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

Published by Jo Hedesan on on 13 March 2009

Before New Age, there was Spiritualism. Just like New Age, Spiritualism started as an American 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 us today: ghost sightings, poltergeists, haunted houses, possessed people, mediums etc. Movies like Ghost and the Sixth Sense are but the latest manifestations of a movement that sprang in the middle of the 19th century. Even though Spiritualism waned sometime between the two World Wars, beliefs in ghost manifestations have survived. After all, a 2006 Gallup Organization poll revealed that 32% of Americans believe in ghosts (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 laid out through the first séance that launched the Spiritualist craze, which took place in Hydesville, New York in 1848. The Fox sisters allegedly communicated with the spirit of a dead person which heralded a new era when “the spirits clothed in the flesh are to be more closely and more palpably connected with those who have put on immortality” (2). From there on, the Spiritualist movement spread like wildfire across the United States. Mediums appeared everywhere, organizing spectacular séances where noises (rappings), table turning, automatic writing, levitation, partial or total ghost materialization and others occurred. The democratic nature of séances attracted a great number of those disgruntled with organized religion as well as women seeking liberation from Victorian conventions (3). While many refer to Spiritualism as a “religion”, it was not in the truest sense of the word. There was no organization, no coherent belief system, no hierarchy, no formal priesthood (except for the mediums). At the same time, it developed a ritualistic gathering, the séance, not unlike church meetings. Its belief system was simple: as Mary Fenn Davis put it, that man has a Spirit, that this Spirit lives after death, and that 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 from and where they were going. The most important theoreticians of the movement were Andrew Jackson Davis in America and Allan Kardec in France. Jackson Davis, a clairvoyant influenced by the philosophy of Swedenborg and Mesmer, claimed to write numerous Spiritualist volumes dictated by disembodied spirits (6). As a side note, 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, the movement 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, socialists like Robert Owen, writers like James Fenimore Cooper, Arthur Conan Doyle and others. 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-mortem instructions received from his dead father emperor Nicholas I (8, 9). In a case that caused sensation in its time, a medium claimed that Charles Dickens dictated him the rest of his unfinished novel Edwin Drood (10). Most Spiritualists firmly believed that the phenomenon were natural and could be measured 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 the Spiritualist phenomenon (12). As science still held an enormous prestige in the era, Spiritualists looked forward to it certifying the belief in immortality (13). Indeed, an esteemed scientist such as evolutionary biologist Edgar Wallace lent his support to the séances. Despite the Spiritualists’ lofty ideals and expectations, the movement was fraught, almost from the start, with the problem of the mediums. Mediums were the intermediaries of psychic phenomena, playing a role similar to priests and religious authorities in other organized religions. Yet mediums were often lowly and shady characters whose motives were sometimes questionable. Several so-called mediums were exposed as frauds or impostors looking for money and fame (14). The reliance on these ambiguous mediums, combined with oppositions of many of the scientific and religious community, eventually stifled the movement. The scientific nature of séances was never settled, and Spiritualist beliefs never quite went away. As mentioned at the beginning, they got absorbed into the wider New Age movement. The legacy of Spiritualism is worth mentioning for a moment. Spiritualism had an important impact on the formation of the esoteric movement of Theosophy, and indirectly influenced New Age beliefs. It empowered the feminist and abolitionist movement (for instance, Lincoln frequently consulted Spiritualist Jackson Davis) triggered the creation of the modern circus and magician numbers (15, 16), also had an impact on the arts and letters, with writers such as Harriet Beecher Stowe and William Butler Yeats being influenced by its beliefs. (1) Wikipedia. (2009). Ghost. Online. Available at: Accessed 12 March 2009. (2), (3), (4), (5), (7), (14) Gomes, M. (1987). The Dawning of the Theosophical Movement. 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) Wikipedia. (2009). Spiritualism. Online. Available at: Accessed 11 March 2009. (9), (10) Blavatsky, H.P. (2003). The Letters of H.P. Blavatsky. Quest Books. (11) Wikipedia (2009). Allan Kardec. Online. Available at: 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.

(15) Prothero, S. (1993). From Spiritualism to Theosophy: "Uplifting" a Democratic Tradition. Religion and American Culture, 3(2), pp. 197-216. (16) Goldsmith, B. (1998). Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull. New York: Alfred A Knopf.

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