Courtesy of: http://www.religionresourcesonline.org
Spiritism is a philosophical doctrine, established in France in the mid-nineteenth century.
Spiritism, or French spiritualism, is based on books written by French educator Hypolite Léon Denizard Rivail under the pseudonym Allan Kardec reporting séances in which he observed a series of phenomena that he attributed to incorporeal intelligence (spirits). His assumption of spirit communication was validated by many contemporaries, among them many scientists and philosophers who attended séances and studied the phenomena. His work was later extended by writers like Leon Denis, Arthur Conan Doyle, Camille Flammarion, Ernesto Bozzano, Chico Xavier, Divaldo Pereira Franco, Waldo Vieira, Johannes Greber and others.
Spiritism has adherents in many countries throughout the world, including Spain, United States, Japan, Germany, France, England, Argentina, Portugal and especially Brazil, which has the largest proportion and the greatest number of followers.
Character of Spiritism
Many spiritists see themselves as not adhering to a religion, but to a philosophy with scientific inspirations and moral consequences. Allan Kardec refers to Spiritism in What is Spiritism? as a science dedicated to the relationship between incorporeal beings (spirits) and human beings. In the other hand, many spiritists don’t see any problem about calling it a religion as well.
Spiritists pray to God, who is seen as the ultimate cause, or source, of all things and beings. Spiritist doctrine argues that if God is perceived as a natural and somewhat necessary hypothesis within the Spiritist paradigm, that does not constitute religious reasoning.
The Spiritist moral principles are in agreement with the ones taught by Jesus (according to Kardec), Francis of Assisi, Paul the Apostle, Buddha and Gandhi. Spiritist philosophical inquiry is concerned with the study of moral aspects in the context of an eternal life in spiritual evolution through reincarnation, a process believers hold as revealed by Spirits. Sympathetic research on Spiritism by scientists can be found in the works of Sir William Crookes, Ernesto Bozzano, the Society for Psychical Research, William James, the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine winner Charles Richet, Prof. Ian Stevenson’s group at University of Virginia , and Prof. G. Schwartz at University of Arizona.
Developments leading directly to Kardec’s research were the famous Fox sisters and the phenomenon of the Talking boards. Interest in Mesmerism also contributed to the early Spiritist practice.
Emanuel Swedenborg (January 29, 1688 – March 29, 1772) was a Swedish scientist, philosopher, seer, and theologian. Swedenborg had a prolific career as an inventor and scientist. Then at age fifty-six he entered into a spiritual phase of his life, where he experienced visions of the spiritual world and claimed to have talked with angels, devils, and spirits by visiting heaven and hell. He claimed of being directed by God, the Lord Jesus Christ to reveal the doctrines of His second coming.
From 1747 until his death in 1772 he lived in Stockholm, Holland and London. During these 25 years he wrote 14 works of a spiritual nature of which most were published during his lifetime. Throughout this period he was befriended by many people who regarded him as a kind and warm-hearted man. Many people disbelieved in his visions; based on what they had heard, they drew the conclusions that he had lost his mind or had a vivid imagination. But they refrained from ridiculing him in his presence. Those who talked with him understood that he was devoted to his beliefs. He never argued matters of religion, and if obliged to defend himself he usually did it with gentleness and in a few words.
The Fox Sisters
Sisters Catherine (1838–92), Leah (1814–90) and Margaret (1836–93) Fox played an important role in the creation of Spiritualism. The daughters of David and Margaret Fox, they were residents of Hydesville, New York. In 1848, the family began to hear unexplained rapping sounds. Kate and Margaret conducted channeling sessions in an attempt to contact the presumed spiritual entity creating the sounds, and claimed contact with the spirit of a peddler who was allegedly murdered and buried beneath the house. A skeleton later found in the basement seemed to confirm this. The Fox girls became instant celebrities. They demonstrated their communication with the spirit by using taps and knocks, automatic writing, and later even voice communication, as the spirit took control of one of the girls.
Skeptics suspected this was nothing but clever deception and fraud. Indeed, sister Margaret eventually confessed to using her toe-joints to produce the sound. And although she later recanted this confession, both she and her sister Catherine were widely considered discredited, and died in poverty. Nonetheless, belief in the ability to communicate with the dead grew rapidly, becoming a religious movement called Spiritualism, and contributing greatly to Kardec’s ideas.
Just after the news of the Fox affair came to France, people became even more interested in what was sometimes termed the “Spiritual Telegraph”. In the beginning, a table spun with the “energy” from the spirits present by means of human channeling (hence the term “medium”. But, as the process was too slow and cumbersome, a new one was devised, supposedly from a suggestion by the spirits themselves: the talking board.
Early examples of talking boards were baskets attached to a pointy object that spun under the hands of the mediums, to point at letters printed on cards scattered around, or engraved on, the table. Such devices were called corbeille à bec (“basket with a beak”). The pointy object was usually a pencil.
Talking boards were tricky to set up and to operate. A typical séance using a talking board saw people sitting at a round table, feet resting on the chairs’ supports and hands on the table top or, later, on the talking board itself. The energy channeled from the spirits through their hands made the board spin around and find letters which, once written down by a scribe, would form intelligible words, phrases, and sentences. The system was an early, and less effective, precursor of the Ouija boards that later became so popular.
Franz Anton Mesmer
Franz Anton Mesmer (May 23, 1734 – March 5, 1815) discovered what he called magnétism animal (animal magnetism) and others often called mesmerism. The evolution of Mesmer’s ideas and practices led James Braid (1795-1860) to develop hypnosis in 1842.
Spiritism incorporated and kept some practices inspired or directly taken from Mesmerism. Among them, the healing touch, still in Europe, and the “energization” of water to be used as a medicine for spirit and body.
The basic doctrine of Spiritism (“the Codification”) is defined in five books written and published by Allan Kardec during his life:
- The Spirits’ Book — Defines the guidelines of the doctrine, covering points like God, Spirit, Universe, Man, Society, Culture, Morals and Religion.
- The Book on Mediums — Details the “mechanics” of the spiritual world, the processes involved in channeling spirits, techniques to be developed by would-be mediums, etc.
- The Gospel According to Spiritism — Comments on the Gospels, highlighting passages that, according to Kardec, would show the ethical fundamentals shared by all religious and philosophical systems. This may be the first religious book to acknowledge the existence of life elsewhere in the Universe, based on Jesus’ saying “The houses in the realm of my father are many” (John, 14, 1-3).
- Heaven and Hell — A didactic series of interviews with spirits of deceased people intending to establish a correlation between the lives they lead and their conditions in the beyond.
- The Genesis According to Spiritism — Tries to reconcile religion and science, dealing with the three major points of friction between the two: the origin of the universe (and of life, as a consequence) and the concepts of miracle and premonition.
Kardec also wrote a brief introductory pamphlet (What is Spiritism?) and was the most frequent contributor to the Spiritist Review. His essays and articles would be posthumously collected into the aptly-named tome Posthumous Works.
The five chief points of the doctrine are:
- There is a God, defined as “The Supreme Intelligence and Primary Cause of everything”;
- There are Spirits, all of whom are created simple and ignorant, but owning the power to gradually perfect themselves;
- The natural method of this perfection process is reincarnation, through which the Spirit faces countless different situations, problems and obstacles, and needs to learn how to deal with them;
- As part of Nature, Spirits can naturally communicate with living people, as well as interfere in their lives;
- Many planets in the universe are inhabited.
The central tenet of Spiritist doctrine is the belief in spiritual life. The spirit is eternal, and evolves through a series of incarnations in the material world. The true life is the spiritual one; life in the material world is just a short-termed stage, where the spirit has the opportunity to learn and develop its potentials. Reincarnation is the process where the spirit, once free in the spiritual world, comes back to the world for further learning.
Relation to Jesus
Jesus, according to Spiritism, is the greatest moral example for humankind, is deemed to have incarnated here to show us, through his example, the path that we have to take to achieve our own spiritual perfection. The Gospels are reinterpreted in Spiritism; some of the words of Christ or his actions are clarified in the light of the spiritual phenomena (presented as law of nature, and not as something “miraculous”). It’s only because of our own imperfection that we can’t achieve similar things; as we evolve, we will not only understand better, but we will be able to do similar things, for all spirits are created equal, and are destined for the same end.
Evolution and Karma
Spiritist Doctrine stresses the importance of spiritual evolution. According to this view, we are destined for perfection; there are other planets hosting more advanced life forms, and happier societies, where the spirit has the chance to keep evolving both in the moral and intellectual sense. Although not clear from Kardec’s works, later spiritist writers elaborated on this point further: it seems to them that we cannot detect more advanced life forms on other planets, as they are living in a slightly different “plane” from ours, in the same way the spiritual plane is superimposed over our own plane. There is STILL no scientific evidence to back this claim.
The communication between the spiritual world and the material world happen all the time, but to various degrees. Some people barely sense what the spirits tell them, in an entirely instinctive way, while others have greater cognizance of their guidance. The so-called mediums have these natural abilities highly developed, and are able to communicate with the spirits and interact with them by several means: listening, seeing, or writing through spiritual command (also known by Kardecists as automatic writing). Direct manipulation of physical objects by spirits is not possible; for it to happen the spirits need the help (voluntary or not) of mediums with particular abilities for physical effects.
Kardec’s works do not establish any rituals or formal practices. Instead, the doctrine suggests that followers adhere to some principles regarded as common to all religions. The religious experience within spiritism is, therefore, largely informal. The exception to this is The National Spiritist Church of Alberta. This Church (which is fully recognized by the government as a religious denomination) has a Holy Communion Worship Service and a Marriage Ceremony in addition to the more standard Kardecist study groups.
The most important types of practices within Spiritism are:
Regular Meetings – with a regular schedule, usually on evenings, two or three times a week. They involve a short lecture on some subject followed by some interactive participation of the attendants. These meetings are open to anyone.
Medium Meetings – usually held after a regular meeting, only those deemed prepared or “in need” of it are expected to attend.
Youth and Children’s Meetings – once a week, usually on Saturday afternoons or Sunday mornings, are the Spiritist equivalent to Christian Sunday schools.
Lectures – longer, in-depth lectures on subjects thought to be “of general interest” which are held on larger rooms, sometimes at theatres or ballrooms, so that more people can attend. Lecturers are often invited from far away centers.
Special Meetings – special séances held in relative discretion which try to conduct some worthy work on behalf of those in need
Spiritist Week and Book fairs.
Church Services (in the case of The National Spiritist Church of Alberta – in Canada)