A Brief History of Spiritualism


Where did it all start?

Although mediumship had been widely practised by oracles and soothsayers throughout the ancient world and healing and herbalism had also flourished in ancient Egypt, in the Jewish Essene sect, of which Jesus was believed to be a member, and in Greece and Rome through the followers of Asclepius, the adoption of Christianity by the Roman Empire and growing intolerance meant that by the middle ages, the practice of these ancient skills out with the Christian religion was discouraged as the work of ‘witches’ and evil spirits. Although ‘divine revelations’ continued in the Christian church, the healing ministry had been abandoned in the drive for power at a very early stage and the herbalist work of Christian monks gradually fell into disuse, particularly after the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII in England.

Religious persecution raged throughout Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and was particularly harsh for any who tried to apply science that disputed religious belief or who in any way held  beliefs contrary to orthodox thinking. This persecution also applied to Mediums.

In 1484, Pope Innocent V111 published a Papal Bull that was to start the great torture and murder of innocent men and women as witches in towns and villages across Europe that lasted throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Religious bigotry and intolerance was even carried to the New World with the trial and execution of the witches of Salem.                

Matters started to improve when William of Orange took the English throne in 1689 and released all religious prisoners but persecution of mediums in Britain continued under the Witchcraft Act of 1735 and the Vagrancy Act of 1824, even though the last witch was burned in 1712.                      

Although mediumship gradually emerged once more, it was not until 31st March, 1848 in a small rented cottage in Hydesville, Arcadia, Wayne County, New York that an event occurred that is credited with creating Modern Spiritualism.

The cottage was rented by Mr. John D. Fox who was accompanied by his wife, Margaret and his three daughters, Ann Leah, the eldest, Katherine and Margaretta. The two younger girls heard a rapping and became very excited when the noise started to imitate sounds that they made by clapping their hands. Their involvement seems to have been minimal after that since it was at this stage that their mother took over.

Mrs Fox entered into a dialogue with the discarnate spirit who told her that he was a peddler who had been murdered some years earlier and buried under the building. It was a neighbour, Mr. Duesler, who devised an alphabetical code that elicited further information, including the initials CR. The first name given to the peddler was Charles Rayn in 1853 but later this was changed to Rosma and then to Rosna. Initial efforts to find his remains were unsuccessful but in 1904, children playing in the now dilapidated ‘Spook’ house found human bones. Further digging revealed a second set of foundations within the foundations of the cottage and enough bones were discovered to make almost a complete human skeleton with the exception of the head. This tied in with the communication between Mrs Fox and the man’s spirit in which he had told her that his head had been cut off and put in a stove pipe and thrown into a creek near the house and cleared any doubts about the experiences of the Fox family.

These events created the huge wave of interest in spirit communication that lead to circles being formed all over the United States, leading to the Modern Spiritualist Movement. Spiritualism was brought to Britain in 1852 by Mrs. Hayden, the first medium to work in this  country. In spite of ridicule from press and pulpit, she gained many converts including Robert Owen, the founder of the Co-operative movement. After his death, he gave Spiritualists six of the Seven Principles through the mediumship of Emma Hardinge Britten in 1871. The first Spiritualist church was opened in Keighley, Yorkshire by Darlington born David Richmond after his return from America in 1853.


The Seven Principles of Spiritualism

1. The Fatherhood of God

2. The Brotherhood of Man

3. The Communion of Spirits and the Ministry of Angels

4. The Continuous Existence of the Human Soul

5. Personal Responsibility

6. Compensation and Retribution Hereafter for all the Good and Evil done on Earth

7. Eternal Progress open to every Human Soul


Famous Believers

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Homes proclaimed his belief in Spiritualism in 1918.  Hannen Swaffer, the well-known journalist was another. He attended séances with the well-known trance medium, Estelle Roberts, including those attended by Air Chief Marshal Lord Dowding, Commander of Fighter Command from its formation in 1936 until November 1940. Although an orthodox Christian, he investigated Spiritualism and became convinced of life after death. At his first séance with Estelle in October 1943, several RAF pilots and Naval personnel, who had been killed in the war came through to him on direct voice and had detailed conversations with him.


The Trial of Helen Duncan

A major event in Spiritualist history was the persecution and trial of the well respected Scottish medium, Helen Duncan. Mrs Duncan was one of Britain’s best known mediums and during the second World War, she toured the country, giving séances. At a séance in Portsmouth in 1944, she told a couple that their son, who was serving on HMS Barham had appeared from the spirit world to let them know that he had passed over when his ship was sunk.

Since the British Government had concealed the 1941 sinking of the Barham with the loss of over 800 lives in order to preserve public morale and outfox the Germans, they arrested Mrs. Duncan and accused her of being a spy. Since the prosecution had difficulty in finding sufficient evidence to obtain a conviction, they charged her with ‘black magic’ under the 1735 Witchcraft Act. After a week long trial, she was convicted and sentenced to 9 months in Holloway Prison.

Winston Churchill and King George V1 are reputed to have been clients and Winston Churchill, who visited her in prison, denounced the conviction as ‘tomfoolery’. In 1951, he passed the Fraudulent Medium’s Act and repealed the 1735 Witchcraft Act and part of the Vagrancy Act of 1824, thereby allowing Spiritualists to practice their religion openly and legally, but the onus was still on mediums to prove that they were not ‘fraudulent.’

Unfortunately, Mrs. Duncan died in 1956, three months after being arrested yet again in a police raid.

Since then, there have been a number of petitions for a posthumous pardon for Mrs. Duncan, the latest being in 2008 but each one has been rejected. A ruling by the Criminal Cases Review Commission on a 2007 petition decided that a pardon would not be in the public  interest.


Arthur Finlay College.

Stansted Hall at Stansted Mountfichet, Essex, formerly the home of the Scottish Stockbroker, J Arthur Finlay was bequeathed to the Spiritualist National Union in 1964 as a centre for psychic research and opened in September 1966. Many courses for mediumship, healing, and other complementary therapies are run there every year with many participants coming from all over the world.

Arthur Findlay wrote a number of books on Spiritualism including his trilogy, On the Edge of the Etheric, The Rock of Truth and The Unfolding Universe. These can either be bought from the Psychic Bookshop at Stansted Hall or borrowed from the Billericay Centre


The Structure of the Spiritualist National Union

In 1901, the Spiritualists’ National Union Ltd. was founded and took over the duties of the National Spiritualists’ Federation and in1940 gained Government sanction to act as a Trust Corporation. In 1971, the first conference of the newly formed Guild of Spiritual Healers was held at Stansted Hall. In 1994, the Guild was dissolved and replaced by the Spiritualist Healing Standing Committee within the SNU, its chairman being on the Board of Directors.

The National Executive Committee members are the directors of the SNU and they are the 4 officers, the President, the Vice President (Administrative), the Vice President (Spiritual) and the Financial Director plus the chairmen of the three Standing Committees, the Accreditation Committee, the Communications Committee, and the Collegiate Committee plus a member of the National Council and up to 3 ordinary class B members.

The Accreditation Committee has direct responsibility for Education, Healing and Training and Awards. The Communications Committee was created to manage and oversee the work of the Public Relations Committee, SNU International, the Publicity and Promotions Committee and the Information Technology Committee. The Collegiate Committee facilitates communication between the Arthur Findlay College, the Arthur Findlay Centre and the National Executive Committee.

The National Council is an Advisory Body to the National Executive Committee and consists of the four officers of the SNU, a representative from each of the 14 District Councils, a Lyceum representative, an SNUi representative elected by SNU International and an Individual Members’ representative (formerly class B member) elected from and by Individual members.

National Executive Council Sub-Committees are:-

Arbitration Committee, Arthur Findlay College Committee, Finance Committee, General Purposes Committee, Ministers Administration Committee, Philosophy and Ethics Committee, Healing Committee, Education Committee, Training and Awards Committee, Spirit of Youth Committee, Public Relations Committee, Publicity and Promotions Committee, Information Technology Committee and Health and Safety Committee.

Related Bodies

The National Executive may set up branches of the Union from time to time after consulting the National Council.

At present there are two branches of the Union:-

The Spiritualists’ Lyceum Union was originally formed in 1890. The Lyceum branch has special responsibility for the education and training of  young people.

The SNU International branch (SNUi) was created in 2009 and had a membership of 914 at the end of 2011. This branch is intended to carry out the missionary work of spreading the philosophy and teachings of the SNU beyond the UK.


District Councils

There are 14 District Councils representing the 341 fully affiliated(2009 figures) churches with a total membership of 16750 across the UK.

Billericay Spiritualist Centre is in the East London district

All SNU affiliated Spiritualist Churches/Centres have a duty to provide Spiritual Healing through SNU approved healers. Their duties are covered in the SNU Bylaws H and Church rule 25.