9 November 2015


Christopher M. Moreman (editor) The Spiritualist Movement: Speaking With the Dead in America and Around the World. Three volumes. Prager, 2013
Volume 1: American origins and global proliferation;
Volume 2: Belief, practice and evidence for life after death;
Volume 3: Social and cultural responses.
While this set is not the comprehensive history of the global spiritualist movement and its offshoots that the title might suggest, but rather a collection of academic essays, it is by no means without interest. It is not possible in a short review to summarise the contents of a work of three volumes and 43 papers, but there are a number of interesting points which arise from a number of the papers.

For example, Stanford Betty’s description of the afterlife as presented through various mediums, tells much more about the cultural background of the believers than about the afterlife, which is presented in very material terms and envisages essentially a utopia for the late Victorian and Edwardian respectable working class and 'clerkocracy', a post-industrial service-based economy in which nasty, smelly factories have been abolished, or at least exiled to the celestial sink estates which are the preserve of the rough working class. It is not imaged as a multicultural metropolis but as a sort apartheid regime, where the natives are kept in their respective Reserves or Bantustans.

When the aristocracy and upper bourgeois intellectuals become involved, as for example in the famous “cross correspondences”, we see a shift to more openly millennialist goals, such as breeding a new race of messianic children, to be led by Henry Coombe-Tennant, the product of his mother’s love affair with Gerald Balfour. One can compare this with Annie Besant’s promotion of Jiddu Krinshnamurti as the Great World Teacher. Both renounced their messianic status. The idea of the saving elite also has echoes of H. G. Wells 'airmen' and 'samurai'. Experience of Messes Hitler, Stalin and Mao has rather put us off the notion of the Great World Leader.

If the spiritualists afterlife is rather materialistic, so also are the outcomes of physical mediumship, none more so than ectoplasm, as produced in the erotic, not to say pornographic, performances of Eva Carriere (alias Marthe Beraud) and Mina (alias Margery) Crandon. These include for example the production of ectoplasm from their vaginas in a grotesque parody of giving birth to the dead rather than to new life.

Materiality is also at the heart of the electronic voice phenomenon, associated with Konstantin Raudive, here shown to be essentially a Catholic traditionalist, despite that religion’s hostility to spiritualism.

Other themes than run through a number of the papers include mediumship’s association with shamanism, spiritualism and prior folk belief, as a means on integrating anomalous personal experiences into a coherent belief system, the role of women.

The principal audiences at which this set are aimed are students of theology, comparative religion and the history of religion, although much will also be of interest to general social historians. Psychical researchers and parapsychologists also should find much of Volume Two in particular of interest. I suspect that most of the latter might prefer to examine the contents online and just download those papers of interest. - Peter Rogerson.

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