The New Revelation (report 1917)
From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia
The New Revelation is an article first published in the magazine Light on 10, 17 and 24 november 1917.
Report of Conan Doyle's lecture on 25th october before the London Spiritualist Alliance.
The New Revelation (10 november 1917)
Summary of an Address delivered by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle before the London Spiritualist Alliance at the Salon of the Royal Society of British Artists, Suffolk Street, Pall Mall East, S.W., on Thursday, October 25th, 1917, Sir Oliver Lodge, F.R.S., presiding.
The speaker commenced his discourse by remarking that it dealt with a subject upon which he had thought more, and been slower to form an opinion, than upon any other subject whatever.
"I can claim," he continued, "to have spent more years in the serious study of the subject than some of our antagonists have spent hours. If I narrate some of my experiences and difficulties you will not, I hope, think ft egotistical upon my part, but you will realise that it is the most graphic way in which I can sketch out the points which are likely to occur to any other inquirer."
When he finished his medical education he found himself a convinced materialist. But he was never an atheist, because it seemed to him that to say the Universe was made by immutable laws only put the question one degree further back as to who made the laws. Naturally he had no belief in an anthropomorphic Deity, but believed then, as he believed now, in an intelligent Force behind all Nature — a Power so infinitely vast and complex that a finite brain could do no more than conceive its existence. Right and wrong were clearly great obvious facts which needed no divine revelation. But as to the survival of human life beyond death, it seemed to him that every analogy in Nature contradicted the idea. With the burning out of the candle the light came to an end. With the breaking of the electric cell the current ceased. So when the body dissolved there was an end of the individual life. The idea that any form of personal life survived death seemed to him a delusion, but although convinced that death meant extinction of life he saw no reason why that should affect our duty towards humanity during our transitory existence.
That, briefly, was his attitude of mind when psychic phenomena first came under his notice. At first he regarded the subject as merely nonsensical. He heard of fraudulent mediums and wondered how any sane man could believe in the subject. However, meeting some friends who were interested in the matter, he sat with them, out of curiosity, for table manifestations. But although they obtained some coherent messages he regarded the results with suspicion. It seemed quite impossible that the messages were the result of chance, and the inference was that someone amongst the sitters manipulated the table. He was greatly perplexed over it. He could not easily imagine his friends to lie cheating — and yet he could not see how the messages could come except by their agency.
About this time (1886) he came across a book called "The Reminiscences of Judge Edmonds." He was a Judge of the Supreme Court of New York, and a man of high character and intelligence. The book gave an account of the death of the Judge's wife, and how lie had been able, for many years afterwards, to communicate with her. He read the book with interest, but absolute unbelief. It seemed to him to show how an otherwise sane man might have a defect in his mind, the result of some reaction against the hard facts of daily life. Where did this spirit exist of which he talked? An Injury to the brain would change the whole character of a man, and a high nature might become a low one. With alcohol or opium, or many other drugs, one could apparently quite change a man's identity. The spirit, then, stunned to be abjectly dependent upon matter. These were the arguments which he employed in those days, not realising that it was not the spirit that was changed in such cases, but the body through which the spirit worked.
Nevertheless, he remained sufficiently interested to read such books on the subject as came in his way, and was surprised to observe how many men whose names were to the fore is science thoroughly believed that Spirit was independent of Matter and could survive it. When he found that Spiritualism
was endorsed by a man like Crookes, whom he knew to be the most rising British chemist; by Alfred Russel Wallace, the coadjutor of Darwin, and by Flammarion, the best known of astronomers, he felt he could not afford to dismiss it lightly. On the other hand, he had to consider the attitude of other great men, such as Darwin himself, Huxley, Tyndall and Herbert Spencer, who derided this new branch of knowledge. But when he realised that their scepticism was so profound that they would not even examine it, that Spencer had declared in so many words that he had decided against it on a priori grounds, while Huxley had said that it did not interest him, it seemed to him that, however great they wore in science, their attitude in this respect was most unscientific and dogmatic. Clearly those who studied the phenomena and tried to discover the laws at work were following the true path which had given us all human advance and knowledge. But although weakened in this direction, his scepticism was somewhat reinforced by his own experiences as an investigator. He was working without a medium, which was like an astronomer working without a telescope. He had no psychical powers himself, and those who worked with him had little more. Among them they seemed to have just enough psychic power to got table movements, with their suspicious and often ridiculous messages. They were not always absolutely stupid. For example, on one occasion on his asking some test question, such as how many coins he had in his pocket, the table spelt out : "We are here to educate and to elevate, not to guess riddles," and then : "The religious frame of mind, not the critical, is what we wish to inculcate." No one could say that that was a puerile message. On the other hand, he was always haunted by the fear of unconscious agency on the part of the sitters. On one occasion long and detailed messages were received, purporting to come from a spirit who gave his name, stating that he was a commercial traveller who had lost his life in the burning of a theatre at Exeter. All the details were exact, and he implored the sitters to write to his family, who lived, he said, at a place called Slattenmere, in Cumberland. Sir Arthur accordingly wrote, but his letter was returned through the Dead Letter Office. He was so disgusted that his interest in the whole subject evaporated for a time.
He was residing in Southsea at this time and there met that well-known Spiritualist General Drayson, a man of very remarkable character, to whom he related his difficulties. The General made light of his criticisms of the foolish nature of many spirit messages. He said : —
You have not got the fundamental truth into your head. The fact is that every spirit in the flesh passes over to the next world exactly as it is, with no change whatever. This world is full of fools and knaves. He is the next. You need not mix with them, any more than you do in this world. One chooses one's companions. But suppose a man in this world who had lived in this house alone and never mixed with his fellows, was at last to put his head out of the window to see what sort of place it was, what would happen? Some naughty boy would probably say something rude. Anyhow, he would see nothing of the wisdom or greatness of the world. He would draw his head in, thinking it was a very poor place. That is just what you have done. In a mixed stance, with no definite aim, you have thrust your head into the next world and you have met some naughty boys, Go forward and try to reach something better.
The explanation did not satisfy him. He remained a sceptic, although he had learned enough to know how valueless was the objection that Spiritualism was all fraud, or that a conjurer was needed to show it up. True, his own experiences had been unsatisfactory but his reading, which was continuous, showed him how deeply other men had gone into it, and that the testimony was so strong that no other religious movement in the world could put forward anything to compare with it. That did not prove it to be true, but at least it proved that it must he treated with respect and could not he brushed aside.
He still continued to hold table seances which sometimes gave no results, sometimes trivial ones, and sometimes rather surprising ones, he had the notes of those sittings, at which were received descriptions of life beyond the grave so improbable that they amused rather than edified him at the time. To-day he found that they agreed very closely with the revelations in "Raymond" and in other later accounts, so that he now viewed them with different eyes.
Proceeding, Sir Arthur said :—
I am aware that all these accounts of life beyond the grave differ in detail, but in fundamentals there is a very great resemblance. Two communicators sent messages, the first of whom spelt out a name, "Dorothy Postlethwaite," unknown to any of us. She said she died at Melbourne five years before, at the age of sixteen, that she was now happy, that she had work to do, and that she had been at the same school as one of the two ladies who made up the circle. On my asking that lady to raise her hands and give a succession of names the table tilted at the correct name of the headmistress of the school. This seemed in the nature of a test. She went on to say that the sphere she inhabited was all round the earth; that she knew about the planets; that Mars was inhabited by a race more advanced than we, and that the canals were artificial; there was no bodily pain in her sphere, but there could be mental anxiety; they were governed; they took nourishment; she had been a Catholic and was still a Catholic, but had not fared better than the Protestants; there were Buddhists and Mohammedans in her sphere, but all fared alike; she had never seen Christ and knew no more about Him than on earth, but believed in His influence; spirits prayed and they died in their new sphere before entering another; they had pleasures — music was among them. It was a place of light and of laughter. She added that they had no rich or poor.
Later there came a more vigorous influence, which dashed the table about violently. The communicator claimed to be one who might be called Dodd (that was not the real name). He was a cricketer of some note — a man whom in bis life Sir Arthur had met in Cairo before he went up the Nile, where he met his death in the Dongola Expedition. "Dodd" was not known to either of the ladies present. Sir Arthur put several questions, and the answers came back with great speed and decision. The communicator said that he was happy, that he did not wish to return to earth. He bad been a free-thinker, but had not actually suffered in the next life for that reason. Prayer, however, was a good thing, as keeping us in touch with the spiritual world. If be had prayed more he would have been higher in the spirit world. His death had been painless. He had work to do. He remembered their conversation in Cairo. Duration of life hi the next sphere was shorter than on earth — (both spirits said that). He had not seen General Gordon nor any famous spirit. Spirits lived ip families and in communities. Married people did not necessarily meet again. But those who loved each other did meet again.
This message was a very favourable specimen, both for length and fur coherence. It showed that it was untrue to say, as many sceptics did, that nothing but folly came through. On the other hand, what proof was there that these statements were true? He (the speaker) could see no such proof; they simply left him bewildered. Now, with a larger experience, in which be found that the same sort of information had come to very many people independently in many countries, it was clear that the agreement of the witnesses did, as in all cases of evidence, constitute some argument for their truth.
Still, the descriptions of the next world were not convincing, and he continued to read books upon the subject. One of these was a book by Monsieur Jacolliot upon occult phenomena in India. Jacolliot was the Chief Judge of the French Colony of Chandragore, with a very judicial mind and rather biassed against Spiritualism. He conducted a series of experiments with native fakirs, who gave him their confidence because be was a sympathetic man and spoke their language. M. Jacolliot found among them every phenomenon known in European mediumship, everything which Home, for example, had ever done. He gut levitation of the body, the handling of fire, movement of articles at a distance, rapid growth of plants, raising of tables. The natives' explanation of these phenomena was that they were done by the Pitris or spirits of ancestors. They claimed that these powers were handed down from time immemorial and traced back to the Chaldees.
Some time before this, about 1891, Sir Arthur joined the Psychical Research Society and had the advantage of reading all their reports. The world, he considered, owed a great deal to the unwearied diligence of the Society, and to its sobriety of statement, although he felt that in its desire to avoid sensationalism it discouraged the world from knowing and using the splendid work which it was doing. Its semi-scientific terminology also choked off the ordinary reader. But in spite of these little peculiarities, those who had wanted light in tie darkness he found it by the methodical, never-tiring work of the Society. Its influence became one of the powers which helped him to shape his thoughts. There was another, however, which made a deep impression upon him, and that was Myers' wonderful book, "Human Personality," a great root book from which a whole tree of knowledge would grow. While unable to get any formula which covered all the phenomena called "spiritual," Myers so completely proved that action of mind upon mind which he himself called telepathy, that, save for those who were wilfully blind to the evidence, it took its place henceforth as a scientific fact. This was an enormous advance. If mind could act upon mind at a distance, then than were some human powers which were quite different from matter as we had always understood it. The ground was cut from under the feet of the materialist, and Sir Arthur found that his old position had been destroyed. He had said that the flame could not exist when the candle was gone. But here was the flame a long way off the candle, acting upon its own. The analogy was clearly a false analogy. If the mind, the spirit, the intelligence of man could operate at a distance from the body, then it was a thing separate from the body. Why, then, should it not continue to exist when the body was destroyed? Not only did impressions come from a distance from those who were just dead, but the evidences showed that actual appearances of the dead person came with them, showing that the impressions were carried by something which was exactly like the body, and yet acted independently and survived the death of the body. The chain of evidence between the simplest cases of thought-reading at one end, and the actual manifestation of the spirit independently of the body at the other, was single and unbroken, each phase leading to the other, and this fact seemed to the speaker to bring the first signs of systematic science and order into what had been a mere collection of bewildering and unrelated facts.
About this time he had an interesting experience, forks was one of three delegates sent by the Psychical Research Society to sit up in a haunted house in Dorsetshire. It was one of then poltergeist cases, where noises and foolish tricks had gone on for some years, very much like the classical case of John Wesley's family at Epworth in 1726, or the case of the Fox family at Hydesville, near Rochester, in 1847, which was the starting-point of Modern Spiritualism. Nothing sensational came of their visit, and yet it was not entirely barren. On the first night nothing occurred. On the second, there were tremendous noises, sounds like someone beating a table with a stick. They had taken every precaution, and could not explain the notes, bat at the same time they could not swear that some ingenious practical joke had not been played upon them. There the matter ended for the time. Home years afterwards, however, he learned from a member of the family who occupied the house that after their visit the bones of a child, evidently long buried, had been dug up in the garden. This was certainly remarkable. Haunted houses were rare, and it was to be hoped that houses with human remains buried in their gardens were rare also. That they should have both united in one house was surely some argument for the truth of the phenomena. It was interesting to remember that in the case of the Fox family there was she some allusion to human bones and to evidences of murder being found in the cellar. He had little doubt that if the Wesley family could have got upon speaking terms with their persecutors, they would also have come upon some motive for the persecution. It almost seemed as if a life cut suddenly and violently short had some store of unspent vitality which could still manifest itself in a strange, mischievous fashion.
(To be continued)
The New Revelation (17 november 1917)
The New Revelation (24 november 1917)