The Early Christian Church and Modern Spiritualism

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia

The Early Christian Church and Modern Spiritualism is a book written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published in 1925 by The Psychic Press.

The Early Christian Church and Modern Spiritualism

The Early Christian Church and Modern Spiritualism (1925)
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When one surveys the slow progression of religious ideas amid mankind one can, I think, see clearly that God releases definite instalments of teaching from age to age, adapting each instalment to the fresh requirements of the human mind and modifying it to the environment.

What prevents the more speedy development of truth is that each revelation, though it may be fluid at first, sets presently into a hard mould. It shuts itself to new inspirations from the beyond. A priesthood rises which resents any change, and brands as heresy every fresh influx of spirit. Vested interests form and a Church becomes a worldly organisation which opposes new ideas. Above all the sinister figure of the Theologian rises. Instead of admitting our ignorance and waiting with open mind for fresh waves of God-inspired truth the human brain has exerted itself to build up an extraordinary man-made edifice which starts by the proposition that all that pertains to God is so infinite a mystery that none can comprehend it, and then proceeds in flat contradiction to lay down the law about the degree of divinity which existed in Jesus, the number of persons in the deity, the nature of the Holy Spirit, and other great dogmas about which we in truth know nothing whatever. Yet it is these nebulous things which have from early Christian days been the cause of more division, of more misery, of more bloodshed, than any single cause. In the sad history of humanity the dogmatic Theologian has been a greater evil than the smallpox.

Gradually with his theories and his definitions, defining the letter and ignoring the spirit, a huge edifice has been built up which we call official Christianity. The most fit symbol of it lies in St. Paul's Cathedral, for here we have a magnificent dome and facade, which are erected upon shifting sands, and supported upon pillars which when closely examined are found to be stuffed with mediaeval rubbish. The building sags, threatening to fall, and the question arises whether it is better to rebuild it altogether, or to make such changes as will carry it on for a time. That is exactly the question which confronts us with that religion of which St. Paul's is our central symbol. What then is amiss with religion ? We must clearly diagnose the disease before we prescribe the cure. What is amiss is that it has got far away from the facts of the spirit, that irrelevant matters have obscured the things that are vital, and that it has become so crusted by what is worldly, and so confused by our constant assertion that we know things which we do not know, that it has become repellant to many. Surely the practical object of religion is to make us sweeter, more unselfish and more virtuous souls — in every way better citizens. With that definition before your mind ask whether any man was ever prevented from doing a dishonourable action by the reflection that there were three persons in God or that original sin was a fact. It has no bearing at all upon our conduct. I have always observed that the standard of a chivalrous gentleman is a more practical code, and one may be surer of the conduct of such a one than of an orthodox Christian, because one would be aware that Theology has little to do with actual conduct. There are many things which a gentleman would rather die than do, and when we get can an ethical code which will reach that point we shall have got a living practical religion.

This religion is always there, but the question is how we are to expose it. Some general indications are obvious. These are that we should get back to common sense and to simplicity. These forces are already slowly acting. It is common sense which has within our own days practically banished the old ideas of hell from every intelligent mind, and has loosened the former dogmatic bonds. But the process is too slow, and we need some sort of authority when it comes to the actual reconstruction. To pull down obvious ruins is much easier than to put up the Temple which will take their place.

In order to do that we have to fall back upon authority. Where are we to find our authority? We used to be referred to the scriptures for it and one may still feel that the spirit of the New Testament is God-inspired, and that we can ask for nothing higher. If we act and think only in that spirit we cannot go wrong. It gives us a beautiful ethical impulse but it does not give us knowledge. The human mind has reached a point where it needs something definite, some proof, something which will satisfy reason. For want of it the world has become material, and often it is not the worst minds but the best, the most earnest, which have been driven by their despair at getting no provable facts into a vague agnosticism, where all belief in a future is lost. Man without a future is a dangerous irresponsible being. It is a very pressing thing that we should prove the reality of that future, and I know no possible way save that which Spiritualism offers.

This preamble as to our present unstable religious position is leading up to a definite point. It is that at the last great revelation which altered the opinions of the leading nations of the world the change was wrought not by creeds nor dogmas but mainly by actual visible signs of spiritual force such as we Spiritualists have encountered in our own experiences.

One cannot deny that the Christian revelation deserved to succeed upon its own merits. It was obviously a great advance upon what had gone before it. Anyone who has imagination enough to project himself back into the past, and to realise the scene when eighty thousand Romans assembled for pleasure turned their thumbs down in order that a prostrate and helpless man should be massacred before their eyes, will admit that the spirit of mankind was diabolical and needed renovation. So too if one wanders through the streets of Pompeii and observes the phallic symbols openly displayed upon the walls one understands what a brutish side there was in Roman civilisation. The new ethics and the abolition of the vile old Gods and Goddesses with their wars and their lusts was a great step forward. But it could never have been taken entirely on its own merits and unaided by those signs and wonders which appealed directly to the minds of those who saw them.

Jesus the Christ set the example by strengthening the effect of his teaching by the use of His psychic powers. These psychic powers were, as we can now clearly perceive, not sporadic miraculous things, but were produced according to law — a law common to all who had the knowledge, but pushed to its furthest point by so exceptional a being. This knowledge has been revived by modern psychic investigation, and the writer can truly say that short of raising the dead there is hardly one of the New Testament miracles which he has not actually encountered in type if not in detail during nearly forty years of research.

The first action of the Christ when He set forth upon His mission was to form a psychic circle round himself. By a process of exclusion we can gather that the Apostles were chosen for psychic reasons, since no other reason is available. They were not learned. We are expressly told so. Neither were they elevated in mind nor staunch in loyalty. They disputed among themselves for material precedence, and they deserted their Master at the first sign of danger. Why then did He so carefully select them if it were not that they possessed psychic power — a power which, as we have frequently demonstrated, bears little relation either to character or to intellect ? They were all psychic. "The group" says Renan "that pressed round him upon the banks of the Lake of Tiberias believed in spectres and spirits. Great spiritual manifestations were frequent. All believed themselves to be inspired in different ways." Renan was singularly ill-informed upon psychic possibilities. So grotesquely ignorant was he that he actually claims that Paul and Barnabas were expert conjurors. [1] But in spite of this he saw clearly the origin of the circle round the Christ.

We know by our modern experience that the powers of a great Psychic are reinforced by the psychical strength of the circle round him. This is a law and I can see nothing derogatory to the Christ in showing that He shared these laws which are common to all humanity and are part of the God's order in nature. That it was so is clearly manifest when it is admitted by the gospels that when surrounded by the sceptical or frivolous atmosphere of His own birthplace He could not exert His usual powers. The incredulous townsfolk who could not take seriously the son of the village carpenter whom they had seen playing about in His boyhood correspond to those modern researchers who themselves create an atmosphere in which all psychic manifestation becomes impossible.

It is probable that the psychic powers of the Apostles varied in power and possibly in type. Certainly Peter with James and John seem to have been specially chosen at critical moments. They were the three who stood by the Christ at the raising of Jairus' daughter, and they accompanied him to. the mountain when the spirits of two men, said to be Moses and Elias, manifested in materialised form.

Those who desire to understand more clearly how closely this manifestation corresponds to our modern psychic experiences are referred to a small pamphlet " Jesus of Nazareth," by Dr. Abraham Wallace. He points out how the high pure air of the mountain top is ideal for such phenomena, how the gospels record that the three Apostles went into that deep sleep which corresponds with the mediumistic trance, how the white shining light suggests the ectoplasmic flow, and how in all ways we seem to have a repetition of our own experiences.

All of the Christ's miracles fit themselves very readily into the different categories of psychic phenomena as we know them. The walking on the water for example is levitation, and the failure of Peter to accomplish it when he lost his faith corresponds closely to cases where a medium who could handle fire has handed the same fire to someone else with the injunction that they should have no fear. Those who had fear and shrank from it were liable to be burned. The miracle of the bread and fishes would come under the head of apports, where objects are brought from a distance. We have overwhelming evidence for example that at the seances of Mrs. Guppy, to mention one example among many, every sitter found in front of him whatever plant he might call for. These plants were not created afresh. They were already existing and were brought by psychic powers from a distance. So it may have been with the loaves and the fishes. Occasionally a very definite note is struck in the gospel narrative. Thus the groans of the Christ as He prepared for so great a psychic effort as the raising of Lazarus must remind us of the sounds which many of us have heard when some great mediumistic strain has been incurred. The writing in the dust, too, is clearly automatic writing, where a mental question receives an answer from some high court of appeal and registers it as best it can. Those who are acquainted with Dr. Ellis Powell's "Psychic Element in the New Testament" or with Mrs. St.Clair Stobart's "Ancient Lights" will be able to expand this short analogy between the powers of the Christ and those which we have now rediscovered. One may add that Dr. Wickland, of Los Angeles treats all cases of acute mania on the supposition that they are obsessions by undeveloped souls (i.e. by "devils") and that he has complete successes where other alienists have failed. He claims to have elicited the remarkable fact that such possessions are seldom single but that "seven" and "a legion" are just as possible now as in the days of the Messiah. [2]

There are some who consider it derogatory to the Christ that His powers should be fitted into any scheme which the human mind can explore and understand. In my opinion the worst enemies of Jesus are those who make Him incredible. How can one love or honour that which one cannot understand? The more real He becomes the more tangible is His influence, and the gospel of Mark, which is surely, as Dr. Major has shown, the account of an eye witness is infinitely more moving and convincing than those later gospels which invented wonderful stories about His birth, borrowing them from Eastern legends, and falsely imagining that by so doing they were exalting His career.

The system of Jesus, so far as we can follow it in the Gospel narratives, was to cause popular excitement and assembly by the miracles and then take advantage of the crowd so as to instruct it. The instruction was of course, infinitely more important than the miracle, but it was the miracle which made it possible. It mattered little whether there was one more leper or one less in Judea, but it mattered greatly that a concourse should be assembled to hear the Sermon on the Mount. Thus in one modern experience our psychic phenomena are humble things in themselves — for what is there spiritual in a moving light or a tilting table? but they awake attention and thus draw the minds of people to the vital and all important knowledge which we can give them.

Among the laws which governed the psychic powers of that early date there was one which has been lost, or only partly apprehended among us. It is that psychic faculties may be transferred. We recognise it only to the extent that our best method of developing a medium is that he should sit with another medium and retain the idea of development in his mind. The old method, however, was more drastic and direct. It consisted simply in the laying on of hands, which conceivably transferred some portion of the aura or magnetism of the giver to the recipient. It was on such terms that the five hundred disciples were sent forth, and their work must have been extraordinarily prolific, since Paul only a few years later found so many churches already established in Asia Minor. All the disciples had their natural powers increased and developed by their contact with their great Master.

It is interesting however to observe what occurred when the Master had gone. It would seem that a circle was constituted in Jerusalem, James, the younger b?other of the Christ being the central figure. This circle became the centre of psychic force and those who like Paul, had need of increased powers in order to help their teaching mission, returned to Jerusalem for the purpose, as one might go to some great instalment in order to recharge a battery. Then having been fully charged they in turn had the power, by laying on of hands, to pass the same qualities on to another. Hence the laying on of hands still observed by bishop to bishop, and by bishop to priest, was in truth the giving of mediumistic powers, though the long divorce between the Churches and the forces of the spirit, has caused them to forget the real meaning of their own observance.

The gifts of the spirit, which means the various types of spiritual manifestations, were commonplaces in the early church, and it was these mediumistic powers which arrested the attention of the people, and drew their thoughts towards the new teaching. In the well known list given by Paul in the 12th Chapter of the first letter to the Christians of Corinth, he enumerates almost every psychic faculty which is known to modern spiritualists. There is the word of wisdom and of knowledge, where under spirit influence the medium speaks of things which are beyond his or her ordinary capacity. There is the power of healing. There is the working of wonders, including such phenomena as levitation, apports and the like. There is prophecy. There is discerning of spirits or clairvoyance. There is the speaking in strange tongues. A modern medium has been known to answer question in fourteen languages in a single evening. Those powers then which the more narrow or ignorant of the clergy are continually maligning, are the very same which Paul prized so highly. That he did prize them highly, and that they could be transferred, is clearly shown by the verse in the letter to the Romans where he says to his correspondent "I long to see you that I may impart to you some spiritual gift." Even in that golden age however, it was found, as we have found, that lower spirits might intrude. No other meaning can be assigned to Saint John's injunction "Test the spirits whether they be of God" — an injunction which is as necessary now as it was then. It is angelism not diabolism that we cultivate.

When in those days they wanted to cast forward their minds and to picture a very holy state of the world they always drew one in which spiritual signs predominated. Thus in Acts II. the writer says "And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall dream dreams. And on My servants and on My handmaidens I will pour out in those days of My spirit and they shall prophesy." Looking over the vast field of religious activity which covers the earth with its varied manifestations who is there to whom that forecast applies save to ourselves ? It is true that we are not at the end of the world, but there are many of us who have reason to think that we are at the end of an era, and that it was this which the prophet dimly foresaw.

A chapter might well be devoted simply to the psychic knowledge of Paul which grows and increases in proportion to one's own power of recognition. The finer points of his letters must be absolutely obscure to the average clergyman or layman who has had no occult training. The tradition of psychic power passing on after Paul's death into the early Church, becomes manifest wherever we touch it. Speaking of these powers Hudson who may be regarded as a worthy foeman, since he writes well and really knows something of the facts, says, "It is almost superfluous to observe that these manifestations were identical with the so-called spirit manifestations of the present day." [3] He adds, however "Not one of them was authorised or countenanced by Jesus with the exception of healing the sick." Those who have read the previous pages will be in a position to judge how far this second statement is true.

In examining the literature of the Church after the date of the Apostles we may pass lightly over that curious work "The Shepherd," of Hermes. Hermes was according to tradition a friend of Paul's but his book may be taken either as a work of fiction, or as a series of psychic dreams. Personally it seems to the author that it is the latter but it gives us no clear indications of the customs of the early Church. In the letters of Ignatius, Bishop of Smyrna however, who dates roughly A.D. too we do get psychic allusions. "Some in the Church," he says "do most certainly have a knowledge of things to come. Some have visions, some utter prophecies and heal the sick by laying on of hands, and others speak in many tongues bringing to light the secret things of man and expounding the mysteries of God."

Tatian may be roughly placed as being in the next generation from Ignatius. He says "Our virgins at the distaff utter divine oracles, see visions, and sing the holy words that are given to them."

Irenoeus, Bishop of Lyons writing about 25 years later (roughly A.D. 175) says "We hear of many brethren in the Church possessing prophetic gifts and speaking through the spirit in all kinds of tongues." A little later the great Tertullian in his "De Animâ" says "We have to-day among us a sister who has received gifts in the nature of revelations which she experiences in spirit in the church amid the rites of the Lord's day, falling into ecstacy" (or trance). "She converses with angels, sees and hears mysteries and reads the hearts of certain people, and brings healings to those who ask. Among other things she has said 'A soul was shown to me in bodily form and it seemed as if it might be touched, soft, lucid, of the colour of air and of the human form in every detail.'" A great medium is here indicated, and she is treated with reverence and awe by a leader of the early Church. What a contrast to his successors!

Origen writing about the year 225 speaks of angels in just the sense that Spiritualists now speak of controls or guides. Some of them are told off, he says, to direct communities and some to direct persons, and they differ much in their own spirituality and character. He has an interesting passage in his essay against Celsus in which he shows that the early psychic powers of the Christians were already becoming weaker but were not yet extinct at the beginning of the third Century. He speaks of "the signs and wonders which we must believe to have been performed both on many other grounds and on this that traces of them are still preserved by those who regulate their lives by the precepts of the gospel." Eusebius also a little later said that the phenomena were declining and that the Church had become unworthy of them, though Augustine writing later still spoke with a more assured voice saying "The spirits of the dead can be sent to the living and can unveil to them the future." (De curá pro mortuis.)

Among the innumerable allusions of which these are only samples there are some which show that in old days the actual methods of communications were sometimes as crude as they are now. "Per crepidas" or by raps is the phrase used in one description. There is an allusion also to the use of the trumpet for voice production in the familiar manner. It occurs in an apology which the Christian Athenagoras carried to the Emperor about the time of Justin Martyr — roughtly A.D. 180. In it he says "I call them prophets who being out of themselves and their own thoughts did utter forth whatsoever the impelling power of the spirit wrought in them, while the Divine Operator served himself of them or their organs, even as men do of a trumpet."

It is natural to ask why were these spiritual gifts gradually quenched in the Church. Glover in his "Conflict of Religions" gives a ready answer. "In the church," he says "the ministry of spirit, the ministry of gifts was succeeded by the ministry of office with its lower ideals of the practical and the expedient."

Thus by degrees the worldly man beat the spiritual man, the administrator beat the saint, the organiser beat the man of vision. Now after all these centuries the tide may be slowly turning. We believe that the spiritual man will in the near future be recognised as the precious thing he is, and that he, the man of soul rather than the man of brain will be the leader. The learned have led us and have misled us. One cannot but respect their learning, but the matters of the soul, the vital matters, are not concerned with a knowledge of dead languages or of living polemics. They are subtle and intuitive, depending upon heart and spirit and character. The learned have often no psychic perceptions. The brain is too pre-occupied, too lumbered up with what is unnecessary, to have room for what is essential. It is not an exaggeration to say that there are children in the Lyceum Schools of the Spiritualists who know more of real inner psychic truth than such great church scholars, good men and excellent writers as Dean Inge of St. Paul's or Dr. Barnes, of Birmingham.

The moral to be drawn from this reminiscence of early Christian history is that psychic phenomena in their various aspects were plentifully, even predominantly, used as an aid to teaching. "Not only with words but by power," is the pithy biblical method of expressing it. The Spiritualists now have revelation to preach and they have the old psychic powers. The inference seems clear that they should not despise their semi-material aspect, as some of us are inclined to do, but that they should use them for the same purpose as of old. Such a line of thought shows us how precious an object the medium is, and how ill-advised the law which in the laudable endeavour to discourage possible fraud, actually cuts at the roots of all spiritual manifestations.

But how should we use these powers? It is a most difficult question. Should it be by indiscriminate public demonstration? That seems a direct, a heroic, but possibly a dangerous course while the general public is still so ignorant. It was tried by Edward Irving and his congregation as early as 1832, when psychic voices broke out in his church, but as minister and congregation were equally unversed in psychic knowledge the incident ended in unseemly confusion and fiasco. It may be, however, that the general dissemination of our views has penetrated the public mind, and that our chances would now be better. Mr. R. H. Saunders has recently attempted the experiment of giving the direct voice by loud speakers to 200 people assembled in a hall, and the result was on the whole satisfactory, many recognitions being obtained. More recently the Rev. J. W. Potter had the courage to take the Town Hall of Birmingham and to allow one of the chief controls of his circle to address 2,000 people through the lips of his own young son. The result is said to have been very impressive, and was certainly the most remarkable event in England upon that date though our Press was too busy with accounts of bat and ball in Australia to report it. It is true that the trance address or the inspired address has from the early days of the movement down to those of J. J. Morse been a recognised method of propaganda, but seldom has there been such an absolute disproportion between the quality of the matter and the normal power of the speaker as in this Birmingham address.

There has been much difference of opinion among earnest Spiritualists as to the advisability of using such public methods of demonstrating spirit power, many contending with some justice that until the soil is ready no seed can sprout and that a promiscuous unselective sowing means public derision and a set back to the truth. Others of a firmer temper hold that no long as we know that what we do is honest and that our motives are pure we can disregard what an ignorant public or a material press may say. The general public is at present ahead both of the press and of the clergy, and if we can continue our process of education we can make the gap so conspicuous that for very shame those who should have been leaders will quicken their pace. Knowing as we do how complete is the correspondence between man's fate hereafter and his actions here and knowing also that each man is judged according to his power of helping forward God's work in this world it is appalling to consider what will be the fate of those who have directed the policy of the newspapers of this and other countries, which have met the new revelation with contemptuous silence or with insolent misrepresentation.

It may take shorter or longer, but with the powers of the spirit world behind us we are invincible. Our ultimate victory is assured. These great invisible but irresistible forces will give us the power to revolutionise the religious opinions of the world, to remove the ashes which have obscured the sacred flame and to make manifest the glowing truth which lies at the heart of things. We have great gifts to bring the world. We have deep comfort for suffering humanity and a vision of indescribable happiness for those whose present lives are drab and grey. We can remove the fear of death, we can give solace to the mourner, and we can lay down a firm and definite path amid all the quagmires of the creeds, avoiding irrational faith upon the one side and barren negation upon the other. It is upon this path that we are the pioneers of the human race.

  1. Renan's "Saint Paul."
  2. "Thirty Years with the Dead." — Wickland.
  3. T. J. Hudson's "Future Life. A Scientific Demonstration."