Spiritism: A History

Translated into English by A. L. Xavier Jr. and Carol de Macedo. Based on the essay “O Espiritismo em sua mais simples expressão” by A. Kardec, 2nd ed., FEESP (1989).
The below was written by Allan Kardec in the 1860s, giving his personal explanation of the circumstances that led him to write the Spiritist codification.

By the year 1848, several strange phenomena were gaining notoriety in the United States, consisting in noises, raps and movement of objects with no apparent cause. They would happen spontaneously, several times, with a characteristic intensity and frequency.  However, it soon became clear that these phenomena could also occur through the presence of certain people whom were known as ”mediums”.  These people could provoke the phenomena at will, making experiments possible. Such experiments were made using tables, not because these objects are more favorable than others, but because they were more convenient, movable, and because it was easier to sit around them than any other furniture. In this way the rotation of tables was achieved, and subsequently, movements in all directions: jumps, turns, fluctuations, violent strokes etc. These phenomena were originally called ‘table dancing’ or ‘table turning’.

Initially the facts could be perfectly explained by the action of an electric or magnetic current or unknown kind of fluid, and such was the first formed explanation. But within a short time, intelligent effects were recognized in them, such that the movement obeyed the will. The table could move to the right or to the left, toward some certain person, it could stand on one or two feet upon command, knock the ground a number of ordered times, knock regularly, etc. It was clear that the cause was not purely physical and, based upon the principle: ”To every effect a cause is associated, to every intelligent effect there is an intelligent cause”, an intelligence was appointed as the cause.

However, what was the nature of this intelligence? Such was the question. Initial impressions were that it could be the reflection of the medium’s intelligence or of his assistants. But experience soon disproved this, since responses totally alien to the thought and knowledge of the present people and even in opposition to their ideas, wills or desires were obtained. Therefore this intelligence could only belong to an invisible being. The way to ascertain this was quite simple: a discussion with such entity sufficed. A conventional number of knocks to signify a yes or no answer or to designate alphabetical letters was created and, in this way, several chosen questions obtained answers. This phenomenon was called `talking tables’. Interrogated in this way about their nature, all the beings declared themselves to be spirits and belong to an invisible world. As the phenomena were produced in different locations, through several different people and observed by serious and intelligent people, it was not possible they were an illusion.

From America the phenomena spread to France and the rest of Europe, where the talking and turning tables were the rage and became a means of entertainment in public halls. But when people began to tire of them, they turned their attention toward other things.

However, within a short time, the phenomenon presented itself under a new aspect that remove it from the domain of a simple curiosity. Due to space limitations all the phases can not be described herein, therefore we will proceed to the most renown aspect which attracted the most attention of serious people.

Before we proceed we must remark that the reality of the facts encountered many opponents. Some of them, without taking into account the integrity and impartiality of their investigators, would only consider the phenomena as a fraud or a clever subtlety. Those who did not admit to anything but matter, who did not believe in the invisible world, who thought that everything finds its end in the death of the body, the materialists, in one word, the so called strong spirits, they moved the existence of the invisible spirits to the field of absurd tales. They considered those who took the subject seriously as crazy, and treated them with sarcasms and mockeries. Others who could not deny the facts and under the influence of certain ideas, considered the phenomena an exclusive action of the devil, trying, therefore, to frighten the timid. However, today fear of the devil has lost its popularity. In fact the subject became so popular and was portrayed in so many ways that people got used to the idea, and many believed that this was the time to find out what it really was. Aside from a few timorous women, the communication of the true devil’s arrival was somewhat malicious for those who had seen it only in pictures or in the theater. For many it was a powerful impulse and they tried to rise barriers against the new ideas. By doing so they involuntarily initiated an opposite reaction, and so became the propagators of the ideas; the louder they cried the more efficient they were. Other critics were also unsuccessful since the facts, carefully verified by clear reasoning, provided only denials. When their publications are analyzed the testimony of the ignorance and the lack of serious observation of the facts are encountered everywhere. Nowhere can one find a positive demonstration of their impossibility. All of their argumentation are summed up by the claims: ”I do not believe, therefore, it does not exist. All those who believe are crazy. Only we have the privilege of reason and sound judgment.” The number of believers resulting from the serious or comical criticisms was immense, because only private opinions are found in them which are devoid of disproof. Let us continue with our exposition.

The communication through raps was rather slow and incomplete. It was discovered that, by attaching a pencil to a movable object (such as a basket, a small board or a similar item, on which the fingers could be placed), the object would begin to move and make signs. Later it was discovered that such objects were only dispensable accessories. Experience has shown that the spirit who acted upon a unanimated body could in the same way control the arms or the hands and lead the pencil. Writing mediums then appeared, that is, people who could write in an involuntary manner under the impulse of the spirits, being their interpreters and instruments. Thenceforth the communications had no limits, and the exchange of thoughts was as fast and easy as among the living. It was a vast field opened to exploration, the discovery of a new world: the world of the invisible, very much the same as the microscope has unveiled the world of the infinitely small.

Who are these spirits? What is their role in the Universe? What is their reason for communicating with the mortals? Such were the first questions demanding explanation. The spirits soon revealed that they were not apart from creation, but were instead the very souls of those who had lived on the earth or on other worlds. After having left their corporeal envelopes, they populate and fly through the space. There was no room for doubt when friends and relatives were recognized among them, furnishing proofs of their existence when interrogated. They came to demonstrate that death was only for their bodies, that their souls or spirits continue to live, that they are very near us, that they can see us very much like when they were alive. They kindly watch over those whom they loved and whose memories very much please them.

In general we make a completely false idea of the spirits. They are not abstract or vague beings as many would imagine. Also they are not a glaring radiance or a spark, but are rather very real, having their own individuality and definite form. We can have a approximate idea of them according to the following explanation:

There are three essential things in human beings: * The soul or the spirit, the intelligent principle where the thoughts, will and moral sense are found. * The body, the material envelope, weighty and rough. The body enables the spirit relate with the material world. * The perispirit, the light fluidic envelope, which is the intermediary bound between the spirit and the body.

When the exterior covering is threadbare and can no more work, the spirit get rid of it, like the fruit liberates itself from the shell or as one forsake a clothing which is no longer useful. That is what we call death.

Therefore, death is simply the destruction of the crude shell of the spirit; only the body dies, not the spirit. During life, the spirit is somewhat limited by the material links of matter to which it is bounded. These limits can many times neutralize its faculties, and the body’s death liberates it from such bounds setting it free (like the butterfly from its cocoon). But the spirit gives up only the material body, keeping the perispirit which is a kind of ethereal body, vaporous and very subtle to us. It has the human form which seems to be the standard one. In its normal state, the perispirit is invisible, but the spirit can make certain changes upon it so as to render it temporarily visible or able to be touched, similar to what happens to condensed vapor. In this manner, the spirits can sometimes appear to us during apparitions. By using the perispirit, the spirit can act upon matter and produce several phenomena of raps, movements, writing etc.

Raps and movements are a way for the spirits to testify their presence and to call our attention, like a person may do to make others notice oneself. Some of them do not limit themselves to make moderate noises, but instead produce a row of breaking dishes, of opening and closing doors or disordered furnitures.

Through knocks and combined movements they are able to express their thoughts, but writing, which they prefer, offers them the most complete, convenient and fastest way. As they can make marks, so they also can lead the hands to drawn, write music or play a piece in a musical instrument. In few words, because they lack physical bodies, they use a medium to manifest themselves to the human in a sensible way.

Spirits can also manifests themselves in several other ways, including through vision and audition. Certain people called hearing mediums, have the capacity to listen to spirits and they can, therefore, talk to them. Others, the seeing mediums can see them. Spirits which generally manifest themselves visually appear in the same way as when they were alive, although in a vaporous way. On other occasions, this form is so similar to a living being that it appears to be almost a complete delusion. They have sometimes been taken to be flesh and blood humans which people talked to and shook hands without even suspecting they were spirits, except for their later sudden disappearance.

The permanent and general capacity to see spirits is rare, but individual apparitions specially at the moment of death, are very common. The released spirit seems to hurry to see its relatives and friends again, as if it wished to show them that it has just left the earth but wants to tell them it is still alive.

By gathering individual recollection, many authentic but until then unnoticed facts can be considered as having happened not only at night during sleep, but during the day in the most complete state of wakefulness. In the past, these facts were considered as marvelous and supernatural and were placed in the domain of wizardry and witchcraft. Today, however, the incredulous attribute them to imagination and we, since the spiritist science has given us the key, know how to produce them and that they do not leave from the normal phenomenological order.

We also believe that the spirits, just because they are spirits, should not be understood to have supreme knowledge and wisdom; this is a mistaken understanding that experience did not delay to prove. Among the spirit communications, there are those which are rich in sublime profundity, eloquence, wisdom and morals and reflect only good and benevolence. Others, however, are extremely vulgar, futile, trivial and even rough. Through these messages the spirits reveal their most perverted instincts. It is clear that they can not come from the same source and that, if there are good spirits, there are also bad ones. Since the spirits are only the very souls of the human, they can not turn into perfect beings after leaving their bodies. They keep the imperfections of their corporeal lives until final improvement. Therefore, in their messages, we see all degrees of goodness and badness, of wisdom and ignorance.

The spirits are generally happy to communicate and are very satisfied to know that they were not forgotten. They gladly describe their impressions after leaving the earth, their new situation, the origin of their happiness and suffering in their new world. Some are happy, others are unhappy, suffering terrible torments according to the way in which they lived and the good or bad use they made of their lives. By watching them in all phases of their new lives, paying attention to the positions they occupied on earth, their types of death, their characters and behaviors as human beings, we can come to a sufficiently accurate, if not complete, knowledge of the invisible world. Such knowledge enables us the explanation of our future state and to foresee the happy or sad destiny that waits for us there.

The instructions given by high level spirit regarding every subject of interest to humankind and their answers regarding the proposed questions were carefully gathered and organized. Together they constitute a whole science, a moral and philosophical doctrine called Spiritism. Spiritism is, therefore, the doctrine founded upon the existence, manifestations and teachings of the spirits. This doctrine is fully exposed in The Spirits’ Book with regard to its philosophical aspect. Its practical and experimental aspect is contained in The Mediums’ Book, while the moral aspect is contained in The Gospel according to Spiritism. Through the analysis we make here, one can access the variety, extension and importance of the subjects covered by the doctrine.

As we have seen, Spiritism had its beginning in the common phenomena of the turning tables. But since facts speak more to the eyes than to the intellect, giving rise more to curiosity than to feelings, the interest in them disappears with curiosity in face of the lack of any sensible explanation. The situation changed when a theory came to explain cause, when it was realized that an entire moral doctrine sprang from those dancing tables with which so many had such a happy time for a short while. This doctrine speaks to the soul; it dissipates the distress of doubts and satisfies the desire for a complete explanation of the future of humankind that was previously left in the vacuum. Serious people received the new teachings as a helpful doctrine and, since then, instead of declining, it quickly spread. Within a few years it encountered support worldwide, especially among enlightened people. The number of supporters increases daily and one can say that today Spiritism has obtained its ”right of citizenship”. It is founded on bases which challenge the effort of its opponents who are more or less interested in its denial. The proof is that the attacks and criticisms could not delay its march for even a moment. Its opponents could never explain this simple fact. For the Spiritists, if it continues to propagate in spite of its criticism, it is because Spiritism is good and the way of its reasoning is better than of its opponents.

Spiritism, however, is not a modern discovery. The facts and principles upon which it is based were lost in the night of the times, since one can find its tracks in the beliefs of all people, in all religions and in the majority of sacred and profane writers. But such facts neither were properly considered nor their consequences completely deduced, they were instead interpreted according to the superstitious ideas of the ignorant.

In fact, Spiritism is founded on the existence of the spirits. As the spirits are only the souls of people and since there were always people, Spiritism could not have invented or created the spirits. If the souls or spirits can manifest themselves to the living, this is a natural fact that, therefore, has always been so since the beginning of time. Therefore in any place or time one can find proofs of such intense manifestations, especially in the Biblical texts

The logical explanation of the facts, the more complete knowledge of the spirit nature, of their role and way of action, the revelation of our future state and finally the gathering of these facts into a scientific and doctrinal body are, however, modern. The ancient knew its principles, while modern individual knows its details. In past times the study of these phenomena was a privilege within certain castes and were revealed only to their initiates. In the middle ages, those who ostensibly dealt with them were considered warlocks and were therefore burned at the stakes. But today, there is no longer any mystery, no one burns anyone, everything happens clearly and everyone is free to learn and practice Spiritism, since there are mediums everywhere

The very doctrine that the spirits teach today is not new. It can be found in fragments of the greatest philosophers from India, Egypt and Greece, and entirely in the teachings of Christ. What is then the goal of Spiritism? It came to give new testimonies, to point out, using facts, unknown or not well understood truths and to re-establish, in its true sense, misinterpreted ones.

Spiritism teaches nothing new, that is true. But is it not valuable to show, in an obvious and irrefutable way, the existence of the soul, its survival over body’s death, its immortality, its future punishments and rewards? How many believe in such things, but only with weak and hidden thoughts, silently wondering: ”And if it were not so?” How many people were brought to discredit because they were given a future which their minds could not rationally accept? Is it not admirable, then, if the weak believer could say: “Now I am sure!”, that the blind could see the light? By facts and logic Spiritism dissipates distressing doubts and brings back faith to those who had lost it. It unfolds the existence of the invisible world which is around us and in which we unsuspectingly live. Through the example of the dead, Spiritism shows us our happy or sad future condition. It explains the cause of earthly sufferings and shows us a way to soften them. Its propagation will have as an inevitable effect the destruction of materialist doctrines which can no longer resist to its evidence. Human beings, convinced of the greatness and importance of their future, eternal life, draw a parallel between it and the indefiniteness of the terrestrial life which is so short. By their thoughts they elevate themselves above ungenerous human values, and realize the cause and reason for their sufferings, which are thereupon viewed by them with meekness and endurance because they understand they are a way for their improvement. The example of those who come from the beyond to describe their joys and pains, demonstrating the reality of the future life shows, at the same time, that God’s justice leaves no wickedness without punishment and no virtue without reward. Finally, we also add that the communication of our dear departed ones brings us a sweet consolation, showing not only that they continue to live but also that they are less far from us than if they were in a foreign land.

Briefly stating, Spiritism softens the distress of life’s sadness, calms the despair and agitation of the soul, dissipates the uncertainties and fears of the future and eliminates suicidal feelings. At the same time it brings happiness to those who believe in it. This is the secret of its fast propagation.

From a religious point of view, Spiritism is based on the fundamental truths of every religion: God, the soul, immortality, future punishments and rewards. It is, however, independent of any particular cult. Its goal is to prove to those who negate soul’s existence that the soul survives after the body, that it suffers after death the consequences of the good or evil practiced during its corporeal life. Now then, this is common to any religion.

As a belief in the spirits, Spiritism is also not different from any religion or people, since in any place where there were humans there will always be souls or spirits. Its manifestations are natural to all times and descriptions can be found in all religions without exception. One can, therefore, be a Catholic or Protestant, a Greek or a Roman, a Jew or a Muslim and yet believe in the manifestations of the spirits and, consequently, be a Spiritist. The fact that Spiritism has adherents from all sects is proof of this.

In a moral sense, Spiritism is essentially Christian since it merely teaches the development and application of Christ’s teachings, which are the purest of all and whose superiority no one contests. This proves that such teachings are God’s law and that it is for everyone.

By being independent of any cult, Spiritism prescribes none of them. It preoccupies itself with no particular dogmas nor is it a religion since it has neither priests, pastors nor temples. It answers those who ask if it is of any good to follow such or such practice: If your conscience asks you to do it, do it and God always takes into account the intention. In essence: Spiritism imposes itself on no one, it is not intended for those who have a faith or whose faith is sufficient, but rather it is for the immense majority of unbelievers and insecure. Spiritism does not take these unbelievers and insecure out of the Church, as they are morally apart from it already. It makes them walk three fourths of the way; it is up to the Church to make them walk the rest.

It is true that Spiritism opposes certain beliefs such as eternal punishments, the material fire of hell, the devil’s personality, etc. However, is it not also true that such ideas, imposed as absolute truths, have always made and continue to make unbelievers? If, by giving a rational explanation for such dogmas, Spiritism brings back faith, is it not helping religion? As a venerable ecclesiastic said: ”Spiritism makes one believe in something. Now, is it not better to believe in something rather than absolutely nothing?”.

As the souls are the spirits, one can not deny the existence of the spirits without denying the souls. If one admits to the existence of souls or spirits, the question is then reduced to its purest expression: Can the souls of the dead communicate with the living? Spiritism proves the affirmative by material facts. What proof can be given to the contrary ? If it is so, all negations will not impede that it continues to be, since one deals with no system or theory but with nature’s law. Now then, humankind’s will is powerless before nature’s law and whether one wants to or not, its consequences must be accepted as well as human’s beliefs and habits adequate themselves to them.