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The Spiritualist Movement: Ghost Manifestations, Séances and Scientific Proofs of Immortality

The Spiritualist Movement: Ghost Manifestations, Séances and Scientific Proofs of Immortality



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Published by Jo Hedesan
The article analyzes the Spiritualist movement that started at the middle of the 19th century. The Spiritualists believed that the dead could communicate with the living and that scientific proof could be brought for it.
The article analyzes the Spiritualist movement that started at the middle of the 19th century. The Spiritualists believed that the dead could communicate with the living and that scientific proof could be brought for it.

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Published by: Jo Hedesan on Mar 13, 2009
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 Published by Jo Hedesan onhttp://www.esotericoffeehouse.com/ on 13 March 2009
Before New Age, there was Spiritualism. Just like New Age, Spiritualism started as anAmerican counterculture movement. Just like New Age, it was a spontaneous,‘democratic’, unorganized form of belief that did not have religious hierarchy or sacred books, at least until very late. The vestiges of Spiritualism are still with ustoday: ghost sightings, poltergeists, haunted houses, possessed people, mediums etc.Movies like
and the
Sixth Sense
are but the latest manifestations of a movementthat sprang in the middle of the 19
century. Even though Spiritualism wanedsometime between the two World Wars, beliefs in ghost manifestations have survived.After all, a 2006 Gallup Organization poll revealed that 32% of Americans believe inghosts (1).At the core of Spiritualist belief was the alleged phenomenon of ghost apparitions.The dead appeared to the living in organized sessions called séances, being channeled by human beings with special paranormal gifts called mediums. The pattern was laidout through the first séance that launched the Spiritualist craze, which took place inHydesville, New York in 1848. The Fox sisters allegedly communicated with thespirit of a dead person which heralded a new era when “the spirits clothed in the fleshare to be more closely and more palpably connected with those who have put onimmortality” (2). From there on, the Spiritualist movement spread like wildfire acrossthe United States. Mediums appeared everywhere, organizing spectacular séanceswhere noises (rappings), table turning, automatic writing, levitation, partial or totalghost materialization and others occurred. The democratic nature of séances attracteda great number of those disgruntled with organized religion as well as women seekingliberation from Victorian conventions (3).While many refer to Spiritualism as a “religion”, it was not in the truest sense of theword. There was no organization, no coherent belief system, no hierarchy, no formal priesthood (except for the mediums). At the same time, it developed a ritualisticgathering, the séance, not unlike church meetings. Its belief system was simple: asMary Fenn Davis put it, that man has a Spirit, that this Spirit lives after death, andthat it can hold intercourse with people still in the flesh (4). Another unspoken belief was that these spirits of the departed were uniformly benevolent (5). Apart from that,there was hardly any consensus about what the spirits were, where they came fromand where they were going. The most important theoreticians of the movement wereAndrew Jackson Davis in America and Allan Kardec in France. Jackson Davis, aclairvoyant influenced by the philosophy of Swedenborg and Mesmer, claimed towrite numerous Spiritualist volumes dictated by disembodied spirits (6). As a sidenote, Jackson Davis greatly influenced another famous clairvoyant, Edgar Cayce.At the height of the movement (in the 1870s), more than 11 million Americans were practicants or believers in Spiritualism in a population of 44 million, and the actual‘undeclared’ Spiritualist population might have been higher (7). From America, themovement spread to Europe, notably Great Britain and France. A great number of famous figures supported Spiritualism, including scientists like Edgar Wallace,
Claude Flammarion, William Crookes, psychologists like William James, socialistslike Robert Owen, writers like James Fenimore Cooper, Arthur Conan Doyle andothers. The mother of Abraham Lincoln organized séances to speak to her son after his death and czar Alexander I abolished serfdom in Russia because of post-morteminstructions received from his dead father emperor Nicholas I (8, 9). In a case thatcaused sensation in its time, a medium claimed that Charles Dickens dictated him therest of his unfinished novel
 Edwin Drood 
(10).Most Spiritualists firmly believed that the phenomenon were natural and could bemeasured scientifically. For instance, astronomer Flammarion claimed that “spiritism(French for Spiritualism) was not a religion but a science” (11). Numerous scientists,including Pierre and Marie Curie, tried to ascertain the scientific nature of theSpiritualist phenomenon (12). As science still held an enormous prestige in the era,Spiritualists looked forward to it certifying the belief in immortality (13). Indeed, anesteemed scientist such as evolutionary biologist Edgar Wallace lent his support to theséances.Despite the Spiritualists’ lofty ideals and expectations, the movement was fraught,almost from the start, with the problem of the mediums. Mediums were theintermediaries of psychic phenomena, playing a role similar to priests and religiousauthorities in other organized religions. Yet mediums were often lowly and shadycharacters whose motives were sometimes questionable. Several so-called mediumswere exposed as frauds or impostors looking for money and fame (14). The relianceon these ambiguous mediums, combined with oppositions of many of the scientificand religious community, eventually stifled the movement. The scientific nature of séances was never settled, and Spiritualist beliefs never quite went away. Asmentioned at the beginning, they got absorbed into the wider New Age movement.The legacy of Spiritualism is worth mentioning for a moment. Spiritualism had animportant impact on the formation of the esoteric movement of Theosophy, andindirectly influenced New Age beliefs. It empowered the feminist and abolitionistmovement (for instance, Lincoln frequently consulted Spiritualist Jackson Davis)triggered the creation of the modern circus and magician numbers (15, 16), also hadan impact on the arts and letters, with writers such as Harriet Beecher Stowe andWilliam Butler Yeats being influenced by its beliefs.(1)
. (2009). Ghost. Online. Available at:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ghost/. Accessed 12 March 2009.(2), (3), (4), (5), (7), (14) Gomes, M. (1987). The Dawning of the TheosophicalMovement. Quest Books.(6) Delp, R.W. (1967). Andrew Jackson Davis: Prophet of American Spiritualism.
The Journal of American History
, 54(1), pp. 43-56.(8), (12)
. (2009). Spiritualism. Online. Available at:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spiritualism. Accessed 11 March 2009.(9), (10) Blavatsky, H.P. (2003).
The Letters of H.P. Blavatsky
. Quest Books.(11)
(2009). Allan Kardec. Online. Available at:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allan_Kardec.Accessed 11 March 2009.(13) Moore, L. (1972). Spiritualism and Science: Reflections on the First Decade of the Spirit Rappings.
 American Quarterly
, 24(4), pp. 474-500.

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