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Janet Oppenheim


Spiritualism and psychical research in England, 1850–1914

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.
This a detailed scholarly account of spiritualism and psychical research in England in the Victorian and Edwardian periods. Oppenheim chose to restrict her study geographically to keep it in manageable bounds and she ended it at the outbreak of World War I because the context of spiritualism changed after that time.

The Victorian era was marked by sometimes agonised questioning of traditional religious beliefs, caused partly but not wholly by science. This is the broad framework in which Oppenheim examines her subject. The book has three parts. Part I, "The setting", looks at mediumship and the growth of spiritualism since 1850. Part II, "A surrogate faith", covers a lot of territory, including spiritualism and Christianity, psychical research in relation to agnosticism, and the influence of the Theosophical movement. Part III, "A pseudoscience", describes attempts to evaluate spiritualism scientifically, most notably by the founding of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR); there are also chapters on evolution in relation to spiritualism and the ideas of physicists concerning psychic phenomena.

The mediums who flourished at this period often produced physical phenomena, including rapping noises, movement of furniture, and even the manifestation of actual 'spirit forms' who could be touched and were usually attractive young women wearing diaphanous garments. The seances almost always took place in near-darkness so the opportunities for fraud are obvious. Some mediums were detected in trickery although this did not always prevent them from continuing their performances. But the best-known medium of this kind, the American D.D. Home, who produced the most dramatic phenomena, was never detected in fraud.

The physical mediums were mostly professional but later a number of non-professionals from the upper levels of society tried their hand at communication with spiritual entities. One of these, Stainton Moses, was actually an Anglican minister, but most were women, among whom the tendency was to produce material either in trance utterances or by automatic writing—what would today be called channelling. A number these women were involved in the SPR.

The founders of the SPR were motivated by the hope of finding evidence for a spiritual level of existence and, especially, survival of physical death. This was essentially a quest for religious certainty.

The men and women in the SPR who fancied themselves applying the rigors of science to the protean queries of psychical research might not have appreciated their inclusion in this study under the heading of surrogate faith. Yet religion was at the root of their inquiries, for religious yearnings—sometimes no more than a vague spiritual alaise—had played a role in bringing them together in the study of psychical phenomena.
They were people of outstanding intellectual integrity and although some did become convinced that survival was real, others remained in doubt. This is particularly true of Henry Sidgwick,perhaps the foremost intellect among the founders.
I have been facing the fact that I am drifting steadily to the conclusion … that we have not, and are unlikely to have, empirical evidence of the existence of the individual after death. Soon, therefore, it will probably be my duty as a reasonable being—and especially as a professional philosopher—to consider on what basis the human individual ought to construct his life under these circumstances.
On the other hand, his widow, Eleanor Sidgwick (née Balfour), who was also formidably intellectual, did eventually accept the reality of survival, largely on the basis of the 'cross-correspondences'. These were mediumistic scripts produced by a group of women most of whom did not know one other well. The scripts, which appeared to be interlinked in a complicated way, claimed to be dictated by deceased SPR members who were trying to prove the fact of their continuing existence. Another prominent SPR member, F.W.H. Myers, went on to construct what might be called a new religion based on his assessment of the results of psychical research.

Although spiritualism is a major topic in the book, Oppenheim does consider other 'pseudo-scientific' ideas that were influential in the Victorian period. One of these was mesmerism and another was phrenology, which was widely accepted as valid by many Victorians and became linked with spiritualism. Yet another was homeopathy. Oppenheim rightly points out that the founder of homeopathy, Samuel Hahnemann, linked his system with vitalism and came to believe that his medicines had a non-material 'spiritual' property. But she misses out the most important link that exists between homeopathy and spiritualism—its connection with Swedenborgianism.

In the nineteenth century homeopathy became very successful in the USA. Many of the most prominent early American homeopaths were Swedenborgians and this coloured their view of their subject. But it was a later Swedenborgian homeopath, James Tyler Kent (1849-1916), who had the biggest influence outside America. His ideas were introduce to Britain in the early twentieth century and after the first world war they took over British homeopathy almost completely. As a result, homeopathy in this country became for many years more 'extreme' and even harder to reconcile with orthodox medicine than was the case in other parts of Europe.

Perhaps the most curious story from this period concerns Alfred Russel Wallace, co-discover with Charles Darwin of natural selection. But whereas Darwin always believed that the human mind had emerge through natural selection from that of a prehuman ancestor, Wallace came to insist that there was a radical discontinuity between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom. Although he had long ceased to be a Christian he now supposed that the development of the human brain and mind could only be explained by postulating a guiding intelligence. This idea seems to have arisen under the influence of spiritualism. Wallace became wholly convinced of the reality of all kinds of mediumistic phenomena and was impervious to any evidence that might appear to put this in doubt.

A similar rejection of unwelcome evidence characterised William F. Barrett, one of the physicists who investigated spiritualism. When two sisters he had studied were found to be communicating with each other fraudulently, he wrote to Sidgwick saying that this should not invalidate all his findings.

For my part I am convinced that enough entirely trustworthy expts. exist with the Creery family to make it unwise to expunge the whole of their evidence.
Unlike Wallace, Barrett was a convinced Christian and saw spiritualism as confirming the truth of his faith. But other physicist were more circumspect and selective in what they accepted. One of these, Fournier D'Albe, wrote:
Spiritualism as a religion may legitimately be studied in a section of anthropology, but spiritualism as a science does not exist. To be a spiritualist, the scientist must surrender his wishes, his methods, his views into the hands of his "spirit friends" on the "other side". If he does that he may achieve a certain peace of mind, but his scientific work will be at an end.
The fortunes of psychical research, now renamed parapsychology, have been in continuous decline since at least the middle of the twentieth century, and today only a small minority of scientists pay it much attention. But writing in 1985 Oppenheim was rather more sympathetic.
[S]piritualists and psychical researchers addressed, directly and indirectly, the most critical issues of science, philosophy and religion. Some of their proposed solutions may, in time, seem prophetic; others must always, no doubt, appear absurd. But, fundamentally, their work was neither ridiculous nor even misguided, for through it they hoped to find the means of accepting the changed world around them.


See also The Founders of the Society for Psychical Research, by Alan Gauld.

%T The Other World
Spiritualism and psychical research in England, 1850–1914 %A Janet Oppenheim
%I Cambridge University Press
%C Cambridge
%D 1985
%G ISBN 0-521-26505-3
%P 503pp
%K history, parapsychology
%O illustrated

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