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 third debate, Leslie Price and Lis Warwood go head to head on the advantages and disadvantages of attracting more Christians to the Spiritualist movement.
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We need more Christians
Organised Spiritualism has been losing members. Geoff Griffiths has shown in both Psychic News and Spirit of PN a long-term decline in Spiritualists’ National Union (SNU) membership. The figures for the Greater World Christian Spiritualist Association (GW) are even worse. In the last 40 years, the number of affiliated GW churches has fallen to around 60, from 200, having dropped from 400 in the 1950s(5). (GW has never been good at publishing proper statistics of members and churches, but it seems possible there were once 800 or more GW churches.)
Some people suggest that a non-religious centre would do better. There was just such a place – the SAGB in Belgrave Square, London. Forty years ago, it was one of the hopes of the movement, where young and old thronged the tea room after lectures and demonstrations. But its impact faded.
Did the movement take a wrong direction, perhaps decades past? I believe it did. Suppose we go back to when the SNU was just starting, a century since. Frank Podmore, in his Studies, p.38, then noted:
“The inspired writings of Mr Stainton Moses form the gospel of modern English Spiritualism.”
And what was this gospel? We can refresh our memories from Stainton Moses’ book Spirit Teachings on the SNU website. It may be summarised by saying that Spiritualism was a new revelation to remind humankind not only of survival of death, but also of personal responsibility. This movement was said to be led from the spheres by Jesus, of whom it was explained: “We are not careful to enter into curious comparisons between different teachers who, in different ages, have been sent from God. The time is not yet come for that; but this we know, that no spirit more pure, more godlike, more noble, more blessing and more blessed, ever descended to find a home on your earth. None more worthily earned by a life of self-sacrificing love the adoring reverence and devotion to mankind. None bestowed more blessings on humanity; none wrought a greater work for God.”
Now, the Seven Principles of Spiritualism had said nothing of Jesus, but Sir Arthur Conan Doyle suggested that the leadership of Jesus ought to be acknowledged. A SNU report of 1928 declined to do this. It conceded that:
“Zoroaster, Gotama ‘The Buddha’, Jesus ‘The Christ’ and Mohammed are the recognised founders of great religions known by their names, which still exist and give spiritual consolation to innumerable congregations. Nearest to the Western world and accepted as its special teacher is Jesus. His teaching, as represented by the Sermon on the Mount, the Golden Rule and the New Commandment, admittedly embodies an ideal ethical and spiritual standard for human conduct; and the story of his life and self-sacrificing death has been and remains an inspiration and comfort to millions of his followers.
“Spiritualism, however, bases its position upon the universal manifestations of the continuity of personal life after physical death and the uplifting influence of excarnate spirit people upon the incarnate. It therefore accepts all these great founders as inspired and as revealers of spiritual truths to mankind and builds its own philosophy and teaching not only upon the truths revealed to mankind through these ancient teachers, but also upon the New Revelations received by this generation through modern Seers, Prophets and Mediums.”
The SNU conference confirmed this view, and in 1934 even came close to excluding Christians altogether from its ranks. Formally, it rejected the leadership of Jesus, which had been revealed through the medium Stainton Moses.
I suggest that at this moment – around 1930 – decline began. First came the rise of the GW, an explicitly Christian Spiritualist body which probably drew away thousands of Spiritualists from the SNU. Another Christian Spiritualist body, though of an esoteric kind – the White Eagle Lodge – followed.
Is it possible that the embarrassment of the ‘No War’ prophecies in 1939 could have been avoided if the movement had been more explicitly Christian, and less confident that it was sufficient in itself? Some prominent mediums, including the SNU president, predicted peace, or at least their guides did, but war broke out. Perhaps they had paid insufficient attention to the scriptural injunction: “Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world.”
In recent decades, the SNU has made it impossible for members of Christian bodies to join its ranks. It imposes few other restrictions on its members, but if you belong to a body which even admits the orthodox (such as a local Council of Churches) you cannot join the SNU.
Is this wise? Are differences of theological interpretation so important that it is these which should cause Spiritualists to be split into different bodies? Many people with a Christian background are of a good standard of education and behaviour, and would be an asset to organised Spiritualism.
Ironically, the so-called orthodox mainstream churches themselves are a good deal more liberal. Their members have a wide range of belief, and those who join them are unlikely to be asked to accept more than was said of Jesus in Spirit Teachings.
Now, it is a fine thing to stand on principle. We would all have contempt for, say, a political party which decided: “Oh dear, we’re not getting many votes – let’s abandon our beliefs and stand for something else.”
But we do need to be sure that we have made the distinction where it should be made. The history of religion is littered with bodies that evidently did not. There are those who will sing with organs, and those who won’t, those who use only biblical psalms, but not hymns, those who insist on tongues and those who won’t have tongues, and so on.
If, as Spirit Teachings said, all the dogmas are shown after death to be of little significance, including membership of this or that organisation, why make such a big deal of it?
In practical terms, I do not suggest changing the Seven Principles. But I would propose that the barriers to orthodox people joining Spiritualist bodies should be swept away. That includes admitting orthodox Buddhists, Hindus and so on.
Then, and only then, might there be some possibility of Spiritualism becoming a world religion.
We need more Spiritualists – not Christians
“Spiritualism and Christianity have no connection whatever. They are as far apart as the poles. Spiritualism is a philosophy of life and claims that life after death has been proved, that those who die live on in a world much the same as this, with the same characters as they had on earth, and that given suitable conditions they can communicate with us on earth. Christianity on the other hand, is a sacrificial religion and the Christian Church is an organisation, to keep alive a belief in a sacrifice for sins, and for the performance of the rites and ceremonials connected with this belief. For this reason Spiritualism and Christianity will never join, and no Spiritualist who thinks deeply desires such a fusion.” 1
Thus wrote Arthur Findlay, in 1936, in reply to attacks on Spiritualism made the previous year by the bishops of London and Winchester, and in response to the many other religious figures who had shown their deep antipathy to Spiritualism since the movement began.
Findlay wanted people to differentiate clearly between Christianity and Spiritualism and put forward the view that Christian beliefs prevent the general acceptance of the truths of Spiritualism. His viewpoint broadly represents that strand of Spiritualism promoted by the Spiritualists’ National Union (SNU).
As Gordon Ray observed in 2005 in Spiritualism and the Christ Principle, institutional Christianity does not form a part of SNU teachings, the basic philosophy of which is contained in the Seven Principles. SNU Spiritualists are united in their rejection of such fundamental teachings of Christianity as original sin, the virgin birth, vicarious atonement, the trinity and divine judgement.
SNU Spiritualism is, in the most solemn and serious sense, a religion in which the fundamental truths of survival, and communication with the spirit world, articulate a new and unique religious point of view.
While rejecting the defining dogmas of Christianity, the SNU nevertheless considered the motion urged by Conan Doyle in 1927, that a new principle be added to the existing seven, acknowledging the original teaching and example of Jesus. In declining to adopt such an additional principle, and in declaring it was not in the interests of Spiritualism to do so, the SNU did not, however, prevent its members accepting the spiritual teachings and leadership of Jesus in their personal lives.2
SNU Spiritualism welcomes into its ranks every Spiritualist that can accept the Seven Principles, while leaving them free to exercise liberty of interpretation, and to subscribe to any other opinions which do not contravene those principles. Leslie suggests, however, that in formally rejecting the pre-eminent role of Jesus, SNU Spiritualism took a wrong direction, and, that the decision may define the moment a decline in organised Spiritualism began.
Certainly, there has been a steady decline in the membership of the SNU over the past 20 years, but there is little evidence that it began in the 1930s with the ’rejection’ of Jesus – and Christians – from the ranks of Spiritualism.
The year Conan Doyle’s call for the leadership of Jesus to be acknowledged was declined, the SNU membership stood at 15,678, with 419 affiliated Spiritualist societies and churches. By 1932, though membership was marginally lower, the number of churches affiliated with the SNU had grown.
In 1934 – the year, according to Leslie, that the SNU conference formally rejected the leadership of Jesus and came close to excluding Christians altogether – SNU membership again fluctuated only slightly, while the number of churches rose significantly. In the remaining years of the decade that Leslie argues is privotal to the decline in Spiritualism, the number of SNU churches continued to grow, while membership numbers showed somewhat greater fluctuation.
It is evident that between 1928 and 2009, SNU churches and membership have at times both dramatically declined, for example, with the onset of WWII, and also dramatically increased. Membership grew rapidly in the first five years after the war, then dropped, before again hitting a high in 1950. By 1960, membership was down once more, after which, with minor fluctuations, there was a steady growth until 1989 when the SNU could boast it had 19,609 full members.3
These rises and falls in membership of the SNU, sometimes minor, at other times great, suggest influences at work far broader than the failure of SNU Spiritualism to incorporate the leadership of Jesus into its philosophy and practice. Before we finally leave statistics behind, we need to examine the apparent impact of the emergence of the Greater World Christian Spiritualist Association (GW) on the SNU. Members of the GW describe themselves as servants, and part of the army of the Master Christ. A vital tenet of GW philosophy is that the sins committed by the individual can only be rectified by the individual “through the redemptive power of Jesus the Christ”.4
Whilst figures for the Greater World are admittedly scant, we know that in 1932, a year after that organisation’s registration as a charity, there were 360 affiliated churches, and by 1935, 580. In 1969, Geoffrey Nelson calculated, perhaps somewhat over enthusiastically, GW membership rising from around 8,000 to 20,000 in the first four years.5
As already noted, the number of churches joining the SNU at that time also rose, while total membership fluctuated only slightly. Undoubtedly, the SNU lost both churches and individual members to the GW. However, on the available figures it is difficult to argue that the increase in membership of this organisation was the result of any mass exodus from the SNU. It would appear that the GW membership and churches may have been drawn from new and pre-existing non-affiliated churches and societies.
Even if we considered the emergence of the GW as indicative of there being a significant body of Spiritualists who did at that time want the role of Jesus to be a part of their practice of Spiritualism, Leslie’s own figures regarding the decline in the number of the GW’s affiliated churches over the last forty or fifty years would suggest that this is no longer the case.
The decline in the Christian Spiritualist movement would appear to be both greater, and more rapid than that experienced by SNU Spiritualism. This hardly supports a view that there might be scope for greater involvement of Christians within Spiritualism, when that branch of it which might, on the surface at least, appear most attractive to Christians, is failing.
In addition, even a cursory examination of the theological differences between SNU and GW Spiritualism makes clear that the fundamental distinction, namely the status accorded to Jesus, offers little scope for unification between these two bodies. In our increasingly secular society, as disenchantment with formal religions has grown significantly, it may be that a Christian-based Spiritualist approach is no longer attractive to people, and even a professedly non-Christian, but religion-based Spiritualism as practised by the SNU is failing to find favour.
Today there are many who, while accepting the reality of life after death, and the ability of the spirit world to communicate, reject the need to formalise that belief in religious terms, viewing Spiritualism more as a ‘philosophy for life’. As Stainton Moses sagely observed, “There are Spiritualists and Spiritualists.” 6
By all means, let us encourage Christians, and those of any other religion or none, to enter into our Spiritualist churches, and may we always welcome them with a smile and an open heart. Let them come and discover what Spiritualism is about, and, if they find the message of Spiritualism supplants their previously held religious views, then offer them membership. If not, wish them well on their journey, and be content that the seed of truth, that is the spirit world’s gift to earthly life, may yet bear fruit in their lives at some other time.
In rejecting the viewpoint that Spiritualism needs more Christians, I can do no better than to quote Leslie Price, himself, when he wrote in Psychic News (Feb 6, 2010) acknowledging the need for real Spiritualism “to keep out Unreal Spiritualists, and to avoid a muddled message”. I, as he, “would call for separation but mutual respect”.
If Spiritualism is ever to become a world religion it must remain undiluted by the concepts and beliefs of other religions or philosophies. Whether it is able to do so is up to us.
1. Arthur Findlay, The Torch of Knowledge, Psychic Press Ltd, 1936, Author’s Preface, p. 15.
2. Harrison, 1978 in the London Spiritualist; also SNU 1999, quoted by Gordon Ray, Spiritualism and the Christ Principle, 2005.
3. Lis Warwood & Geoff Griffiths, Graph of Full SNU Membership 1929 – 2009, compiled from SNU Statistics, March 2011.
4. See http://www.greaterworld.com/
5. Geoffrey K. Nelson, Spiritualism and Society, Schocken Books, New York, 1969, Table 6, Membership of Spiritualist Societies, p. 285.
6. William Stainton Moses, (M.A. Oxon), Spirit-Identity and Higher Aspects of Spiritualism, London Spiritualist Alliance Limited, 1908, Appendix, Esoteric questions affecting Spiritualists only, p. 87.
What do you think?