Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Ghosts of Spiritualism Linger

Spiritualism, a religion most folks have never heard about, actually was all the rage globally back in the 1920s.  That’s the belief that personalities live on after death and can be contacted by the living via mediums.

The concept has faded away, largely through the efforts of debunkers who showed that so-called mediums were invariably frauds.  Living people blew the heavenly trumpets, not spirits, and they manipulated tables and the like without other worldly assistance.  Harry Houdini, who was then well known as a magician and an escape artist, led the charge against Spiritualism, which was supported by such well-known personages as Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries.

Houdini was joined by religious leaders from around the world, who saw Spiritualism as an attack on their faith. 

Spiritualism’s attractions are obvious.  People were drawn to the belief because of personal tragedy.  They wanted to maintain contact with a dead loved one.  That’s how Houdini got involved.  He hoped to contact with his late, beloved mother and became disgusted when renowned mediums tried to defraud him.

I have been reading a book about Houdini’s efforts against Spiritualism, a tale that focused on a Boston woman who was seen as the world’s best medium.  Houdini was able to demonstrate how she pulled off her tricks and helped destroy her reputation.   

Then, I received a tweet from a friend, Jack, telling me about the sad death of his wife, Karen. Jack wrote that he looked forward to seeing her again in heaven. While he didn’t mean to raise a question, he did: How is his belief in a heavenly afterlife any different than Spiritualism?

Jack doesn’t intend to talk to Karen through a medium, of course, but fully expects to greet his late wife in some ethereal abode.  In Spiritualism, the place was called Summerland.  There’s no difference.  The logic is the same, too: the dead person really isn’t gone, just translated to a special place to await the arrival of a loved one.

Of course, to get there, Jack must believe in a certain religion.  Otherwise, neither he nor Karen could go to their imaginary heaven.

It’s the same snake oil once sold by people who dressed up in robes and orchestrated “messages” from those in the great beyond.

No wonder organized religions protested Spiritualism.  They didn’t like competition. Houdini didn’t have that concern.  He was a non-practicing Jew who had no apparent interest in any religion.  He didn’t care what religion a medium was.  He only was concerned if any contact really could be made into the spirit world.
Conan Doyle

Religions on the other hand saw a loss of followers and their accompanying money.  So, they vociferously protested Spiritualism to the point that even Conan Doyle spoke out against organized religion.

Once Spiritualism was destroyed – or, at least, shoved underground – organized religion was then free to continue to purvey the same nonsense about a heaven for their members.  They didn’t have to use bells and whistles, or spiritual manifestations.  They could rely on “sacred” books and pious claims to accomplish the same thing.

By the way, none of this is new, at least not with organized religion.  All faiths have absorbed competition by the simple expedient of re-branding a holiday or idea.  Spirits long preceded today's religions and were a mainstay of ancient faiths. They were just co-opted into "souls" that wing their way to "heaven."

That’s more comforting than reality, but just as much malarkey as anything Spiritualism ever claimed.  In fact, although Spiritualism these days may only hover about in the shadowy corners of society, the ideas encapsulated in its teaching prosper, just as they have for thousands of years.

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His most recent book is Passover in Prison, which details abuse of Jewish inmates in American prisons.  His books are available on, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  He can also be followed on Twitter.

You can enroll in his on-line class, Comparative Religion for Dummies, at

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