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22 May 1859, Edinburgh M.D., Kt, D.L., LL.D., Sportsman, Writer, Poet, Politician, Justicer, Spiritualist Crowborough, 7 July 1930

A Test Message

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A Test Message is a letter written by Arthur Conan Doyle first published in the magazine Light on 2 July 1887.


  • in Light (2 july 1887 [UK])
  • in Light (27 august 1927 [UK])

A Test Message (2 july 1887)

Light (2 july 1887, p. 303)

To the Editor of "Light".

Sir, — I believe that it has been found a useful practice among revivalists and other excitable religionists of all types, for each member to give the assembled congregation a description of the manner in which they attained the somewhat vague result known as "finding salvation." Now among Spiritualists there is really a good deal to be said for such a practice, for the first steps of the inquirer after truth are along such a lonely and treacherous path that it must always be of interest to him to hear how some other wanderer has stumbled along it, uncertain whether he was following a fixed star or a will-o'-the-wisp, until at last his feet came upon firmer ground and he knew that all was well. To the humble inquirer, distrustful of self and fettered with the prejudices of early education, it is of no avail to speak of psychography, materialisation, or advanced phenomena. He yearns for some proof which shall be more within the range of his own personal experience and which shall be decided enough to convince his reason without being so overwhelming as to stagger and confuse it. This must be my apology, therefore, for dwelling upon the incident which, after many months of inquiry, showed me at last that it was absolutely certain that intelligence could exist apart from the body.

Some months ago I read Judge Edmonds' Memoirs, and I have since read Alfred Russel Wallace's book, Major-General Drayson's tract, and other writings on the subject. After weighing the evidence, I could no more doubt the existence of the phenomena than I could doubt the existence of lions in Africa, though I have been to that continent and have never chanced to see one. I felt that if human evidence — regarding both the quantity and the quality of the witnesses — can prove anything, it has proved this. I then set to work to organise a circle of six, which met nine or ten times at my house. We had phenomena such as messages delivered by tilts, and even some writing under control, but there was never anything which could be said to be absolutely Conclusive. That complicated machine, the human body, is capable of playing strange tricks, and what was the possibility of unconscious cerebration, of involuntary muscular action, and of the effect of a dozen heavy hands on one light table, I was never entirely satisfied. I was convinced that others had obtained the phenomena, but not that I had done so myself.

Last week I was invited by two friends to join them in a sitting with an old gentleman who was reputed to have considerable mediumistic power. It was the first time that I had ever had the opportunity of sitting with anyone who was not a novice and inquirer like myself. I may remark here that for some days I had been debating in my mind whether I should get a copy of Leigh Hunt's Comic Dramatists of the Restoration — the question being whether the mental pollution arising from Messrs. Congreve, Wycherley, and Co. would be compensated for by the picture of the manners and customs of those days to be gathered from their pages, and which I had particular reasons for wishing to be well up in. I had thought the matter over, but had dismissed it from my mind a day or two before the seance. On sitting, our medium came quickly under control, and delivered a trance address, con taiming much interesting and elevating matter. He then became clairvoyant, describing one or two scenes which we had no opportunity of testing. So far, the meeting had been very interesting, but not above the possibility of deception. We then proposed writing. The medium took up a pencil, and after a few convulsive movements, he wrote a message to each of us. Mine ran: "This gentleman is a healer. Tell him from me not to read Leigh Hunt's book." Now, sir, I can swear that no one knew I had contemplated reading that book, and, moreover, it was no case of thought-reading, for I had never referred to the matter all day. I can only say that if I had had to devise a test message I could not have hit upon one which was so absolutely inexplicable on any hypothesis except that held by Spiritualists. The message of one of my friends, referring to his own private affairs, was as startlingly correct as mine.Let me conclude by exhorting any other searcher never to despair of receiving personal testimony, but to persevere through any number of failures until at last conviction comes to him, as come it will. Let him deserve success by his patience and earnestness, and he will gain it. Above all, let every inquirer bear in mind that phenomena are only a means to an end, of no value at all of themselves, and simply useful as giving us assurance of an after existence for which we are to prepare by refining away our grosser animal feelings and cultivating our higher, nobler impulses. Unless a man starts with that idea the seance-room sinks to the level of the theatre or the opera — a mere idle resort for the indulgence of a foolish, purposeless curiosity. Let a man realise that the human soul, as it emerges from its bodily cocoon, shapes its destiny in exact accordance with its condition; that that condition depends upon the sum result of his actions and thoughts in this life; that every evil deed stamps itself upon the spirit and entails its own of with the same certainty that a man stepping out of a second floor window falls to the ground; that there is no room for deathbed repentances or other nebulous conditions which might screen the evil doer from the consequence of his own deeds, but that the law is self-acting and inexorable. This, I take it, is the lesson which Spiritualism enforces, and all phenomena are only witnesses to the truth of this central all-important fact.

Pray excuse my encroachment upon your space.

Yours faithfully,