Spiritualism: Its History, Phenomena and Doctrine
From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia
Introduction by Arthur Conan Doyle
If I were asked to recommend a course of reading for an intelligent agnostic who knew nothing about psychic science, I should be inclined to begin it by choosing the five successive books in which Mr. J. Arthur Hill has exhibited the unfolding of his own mind. Such reading has the advantage that the inquiring agnostic and Mr. Hill start at scratch together. Mr. Hill's unhappy experience of this world had by no means predisposed him towards any desire for a continuance of existence beyond the grave, and his critical tendency of thought had led him to negative rather than positive results. Yet his attention had been arrested by the growing and persistent claims of the survivalists, and he felt an intellectual compulsion to examine the question, whatever his own prepossessions might be. The first results are to be seen in "Religion and Modern Psychology," where his active mind reaches out into the vague but fascinating country before it. In another book of the same year, "New Evidences in Psychical Research," you see these exploring tentacles taking their grip on this or that which seemed solid, and tugging at it to see if it would indeed stand a strain. In the third, "Psychical Investigations," the solid points are numerous and stronger. He can tug as he will and he cannot shake them. His fourth hook, "Man is a Spirit," is indirect, dealing less with his own experiences and more with those of others, but all hearing upon the same thesis. And now in this, the last of the series, he goes over the whole ground, shows the gradual development from small things to greater which marks all true progress, and tells how orthodox science, with a few brilliant exceptions, broke every rule of science when faced with an entirely new proposition, while orthodox religion, with the same reservation, failed to recognise the true root of religion from which it had itself grown in the far-off days when it was green and full of life. This is the subject of Mr. Hill's present hook, and no more vital one could possibly engage his pen.
We must admit that the phenomena which first in modern times gave rise to this line of thought and investigation, were insignificant in their nature and squalid in their environment. They were trivial, inconsequential, absurd, lending themselves readily to imitative fraud upon one side and to practical joking upon the other, while the credulity of many believers sustained the incredulity of their opponents. But thoughtful men from the beginning saw that there was more behind the movement than could possibly be laughed or explained away. The fact that phenomena were simulated, and rascals were convicted in the police courts as the impostors that they were, did not really touch the heart of the question. Such incidents might prevent superficial or prejudiced thinkers from going farther, and give them some excuse for their mental inertia; but an investigator who devoted even a little earnest attention to the matter was bound to admit that, making every allowance for fraud, there was a great residuum which could not possibly be explained in such a way. Thus, those who came to scoff remained continually to pray. So it was with Professor Hare, of Philadelphia, in the earliest days. So also with the Dialectical Society of London, who were hostile, or at the best neutral, at the outset, and yet presented a unanimous report endorsing he physical phenomena. So also with Dr. A. Russel Wallace, General Drayson, and many other investigators, who began, as Mr. Arthur Hill did, and, if I may say so, as I myself have done, with a marked bias against the whole idea of survival. In spite of the doubts of the scientific world and the anathema of the creedbound churches, there always remained, however, a considerable body of simple, earnest folk who took things at their face value, were content to admit tile existence of fraud if they were convinced that the basis was truth, and continued in this belief in spite of all criticism. Time has justified them. What their own intuitions endorsed has been vindicated by a more enlightened science. Here, as once before, the humble folk were right, and "the wisdom of this world was as foolishness before God."
All civilised nations have contributed to the sinking of these foundations. It is a pure chance that Hydesville was the seat of the original phenomena which caught the public attention, for very similar ones broke out within a year or two at Cideville in France, and there had been many outbreaks of the same sort in England, the most typical being that in John Wesley's house at Epworth. What marked an epoch in America was when the young Fox girl, clapping her hands, challenged the unseen presence to do the same. Its instant response introduced the idea of intelligence into what had previously been a mere chaos of noises and movements. The American mind is open to new impressions, and probably the cult spread more rapidly there than it could have done elsewhere. But the biggest brain which turned itself upon this new subject and drew others behind it, was not American but French. Allan Kardec, with his spiritist philosophy, differed in some details from the Americans, but founded his conclusions upon the same phenomena. When the whole story comes to be told, however, there is no doubt that it is to England that the new branch of science owes most, and, indeed, that it is due to England that it can be called a science at all. Cambridge University will always be the Mecca of systematic psychic investigation, which is the avenue that so often leads eventually to complete acceptance of the spiritual hypothesis. There have seldom, if ever, been a more brilliant set of minds than those which engaged themselves upon this subject. Frederic Myers and Gurney, Oliver Lodge and Hodgson, Sidgwick, Butcher, Roden Noel, the two Verralls, Gerald Balfour, Andrew Lang, William Barrett ; these are some of the keen intellects, not all of Cambridge, but all forming a circle round the Cambridge nucleus. From this circle was born the Society for Psychical Research, and from this again such a mass of evidence as has seldom been gathered upon any one subject before. An American Psychical Research Society is doing good work upon the English model ; but it is always in the latter and in the great work of Frederic Myers that psychic science will find its firmest root. People call aloud for evidence who have been too indolent to examine the evidence already in existence; but anyone who reads even a portion of the voluminous reports of the Society, should find as much as the most exacting mind could require.
Some small compendium of the evidence such as is presented in this volume is the more needful as the general Press is so exceedingly ignorant upon the point. The result is that it always approaches each fresh manifestation de novo, as if no such thing had ever been heard of before. For example, Sir Oliver Lodge's "Raymond" has been continually reviewed as if this were some new opinion which he had put forward, instead of being a restatement in his own case of what had already been urged by a thousand before him. The same holds good of particular phenomena. Each new outbreak is criticised with no reference to the last, and no admission of the cumulative weight which successive instances must afford. If, for example, an okapi had only once been shot in Africa, its existence on the evidence of a single sportsman might reasonably be doubted. If ten men agreed that they had shot such a creature, the evidence would be strong. If fifty had done so, it would become convincing. This is common sense. Thus it is with such a phenomenon as a noisy poltergeist, two cases of which are at the present moment under my own observation. Each case, like the recent one at Cheriton, is treated in the Press as an isolated phenomenon. A wider knowledge of the subject would teach the critic that there are very many upon record, some of them most carefully observed, and that all of them agree in certain general characteristics. Thus, as in the case of Hie okapi, numbers give assurance, and it is not possible to treat as a delusion that for which there are so many witnesses. The overpowering strength of the case for survival is not appreciated because the evidence has not been in a sufficiently readable and condensed form. Such works as this, or as Sir William Barrett's excellent "Threshold of the Unseen," help to supply the want. I have alluded, in an earlier paragraph of these notes, to Mr. Arthur Hill's unhappy experience of this life. On a recent visit to Bradford I had an opportunity of calling upon him, and of realising his remarkable personality and the extraordinary conditions under which he produces his work. A strong and athletic young man, he was suddenly reduced to absolute helplessness by a heart-wrench sustained while cycling up a hill, and has now spent many years stretched upon his back in bed with such physical disabilities that he cannot even write as most invalids would write, but has to hold the paper up at an angle with one hand while he writes with the other. That, in these circumstances, he has carried out the course of reading which his tasks necessitate, has done so much laborious investigation, himself taking verbatim shorthand notes, and has been able within a few years to write considerable books, besides being the protagonist in many arguments and correspondences in the Press, is a most remarkable example of human perseverance and adaptability. To those who, like myself, take the gravest possible view of this movement, and regard it as being a fresh departure in religious thought and experience such as we have not had for two thousand years, it seems more than chance that a man who had such qualifications for the work, but who was engrossed in other things, should have had all else rent so violently from him with the result of concentrating him entirely upon the all-important task. If these few lines of mine are of any use to him, or to the cause which he represents, I shall be proud to think that I have been of assistance.
ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE.
April 26, 1918.