Stainton Moses and the National Spiritualism

in Authors & Books/Esotericism/History/Spirituality/Theosophy

It was fifty years ago when I first entered a Spiritualist Church, Edward Street Brighton, then under the leadership of Ivor Davies from South Wales. There I saw a young medium Robin Sevens demonstrate, and heard a young Eric Hatton sing. I also encountered in the church library a book “Spirit Teachings” by Stainton Moses, though in its first edition in 1883, the author had used a pseudonym, M.A. Oxon.

When I left university, I went to work at the College of Psychic Studies as it is now called, which under the name London Spiritualist Alliance had been founded by Stainton Moses in 1884. In the archives, they still had the notebooks in which he had written down the original spirit teachings from which the book was compiled. Most Spiritualist church libraries had the book. It was on occasion serialised in the newspaper Psychic News. Readings in services were sometimes taken from it. Someone called it the Bible of Spiritualism.

But who was Stainton Moses, and why was he so eminent in the early history of Spiritualism even in an age of great mediums?

Stainton Moses, a headmaster’s son, was a young Church of England curate, educated at Oxford University, but health problems caused him to become first a private tutor and then an English master at University College School, London. In 1872 he began to investigate Spiritualism, and soon emerged as a powerful mental and physical medium.

In his mental mediumship he became entranced and spoke, but it soon became apparent that it was better to write down the messages he received in the notebook he always carried; over 20 of them are preserved at CPS. Different spirit guides had different handwriting, and most of them used symbolic names (like “Imperator” or “Rector”) as Moses did not like to claim famous people as communicators. Some spirits gave good evidence of identity- he collected cases in his book, still important today, “Spirit Identity.” (1878).

In physical mediumship, the home circle of Moses often experienced apports, lights and perfumes; indeed, perfumes seem to have regulated the circle in the way music did in most circles. So I’m going to quote some examples of perfumes, reported by one of his home circle, Mrs Speer.

“Scents of various kinds were always brought to the circle—the most common being musk, verbena, new mown hay and one unfamiliar odour which we were told was spirit scent. Sometimes breezes heavy with perfume swept round the circle: at other times quantities of liquid musk would be poured into the hands of the sitters, and also by request on our handkerchiefs. At the close of the seance scent was nearly always found on the medium’s head and the more frequently it was wiped away the stronger and more plentiful it became.”

Though his guides often advised against attending other circles, Moses did get to know most of the leading mediums of the time, including Kate Fox and D.D, Home. There was danger in attending other circles, of picking up bad influences.

Although Moses did not like public speaking, he did write many articles about Spiritualism, and soon became a leader in the Movement. About 1880 however, a jealous Spiritualist editor informed his school of his out of hours Spiritualist activities. You will remember that in those days, to be a known Spiritualist could have serious consequences. The shock of this betrayal led to a breakdown, and Moses withdrew from Spiritualist organisations. He did however agree to support the newly formed Society for Psychical Research in 1882, which was meant to scientifically study psychic phenomena.

In 1883, after the collapse of the main national Spiritualist body, the guides of Moses asked him to form a new Spiritualist organisation. You can imagine how unwelcome this request was, but he agreed to do it, and the London Spiritualist Alliance duly emerged.

Now our subject today is Stainton Moses and National Spiritualism. By National Spiritualism, I mean the religion of the SNU which did not fully come into existence until a decade after his passing, although “Two Worlds”, the main Spiritualist church newspaper, was founded in 1887. I am not aware that Stainton Moses ever entered a Spiritualist church- there were not many in London in his day- but he did pave the way.

As a curate, Moses was quite well read in theology, and his beliefs gradually widened. His guides told him that they had been leading him over many years, away from narrowness. For example,

One ray of light from the Sun of Truth dawned on your soul when you learned that the dead as you thought them could be helped by the prayers of the living, and that purgatorial punishment was something more than a theological figment. You learned a fact when you took in that truth: You became a greater power, a truer exponent of Divine truth, when your heart first prompted and your lips syllabled a prayer for a departed soul. The Guardians drew nearer and the Angels rejoiced.

It was during this phase of your religious belief that we directed your study to the records of that body of Christian believers who falsely arrogate to themselves the title of the Church of GOD, and call themselves Catholic and Universal. You read their books, you knew their creed, you learned from them much that was real and true and if you learned naught else at least you unlearned that chilling heartless bigotry which would identify Catholic belief with universal damnation, and would make Rome synonymous with hell.

Another ray dawned on your soul when you learned to believe that a Catholic might be saved, and that God might even look with favour on the ignorant prayer to the Virgin which came warm from the heart of the fanatical peasant who had no knowledge but his faith. But indeed you learned more. You learned of Angel ministry, of Saintly intercession, of the power of Prayer. You gathered the good, and under our guidance still, you rejected the cold exclusiveness, the dogmatic shallowness, the hard unyielding changelessness which stereotyped religion and degraded man into a puppet of a Priesthood. You saw, dimly enough, but you saw the evil, and you turned away the gainer for the experience. You were led by us then as ever though you knew it not. God led you by our inspiration. The thoughts you framed, the words you spoke, they were of us and of our God. . .

Eventually the teachings of his guides caused a spiritual crisis as he resisted the loss of his orthodox beliefs. “Spirit Teachings” records something of this struggle. A smaller book “Higher Aspects of Spiritualism” (1880) summarised his new faith.

He remained a servant of God and of Jesus, as was the leader of his spirit band, Imperator, but without the orthodox beliefs in the Trinity, the Atonement, biblical authority and so on, or practising membership in a Christian church. His eloquence, his intelligence and his probity made him a powerful advocate for the Movement.

It is not generally known that Moses himself returned on various occasions through the mediumship of Mrs Leonard. But despite some reprints by Spiritualist publishers the works of Stainton Moses faded from view. There was no full biography, though in 1923 a retired Indian Civil Servant A.W. Trethewy published a study of all the surviving Moses communications under the title “The Controls of Stainton Moses.”

 Mr Trethewy also revealed in a lecture to the LSA (now CPS) the identities of his guides, Imperator for example being the prophet Malachi from the Jewish Bible.

In 1992, a century after Moses had died, almost nothing he wrote was in print, except for a spirally bound edition of “Spirit Teachings”. But cheap reproduction and digitisation were on the way, and soon there were reprints, of varying quality, of some of his works. More recently, the International Association for the Preservation of Spiritualist and Occult Periodicals (www.iapsop.com) has digitised and made available free on line much that Stainton Moses wrote.

Some of his original communications however remain unpublished in the archives of the College of Psychic Studies. There are undoubtedly aspects of his mediumship that have fallen out of view, such as his occasional use of a crystal, and he had at least one significant communicator who had never lived on earth.

Stainton Moses was troubled, especially in his early work, by doubts about the source of his communications. It was already appreciated by serious Spiritualists that there were pretenders on the other side, who would claim to be someone famous. Some of the spirits associated with physical phenomena like raps and levitations were acknowledged by the guides to be low spirits. The old orthodox belief in demons also lingered in his memories, and psychical research friends like Frederic Myers were becoming aware that the unconscious mind could manufacture a pseudo-personality, temporary or permanent.

Perhaps the most serious challenge came from two correspondents in America, Col. Olcott (an experienced Spiritualist) and Madame Blavatsky, a Russian lady who claimed to have been initiated by occultists in the East, and to have profound knowledge of reality. Blavatsky, after identifying with Spiritualism for a time, became hostile to the reality of communication with those who had died. She would become entranced herself, but asserted that those who controlled her were living men and not discarnates. Moses joined from afar the New York Theosophical Society, founded in 1875 but he rejected the suggestion that Spiritualists were in touch with astral shells, and not real people. Though Moses remained a friend of Blavatsky and Olcott, he defended mediumship forcefully against the aspersions of the Theosophists.

But the Movement split. Some prominent Spiritualists left and became Theosophists. William Crookes, for example, joined the T.S. in 1883 and remained a member until his death. Moreover, after the formation of the Society for Psychical Research in 1882, some of the more academic Spiritualists identified more with the critical approach. Also, there had always been tensions between Christian and non-Christian Spiritualists, and this argument continues many decades later.

We can see in retrospect that Stainton Moses was speaking for generations of seekers who, like him, moved away from specifically Christian beliefs, and adopted a wider faith. Indeed he was a precursor of the New Age movement. He always felt that Spiritualism as he knew it was a provisional expression of truth.

The passing of Stainton Moses on 5 September 1892, 125 years ago, was deeply felt in English Spiritualism, for whom he was, as the psychical researcher Frank Podmore put it, 

“the foremost champion in this country of the doctrine of Spiritualism properly so called: the system of philosophy which ascribed the phenomena in general to the agency of spirits of dead men and women, and believed in the advent, under spirit guidance, of a worldwide religion.”

At the end of his first year investigating, Stainton Moses had written.

 “Thus the year closed—the most remarkable year of my life. In it I have learnt that the so-called dead are more really living than ourselves, and that under certain conditions, they can return to earth. And this was the blessing given by Imperator, the chief control, to us: ‘May you live now so that hereafter you may pass easily through the intermediate spheres without pain—to the realms of joy.”

May we echo that blessing.

May you live now so that hereafter you may pass easily through the intermediate spheres without pain—to the realms of joy.

Leslie Price is librarian of the College of Psychic Studies, London,

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