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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 84

Is the Practice of Spiritualism Desirable or Justifiable?

Is the Practice of Spiritualism Desirable or Justifiable?

We have all been reared in a belief in Supernaturalism, but, at the same time, all of us outside the pale of the Catholic Church have been taught to regard a supernatural occurrence as an impossibility. That is to say, our religion has been based upon supernatural occurrences, yet we, as a body, have agreed that such things do not happen in our days. Hence it is that Spiritualism is offensive, not only to our religious feelings, but to our common sense. For this reason, men of science refuse to waste their time in what they term a profitless pursuit; men of religion either look at it in a similar light, or devoutly protest against meddling with the Powers of Darkness; and men of common-sense consider that their property in that quality would be endangered by any serious consideration of such a ridiculous subject The result is, that the vast majority of those who do take up their pens to write down Spiritualism page 92 possess only a very superficial knowledge of their subject, and are apt to make up for their lack of knowledge by increased vehemence in denunciation. It must also be remembered that, previous training having rendered all very indisposed to admit the truth of Spiritualism,. converts to that belief are apt, having once surrendered their prejudices, to surrender also their judgment, and blindly accept every marvellous tale which comes to them accredited from a spiritual source.

So the task of investigation is rendered doubly hard, through the difficulty in obtaining any valuable assistance from the works of sceptics, and the unreliability of the utterances of believers.

In attempting to set forth what I deem the most cogent reasons why Spiritualism should not be practised or accepted, I propose to steer clear of the rocks upon which so many goodly barks have been wrecked. I do not approach the subject with any prejudices or predilections; I have no special faith in any revealments, and I know I am able to bring to my task a cool head.

I have no prejudices, because I conceive the term "supernatural" to be a misnomer—because I believe that Nature's laws, as made by God, are immutable; and, therefore, that whatever has occurred, or may occur, has a natural origin, though at present we may be in ignorance of that origin.

I have no faith in revealments, because faith is a quality which I find myself unable to exercise, unless my reason has been previously convinced.

Finally, I know that I bring to my task a cool head, because I am quite as sensible of the value of the arguments for as against the subject in dispute.

In undertaking such an enquiry as this, it is necessary at the outset strictly to define terms. I will therefore say that I regard, as comprehended in the word "Spiritualism," a belief—first, that communication between mortals and the spirits of the dead is possible; and, secondly, that the future state of man is a state of progression. That is, I find, all that Spiritualists put" forth as their common platform; agreeing to differ upon all other points in connection with the matter. But it seems to me that in the first proposition is involved the corollary that communication does take place, and that it is not only possible, but desirable.

The first, and most common, of the objections against Spiritualism is that which I will term the "common-sense objection," which is, that the whole affair is delusion, based upon fraud and hallucination. This may be a very pleasant way of settling the matter, but it is not logical, and page 93 should not, therefore, be admitted to a place in any argument conducted upon logical principles. It is not possible to prove a negative, and therefore the person adopting this line of opposition must place himself in the position of a querist, and, finally, can only with justice assert that the evidence proffered has been insufficient to convince him. He says, "These things do not occur, and, when you think they do, you are either under an hallucination, or have been the dupe of a clever conjuror." Obviously, when asked to prove this proposition, he can only reply by saying, "Show me something under conditions where fraud or self deception are impossible." The Spiritualist tells him that can be done if he exercise patience and perseverance, and the chances are a hundred to one that he declines the trouble. But, even if he pursue the matter and discover fraud, or meet with no success, the subject is no nearer a settlement; for his individual experience cannot be regarded as of any weight in an argument wherein it would be equally easy to adduce contrary testimony from just as competent persons.

I therefore reject the "common-sense objection" as being of no value in debate, and am contented, for the purposes of argument, to admit that phenomena of the nature claimed by Spiritualists do occasionally, perhaps very often, occur. I say "occasionally," because Andrew Jackson Davis, the greatest authority of the movement, states that a very large proportion of what are deemed to be spiritual phenomena, or manifestations, have no such origin.

The second objection to the Spiritual theory is that which has been so earnestly fought for by the late Sergeant Cox, which I shall call the "psychic objection," and which assumes that the various phenomena are caused by some subtle emanation from the human body. It is not worth while devoting any space to the consideration of this theory; for, if it be hard to believe that the spirits of the dead can move tables, or appear in material forms, it must be ten times harder to accredit those wonderful feats to an impalpable fluid, acting without the knowledge or control of the person from whom it emanates. Moreover, such evidence as Sergeant Cox has been able to procure in support of his views might fairly be regarded as equally favourable to the Spiritual theory.

Next I come to the "Satanic objection," which attributes the phenomena to the devil and his imps. This objection is always advanced by ministers of religion when they find themselves unable to deny the facts of the phenomena. It involves a belief in the Bible, and a further belief in the "ministerial "interpretation thereof. Its advocates contend that necromancy, or seeking communion with the spirits of the dead, was expressly forbidden by God. Unfortunately, the Spiritualists page 94 have also their texts to quote in support of their view, that such communion was even recommended. Opinions are so divided on this question that it is difficult to arrive at a decision; but, even if I were prepared to admit the value of the objection, I should still refrain from advancing it in argument, for, logically, it is valueless, being based upon an assumption in itself not susceptible of logical proof. It may serve to deter a pious Christian from embarking in the Spiritualistic ship, but the world is not wholly composed of pious Christians; and an argument, to be really valuable, should be acceptable to all men.

Some sceptics hold that the mental phenomena are the result of mind-reading and unconscious cerebration; but, as this objection does not cover the whole ground, but obliges its advocates to adopt some other theory in order to account for what are termed the physical manifestations, I shall not devote any time to its consideration, especially as Spiritualists contend that statements are often made through mediums which could not, by any possibility, have been within the knowledge of any person present.

Up to the present, the reader will doubtless say that, although I have assumed the part of prosecutor, I appear to have been retained for the defence; for I have, in advancing objections, in each instance shown their worthlessness. My object has been to place on record all the objections commonly urged against Spiritualism, in order to show that I have given due consideration to each of them before urging that which I hold to be the only logical argument which can be advanced. I have thus cleared the ground, and am able to deal with the subject unimpeded by considerations of extraneous matter.

I begin by conceding, for the purposes of argument, all that spiritualists claim; that is to say, I will admit that communion with spirits does take place, and that the future of man is a state of progression. As I said at the outset, the first of these propositions involves, further,. that such communion is desirable, and this is the point on which I join issue. If it can be shewn that communion with spirits is undesirable, the question may fairly be regarded as set at rest; for the study and practice of any harmful thing would naturally never be entered upon by anyone of sound mental condition.

In the first place, all Spiritualists appear to agree that spirits of every grade of development can and do communicate with mortals, but that the process is easier to those who approach nearest to the mundane condition; that is to say, that the higher in grade a spirit may be, the less easy is it for him to communicate, and the less likely is he to undertake the task. It follows, as intelligent Spiritualists admit, that the vast page 95 majority of the communications purporting to come from the spirit-world emanate from spirits of small experience and low development, who are for the most part less fitted for the post of teacher than that of learner.

Now, it is obvious that, to render the communion of any value to mortals, the nicest discrimination is necessary, in order to distinguish truth from falsehood or error. But such discrimination cannot be expected from ordinary minds, especially as the feeling of awe engendered by such communion with an unseen world invariably creates a tendency to overvalue the importance of the communications. Thus it is that the history of the movement shows that the most preposterous assertions made by spirits have found ready acceptance, even from the cultivated intellects of leaders of the cause. Let us briefly glance at some of the most noticeable of the absurd doctrines inculcated by spirits, and eagerly adopted by wise and foolish alike.

In Auburn, in the United States, a body of Spiritualists termed themselves the "Apostolic Circle," and claimed that their spiritual guides were St. John, St. Paul, and the prophet Daniel. They taught that the second advent of the Messiah was at hand, and they soon secured a large following. After a time they migrated to a place called Mountain Cove, and established a society on communistic principles. At Mountain Cove they became so far advanced, that the instructions of the saints wore found to be insufficient, and the Holy Ghost personally superintended their seances. Their leader was a certain Rev. T. L. Harris, who afterwards abandoned them, and denounced Spiritualism as the work of the devil. This Harris wrote mediumistically a series of poems which are said to be of the highest literary merit.

An early convert to Spiritualism was J. M. Spear, a gentleman whose philanthropic labours had made him widely known in America. He is said to have been a marvellous medium, possessing all spiritual gifts in a high state of development; nevertheless, we find this gentleman propounding many absurd theories, which culminated at last in the "new motive power" which was to revolutionise the world. A machine was constructed under spirit direction, and the vital power which animated it was supposed to have had mortal birth through the mediumship of a certain lady of irreproachable character ! Unfortunately, a mob of rowdies smashed up the machine, and it does not appear that Mr. Spear ever constructed another. He had a numerous following, even amongst the best and most respected adherents of the movement.

In Boston, a certain Spence, assisted by his wife, established a society called the "Augelites," or the "Harmonial Society," the leading principles of which were that man, if he lived "harmoniously," could not page 96 die, and that only a certain proportion of human beings attained to im-mortality. These startling doctrines made an extraordinary sensation amongst the American Spiritualists, and spread so rapidly that for a time it seemed as if they were going to obtain universal credence. Eventually the Spences bolted with a large sum of money which had been placed in their hands by their credulous followers. Among other things, these people said that spirits constantly supplied them with money and clothing—yet that did not prevent them from asking for money, nor their dupes from giving it!

It may be contended that these are mere ephemeral aberrations which have long since come to an end, but it must be remembered that they were the result of "spirit" teachings, and that many honourable and learned men were their dupes.

It is worthy of note also that the Mormons and the Shakers are claimed as Spiritualists, and that their doctrines are said also to bear the spiritual stamp.

The Freelove movement, although originating outside of the spiritual ranks, very speedily secured assistance from the spirit-world, and its great exponent—Victoria Woodhull—is said to act under spirit influence. I need not, however, confine myself to such cases, where the delusion is so palpable, for at the present hour there are so many divisions amongst Spiritualists, that the thinking man is compelled to seriously doubt the wisdom of the intercourse. The French Spiritualists, led by Allan Kar-dec, inculcate the doctrine of re-incarnation, which is for the most part vehemently repudiated by their English and American brethren.

In all countries where Spiritualism has made any headway, there are to be found many believers in what is termed "Occultism," of which Mrs. Britten, Madame Blavatsky, and Colonel Olcott are the chief exponents. Occultism teaches a belief in astrology and magic, and avers that most of the physical phenomena are produced by "elementary spirits;" that is to say, by the demons, gnomes, genii, and fairies of the folk-lore of all nations. Most Spiritualists ridicule these notions, but all admit that their promulgators are acting under spirit influence !

But the most striking divergence of opinion is on the question of the truth of Christianity and the divinity of Jesus Christ. Perhaps the majority of Spiritualists are opposed to these notions, but there are an immense body of Christian Spiritualists who still cling to the Bible, and hope for salvation through Jesus. Among them may be mentioned Mr. and Mrs. Howitt, and Mr. and Mrs, S. C. Hall, who are noted for the work they have done in the cause of Spiritualism. Surely, on such an important question, something like unanimity might be expected.

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I come now to another phase. It appears that communications are largely tinged by the idiosyncracies of the medium, and that very much that is even supposed by the medium to come from his spirit friends is but the emanation of his own brain. How, then, are we to discriminate ? I find that no rule is laid down for guidance in this perplexing matter.

When it is further remembered that Spiritualists admit that the identification of spirits is almost impossible, and can only be approximately made, and, further, that they say that millions of the inhabitants of the spirit-world are for ever striving to lead men astray, and even fight against the spread of Spiritualism, I think it will be seen that the path of a Spiritualist is by no means strewn with roses. It would be well to remember that "fools rush in where wise men fear to tread," and at least to postpone any attempt to establish an intercourse with the spirit-world until we are fully cognisant of the dangers and difficulties which will surely beset us on every side.

Therefore I say that, even if every iota that Spiritualists claim be conceded, it is still questionable whether the practice of Spiritualism can be justified.