Spiritism, Reincarnation and remembering past lives

in Latest/Philosophy/Spirituality/Theosophy

Reincarnation is the return of a person after death into a new body on earth. In the early days of the Spiritualist Movement, the term was sometimes used for temporary possession, in trance mediumship for example. But it came to mean a permanent return, whether before the birth of the new body or later. Such an idea was of course well known in Hinduism and Buddhism, and to various ancient teachers in the West such as Pythagoras and Plato.

Modern Spiritualism officially began in Hydesville, New York State in 1848, spread rapidly after a public meeting in 1849, and took root in the United Kingdom in 1853, partly because of the visit of American mediums, and partly through home circles engaging in table turning. These countries were dominated by orthodox Christianity in which reincarnation played no part.

It was different in France, where in revolt against monarchy and Catholicism some social reformers such as Fournier and Reynaud, had been open to the idea of reincarnation. When a school teacher who used the literary name Allan Kardec collated some of the early spirit communications received in France they included reincarnation. Kardec gave the name Spiritism to this system, and in France the Spiritists soon outnumbered the Spiritualists.

Kardec’s books were translated into English, but had limited influence. In contrast, when Brazilian students in Paris took knowledge of Spiritism back to Brazil, there was an explosion of interest there, and Spiritists came to be numbered in millions. They were however largely ignored by the Spiritualist Movement in Anglo-Saxon countries, although those involved with international Spiritualism have always had to decide what to do about Spiritists!

Some excellent books have now been published which make it easier to start the necessary study by anyone in the field.

Lynn Sharp “Secular Spirituality, Reincarnation and Spiritism in Nineteenth Century France” Lexington Books 2006, shows how reincarnation was in the public mind in France in the 1840s.

John Warne Monroe “Laboratories of Faith, Mesmerism, Spiritism and Occultism in Modern France “ Cornell University Press 2008 is especially good on how spirit photography fell foul of the French law.

Emma Bragdon “Spiritism and Mental Health” (Singing Dragon, 2013) has many contributors, and gives a panoramic view of where we are in Spiritist research and healing today, with special emphasis on Brazil.

Through the Net you can locate Spiritist groups in the UK, and more recent translations of books by Kardec and other Spiritist authors.

There were, naturally, occasional arguments between Spiritists and Spiritualists, and it was suggested, for example, that Kardec had consciously or unconsciously influenced the material which he edited for “The Spirit’s Book” and his later works. But I suspect there is little knowledge in the Spiritualist Movement of Kardec and his research methods, and of the remarkable achievements of Spiritism.

Let us pay tribute to psychical researchers such as Guy Playfair who made these known in his books, and to journalist Anne Dooley of Psychic News who went to Brazil 50 years ago and wrote about this in her book “ Every Wall a Door” 1973, also to Janet Duncan, the UK Spiritist leader whose knowledge of Portuguese and Brazil has been of incalculable help  to UK Spiritism.

To return to Spiritualism as it spread in the States and here. A famous medium did proclaim reincarnation from the platform in London. This was Mrs Cora Tappan, later Mrs Richmond, whose twelve lectures were printed in Medium and Daybreak.

She may have received the teaching in Washington as early as 1870. The teachings eventually appeared in book form as The Soul: its nature, relations, and expressions in human embodiments (1887). Almost unknown today, Cora was immensely influential, not just as a trance orator, but as a supporter of President Lincoln and a founder of the National Spiritualist Alliance. She used the word “re-embodiment” rather than reincarnation.

It was Emma Hardinge Britten who responded to Cora, in a two-part 1875 article for the newspaper Spiritual Scientist on ‘The Doctrine of Reincarnation’. Emma pointed out that Spiritualism was based on the evidential facts of communication through mediumship and was threatened if it admitted theoretical speculations not supported by evidence.

Nothing, Emma noted, had been said about reincarnation by such mediums as Cora in their youth. The spirits who communicated through Cahagnet’s carefully researched somnambules in France before Hydesville denied reincarnation, as did the later American communicators. Emma used very strong language, speaking for example of “obnoxious and repulsive side issues ruthlessly engrafted on the pure and fruitful soil of spiritualism”, “this fungus” etc.

Emma had recognised that reincarnation undermined the authority of the majority of spirit communications which denied it. But the teaching spread through Spiritualism, being taken up for example by W.J. Colville, an English-born student of Cora who had moved to America. In 1904, James Peebles made an attempt to reverse this in his book A Discussion of Reincarnation based on articles in Banner of Light. He was able to cite support from Lyceum pioneer Andrew Jackson Davis who claimed “he has given reincarnation another death blow”.

When Cora taught reincarnation in London and America, she did so often in private circles. Another respected American medium who worked on occasion in London was Mrs Hollis, later Mrs Hollis-Billing, whose guide Ski also taught reincarnation to English students. She was a friend of Cora, but we are frankly in the dark as to where they acquired the teaching.

This introduces another factor. The Theosophical Society was founded in New York in 1875 by some Spiritualists interested in occultism, but their leading spirit so to speak was Madame Blavatsky. She did not teach reincarnation at first, but after her arrival in India in 1879, it became very conspicuous in Theosophy.

Many Spiritualists, such as Emily Kislngbury, secretary of the BNAS, became Theosophists, but the T.S. largely followed Madame Blavatsky’s lead in being negative about mediumship, and positive about reincarnation. After the First World War, reincarnation was taught by a number of British trance mediums, whose guides included Silver Birch, Red Cloud and White Eagle.

The identity of these guides is unclear. White Eagle had a definite link with Theosophical masters, Red Cloud was an Egyptian, and Silver Birch was not a North American Indian and his actual name was not disclosed. But Arthur Findlay was among many who stood firm against reincarnation. Some Spiritualists suggested that the erroneous teaching of reincarnation had been introduced by oriental spirits who had taken over the concept from their earth life.

So, let’s take stock of the situation as it was when Stansted became a College 50 years ago. There were mediums opposed to reincarnation, such as the late Winifred Moyes, her guide Zodiac, and Greater World Christian Spiritualists. Over at the Spiritualist Association, Hunter Mackintosh and Tom Johanson were pro-reincarnation. The editor of Psychic News, Maurice Barbanell professed to disbelieve, though his guide Silver Birch taught it. Barbie’s old friend Paul Beard, now president of the College of Psychic Studies, was pro-reincarnation; as an old student of Red Cloud and White Eagle that was natural. But in many Spiritualist churches, reincarnation was not accepted. Was there a church where a notice on the rostrum advised speakers to avoid the subject?

At this time something happened which changed the situation. A good deal of new evidence of reincarnation began to emerge. Much of it came from the spreading practice of hypnotic regression. But an American psychiatrist (actually Canadian born) Ian Stevenson began to collect cases in which children apparently remembered previous lives spontaneously. He investigated hundreds of such cases, mostly in the East, but some in the West.

Also, a young journalist Roy Stemman began studying the whole problem of reincarnation. He summed up his investigation in “The Big Book of Reincarnation” (2012) which is the best introduction to the subject.

Under hypnosis, many people appeared to remember vivid past lives.  But it became apparent that all was not well with regression. Sometimes the clients recalled being abducted by aliens. Sometimes they remembered being sexually abused by family members. Sometimes the details of lives recalled were close to those in novels. The prior beliefs of therapists appeared to have an effect on the clients. And once the supposed memories had been recovered, they could be hard to forget.

I am not writing off all hypnotic regression evidence, not least because some professional mediums moved into the regression field, offering such sessions to their clients. Dr Stevenson steered clear of regression research. Indeed, he warned of dangers with it. But it certainly had an effect on the acceptability of reincarnation among Spiritualists.

Stevenson’s own work was with children who apparently remembered past lives, but some of his most significant evidence was linked with physical evidence- such as birthmarks.  Stevenson reported that about 35% of children who claim to remember previous lives had birthmarks and/or birth defects that they (or adult informants) attribute to wounds on a person whose life the child remembers. The cases of 210 such children were investigated. He put the results in his most dangerous book “Reincarnation and Biology”.- 2 volumes of over a 1110 pages each; dangerous because the hardback books are so heavy. Dangerous also to those who would like to brush off the problem of reincarnation evidence.

Is there a way forward? I would suggest we continue to follow the Stevenson approach, now in the hands of Dr Jim Tucker. And we look again at Madame Blavatsky’s understanding of reincarnation, the subject of a new study by Dr Julie Chajes “Recycled Lives” from Oxford University Press.  Both these scholars, I understand are taking part in the October 2019 European School of Theosophy in Greece, which will focus on reincarnation, and whose programme will be available soon.

European School of Theosophy

Leslie Price is librarian at The College of Psychic Studies, London



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