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The Rev. Dr. Carlile, the Church and Spiritualism

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Rev. J. C. Carlile & Spiritualism is an article published in The Daily Telegraph on 3 may 1921 and reprinted in Light on 7 may 1921 as The Rev. Dr. Carlile, the Church and Spiritualism.

The article includes a reply by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.


  • in The Daily Telegraph (3 may 1921 [UK])
  • in Light (7 may 1921 [UK]) as The Rev. Dr. Carlile, the Church and Spiritualism

The Rev. Dr. Carlile, the Church and Spiritualism

Light (7 may 1921, p. 295)

In his Presidential address, "A New Expression of Religion," at the Annual Assembly of the Baptist Union, at Bloomsbury Central Church, on the 25th ult., the Rev. Dr. J. C. Carlile gave particular attention to Spiritualism. We found in the address much of value, especially when he expressed his views on the general aspects of religion today. Thus, he tells us, "We cannot live on our past. The truth is we have existed long enough on John Bunyan, Robert Hall and C. H. Spurgeon." Again, he remarked, "We are struggling with worn-out forms of expression and endeavouring to recall faded visions... The supreme need is a new expression of religion." It is most true. The newer revelation of the spirit is shattering many old forms, while others seem distended to bursting point. Dr. Carlile laments the barriers of prejudice which obtain in the Churches, and deplores the lack of charity in religious organisations, the tendency to "declamation and denunciation." Later, he has some thrusts at Spiritualism, Sir Oliver Lodge and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Of Sir Arthur we are told :—

He is prepared to supply a supernatural explanation of a faked photograph, to bring evil spirits in to explain the action of natural gas, and seriously to offer table-turning — a conjurer's trick — as conclusive evidence that a medium can communicate with the spirits of the departed. The "New Revelation" is already out of date. It reveals nothing but the credulity of the writer and the assumption of the gullibility of the British public.

He quotes Mr. Birrell and Dr. Huxley (we presume Mr. Augustine Birrell and Professor Huxley are meant) against Sir Arthur and Sir Oliver. We should have been more impressed if he could have quoted some competent authority who has investigated Spiritualism or given us some of his impressions as the result of first-hand study of the subject to which he pronounces.

None the less, much that he says concerning some modern movements shows a distinct sense of fairness. We take the following as an example :—

Is not the strength of Spiritualism its insistence upon the spiritual nature of personality and its attempt to formulate an intelligent conception of the future life? Does not the attraction of Christian Science lie in the Assertion of the sovereignty of spiritual law, the power of faith healing through prayer? Does not the Labour movement derive much of its glamour and appeal from its claim for justice and sympathy for the bottom dog, and its doctrine of equality of opportunity? These great affirmations are distinctly Christian. They are articles of our creed which we have too often forgotten or proclaimed with an apology which has vitiated our witness. Christ is still in the Church, but He is no longer confined to organised religion. He has been capturing the world while His servants were asleep. We have much to learn from these great movements. We also think we have something to teach. Perhaps we have lingered too long, and certainly in vain in our quest for the new expression of religion.

Of the Christian Church we read :—

Organised Christianity has lost much of the vitality, glow, and strength that make religion a delight rather than a duty. The truth is, Christianity has been substituted for Christ. A system has replaced the spirit, and the spectacular has left small room for the spiritual. Our eyes are dim and the vision beautiful is in the mist. It is something more than revival we need. It is not the repetition of a bygone day, but new life for our own time.

With a few exceptions, some of which we have noted, Dr. Carlile reviews the religious situation in what Mr. Gladstone would call a bold, large and just spirit. Some of his observations on Spiritualism, nevertheless, are neither charitable nor accurate. We should consider it impertinent to criticise the Baptist Union or any of its leaders, even if we had more knowledge of them than we actually possess. Some of Dr. Carlile's observations give an unfavourable interpretation to the title of his address as "A New Expression of Religion." We can say this, without the feeling of being hypercritical, and we are sufficiently inured to misrepresentation to be little hurt by it. A perusal of a few recent issues of Light may give Dr. Carlile clearer insight into the nature of Spiritualism, and place him in a better position to pronounce upon it in future. It has a steadily growing place in the thought of the time, and although we do not desire to magnify its office, we think it is entitled to simple justice, whether it is to be condemned or commended.

Reply by Sir Conan Doyle.

The following letter from Sir A. Conan Doyle on the above subject appeared in the "Daily Telegraph" on Tuesday last :—

I observe in your columns that the Rev. J. C. Carlile has been making free with my name in his presidential address, and condoning his own ignorance by accusing others of credulity. If I be credulous, then I share the failing with Charles Richet, Camille Flammarion, Caesar Lombroso, Zollner of Leipzig, and a cloud of other scientific witnesses. On the other hand, I defy the Rev. J. C. Carlile to mention the name of a single scientific man of high repute who has examined these matters and has come to an entirely negative conclusion. It is an old story, this opposition of backward ecclesiastics to the onflow of human knowledge, but it becomes particularly strange when this opposition is directed to a clear proof of immortality in an age of sceptic materialism.

The three particular instances of my "credulity" given by the Rev. J. C. Carlile are :—

1. That I do not believe the Crewe photographs to be faked. This conclusion rests upon several personal experiments, where I allowed no hand but my own to touch the plates, which I provided myself. It has been confirmed by the experience of very many sitters, some of them skilled photographers, who have come to the same conclusions. Perhaps Mr. Carlile will now tell us bow he has arrived at his own conclusions, what tests he has made, and how many adverse witnesses he can summon.

2. That I can find no natural explanation for certain phenomena observed at Cheriton some years ago. The Rev. J. C. Carlile explains them by the emission of natural gas. I carefully examined the grotto in question, and was in it for an hour. There was no smell, no reaction to light, and no toxic effect. Therefore I ask Mr. Carlile to give his reasons for saying that the phenomena were due to natural gas, and to explain how natural gas brought about the movement of heavy objects, as deposed to by a number of witnesses. Also, to say what steps he took to arrive at the truth, which could compare with my own action in visiting the grotto.

3. That I fail to perceive that physical phenomena, such as table-turning, are conjurors' tricks. As I and thousands more have had these phenomena within their own households, one would ask Mr. J. C. Carlile whether he imagines that we each keep a domestic conjuror. Crookes, Lombroso, Zollner and others have testified to furniture being raised from the ground without hands touching them, and photographs of the phenomenon have been taken. Who was the conjuror upon these occasions? Is Mr. Carlile a better judge of what occurred than these great men who were actually present?

Finally, I would ask Mr. Carlile why is it culpable credulity to believe in phenomenal happenings now, and culpable incredulity to fail to believe in them as having occurred two thousand years ago. These ecclesiastics never seem to understand that when they attack the modern Spiritualist movement they are equally attacking the very foundations of their own creed, which have become so overgrown by human error that they have now to be cleared and exposed once more.