Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Rise of Victorian Spiritualism and a Crisis of Evidence

*Taken from a paper of mine in 2014

          The Victorian Era, which took place during the mid-nineteenth century until the twentieth century, is a period characterized by societal change. The Industrial Revolution and clearer class divisions had taken hold, and there was an “increased ordering of leisure pursuits” especially amongst the middle and upper classes who had extra time and money (Lamont 903). Innovations in entertainment abounded, as seen through the burgeoning of cinematography, and Victorians were especially taken with “spectacles,” or shows that shocked or mesmerized audiences. In addition to new advancements in entertainment, Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution forced many to re-evaluate their orthodox religious beliefs, creating a mass crisis of faith. Caught in the middle of the revolution in entertainment and this popular crisis of belief was a uniquely Victorian situation: the emerging Spiritualist movement which challenged both conventional religious and scientific beliefs through the meaning of “evidence.” These widespread crises in both belief and evidence allowed for the movement’s strong endurance.
          The Spiritualist movement officially started in New York in 1848 with two girls, the Fox sisters, who were famous for their mediumship that manifested itself through alleged “spirit-rapping,” or taps that communicated messages (Gregory). Shortly after, similar “phenomena” were popularized in Great Britain. In addition to spirit-rapping, Victorians enjoyed table tipping, spirit boards, and séances as past-times. As Victorians became more involved, convinced by the activity during séances, this form of entertainment became a full-fledged spiritualist movement, which “was an attempt by the late Victorians to communicate with the spirits of the dead, hoping to prove continued existence after physical death and to gather some information on first hand experiences of it” (Gregory). “Countless respectable professionals,” including aristocrats, renowned journalists, and even scientists, unable to disprove the phenomena, joined the movement (Lamont 898). The use of expert testimony as evidence shows that “scientific knowledge and authority could be negotiated in the mid-Victorian Period” (909). There were enough seemingly-legitimate mediums to cause the non-believing scientific community to start to question the previously undoubted reliability of observation, hence a crisis of evidence. This is where Spiritualism emerges as a middle ground between Sentimentalism and Materialist philosophy as an approach to seeking evidence.
            Sentimentalism is based on subjectivity and personal experience as evidence, which is characteristic of the spiritualist movement. Meanwhile, Materialism champions “the nature of the world as entirely dependent on matter,” which may at first seem in opposition to a movement based entirely on the paranormal (Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia). However, Materialism’s common ground with Spiritualism is that they both sought more solid evidence for beliefs and are both reactions to orthodox religion, mainly Christianity. There existed a dichotomy between faith and physical evidence during the period, and Spiritualism permeated both (Gregory). Spiritualists agreed that their séance phenomena and expert testimonies thereof formed more of a basis for belief than claims to religious “miracles” seen in the Bible. Physical occurrences were material enough for believers, many of whom eventually blended the paranormal with the Scientific Method in order to investigate ghostly experiences in the hopes of finding proof. In the Victorian era, there were disagreements on what counted as “evidence.” Expert testimony and the fact that scientists and séance participants were not always able to disprove their experiences allowed testimony and lack of critical evidence to be common standards for proof.
          Many modern people, including academics, are quick to dismiss the Spiritualist movement as either disingenuous or foolish, but this view, aside from being insulting, does not attest to such widespread embrace and endurance of Victorian Spiritualism, especially among the educated classes. What passed for evidence in the Victorian era still widely passes today. The scientific value of observation (especially by that of an expert) is still a vital part of the Scientific Method and had never previously been questioned as much as when renowned scientists started to hold Spiritualist sympathies. Eyewitness testimony that was cited as a basis for Spiritualist beliefs, while faulty, still holds true in a court of law as damning evidence, enough for capital punishment. Additionally, the popularity of Spiritualism continues to be seen through horror movies, psychic-mediums on television, and the modern popularity of paranormal investigation. Both our modern meaning of what counts for proof and the current popularity of the supernatural makes one wonder if Victorian Spiritualism ever really died.

Works Cited
Gregory, Candace. “A Willing Suspension of Disbelief: Victorian Reactions to the Spiritualist Phenomena.” Loyola University New Orleans, n.d. Web. 9 July, 2014.
Lamont, Peter. “Spiritualism and a Mid-Victorian Crisis of Evidence.” The Historical Journal. 47.4 (2004): 897-920. Print.

“Materialism.” Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Columbia University Press, 2013. Web. 9 July, 2014. 


  1. I recently finished reading a book about The Spiritualist movement and Lily Dale, one of the big American Spiritualist centres. Very fascinating, although I am not sure I want to talk with my dead ancestors.

    1. That is interesting! I'm continually fascinated by the popularity and widespread reach the movement had. A friend of mine gave me a book about the famous psychic Edgar Cayce called "There Is a River." I haven't read it yet though.