Why was there so much interest in attempting to communicate with the spirit world during the second half of the nineteenth century?

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Why was there so much interest in attempting to communicate with the spirit world during the second half of the nineteenth century? (essay)

In the latter half of the nineteenth century, the concept of contacting the spirit world captivated the United Kingdom due to the rise of spiritualism which gripped most of the Westernised world. It was initially transferred to the UK via a Mrs. Hayden in 1852 from America where spiritualism had enjoyed a renaissance as a consequence of the events surrounding the “Rochester Rapping’s” of 1848, in which a set of sisters known by the surname Fox claimed that a spirit of a murdered peddler was trying to contact them and even though it was later acknowledged by one of the sisters that these were fakes, the spiritualist movement was still one of the biggest  to have impressed the Western world.

By outlining the rise of spiritualism, its subsequent failure and also the various individuals that endorsed and dismissed it, the aim of this essay is to address the question of why late-Victorians in England were so interested in the possibility of communicating with the spirit world. To do this, the essay is structured into two halves: Firstly, its rise is presented and this includes why so many were keen to be a follower. Secondly, its failure and those who dismissed it as just another “nonconformist” movement will be discussed.

The rise in spiritualism was prominently felt within England, and coincided with a crisis of traditional religious dogma as a consequence of the rise in influential scientific publications, in particular Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” (1859) which provided the theory of Evolution which is contradictory to the Bible’s espoused message of Creationism as told in Genesis. This had an enormous impact on Victorian society and left many people within it bewildered, creating a crisis that pitted religion against science with neither prepared to consolidate with each other, a particular example of which can be provided by the debate on the virtues of evolution between the Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce and the Physician, T.H. Huxley. Wilberfoce insulted Huxley, by asking him whether “it was through his grandfather or his grandmother that he claimed descent from a monkey”, to which Huxley replied “I am not ashamed to have a monkey for an ancestor but I am ashamed to be connected with a man who used great gifts to obscure the truth”.

The controversy of religion against science led to both losing credibility in full view of Victorian society thus creating a vacuum for a new movement as Victorians grew tired of the continuous diatribe between the two. It soon became evident to the population and even some scientists such as Alfred Russel Wallace  that whilst science can provide the answer for the various quirks in nature, it cannot be a police on moral issues. As a result, many sought a new religion that could provide understanding over the destiny of the soul after death, as well as an understanding of the forces that determine the Universe in accordance with Christian principles. Central to this were Christian based teachings of the necessity to be a person of good and well principled character or else face eternal damnation in the afterlife. This is when spiritualism quickly became a pseudo-religion with much of the framework being provided by the early Victorian fascination with phrenology and mesmerism as both subjects made people aware of the ability to manipulate invisible force. Such ability was integral to séance practice.

It should be borne in mind that the spectacle of the séance, apart from being of utmost importance for spiritualism, was also a contributory factor to the rise of the spiritualist movement. Ronald Pearsall suggests that séance was a pastime for many Victorians and it thrived as a source of entertainment due to the very little competition it had. For instance, the theatre business was dwindling. The one true rival it did have was the Church, as sermons given by clerics such as C.H. Spurgeon attracted a large following the sort of which is comparable to a contemporary gathering for a sporting spectacle. As per Pearsall’s argument however, the success that the Church had enjoyed soon diminished as a result of the controversy surrounding the Oxford Movement which transcended to Church services, leading to a decreased attendance. Whilst the spectacle of the séance is said to have proven so popular that it is likely that by the 1870s most homes in the country would have staged a séance, even Queen Victoria was one known spectator.

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Over time the act of the séance attracted many scientific minds eager to investigate it, although questions remained unanswered and new ones were created when the Society for Psychical Research conducted investigations into séances, but the likes of Wallace and Francis Galton were keen advocates.  The most famous medium was the enigmatic American, Daniel Douglas Home, who in 1854 left his motherland with the intention of “alleviating the indurate and materialistic tone of the English mind”, as a desire within the realm of English spiritualists for their mediums to imitate the excitement of American séances was constant.

Home’s method soon ...

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