Spiritism

“Spiritism” and “Spiritualism” are terms, often used interchangeably, referring to the belief in communication between the living and the living spirits of the dead. History records periodic surges of interest in the spirit phenomenon, but as an organized religion it began at Hydesville, New York, in 1848. John D. Fox and his wife traced strange, tapping sounds in their home to the room of their teenage daughters, Margaret and Katie. After the continued experience of this and bedclothes pulled off the bed by invisible hands and chairs and tables removed from their places, the two girls devised a means of intelligent communication with the author of the noises, who would reply to questions with a number of raps. This widely advertised event set off a Spiritism revival in the United States that soon spread to England and Europe.

The breakdown of faith in the traditional, authoritarian doctrine in religion by the scientific revolution in the nineteenth century gave Spiritism an added boost. The number of adherents to the new faith grew rapidly, and at its heights the movement claimed over 10 million followers. Among the distinguished converts were Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Oliver Lodge, and Alfred R. Wallace. Probably one of the most famous of the mediums was D.D. Home (1833-86), whose amazing feats and manifestations in the presence of leading scientists still stand without plausible explanation.

The Spiritism Movement produced many spirit-oriented phenomena: table-tipping, playing on musical instruments, levitation of various objects and even of the medium, appearance of objects in the atmosphere, spirit writing, rappings, mediumship, and materialization. Some mediums go into a trance and become a passive instrument for the spirit, while others report what they hear or see spirit forms say or do. The trance state is not generally practiced today. In the materialization séance a foggy, smokelike substance called “ectoplasm” (defined as “exteriorized protoplasm”) is said to emanate from the body and mouth of the medium, forming an image. Usually materialized spirits do not give messages.

The Spiritualists draw heavily on the teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg,* Franz Mesmer, and Andrew Jackson Davis. Davis's book, entitled Nature's Divine Revelations (1847), stated the fundamentals of Spiritism. The doctrines of the Trinity and of the deity of Christ are rejected; they hold to the existence of an Infinite Intelligence expressed in the phenomena of nature, both physical and spiritual; true religion is the correct understanding and living in accordance with the Infinite Intelligence; personal identity continues after death; communication with the dead is possible; the highest morality is contained in the Golden Rule; the doorway to reformation is never closed against any human soul, here or hereafter; Christ was a medium; the teaching of God as love is central.

Spiritism is now organized on a basis similar to denominationalism. In the USA the main associations are the International General Assembly of Spiritualists, the National Spiritual Alliance of the U.S.A., and the National Spiritualist Association of Churches. The latter group is the orthodox body of American Spiritualism and the most prominent; they maintain a seminary for the training of their ministers. Regular services are held by the churches, and many of the standard religious rituals are observed-singing, praying, etc. This is combined with the practice of mediumship. Camps provide convenient centers for worship, instruction, and practice. Although the actual membership of the Spiritualist groups in the United States is much less than 200,000, the groups claimed in 1971 that there were over 1,000,000 believers.

As a result of the rise of Spiritism, the Society for Psychical Research was organized in 1882 in London, and similar societies were later organized in the United States. Psychical research, or “parapsychology” as it is now termed, has cast doubt on the proof of spirit survival by the evidence of mediums. Studies in extrasensory perception have shown that the mind can, at times, reach out beyond itself to acquire information which the senses and the reason could not obtain. It is quite possible that mediums possess such powers and simply attribute them to spirit origin. Much more research is needed in order to substantiate the claim.

J.T. Stoddart, The Case Against Spiritualism (1909); J. Fox, “Spiritist Theologians,” Princeton Theological Review (1920); R.B. Jones, Spiritism in Bible Light (1921); A.C. Doyle, The History of Spiritualism (2 vols., 1926); G.W. Butterworth, Spiritualism and Religion (1944); J.K. Van Baalen, The Chaos of Cults (1956): K.H. Porter, Through a Glass Darkly (1958); A.T. Schofield, Modern Spiritism, Its Science and Religion (1960); A. Blunsdon, Popular Dictionary of Spiritualism (1962).