History of Ancient Spiritualism
From prehistoric times, humankind has always had an understanding that in some way, the personal identity of an individual would survive after the end of the physical lifetime and would somehow continue in a nonphysical form. Excavated remains of prehistoric man show evidence that the dead were buried with personal possessions; not only tools and weapons but also mementos of their life, as if to send these items with them into the afterlife.
The Egyptians had a much more complex expression of this concept, with their royal tombs filled with barges, furniture, and even mummified pets. The Greeks, Romans, Celts, Chinese, and indigenous tribes of Africa and the Americas all accepted that in some way, there was an afterlife. The ancient priests, mystics, and shamans were revered for their abilities to commune with the spirit world. Spiritualism sees its ancient roots in their common acceptance and belief that man came into being from spirit, and when physical life was over, would return to spirit.
Forerunners of Spiritualism
Spiritualism recognizes several significant individuals whose gifts of prophecy and wisdom began to open people's minds of that era, in preparation for the advent of spiritualism. One of the earliest forerunners was Emmanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772). Much of Swedenborg’s early life was devoted to study, engineering, finance and politics, however, in the later years, he began receiving communications from what he called the “One Spirit of All”. He transcribed these communications, and many of the revelations explained how the individual continues to evolve in spirit after physical death.
Other forerunners of Spiritualism include: Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815), whose studies of animal magnetism led him to discover methods for inducing a trance state, today known as hypnosis; as well as Mother Ann Lee (1736-1784) who founded the Shaker movement in upstate New York during which spirit manifestations occurred regularly during their meetings.
Our most prominent forerunner, Andrew Jackson Davis (1826-1910) is considered the “John the Baptist of Spiritualism”. Known as the “Poughkeepsie Seer”, A J Davis came from a very meager, uneducated upbringing. In his early life he began to experience multiple episodes of clairvoyance and was able to use this information to bring healing to himself and others. With the aid of a hypnotist, A J Davis would enter into an altered state and begin to channel knowledge that was far beyond his uneducated upbringing. From this information, he published several books and defined concepts into what he called his “Harmonial Philosophy”. He had natural x-ray clairvoyance, and was able to see illness in a person’s body. In his later years, he went to medical school so he could use his gifts of healing as a licensed medical doctor in Boston, Massachusetts.
One excerpt from his notes states, “About daylight this morning, a warm breathing passed over my face, and I heard a voice, tender and strong, saying ‘Brother, the good work has begun – behold a living demonstration is born.’ I left wondering what was meant by such a message.” The date was March 31, 1848.
Advent of Modern Spiritualism
According to affidavits witnessed and signed by Mrs. Margaret Fox and Mr. John Fox, the family tried to retire early on the evening of Friday, March 31, 1848. For the last several nights, persistent knocks and raps pervaded their Hydesville, New York, home, disrupting their sleep and leaving them exhausted. The parents had investigated everywhere but could find no trickster or natural cause behind the noise. Nevertheless, despite their hopes for rest, as soon as Mrs. Fox’s head hit the pillow, the rappings began again. On this particular evening, while sharing the room with their mother, her youngest children - Margaretta (Maggie), age 14, and Catherine (Kate), age 12 – heard the raps and tried to imitate them.
From the affidavit of Mrs Fox: “My youngest child, (Cathie), said ‘Mister Splitfoot, do as I do.’ clapping her hands. The sound instantly followed her with the same number of raps. When she stopped, the sound ceased for a short time. Then Margaretta said, in sport, ‘Now, do as I do. Count one, two, three, four,’ striking one hand against the other at the same time, and the raps came as before. She was afraid to repeat them.”
When Mrs. Fox realized that the raps were intelligently responding to her children’s game, she began to pose questions. When she asked the spirit to rap the ages of her children, it correctly knocked out each child's age, from eldest to youngest, including a child that had been lost in infancy. Mr. Fox brought in their nearest neighbor to witness the events. The neighbor thought it was a joke being played on the children, but suddenly realized the seriousness when she found the girls on the bed terrified, clinging to each other in fear. As the rapping sound continued to answer questions, rapping once for ‘yes’ and twice for ‘no’, more and more neighbors came to the house to witness the happenings. As questions were answered, it communicated that it was the spirit of a man who had been murdered in the house and been buried in the basement. Over the days and weeks that followed, the
news of the event brought hundreds of people to their home to witness the rappings and pose questions. As the investigation continued, a more sophisticated code was developed that allowed the rapping to indicate letters of the alphabet. From this new code, the rapping spirit communicated that his name was Charles Rosna, and he was a peddler who had been killed in the home by one of the previous owners for money.
Efforts were made to excavate the basement to find physical evidence to confirm what had been communicated, but the basement was thick with water as the result of a very wet spring season. Later in 1848, however, digging in the cellar unearthed fragments of a skull.
The phenomena of the Hydesville home and the roles of Catherine and Margaretta Fox led to a series of public debates, at which the legitimacy of these events was hotly contested. The girls were tested under conditions that today would be considered abusive, but no discernible physical cause could account for the rappings and knocks that would manifest in their presence. Targets of public hostility, the girls were tormented to explain how they accomplished such “tricks”.
However, the Fox sisters also had a growing number of supporters… believers who witnessed the phenomena and after exhausting their skepticism acknowledged that the source of the communicating raps must be from spirits. Even as public committees investigated the girls for fraud, the press of the time eagerly communicated the news that communication with those who had died could be proven.
The Pioneers of Spiritualism
In the years following the events of March 31, 1848, and in an environment of hotly contesting believers versus debunker's, the numbers of those who supported the Fox sisters and the authenticity of their spirit communication were growing. Amy and Isaac Post were among the very first who would shelter and defend the family against public criticism. Horace Greeley, editor of the NY Tribune, publicly proclaimed the authenticity of the girls’ ability in his paper.
It is important to note that as the Spiritualist movement grew in the United States, many of the educated, rational, intelligent men and women who investigated and witnessed spirit communication eventually became believers. Professor Robert Hare was a scientist who was committed to debunking fraudulent mediums, but after thorough investigations, he became an avid believer. J.W. Edmonds, who served as a lawyer, a U.S. Senator, and later a judge on the New York bench, became a believer of spirit communication. Unfortunately, his own public support of Spiritualism led to his removal from the bench. Nathaniel Potter Tallmadge, a lawyer and Governor of Wisconsin, was instrumental in bringing a Memorial of the Spiritualist movement to Congress. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a physician and scientist who investigated spiritual phenomena, and ultimately declared himself a Spiritualist, is know for his later writing of the famous “History of Spiritualism”. These are only a sampling of the people who became believers.
With the expansion of the spiritualist movement, thousands of home-circles and séances started cropping up across the country. Thousands of people proclaimed themselves as mediums and capable of communicating with spirit and manifesting spirit phenomena. Some of these individuals were authentic and were sincerely working with spirit in bringing the proof of eternal life to our world. But many, however, saw this popular movement as just another opportunity to manipulate and swindle the vulnerable and naïve.
Clever and entrepreneurial men and women devised tricks and devices that allowed them to fake spirit phenomena. As these con-artists were exposed, the public view of Spiritualism declined.
This was compounded by the fact that in 1888, Margaretta Fox-Kane publicly denounced the spirit phenomena that was attributed to her, explaining her career producing raps as attributed to snapping her toes in a certain way against the floor. A year later, she recanted her confessions but by then the damage had been done. Despite their best intentions, the circus side-show life that swept up Maggie and Kate had taken its toll. The suffered unrelenting public scrutiny and dismissal, turbulence in their family affairs, and recurring bouts of alcoholism.
In November of 1904, approximately 10 years after the deaths of Kate and Maggie Fox, a discovery was made in the cellar of their original Hydesville home. The owner of the home unearthed a full human skeleton, male, between the earth and crumbling cellar walls.
The Significance of the “Hydesville Happenings”
The events which began on that spring evening in 1848 were marked as the starting of what would become the religion, philosophy, and science of Spiritualism. These events were significant proofs of spirit communication in three ways:
1. They were demonstrable. The spirit rappings were witnessed by hundreds of people who came to visit in the house in the days and weeks after the news became public. The rappings continued even after the girls had been taken away to live in the home of their older sister… a fact that is often left out by skeptics who claim the girls were the cause of it all.
2. They were intelligent. The spirit rappings responded intelligently to questions posed, as well as followed instructions as to how to rap in a code that could be understood.
3. They were verifiable. The spirit rappings correctly answered questions posed to it by Mrs Fox. The claim that the spirit was that of a murdered peddler was corroborated by the discovery in 1904 of a skeleton in the cellar.
Modern Spiritualism Today
The reality of Spiritualism today is very different from the images of spooky séances held in dark rooms, misty forms materializing into bodies, and levitating objects, we experience when watching television shows and movies. In this day, the majority of spiritualist mediumship is held in public view during church services, often in broad daylight. During these platform demonstrations, a dedicated medium with years of work in spiritual development, is able is communicate with the spirit of a deceased loved one mentally. The medium will often provide many details and descriptions to help a person receiving the message recognize the spirit. The loved one in spirit will often bring their support, wisdom, and love to the person receiving the message, usually about specific events in the person’s immediate life. The specific evidence and the relevance of the spirit’s loving message becomes the proof that life continues and their love never ends.
Those who have experienced authentic, sincere spirit communication with a trained medium can attest that the knowledge that loved ones in spirit are still with us has healed grief and opened hearts in this modern age. Messages from spirit bring a new hope of our own eternal, spiritual existence. Although the popular movement has diminished in the beginning of the 20th century, the true believers and authentic mediums continued to educate and demonstrate proof that the individual identity continues after the death of the physical body. Spiritualism has spread over the world, into countries such as England and Brazil. As the 21st century begins, Spiritualists will continue to work to dispel the superstitions of its past, train a new generation of sincere, ethical mediums and spiritual healers, and bring forth into the world the light and proof of eternal life.