In Other Words




The Rise of Spiritualism

1 March 2019

Andrew Jackson Davis, clairvoyant and mesmerist, quoted: “The theological propositions, founded upon the supposed performance of supernatural miracles, are so completely transparent, that the discerning mind cannot fail to see their utter nothingness.“ And: “The world will hail with delight the ushering-in of that era when the interiors of men will be opened, and the spiritual communion will be established such as is now being enjoyed by the inhabitants of Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. ” Davis was asking society to put aside any preconceived Christian notions, while also preying on the growing skepticism that corresponded to an advancement of scientific theories and evidence eroding some of the mystery surrounding natural phenomena. This disillusioned view of theology at the time was clearly an attempt to turn Davis’ followers toward an otherworldly alternative religion that embraced a celestial, semi-material utopia, where earthly pleasures did not end with death. But his was just one of many secular alternatives that would pave the way for the spiritualist movement ahead. For any movements to emerge, societal conditions need to be conducive to change, and during the mid 19th century the situation beckoned for a changing of the definition of the supernatural. This period of history did not necessarily produce an abundance of secular fanaticisms as such, but in most cases endorsed the belief in life beyond our realm, and offered mediumistic evidence of the supernatural.

This Age of Enlightenment, which followed the post-medieval scientific revolution, enticed philosophers and thinkers, such as Denis Diderot, Voltaire, and Baron d’Holbach, to propose various alternative definitions to explain the universe and natural phenomena. While still pursuing the ideas about God in relation to creation, and accepting certain religious structures that maintained a level of morality, their theories and explanations leant more toward naturalism that excluded the interference by the supernatural, and attempted to replace the spiritual with natural evidence-based theories. Concepts on religious tolerance, sociology and science were being examined with vigour. Middle and upper class Londoners met in groups to discuss history, politics, philosophy, and science in the newly popular coffee houses, where ideas were exchanged.

In the latter half of the 18th century and early into the 19th century, a reappearance of occult practices was primarily due to the commercialization of the press and the emergence of new writers and publications. However, these old practices of alchemy, astrology and ritual magic did not provide any new explanations about the supernatural. Emerging during this time also were Gothic novelists such as Ann Radcliffe, who used a popular device known as  “the explained supernatural,” where an occult event would ultimately be explained by natural causes. Rather than fuel any disenchantment, such Gothic novels ignited interest in spiritualist themes as demand for these books grew. Several decades later, and though not a spiritualist himself, Charles Dickens would inadvertently promote the movement with his classic tale, A Christmas Carol. These printed novels with their redemptive elements had replaced the old-fashioned version of the supernatural, and had quickly become as influential as sacred writings.

With Christianity splintered, and with science being the new religion for some, the blurring of beliefs and definitions gave way to the Age of Reflection, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, which allowed for the growth of other popular “isms”, such as feminism and atheism, and the emergence of positivism that applied mathematical logic to determine phenomena. This period was an era of fierce debate, where people openly discussed metaphysics, and continued to debunk philosophical theories. People were encouraged to think individually, rather than collectively in religious groups and institutions, and to choose an ideology that suited them, with less fear of persecution. But the more secular, natural and mathematical views arising to explain existence did not suit everyone. They still did not provide answers to the un-definable or the “such’s” as Aristotle had theorized. They did not give the answers to death, or the universe beyond what could be spied through the telescope. God’s close association with the supernatural still made it difficult to disassociate the supernatural from indoctrinated religion. Though there was already a shift by various influencers to more Unitarian views, where God was the divine and still central to any understanding about the supernatural, for many, the divine seemed inaccessible. And choosing to understand existence through the eyes of nature and science was also limiting. The Catholic Church maintained that supernatural effects as either divine or diabolical. Though such a stance did not satisfy the curious, or those who were not satisfied with explanations they had no control of. Oscar Wilde wrote: “Religion is like a blind man looking in a black room for a black cat that isn't there, and finding it."

The spiritualist movement was influenced greatly by social changes, technological advances and economic growth during the Industrial Era.  Sociologist, Max Weber and Karl Marx sought to explain the decline of church and community and demographic changes associated with industrialization. The more financially stable, the less need for the otherworldly comfort that religion provided. Welfare systems replaced the church for the provision of education and health, secularizing whole social structures. Without reliance on religion, society was also free to explore unconventional concepts. On the heels of great illusionists in the first half of the 1800s, such as those of Jean Robert-Houdin who could suspend belief with his amazing mindreading routine, Britain was ready for the arrival of the Americans to turn conjuring into something else. The rise of mediums shortly following, suggests there was still a desire to understand life beyond the celestial skies. Mediums now allowed the definition of the supernatural to be associated with the empirical evidence of séances.

News about the Fox sisters, and the famous “Rochester Rappings” in 1848, spread from the eastern states of America across to Britain. Mrs Hayden and Mrs Roberts took their séances to Britain in the early 1850s. The reception was welcoming, so much so that for the next five decades mediums or spiritualists would form part of Britain’s culture to enthrall and possess many a willing participant. Mediums could produce full-form materalisations, table tilting, rapping, spirit hands, breezes, bells, fragrances and ethereal music, ectoplasm: a mysterious foamy substance that would emerge from the bodies of the medium. Daniel D. Home came to Britain from Scotland in 1855 and is perhaps the most famous and captivating, and his techniques would prove impossible to disprove, even with science. Under conditions of bright light, investigators concluded there was no deception. Home took no payment, but amassed a wealth of notable contacts like Napoleon II, Queen Sophia of Holland, and Tsar Alexander II. Though the same could not be said for others like Florence Cook who would be exposed as deceptive with her full form materializations, and such was the case that the practice, with the fear of the law and exposure and subsequent penalties for deception, would eventually recede along with many of its faithful devotees.

The decline in agricultural activities during the Industrial Era shifted women back into household domestics in cities while their husbands were off to work. Women were not allowed to vote, were rarely part of business decisions or politics, and work opportunities were limited. For younger women, the idea of also being housebound must have seemed dull, and no doubt the lure of entertaining young professional men through a new line of work would have been most appealing. Historian, Justin Holloway stated, “Women as mediums in nineteenth-century Victorian society continually negotiated an empowered/powerless duality. To most sitters, a temporary suspension of normative ideologies was on offer via the transgression of discourses of sexuality and desire.” Women during this time were no longer confined to roles that had for over centuries been governed by the Church. They were free to be indulged and celebrated in their new mediumistic profession.

Although most of the more notable mediums rubbed shoulders with elite society, spiritualism did not discriminate between the wealthy and the poorer classes, and the practice was quickly domesticated as housewives set up séances at their homes. The practice appealed to both devout religious followers and atheists, and perhaps most significantly it made the supernatural more accessible and relevant. Spiritualists do not believe that phenomena are miracles in the suspension of natural law, but in rational effects of the interaction between this world and the higher world.

Death was something more expected during the middle of the 19th century. Medical science would ultimately prevent disease and delay death, but these reliable cures for influenza, respiratory and wound infections, and other diseases were still one hundred years away. The average life span in Britain was less than fifty, and death for women and children during childbirth was not uncommon. Through mediums, one could speak to deceased loved ones taken too early, to seek comfort or information, or to simply experience supernatural forces. Séances would supply answers from supposed supernatural forces that were not obtained through other means. The growing number of writers documenting their experiences gave particular credibility to the practice.

Frenchman, Hippolyte Léon Denizard Rivail, with the pen name of Allan Kardec, is credited with staring and promoting the movement through Europe with his own experiences. He wrote: "In order to cooperate in the material worlds as agents of a divine power, the spirits temporarily have a material body. By the work required in their corporeal lives, the spirits improve their intelligence and, by observing God's law, they acquire the merits which will lead them to eternal happiness." John W. Edmonds, an American lawyer and politician, claims that he was initially a non-believer but changed his view after witnessing events. Edmonds suggested that only the blind must not see the evidence and wrote about mediums whose raised manifestation could speak in other languages: “I was seeing in newspapers and hearing from others, whose testimony I could not, as a rational man, disregard; accounts of transactions in various parts of the country, of similar general character, differing only in detail.” According to historian and biographer Patricia Clarke, “Spiritualism drew on the theories of mesmerism developed by Franz Anton Mesmer, and on author and spiritualist Swedenborg’s theory, that it was possible to unleash the powers of spirituality by communication with the spirit world. It embraced a belief in the continuity of personality after death, and that people with psychic gifts, usually known as mediums, could facilitate communication by direct voice contact, automatic writing and in other ways.”

Charles Darwin is most famous for his publication, On the Origin of the Species, to explain that animals and plants were not formed separately but evolved from earlier forms by slow transformation. Darwin was for the most part Unitarianism, or a “freethinker” when it came to belief, and seemed conflicted at times during his life when presenting a balance between the study of nature and a belief in God.  In his writings, he suggested that man’s belief in ‘spiritual agencies’ or ‘gods’ only commenced when man’s mental faculties was sufficient enough to imagine it. Darwin may have attempted to remove some enchantment with his empirical findings, and he was certainly a scientifically credible influencer, but his writings still didn’t answer with certainty the question of coexistence between the supernatural and living matter.

During the Victorian era, there was a shift with how we viewed the supernatural. For any movement to occur, there has to be a desire for change and new influencers to steer a path. In spiritualism many found light in Oscar Wilde’s supposed black room, and many found that with clairvoyance and access to spirits they were masters of their own destiny and explanations. There would be countless critics about the movement, and those who sought to expose practitioners, while belief remained divided. Many saw Mesmer as a verbose fraud; the Fox sisters would admit to fraud then retract it for reasons no doubt of financial survival; and others would suggest the clients of mediums suffered from hallucinatory ailments or sensitivities to such spectacles. Robert Browning would write a poem about D.D. Home to support his disbelief, while his wife meanwhile took an opposing view. To completely dismiss the idea or findings in some cases was impossible since many believers came from well-respected lawyers, politicians, doctors, physicists, chemists and engineers. There seems no doubt that the changing perception of religions with fact-based reasoning, as well as the social changes that allowed for the rise of spiritualists to work freely, created the setting for the movement. And our natural human curiosity, and the desire and excitement to define and explain the supernatural with actual experiences, were also crucial.



Gemma Liviero


Primary Sources:
Arthur Conan Doyle, The History Of Spiritualism, vol. 1., Cassell And Company, Ltd. London, 1926.
Andrew Jackson Davis, The principals of nature, her divine revelations. New York, S.S. Lyon & W. Fishbough, 1847.
Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol.
John W. Edmonds and George T. Dexter, M.D. Spiritualism. 7th Edition. Partridge & Brittan, 1853.
Allan Kardec, The Spirits’ Book. Colby and Rich, 1893.

Secondary Sources:
Bristow, William. ‘Enlightenment’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Fall 2017 ed. Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, 2017
Drew , Danielle. J.. Fragile spectres: ‘How Women of Victorian Britain used the Occult and Spiritualist Movement to Create Autonomy’ Florida Gulf Coast University, Ann Arbor, 2017.
Galvan, Jill. The Sympathetic Medium: Feminine Channeling, the Occult, and Communication Technologies, 1859–1919. Cornell University Press, 2010
Lindsay Jones. ‘Spiritualism’, Encyclopedia of Religion. Vol. 13. 2nd ed., Macmillan Reference USA, 2005,
Timothy W. Jones. Postsecular Sex? Secularisation and Religious Change in the History of Sexuality in Britain. Volume11, Issue11. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, 2013.
Peter Lamont. ‘Spiritualism and a Mid-Victorian Crisis of Evidence’, The Historical Journal, 47(4). Cambridge University Press, 2004.
Paul Kléber, Monod. Solomon's Secret Arts : The Occult in the Age of Enlightenment, Yale University Press, 2013, Chapter 7.
Andrew Norman. Charles Darwin: Destroyer of Myths. Pen and Sword, 2014.
Janet Oppenheim. ‘Mediums’, The Other World: Spiritualism and Psychical Research in England, 1850-1914. Cambridge University Press, 1985.
Herbert Schlossberg. Conflict and Crisis in the Religious Life of Late Victorian England. Routledge, 2017.

Photo: https://www.franceinter.fr/emissions/un-ete-avec-victor-hugo/un-ete-avec-victor-hugo-17-aout-2015


© Gemma Liviero 2018

Terms of Use

Privacy Policy