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The Spirit World


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Spiritualism: History and Philosophy


On March 31, 1848 two young girls went to bed early in the family cottage in Hydesville, New York. Rapping had been occurring for the past few weeks in the house, and the Fox family was exhausted. This evening was no different, except this time Katie, the youngest, jumped out of bed and clapped her hands a few times. The raps answered back the same number of times. The girls played this way, then their mother decided to carry this further. She asked the rapper how many children she had. The raps came back correctly, including one child who had died. Then she asked the ages, and again the responses were right. Neighbors came and had similar experiences. Eventually, they discovered that the rapper was the spirit of a peddler named Charles B. Rosna, and that he had been murdered for his goods, worth about $500. He said a previous tenant of the cottage had done it, and buried him in the cellar. Digging in the cellar at a later time uncovered bones, hair, and a peddler's tin cup.

The discovery that it was possible to communicate with spirits, or those who had died, was the beginning of modern American Spiritualism. The rappings encouraged the sisters to begin public meetings, saying their work had only begun. Communications and manifestations came rapidly, and were more orderly. Katie and Maggie were joined by their older sister Leah, and in November 1849 they gave their first public demonstration in the largest hall in Rochester, New York. Interest in the phenomenon spread rapidly, and many celebrities came to see them and to receive messages from the spirit world. Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, was one of their early supporters.

The Fox sisters continued their demonstrations until the early 1890s in spite of being accused of fraud, trickery, ventriloquism, and cracking their joints. They were studied by eminent scientists, but were also subjected to humiliating experiences by investigators. Both Maggie and Katie had extensive personal and financial problems, and became alcoholic. At one point Maggie denounced Spiritualism, and said the raps were produced by cracking the knee joints. A year later, however, she retracted this and blamed her personal situation and the influence of those who did not believe in spiritualistic phenomena. Katie died in 1892, and Maggie followed a year later, just before the first meeting of the National Spiritualist Association.

The Fox sisters' mediumship was the beginning of a widespread interest in Spiritualism and its phenomena. According to Lindgren (1994), there were more than ten million followers of Spiritualism in the latter half of the 1800s. The number of physical and mental mediums continued to grow, in England as well as the United States. Physical mediums produced a variety of phenomena, for example:

- teleportation - the moving of an object for one place to another

- apports - the producing of an object out of thin air

- levitation - the rising of an object, such as a table, or a person

- rappings - such as those heard by the Fox sisters

- automatic writing and painting - written messages or works of art produced by the writer or artist simply holding a pen or brush

- materialization - the method by which a substance called ectoplasm is produced from a medium and then forms into a recognizable spirit.

The most famous physical medium was Daniel D. Home (1833-1886). His manifestations included levitating massive tables, the playing of an accordion in a wire cage with no visible hands, teleportation, and levitating himself out of a third story window, and back in another window. He was studied extensively by scientists of the time, most notably Sir William Crookes. Although physical mediumship can be, and often was, fraudulent, Home was never found to be so.

There were thousands of people practicing mental mediumship in the late 1800s. Mental mediums communicated with the spirit world usually by holding seances. Unlike Home, whose manifestations were produced in daylight, most mental mediums performed in darkened conditions. Messages were given, through the medium, from those in the spirit world to those present. Many people were absolutely convinced of their authenticity, and felt that information was given that was unkown to anyone but themselves. Again, there was opportunity for fraud, but many investigated mediums were found to be genuine.

Spiritualists, convinced that there is indeed life after death, were prominent in social reform movements of the time. Braude (1989) parallels the Spiritualist movement with that of women's rights. She credits the mediums who spoke in public, an activity previously open only to men, with paving the way for the speakers of the women's suffrage movement. Spiritualists were also active in children's rights, health and labor reforms, religious freedom, and the abolition of slavery. In fact, Abraham Lincoln admitted that he was led to sign the emancipation proclamation under the guidance of spirit through the mediumship of Nellie Maynard. (Grumbine, 1917).

Spiritualism as a movement began to decline in the early 1900s, especially in the United States. Presently, the National Spiritualist Association of Churches has just over 100 churches, with a total of about 3,000 members. There are several other Spiritualist organizations and independent churches, but they are smaller in number.


The National Spiritualist Association of Churches (1991) defines Spiritualism as "the science, philosophy and religion of continuous life, based upon the demonstrated fact of communication, by means of mediumship, with those who live in the spirit world." The Spiritualist Manual gives these further definitions:

"Spiritualism is a science because it investigates, analyzes and classifies facts and manifestations demonstrated from the spirit side of life."

"Spiritualism is a philosophy because it studies the laws of nature both on the seen and unseen sides of life and bases its conclusions upon present observed facts. It accepts statements of observed facts of past ages and conclusions drawn therefrom, when sustained by reason and by results of observed facts of the present day.
"Spiritualism is a religion because it strives to understand and to comply with the physical, mental and spiritual laws of nature, which are the laws of God."

Spiritualist phenomena have been investigated by eminent scientists, most notably Sir William Crookes and Sir Oliver Lodge in the late 1800s and early 1900s. F. W. H. Myers published Human personality and its survival of bodily death in 1901, and there were other volumes of massive anecdotal evidence at that time. The problem, of course, is that to be truly scientific, evidence must be repeatable. Spiritualism as a religion does not sponsor scientific studies at the present time, but other investigations have taken place. The remote viewing projects done at the Stanford Research Institute and with the Central Intelligence Agency have made recent news (May, 1996). There is also currently a project at the University of Arizona Medical School Department of Psychiatry that is studying well-known mediums (B. A. Gehman, personal communication, May 4, 2000).

Spiritualism is not a Christian religion, although most of its members come from a Judeo-Christian background. Main tenets are beliefs in God, or Infinite Intelligence, natural law, the Golden Rule, personal responsibility, the continuation of the existence and personality of the individual after physical death, and that communication with the spirit world is a fact. Jesus, along with Buddha, Mohammad, and others, is considered to be a master teacher and healer. Each individual is responsible for how he leads his life; salvation does not depend on accepting Jesus, or anyone else, as a "savior".

This paper is based upon the belief that communication with spirit world is possible, and that life after physical death has been described by mediums working with those who have left this world.


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