“When everybody is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.” – George S. Patton.
The Seven Principles have once again come under scrutiny. This follows researchers’ discovery that the idea the Principles were given to Emma Hardinge Britten (EHB) by Robert Owen, from spirit life, may actually be a myth. Was it one of those legends that tend to grow up around legendary characters – the embroidery woven by the over-enthusiastic religious mind?
Over the years, Emma, like many others, had made attempts to come up with a simple but comprehensive statement of what Spiritualism is. “The Ten Laws of Right” and “The Spiritual Commandments” from the Lyceum Manual, which she co-authored, are two of them. And it is known that she was in the audience when Owen – still in the body – outlined his views on the universal religion whilst she was living in New York in the very earliest days of the Spiritualist era. This could have been the first seed of the Principles.
But then again, Ben Franklin laid down his religious principles in the 1700s, which, in different terminology, include the first, second, third and sixth of our Seven Principles.
“I believe in one God, Creator of the Universe. That he governs it by his Providence. That he ought to be worshipped (1). That the most acceptable Service we render to him is doing good to his other Children (2). That the soul of Man is immortal (3), and will be treated with Justice in another Life respecting its Conduct in this (6).”
Clearly, the Seven Principles had been a work in progress with EHB for many years and may have had many influences. And even when she had finished her work on them, they were only the Five Principles – legal drafting and our legendary debate and discussion had yet to do their work to arrive at the seven we know today.
The Seven Principles now define what is meant by that awful term “SNU Spiritualism”. Whatever happened to the proud boast: “I am a Spiritualist without prefix, suffix or affix”? We should know that any prefix constitutes a limitation, a narrowing.
It was only in 1964 that the SNU Conference, in one of its reactionary phases, decided that the Seven Principles – and only the Seven Principles – would define the SNU’s version of what Spiritualism was. Stainton Moses’ Spirit Teachings – until then regarded as the bible of Spiritualism and the only connected body of philosophy we have – went out of the window. This was analogous to the Fathers of the Christian church, having formulated its Creed, throwing out their scriptures as being of no purpose. At a stroke, Conference had created “Spiritualist philosophy for the lazy person” – a dumbing down which persists to this day and has little power to engage and hold those precious intelligent enquirers.
All this followed a major SNU Commission of Inquiry set up the year before to consider several major problems facing the then near-bankrupt Union. Some of the Union’s finest minds – Harold Vigurs (a legendary former SNU president and Home Office lawyer), Laurie Wilson (a barrister and son of Percy Wilson, who had drafted the Fraudulent Mediums Bill), Norman Ainley (a leading Lyceumist), along with Gordon Higginson and Wilfrid Watts, formed the committee and asked the SNU membership for ideas. I’m sure the odd letter or two must have flooded in!
Vigurs and his group, who had given many years of thought to this, expressed the view that the Seven Principles were too narrow. The conference was persuaded otherwise and the Seven Principles came to sum up what Spiritualism was. (The actual minutes of the 1964 conference could not be found in SNU headquarters when I enquired, so I can only surmise what really happened from the sketchy personal correspondence of the participants.)
Well, as a quick taster of Spiritualist philosophy, the Seven Principles are fine. But where is the instruction, the fuller teaching, the explanation of spirit purpose, the vision of spirit? To use a well-known phrase, “Where’s the beef?” It is in the mouldering copies of Spirit Teachings languishing in church libraries; in the thousands of insightful articles entombed in the archives of Two Worlds, Psychic News, Light, etc, back issues published once and never to be seen again. This is the lost treasury of the classical model of Spiritualism – the Spiritualism of Ernest Oaten, Harold Vigurs, Emma Hardinge Britten, J.J. Morse. Real pioneers whose Spiritualism was richly informed by Stainton Moses’ classic book.
Like many others of the classical era, Oaten was sufficiently secure in his Spiritualist identity to engage with the Christian church, knowing that he would not be won over by them. He was able to say to the Archbishop’s Commission on Spiritualism that:
“(Spiritualism) has changed Jesus Christ from a mystical and awe inspiring mentor who lived two thousand years ago, and made him a dynamic, present day source of energy and inspiration, a wise and experienced human soul; an elder brother whose influence is still bathing the world in love. Who knows and cares nothing about creeds or races or churches, but knows only the needs of the human soul. He is no more the property of your church, than he is of the primitive sun worshipper. He doesn’t want your adoration; he wants clean lives of real service. Not His name – but His spirit, is the thing.”
In those days, with the gap between us smaller than it is now, we took most of our converts from the ranks of progressive Christians. We held a philosophy the depth of which the Seven Principles alone cannot replace. This came from Spirit Teachings, from The Harmonial Philosophy of Andrew Jackson Davis, and from the Lyceum Manual, which provided something deeper and more comprehensive.
The enquirer coming to Spiritualism today could well ask what that “something deeper” might be. But there are few in our churches who could tell her or him. More likely, having learned the Seven Principles, they might ask, “Is that it?” At that point the enquirer can only go back to the message culture until the novelty wears off. Then she or he would simply find nothing to keep them in our mainly small and narrowly-based churches, and would leave!
I have a personal example of this. A couple of years ago, I bumped into a business associate (who was a manager in a major insurance company), scanning the Body, Mind and Spirit section in a bookshop. He confided to me that he had recently joined a Spiritualist church. I assured him that I didn’t think any the less of him for this, although I felt his choice of church – a very small one – might not be the best one. Sure enough, after a few months, he e-mailed me – and I copy and paste what he wrote:
Spiritualism, although very good and worthwhile, didn’t provide enough for me, whereas spirituality does. You hit the nail on the head because I don’t believe turning up on a Sunday singing a few hymns and listening to evidence is enough, that to me centres on grief and the fear of dying. Spirituality on the other hand seems more connecting to everyone and everything, knowing that we are spirits living in a physical shell designed to give us experience and learning. There does not seem enough depth for me in Spiritualism. I would imagine that the same words get read out week after week, the only learning and understanding comes from the readings and the address.
In short, Seven Principles Spiritualism is too shallow.
We are often told that the fifth principle of Personal Responsibility is what separates us from Christianity; the idea that we are responsible for our own sins – that Jesus cannot bear them for us. This is the Christian doctrine of Vicarious Atonement. But it goes much deeper than that.
Even in this day and age, the Christian tradition teaches that humans have fallen from God’s grace and are born in a state of Original Sin. In order to escape from this condition, we need to be ‘saved’ through Jesus Christ. This salvation process involves complying with the Church’s teachings. So the Church, like all good salesmen, provides the problem as well as the solution! We have heard of the disease for which there is no known cure. Salvation is a cure for which there is no known disease!
Spiritualism eschews the doctrine of the Fall of Man – and the doctrines of Original Sin, Salvation and Vicarious Atonement which follow from it. It teaches that the human is an individualised, evolving and imperfect part of the one life in the universe and is already a part of God. We therefore cannot die. Our life beyond this one – and its quality – is not conditional upon our conforming to church dogma, but is a consequence of our spiritual nature. The quality of our future state depends upon building character in this life. That is the moral driver of Spiritualism.
Christianity is a religion of salvation by conformity, whilst Spiritualism is a religion of progression by endeavour. This is somewhat deeper than Personal Responsibility versus Vicarious Atonement, which is only the tip of this doctrinal iceberg.
Clearly, having rejected salvation theology, we cannot consider Jesus of Nazareth as a saviour. He is variously regarded as an exemplar, medium, older brother in spirit or, as Emma Hardinge Britten put it, “The ancient Spiritualist” – a faithful witness to the spiritual dimension in his time.
And, of course, there is the small matter of mediumship – the revelation that underpins the Spiritualist reformation as it did the ministry of Jesus. As spiritual beings, it follows that we have spiritual faculties. In some, these are highly developed; in others they can be developed up to a point and in differing ways. Each in their own way can be used as pipelines of continuing spiritual revelation and evidential communication.
Having a clear view of our Spiritualist identity, it is not difficult to engage with Christians as the Charities Commission, through the SNU’s NEC, is asking us to do. (As you may know, the Charities Commission has criticised us for being too inward-looking and failing to join up with other religions.) This is a shot across the bows if ever I saw one. But, I hear you say, “Well, it takes two to tango!” Maybe, but at some point someone has to walk across those exposed acres of dance floor to ask these scowling wallflowers of Orthodoxy for a dance!
In spite of the mutual animosity between them, and our fancies about being a religion in our own right, Spiritualism and Christianity are very much intertwined. This is because spirit inspiration works in all religions and links them together – whether they know it or not and whether they like it or not. We have no monopoly. What do you think spirit were doing throughout all those centuries while they were waiting for the Spiritualist movement to arise?
Superstitions, dogmas and societal mindsets of humankind have always been barriers to spirit’s purpose and spirit have to work around whatever good intentions humankind puts in the way. But somehow spirit were always able to find those who could catch the message and were gradually able to ‘spiritualise’ the culture, eventually creating the atmosphere in which the Spiritualist reformation could take place.
Our Principles themselves are almost all drawn via the Judeo-Christian culture. The Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man did not spring forth fully formed from the void. The spirit had sown them into the culture as the theological ground became more fertile to progressive ideas, as they did with the other Principles. True, the Orthodox put the condition of unquestioning conformity on our continuous existence. And on our eternal progress. However, many modern, progressive Christians do accept that personal responsibility cannot be circumvented by vicarious atonement.
It is said that the narrow-minded see only the differences between their religion and another, whilst a broad-minded person only sees the similarities. There is certainly enough common ground in the Seven Principles to provide a platform for engagement with the Christian church in that awkward tango that the Charities Commission wants us to have. But we Spiritualists need rather more literacy in our own philosophy to sustain the dialogue.
Before his passing in 1993, SNU president Gordon Higginson, a member of the Vigurs Commission, said that we needed to look at the Seven Principles from time to time to see what changes were needed. More recently, the SNU’s National Executive Committee has decreed that the Principles are unchangeable. But give them a break – this is probably a legal requirement they can do nothing about. Companies ‘Limited by Guarantee’ have to announce definite articles to comply with company law. That said, whatever their original intentions, all companies can adjust their articles from time to time.
Whatever the case, to progress as a movement we first need to rediscover much of the rich philosophy that we have neglected. I believe our virtual worship of the Seven Principles to the exclusion of everything else has blinded us to much of this philosophy.
What do you think about the points Geoff has raised? Use our comments facility to continue the discussion.