Spiritualism: A Popular History from 1847/Chapter 1
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Chapter I. The Preparation of the World
THE PREPARATION OF THE WORLD
Spiritualism began in the year 1848. Seeing that the Spiritualists of London invited the public, in 1920, to join with them in celebrating their seventy-second anniversary, the historian has no need to hesitate about choosing his starting-point. There is, further, no difficulty about selecting the precise event. The year 1848 was one of the great years of the nineteenth century. A grim revolutionary wave rolled over Europe. France finally rejected its old feudal royalty. Mazzini and his friends set up a republic at Rome. Germany and Austria seethed with rebellious sentiment. Chartists sent a shudder through London. The Abolition-movement gathered strength in America. It was a great year, a foundation-year. But the events to which Spiritualism traces its rise were as far removed as possible from these world-changing tumults. They were certain mysterious sounds that startled the inmates of a little wooden house in a very small village of a very provincial district of the United States.
There are reasons, which we will presently consider, why some hesitate to admit that these obscure occurences in the American village of Hydesville were the beginning of their movement. The late Professor Hyslop, for instance, one of the most distinguished of spiritualist writers, says, in regard to the practice of dating Spiritualism from 1848, that "there is little excuse for this narrowness of view." Since it is the usual spiritualist practice, Professor Hyslop's words may seem strange. But the reader of his work will find that he, like other cultivated Spiritualists, regards the Hydesville performances as at least mainly fraudulent, and he is anxious to strip them of anything like a fundamental character. He thinks that "modern Spiritualism really originated in the work of Swedenborg." Other writers go much farther back along the dim ways of history. Some take us amongst the savage tribes, whose practices represent the life of man long before the dawn of history. Spiritualism is as old as man, they say; and they draw a distinction between ancient and modem Spiritualism. De Vesme began to write an exhaustive history of it, and in his two published volumes he has only just reached the events of 1848.
I do not propose to follow these writers through earlier ages or amongst savage peoples. The essence of what we now know as Spiritualism is, both in popular opinion and in its own official literature, the claim of communication with deceased human beings. At one time a Spiritualist was any man who believe in the existence of spirits. In that sense every Christian or Mohammedan is a Spiritualist. Those who still use the term in that sense would call such men as Sir A. C. Doyle and Sir Oliver Lodge "Spirists"; and on the Continent many accept that name. But the word Spiritualist is now generally used to indicate a member of an organised body or religion which is essentially characterised by communication with the dead.
In this, the correct sense, there was no Spiritualism before 1848, There were students of the occult, and they at times had many followers. There were religions in which a certain amount of communication with the dead was incidentally claimed. There were "seers" who professed to hold communication with spirits, and, like Swedenborg, some of them founded religions. There were rare and isolated cases in which individuals, resembling the modern mediums, professed to receive messages from the dead, or even to see them. But there never was, before 1848, a movement organised for that specific purpose; and in most of the cases which are usually given as "Spiritualism" in earlier times there was no profession of communication with the dead. Even Swedenborg rarely claimed to be in touch with dead human beings. Like most of the older "seers," he said that his revelations came from non-human spirits.On the contrary, most Spiritualists claim, and more plausibly claim, that their movement not only began in 1848, but was peculiarly opportune about
that date. The nineteenth century was, they say, just entering upon a very dangerous period of "materialism," or absorption in this visible world and its concerns. There was the democratic movement to which I have referred. The masses of the workers were beginning at last to dream of a better earth and throw all their energy into the creation of it. There was the new scientific movement. In 1848, Charles Darwin was quietly working out his new theory. Spencer, Huxley, Tyndall, and so many other apostles of this world were approaching their mighty tasks. On the other hand, the authority of the Churches was visibly failing. It was just the time for a new revelation. Philosophy and theology, the wings on which men had hitherto risen to higher spheres, were drooping. So, Spiritualists say, the living spirits of those who had "passed beyond" began to rap on the walls of our earthly home and prepare men for a direct revelation of the truth of immortality.
There can be no doubt that the decay of the older creeds had much to do with the rise of this modern movement, but the precise connection between the two, and with other movements of the time, requires more careful study. What happened in Hydesville in 1848 does not explain a movement which within a few years had hundreds of thousands of adherents. It is clearly the conditions of the growth of Spiritualism that we need to understand first.
There was a good deal of what is broadly called "occultism" in the world in the first half of the nineteenth century. Many writers point out that, when an old national religion decays, a large number of what they call "superstitions" appear. We think of the analogy of some decaying forest, where, as the old trees die, the spirit of the earth is incarnated in a hundred weird parasitic growths. So it was, these writers say, in the old Roman Empire. So it was again in Europe when the powerful Rationalistic movement of the eighteenth century had greatly impaired the vitality of the old religion. It sounds plausible, but it is little more than a figure of speech. It is the decay of ecclesiastical authority not of faith, which accounts mainly for the new developments. There were Spiritualists and occultists all through the Middle Ages; but they were promptly drowned as witches or burned as heretics. The fate of the few prevented the many from indulging this tendency, though it was always there. By the end of the eighteenth century the weapons had, in most countries, been torn from the hands of the ecclesiastical authorities, and the new freedom was exemplified in many curious ways.
Swedenborgianism was one of these new developments, and, as far as its small influence went, it helped to prepare the way for Spiritualism. But Swedenborgians were few and little noticed. They merely survived obscurely from decade to decade; the sudden and phenomenal development of Spiritualism about the middle of the nineteenth century is a totally different matter. It is absurd, from the historical point of view, to say more than that the new belief found a few Swedenboigians ready to receive it.
The early and imperfect science of the eighteenth century was a much more important element. The magnetic force, which Volta and Galvani and others brought to the general notice of educated people in the eighteenth century, was peculiarly mysterious and fascinating. It was popularly regarded as a strange "fluid," stored in certain metals, capable of doing very extraordinary things. Presently it was supposed to be discovered that there was a magnetic fluid also in human beings and animals, and "animal magnetism" was discussed in every city of Europe where the ecclesiastical authorities were no longer strong enough to prevent such heresies. Certain individuals were believed to have specially large quantities of this magnetic or electric fluid, and in the first half of the nineteenth century groups of men and women formed everywhere those circles for the production of phenomena which have come to be called séances. A Dr. Mesmer, the chief apostle of animal magnetism, attracted an enormous amount of attention in France and Germany between 1770 and 1780. He could put patients into a magnetic sleep and discover their maladies. He could induce this magnetic sleep in certain specially endowed individuals (mostly women), and they developed remarkable powers of clairvoyance. This "mesmerising" went on in all the capitals of Europe, and was only interrupted by the French Revolution and the turbulent decades that followed. Others then discovered that all of us have a share of this magnetic fluid, and that almost any group of us can make a table turn round (if it is not screwed to its pedestal) by placing our hands on it. A "table-turning" mania spread over Europe; and it was particularly virulent in England in 1847 and 1848, Just before the arrival of the first spiritualist announcements from America.
How far this prepared the general public for a belief in occult powers will be seen from the following episode. In 1840, a little French peasant-girl, Angélique Cottin, began to attract the attention of her village by her remarkable experiences. When she rose from her chair, it was dashed backward to the ground. When she stood near a heavy table, it was overturned. As she was only thirteen years old, and a very quiet and Ignorant little creature, this was a clear case of "occult powers." Her fame spread to Paris, and she was sent there, and actually survived examination by men of science there. Chairs and tables went over, furniture moved about, in full daylight, under the noses of these men of science. The theory was that she was extraordinarily charged with the "electric fluid"; and electricity was too little understood in those days for anybody to see the absurdity of supposing that, even if a person were heavily chained with electricity, it could overturn a table. Even the Paris Academy of Sciences could not discover how she did these things. She was known all over France for a year or two as "the electric girl." In the end it was found that she had developed a remarkable power in the muscles of her legs, and could throw over a heavy table with them, under the eyes of a crowd of observers, without being detected, unless she was watched very closely.
As we read that a few years earlier, in 1839, two "electric girls" had been brought to France from Smyrna, we see how Angélique probably got the idea of her trick. Such things were common in the 'thirties and 'forties. "Mesmeric healers" were all over Europe. "Somnambules," or ladies mesmerised into a state of trance (like hypnotism), gave weird and wonderful performances nightly. In France and England, and most of Europe, this sort of thing was regarded as quite "scientific." But already there was a rival theory—a battle of Spiritualism and materialism. In Germany the idea of "spirit" was substituted for the electric fluid, and there were some everywhere who preferred this more refined theory.
It is well to remember, too, that in one form the spiritualist belief really was as old as humanity, and no ecclesiastical authority had ever ventured to condemn it. The Church could and did condemn the idea that certain individuals had what we now term mediumistic powers, and could "call spirits from the vasty deep." Their spirits were said to be evil spirits. They were wizards or witches. But the Church never condemned the popular belief that the ghosts of murdered people, or suicides, or other unfortunates, haunted the living. Men believed this probably a quarter of a million years ago, for we find the belief in a most acute form amongst the lowest peoples of the earth. They believed it still in Europe and America in the middle of the nineteenth century. The ghost-story was one of the most popular forms of literature. The haunted house was as common as the public-house. This was not genuine Spiritualism, as no medium was required, and there was no systematic cultivation of this supposed connection with the other world. But the fact remains that until at least the middle of the nineteenth century the great majority of people believed that at any time spirits of the dead might rap on their doors at midnight, trail ghostly chains along the corridor, or make. In sepulchral tones, some terrible communication from another world.
All these more or less heretical forms of, or outgrowths from, the old belief grew steadily from the time of Voltaire to the middle of the nineteenth century. It may seem, at first sight, that this throws no light on the birth and extraordinary growth of Spiritualism in America, and many writers look almost exclusively to the peculiar conditions of American life. We have, however, to remember that the first feature of the American population of those days was that it was largely made up of adventurous men and eccentric refugees from Europe. As a rule, only the bolder would in those days brave the storms of the Atlantic in such small vessels as they had, and then advance out upon the mighty prairie to carve out their farms. The other most common type was the man who fled from persecution in Europe. Whole sects, like the Rappites, migrated to the land of freedom; just as the Pilgrim Fathers had done, and as the Doukhobors would do at a later date.
There was thus a large and independent population in America prepared to deal boldly with new ideas. America was also at that time more sceptical than most countries of the old world: perhaps more sceptical than it is to-day. Many of the founders of the Republic—Paine, Franklin, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, etc.—had been Deists, and their close intercourse with the French during the Revolution had given them very advanced ideas. Benjamin Franklin had actually been a member of the commission which the French Government had directed the Faculty of Medicine and the Academy of Science to set up in 1782, to inquire into animal magnetism. He was quite familiar with the strange sights which were witnessed in Paris in those days: the rows of patients sitting round a tub containing bottles covered with water, the bent iron rods which went from the bottles to the diseased parts of the patients, and the convulsions and hysterical laughter and blood-spitting which the strain on the imagination—the "magnetic force"—produced. He knew the clairvoyants, and the somnambules, and the mesmeric healers who beguiled the hours of the French aristocracy during the years when the clouds of the Revolution were gathering, unnoticed, behind them.
Franklin was himself one of the founders of the science of electricity, and there was naturally as much interest in these matters in America as in Europe. The Swedenborgians, Shakers, Rappites, etc, saw spiritual agency in all little-understood phenomena. The Churches were as yet imperfectly organised, and millions lay entirely beyond their influence and ready to entertain any religious novelty. Most of the population of twenty million people was distributed over the enormous area of the States, in small villages or towns which were very poorly controlled by the culture of the cities. Railways were only just beginning. The provincial papers were culturally low, parochial, and sensational. Life was very monotonous. Ideas of what was normal or abnormal were very primitive. Mesmeric healers, phrenologists, and all kinds of frauds and fanatics had good conditions for prospering.
Three instances may be given of the peculiarly favourable condition of the American atmosphere. Mrs. Emma Hardinge tells us in her history of the early movement, that disturbances such as those which originated Spiritualism in Hydesville in 1848 had occurred among the Shakers as early as 1830. Mrs, Hardinge is very imaginative and unreliable, and the Shakers are so very much more imaginative and unreliable, that the historian must not offer this statement too seriously; but we cannot doubt that they gave her the information. They said that in 1830 their homes were disturbed by raps and the movement of furniture; their members were possessed by spirits and fell Into trances. In 20 THE PREPARATION OF THE WORLD the end they learned, they said, that in 1848 there would be a great discovery of material wealth — gold was discovered in Calif omia in that year — and a most generous outpour of spirit-communications. The modem reader will not take the prediction very seriously, as it was revealed by the Shakers only after 1848, but we must assume that the other part of the statement has some sort of foundation. Mrs, Hardinge is more entitled to our confidence in regard to the next instance, because there are police-court records to confirm the sequel of it.^ A Dr, Larkin, of Wrentham (Mass.), took up mesmeric healing in 1837. Part of this practice was, as I said, to throw sensitive women into a supposed state of trance (or mesmerise" them), and Dr. Larkin found an excellent subject in a servant-girl named Mary Jane. It is one of those cases of abnormal psychology which we cannot linger here to analyse. The important point is that the girl, in the state of trance, announced herself to be under the control of the spirits of dead humans. The chief control was the spirit of a dead sailor, and the language which issued from the lips of Mary Jane was so very nautical, and unlike her usual speech, that the shuddering hearers were convinced. Loud raps on the furniture and the floor were heard. Ohairs and tables moved mysteriously about. When the *' spirits ** went on in 1846 to put the girl's limbs repeatedly out of joint, the devilry was too much for pious neighbours. In the autumn of 1847, they appointed a committee to ^ HiHary of Modem AmeHean SpitrUuiaUm (1870), pp. 157-02. THE REVELATION OF A. J. DAVIS 21 invesidgate the oase. The committee reported that it was a genuine oase of spiiilr control, and in 1849 the clei^ moved. Mary Jane was brought before a magistrate, and was sentenced to shcty days in prison; which efEectively persuaded the spirits to leave her. The dates sufficiently show that this was quite independent of the Hydesville phenomena, and the case of Andrew Jackson Davis is similarly earlier and independent. Davis, whose real trade was shoe-making, became in 1843 a mesmeric healer and clairvoyant. He was then a precocious, uncanny, long-haired youth of seventeen : the kind of person who was easily believed to be rich ia animal mag- netism. In 1844 he declared that Swedenborg and Galen had appeared to him in a trance, and warned him that he had a great mission to mankind. This is, of course, a genuine case of Spiritualism, since he professed to be a medium commimicating with the spirits of the dead ; but it is very doubtful if Davis could have initiated such a movement as the Fox family eventually did. The extraordinary efiusions he now poured out convinced many thati he was really spirit-controlled, and two admirers. Dr. Lyon and the Bev. W. Fish- bough, took him to New York to inaugurate the new revelation. The three of them lived for a year on Davis's mesmeric healing, and in the intervals he went into a trance and reeled o£E, in a most remarkable Cushion, a new philosophy of the universe. It was taken down as he spoke, and appeared under the 22 THE PREPARATION OP THE WORLD iiiie oi The Principles of Nature (lUl). There is no need to examine the book seriously. The scientific enois and cradities of it release any person from considering whether there was any element of reve- lation in it. It is enough to recall that he traced the line of evolution from the clam to the tadpdb, and from the tadpole to the quadruped I Moreover, Davis was a palpable cheat. He maintained that up to that date he had read only one book in his life, and that book was a novel We know from his admirers that this was not true, and any person can recognise in his pages a very crude and badly digested mess of early scientific literature. He plainly read much on the sly. I should say that he was very gifted, and with training might have become a notable writer. There are very few youths of twenty-one who could have put together his crude mass of material in the rhetorical and pseudo-philosophical manner which he sustained day after day for several months. A professor at New York University — a Swedenborgian, be it said — ^pronounced his book
- a profound and elaborate discussion of the philo-
sophy of the universe. It was assuredly neither profound nor accurate, but it was a remarkable performance for such a youth. Davis and his followers were presently swallowed up in the spiritualist movement, but they did no slight wori^ in preparing the way for it. The new Spiritualism, which originated in Hydesville, did not reach New York until the end of 1840. Davis preceded it by two years. One can .imagine the THE INFLUENOE OF SOCIALISM 23 joy of Hhe New York piess oa diaooTering tiiat a levelation from the spiiilrworld was being deliveied in the very heart of the city 1 It was an ezoellent " stunt, as the modem American reporter would say, and the book, when it was published, was very widely discussed. Numbers who were dissatisfied with the Churches, yet were not prepared to discard religion, embraced the new message. It had about it a pronounced flavour of science, especially evolu- tionary science, and it promised a way out of the growing conflict of science and religion. It absorbed the sentiments of early sociatism, which was very common in America, especially since the work done there by Robert Owen (1824-8). It dealt very freely with old dogmas which the Ghurches still refused to modify. The number of Davisites grew considerably, and before the end of 1847 they founded a paper. The UniverocEiwn. In one respect the theological controversy had proceeded farther in America than in the old world, and a kind of new Christianity had appeared which gave many recruits to Davis. Large numbers resented the doctrine of eternal punishment and the idea that salvation was confined to any particular sect or religion. They organised under the name of Universalists, and they had churches and ministers in all the large towns. Davis found many supporters amongst these Universalist ministers, as we shaU presently find Spiritualism doing. There was no dogmatic authority to control them, and the social and scientific teaching of the new message seemed to 24 THE PREPARATION OF THE WORLD tiiem to forecast a really fibial and satisfactory form of religion. In fine, we must notice a f eatore of the very first importance, which is too rarely noticed by historians ; indeed, I know of no writer on Spiritualism who has realised how lai^e a share it had. Cardinal Newman has in one of his works a dissertation on the reasons why Ohristianity superseded Paganism. One of the chief reasons was, he says, because it offered to a sceptical world a very dear and confident message about a future life. The ancient Greeks and Romans were almost as vague and indifferent about the future life as the Babylonians. There is, in fact, only one of the older dvilisations — that of Egjpt — in which men concerned themselves materially about their life after death, or tried to frame a clear con- ception of it. Newman is wrong in supposing that this troubled the Romans, or that the very definite Qhristian idea of heaven was one of the chief reasons of ite success. But the argument illustrates one of the great advantagesof Spiritualism over theChristian Churches, and it is far sounder in this connection. The genuine Christian doctrine of heaven, the theological doctrine, was never in the minds of the uneducated millions of Europe. They really belie ved in a material heaven : in winged and radiant angeb, in the glorified forms of their dead, if not in streets of gold and houses of topaz. The spread of education and criticism in the nineteenth century had a curious effect here. It purified the popular conception of heaven ; it restored its spiritaal features ; and to thouBands of beUeveis it made heaven lees appealing, if not actoally insipid. A mother's heart was troubled when she learned that she would ** meet " (if such a phrase was permissible at aU) her child again only as a disembodied spirit. A man felt only moderate consolation in the doctrine that he would come into mental relation with his dead young wife, but would never again see the lovely face, the beaming eyes, the graceful form that had enchained his affections.
Upon this puzzled generation, shaken alike in its conception of heaven and its grounds for belief, A. J. Davis and Spiritualism broke with their restoration of the mediaeval idea. It was "' Summerland, Davis said ; from him Sir A. 0, Doyle has borrowed the term. It was earth without pain, disease, or death. The bereaved mother would see her child's dear form and blue eyes again. The new heaven was not only certain, for it now rested on no inferences and no ecdesiastical authority, but it was also intel- ligible and attractive. It had neither the insipidities of Dante's Paradiso nor the horrors of the Ohristian hell. Universaliste found it just what they desired. Men and women who were on the point of quitting Christianity because of the more painful features of ite mediaeval theology discovered a religicm to which they could subscribe.
By these various developments, scientific and social and religious, the American public was in great part prepared for the new gospel. Other reasons ^^ remarkable growth will appear as our story ; More human interests will be enlisted. But the movement was to pass through a few years of rather haphazard and precarious evolution before it would place this definite picture of the future life before the world, and we must now examine those strange events of the year 1848 from which the river plainly takes its rise.
- Contact with the Other World (1919), p. 23.
- History of Modern American Spiritualism (1870), p. 27.