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Spiritualism in 19th Century Britain
Origins of Modern Spiritualism
So how did spiritualism start in 19th century Britain? Are you are one of the many people who are fascinated by spiritualism and the idea of contacting the dead?
There are many people these days that are curious about the paranormal, would like to have proof of survival after death, and who are thinking about consulting a medium or psychic.
But where did modern spiritualism develop from and how did the Spiritualist Movement evolve and grow in 19th century Britain? It has to be said that mankind has always been intrigued by the idea of contacting ‘the other side’ and communicating with family or loved ones who have passed over.
Ancient cultures had shamans and priests who walked the divide between the two worlds to bring back messages and guidance from the spirit world, and most major religions have their mystics and prophets.
But spiritualism as we know it today was born in the United States of America in 1848, when the Fox sisters came to the attention of the general public due to reports that there was a spirit in their house who was communicating with them.
Supposedly this was the spirit of a man who had been murdered and then secretly buried in the cellar of the Fox family home in Hydesville. The spirit communicated with Maggie, Kate and Leah Fox by creating audible rapping sounds that formed messages.
The ensuing publicity around these supposedly paranormal events was huge and was a major factor in the growing popularity and development of séances and medium’s sitting in spiritual circles for communication with spirit.
Spiritualism Arrives in 19th Century Britain
Inevitably, this interest in spiritualism soon spread to Britain and in 1852 the UK gained its first working spiritualist medium when Mrs Maria Hayden arrived from the United States.
Maria Hayden attracted a lot of criticism and antagonism from the British press and the Church, but she carried on with her spiritual work regardless, holding séances and demonstrations of mediumship.
The public interest in spiritualism continued to grow in Britain and in 1853 the very first Spiritualist Church in Keighley in Yorkshire was formed, followed in 1855 by the first spiritualist publication to be published in the UK ‘The Yorkshire Spiritualist Telegraph’.
The question of education and studying spiritualism as a religion and philosophy led to the founding of the first Spiritualist Lyceum in 1866 in Nottingham by Mr J Hitchcock.
The founder of the Lyceum Movement in Britain was Andrew Jackson Davis who worked as a trance medium and channelled books through his spirit guides, copies of which are still to be found today in the Lyceum Union’s library. In the trance state, Andrew Jackson Davis would explore the realms of spirit and observed how spirit children were educated.
He believed that these methods of education were more advanced than those on the Earth plane, and after he reported his experiences at a lecture he gave in 1863 the idea of the Lyceum was born.
The College of Psychic Studies in South Kensington, London was also founded in 1884 to investigate the paranormal and spirit communication through mediums, and what is now called the Spiritualist Association of Great Britain was started in 1872 as the Marylebone Spiritualist Association.
Do you believe mediums in Victorian times could contact the dead during seances?
Why Did the Spiritualist Movement Appeal to 19th Century Britain?
So why was spiritualism so appealing to Victorian Britain? In the mid-19th century Britain was in the grips of the Industrial Revolution, where large numbers of people were leaving the land and flocking to the new industrial towns that were springing up to work in the factories, mines and ship yards.
It was the age of the great social reformers and philanthropists, where the education, health and social morality of the working classes became the focus of much debate and work towards improvement.
The population as a whole was starting to question the nature of their existence and the growth of movements such as the Trade Unions and evangelical churches showed that ordinary people wanted much more control of their own destinies and the ability to strive for equality in all areas of their lives.
Spiritualism appealed to this zeitgeist, as it stressed the importance of having a personal experience of spirit and direct knowledge of the afterlife. Spiritualism is based on the Christian tradition, as a service includes Christian prayers and hymns.
But a service in a spiritualist church focuses on giving proof of survival after the physical death of the body, by having a medium give a demonstration of spirit communication and clairvoyance.
There are also some noteworthy differences of doctrine as spiritualism does not subscribe to the notion of heaven and hell, but believes that the afterlife is made up of different layers of spiritual experience that an individual soul can progress through as they gain wisdom and knowledge.
The social reformers of the day found that the communications coming from the spirit world at that time were very supportive of their ideals and causes, and Robert Owen, who was the cofounder of the Cooperative Society and a prominent socialist reformer, converted to spiritualism after having had a sitting with Mrs Hayden.
After Robert Owen passed to spirit himself, he channelled a book called ‘The Principles of Spiritualism’ through another medium called Emma Hardinge Britten. In 1887 Emma Hardinge Britten was also given the Seven Principles, which are now promoted in all British Spiritualist Churches.
Fraudulent Mediums and the Decline of Spiritualism in the 19th Century
Spiritualism attracted over a million followers during the latter part of the 19th century in the Britain, but began to decline in popularity due to persistent claims of fraudulent activities by spiritualist mediums and the general disorganisation the spiritualist movement itself.
Audiences at séances and demonstrations increasingly demanded physical manifestations of mediumship, such as ectoplasm, spirit voices and even the faces or whole bodies of deceased loved ones manifesting in the room.
It became a popular after dinner entertainment to hold a séance and some mediums were desperate to secure paying audiences and make a living.
There had previously been several investigations that had reported favourably on spiritualism, such as the committee appointed by the Dialectical Society in 1869 and Sir William Crookes’s findings for the Royal Society in the ‘Quarterly Journal of Science’ in 1871.
But in 1882 the Society for Psychical Research was founded expressly for the purpose of investigating paranormal and spirit communication.
It would go on to have many prominent members such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the future Prime Minister Arthur Balfour, philosopher William James and scientists William Crookes and Oliver Lodge, and was dedicated to working on its investigations in a scientific, rigorous manner.
It was also exposing the fraudulent activities of the Davenport Brothers, by working out how their spirit cabinet illusion was set up, that led John Nevil Maskelyne to start his illustrious career in conjuring and magic.
Maskelyne got together with a friend called George Alfred Cooke to build their own version of the spirit cabinet, and they used it in a public show in Cheltenham in 1865 to denounce the Davenport Brothers and show how their trickery had worked.
Would Spiritualism Survive Into the 20th Century?
So as the start of the 20th century loomed, the big question was would the spiritualist movement be able to survive to move on into the future, to grow and continue to provide evidence of life after death?
The National Spiritualists’ Federation had been founded in 1890, there were still services being held in the local Spiritualist Churches, and education and investigation was still being carried out into psychic phenomena and spirit communication.
But had the general public turned away from spiritualism because of all the publicity being generated by the uncovering of fraudulent mediums?
There were many spiritual mediums of reputation and integrity still working and giving proof of survival, giving comfort and knowledge of the spirit realms, but it remained to be seen if the Spiritualist Movement would survive and prosper or become a thing of the past and purely a phenomena of the 19th century.
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Victorian Spiritualism Links
- BBC - Religions - Spiritualism: History of Modern Spiritualism
Modern Spiritualism dates from the 1840s. It rapidly became fashionable with both men and women and across all social classes and acquired the name Spiritualism in the 1850s.
- The Chronicles of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle - Spiritualism
In 1916 Arthur Conan Doyle made a declaration that would impact the rest of his life. He stated his belief in Spiritualism.
- College of Psychic Studies | Home
The College of Psychic Studies an educational charity offering regular classes, workshops, lectures and private consultations in the field of personal, psychic & spiritual development and the healing arts
The primary purpose of the Spiritualist Association of Great Britain: is to offer evidence through Mediumship of the continuation of the personality after physical death, and to relieve suffering through Spiritual Healing.