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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 26

What is a Miracle?

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What is a Miracle?

"Sir,—Will you permit one greatly interested in your able article upon Dr. Newton's visit to Swindon, to say a few words, which irresistibly suggest themselves, upon the gifts usually considered miraculous? I suppose most of us were taught in our youth that miracles were things of the past—of a past that had for us not only a historical, but a religious interest, but still of a past that was dead and gone. We were also taught that a miracle was a 'wonder' out of the natural order of things, above and beyond the laws of nature, and, in fact, a breach of those laws. It must, therefore, we were told, be a super-natural event. It seems to me important, in these days when healing powers are claimed and discussed amongst us, to ascertain if such teaching be true, historically and philosophically; and, lastly, if it be calculated to increase or to diminish our faith in the power and presence of God as a living God in the earth.

"I rejoice to see that you have given many well chosen instances of the frequent appearance of the healing power through the Christian centuries, it I take up my Bible, I find that our Saviour distinctly promised that power, together with such other gifts, not only to His disciples, but to the Church of the Future, without limitation of time or country, faith being the condition of their reception. He even assured them that when He should be gone to His Father, when He should have vanquished death and ascended on High to 'receive gifts for men,' that He would so pour upon them His spirit and influence, that they should be able to do 'greater things' than those they had seen Him do. So, that though that time has not yet come, it is scriptural to hope that an age may arise when the earth may so be filled with an enlightened faith, when the knowledge of God may so 'cover it' that Christ, exalted as He is to the Highest Heaven, may be able to pour down upon men, and they be able to receive such a fulness of His power that marvels of love and mercy may be accomplished, superior even to those He was able to perform while in the flesh in the condition of the world's faith in that period. The Apostles not only exercised the gifts of healing and other powers called miraculous themselves, but they evidently considered them the heritage of the Christian Church. They exhorted their converts to desire and pray for 'spiritual gifts,' preparing them to expect them to be various in different individuals, subject to the sovereign will of God. St. Paul distinctly enumerates, these desirable gifts: prophecy, healing, speaking with tongues, discerning of spirits. It never seems to have occurred to him to suppose that these gifts would cease with the Apostles or their century, It would be as reasonable to say that the Apostles believed that all their teaching applied only to their own time, as to say that the possession of these powers was limited to it by them.

"The early history of the church proves that they existed, and were believed in by the Fathers. Indeed, whoever will take the pains to study the subject, will find an unbroken succession of persons so gifted, from the days of the Apostles till our own. There may have been seasons of darkness and eclipse of faith; times when materialism was so rampant that the spirit was quenched, and when, as of old in Israel, the 'word of the Lord was precious (or rare), and there was no open vision'. But, nevertheless, now and again, in spite of the world, the flesh, and the devil, there arose a prophet, or a healer, as a witness to the truth that spirit is greater than matter, and kindred with Him who 'is a spirit.' The legends page 2 of the saints of the Roman Church, though they may contain exaggerations and in some cases impositions, are yet most often those of the lives of persons of high aspirations and great holiness, possessing frequently those spiritual gifts mentioned by St. Paul as objects of desire and prayer. Since the Reformation, and amongst Protestants, there have been the French prophets, the Irvingites, and others too numerous to specify; and, in the Roman Church of our own day, the celebrated priest, Prince Hohenloe. Such is a very cursory view of the question from its religious and historical side Allow me to glance, though briefly and very imperfectly, at its philosophical view.

"The teaching that healing power or any similar endowment is contrary to natural law, and a breach of it—the speaking of such events as miracles and supernatural—has done much to raise doubts, often most painful and agonizing doubts, in minds of the highest intellect and earnestness.

"Doubt is not a moral crime. It is the most terrible of trials. If there be a sin at all in the matter, it too often rests with those who check investigation, and insist upon the arbitrary reception of that against which reason and conscience revolt. To a person to whose mind God has been revealed as 'not a man, that he should repent,' hut as one 'without variableness or shadow of turning,' the idea of a breach of law is contrary to his highest conceptions of God. The God in whom he believes is incapable of suspending or breaking, as a more exhibition of power ana caprice, laws which, as the outcome of His nature, must be perfect.

"Moreover, physical study shews him that as a fact law is unalterable and inviolable. So that when required to hold a theological opinion at variance with his best perceptions of God, and with his scientific knowledge, he naturally and rightly refuses it. He would rather disbelieve in miracles, than disbelieve in God's perfection. And so he gets called an infidel. And though, because faithful to the reason and conscience through which God has revealed Himself to his being, he is far from deserving that opprobrious name; he yet loses much, by rejecting, together with the unreasonable form in which the dogma has been presented, its inner meaning or soul. He rejects not only all idea of breach of law; but in refusing to accept the facts and truths contained in the doctrine of miracles, denies the occurrence from time to time of events indicating the possession of powers by the human soul which link it with the unseen; and fails to realise the grand harmonious working of the laws of a personal God—some higher, some lower—but all His, and all natural and orderly; some physical, some spiritual, but all in their course, and all pulsing with His presence in 'whom we live and move and have our being,' and 'who is not far from any one of us.'

"The only solution of the difficulty appears to be the recognition of a gradually ascending scale in the realm of law, rising from the most palpable and demonstrable form of physical law to a more subtle and ethereal but equally inviolable form. The higher naturally subjects the lower. Miracles, or apparent deviations from the ordinary, tangible, and visible forms in which law manifests itself, can only be referred to the operation of a higher law, or rather to a higher form of the one great principle of universal law. One of the most earnest as well as popular writers of the day has explained clearly that one law, or one phase of law, holds good, and is infallible, until crossed and contradicted by another. He says something to this effect: By the law of gravitation an apple having fallen from the tree will inevitably reach the ground. But how if I put out my hand and prevent it falling? Has law been page 3 broken or destroyed? Not at all. But another and a superior form of it has intervened. The law of my will has interrupted, it is true, the ordinary course of nature, but my will acts through the agency of physical law, and not independently of it, or in opposition to it. With all reverence the same may be said of the Divine Will. The law of what the Apostle calls 'spiritual gifts' appears to be a law so subtle and so ethereal as to be 'border land, so to speak, between the domains of matter and mind—linking them together, harmonising them so completely that it is hard to say where the one ends and the other begins, and throwing floods of light upon the old battle grounds of the philosophers. For want of a better name, we call this law magnetic. Magnetism is an all-pervading, world principle, a finer and higher form of electricity. Some substances and some beings are more susceptible to its influence than others. Some absorb and some impart it. Some persons are as it were, enveloped and clothed in it, and can emit its efficacy to others. It is life-giving, and therefore it can heal, soothe, and restore. It is the atmosphere, rarer and purer than the heavier gaseous air about us, in which alone spirits out of the flesh and clothed in an ethereal and magnetic body can communicate with us, he they our kindred and brethren within the veil or higher angels sent on missions to earth. Through it they can influence us in dreams, by inspiration, and, under certain conditions, make themselves visible to us. We see as yet 'through a glass darkly,' and know but little of these conditions. The knowledge of magnetic law, its circumstances and extent, is yet in its veriest infancy. Firmly, however, and rejoicingly do we believe that we dimly see the principle of the physical or semi-physical law through whose agency it has pleased God to act in the region called 'miraculous,' but which in reality is as little so as any other manifestation of the creative mind. In one sense, everything is a miracle. In another, nothing is miraculous. Everything is supernatural in one sense, for all comes from the Great Divine Mind which guides nature. Yet in another sense, there is no supernatural, for all his workings are harmonious, gradual, orderly, and natural. There is nothing sensational or magical in his laws.

"The difficulty in receiving the miracles of the Bible has been to many very great, because they supposed themselves required to believe that mind and spirit had subdued matter without the action of physical law. And this in a region of physical facts they considered impossible. This appears, from his celebrated 'Essay,' to have been Professor Baden Powell's view of the case. Does not magnetism, which is a force physical, though so refined as to be impalpable, throw a ray of light upon these difficulties? Ignorant as we are of the wondrous workings of this mighty force, one thing is certain, that the possession of it and the capability of using it has nothing whatever to do with goodness, either as cause or effect. This should be distinctly remembered. It is easy to understand this, if we bear in mind that it is a force of a physical character, although of a rare and refined quality. History, sacred and secular, sustains this fact. In all ages there have been prophets, healers, and seers; but they have not always been good men. We read of Balaam, of false prophets, of men who sold their powers for reward, and of those who communicated with devils or evil spirits.

"The powers called miraculous have been from the beginning. Christ did not give these gifts for the first time. But He, as the restorer and the great healer of soul and body, taught men their highest aim and object—the restoration of men, spiritually and physically, the individual and the race, so as to establish the kingdom of God on earth.

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"That these powers exist now, in some degree, as they have always done, is to my mind clear as daylight. That they would increase in quantity and quality, were there more "faith in the earth," I also earnestly believe. Faith, or imagination (if that name be preferred), the faculty which makes distant things present, and which realises the ideal, may be (how know we not?) the law that augments that magnetic atmosphere in which and through whose agency these things happen. Some deep thinker has said that "spirits make substance." If that be so, may not faith act upon and increase magnetism? But ours, alas, are not "days of faith." They are, for the most part, days of the sheerest and grossest materialism. Love of the outward, the transient, the unreal, stamp and characterise them. Nevertheless, the gift of healing, and the power of communicating with the unseen, lives yet in our midst, and is, or ought to be, a witness to the truth of the sacred records, and another proof that God is not dead, or asleep like Baal; neither is "His arm shortened that he cannot save" now in the nineteenth century, as of old in Israel. I grant fully that, in an age such as this, great caution should be used in exercising such powers. We know so little about the conditions under which they may effect good, and so much harm may be done by failure, that to boast loudly of their possession is to exhibit a zeal untempered with discretion. Every opportunity for fair investigation should be given. Admitting the possibility and probability of these facts, there always remains the necessity for testimony and proof. Whether the cures attempted by Dr. Newton in your town will abide strict scrutiny, it is not in my power to decide. Except in the case of Mr. Young, their permanency, at least, has not been proved. Neither do you mention any other instance of such marked success. This may be the result of causes comprehensible to those who have studied the law of magnetism so far as it is known with its attractions and repulsions, though it may not be easy to explain to the less versed in these subjects.

"It must have been a strange sight in these unbelieving days—in this matter-of-fact age, where hearts are often 'dry as summer's dust' and the gentle dew of faith and imagination has passed away—that eager, expectant throng of half curious, half hopeful sufferers, the blind, the halt, the lame—crowding to a man who had come from beyond the sea on a mission of healing. Crowding to him as of yore men crowded round St: Paul, at Ephesus, to touch him, or be touched by him, and even to imbibe his influence through garments which had received his contact.

"Knowing nothing personally of Dr. Newton, and having small sympathy with what I have read of his views and opinions, I do not write to support him individually. But being fully persuaded of God's power and presence yesterday, to-day, and for ever, and believing that what we call the miraculous is as simple and naturally in the order of His government, as the commonest circumstance of every day life, I would appeal to your readers not to turn contemptuously from these statements, but to receive them with the same wise and reverend patience which one of old time displayed, when he quieted the excitement of the assembly with the remarkable words, 'If this work be of men it will come to naught, but if it be of God, ye cannot overthrow it, lest haply ye be found even to fight against God.'—I remain, Sir, yours odediently,

A Spiritualist, but an Anglican."

London: J. Burns, 15, Southampton Row, W.C.