|Links: Pages on Spiritualism, Other Religions|
|Heritage||Christianity and New Age|
|Area of Origin||USA|
|Founder||By fraudsters Kate and Margaret Fox|
|Numbers in the UK (Census results)|
|2001||32 404||2011||39 000|
|Spiritualists Worldwide (Pew & WM)|
|World: 0.202%. Cuba (17.2%), Jamaica (10.1%), Brazil (4.88%), Antigua & Barbuda (3.62%), Suriname (3.55%), Haiti (2.71%), Dominica (2.64%), Dominican Republic (2.18%), Bahamas (1.9%), St Vincent & the Grenadines (1.79%) 1|
Spiritualism is the belief that the souls of the dead communicate with the living through Humans with special powers, called "mediums". In the Americas, it is mostly a sect of Christianity, but in the rest of the modern world it is often more an offshoot of the New Age. Psychodramas called séances are utilized as a combination of a Spiritualist meeting and a ritual form of communion with the "departed". Spiritualism suffered serious credibility problems with the original founders admitted to fraudulently inventing the 'rappings' that formed the communications.
|4||Antigua & Barbuda||3.6%|
|10||St Vincent & Grenadines||1.8%|
|13||Trinidad & Tobago||1.4%|
|15||St Kitts & Nevis||1.3%|
The Caribbean and South America are by far where Spiritualism is most popular - all the top 20 countries that embrace Spiritualism are in those regions. It is worth noting that these are the places that also embrace the kinds of evangelical pentecostal Christianity where mass expressions of emotion and drama are key parts of public ritual.
The modern movement began in Hydesville, New York, USA, in 1848, where the Fox family lived2,3. John Fox's two daughters, Maggie and Katherine, along with a few early converts and colleagues who accompanied them on tours around the country, all proceeded to demonstrate that they could communicate with the dead. It presumed a general Christian outlook on life and retained a Christian morality. It has since become more than a sect of Christianity, and should be considered a religion in its own right due to the development of its authoritative written works that are no longer Christian. It remains comprised of a very loose spread of practitioners, but nonetheless Spiritualist Churches hold services several times a week, some of them including Christian Holy Communion.
“About the year 1847 there was a resident at Hydesville, Arcadia, Rochester Co., New York, a family of the name of Fox [...] who were 'startled' by mysterious rappings in various parts of the house. We ae told that the noises increased 'in loudness and frequency,' and not the slightest clue to their origin could be discovered. One evening Mrs. Fox had seen her two youngest children - Margaret, aged twelve years, and Kate, nine - nicely tucked in between the sheets, then the sounds were heard again, and the children, hearing the noise, tried, we are told, to imitate it by snapping their fingers. Little Katey Fox cried out, 'Here, old Splitfoot, do as I do,' and the knocking instantly responded.
Soon the news travelled, and persons from a distance flocked in until the excitement became intense. The rapping began to assume coherency, and was soon giving the details of a murder which had been committed in the house occupied by the Fox (and very foxy) family. The spirit of the murdered man - a pedlar - declared that his murderer was a former occupant of the tenement, a certain John C. Bell, a blacksmith; and the spirit pedlar further informed his gaping audience that his trunk was packed up, and all the members of his body neatly disposed of beneath some ten feet of earth in the cellar. Now, it is said that, beyond doubt, some portion of a skeleton was found at the precise spot indicated; but it is also said that opinion was mostly in favour of the remains being not the framework of humanity, but that of a sheep. [...] However, it must have been a terrible blow to the Fox family when the murdered pedlar turned up again alive and well, 'still clothed with mortality, and having a new assortment of wares to sell.'
However the rappings continued, and it was becoming a paying thing for the Fox family. Soon after this the girls were removed to Rochester, a town on the borders of Lake Ontario, where they resided with Mrs. Fish, a married sister, who now rapidly developed into a medium, and arranged a code of signals [which had] the 'spirits' rapping at the required letter, and so spelling the message out in very bad orthography. [...]
Some ideas, however, inspire such imagination and awe that they spread faster than the slow-moving critical thinkers can spread their caution:
“Such little drawbacks notwithstanding, the success of the Fox girls and Mrs. Fish was unbounded, and soon produced shoals of imitators. They are an ingenious race, the Yankees, and they understand business. The rapping paid, but something new must be forthcoming to keep up the excitement, so table-turning and tilting were discovered and ascribed to spiritual agency. At this, New York State went mad; Massachusetts followed suit, and before long our American cousins from Maine to California were running wildly after tables and chairs.”
Nowadays, Spiritualists, and many mediums who are influenced by them, exist all over the Western world.
“Spiritualism includes a variety of differing networks and groups, some of which hold some specifically Christian beliefs and others of which are almost totally devoid of any religious dogma at all. They all, however, share on central concept - communication with the spirit realm through gifted or psychic individuals. Spiritualists always speak of the 'departed' rather than the 'dead'.”
It has become the public face of the New Age and in many countries outside of the Caribbean and South America, it is known primarily as part of the New Age: The 'channellers' and 'mediums' that have appeared on a long string of television dramas and in books have all been of the non-Christian kind. The founder of Alexandrian Wicca, Alex Sanders, was introduced to Spiritualism by his mother Hannah "and he himself became a medium and spiritual healer famed in the Manchester area"7, before moving on to witchcraft. These ties give us hints that Spiritualism exists in popular culture half way between standard Western theology of God and souls, and the zany side of alternative religion.
After the blow of having their claimed murder victim actually turn up alive and well, further revelations confirmed to the world the lies of the entire escapade of the Fox sisters and those who helped them. Spiritualism found itself in Court on 1871 Apr 17, and Lionel Weatherley quotes from some of the proceedings. From the testimony of Mrs Normal Culver:
“The girls have been a great deal at my house, and for about two years I was a very sincere believer in their rappings [... and] she revealed to be the secret. The raps are produced by the toes. [...] After a week's practice with Catherine showing me how, I could produce them perfectly myself.' . . . 'She told me that all I should have to do to make raps heard on the table would be to put my foot on the bottom of the table when I rapped [... and for elsewhere] direct my own eyes earnestly to the spot where I wished them to be heard. She said if I could put my foot to the bottom of the door the raps would be heard on the top of the door.
Catherine told me that when her feet were held down by the Rochester Committee, the Dutch servant rapped with her knuckles under the floor from the cellar.”
The Fox sisters themselves admitted that all of this was true, over ten years later:
“Four decades after spiritualism began, sisters Margaret Fox Kane and Katherine Fox Jencken confessed it had all been a trick. On Sunday, October 21, 1888, the sisters appeared at the Academy of Music in New York City. [...] She explained how she had produced the rapping noises [... and] demonstrated the effect for the audience. [...] Margaret then went on to state:"I think that it is about time that the truth of this miserable subject "Spiritualism" should be brought out. It is now widespread all over the world, [...] I was the first in the field and I have the right to expose it. [...] Mother [...] could not understand it and did not suspect us of being capable of a trick because we were so young."
[...] Margaret also stated that Leah knew the spirit rappings were fake, and that when she traveled with the girls (on their first nationwide tour) it was she who signalled the answers to various questions. (She probably chatted with sitters before the séance to obtain information; when that did not produce the requisite facts, the "spirits" no doubt spoke in vague generalizations that are the mainstay of spiritualistic charlatans). Margaret repeated her exposé in other cities close to New York.
Today, spiritualists characterize Margaret's exposé as bogus, attributing it to her need for money or the desire for revenge against her rivals or both. However, not only were her admissions fully corroborated by her sister, but she demonstrated to the audience that she could produce the mysterious raps just as she said.”
Extensive investigations at the original site in Hydesville where the Fox daughters invented the first Spiritualist communications, have also shown every aspect of the story to be invented falsehoods; with details about bodies, persons and fake walls all to be incorrect and with evidence of attempted trickery. But such fact-checking all takes time: much more time than it does to concoct the lies in the first place. The problem is that many, many imitators and fans of the Fox sisters spread out across America, repeating various tricks, and a great many people believed that they really were talking with the spirits of the dead.
The charlatan-hunters were running around in circles: as quickly as they could catch out frauds and tricksters, more sprung up all around. Various early adoptors of this kind of drama were arrested following exposés, including Daniel Douglass Home, the Davenport Brothers and Dr Slade, all of which were highly successful until strings of public revelations of their frauds and lies, in particular about the details of what they claimed the dead were telling them. Some fraudsters such as Annie Eva Fay were ejected very quickly from one city after being discovered, only to move on elsewhere and continue. The critic J. N. Maskelyne excelled at reproducing the so-called spiritual effects, and gave several tours and demonstrations of all the fakery in the years of 1883-4. His shows were so convincing that spiritualists such as the Davenport Brothers were forced to say that he actually was in contact with the spirits, but for some reason was denying it! Although Maskerlyne was eventually reprieved and the brothers eventually admitted 'that the whole peformance was the result of trickery and dexterity'. Such is the art of cold-reading that when done well, it will convince people even if the performer hirself has declared it is a trick - hence spiritualists maintained that Maskelyne's demonstrations of the fake methods were real, and, even after being found out, the Fox Sisters' and the Davenport Brother's followers continued to declare that they believed the actors had been in contact with spirits.5
Widows, the bereaved, the angsty and the desperate all parted with, over time, huge quantities of their money seemingly oblivious to the long line of frauds that gave rise to the movement and popularized it in its early years. The movement exists today, and we see it not just in obscure listings in telephone directories, but on prime-time TV.
Magician Milbourne Christopher wondered if Ouija boards were being typed by living humans seeking the right letters to produce spooky sentences, or, if the living were being mystically controlled by spirits who were magically influencing them in order to communicate. He found, unfortunately, that if you blindfold someone and sneakily put the letters in random positions on the Ouija board, it comes out as gibberish.8. So it seems that it is the living humans who are seeking the letters, not the spirits. If it were the spirits causing involuntary muscle movements, they'd still be able to see where the letters were even though the living person was blindfolded. The Skeptical Inquirer has reported many times in history on the use of the Ouija Board, and sometimes found that those using it were simply going along with what they thought they should be doing, but, all too often, those involved have been outright frauds and tricksters.
When mediums bring back messages from the dead, they employ cold-reading techniques; the results are character profiles which act upon us in a particular way: The Forer Effect.
“The Forer effect is the seeing of a personality statement as "valid even though it could apply to anyone", and is named after the psychologist who famously demonstrated it9. In 1949, Bertram Forer conducted a personality test, and then gave all of his students exactly the same personality profile, which he constructed from random horoscopes. The students rated the accuracy of their profile at over 80% on average10! This was occasionally previously known as the Barnum effect after a popularist entertainer. Extensive studies have found that this effect applies well to horoscopes, other astrological readings, messages given from the dead by spiritualists, various cold reading tricks and other profiling endeavours11. It is often mistaken for being a product of magical or supernatural means.”
For more, read: The Forer (or Barnum) Effect.
Spiritualism is mired in problems. Not only the apparent fact that souls, spirits and ghosts don't exist, but that mediums' communications are fraudulent. The information gleaned from the dead is the same tone and quality as that obtained through cold-reading, which is a mixture of obscurantism, astute observations and a Machiavellian understanding of what types of things people want to hear and will believe. There have been several court cases resulting in criminal convictions for fraud against Spiritualists, which is probably the reason that some of their websites state that they are "for entertainment purposes only"12. And of course, the two Fox daughters who founded the movement, and their helpers, admitted later during their lifetimes that it had been a hoax.
The skeptic Lionel A. Weatherley followed the rise of Spiritualism as it happened, and spent time going from Spiritualist to Spiritualist, and comparing what they said about his own dead relatives and friends. He found that each one would give different details and a different story about supposedly "departed" friends and family, each one of them confident that they were on the right track. It was as if each Spiritualist was simply making things up.
“By taking the same question and problems to multiple spiritualists, you find immediately that each one gives, quite confidently, completely the wrong answers if only you lead them on.”
The religion's take on spirits and the spirit world remain a mixture of pop-culture assertions and assumptions, with very little rationality or coherency. There seems to be no reason why, if spirits can communicate by banging things, moving tables, talking through people's mouths, that they can't instead simply write clear letters with pens on paper. Also, the abysmal failure rate of psychic 'help' in real police cases, the cold-reading associations, the fraud cases and the negative results of scientific investigations into Spiritualist claims all point to fundamental flaws in the movement.