Grief, Freedom, and Spiritualism

Part 1: Endor

‘The Ghost of Samuel appearing to Saul’ – William Blake (1800)

I mentioned last week a moving essay I read recently in the London Review of Books by Malcolm Gaskill about the short life and long death of Van Dyke Fernald, a young British airman who was shot down behind enemy lines near San Fior di Sopra in Italy in July of 1918. The story is tragic, as all stories about the First World War are, but the account of how his mother dealt with it, through attending seances and attempting to contact her dead son through the use of spiritual mediums, was almost painful in its closeness to grief. Perhaps it’s trite to refer to the war, once again, as an imperialist slaughter, but that’s what it was, and this 21 year old man who died in the hands of the Austrians might just as well have been Austrian himself (he was an American, naturalised as a British citizen in order to join the army), for all the good it did anyone. Our story probably has a direct companion, hidden in the diaries of a mother in Innsbruck or Salzburg, or in Toulouse or Berlin or Moscow or Istanbul for that matter. His mother, Josephine, never recovered; for the rest of her life she was haunted by her son’s young death, and continued to experience visitations from his spirit until she passed away in 1933. ‘He spoke to me distinctly and quite naturally, and I answered,’ Gaskill records her as saying about her first nightly meeting with him two years after his death.

Her experience was not uncommon. The aftermath of the war saw an upsurge in spiritualism, the belief that we live on as spirits past our physical deaths, and that the living can communicate directly or via mediums with the departed. Already a popular religious movement from the mid-19th century, it’s not hard to see how a generation dealing with the massive collective trauma of a lost generation would turn to the spirit world for solace, whether or not you’re a believer yourself. The belief in spirits is a base level of human interaction with the world and each other; in the Book of Samuel, part of the Nevi'im in Jewish scripture and the Old Testament in Christian scripture, King Saul secretly visits a witch in Endor to communicate with the dead prophet Samuel, having cast all the necromancers from his kingdom. The witch summons Samuel’s ghost, who repeats the living man’s prophecy: Saul will die the following day in battle. She comforts the distraught king with bread from the fatted calf, but the king cannot evade the prophecy, and Saul dies at the hands of the Philistines the following day.

Rudyard Kipling used the tale—a recurring thorn in the side of orthodox Christian theologians—as the basis for his poem ‘En-Dor’, an account of the “oldest road / And the craziest road of all!” and a warning against what he clearly saw as unscrupulous mediums taking advantage of

...Mother or yearning Wife.
There, it is sure, we shall meet our Dead
As they were even in life.
Earth has not dreamed of the blessing in store
For desolate hearts on the road to En-dor.

He wrote his poem in the final year of the war—it was published in 1919—and claimed that only further sorrow could be found in spiritualism. Despite his warnings, it’s clear that spiritualism performed a role in coping with grief that Kipling’s brand of jingoism only perpetuated. (Perhaps a little unfair; Kipling himself lost his 18 year old son John at the Battle of Loos in 1915. He was only fifteen days younger than Van Dyke Fernald. Kipling would later write "If any question why we died / Tell them, because our fathers lied,” and would go on to select the phrases “The Glorious Dead” for the Cenotaph and “Their Name Liveth For Evermore” for the ‘Stones of Remembrance’ which feature in many of the war cemeteries. The politics of remembrance remains a knotty, complex issue to discuss; while it’s understandable that those in grief were comforted by the idea that their loved ones deaths served a purpose, it’s not a stretch to suggest that such justifications only perpetuated the political order which lead to the slaughter.)

The effects of the war led to an increase in spiritual autonomy, both in the trenches and back at home, of religious thought and direct religious experience, both spiritual and mystical, and a divergence away from the dry orthodoxy of established churches (especially the Anglican communion). In another article, also for the LRB, Gaskill says that ‘by 1918 magical thinking was universal’, including everything from talismen and lucky objects to the idea that psychic horses could predict gas attacks. Surrounded by perpetual uncertainty and an expectation of near certain death, superstitious beliefs emerged quickly and with potency. But mystical experiences prevailed too; Gaskill suggests the famous ‘Angels of Mons’—the appearance of phantom bowmen from the Battle of Agincourt who protected British troops and were a sign of Christian divine providence—began with a published story by the author and mystic Arthur Machen which quickly became folkloric in the ranks and on the home front, but other soldiers certainly recalled seeing phantom soldiers in battle. Despite their use for propaganda purposes, religious authorities were often worried at this rise in deviant religious experience away from the control of the priest-class. But then, from its roots, spiritualism has always stood if not opposed, then certainly at an angle to, establishment beliefs and values, both religiously and politically.

The modern spiritualist movement, emerging from the religious reformist movements of the United States in the early 19th century, was often accompanied by similarly radical political positions, and the two beliefs informed each other. The Second Great Awakening, a movement of religious revival that emerged in the northeast of the US in response to increased secularism and theism in the aftermath of the American Revolution, crossed over denominations; as well as Baptists and Methodists massively increasing their congregations through fairs and camps, new churches such as Adventists sprang up. African-Americans, both free and enslaved, were a part of this revival, many breaking away from white-dominated Baptist and Methodist congregations and forming their own churches, whilst women made up the majority of new converts.

A similar challenge was happening within Quakerism in the US. Although Quakers had dropped their early boisterous ministry which brought them frequently into conflict with the state and mainstream church, both in the US and the UK, and adopted a “quietism” that still characterises the sect today, they still took a number of radical positions. In Pennsylvania a group of Quakers emerged following the doctrines of Elias Hicks, who favoured a direct relationship with the ‘Inward Light’ over the importance of scriptural obedience—today a relatively common position within Quakerism. A young Walt Whitman described seeing Hicks preach:

Always Elias Hicks gives the service of pointing to the fountain of all naked theology, all religion, all worship, all the truth to which you are possibly eligible—namely in yourself and your inherent relations. Others talk of Bibles, saints, churches, exhortations, vicarious atonements—the canons outside of yourself and apart from man—Elias Hicks points to the religion inside of man's very own nature. This he incessantly labors to kindle, nourish, educate, bring forward and strengthen.

The Hicksites, predominantly a poor and rural movement who opposed the market system, split from the more urban, orthodox Quakers who were gaining in wealth and prosperity under capitalism, and took up the cause of abolitionism, advocating the end of slavery with a fervent zeal. Amongst their number were the Post family from Rochester, NY, devout Quakers who were already involved in radical causes, such as the end to gender segregation within Quaker congregations (I grew up living inside a Quaker meeting house; my first childhood bedroom was originally the ‘women’s gallery’, a raised mezzanine within the 18th Century meeting house where women would worship). Unlike many Quakers who were more ‘theoretical’ in their opposition to slavery (contrary to popular belief, some early Quakers had owned slaves themselves, and more still were more generally invested in the system of white supremacy which underpins the US economic model), the Posts believed there was no division between the religious and the political. As well as forming the Western New York Anti-Slavery Society, they opened their house as a station on the Underground Railroad, hosting and harbouring escaped former slaves as they travelled towards Canada. They also hosted abolitionist meetings by figures such as Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth. The Posts’ religious belief in the ‘Inward Light’—a direct, almost mystical relation with God—put their belief in equality above social and political structures; as George Fox, a founder of Quaker thought, put it: "people had no need of any teacher but the Light that was in all men and women".

Among the many people to stay with the Posts were a couple of sisters, 10 year old Kate and 14 year old Maggie Fox. The family were friends with the Posts, and the two girls claimed to be able to communicate with the spirit of a dead peddler through a series of knocks and clicks, channeling his responses to questions and eliciting noises directly from the spirit. The Posts believed the two girls and introduced them to a wider group of Quaker radicals; as a result, from its earliest days in the 1840s, Spiritualism has often been closely tied to reformist ideas such as abolitionism and gender equality. In his fantastic book about spiritualism and politics Even the Dead Rise Up, Francis McKee writes about another medium, a young woman called Ascha Sprague, who had fallen ill around the time the Fox sisters came to prominence, and spent seven years sick with rheumatic fever. Her condition improved, however, and she thanked the spirit world for the recovery; she began to tour the US with public, trance-like seances where she would pass over messages from the spirit world. While the Foxs’ messages had been trivial, however, Sprague’s had more serious worldly implications, demanding the emancipation of both women and the abolition of slavery. Her lectures, however, found a wider audience than a young woman might normally in the 1850s. McKee suggests the invocation of spirits freed the medium:

While many of their critics would point to the impropriety of women voicing such radical ideas, the concept of the ‘medium’ queered this attack. Who exactly was voicing the ideas—Sprague and her cohorts, or the spirits of the dead, reaching across the void to reform society? It was difficult to pinpoint the effect these trance lecturers were having on their rapt audiences if the audiences were convinced their ideas were being transmitted through the unconscious and unknowing person of the medium. This was an activism without a verifiable activist.

This is part one of a two-part essay on spiritualism, grief, freedom and politics. I’ll publish part two later this week for paid subscribers. It deals with the relationship between anarcho-communism, feminism and spiritualism in Spain, Catalonia and Latin America. If you’d like to get it straight to your inbox, please consider subscribing!