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The Hydesville Debate:
Has the Spiritualist movement failed?

by Leslie Price

leslie price

Modern Spiritualism officially began in March 1848. The Fox family in Hydesville, New York State, were troubled by unexplained raps. It was learned by means of a code that they came from a murdered peddler.

Recently the Australian Spiritualist scholar Lis Warwood found a near-contemporary newspaper which named the peddler. She graciously permitted a reprint in the monthly journal Psypioneer in January 2012, whose editor Paul Gaunt had found an early book which gave a different name. Both names differ from the one used by the SNU, which derived from Emma Hardinge Britten. A fourth name appeared in a later American newspaper.

In fact the peddler may not have existed outside a misleading message to the Fox family. If so, the man accused in the message of his murder had even more reason to be aggrieved. Fortunately over forty of his neighbours had promptly signed a testimonial affirming his innocence, and he was never charged.

They said: “...we have ever thought him, and still think him a man of honest and upright character, incapable of committing crime; and that during his residence in Arcadia aforesaid we never knew anything against his character, or heard any one speak ill of him nor do we believe that he is a man that would do any injury to his neighbor, or any one else, intentionally.”

But his name as a murderer, which I forbear to quote here, still appears in Spiritualist journals.

Rapping and mediumistic messages soon spread beyond the Hydesville area and across the world. Two problems emerged, however, which remain to this day, and which, in my opinion, account for the failure of the movement.

Because of the nature of human consciousness, it is not possible to prove scientifically that it persists beyond death and is the intentional cause of some of the messages. At first the messages were accepted at face value, and their prophecies of an imminent new age were widely welcomed. It was only gradually realised that not all communicators are reliable, and that the mind of the medium may personify or distort a message.

It did not take long to grasp that some mediums would pretend to have powers in order to make money. It took rather longer to appreciate that disinterested deception (cheating without money being involved) was also a reality.

In our world, if something works poorly, there will be product research to improve it.

Most users of mediumship, however, including organised groups, have not been much interested in research. As a result, mediumship is no more reliable today than a century ago when the outstanding medium Gladys Osborne Leonard was starting work, and was told correctly that there was something very bad on the way (the First World War) for which her gifts would be needed.

So the failure of the Spiritualist movement is due first to the limitations of mediumship. These are partly inherent, though more could be done to correct them.

The second major factor is religious.

fox sisters colourThe Fox Sisters

Spiritualist communications mostly rejected the orthodox Christian faith. They expounded a liberal scheme based on the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man in which there was no saviour but oneself. This scheme was sometimes seen as the basis of future religion. ‘The coming world religion’ was the subtitle of Arthur Findlay’s uncompromising book, The Rock of Truth (1933).

Some Spiritualists prefixed themselves as Christian, and retained elements of orthodoxy, while others supported a rational non-Christian Spiritualism which to a passing Martian would still have looked mostly orthodox, in a Free Church way, with hymns, reading and an address.

Either way, the coming world religion did not arrive. Other religions rose and fell, but religious Spiritualists remained a very small minority and, once mediumship was legalised in 1951, not a very lively one.

Meanwhile, as the BBC web site reports that “the number of Mormons in the UK has risen from 6,500 in the 1960s to 190,000 members.” The same source estimates UK Jehovah’s Witnesses at 130,000. Of course these are religions with a controlling centre. In Spiritualism there is no single international centre. Some Spiritist groups in Brazil can report massive growth, but their Christian reincarnationist framework is not what Andrew Jackson Davis or Emma Hardinge Britten would recognise as Spiritualism, because they take reincarnation, the Bible and the books of Alan Kardec (founder of Spiritism) very seriously.

So Spiritualism has failed religiously – as well as being unable to convince most scientists of survival or indeed of the paranormal in general. But I should like to leave you with some hope: perhaps the wrong targets were adopted.

This year is an anniversary one for the medium and Anglican clergyman William Stainton Moses, 
who received Spirit Teachings. He began to investigate in 1872 and passed away in 1892. His Teachings had religious implications, but he did not feel the need either to start a new religion, or to join one. Nor did 
his guides press him. In some papers on ‘Higher Aspects of Spiritualism’ he suggested that 
Spiritualism would eventually end up very different from its Victorian form. And therein lies hope.


Has the Spiritualist movement failed?

Perhaps, but spirit’s message to the world has not.

by Lis Warwood Lis Warwood

The events at Hydesville, New York State, in March 1848, undoubtedly represent, as Andrew Jackson Davis would record at the time,“the birth of a living demonstration”. The mysterious ‘rappings’ of a murdered peddler, heard in the Fox family home and witnessed by many independently of the Fox sisters or their parents, demonstrated the reality of spirit survival and communication.

That today there is uncertainty about the peddler’s name, or that the guilt of the person named by the peddler as his murderer was never established, is not surprising given that until 1904 no body was found, and it seems from the available records of that time that the peddler’s identity and murder were considered less important than the fact that the spirit world had found a way to communicate and make their presence known.

It is also evident that however momentous events at Hydesville were, it is to what happened afterwards in Rochester, and at Corinthian Hall on 14th November 1849 that we should really look for the birth of the Spiritualist movement. The first public exposition on, and demonstration of, the phenomena associated with spirit communication, was a defining moment.

As the 1850 book Explanation and History of the Mysterious Communion with Spirits, published just weeks after the meetings at Corinthian Hall, makes clear, the spirits wanted the fact of communication between the living and the spirits of those who had died to be made more public to encourage people to investigate the phenomena, ultimately enabling the truth of survival to become known to all.

There was no demand to create a world religion, no call to complex dogma or theology. As one early writer put it, “Our creed is simple. Spirits do communicate with man – that is the creed. The legitimate consequences of that belief in that single fact are all that can be chargeable on Spiritualism. All else that Spiritualists may believe and do, belongs to them as individuals, and not necessarily as Spiritualists.”

It was perhaps inevitable that some Spiritualists would form Spiritualist associations, and later still create a religious framework for the philosophy that grew out of communication with the spirit world. Even so, from the very beginning there was awareness that there was danger inherent in doing so. Organised religion is, after all, a man-made invention, and as Leslie has observed, many Spiritualists have not felt “the need to start a new religion, or to join one”.

At this stage in the history of the Spiritualist movement ‘religious’ Spiritualism appears to be in decline, but the fundamental message of survival that spirit has delivered to our world is not. The results of numerous independent social science data projects over the past ten years highlight that there is a widespread and increasing belief in life after death. Some research suggests that in 2008 over 52 per cent of people in the UK either believed in, or accepted the probability of life after death. In Australia it was about 50 per cent, while in the USA it may have been as high as 78 per cent.

fox cottage postcard1
Other polls highlight that more and more people are incorporating concepts such as communicating with the dead into their religious beliefs and practices. The number of people who say they have interacted with a ghost or a person who has died has doubled over the past thirteen years. An increasing number occasionally or regularly consult a psychic or medium. Younger generations, including approximately 39 per cent of teenagers, are open to the possibility of spirit communication and other paranormal phenomena. Interestingly, the percentage of teenagers who do believe in communicating with the dead is significantly higher (44 per cent) amongst those who never attend religious services. 

Such statistics make clear that a belief in the possibility of survival over death, and communication with those who have died, is not dependent on a religious context.

Mediumship is, and always has been, an imperfect mechanism for communication with the spirit world. Yet, despite the fact that not all communications are reliable, that distortion or even deception may occur on occasion, since the Spiritualist movement began, millions of people have received compelling evidence of the survival of their loved ones and friends through mediums. Those messages have brought comfort, hope, and healing to many.

Again, while many present-day scientists remain unconvinced, despite the research undertaken in the past by such eminent scientists as Sir William Crookes, there is an undeniable resurgence of interest in the possibility of life after death and communication with the spirit realm in some scientific quarters. Professor Gary Schwartz’s After-Life Experiments, or Anabela Cardoso’s Instrumental Transcommunication research are two obvious examples.

The spirit realm has proclaimed to the world that we do not die; our souls are immortal, and they can and do communicate from beyond the grave. The way in which we as Spiritualists have seen fit to present that truth to others has varied according to time, cultural, social and religious inclinations. Organisations, religious or non-religious, set up to promote Spiritualism may fall away, or eventually find new ways to present the message. But the message itself, of survival and communication, having been broadcast to the world, has not failed, and slowly but surely continues to filter into the minds and hearts of humankind.

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