The modern enthusiasm for spiritualism, for contacting the dead, had humble beginnings in a cabin in the woods in Hydesville, upper New York State in 1848. If this location sounds familiar it’s because upper NY State was the centre of a religious fervour so great it came to be known as the ‘Burned Over District.’ This was the area that produced a raft of cults and sects in the 1800s. If spiritualism was going to start anywhere it would be here. In his seminal work, A Religious History of the American People, in the chapter entitled Sectarian Heyday, Sydney Ahlstrom observes:

By any standard of measurement, the United States during the first half of the nineteenth century provided a good setting for the emergence of many disruptive and revolutionary religious movements…revivalism also served, mightily to undermine doctrinal moorings, emphasizing personal experience instead…Farmers became theologians, offbeat village youths became bishops, odd girls became prophets.’ (A Religious History of the American People, 2nd. ed. p.474)

He observes that four main emphases are prominent during this period:

  • Perfectionism, the doctrine that ‘perfect sanctification’ is attainable in this life.
  • Millennialism, a doctrine of last things and apocalyptic.
  • Universalism, the doctrine that all mankind will be ultimately saved.
  • Illuminism, the claim that ‘new light’ or further revelation of God’s purpose and nature had been given to men in these ‘latter days.’ The possibilities here, he points out, are ‘almost infinitely various.’

Some eight miles west of Hydesville, near Palmyra, Joseph Smith was supposed to have dug up his gold plates from which he ‘translated’ the Book of Mormon. Some 35 miles south finds Dresden, Washington County, where William Miller first preached his Adventist message. Fifty one miles south of Hydesville is Jerusalem, Yates County, a town founded by Jemima Wilkinson, who, after a severe illness, claimed to be the vessel for The Public Universal Friend. Some 267 miles south we come across Andrew Jackson Davis who, after hearing a lecture in Poughkeepsie on mesmerism, declared he had received spiritual messages and thenceforth called himself ‘the Poughkeepsie Seer.’ The whole of upper New York State was the seedbed of so many movements and societies, most short-lived but so many of them influential.

Contacting the Dead

Belief in contacting the dead, of course, goes back millennia and across cultures and societies. In the Old Testament we find a desperate Saul asking the witch of Endor to summon the spirit of the prophet Samuel. (1 Sam.28:3-25) It did not end well for Saul. Before Israel entered the land they were warned:

When you come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not learn to follow the abominable practices of those nations. There shall not be found among you anyone who burns his son or his daughter as an offering, anyone who practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer or a charmer or a medium or a necromancer or one who inquires of the dead, for whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord. And because of these abominations the Lord your God is driving them out before you. You shall be blameless before the Lord your God,… ‘(Deut.18:9)

Spiritualism is not part of God’s plan and purpose and that is a key measure of what we accept or reject. Reachout has a general overview of the occult on this site.


Spiritualism is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as, ‘the belief that the spirits of the dead can hold communication with the living.’ Chambers gives us, ‘the interpretation of a varied series of abnormal phenomena as for the most part caused by spiritual beings acting upon specially sensitive persons or mediums.’ This last definition is particularly apposite to our story of spiritualism.

Two important influences in this area were Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) and Franz Mesmer (1734-1815). Swedenborg claimed to be able to communicate with the spirit world while wide awake. He would describe the spirit world in great detail, and claimed the spirits with whom he communicated acted as intermediaries between people and God.

Mesmer had the ability to induce trance-like states in his subjects (hence people speaking of being mesmerised). He claimed his subjects could be induced to contact the supernatural world. These ideas went out into the world at a time when, as described by Alhstrom, disruptive and revolutionary ideas and movements were emerging and people were fascinated by the possibilities in the esoteric.

Modern Spiritualism Founders: The Fox Sisters

The modern practice of spiritualism started, as I have said, in 1848 in Hydesville, upper New York State. John D Fox, a Canadian farmer, and his wife moved in March 1848 with their six children into an allegedly haunted old farmhouse in Hydesville. It was a temporary arrangement until a house was built for them on adjacent land. The family were disturbed by strange noises in the night. Banging, rattling, knocking. Kate woke up screaming one night, claiming a cold hand had touched her face. Bedclothes were inexplicably pulled off the girls as they slept. Disembodied footsteps were heard by the mother.

Spiritualism founders the Fox sisters
The Fox Sisters

Not being the least superstitious, John Fox checked for loose floorboards, loose and rattling windows, seeking a rational explanation. None came to light. It wasn’t long before the two youngest children, Katherine (aged 12) and Margaret (aged nine), were establishing contact with the cause of these noises, a character they named ‘Mr. Splitfoot.’ The sisters developed a simple code for communication and apprehensive but curious neighbours flocked to see what was happening.

A neighbour devised a simple alphabet using knocks to try and converse with whoever this was. The spirit was, it was discovered, that of a pedlar robbed and murdered there years earlier.

Whatever spirit was in the house, this is where the spirit of the times described above by Alhstrom did its work in drawing neighbours, who flocked to witness this latest phenomenon in this new world of personal experience and endless possibilities.

It is well at this point to stop and remember that sects, cults, and ‘spiritual’ phenomena of this kind don’t come from nowhere. They grow out of the social, political, and religious circumstances of time and place. At the right time and in the right place someone might become a Joseph Smith, a Charles Russell, a Mary Baker-Eddy, an Ellen G White. At this time, in this place three girls, Leah, Kate and Maggie Fox, became the founders of modern spiritualism.

Famous Followers of Spiritualism

Their following grew and included the novelist James Fenimore Cooper, John W Edmonds, a respected judge on the New York Court of Appeals. As to the significance of time and place, two key characters in this story played a major part in the lives of the Fox sisters.

Horace Greeley was the founder of the New York Tribune, the most famous newspaper man in America, originator of the phrase, ‘Go West young man, and grow up with the country.’ A tireless promoter of socialism, utopianism, vegetarianism, agrarianism, feminism, and temperance, he was a great admirer of the French philosopher Charles Fourier, himself a promoter of utopian socialism and originator of the idea of a new world order. All high-minded stuff experimenting with possibilities that seemed endless in the atmosphere of the time and place.

Greeley had only recently lost his son and invited the Fox sisters to stay at his New York mansion. Confirming their credibility, he wrote an open letter to his own paper sharing his conviction that they were in touch with the world beyond. He became a fervent believer and had the wherewithal to publicise the Hydesville phenomenon.

P.T.Barnum, American showman, politician, publisher, was famous for his hoaxes designed, he insisted, not to fool the public but to draw attention. Barnum leased from another showman the the body of a monkey combined with the tail of a fish, his first hoax, to create the ‘Feejee Mermaid.’

Barnum presented a four-year-old as being 11 years of age and taught him to imitate famous figures from history, including Napoleon. By age five the boy was drinking wine. By age seven he was smoking cigars. Barnum went on to establish the famous Barnum and Bailey Circus, to which the Fox sisters were swiftly signed before the end of 1848. People flocked to hear what the dead had to say to the living.

A Flight From Orthodoxy

Soon countless other mediums sprang up, making contact with the dead, attracting great numbers of the living. Mesmerists, magicians, fortune-tellers, mediums grasped an opportunity and a whole new arm of the entertainment and illuminist industry was born. In 1854 an Illinois senator presented to Congress a petition, signed by 15,000 people, demanding an investigation into the spirit world’s apparent desire to contact the world of the living.

Of course, there were critics and efforts were made to expose the Fox sisters as frauds. This is where the familiar charges of ventriloquism, joint cracking, secret devices and so forth are brought. A committee of women were charged with examining the girls’ underwear to see if they were hiding some mechanism they worked to produce the effects people were hearing. They were bound hand and foot to ensure they were not free to somehow cheat. Leah was often accused of a form of cold reading, teasing information from members of the audience.

For all this, enough people were convinced that, by 1859, there were more than 10 million Americans who embraced the spiritualist faith. Spiritualist churches opened across the country and over 25 thousand mediums were holding seances.

In a time and place where religion had become so experimental and the churches were losing members to new sects, cults, and esoteric groups, one attraction of Spiritualism was its lack of ecclesiastical structure and the absence of any complicated dogma. If you were a free thinker, among the liberal new ‘free thinkers’ if you were anti-clerical, this was appealing. Another, of course, was the hope it offered of a life beyond, reunion with dead loved ones. As Sydney E Alhstrom observed:

There were always the bereaved and the remorseful who desperately needed and wanted to make contact with the departed-a fact that stimulated interest in spiritualism after each of the country’s major wars.’

It was Daniel Dunglass Home (pronounced Hume) who brought spiritualism to Britain. Hume was born the son of a Scottish labourer who was fond of drink, but he claimed to be the illegitimate nephew of the Earl of Hume. He was the most remarkable medium of his age, claiming the ability to levitate at will, lift heavy objects with his mind.

This was a time when Victorians had become fascinated with pseudo-sciences like telepathy, phrenology, mesmerism and mediumship. Crystal balls were a craze, Queen Victoria was both convinced and fascinated by mediumship, and the first spiritualist newspaper was launched in Britain, the Yorkshire Spiritual Telegraph.

A Fraud Exposed

Frauds and charlatans were plentiful but ,despite the continued exposure of their fraud,the movement grew. In 1888 Margaret Fox hired the New York Academy of music and, to a packed house, made the incredible confession that it was all a hoax. She explained how she and her sisters would use an apple on a piece of string to create the knocking noises, would tap their toes, and that their mother was complicit in the hoax. Expressing her condemnation of the movement, she said:

“That I have been chiefly instrumental in perpetrating the fraud of Spiritualism upon a too-confiding public, most of you doubtless know. The greatest sorrow in my life has been that this is true, and though it has come late in my day, I am now prepared to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God! . . I am here tonight as one of the founders of Spiritualism to denounce it as an absolute falsehood from beginning to end, as the flimsiest of superstitions, the most wicked blasphemy known to the world.” – Margaretta Fox Kane, quoted in A.B. Davenport, The Deathblow to Spiritualism, p. 76. (Also see New York World, for October 21, 1888 and New York Herald and New York Daily Tribune, for October 22, 1888.)

‘An all too-confiding public,’ however was not altogether ready to give up something that had brought them such adventure, new ideas, comfort, and meaning. Perhaps the most distinguished British exponent of spiritualism has been Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle.

Like many of his day, the supernatural held a fascination for him and he experimented with Theosophy, psychic phenomena, and spiritualism. In 1889, he became a founding member of the Hampshire Society for Psychical Research. Like so many following the loss of loved ones in the trenches of the Great War, he found comfort in his spiritualist beliefs after the loss of his son Kingsley, by which time he had become a firm believer.

In a World Without Moorings

Spiritualism has a resurgence at times of conflict, or during times of great uncertainty. The fascination with spiritualism and psychic phenomena is very strong today in a world that seems to have abandoned the old moorings of the modern age but replaced it with something so nebulous that people feel they have no certainties, no anchor, no sold foundation. So what are we to make of it?

I remember a story Doug Harris told of meeting a medium in a TV studio where the programme was looking at these issues. He was always an affable man who could put people at their ease and get them to talk about what they do, and so she did explain how she went about her work. He then asked her how she could know whether the spirit ‘coming through’ was who they said they were, know if their were benign or malign? She had no answer.

I believe it is because, having no standard by which to judge, she has to take whatever comes at face value. People take comfort from spiritualism, but they are no wiser than the medium sitting before them as to the identity, purpose, and trustworthiness of whatever spirit comes.

Would we behave like this with strangers in our every day lives? This is the misplaced confidence Margaret Fox spoke about. Insisting ‘it works’ simply isn’t enough, what are you dealing with? Remember God’s warning to Israel as they prepared to enter the land:

When you come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not learn to follow the abominable practices of those nations. There shall not be found among you anyone who burns his son or his daughter as an offering, anyone who practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer or a charmer or a medium or a necromancer or one who inquires of the dead, for whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord. And because of these abominations the Lord your God is driving them out before you. You shall be blameless before the Lord your God,… ‘ (Deut.18:9-13)

There is more than one reason for this warning. The main reason, of course, is that we should be living such that we trust God our Maker alone, we should glorify God alone. We should be consulting God and his word, not spirits whom we do not know and cannot possibly judge by character or intention. God knows that realm from which spirits come, and they do come. He knows the good guys and he knows the bad guys.

Are you surprised that after Lucifer’s rebellion that world should be like this one? There they are loyal to God or loyal to the evil one, just as here, and we are not in a place to judge, so we depend on the Lord to guide us when it comes to spiritual things. The Fox sisters, and countless others coming after them, may be frauds, but such things open doors into that other realm so the genuine, and the malign, can come through and crate havoc in this world.

The ‘original sin’ was a failure to trust entirely in the Lord. The writer of Proverbs urges us:

Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths

Proverbs 3:5,6