The 19th Century Spiritualist Movement Then and Now

In the wake of the spiritualist movement, public interest in the realm of the dead beyond our own was still smoldering like the well stoked fires of the locomotives still freighting passengers to the big cities to see the art of the seance.  Meanwhile, the profession of magician had with it some of the greatest names in stage magic of all time.  And included in the list of incredible stage shows were included some of the names of the world’s preeminent skeptics – and more than a few believers.  The stage was set for a philosophical battle of titans.

Mentalism, stage magic, and illusion were in their own rites a form of magic still kept alive in the public eye by a few magicians who dared the audience to dream of a world greater than the simple daily affairs in the newspaper.  Alongside Harry Houdini the skeptics stood in one corner determined to move the world away from the superstitions still practiced widely at all levels of society.  In the other corner, names such as Rev. John Page Hopps and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle attempted to reconcile the movement with the world-changing theory of evolution.

Houdini even teamed up with horror literature heavyweight Howard Phillips Lovecraft in commissioning a skeptical essay on the subject of superstition.  Lovecraft drafted it, but in time the piece was lost even as his supernatural tales started to gain in popularity.  To this day no one knows precisely what Lovecraft’s exact words on the matter were, only that the piece was funded by a sympathetic well known skeptic on the matter of spiritualists – Harry Houdini.

Spiritualists all over the world were troubled with the concept of evolution at their core.  If humanity had not been created by hands unseen to be the conscious and questioning beings they are, then the spirit itself was under threat of becoming mutable and temporary.  The first blow had been struck, but it wasn’t long before a counter argument was posited.  If humanity was an evolved being, and had somehow gained a supernatural element that powered its consciousness, then this may also have been gained through evolutionary or similar means.  Spiritual evolution, as it would become known, suggested that human beings had ascended from the primordial darkness with its own purity and consciousness that extended from the understood world into new worlds after death.  Evidence of these was seen in creativity, expression, and all other things inherently human.

The qualities of the human components became a key point of interest for philosophers, skeptics, and spiritualists.  Today the spiritualism of the 1890’s still survives in several different forms.  But while spiritualism is still alive in more organized form, it has discarded many of the practices that once made it popular at 19th century parties. 

To see one of the organized gatherings today, you would hardly recognize the practice as a split off from the spiritualist movement.  Seances, manifesting ectoplasm, and mysterious knocking sounds have all but been replaced fully by the introspective gatherings of people interested in the continued ascension of human consciousness.

And yet in some ways the showmanship still survives in other forms as well.  The spiritualist movement that we read about didn’t end, it turns out.  It simply split into several different forms and spread in ways we would hardly recognize – perhaps coincidentally (or not) the precise thing many say happens to us all when we pass into that other realm.  Will there be a resurgence of spiritualism as science makes the cosmos less concrete and Newtonian?  In time, we may have our answer.