Ryde Spiritualist Church
Ryde Spiritualist Church

            A Brief History of Spiritualism



Interaction with the spirit world is as old as man himself. Early man believed in spirits and gods, and prophets or seers appear throughout the Bible. Jesus was an excellent communicator with spirit.


The use of mediums continued in the early Christian Church, although their spirit communications did not always accord with the Scriptures and the established doctrines, and in the 4th century the Church banned them from further involvement with the Church. From that edict followed centuries of persecution of mediums throughout Europe, and various Christian sects have been hostile to Spiritualism in varying degrees.


Mediumship did not disappear during those many years of persecution and misguided beliefs. Swedenborg was one of the forerunners of Spiritualism. He was a Swedish philosopher and scientist knowledgeable on a wide range of subjects including the Bible. In 1744, at the age of 56 he started to write about the spirit world, telling of his experiences encountered during dreams whilst asleep and of his visions he had whilst awake. He claimed that he was in contact with biblical characters, kings, popes and saints and that they described the next life as very similar to this, and that communication was possible between the two worlds. 


One hundred years after Swedenborg started writing about the spirit world and Spiritualism, Andrew Jackson Davis, an 18-year-old apprentice shoemaker in Poughkeepsie, New York, had a strange experience in which he reportedly went into a semi-trance and found himself 40 miles from his home. He claimed to have experienced during this journey a state of mental illumination in which he met the 2nd Century Greek physician Claudius Galen and Emanuel Swedenborg, both of whom enlightened him on the true nature of things.

He dictated, in trance, a number of books, and in them stated that “it is a truth that spirits commune with one another while one is in the body and the other in the higher spheres.”


He predicted that “this truth will ere long present itself in the form of ‘a living demonstration’, 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.”


The living demonstration which Andrew Jackson Davis referred to turned out to be an event considered to be the birth of modern Spiritualism. On the 31st March 1848, two sisters, Kate and Maggie Fox, who lived in Hydesville, New York, started to communicate with spirit, through the 'Hydesville Rappings'. Whether these raps were genuine or not, investigation of the Fox sisters' mediumship lead to the inception of the modern Spiritualist movement.


In 1852 Maria Hayden, an American medium, came to England and was the first to demonstrate mediumship in the UK. Robert Owen was the co-founder of the Co-operative Society.  In 1854, at the age of 83, he was converted to spiritualism after a series of ‘sittings’ with Maria Hayden despite, or perhaps owing to, his previous antipathy to the established religion. Owen made a public profession of his new faith in his publication The Rational Quarterly Review.


After Owen's death his spirit dictated ‘the Seven Principles of Spiritualism’ to Emma Hardinge Britten in 1871. Emma Hardinge Britten, having travelled the world as a ‘trance lecturer’, delivering speeches across the countries, and having publicised her own experiences and the philosophy of Spiritualism, returned to England in 1865. She brought about the concept of Spiritualists' National Federation, which later became the Spiritualists’ National Union.


The SNU was set up to bring together the many different churches under one banner. Its main function is to "promote the advancement and diffusion of the religious philosophy of Spiritualism, on the basis of the Seven Principles." 

Helen Duncan (1897-1956), was a materialisation medium, and is remembered as the victim of the "last witch trial".  She played an important role in changing the laws of this land and seven years later in 1951 the Fraudulent Mediums Act was introduced freeing genuine mediums from the provisions of the Witchcraft Act 1735 and Section 4 of the Vagrancy Act 1824, thereby enabling Spiritualists to openly and legally practise their religion. However, in 1956 she was again arrested for conducting a séance and she passed to the spirit world shortly afterwards on the 6th December 1956.

The downfalls of many ‘physical mediums’ came about because of their exposure as fakes. Obviously Spiritualism was riddled with cases of deliberate fraud in the past. It seemed easy to fool the thousands of people who were looking for something spectacular and some mediums began lining their pockets with money swindled from these naive people.

By the 1920s, the era of physical mediums and their great showmanship was gone. That era was largely killed off by the continued attacks from magicians and debunkers, who exposed fraud after fraud and gave even the genuine practitioners a bad name. Soon, the mediums no longer wanted to expose themselves and abandoned the physical mediumship and turned to mental mediumship instead.

Few mediums seem to be involved in physical mediumship these days, which was so closely tied to the movement in years past. Perhaps the time has passed for such activities. Even though there may still be some trumpet and apport mediums out there, it is probably time now for the religious side of Spiritualism to take the centre stage. Spiritualism aims to prove that life continues and the soul goes on after our physical death. Some of the early phenomena were necessary to get this message across but today the general public is much more open to the idea of things beyond the physical realm and the bizarre happenings which used to ‘knock them in the aisle’ may no longer be necessary.


© Shozo Watanabe 2015