A Concise History of Spiritualism

by Emma Louise Rhodes © 2007

In the beginning…

In his Laws (Book 10), Plato proposed that the punishment of solitary confinement for life would be fitting for those who ‘fool many of the living by pretending to raise the dead.’ Furthermore, when the Thesprotian oracle was excavated, in the innermost chamber of the storage room (close to where the Ancient Greeks would be taken to consult the dead) was found a corroded heap of large iron wheels along with some smaller bronze wheels which, it was decided by excavators, signified a crane worked by a windlass, not unlike the devices used in Greek theatres to make the gods appear from up high. Along with the remnants of the apparent crane, archeologists found jars of sulphur. In the The Rise and Fall of the Afterlife Jan Bremmer writes:

‘… it looks strongly as if the ‘clergy’ of the oracle produced apparitions in the crypt illuminated by sulphur.’

Although modern Spiritualism is just over one hundred and fifty years old, the process of conjuring up the dead goes back thousands of years. Homer’s Odyssey sees Odysseus activating the souls of the dead with the help of milk and honey and Aeschylus’ Perisans describes how the character Darius rose from his grave. Vergil’s Aeneid saw the dead being consulted at a specific oracle (not unlike the Thesprotian oracle mentioned above) and this process was also connected with entry to the underworld.

In Archaic and Classical Greece, the word ‘nekyomanteion’ was used as a description of ‘the place to consult the dead’ and ‘psychopomeoin’ as’ the place where souls are guided’.

Roman literature also uncovers a certain amount of necromancy and apparent contact with the dead. In Asclepius’ Metamorphasis, a man comes back from the dead and indicates, when asked, that his wife killed him and Heliodorus’ Aethiopica describes a mother who consults her dead son on his brother’s whereabouts.

The Bible too provides a valuable example of consultation of the dead when in 1 Samuel, 28, Saul tries to consult God regarding the outcome of a battle with the Philistines but fails and, desperate to find the answer, asks his servants to find him a medium. Although he himself had removed all diviners and seers from the kingdom, Saul travels to El Dor. in disguise, where he asked the medium to evoke the shade of the prophet Samuel , who tells that both he and his sons would be slain the next day. As prophesised, the Philistines triumphed and the bodies of Saul and his sons were hung on the walls of Beth Shean.

Although Spiritualism was far from becoming a religion, examples of the consultation of the dead are very apparent in classical literature. It was to be quite some time, though, before the movement could establish itself as something other than necromancy and the conjuring up of apparent and sometimes widely feared demons.

Swendeborg and Mesmer

Swedish philosopher, theologian, chemist and anatomist, Emanuel Swendeborg was born in Stockholm in 1688. During the years 1743 and 1745, Swendeborg experienced visions, such as meetings with Christ where he touched his hand and spoke freely with him, which he attributed to the spiritual world. In Wilson Van Dusen ‘s 1974 book The Presence of Other Worlds, the author states that Swendeborg’s visions were an exact match of the hallucinatory experiences of schizophrenics. However, regardless of such a plausible answer, Swendeborg’s book Heaven and Hell, in which he described the afterlife, is still seen by many Spiritualists as absolute proof of early written existence of contact with the dead.

Although Franz Mesmer did not in any way contribute to Spiritualism as a religion, his findings paved the way for psychic trance via hypnotism. Born in 1734, Mesmer was at the height of his career in the 1780s and the frenzy that followed this new found craze can be equated in many ways to the excitement caused by Spiritualism just under one hundred years later. Undoubtedly, hypnotic trance proved an exceptionally useful tool to Spiritualists and is still as important today as it was in the very early days of the religion. Alleged contact with spirit guides and past life regression all rely heavily on Mesmer’s findings. Victorian Spiritualism was rife with mesmerism, as Ronald Pearsal, in his book The Table Rappers: The Victorians and the Occult, explains:

“The mere idea of mesmerism powerfully reinforced the usual suggestibility of sitters at séances, and the neurotic pounced on garbled bits of theory and adapted them for their own private purposes …”

Thus both Swendenborg and Mesmer were crucial to the Spiritualist movement, giving believers both a firm assurance of its first written beginnings along with the potential power to lure the receptive into a state of mind tailor made for ‘psychic’ happenings.

Queen Victoria’s ‘clairvoyant’

Queen Victoria’s association with Spiritualism has been much debated and the case of Georgina Eagle often crops up in Victorian histories of the Spiritualist faith. In 1846, a full two years before the worldwide explosion of the modern Spiritualist movement, Queen Victoria intended to present a pocket watch to Georgina Eagle, with the inscription ‘Presented by her majesty to Miss Georgiana Eagle for her meritorious clairvoyance produced at Osborne House, Isle of Wight, July 15th, 1846’. Mystery has always surrounded this item (one of the reasons for this being the fact that it was never actually given to its intended recipient) and the ‘clairvoyance’ associated with it. In his article Georgina Eagle – Queen Victoria’s Clairvoyant Revealed, Stephen Butt writes that:

‘Clairvoyance before the rebirth of English spiritualism in the decade after 1850 involved, quite literally, ‘seeing with the eyes closed’. Normally practitioners identified or described objects, either in total darkness or while hidden behind a screen or similar barrier.’

It is now understood that, in essence, Georgina Eagle was a performer, combining mesmerism and clairvoyance (in the pre-Fox sense of the word) and appearing on stage billed as The Mysterious Lady. Although Queen Victoria dabbled in table-turning when Spiritualism was at its height in the late nineteenth century, her appreciation of Georgina Eagle was as an entertainer and not a Spiritualist. However, it is interesting to note the use of the word clairvoyance before the advent of Spiritualism and its association with magic, trickery and deception.

The Fox Sisters of Hydesville

In 1848 at a small farmhouse in Hydesville, New York State, the sisters Margaret and Katie Fox decided to scare their highly-strung mother by banging apples tied to strings, on the floor of their bedroom.[1] The neighbours were called in by the frightened parents and it was decided that a disembodied spirit must be producing the raps. It was then thought that the manifestations must have been caused by a terrible event that had occurred in the house, such as a murder (of which the ‘spirits’ eagerly confirmed).

The arrival of Margaret and Katie’s older married sister, Leah Fox Fish, turned what was neighbourhood gossip into international news. She organised the Society of Spiritualists and encouraged those interested to visit Hydesville and meet the girls. Over the course of a couple of weeks it was reported that more than three hundred people flocked to the house to witness the supposed spirit rappings and soon Leah decided to take her sisters on tour, ‘realising from one hundred to a hundred and fifty dollars a night in profits, which she pocketed.’[2]

During this time, Margaret and Katie had sophisticated their ‘communication’ with the spirits to cracking the joints of their toes on the floor in order to produce the raps. As the sisters grew up, they both established themselves as prominent mediums, Katie traveling to England where she was ‘tested’ by Sir William Crookes.

Margaret Fox, however, will go down as being the most famous of the sisters, due to her statement in 1888, confessing that her contact with the spirit world had been fraudulent. This was followed by a demonstration and a live confession, in front of 3,000 people, at the New York Academy of Music. This, though, resulted in a recantation by her in writing a year later, where stated that she was still a Spiritualist medium and had made the confession under duress. Nonetheless, it was concluded by many that Margaret had fallen on exceptionally hard times after her exposè and had reverted back to mediumship purely for money. Regardless of this, both sisters died penniless and shunned by many of those who had supported them previously.

As soon as the sisters ‘abilities’ had become apparent and the modern Spiritualist movement sprung to life, a large amount of ordinary people suddenly developed psychic powers. Astoundingly, many Spiritualists claim that this was perfectly normal, the Spiritualist Association of Great Britain claiming that:

‘It must be seen to many non-Spiritualists that until March 1848 psychic phenomena and mediumistic powers were unheard of, and that by some magic, psychic powers were suddenly given to certain individuals after the Hydesville outbreak. The truth is that history has know many gifted mediums. The Bible is full of psychic stories, Jesus was clearly a powerful psychic, as were many other founders of world religions.’

Of course, there are many people who would argue that Hydesville merely sparked the interest of those astute enough to realise that there was money to be made from the new ‘craze’. This might certainly have been the case with a woman who, four years after the Fox sisters had first decided to frighten their mother, brought Spiritualism to Britain in a wave of frenzied national excitement.

Mrs Hayden and her imported religion

In 1852, Mrs Hayden sailed to Britain from America, bringing with her the Spiritualist faith. The young wife of a New England journalist, she performed at a gathering in Cavendish Square and won many admirers. However, soon journalists became interested in the activities of Mrs Hayden and she began to attract as many opponents as she had devotees. Robert Chambers, the compiler of the popular Chamber’s Book of Days, was a keen critic and observer of Spiritualism and concluded the following on what he had witnessed:

‘The phenomena of spiritualism may be the confused elements of a new chapter of human nature, which will only require some careful investigation to form a respectable addition to our stock of knowledge.’

Perhaps, though, Chambers had not anticipated the likes of mediums such as Florence Cook and Daniel Dunglass Home, whose presence on the psychic scene over the subsequent twenty years were a stark contrast to the minimalist séances of Mrs Hayden and proved Spiritualism to be the most thrilling religion the Victorians had ever seen.

In 1853 social reformer and former Shaker, David Richmond, returned from America, having witnessed Spiritualist phenomenon. He built a church or, as he termed it, ‘temple’, in Keighley, Yorkshire, financed by two affluent local businessmen and quickly earned a steady following in the North of England. Publications, such as Medium and Daybreak followed and Spiritualism soon became a popular past time.

However, it is important to remember that, in the Victorian era, amusements were limited. Ronald Pearsall writes that:

‘... there were few rival entertainments; the theatre had been in decline since the days of Garrick; the melodramas and gimmick shows of the time were not spectacles which the sensitive and discerning would flock to.’

The four years of the Great War changed the Spiritual movement dramatically, gaining it some incredibly prominent members, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sir Oliver Lodge. Both men had lost their sons in the war and, not long after, embraced the Spiritualist cause. Arthur Conan Doyle wrote his epic volumes The History of Spiritualism in 1926 and remained a devout follower for the rest of his life, appearing on public platforms around the world proclaiming the religion’s validity. Houdini, a one time friend of Conan Doyle, wrote of him:

‘Spiritualism has claimed among its followers numbers of brilliant minds – scientists, philosophers, professionals and authors … those who allow themselves to be led by minds greater and more powerful than their own. Such a one is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.’

Another individual who apparently failed to see flaws of Spiritualism was the chemist and physicist, Sir William Crookes. As previously mentioned, Crookes had tested Katie Fox and had been happy to state that her communication with spirit was genuine, but perhaps his most infamous subject was the British medium Florence Cook, aka Katie King. In The History of Spiritualism, Conan Doyle describes the experiments Crookes made on Cook and the materialized spirit of King, and emphasised that Crookes had stated that, at one point, that he had seen both the spirit of King and Cook at the same time. However, Ronald Pearsal’s research yielded the fact that it was widely believed at the time that:

‘… William Crookes had an extended affair with Florence Cook … and that he was party to Miss Cook’s deception ….’

In 1871, Emma Hardinge Britten was allegedly given the Seven Principals of Spiritualism, whilst in a trance, by the spirit of social activist, Robert Owen. These are used to this day and Hardinge Britten’s books Modern American Spiritualism and Nineteenth Century Miracles are still quoted by Spiritualists.

The First World War saw a surge in Spiritualism, although this time there was much more seriousness attached to it. Whereas before it had been seen as something of an amusement by many, now after the vast amount of death incurred, the need to conjure up the deceased was much more urgent. The societies that had formed themselves at the end of the nineteenth century, became more organised offering the bereaved a lifeline and up-and-coming new mediums an association that they could affiliate themselves with.

Core British organisations

The first predominant Spiritualist organisation was the Spiritualist Association of Great Britain (SAGB) formed in 1872 by a conscientious group of Spiritualists, first meeting in Marylebone and therefore calling themselves the Marylebone Spiritualist Association, changing the name to the Spiritualist Association of Great Britain in 1960.

Relying heavily on the Seven Principals of Spiritualism, the SAGB (or MSA as it was known for over eighty years) attracted many supporters including Air Chief Marshall Lord Hugh Dowding and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Dowding opening the Associations new headquarters in Belgrave Square in 1955 and Conan Doyle donating various artifacts to the society, including his famous chair).

On their current website, the SAGB state that their purpose is:

“ …to offer evidence through Mediumship of the continuation of the personality after physical death, and to relieve suffering through spiritual healing.”[3]

In October, 1901 the second organisation, the Spiritualists National Union Limited (SNU), was incorporated under the Companies Act. The primary objectives of the SNU was ‘to promote the advancement and diffusion of a knowledge of the religion and religious philosophy of Spiritualism on the basis of the Seven Principles’[4.] The Union’s emblem, a picture of a dove flying over the world, was penned by the infamous Victorian medium Mrs Guppy whilst in a trance, and remains the symbol of the SNU to this day.

During WWI, the SNU was responsible for organising memorial services for the war dead, along with campaigning for government recognition for Spiritualism as a religion (which failed). In 1964 the SNU was given a permanent home by J. Arthur Findlay (prominent Spiritualist and author of Psychic Phenomena and The Rock of Truth) when he bequeathed Stanstead Hall to them, ‘to be used as a college for the advancement of psychic science’.[5.]

The belief systems of the SAGB and SNU are identical and from their beginnings to current day, both societies encourage and promote regular workshops from their respective headquarters and frequently publish Spiritualist literature.

Spiritualsim today

There are over three hundred Spiritualist churches in Great Britain at present and the past one hundred and fifty years have seen Spiritualism form itself into a legitimate fringe religion.

Certain events have tended to spark interest in the Spiritualist faith, such as the First World War, and it has enjoyed several renaissances. Famous endorsers of Spiritualism were in its early days quite abundant and the loyalty of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to the religion was paramount. Other well respected men such as Air Chief Marshall Lord Hugh Dowding brought prominence to the faith (again during and after time of war) and gave Spiritualism a certain amount of credibility that it might not have afforded otherwise.

The emergence of Doris Stokes as Britain’s first real celebrity medium took the religion to new heights and, although TV mediums were practically unheard of in the UK following her death, the advent of programmes such Crossing Over With John Edward in 1999 in the US and Sixth Sense with Colin Fry in 2002 in Britain gave Spiritualism its highest profile since the days of Conan Doyle.

The presence of the ‘Psychic Sisters’ at Selfridges, London in 2006 established the Spiritualist industry as plausible and not just the stuff of traveling sideshows or end of the pier amusement. Although the media (predominantly TV) might be seen to promote conjuring up the dead, it must not be forgotten that at the beginning and/or end of such programmes the something similar to the following description always appears:

“This is an entertainment programme only. Differing opinions exist to the true nature of clairvoyance and clairaudience.”

Nonetheless, it is unfortunate that Spiritualism has slipped into comfortable, easy viewing, with few questions asked and the medium’s word often being taken as fact. Maybe we are as easily led today as the Ancient Greeks who visited the oracle thousands of years ago, in search of truths that were not only unattainable but, in reality, steeped in theatrical trickery and lies.


[1] Briggs Davenport, Ruben, The Death Blow to Spiritualism, 1888

[2] Houdini, Harry, A Magician Among the Spirits, 1924

[3] Spiritualist’s Association of Great Britain - www.sagb.org.uk

[4] and [5] Spiritualists National Union – www.snu.org.uk


  • Bremmer, Jan N., The Rise and Fall of the Afterlife, Routledge, London, 2002
  • Butt, Steven, Georgina Eagle – Queen Victoria’s Clairvoyant Revealed, Psypioneer, Volume 1, No 15 – 16 July / August 2005
  • Pearsall, Ronald, The Table-Rappers: The Victorians and the Occult, 1972, Sutton Publishing, London
  • Stemmen, Roy, One Hundred Years of Spiritualism, SAGB, London, 1972
  • Van Dusen, Wilson, The Presence of Other Worlds: The Psychological/Spiritual Findings of Emanuel Swedenborg, Chrysalis Books, reprinted 2004