For and Against is a regular feature in which two well-known commentators with opposing views on a particular spiritual or philosophical topic debate the issue. In this, our second debate, Lew Sutton and Leslie Price tough it out on the advantages and disadvantages of physical mediumship to the Spiritualist movement.
To have your say on this subject, post a comment and/or click on the link to our MicroPoll at the end of this article.
If there’s a subject you feel passionately about and would like to see debated in a future issue of SPN, let us know. Our thanks to those who’ve already written in with suggestions. Watch this space!
For Physical Mediumship
Three basic elements form Spiritualism – mental mediumship, physical mediumship and spirit-inspired philosophy. This is how it has been from the early days of Spiritualism, albeit that it took a while for these aspects to become unified into what we understand as modern Spiritualism.
There are sub-divisions, but for brevity, sticking to these basic three will suffice. I will begin with a brief account of how all three came together very meaningfully for me in the 1970s.
Life changed for me the first time I attended the Arthur Findlay College in the 1970s. As well as fine demonstrations of mental mediumship, it was the physical séance and one particularly inspired lecture that, together, changed the direction of my life. The lecture was the catalyst for dramatically opening my consciousness to altered states, and the séance for changing my attitude towards physical mediumship. Over the years, subsequent séances with several mediums further validated the phenomena of the séance room for me.
What is ‘reality’? For me as a scientist, here at last was overwhelming evidence that the model of reality accepted in mainstream science was totally inadequate. That the current laws of physics only define part of our reality and are far from complete. Thus the existence of an afterlife became a real possibility and not a contradiction to rational scientific thinking. Although mental mediumship, such as clairvoyance, is absolutely essential to Spiritualism, it cannot on its own bring about this understanding on a scientific level. It is the intelligent and complex manipulation of physical matter – far beyond that supposedly demonstrated by rudimentary telekinesis – that is the crucial ingredient in providing evidence for an afterlife.
At the birth of modern Spiritualism in the Victorian era, religious superstition dominated much of the population. The demand for an afterlife hypothesis on a rational understanding was limited to a relative few. Today, we are a significantly more scientifically orientated society. Unless it is demonstrated that the physical world around us is just one aspect of reality, and that reality can be manipulated by consciousness from beyond the grave, then I see little headway being made by Spiritualism.
Over the last 50 years there has been vast decline in Spiritualism. Many churches have closed, and attendance has fallen – as has the quality of mental and physical mediumship. No longer do we see mediums able to fill the Royal Albert Hall. No longer do we see physical mediums able to produce significant amounts of phenomena in red light – albeit that has always been quite rare. A decline no doubt related to the affluence of modern society, with perhaps reluctance by many with mediumistic aptitude to spend many hours honing their unique abilities.
The only aspect on the up-and-up is that of edited televised mediumship demonstrations, presented as ‘entertainment’. Unfortunately, these programmes rarely contain any reference to the spiritual significance of what is being communicated. Thus they are unlikely to bring about a mass change in consciousness – namely that it really does matter how we live our lives and that our actions will have repercussions for us beyond the grave.
Spiritualism cannot afford to tie one hand behind its back by ignoring physical phenomena. Over the years I have repeatedly heard it said that physical mediumship belongs to the past and is not needed in today’s Spiritualism. Could that be jealousy from mediums who see physical as a challenge to their mental mediumship? The two aspects complement one another and Spiritualism is incomplete without both. This interdependency is demonstrated in the séance room when survival evidence of a personal nature is sometimes provided by trance as well as by the manifested figure speaking by independent direct voice (without the traditional trumpet). Often, more evidence can be communicated through trance (mental mediumship) than by the more complex mechanism of direct voice.
It is communication by our departed loved ones that can provide evidence that the manifestations are not derived through energy generated from our own thought patterns – real personalities from a different dimension rather than empty thought-shells left floating aimlessly in the ether as implied by the teachings of Theosophy. Unfortunately, the messages communicated frequently seem of a very trivial nature to the listener who is unaware of the true significance of the words communicated. But this has ever been so with spiritualistic communications – be they via mental or physical mediumship. It has only been the occasional outstanding communication that has interested the serious, rational investigator.
The dark problem
A major problem for many people these days is that the majority of the physical phenomena demonstrated publicly take place in total darkness. This is all very well for those of us who in the past have seen materialised forms in red light, but may not be very convincing for those who have never had that opportunity. For many there will always be the suspicion of trickery, especially in this age where rationality has replaced superstition and the accompanying underlying belief in the supernatural.
The lack of light is not a situation physical mediums would wish for. They have to work within their mediumship capability and all undoubtedly aim towards more light in their séances. Almost all the physical mediums I know are not satisfied with their mediumship and still sit to develop further. Although these mediums sometimes receive bad press due to the lack of light, we need them to keep alive interest and practical knowledge within the movement. My hope is that those who attend séances will be encouraged to play their part in promoting and sustaining this form of mediumship, which is at high risk of dying out.
Fraud – a thorny issue
As to the question of fraud in the séance room, this has been a problem throughout the history of Spiritualism. The dilemma of some physical mediums being fraudulent didn’t stop the pioneers from participating, so why should it stop Spiritualists today? Anyway, we are nowadays in a much better position to detect fraud with modern electronic equipment. Miniature electronic strain gauges under chair legs can detect whether anyone is in the chair. Stereophonic audio digital recording equipment is sensitive enough to track voices and the sound of movement around a room. State-of-the-art infra-red video equipment, such as I possess, will give clear images of what is happening in total darkness.
In the past there has been justified concern over the danger to the medium of infra-red radiation. However, the levels of energy required these days are very low compared to those used in the days of photographic film or plate. Furthermore, thermo-imaging video cameras can now give recognisable images by just relying on the naturally occurring infra-red energy radiating from human bodies – so the medium is not subject to any additional radiation.
More fundamentally than all this technology, what is required is diligence and knowledge when it comes to detecting fraud, or what may be suspected as fraud. Occasionally, damaging claims of fraud have been made when a medium has been detected moving around the séance room in total darkness. Such activity isn’t necessarily proof of fraud. For instance, there are historical accounts of mediums moving around with ectoplasm draped about their bodies when it has been claimed [Lew: by the spirit people or the medium?] there was insufficient energy to create a separate materialised form. However, in total darkness it is almost impossible to identify what type of phenomena occurs if the location of the medium is unknown. What is required within the movement is greater knowledge, to avoid damaging claims being made by those who do not have intimate knowledge of séance room phenomena. But where fraud is confirmed, it must be exposed.
I hope I have demonstrated that Spiritualism is incomplete without the three aspects I commenced with: physical mediumship, mental mediumship and inspired philosophical teachings. So, Spiritualists, be bold, don’t be put off by the fact that there has been, and no doubt always will be, fraud in the séance room. Play your part in helping the re-emergence of physical phenomena before it is too late and it disappears, perhaps forever.
Against Physical Mediumship
One day in January 1880, top Spiritualists received a shock over their morning toast. The Times printed a letter from visitors to the London headquarters of the British National Association of Spiritualists who had (shockingly) seized a materialised spirit and found themselves holding the medium.
Nearly a century later, readers of the more down-market Sunday People found similar charges on their front page. A medium, a leading figure in the Spiritualists’ National Union (SNU), was accused of fraudulent physical séances at Stansted Hall, a training college for mediums. What we might call the brand names – of the SNU and the Arthur Findlay College – were tarnished.
Let’s assume that there was no real substance to these stories. We might even do the same for another Sunday tabloid sensation, in 1958, when William Roy was photographed in the Sunday Mirror with his apparatus for faking séances. Psychic News had long had doubts about Mr Roy, but there were those who believed he once had a genuine gift.
What these incidents have in common is physical mediumship. My argument is that physical mediumship is bad news for the movement, and should therefore be excluded from official Spiritualism – that is Spiritualism as sponsored by Spiritualist organisations.
Not that I am denying the reality of such mediumship. Physical phenomena, for example, accompanied the revelation of Spirit Teachings received through Stainton Moses. Plenty of psychical researchers have testified to such phenomena in the best test conditions of their day.
But the phenomena are unpredictable, the entities involved in them cannot generally be relied upon, and the physical mediums in trance are not responsible for their actions. That is a recipe for trouble.
This is not a new realisation. After the 1880 exposure, Stainton Moses, the leader of UK Spiritualism, warned his colleagues about it. In Higher Aspects of Spiritualism, he noted that: “It is a fact well known to experienced Spiritualists that the spirits who are able to deal with gross matter so as to produce these physical manifestations are beings who are not possessed of high moral consciousness.”
The dark problem
Stainton Moses wanted an end to dark séances, an end to curtains or cabinets, and an end to mixed physical circles. Speaking generally, his views have had no influence. Even his own organisation, the London Spiritualist Alliance, did not follow him. Séances are suspicious activities because they involve the paranormal. This suspicion is greater the more the light is reduced. The image of Spiritualism has repeatedly suffered because it has been associated with darkness, or at least limited light. Darkness is traditionally associated with ill-doing, as evidenced in expressions such as “under cover of darkness”. I am not saying that ordinary people, including Spiritualists, should not investigate or cultivate physical mediumship if they wish. Several organisations have been formed in recent years to do just that, and may they flourish. But they ought, I propose, to be kept at arm’s length by the movement.
Fraud – a thorny issue
Perhaps my unease about physical mediumship derives from my upbringing in a small Lancashire town. The local paper, the Chorley Guardian, was privileged to print a photo of a materialised spirit, whose trouser legs were clearly visible. The laughter reached as far as PN’s office (as then assistant editor Roy Stemman remembers) which duly warned its readers to stay away from the medium, James Gardner. His adherents were not abashed, and eventually a Spiritualist church was named after him.
Later I met the Chorley Guardian‘s reporter who warned me about “Smutty Penelope”. This was the medium’s guide who would make off-colour remarks in the dark.
Mr Gardner, his sheet, stocking and big nasal ring have long since gone to a more critical place, but their capacity to embarrass lives on. Recently, a glossy, newish psychic magazine proudly displayed photos of his phenomena, only to retract them when older readers pointed out that they were not the real thing. But in the catalogue of the prestigious ‘The Perfect Medium’ spirit photography exhibition, amid the scholarly essays, there is a Gardner image. He had the last laugh!
It may be confidently predicted that scandals around physical mediumship will continue to arise at intervals. Sitters will misbehave, mediums will be found in compromising circumstances, and quite often the press will be involved, because there is much media interest in the paranormal today.
The sort of risky behaviour I have in mind is when a Spiritualist organisation – such as a church – hosts a physical medium, especially when money changes hands. I am not against payments to mediums, or to organisations, but under the new UK consumer law, one dissatisfied sitter can create a good deal of commotion. Even that mantra “What follows is for entertainment purposes only” may not offer protection.
Perhaps we can also ask if there might be deeper factors which should make us wary of physical mediumship. After all, if there are low entities involved in the production of the phenomena, what are they going to do to us in the long term – and to the mediums?
There may be snobbery here. We may say that is a very backward form of mediumship, not suitable for the Aquarian Age, yet add: “If you can squeeze me in for the visit of the physical medium next month, I would be grateful!”
Nevertheless, I am haunted (to coin a phrase) by some written remarks made by a knowledgeable person who was involved in the 1990s revival of physical mediumship in Britain. The level of disillusionment was profound. Eight times in one final article he spoke of despair.
I believe a better way forward for Spiritualism was outlined by Paul Beard. Paul was a personal friend of Maurice Barbanell, and took leave from his long service with White Eagle Lodge to preside over and modernise the College of Psychic Studies (1966-1982), which was then threatened with closure. I believe a better way forward for Spiritualism was outlined by Paul Beard in his many books and papers – based on the inner purpose of mental mediumship.
This would involve working with one or more guides of a higher type, on a path of spiritual unfoldment, rather than being held closer to the earth by phenomena.
What do you think?
Further reading – books available from the Spirit of PN Shop:
Spirit Teachings by Stainton Moses
The Two Worlds of Helen Duncan by Gena Brealey and Kay Hunter
An Extraordinary Journey: The Memoirs of a Physical Medium by Stewart Alexander
Alec Harris: The Full Story of His Remarkable Physical Mediumship by Louie Harris
Helen Duncan: My Living Has Not Been in Vain by Mary Armour
Lights and Shadows of Spiritualism by D.D. Home
Life after death: Living Proof by Tom Harrison
Phenomena of Materialisation by Baron von Schrenck Notzing