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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 29

Spiritualism—What is it?

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Spiritualism—What is it?

A few weeks since, at the conclusion of a discussion on Animal Magnetism, during which frequent mention had been made of Spiritualism, several members requested me to give an essay on it. To shrink from explaining a system, or from avowing my adhesion to a party because the system or party is unpopular, is not my way. I would rather have the Truth, and stand alone, than aid the world in supporting falsehood. Spiritualism is not only true, but inspiring as it does every feeling and thought we have with a sense of what is to be our future, it is the most important of truths. Relieving this, you can understand that it is with pleasure I comply with your request.

Spiritualism—What is Spiritualism ? A new science, a new faith, or a new superstition ? If a science, it is to us true and useful; if a faith, it may be true, but is not proven; if a superstition, it is a misinterpretation of nature which time will correct. Whichever of these three it is, or in what proportion they mingle in producing it, its existence, its prevalence is a fact of our day. It began? Yes—for every form of human thought call it science, faith, or superstition—has a beginning; so Spiritualism in its modern signification, began about 30 years ago. In a small village in America a few raps on a wall conveyed the marvellous tidings that they were caused by the spirit of a pedlar who had been murdered some years previously. A spirit exists and communicates ! death is not annihilation ! The thought commanded instant attention. Tens, hundreds, thousands, and latterly millions of attempts are daily made to obtain a word or a sign from the departed. The usual mode is—a few individuals meet and form a circle, hold what is called a "seance," sitting for, and inviting communications from spirits. The published results of these sittings are that many of them are failures—have produced nothing; many of them have had results of an inconclusive kind, and many more have had most convincing phenomena. The progress Spiritualism is making is somewhat in keeping with these varied experiences. In one way it has flowed over and moistened the civilised world. Churches grow milder and more cosmopolitan in their teachings, and from day to day ferocious threats of eternal torment from the pulpit become fewer and fewer. Many have taken part in a few sittings—have found nothing, and have decided there is nothing to find. Very many page 3 more who have investigated it are in doubt, and say that there is something in it, but are unable to come to a conclusion as to what that something is. Of decided Spiritualists there are many millions. Thrones bow down to it, and kings believe that though death will end their reign, it will not terminate their existence. It flows on, and reaches the poor as well as the rich. It comes to the wretched drudge, whose earthly life is one perpetual mill-horse round of toil; his burden is lightened, his soul rises in hope beyond his present misery, and he sees a future of freedom and leisure. I know those whose purest, most unselfish feelings, and deepest sympathies are kept in chains by the ways of the world, and also those where they are burst asunder by death, who say they are taught by Spiritualism to calmly do their duty here, in the expectation of meeting in a better world, where love will be perfected. I also know that the glimpse of a future state has come to the atheist, the sceptic, the materialist,—has upset all his calculations, and made him a new creature. "If," he used to say, "death is the end of us, why should I adhere to the truth, or do what is right ? They appear sometimes to have the worst of it, so far as profit or material comfort goes here. So I will calculate, and find when they are profitable. The life of man is a span, a finite quantity : I can find when to speak truth—when to do what is right." He is right, and if he do not succeed, and die rich, it is because he is a bad calculator. Now change him to a Spiritualist—an unlimited existence, an infinite quantity, baffles calculation,—and he rises from a grovelling worm, which sees only the length of its own earth, to rely on eternal principle, and now cares not though he should die poor. In his case extremes meet—selfishness and unselfishness. The slave of self is truthful and just, because these alone will pay in eternity. The servant of truth and right points the same way, thinks not of pay, but speaks truth because it is dear to him—does right, because he loves it. Strange this—a Theory uniting such discordant particles! Is it true ? We shall see. The Scientist has approached it. Many of that class—perhaps even now the majority of it—stand aloof. They are so sure of what they know—look upon all religions as baseless, irreconcilable with fact—that to arouse them to any system pretending to show that mind is anything more than a temporary flame of matter would take something more startling than one of Gulliver's flappers. Of those who have investigated Spiritualism, I think I am right in stating that they have all admitted the phenomena to be genuine. How do some of them account for it ? If we do not keep in mind here that special study often absorbs the whole mental power of the student, and that he is almost mindless outside his own speciality, we will be unable to understand the very weak, very silly, even crazy way great minds account for it. As an instance, an eminent German professor propounds the unthinkable supposition that space has four dimensions—and words, learned words, are abundantly poured out about it; but unless the constitution of the human mind be altered, so as to enable it to conceive of three being four, the supposition can never get beyond the form of words. We hear of other professors who have weighed and measured the mind force—who have seen, felt, conversed with, and even photographed ghosts or materialised spirits; have printed their experiences, and certified to their correctness with their names. Thus Spiritualism has rolled on and page 4 is now before us. It has no head quarters—no Mecca, no Jerusalem, no Rome. Its adherents are of every social grade, and of every degree of culture. It has grown with unprecedented rapidity, although it has no chief or prophet to rule or guide it, and with but the merest shadow of an organisation. But what does all this amount to ? Very little, I admit. True! rapid growth may indicate that there is suitable soil in the human constitution for it; it may have comforted the wretched, and guided the erring; great names may have endorsed it when such endorsement brought them discredit! Still, as other systems have grown, have comforted their adherents, and have had eminent men who believed in them, and are yet undoubtedly false; we must go beyond numbers and names, and test Spiritualism in another way.

The way—and as it appears to me the only way—by which any system can go beyond a mere section of humanity, and command the assent of mankind, is bygoing in the way wherein science walks. Science walks by knowledge. Spiritualists say there is life after death; they know it for they have communicated with the dead. Is this assertion true ? This is indeed the whole question. On it Spiritualism rests. All systems which include the notion of a future life, except Spiritualism, depend on hearsay evidence. Thus they may be either above or below science, but having no facts to lay before it, it knows them not. I agree with the scientist here, and say if there is a future state we must come to know it as a matter of fact, not as a tradition.

That which we feel individually is true to us as individuals without proof. But our convictions as individuals are to others subjects for proof, and may be either the dreams of a fanatic or a clear sight which may come to be verified by knowledge. An individual feels, or is conscious that he is immortal, and looks upon seances and all spiritualistic experiments as useless trifling, proving what he is already sure of, telling him what he already knows. Yet his conscious certainty is a solitary, isolated thing, which goes not beyond himself. When one says to another, I feel so and so, and the other has, under similar conditions, experienced a similar feeling, the saying is accepted; but when the one, as is often the case, puts his hand on his heart and says, "I feel here that this principle, doctrine, or plan of salvation is true," and the other has no such feeling; of what value is the saying? Very little; for the listener may doubt if the speaker be not misinterpreting his own consciousness in saying he feels, when he only wishes to feel; or the assertion of feeling may be given in place of proof, where proof is called for and found wanting. Then, if the testimony of individuals that they feel the truth of the faiths they profess were to be depended on, the grossest contradictions would have to be received. Hence, the assertion, "I feel the truth" of something, is no proof to those who don't feel, and those who do feel don't need it.

To thinking beings Thought is the thing they are most certain of. Every external, material fact may be doubted, as sense is liable to error, and requires to be tested and verified; but no thinking being can doubt that he does think. Thus, thought, mind, spirit, is the first great fact of the universe. Carlyle says matter is the time-vesture of God. I think he is right.

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Spiritualism is a science or it is nothing. Let us see how science comes before us—how it walks. The Scientist says certain bodies exist in space, and have certain motions; mountains, valleys, rivers are on the surface of the earth, and a map is given showing their relative positions; rocks and minerals are below our feet, and have many fragments of long ago wrapped within them; animals and vegetables abound on the earth and in the water, are so formed, and exist under such conditions; the air we breathe, the water we drink, are compounds, and can be reduced to more simple elements. Now what have we in all this? Mere assertion. Now, as all truth and all falsehood can be equally well asserted, we have nothing here that we can rely on, and must ask the Scientist to take another step, and give us something more; or, we must reserve our belief, and leave him to gather round him a little sect who are overawed by his powerful statement, caught by his flowing eloquence, or believe what he asserts because they know him to be a good man. But the Scientist takes another step, and in it is his strength; through it he conquers the world, as nought but ignorance can resist him. The step is, he asks all to leave him personally out of the question, and to take his assertions one by one and test them. He requests you to open your eyes and look in a given direction at a given time and you will see what he asserted was to be seen. Often you may require artificial aid, and have to use the telescope, the microscope, or the spectroscope. You may have to sail over the sea, walk thousands of miles, and watch days and nights, months, even years. You may require to try again and again, hundreds of times, before you succeed in some nice experiment. Indeed, life is too short to verify a tithe of the scientist's assertions. But the invitation to test each one, to know each fact, remains. Every man finds opportunity to test a number of them, and knowing these to be correct, he reasonably accepts, provisionally, the others, or all of them which do not conflict with his knowledge. Now Spiritualists walk in the path of the scientist exactly. They assert that the dead live, for they have heard them, seen them, touched them, and otherwise tested their individuality in many ways. They tell the world the conditions so far as they know them, which facilitate communication, and invite all men to look as they would for a science—to watch and wait, and as an opportunity offers, to investigate, and each will find the assertions made verified. I have done so, and am entitled—for myself—to pronounce Spiritualism a science. My investigations have not extended over the time that those of millions have, and the results have not been at all as wonderful as those daily recorded. Of the sciences such as Astronomy, Geology, and Chemistry I know a little and believe a great deal. Of Spiritualistic facts I know more—am certain of more than I am of the facts of any science. It seems probable to me that much that is testified to by others, when corroborated by my knowledge, is true. This is simply treating Spiritualism as I treat other branches of human knowledge. But I will give you a glimpse of my experience. Until about six years since I knew nothing, or next to nothing, of the subject. Ghosts, wraiths, and warnings were heard of in childhood, but were spoken of as if it were an illegal act to mention them—they came as smuggled goods, and I was an excise officer, and condemned them. I noticed short paragraphs in the newspapers about spirit-rappers, page 6 generally holding them up to ridicule as a little clique of fanatics. How ready we are to join a conventional majority, and laugh at the weak ! I thought spirit existence impossible. Mind begins in man as a candle is lighted—takes time to get at the grease—is clear in a calm—runs before the wind—is dim now, and is often blown out—at best it drains the last particle of tallow, and is no more. The flame is no more; mind is nothing but a temporary flare of matter. This spirit-rapping had very little interest for me—a search for that which could not exist. A book I read made me not so perfectly sure that a future life was impossible. I joined with my own family in sitting round a little table. The table moved, danced to music, and when asked to leap up into an easy chair made such desperate attempts to comply, that falling, it broke off one of its legs. All this affected me little, but when my own hand moved under my eye without my being conscious of what was being written, and the result was words and sentences conveying an appropriate message—the forms of the letters not mine, the spelling not mine, the use of capitals not mine, I got a suspicion that there might be something in Spiritualism after all. The tilting of a table brought me no proof, as I thought that might be done by the sitters unconsciously. Raps were much more satisfactory. These I have heard in light and in darkness, and in places where human agency was impossible. They have conveyed messages beyond the minds of anyone present. Sometimes they came slight and low as the dropping of a pin; at other times louder, and again louder, till they equalled a fair blow with a hammer. These raps came in number as requested, and were on the wall or ceiling of the room, yards away from any human being. I have seen a boy in a trance thrust his hand into the glowing lignite and hold his finger in the flame of a candle without injury, and where any preparation on his part to resist fire was out of the question. I have found these communications always purport to be from the spirit of some person who was dead. One related the circumstances under which he died. None of us knew him, or anything of them. Months afterwards, a brother of his arriving in Dunedin, gave me a narrative agreeing in every particular with what I had previously heard. I have seen a boy entranced pass with a slight shudder from impersonating one character to personate another, each character having a distinct individuality in manner of speech, in language, and information—and this has been maintained for months, extending to years. I watched this from the beginning, and individualities were kept up below, above, and beyond the boy in his ordinary state. I had every opportunity of testing whether he was conscious of anything he said while entranced. A word or a look would have betrayed him; yet he walked over the most subtle traps and answered the most insidious questions with ease. I discovered nothing to connect his mind with the minds that manifested through him. If they were not what they professed to be—spirits of the dead—no one is able to account for them.

I have given you these few lines from my own experience as facts asserted—not to be received by you, but to be tested, as you would test any scientific fact. To give you what I believe, including much that I read and hear, would occupy too much paper and time. Besides, I think my argument is complete as it stands.

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It is often asked of what use is the Spiritualist theory. To me the question was answered when I found the theory true—as I hold the true and the useful are one. But all have not faith in Truth. Let such examine this thing, and they will find that it connects the past, present, and future—joins all things into one harmonious whole. If that is not being useful, I do not see how anything can be. To give us a plan or chart by which we can go in circumstances where we do not know, and never can know the particulars, instead of being guideless amongst unknown disorder, is what every thoughtful traveller will appreciate. Besides furnishing us with a master-key, which opens all things, what a number of little things in and around us does the Spiritualist theory of an after life make intelligible. Think, why does the individual here gather knowledge and buy wisdom if the soul is to be snuffed out at death ? All is lost. If we dream of its being committed to endless misery, knowledge, wisdom, or exertion is nought. Or even if we expect to be sent to the bright side of the great gulf, our earthly education is purposeless, for what is needed there to increase perfect happiness? The idea, that as we saw we shall reap,—as we fall we will arise, and begin the after life where we leave off this, meets our conception of justice, and naturally founds the future on the past. This idea is that of the Spiritualist. Then how can we conceive of one mind pervading all things, uniting all the forces of the universe without an after life ? Without that, this is but a wild raving democracy of atoms, where every accumulation of the greatest and the grandest is dashed to pieces, and nought but rottenness remains. A mad world—a madhouse without a keeper. But, see all these isolated and discordant acts connected with an unlimited future. A new factor is introduced, which turns disorder into order in many things, and asks us to pause before condemning even what appears to us the worst. All may be good, and for good, if we could sec the end. Thus Spiritualism renders the conception of order under one Infinite Mind possible. Then all legends, where witches, ghosts, fairies, angels, &c., exhibit, receive from Spiritualism the recognition that they are romances, founded on realities—not experiences without causes—inventions without material. Miracles, so called, which take place, and have taken place now, and in all ages, among all nations, are very difficult to account for. The scientist rejects them without attempting to explain them, which is even to himself very unsatisfactory, or he explains them by natural magic, which is only to a very few of them a relevant explanation. Spiritualism, introducing the action of the spirits of the departed, we can receive many as simple fact, and see a groundwork, an atom of truth in the others. God has spoken to man on many occasions, and what He said is recorded. We have the record, and we declaim and argue to reconcile the apparent contradictions in the utterances. We are special pleaders, and become less faithful day by day in our devotion to the truth, until we become so lost as to lie—in the service of God. Spiritualism looks upon all these so-called God speeches, when they are authentic, as communications from spirits—fallible and imperfect—to be received and reflected upon just as we would receive and reflect upon a speech of a living man. In this light, revelation does not dominate over out individuality and its discrepancies page 8 give little trouble, as they are easily explained. The persistent existence of local phases of superstition is accounted for by Spiritualism. The grain of truth, in them all, is the existence and constant recurrence of spiritual phenomena. As astrology is to astronomy, so are the various religions to Spiritualism—the one a bundle of superstitious misrepresentations of nature, the other a science built upon facts. We hear constantly of the natural and the supernatural, the natural going wrong and the supernatural interfering to set matters right. Many cannot understand how the work of the perfect can go wrong, and do not recognise the supernatural at all. Two powers fighting and checking each other is a popular error. The Infinite can have no opponent. Recognising this, Spiritualism has no conflicting forces. God is, to the Spiritualist, all. What we see is only a phase of the infinite—limited as we are, imperfect as we are—yet having a large balance on the side of order, justice, goodness, and love. In fine, Spiritualism is a supplement to all the sciences—the one thing needful, which unites all, accounts for all, rises above all, as the science of Religion.

Spiritualism is a science. It is also a faith. Much we hope for; but we subordinate faith—keep it in check by reason. But by faith we can look into the future and trust it. God is our Father, and has no favourites. "There is no great and no small to the soul that governs all." We trust, believing that good and evil, light and darkness, are but modes of growth, methods of tuition, to be enjoyed or endured. All men are children of the Infinite, and in all times have had that amount of light which will grow to the good of all. There are no sheep and no goats with Him. With us there are, and we are active but not anxious now and ever. I view it as weakness to push aside others, and wickedness to rise above them and trample them down. Now and through all eternity let us seek to serve, not to reign; not serve the great, but serve the little; to moisten the parched tongue; to raise up the prostrate, and to heal the wounded spirit. Every act of self-denial is not lost in a cloud of purposeless confusion, but is an electric spark sending forth a ray which brightens for ever the stream of never-ending advancement. Spiritualists spread what they know; faith in truth makes them do so; but faith in God prevents them from nervously, anxiously, pressing it upon others. All is in His hands, and all things will make for good.