned to hesitate before following the advice of spirits, and have usually developed their beliefs within a Christian framework.

Nevertheless, on significant points Christianity and Spiritualism are quite different. Spiritualists do not believe that the acts of this life lead to the assignment of each soul into an eternity of either Heaven or Hell; rather, they view the afterlife as containing many hierarchically arrayed "spheres," through which each spirit can successfully progress. Spiritualists also differ from Christians in that the Judeo-Christian Bible is not the primary source from which they derive knowledge of God and the afterlife: their own personal contacts with spirits provide that source.

Religions other than Christianity have also influenced Spiritualism. Animist faiths, with a tradition of shamanism, are obviously similar, and in the first decades of Spiritualism many mediums claimed contact with American Indian spirit guides, in an apparent acknowledgement of these similarities. Unlike animists, however, spiritualists tend to speak only of the spirits of dead humans, and do not espouse a belief in spirits of trees, springs, or other natural features.

Hinduism, though an extremely heterogeneous belief system, generally shares a belief with Spiritualism in the separation of the soul from the body at death, and its continued existence. But Hindus differ from Spiritualists in that they typically believe in reincarnation, and typically hold that all features of a person's personality are extinguished at death. Spiritualists, however, maintain that the spirit retains the personality it possessed during its (single) human existence.

Spiritism, the branch of Spiritualism developed by Allan Kardec and predominant in most Latin countries, has always emphasised reincarnation. According to Arthur Conan Doyle, most British Spiritualists of the early 20th century were indifferent to the doctrine of reincarnation, very few supported it, while a significant minority were vehemently opposed, since it had never been mentioned by spirits contacted in séance. Thus, according to Doyle, it is the empirical bent of Anglophone Spiritualism - its effort to develop religious views from actual observation of phenomena - that kept Spiritualists of this period from embracing reincarnation.

Spiritualism also differs from occult movements, such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn or the contemporary Wiccan covens, in that spirits are not contacted in order to obtain magical powers (with the single exception of obtaining power for healing). For example, Madame Blavatsky (1831-1891) of the Theosophical Society only practised mediumship in order to contact powerful spirits capable of conferring esoteric knowledge. Blavatsky apparently did not believe that these spirits were deceased humans, and in fact held beliefs in reincarnation that were quite different from the views of most Spiritualists.

Developments after the 1920s

After the 1920s, Spiritualism evolved in three different directions. The first of these continued the tradition of individual practitioners, organised in circles centred on a medium and clients, without any ecclesiastical hierarchy or dogma. Already by the late 19th century Spiritualism had become increasingly syncretic, a natural development in a movement without central authority or dogma. Today, among these unorganised circles, Spiritualism is not readily distinguishable from the similarly syncretic New Age movement. These spiritualists are quite heterogeneous in their beliefs on issues such as reincarnation or the existence of God. Some appropriate New Age and Neo-Pagan beliefs, and others call themselves 'Christian Spiritualists', continuing with the old tradition of cautiously incorporating spiritualist experiences into their Christian faith.

The second direction taken by Spiritualism has been to adopt formal organisation, patterned after formal organisation in Christian denominations, with established creeds and liturgies, and formal training requirements for mediums. In North America the Spiritualist churches are primarily affiliated with the National Spiritualist Association of Churches, and in the UK with the Spiritualists National Union, founded in 1891. Formal education in spiritualist practice emerged in 1920, continuing today with Arthur Findlay's College. Diversity of belief among organised spiritualists has led to a few schisms, the most notable occurring in the UK in 1957 between those who held Spiritualism to be a religion sui generis, and a minority who held it to be a denomination of Christianity. The practice of organised Spiritualism today resembles that of any other organised religion, having discarded most showmanship, particularly those elements resembling the conjurer's art. There is thus today a much greater emphasis on "mental" mediumship and an almost complete avoidance of the miraculous "materialising" mediumship that so fascinated early believers such as Arthur Conan Doyle.

The third direction taken by Spiritualism has been a continuation of its empirical orientation to religious phenomena. Already as early as 1882, with the founding of the Society for Psychical Research, secular organisations emerged to investigate spiritualist claims. Today many persons with this empirical approach avoid the label of "Spiritualism," preferring the term "Survivalism." Survivalists eschew religion, and base their belief in the afterlife on phenomena susceptible to at least rudimentary scientific investigation, such as mediumship, near-death experiences, out-of-body experiences, electronic voice phenomena, and reincarnation research. Many Survivalists see themselves as the intellectual heirs of the Spiritualist movement.

The Seven Principles of Spiritualism

These Seven Principles, which act as guidelines for the development of a personal philosophy of how to live one’s life, are stated as follows:-

  1. The Fatherhood of God
  2. The Brotherhood of Man
  3. The Communion of Spirits and the Ministry of Angels
  4. The continuous existence of the human soul
  5. Personal responsibility
  6. Compensation and retribution hereafter for all the good and evil deeds done on earth
  7. Eternal progress open to every human soul

Text provided by Wikipedia - Please note the views represented in the text do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Sarah. The text is meant as reference only.

Further research and reading into the History of Spiritualism is recommended, such as:-

  • Arthur Conan Doyle - History of Spiritualism.

For more information why not search the internet for -

  • The Fox Sisters;
  • Spiritual Association of Great Britain;
  • College of Psychic Studies;
  • Spiritualist National Union;
  • Fraudulent Mediums Act 1952;
  • Helen Duncan - the last person to be prosecuted under the Witchcraft Act.


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