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vol. 2, p. 66
from Adyar archives of the International Theosophical Society
vol. 2 (January 1874 - April 1878)


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Spiritualism in America

* An address delivered at the last soirée of the British National Association of Spiritualists.
republished in the Spiritualst, Dec. 14. 1877.
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Mr. President, Ladies and Gentlemen: —It is impossible for me to find words to express the feelings of pleasure and gratitude with which I respond to your affectionate and hearty welcome, and to the kind greeting you have extended to me this evening.

I have been deeply touched, from the first moment of my landing in England, by the evidences of interest in my welfare, and anxiety for my safety, shown by innumerable friends, even by those from whom I could have least expected them, and I only wish I were worthy of half the kindness that you have lavished upon me. Much of the anxiety, though so kindly meant, was unnecessary, for I was favoured with very fine weather on my passage home, and my only source of suffering was the knowledge that my friends would be imputing all sorts of imaginary misbehaviour to the winds and waves, and would be distressing themselves uselessly on my account. Well, I rejoice to be amongst you once more, joining in the work in which I really delight, with renewed health and vigour. And let me take this opportunity of returning my sincere and grateful thanks to those who have carried on the secretarial work in my absence; especially to our friend, Mr. Algernon Joy, who has displayed even more than his usual efficiency and vigilance in keeping all branches of work, and all persons concerned, in the completest order.

I have been asked this evening to give an account of my spiritualistic experiences in America. Lest you should be disappointed with their paucity, let me remind you that my leave of absence was granted me solely on the grounds of failing health, and that I went away accompanied by warnings from my friends, and almost under a promise to some of them, not to enter into the pursuit of Spiritualism; and, above all, not to attend seances or public meetings. For some time after arriving in America, I had neither health nor inclination for any such pursuit, and I persistently refused all invitations to public receptions and platform-speaking. Nevertheless I had the pleasure of meeting and conversing with those honoured and distinguished representatives of Spiritualism who have long been so well known to us by their writings and their activity in our cause. From them I learned far more than I probably could have done in my two months’ stay by personal observation, especially as at that time of year the dwellers in cities, as is the case with ourselves, are dispersed in the mountains and watering-places, and the mediums are absent from their accustomed haunts. Here and there, however, I had the opportunity of witnessing some interesting facts, which I will narrate further on.

The testimony of the majority of the Spiritualists with whom I came in contact, pointed to the conclusion that Spiritualism in America is, as a movement, on a much lower footing than with us in England. It may be more widely spread, it may have a greater number of mediums, presenting a greater variety of manifestations; but, alas! such is the disorder and disrepute into which blind credulity, objectionable teachings, and unchecked and untrained mediumship have brought it, that most persons of good sense and of high moral character, and who value the peace and purity of their homes, refuse to associate with Spiritualists as a body, or to identify themselves with the movement. Of course, some hold back, as with us, from fear of Mrs. Grundy, who is as well known in America, I found to my surprise, as in England. The most earnest-minded Spiritualists look to England, and to this Association in particular, to clear Spiritualism of its follies and errors, and to place the subject in its proper light before the inquiring world, as a valuable, and, as Mr. Sargent wrote to me, a “demonstrable truth.”

Of course there are in so large a country as America, and where Spiritualism is numerically much stronger than in England, a very large number of persons to whom the above remarks do not apply. What I wish to convey is that the movement has no adequate corporate representative before the world, no standard of public opinion within itself, no central point of attraction round which to shape itself and by which to preserve its own integrity.

Mr. and Mrs. Newton, those earnest friends who stand at the head of the Society of Progressive Spiritualists in New York, have been for some time anxious that local organization should be attempted, if not upon the scale, at least according to the system, adopted by the British National Association; and they called a few friends together, to hear from me how the work was being carried on in England; but, beyond the evening’s discussion, no result is likely to ensue. Some friends in the Western States, as represented by the Rev. Mr. Watson’s Spiritual Magazine, are still hopeful of accomplishing organisation on a national basis, but their plans are, I think, likely to remain in the theoretic stage. In America national association is next to impossible, for geographical reasons; the country is too wide, the cities and centres are too far apart for any common action to be taken; but, at least, an establishment similar to our own might exist and prosper in each important city, if the right people could be induced to take it up. But I found few willing to join in such a work. One gentleman, with whom I discussed the subject very fully, and who has given it his best attention, assured me that he considered organisation impracticable, and that, if it were attempted, he should feel it his duty to refuse to join in the work, especially on account of the number of objectionable persons who are connected with Spiritualism in America, and with whose opinions and practices it has become identified.

At one time the American Spiritualists had amongst them a man eminently fitted to be their leader; one who had served and deserved well of his country, and who had shown himself capable of sacrificing his best worldly interests for the sake of principle; a man of varied experience and acquirements, a born orator, and one whose special talents for organisation and administration have been more than once recognised by the United States Government. I speak of Colonel H. S. Olcott. But the American Spiritualists did not know their best friend. When Col. Olcott perceived that Spiritualism was drifting towards imbecility from want of proper guidance, and that it was likely to founder from its own internal rottenness, he gathered together a remnant of faithful souls, and formed an association, or brotherhood, under the title of the Theosophical Society. The object of that society was to pursue the study of occult or psychical phenomena side by side with that of ancient and medieval philosophy, and to seek for an explanation of the causes of such phenomena as are now presented in the wisdom stored up for thousands of years in the writings of Indian, Egyptian, and Grecian sages. In course of time, however, those members of the society who only cared for unlimited sensationalism in phenomena, and very little for philosophy, dropped off; the objects of the society were misunderstood and misinterpreted, and its leaders were regarded as the enemies of Spiritualism. Col. Olcott held steadily on his way, and the Theosophical Society, since reconstituted on a basis of secrecy, continues to flourish. Lately the work entitled Isis Unveiled, characterised by one of its reviewers as among the greatest literary wonders of the age, has been written and published by that society’s learned and distinguished secretary, Madame H. P. Blavatsky. Among the many themes of which it treats, this book contains some theories concerning Spiritualistic phenomena of the deepest interest, and which I hope will ere long be studied and discussed by the members of this Association; such, for instance, as the powers of the embodied human spirit, a field almost unexplored by us as yet, and offering abundant material for research; the fallacy of ascribing certain presentations to the action of our departed friends; the part played by elemental and elementary spirits, terms at present confounded and totally misunderstood by those who have given public utterance to their opinions on the subject; the relation of mediumship to adepthood, and the comparative merits of each; the desirability of propaganda under the present conditions of Spiritualism, the necessity for more esoteric and recondite research, and many other points equally important. So that, though America has failed to take the lead in building up the Spiritualist movement as an organic whole, it has at any rate contributed, and will doubtless continue to contribute, valuable materials towards the structure, which the more critical and scientific English mind must hew and fashion, and fit into their exact and proper places.

I will now recount a few of the facts which came under my personal observation, and speak to you of some of the friends whose acquaintance I had the pleasure of making.

In New York, or rather Brooklyn, I will mention first and foremost our well-known friend and favourite author, Dr. Eugene Crowell. I stayed some days at his house, and found him a thoroughly earnest and sincere Christian gentleman, in the highest and best sense of both words. He admitted me to a short sitting with the medium Kelley, of whom he speaks in the first volume of his work, Christianity and Modern Spiritualism, and with whom he has held for six years a series of interesting investigations, some account of which, he intends to publish in due time. Mrs. Crowell, who is in extremely delicate health, owes the extension of her life, Dr. Crowell considers, to the healing and mesmeric power conveyed through this medium. All the members of the family are strong Spiritualists, but their inquiries are conducted in the privacy of their own home. I was allowed the great privilege of visiting, in company with Dr. Crowell, a most interesting psychological “subject,” known as the “Sleeping Girl of Brooklyn.” This young lady was thrown about twelve years ago from a car, and dragged for some distance along the street. The results were an injury to the spine, which has kept her bedridden ever since, paralysis in the lower half of the body, and total blindness. The right arm remained bent, with the hand fixed to the back of the neck for many years. The left hand was also firmly closed. In process of time sight became developed in the forehead and other parts of the head, and it was found that the girl (Miss Fancher) could read letters, though her eyes were closed. She next learned to write with a pencil fixed in the tightly closed left hand. One day she asked for some leaves, and for some materials to make wax flowers, and by degrees she arrived at making the most beautiful specimens of this art that I think I have ever seen, colouring the flowers and leaves with the most delicate and finely-shaded tints. About seven years ago she was entranced for a whole fortnight, during which time she received no food. After this her eyes were opened, and she is now unable to shut them, but they are still sightless. Her right hand was also loosened from its position at the back of her neck, and she is able to use it now in her work of flower-making. Dr. Crowell hopes some day to be allowed to conduct a series of psychological experiments with Miss Fancher, but at present the doctor who has charge of her is averse to working professionally with a Spiritualist.

My slate-writing experiences with Mr. C. E. Watkins I have detailed elsewhere; I will only say here that I consider his mediumship of the most interesting kind, and especially adapted for scientific investigators, as all the phenomena take place in the light.

One experiment of a peculiar kind which I made with Mr. Watkins has not been published; I will therefore introduce it here: —

The subject of will-power, and of its probable influence on some spiritual manifestations, having been much discussed between Mme. Blavatsky and myself, I determined to try an experiment in that direction. I went alone to Mr. Watkins, and I asked him to write some single word on a slate, and to turn the side of the slate so written on against the surface of the table, in order that it should not be seen by me. I, in my turn, did likewise. I then requested Mr. Watkins to hold with me my own double slate, between the folds of which I had placed a crumb of slate-pencil, and to will that his word should be written on it. I also willed that my word should be written. Mr. Watkins seemed rather incredulous over the business, and was genuinely surprised, on opening the slate, to find that the word I had willed should be written, was upon the slate. “Let us try again,” he said. “Very well,” I replied; “but suppose we write something more this time, a sentence of three words.” Mr. Watkins wrote, as appeared later on, the words God is love; I wrote Love is eternal. Mr. Watkins took the folding-slate, with which we had before operated, into both hands, saying “I am impressed to hold the slate alone.” Suddenly it struck me that he was stealing a march upon me, and I insisted upon taking hold of the other end, first satisfying myself that nothing had yet been written. We heard the pencil at work, and on opening the slate found two sentences written; one was, Mr. Watkins’s, God is love; the other was not my sentence, but a third, Truth is mighty. I was immensely puzzled. “This is the effect neither of my will nor yours, Mr. Watkins; whose is the third will that has been at work?” “I think I can tell you,” he said; “while you were writing your sentence on the slate, I, having finished mine, began guessing what yours might be, and I thought to myself ‘truth is mighty; ’that is how I account for it.” “I did not ask you to think, Mr. Watkins, but to will; however, this is an interesting experiment, and goes to prove still further the theory I have in my mind. Now, let us try another—” but a sitter was announced, and I had no further opportunity of testing the strength of my own will-power against that of Mr. Watkins.

I had also the pleasure of meeting, in New York, with Dr. Bloede, a frequent contributor to the Banner of Light; with Mr. Partridge, the publisher of the first Spiritual periodical in America, the Spiritual Telegraph; with Dr. Hallock, whom we all know so well and esteem so highly; Mrs. Slocum, Mr. Farnesworth, and others. The three last-named are, with Mr. and Mrs. Newton, faithful supporters of the Sunday afternoon conferences, which have been kept up regularly for twenty years, and of the morning and evening Sunday services in New York, at one of which I had the pleasure of hearing a very good inspirational speaker, Mrs. Nellie Brigham. In this connection I will also place Mr. and Mrs. Andrew Jackson Davis, who are now living in retirement in Orange, New Jersey, and who came to see me in New York. I found them both as bright, cheerful, and excellent as they are always represented to be by those who know them; full of good sense, and overflowing with the milk of human kindness. Like many others, Mr. A. J. Davis now takes no public part in the spiritual movement in America. Some other Spiritualists I had the pleasure of meeting, who, though unknown to fame as Spiritualists (for the reasons I have before mentioned), yet hold honoured places among the world’s best spiritual workers, and whose acquaintance is among my happiest recollections of America.

In Boston I found our good friend and valued writer, Mr. Epes Sargent, full of interest and activity in the cause, but, I regret to say, in a very indifferent state of health. He inquired with great eagerness after the friends and workers on this side of the Atlantic, saying that he looked to them to lead and shape the movement, and to put it on a proper scientific footing. Mr. Sargent was giving much attention to Mr. Watkins's mediumship, of which he has published several circumstantial accounts, and to that of Mrs. Boothby, a materialising medium, whom I was unable to visit. He is, I find, well known in America, as the author of several school manuals on scientific subjects, which are much esteemed.

At the Banner of Light office I met and conversed with Mr. Colby, whom I found very genial and enthusiastic; ready to make any exertion for the spread of Spiritualism, and to assist deserving mediums. I also met Miss Lizzie Doten, a most charming and sensible person, and our old English friend, Mr. Robert Cooper, who was so good as to arrange a seance for me with Mrs. Thayer, with the kind consent of Mr. and Mrs. Houghton, at whose house she was staying, and who gave me a most hospitable welcome.

At Albany I was very kindly received by Dr. and Mrs. Ditson, with whom I passed some very happy hours. Dr. Ditson is the author of the foreign articles in the Banner of Light, and is a man of considerable learning. His habits are of the most ascetic kind; he seems to live only on a few biscuits, with grapes and pears from his own garden, and an occasional cup of tea. At Dr. Ditson’s recommendation I made a detour on my journey home from Niagara to visit Mrs. Mary Andrews, formerly of Moravia, now living at Cascade, near Auburn, who was the first materializing medium in America. I am glad to say that she is one of the bright exceptions to the general depravity of American physical mediums; every one spoke well of her, and the impressions I gathered from my one day’s stay were all of a favourable kind. At the only seance I was able to attend with her, there were no manifestations worth recording.

And now I think I have told you all my lesser experiences —at least, those relating to Spiritualism so called. The greatest and most wonderful experience, perhaps, of my whole life, one of which it is impossible for me to speak here in adequate terms, is my acquaintance—my friendship—a friendship to last I hope for life and for ever, with the being called Madame Blavatsky. I can designate her neither as a woman nor a man, for she combines in her nature the noblest attributes of both. For the proofs of her astonishing wisdom and her exhaustless stores of knowledge, I can only point you to her great work, Isis Unveiled; and when you have fathomed some of its depths, I will ask you to imagine what its author can be like. The geniality, richness, and generosity of her character, joined to its uprightness and severity, are only equalled by the breadth, freedom, and boldness of her thought; by her magical power I have seen her produce, irrespective of the hour, company, or place, some of the effects for which mediums require certain given “conditions,” and others which are unlike anything I have seen in the presence of mediums. Those who have known Madame Blavatsky longer than I have done, have related to me many striking instances of her marvellous power; but as a rule she objects to exercise it for the mere gratification of her friends. Two instances will, perhaps, suffice for the present occasion.

A gentleman (who related the fact to me) had been writing at a little table in Madame Blavatsky’s room, and had laid his handkerchief at his side on the table. After a time he observed that there was a movement under the hankerchief. He raised it up, and there darted towards him with a hissing sound a small snake, apparently of a venomous kind. In his surprise and terror, the gentleman started backwards so suddenly that he fell over, with his chair, on to the floor. On rising he saw no more of the snake, and it was nowhere to be found. How did it come? Where did it go to? Was it an illusion? Whatever it may have been, Madame Blavatsky claims that it was a magically produced phenomenon. The modus operandi is the magician’s secret.

The other instance is of mesmeric power exerted upon myself. I was reading, in a position from which I could see into a mirror on the opposite side of the room, and I remarked to Madame Blavatsky that the wall which was reflected in the mirror appeared to be moving up and down. She said, “That is an atmospheric effect,” and went on reading her Russian newspaper. I then began to watch the mirror intently, and I saw Madame Blavatsky look at me once or twice. I was aware that she had her eye upon me, but that was all. I continued to gaze, and presently the mirror became clouded and I saw distinctly, though momentarily, two different scenes. The first was that of a sea in motion, covered with ships, and might have been a port or harbour. This faded out, like a dissolving view, and was succeeded by a picture representing a group of men in Eastern costume, turbans and long garments, such as is worn by Hindoos.

The men seemed as if alive and conversing together. When I told Madame Blavatsky what I had seen, she said, “That is right; that is what I wished you to see; I am sorry I did not write it down, that you might have had the proof to carry away with you.” Now, I have very slight mediumistic powers of any kind, and have never been clairvoyante in my life. It would seem, therefore, that some very strong power must have been exercised by her in order to produce such an effect the first time of trying.

And now, as to my conclusions in regard to that which I saw, heard and read in America. I think, first, that we may congratulate ourselves that certain wholesome checks have operated in England to prevent such catastrophes in Spiritualism as are enumerated in an article in the last number of the Chicago Religio-Philosophical Journal; checks to be traced, I fancy, to the different social conditions existing amongst us generally, and to the more severe standard of criticism amongst English Spiritualists. Secondly, that we must continue rigidly to sift and probe our own facts, and to institute such measures as shall protect our mediums from the public, the public from the mediums, and the mediums from themselves. Thirdly, that we must not rest content with explanations hitherto given and received, but must examine and question every new theory which promises to throw light on the sources of the phenomena, and above all that we must mistrust all communications which we have no means of verifying, coming from sources which have often proved to be deceptive and illusory; and lastly, I feel more strongly than ever that the phenomenal side of Spiritualism as we know it now, separated from the Spiritualist philosophy as it has been known from the most remote ages, is but a new form of materialism, and that the worst danger we have to guard against is a divorce between these two.

On the other hand, I am more than ever convinced of the important nature of our inquiry, of the worthiness of its pursuit by the best minds, of the necessity for their application of the best methods, and of the ennobling effect on human character of the truths brought home to us even by its objective facts, when these are seriously studied, rightly presented, and applied in the direction of self-culture and in the service of the spirit in its struggle for the complete ascendancy over every form of matter.

Editor's notes

  1. Spiritualism in America by Kislingbury, Emily, London Spiritualist, No. 277, December 14, 1877, pp. 277-9. Only part of the article was pasted in SB by HPB.