Critically discuss the importance of the supernatural to the practice and reception of Victorian Spiritualism.
In this essay I will discuss the importance of the supernatural to the practice of Victorian spiritualism. I will also outline how Victorian Spiritualism was received and some of the reasons why I believe it became so popular in England, despite being founded in the USA. In order to discuss the importance of the supernatural within this practice, I will outline some of the social change that was happening at the time. In my opinion these changes profoundly influenced the uptake of Victorian Spiritualism. I will also explain why I think Victorian Spiritualism was not just about the supernatural but also provided a form of entertainment. Throughout the essay I will interchange the shortened term Spiritualism with Victorian Spiritualism.
Before discussing spiritualism, I will first offer an outline of what was happening in England in the Victorian era. Queen Victoria's reign was 1837 to 19011 but the Victorian era is considered more extensively to include the entire 1800s up until the early 1900s. During this time, Industrialisation was on the rise and Britain was the world economic leader2. Everyday working class people, who made up 70 to 80% of the population3 enjoyed the booming economy that not only provided enough for food and shelter, but left them with money for items such as leisure activities, tobacco and alcohol. The people of Victorian England also spent their money on entertainment such as circuses and freak shows. They worked hard and by 1871 the Bank Holiday Act was passed4, allowing workers a few paid holidays. In addition to these social changes, newspapers were more accessible with the invention of the steam printing press in 1814. This allowed media to get into the hands of more people and enabled coverage of events such as séances to be advertised far and wide.5 Infant mortality was high during the 1800s, and for every 1000 children born in 1850, 274 wouldn't make it to their fifth birthday.6 Stillborn deaths were not recorded as births or deaths7 but it is fair to assume that many babies would have been stillborn during this time.
Upon even this very general observation, we can see the Victorian era was vibrant with both life and death. The combination of social and economic changes, in particular the grief associated with losing a loved one could likely have influenced the interest in Spiritualism. Communicating with deceased loved ones would provide much comfort but Spiritualism also provided entertainment that was now part of social culture. To quote Oppenheim8, "They might find their hands writing automatically, preside over the baffling appearance of messages written on slates, and ask the planchette or Ouija board for answers to questions posed by eager sitters. The communicating spirit might be that of Benjamin Franklin, Plato, the archangel Gabriel, or the sitter's Aunt Nellie. The possibilities were limitless." Here, Oppenheim punctuates his article with a quip that suggests that some medium's abilities were partly playing to the crowd. That Plato or Aunt Nellie might appear alludes to the notion that séances could be both serious or playful. Victorian Spiritualism could be said to have filled the desire for entertainment as well as the void among the hearts of grieving families. I also believe it provided a bridge from a previously staunch religious life towards a more open, free and scientific one.
Science was the rising star of the Victorian era and its infiltration into modern life was responsible for much religious disturbance. Charles Darwin's Origin of the Species published in 1859, challenged religious dogmatism and provided the general public with an alternative view to Creationism. Creationism refers to the belief that God created the earth and the bible is an historical account of such. The publication and reception of Darwin's work suggests the idea of the supernatural was changing. As Darwin's theory of evolution was proven to be true, Victorians were faced with a big question: what is God and how does it fit into this new paradigm. In my opinion, ghosts and communication with the afterlife provided part of the answer.
Some scholars claim the Victorian era was a time of dissenting religion. However, Roger Luckhurst9 (2014) challenges that. According to Luckhurst, for every dissenting adherent there was an evangelical Christian in his or her place. Victorian Spiritualism, according to Luckhurst, was less the abolition of religion with the replacement of science, and more a melding of the two. "Every scientific and technological advance encouraged a kind of magical thinking and was accompanied by a shadow discourse of the occult."10 The magical thinking that Luckhurst is referring to includes scientific innovations that were shaping modern Victorian beliefs. The telegraph was one such innovation. Although it may seem rudimentary today, this was extraordinary technology of the time that seemed almost magical. Morse Code is a series of dits (dots) and dahs (dashes) that are tapped out via electric currents and radio waves. These 'tappings' are not indistinct from the rappings heard by the Fox sisters who are considered the founders of Victorian Spiritualism. Margaret, Catherine and Leah Fox reported rappings which they said were messages from the spirit world. After publicly demonstrating their mediumship in New York in 184911, the Fox sisters became famous. From there, mediumship and séances exploded, particularly in Great Britain.
It is possible therefore that some of the phenomena of Spiritualism was born out of a world that had become newly familiar with the notion of long-distance communication. After all, what could be more enticing than a long-distance message from the afterlife. Although the efficacy and truth of Spiritualism has been highly debated, it cannot be argued that Victorian England was going through immense transformation. Séances, rappings and ghost sightings were ways in which the public now experienved and accepted life. However, despite these changes, and as Luckhurst points out, there were still a large number of practicing Christians.
When we look more closely at this religious dissent it appears Christianity was still rising, albeit not relative to the increasing population. In an online lecture12, Sir Richard Evans states that Industrialisation was profoundly important in the dissent from Catholicism towards evangelical sects such as Methodist, Baptist and the Unitarian church. These New Religious Movements allowed free thinking for modern Victorians and Spiritualism did the same. For the first time, the supernatural was directly accessible to anyone and everyone. No longer requiring a cleric or academic to interpret the scriptures and keep people in line, these new religions spoke directly to (and through) the hands and hearts of the people.
Moreover, gaps within the British class system were widening and although the likes of Daniel Douglas Home gave mainly private sessions to the upper classes, many a household were holding their own private séances by gaslight. In his book Experiences in Spiritualism13 Viscount Adare, gives a first hand account of a séance with Home. "Miss D-R and Mr Jencken were talking about Spiritualism, and he got rather excited, and was saying something to the effect that he lost his patience when people said it was all trickery and conjuring, and that instead of that it was a great and real blessing and dispensation vouchsafed to us by God for our comfort." Here, we get a first-hand account of the author's sacred connection between the supernatural and Spiritualism. The reception of Spiritualism was further aided by its ability to be 'proven' or 'disproven' using scientific methods. As Simone Natale14 explains, scientific measuring tools were used to test the legitimacy of mediums and were held in equal footing to written accounts and verbal testimonials.
It is highly possible that dissenting Victorians who were now free to work and who had access to surplus income were finally following their own spiritual beliefs and letting go of dogmatic Christian teachings. Their belief in a supernatural being may have gone through a natural change as they moved from believing God was an all-knowing, all-seeing Father in Heaven, to a more embodied belief of supernatural phenomena that was more Earth-like and human in form – hence ghosts. As Lamont15 states, "The overwhelming rejection of supernatural agency, and the nature of the response from orthodox science, suggests that such reported phenomena were less the result of a crisis of faith than the cause of a crisis of evidence, the implications of which were deemed scientific rather than religious." Although I disagree with Lamont's explanation of Victorian Spiritualism being scientifically based I do agree that supernatural agency was being rejected.
Although I have said that entertainment played a part in the rise of mediums and séances, ultimately, I believe that to the working class Victorian, a private séance around the dinner table, communicating with a deceased loved one – likely a stillborn child or infant16 – would have been highly meaningful and comforting. Even Queen Victoria, who would have been the head of the Church of England, is said to have marvelled at being able to contact her dead husband, the late Prince Albert through the gifts of mediums. When considering the importance of the supernatural in Victorian Spiritualism, we cannot gloss over the class system and how it either provided or excluded access to God.
Just as today, during the Victorian era, the divide between the working class and the aristocracy was not just a divide based on wealth, it was deeply intertwined with perceived intellectual capacity, general morality and religious supremacy. Therefore, to equate the idea of what belief in the supernatural means to all classes as being one and same would be akin to likening a loaf of bread on the table of a steel-worker's family and the bread served at an Englishman's estate. They might share the same common ingredients but they are symbolically different: in one household, the loaf is an earned staple, in the other it is an entitled privilege. That is not to say belief in something greater is more meaningful to the upper classes than the lower, it is merely to state that perceptions change depending upon the eyes and social conditioning of the believer, and that includes ones supposed closeness or access to the supernatural.
In his lecture on religion and science in Victorian times, Evans17 says "The bible was considered the only guide to a moral life." Indeed, the bible may have offered a sense of moral guidance, but what use is religious morality when your landlord could evict you without notice. What use is a belief in an almighty and judgemental God who will condemn you to the fires of hell for misbehaving in a world that declares working class behaviour immoral. To my mind, Spiritualism, for the majority working class, provided relief from Original Sin and a welcome pardon from believing one was inherently bad and wrong, a conviction the upper classes would not have shared.
To conclude, when it comes to Spiritualism and the importance of the supernatural, we can observe that although belief in God played a part, Spiritualism seemed more about everyday life in the 1800s in Britain. Victorian England was awash with media, science and new religion and Spiritualism bridged all three. I believe that the supernatural was less an omnipotent, benevolent or demonic being for Victorians and more an avenue for them to explore their views of the world in new ways. Ectoplasm, ghost sightings and séances were supernatural in that they occurred on the far side of nature. Technically, we might call that supernatural, but it seems to be more on a par with conjuring and entertainment, albeit spooky and unexplainable. Spiritualism of the Victorian era was, in my opinion, a need to believe in something more than the mundane. Much the same as any religion. Even if we consider the practice of mediums as ridiculous or incredulous, the fact they existed in such large numbers is proof that as with all religions, the practices and reception of Victorian Spiritualism provides insight into a human need or desire to believe in something mysterious.
Adare, viscount (ed.) with introductory remarks by Windham Thomas Wyndham-Quin (4th earl of Dunraven). Experiences in spiritualism with Mr. D.D. Home. https://play.google.com/books/reader?id=HBkHAAAAQAAJ&hl=en&pg=GBS.PA1
Field, Clive D. "A shilling for Queen Elizabeth: the era of state regulation of church attendance in England, 1552-1969." Journal of Church and State, vol. 50, no. 2, 2008, p. 213+.
Hesketh, Ian. “John Robert Seeley, Natural Religion, and the Victorian Conflict between Science and Religion.” Journal of the History of Ideas 79, no. 2 (April 2018): 309–29. doi:10.1353/jhi.2018.0018.
Jenkins, Catherine. "Supernatural Entertainments: Victorian Spiritualism and the Rise of Modern Media Culture." Canadian Journal of Communication 43, no. 3 (2018): 1-3,
Lamont, P. (2004). Spritualism and a mid-Victorian crisis of evidence. The Historical Journal, 47(4), 897–920. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0018246X04004030. ISSN: 0018-246X, EISSN: 1469-5103
Luckhurst, R. (2014, May 15). The Victorian supernatural. Retrieved 14 October 2019, from The British Library
Natale, S. (2015). Spreading the Spirit Word: Print Media, Storytelling, and Popular Culture in Nineteenth- Century Spiritualism. Communication + 1, 4, 1–18. https://doi.org/10.7275/R5GF0RF9
Oppenheim, J. (1985). Chapter 1: Mediums. In The other world: Spiritualism and psychical research in England, 1850-1914 (pp. 7–27). Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.une.edu.au/scholarly-journals/supernatural-entertainments- victorian/docview/2108803039/se-2?accountid=17227 (accessed January 23, 2021).
1 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Victorian_era 2 https://www.britannica.com/event/Victorian-era 3 Ibid 4 https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803095445243 5 http://www.localhistories.org/19thleisure.html 6 https://www.statista.com/statistics/1041714/united-kingdom-all-time-child-mortality-rate/ 7 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2808697/ 8 Oppenheim, J. (1985). Chapter 1: Mediums. In The other world: Spiritualism and psychical research in England, 1850-1914 (pp. 7–27). Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. 9 Luckhurst, R. (2014, May 15). The Victorian supernatural. Retrieved 14 October 2019, from The British Library website: https://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/the-victorian-supernatural 10 Ibid 11 https://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/spiritualism/history/history.shtml 12 https://www.gresham.ac.uk/lectures-and-events/the-victorians-religion-and-science 13 Experiences in Spiritualism by Viscount Adare (ed.). https://play.google.com/books/reader?id=HBkHAAAAQAAJ&hl=en&pg=GBS.PA5 14 Natale, S. (2015). Spreading the Spirit Word: Print Media, Storytelling, and Popular Culture in Nineteenth-Century Spiritualism. Communication + 1, 4, 1–18. https://doi.org/10.7275/R5GF0RF9 15 Lamont, P. (2004). Spritualism and a mid-Victorian crisis of evidence. The Historical Journal, 47(4), 897–920. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0018246X04004030. ISSN: 0018-246X, EISSN: 1469-5103 16 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2808697/ 17 https://www.gresham.ac.uk/lectures-and-events/the-victorians-religion-and-science