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Spiritualism in 19th-Century Britain

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Cynthia is an administrator, has a degree in Business, Economics, & History, and is a qualified Hypnotherapist. She loves to write & travel.

There is a long history of spiritualism in Britain.

There is a long history of spiritualism in Britain.

Origins of Modern Spiritualism

There are many people these days who are curious about the paranormal, would like to have proof of survival after death, or are thinking about consulting a medium or psychic. Are you one of the many people who are fascinated by spiritualism and the idea of contacting the dead? If so, you may be interested to learn how spiritualism started in 19th-century Britain.

So, 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 mediums sitting in spiritual circles for communication with spirit.

Seance conducted by John Beattie in Bristol in England, 1872

Seance conducted by John Beattie in Bristol in England, 1872

Spiritualism Arrives in 19th-Century Britain

Inevitably, this interest in spiritualism soon spread to Britain. 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 observe 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.

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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.

Couple With a Young Female Spirit

Couple With a Young Female Spirit

What Was the Appeal of the Spiritualist Movement?

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 shipyards.

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 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 in 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 co-founder 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

Spiritualism attracted over a million followers during the latter part of the 19th century in Britain but began to decline in popularity due to persistent claims of fraudulent activities by spiritualist mediums and the general disorganisation of 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?

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, 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 were 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 phenomenon of the 19th century.

Further Reading on Victorian Spiritualism

  • 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

  • SAGB

    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.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2011 CMHypno


CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on October 25, 2013:

Glad you enjoyed the hub on spiritualism Wiccan Sage. I think that's an ongoing problem for genuine mediums, clairvoyants and healers that there are unscrupulous people who will lie and cheat to get money. If people do want a reading it is best to go to their local spiritualist church or an organisation like the SAGB or the College of Psychic Studies

Mackenzie Sage Wright on October 24, 2013:

Great hub, I enjoyed learning more about Spiritualism very much. I don't think the principles or beliefs are going away any time soon, but I do think the frauds that it became associated with is what steer people from the name. This was very informative, and a great read for this time of year.

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on February 24, 2011:

Hi James, thank you for reading about the history of Spiritualism in the 19th century, and glad that you passed on the Black Mass! Spiritualism grew up at a time, when ordinary working people were fighting for their rights, enfranchisement and spiritualism allowed these people to gain a direct, personal experience of the spiritual for the first time

James A Watkins from Chicago on February 23, 2011:

I have no interest in contacting the dead but the history of Spiritualism as told by you here is fascinating. You are an inspired writer. Very talented.

Houdini exposed a lot of American spiritualists. I have been to Cassadega, Florida and it is quite spooky, with Black Mass every Saturday Night. I passed on that one.

Great Hub! I enjoyed reading it very much.

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on February 08, 2011:

Hi Nell, glad that you enjoyed reading about the history of spiritulism in the 19th century. Having both worked as a platform medium and seen lots of mediums working, you do get a variation in the quality of mediumship and it is a shame that you did not get to see a demonstration of spirit communication that really impressed you. A good medium should be able to give you a lot of details and memory links of the kind you couldn't possibly get from cold reading people. I have even had it suggested to me that we are given a list of those attending beforehand complete with their life details that we memorise and then give out on the platform. Apart from the fact that you do cannot possibly know who is going to walk in the door, I really don't know how you would be able to learn all that stuff - and remember that a lot of working mediums do two services a week!

Nell Rose from England on February 08, 2011:

Hi, this was fascinating, I knew a bit about the founding of the spiritualist church, but not a lot. I did actually go to a few churches years ago, but never really saw anybody that blew me away, I think these days it is based on body language and obvious things like reading the person in the audience, saying that I did read all of Doris Stokes books back in the 80s, and she was really interesting, thanks nell

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on February 08, 2011:

Hi Hello, hello - glad that you enjoyed reading about the history of spiritualism and thanks for leaving a comment

Hello, hello, from London, UK on February 08, 2011:

That was a great hub. Very interesting and well written. Thank you.

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