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Over 400,000 men enlisted in the Australian Imperial Forces to fight in World War I. Nearly one in every five of them was never to return. As every strata of society searched for meaning amidst such cataclysmic loss, many turned to Spiritualism — a fringe religion built on the belief that “death is not a cessation of life but a mere change in condition” and that those who had passed on could communicate with the living.
Why did so many rational men and women place their faith in Spiritualism? How did spirit mediums convince them that communication with the dead was possible? And what was the impact of Spiritualism on the Australian experience of the Great War? Author Nadia Bailey is drawing from her research in the Library's collections for her historical novel in progress.
Nadia Bailey is a Melbourne-based author, journalist and editor. She was the 2019 UNESCO City of Literature Creative Resident in Kraków, Poland, and a 2018 Midsumma Futures Fellow. Her essays, short fiction and poetry have been widely represented in anthologies and journals, and she has published several books on popular culture with Smith Street Books.
21 05 04 Nadia Bailey - Darkened Rooms
*Speakers: Shirleene Robinson (S), Nadia Bailey (N)
S: I’m Dr Shirleene Robinson, Director of Curatorial and Collection Research here at the National Library. I’d like to begin by acknowledging Australia’s first nations peoples as the traditional owners and custodians of this land and give my respect to their elders past and present and through them to all Australian Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander peoples.
Thank you for attending this afternoon’s presentation by the Library’s 2020 Creative Arts Fellow for Australia Writing. The annual Creative Arts Fellowship for Australian Writing is supported by the Ray Mathew and Evan Kollsman Trust. This Trust was established through a generous bequest made to the Library by New York arts patron, Eva Kollsman, in honour of the Australian poet, dramatist and writer, Ray Mathew, to support and promote Australian literary research and writing. This fellowship aims to allow writers to develop their creative works by immersing themselves in an aspect of the National Library’s collection.
Today we welcome Nadia Bailey, our 2020 Creative Arts Fellow for Australian Writing. After having to put her research on hold initially last year due to the fires and then of course the pandemic we were delighted that Nadia was able to finally begin her research at the Library last month. Nadia is a Melbourne-based author, journalist and editor. She was a 2019 UNESCO City of Literatures Creative Resident in Krakow, Poland and a 2018 Midsumma Futures Fellow. Her essays, short fiction and poetry have been widely represented in anthologies and journals and she’s published several books on popular culture with Smith Street Books.
During her fellowship Nadia has been undertaking background research for a work of historical fiction set in the final days of world war one entitled ‘Darkened Rooms’. Her novel will explore the emotional impact of war on those who are left behind, a search for meaning amid such great loss and people’s interest in spiritualism as a means of connecting with those who have passed. Her novel will reimagine Australia’s post wartime history and foster reflection on contemporary concerns surrounding faith, remembrance and queer identity. Today Nadia will share her research into these areas as well as reading a draft sample from the novel so if you could please join me in welcoming Nadia Bailey to the stage.
N: Thank you for that very kind introduction and thank you all so much for coming today. It’s been a long strange road to doing this fellowship. As Shirleene mentioned I initially was scheduled to come to the Library in February 2020 but because of the horrific bushfires of that summer I decided to postpone my visit until the middle of the year by which point the pandemic had happened and I was stuck in Melbourne in lockdown unable to travel further than 5km from my home, far less interstate. So, it’s with great pleasure and no small amount of gratitude that I'm able to be here today.
I came to this fellowship to undertake research for my novel in progress, a work of historical fiction set in Australia in the final days of the first world war. It tells the story of a young woman, Eden Sibley, whose brother has disappeared on the front, maybe missing, maybe dead. Bereft and grieving she turns to a spiritualist medium named Maude Campion to help her find out her brother’s fate through occult means. The novel deals with questions of faith and fact, grief and memory, science and the supernatural. It’s also a love story between Eden and Maude who managed to find happiness with each other in a time when queer relationships were kept hidden.
The National Library’s Creative Arts Fellowship for Australian Writing supported by the Ray Mathew and Eva Kollsman Trust offers writers like myself the opportunity to develop their creative ideas by immersing themselves in the collections. For me this meant the chance to dig deep into spiritualism’s history in Australia and try to understand why so many rational men and women placed their faith in this belief system, how spirit mediums convinced them that communication with the dead was possible and what spiritualism’s impact was on the Australian experience of the great war. It led me into what I can confidently say is some of the odder corners of the archives where I found and read books like Spookland!: a record of research and experiment in a much talked of realm of mystery with the review and criticism of the so-called spiritualistic phenomena of spirit materialisation by T Shekleton, Henry.
It might be helpful at this stage for me to outline what I mean when I talk about spiritualism. Spiritualism or spiritism as it was sometimes known doesn’t mean spirituality in its general sense, rather I am referring to a specific belief system which grew out of the experiences of a pair of teenage sisters in America in the 1840s and centred around the belief that death was not the end, that those who had passed over could communicate with the living and that with the right kind of training it was possible for one who was sensitive to such things to receive messages from beyond the veil.
In the spiritualist’s belief death was viewed as simply the withdrawal of the physical man clothed in his ethereal body from the physical body as one would withdraw a hand from a glove. Many of you will be familiar with the Ouija board and the séance, the joining of hands, the calling up of spirits, now a hallmark of gothic literature and the standard stuff of horror movies. But before these things became embedded in popular culture they were part of a genuinely held belief system, that although is most associated with the Victorian era, actually continued well into the 20th century and enjoyed a resurgence of popularity during the first world war, a time when death was so present in everyday life.
As I began looking into the scholarship on this subject, I quickly discovered that the majority of studies focus on spiritualism’s golden age, the Victorian era, while its popularity into the 20th century is treated largely as an afterthought. Similarly, spiritualism in an Australian context has gone largely unexamined ‘though its popularity here cannot be denied. There was for example a dedicated spiritualist journal called The Harbinger of Light that was published monthly from 1870 all the way through to the mid-1950s while spiritualist churches and lyceums had dedicated buildings in major cities and active chapters in places as far flung as the Kimberley. As a journalist in The Protestant Standard wrote in 1871, the system called spiritualism or spiritism with its allies, table-turning, planchette, et hoc genus omne have found for themselves a new youth in the genial clime of sunny Australia.
It’s from this place that the idea for my novel arose and this particular time when ghosts were not feared but longed for and the uncanny was welcomed into suburban Australian parlours through the medium’s esoteric skills. My area of interest is less about whether these experiences of materialisation, thought transference or spirit communication were real and more about how people experience them, whether they came with complete faith or existential doubt. The question of whether spiritualists, mediums were actually able to communicate with the dead doesn’t much matter, only the effects of believing it matter here.
For example we may doubt that the Sydney-based Reverend Thomas Downs, author of The Way, The Truth, and The Light, spiritual philosophy and phenomena, positive revelation, was visited by the spirit of his enlisted brother late one autumn evening in 1917 or that this spirit told the Reverend that he was now on a march upward toward those bright spirit people and not a march looking for the enemy. But that visitation or whatever it was, was clearly profoundly meaningful to the Reverend and the account of it was meaningful to many others and it had a very real effect on him and how he faced his bereavement. Of course, Reverend Downs was not alone, these were not beliefs only held by the oddball few, countless other thoughtful and intelligent people had and recorded experiences of this kind in the years during and after the first world war.
Though it’s often remembered as a fringe pursuit orchestrated by tricksters and embraced by the credulous, spiritualism was in fact a major cultural force, and though the phenomena may have been fraudulent the faith in it was real and for me that is worth studying.
Spiritualism’s history could conceivably be traced back as far as human life itself as there has probably always been some kind of conception of a world beyond the physical, of ghosts, souls or spirits. But as a defined doctrine it probably starts in 1743 with Emanuel Swedenborg, a Swedish mathematician who when he was 55 years old began to experience spiritual visions and went on to write several books about his clairvoyant and psychic gifts. In 1788, Franz Anton Mesmer, a Viennese doctor, developed the theory and practice of mesmerism in which he would put an afflicted person into a trance state and prompt them to diagnose their own ailments. The mesmeric trance went on to develop into a means of communication with the world of the soul.
But it was in 1848 that the movement crystallised with an incident known as the Hydesville Knockings. In a village in Wayne County, New York State, there lived a family consisting of two teenage girls, Margaretta and Catherine, and their parents, John and Margaret Fox. The family began to be disturbed by loud rappings and knockings in the night which were found to show intelligence, that is, there seemed to be some kind of consciousness present that could answer questions by responding with these mysterious sounds. Through rapping, the consciousness identified itself as a man with the initials CR, aged 31 years old who claimed to have been murdered in the Fox’s house five years earlier and whose body was buried in the cellar. The incident, though its facts remained unproven, seemed to indicate that communication with the dead was possible. Word soon spread and the Fox sisters began to give public seances to demonstrate their powers in receiving spirit communication.
The case received a great deal of attention in the Fox’s community and was widely featured in the media. The girls became famous. Other mediums soon took up the cause, not just in America but all over the world. In France there was Eva Carrière, in Italy Eusapia Palladino and many more besides. Four years after its American incarnation spiritualism arrived in England via a medium named Mrs Hayden. In 1855 she was followed by a young Scottish American named Daniel Douglas Home. Home’s seances which were attended by some of the country’s most eminent thinkers produced many more wonders than the Fox’s sisters’ rappings. An accordion placed under the table and untouched by the medium played tunes, a piece of wood rose 10 inches from the table and floated about in the air, moving gently up and down as if it were on rippling water, a pencil stood up on its point and tried to write, tables slid about untouched, luminous clouds were seen and materialised hands carried flowers about the room. Home himself was seen to be lifted into the air, paralleling the levitations of many saints. And all this in a fair light, observes J Arthur Hill in his 1918 book, Spiritualism, Its History, Phenomena and Doctrine, usually one gas burner.
By the end of the 19th century the western world was undergoing an increased interest in that which was empirical, rational and verifiable through the scientific method. It was in this spirit that in 1882 the Society for Psychical Research was founded for the purpose of making an organised and systematic attempt to investigate various sorts of debatable phenomenon which are prima facie inexplicable on any generally recognised hypothesis. The stated aim of the Society was to follow the facts wherever they might lead, to use the objective methods of science to investigate the shadowy inexplicable realms of the supernatural and the occult.
Men like Sir W F Barrett, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Mr J Arthur Hill and Sir Oliver Lodge were all associated with the Society for Psychical Research at one time or another and their good standing contributed to popularising and legitimising spiritualist beliefs. Although spiritualism and psychical research are not the same thing the two went hand in glove for many years, one spiritual, one scientific caught in a strange dance of what can be experienced and what can be proven and the chasm that lay between.
What went on in a séance? At its essence it was the gathering of people in a darkened room which through an alchemy of suggestion and imagination became a site of radical possibility where those who are no longer living might once again find human voice or human form and pass on messages and comfort to those who they had loved in life.
In spite of both the church’s distrust in spiritualism and the movement’s scientific aspirations seances tended to have a pronounced sacramental tone. A séance would generally begin with a hymn, a solemn prayer very much from the Christian tradition before moving on to more occult concerns. Lights were dimmed, hands were joined, and the medium would allow herself to become passive, receptive and open to the spirits in the room.
The most popular practice was probably trance mediumship which involved four distinct entities. The first was the enquirer who was a regular person seeking answers then there was the medium, also sometimes known as a sensitive who had psychic abilities and would enter into an entranced state. Then there was what was known as the medium’s control, a spirit who took possessions of the entranced medium and spoke through them. Finally, the disincarnate spirits who would speak to the control and, via the medium, answer the enquirer’s questions. Another variation of this was what was known as direct voice which eliminated the need for a control, instead the medium did not enter into a trance necessarily but simply relayed to the enquirer what the spirits were saying.
Messages could be received through numerous means. One of the earliest and most enduring methods was via table rapping in which enquirers would ask questions and receive answers by way of short, sharp sounds delivered by the spirits, one for yes, two for no and so forth. This was most often done sitting around a table with all participants holding hands to ensure that none of them were delivering the raps themselves but could also be achieved on any surface.
Alfred Sinnett suggests in his book, The Occult World, for example that you could set down a large glass clock shade on the hearth rug and get the medium after removing all rings from her hands and sitting well clear of the shade so that no part of her dress touched it, to lay her hands on it. He goes on, putting a lamp on the ground opposite and sitting down on the hearth rug one could see the undersurfaces of the hand resting on the glass and still under these perfectly satisfactory conditions the raps would come, clear and distinct on the sonorous surface of the shade.
Another method of receiving spirit communication was through automatic writing in which the medium or sensitive would hold a pencil over a sheet of paper and write coherent and intelligible sentences without any conscious volition. According to the spiritualists the script produced emanated from a human being who had passed on into the unseen. Those more inclined to look for a psychological explanation suggested that automatic writing emanated from the writer’s subconscious mind. Arthur E Waite, the editor of the occult journal, The Unknown World, for example, called it that dark borderline of mystery where deception and self-deception meet and join hands.
A third phenomena was that of apports or the moving of matter through matter. This was then when the medium was able to make objects appear in the séance room through inexplicable means, usually small items like flowers, ferns damp with dew, showers of sand or hails of small stones. Sometimes the medium might deliver more ambitious objects like fetishes from Africa or Asia, stone tablets inscribed with mysterious text or even live animals.
One of the most sought-after phenomena was that of materialisation where a spirit would take on corporeal form. These spirits were typically not of people known to the sitters but figures who claimed to be from far earlier time periods or far flung lands, frequently ancient Egypt, India or pre-settlement America. Materialised spirits tended to appear as humans in luminous white robes who could speak and interact just as the living could and could even be captured on film.
Sometimes there were other physical phenomena such as firefly-like bluish gleams that would appear in the air and fly about the room, the appearance of clouds for dim white mists, the spontaneous presence of sweet smells of violets or roses or incense or resinous wood or a sudden dip in temperature. At other times participants would hear the ringing of a bell or strange snatches of music emanating from nowhere.
The poet, W B Yeats, thought of the spirit communication he received as a shared dream between himself and his wife who was a medium. He writes that he experienced psychic phenomena as a dream that could take an objective form in sounds, in hallucinations, in sense, in flashes of light, in the movements of external objects. Whether these extraordinary phenomena were caused by disincarnate spirits, by the devil, by the medium’s subconscious mind or simply by fraud depended very much on who you asked.
Spiritualism came to prominence at a time when great advances in science were being made, from electricity to the wireless telegraph, to steam power, to aviation. This rapidly increasing scientific knowledge was regarded not as the enemy of these supernatural obsessions but an encouragement to them. Electricity had given credence to notions of invisible energies operating beyond human comprehension. The telegraph had made communication possible over staggering distances. The world seemed poised on a great threshold of knowledge and the hope was that spirit communication could be proven via scientific means.
As Rosa Praed writes in Dreams and Visions of the War, ‘…we of the present age have grown accustomed to scientific wonders, their very familiarity leaves us cold. We do not always understand them, but we are content to accept their existence and to enjoy the comforts we derive from them”. She goes on, “how is it then that in regard to supernatural manifestations or rather, to manifestations which are held to be supernatural, the majority of us are only too ready to emulate the unenlightened attitude adopted towards science by our forefathers simply because we fear to explore too deeply into the influences by which they are governed?”
As I mentioned at the start of this talk one aspect of my research interest was looking at spiritualism in a specifically Australian context. The years leading up to the first world war were ones of progress and expansion for white Australians. The country was recently federated, imparting a new sense of national identity and patriotism that was separate from its identity as a part of the British Commonwealth. Advances in medicine and nutrition meant that people were living longer and having better lives. While the growth of cinemas, gramophones, telephones and steam travel meant that people had more opportunity for fun and leisure than those stern Victorians of the previous era.
There was a sense that Australia was a place of liberalism, a young country where old world customs and ways of living could be swept aside, and new ideas embraced and explored. It was from this fertile ground that radical ideas like spiritualism were able to flower. The Harbinger of Light which is preserved on microfilm here at the National Library provides a fascinating window into the occult concerns of Australia at the time. Within its pages are discussions of death and dying, reincarnation versus eternal life, the lost city of Atlantis, whether spirits can communicate via telegraph machine and the advantages of vegetarianism as well as articles about prophetic dreams, women’s rights, eugenics, pacifism and folk religions.
Toward the back of each issue are short progress reports from the spiritualist churches and organisations around Australia and what really struck me is just how many of them there were. In 1915 for example in Victoria alone there was the Victorian Association of Spiritualists, the Spiritual Research Society, the Melbourne Progressive Spiritualistic Lyceum, the Brunswick Spiritualistic Lyceum, the Prahran Spiritualistic Church, the Richmond Spiritualistic Church, the Society for Spiritual Progress Bendigo and the Geelong Spiritual Research Society.
Like its overseas counterparts, spiritualism in Australia attracted adherents from the intellectual classes, from scientists, to businessmen, to politicians. Alfred Deakin was an enthusiastic spiritualist as a young man and wrote for The Harbinger of Light under a pseudonym. He met his future wife, Elizabeth Martha Anne Brown, known as Pattie, in 1874 at the Melbourne Progressive Lyceum, the Sunday School for the city spiritualists and she herself was a talented medium.
Another prominent Australian to dabble in the occult was the artist and poet, Norman Lindsay, who turned to the Ouija board for answers after the loss of his brother, Reg, in the great war. Despite being stridently antireligion Norman wrote in his autobiography, my mask that the emotional insecurity brought on by the horror of the first world war sent nearly everybody into the back-parlour limbo of spiritualism.
Australia was and is a largely secular society which meant there was a resistance to organised religion, especially among the middle and working classes. A 1913 editorial in The Harbinger of Light recognised the lack of a living faith in Australian cities and an ever-growing mass of non-churchgoers. People tended to be nominally Christian, undergoing baptism and perhaps attending church services during festivals and holidays but there was no deep allegiance to tradition and dogma. A belief system like spiritualism offered religious feeling without the constraints or demands of conventional faith or as one advertisement for The Melbourne Progressive Spiritualistic Lyceum put it, no creeds, no dogmas, no doctrines.
Unlike most other religions at the time spiritualism offered opportunity for spiritual authority for women as well as men. In fact, women were considered to be naturally more suited to mediumship, being thought of as essentially intuitive, passive and receptive. In an anonymously penned book called Ghostland the author writes that those best suited to mediumship were delicate and sensitive persons, young children, pure and simpleminded women, those in fact whose physical and nervous temperaments are negative and whose mind are receptive to the influence of others. By surrendering to that influence and disassociating from the physical world women were able to open themselves to the spiritual world and its myriad inhabitants.
“Nearly every woman”, writes Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in The New Revelation, “is an undeveloped medium”. In fact, spiritualism embraced progressive ideas and causes right from its inception. In America it was closely associated with a group of radical Quakers who campaigned for women’s rights and the abolition of slavery and in Australia it was associated with similarly liberal causes including pacifism, the temperance movement and women’s suffrage.
While the Society for Psychical Research was very much dominated by men the mediums they studied, the keepers of the occult power were more often than not women. Figures like the Fox sisters, Eusapia Palladino, Florence Cook and Emma Hardinge Britten and Etta Wriedt and a great many more besides found attention, opportunity and status through spiritualism that would not have been otherwise available to them.
A 1913 article titled Woman and Her Position in Spirit Life in The Harbinger of Light contended that, in the spirit life male and female spirits are given equally important work, each rule, each is given equal power, equal rank. It was only a small step from that idea that women might be deserving of those same privileges in their mortal life too.
In terms of my novel, which unfortunately I’m not going to read from today because I just had too much research to cover but in terms of my novel I was interested in exploring how spiritualism might offer avenues for queer women to subvert conventional gender norms. I discovered for example that a medium might in the name of spirit possession assume a male persona and have licence to speak and act as though she were a man.
Some of these masculine spirits were known to be extremely flirtatious, occasionally female sitters fell in love with them. The séance room could also offer the opportunity for physical intimacy with other women, whether that was the touch of the faith healer, the linking of arms around the séance table or the thrilling caress of a friendly spirit. It was also common practice for female sitters to search a medium prior to a materialisation séance. This was to make sure that she wasn’t hiding any props in her clothing or about her person but also offered extraordinary opportunity for intimate physical contact between women in a way that would have otherwise not been socially acceptable.
Take for example this description of a dark séance from David Peard that’s Behind the Scenes with the Mediums from 1916. “The lady medium took this lady into a small room where absolute darkness reigned and had a sitting with her under test conditions, that is the lady placed her toes on the medium’s toes, her knees against the medium’s knees and she thought that she held the medium’s hands”.
These kinds of practices are particularly significant when you consider cultural attitudes of the time. Discussions around homosexuality in general were largely limited to medical books, for example, Havelock Ellis’ Sexual Inversion published in 1896 or Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis published in English in 1903. Even in those books female homosexuality barely gets a mention. Lawmakers of the time did not criminalise homosexual acts between women because they simply refused to believe that such a thing could exist. Evidently ghosts were seen a more likely prospect than lesbians.
At the close of the great war it would still be several years before the British writer, Radclyffe Hall, would publish The Well of Loneliness and propel the notion of female homosexuality or sexual inversion as it was known into the wider public consciousness. But of course, just because people weren’t talking or writing about queer women in this era it doesn’t mean that there were none. In Australia for example there was Dr Lilian Cooper and her great friend, Mary Bedford, artist Irene Watt and her partner, Nora Weston, Agnes Goodsir, the painter who gave her name to Goodsir Place here in Canberra, Ida Leeson, the first woman to achieve a senior management position in an Australian library and many others besides.
In terms of the spiritualist movement Rosa Praed who I’ve quoted from in this presentation was a real-life example. She was an Australian writer most famous for her novels who emigrated to England with her husband in 1876. She separated from him a few years later and subsequently fell in love with a British medium named Nancy Harwood. The two of them lived together as intimate friends for 30 years until Nancy’s death in 1927.
Spiritualism had begun to decline in popularity around the turn of the century. There had been too many psychic phenomena debunked and too many mediums exposed as frauds. The Fox sisters confessed they had made the original sprit rappings by way of cracking their toe joints. Disgraced, they both descended into alcoholism and died penniless and alone. The Society for Psychical Research continued to examine the supernatural and inexplicable, but they tended to come up with more proof for the side of the sceptics than they did for the faithful. The movement’s brightest stars were exposed and extinguished one by one. Spiritualism’s ascension wavered and devolved into petty infights between various factions of the faithful while those disillusioned slunk back to the safe realms of conventional religion.
But then war was declared. In Australia over 400,000 men enlisted in the Australian Imperial Forces and nearly one in every five of them was never to return. As every strata of society searched for meaning amidst such cataclysmic loss there was a quickening of religious feeling which expressed itself both in conventional worship at churches and in more experimental and occult spheres. From all these classes, whether rich or poor, is drawn a companionship of the bereaved, writes Jane Stoddart in The Case Against Spiritualism published in 1919. It is from them that the new spiritualism expects a multitude of recruits for their eyes are looking towards the shadows.
In Australia particularly there was an anguish associated with having no body to bury which led to grief without closure, robbed as they were of the usual rituals to mark out death and mourning. “Perhaps he has no sleeping place even among the undistinguished dead, his body may have been utterly obliterated, his end may be subject for mysterious surmise”, writes Jane Stoddart, “If the churches cannot speak to the mourners words of divine consolation spiritualism will rush in with its false and fatal comfort, and rush in it did”.
The various churches in Australia were dismayed by spiritualism’s resurgence and popularity as were the sceptics who had spent so long debunking its claims. A bishop remarked at the time, there have been more people sent to hell through spiritualism than by all the bullets and shrapnel of this war. Another book I read called spiritualism a war disease more obnoxious than the ‘flu. Yet for many the war served as an awakening for new possibilities and beliefs. Sir Oliver Lodge, after losing his son in the war published Raymond, a widely read account of his experiences conversing with his son’s spirit through a medium. Grief sparked a search for answers to urgent questions about the nature of death and what happens after it. As Estelle Steed writes in her introduction to Dreams and Visions of the War, “Today when we are living under the high pressure and amidst the turmoil of war when men are daily going forth to face death, when thoughts and prayers for loved ones are filling the air and everything is vibrating more quickly it would seem that at times the veil has been lifted and a realisation of the unseen forces around allowed to many”.
The Harbinger of Light described legions of resistless emissaries from the highest spheres who would assist soldiers on the battlefield while in a pamphlet called A Message to Humanity: definite, vital and urgent communications from the beyond the veil, I found an account of spirits making contact to reassure the living that they inhabited the battlefield to welcome slain soldiers into their new deathless life. “When a sudden death takes place we throw our psychic influence around the spirit body causing it to relapse into as near as we can explain an unconscious condition thereby alleviating the pain and the shock of the sudden wrench of the spirit from the body and with loving care we convey the newborn spirit to a place of quiet rest letting our influence surround it so that on awakening the spirit may be kept within bound”.
There is a rich body of literature describing inexplicable phenomena experienced by both those at home and on the battlefield. Here’s Rosa Praed again. Since the war there have been many remarkable cases of visions commonly ascribed to telepathy in which soldiers wounded on the battlefield have seemed to appear to their relatives at the exact moment of their great danger whilst there have been several more tragic instances also in which those at home have seen visions of dear ones killed in battle at the exact time of their death.
Many of you will be familiar with the story of the Angel of Mons, a canny piece of war propaganda but there were many other accounts of visions experienced by soldiers across the front here described by Bishop Welldon of the Manchester Cathedral in The Harbinger of Light. We have read lately of angels appearing not only in the fateful crisis of the retreat from Mons but also in the forced stress of battle at the Dardanelles. In the agony of warfare, it is only too likely that men may see visions not the less significant to them perhaps because they are spiritual and not objectively real. But the world is so full of mystery, there are so many things in heaven and earth as yet undiscovered and undreamt of in any philosophy that it would be as unscientific as it is irreligious to close the eyes and heart against the possibility of angelic ministries at the critical hour of human life.
I’m sure that many of you are also familiar with the painting, Menin Gate at Midnight which is held at the Australian War Memorial. In the archives here I found a booklet which detailed the circumstances of its creation, explaining how the painter, Will Longstaff, saw a vision of steel-helmeted spirits rising from the moonlit cornfields around him while attending the unveiling ceremony of the Menin Gate Memorial in Belgium and subsequently immortalised the experience in this work. He reportedly painted it in one session while still under psychic influence.
As I was researching how the war caused so many people to re-evaluate their relationships to faith and spirituality, I came across this reflection by Lilian Whiting. “The world that existed before the breaking out of war seems receding in time, wraithlike, fantasmal, a dream, a faint reminiscence as of some pre-existence, as a life lived somewhere, I know not on what divine a shore”.
The war destabilised the very foundations of society, forcing those left living to reckon with the terror of oblivion, the finality of death. The search for meaning makes sense. We humans are born storytellers, always looking for patterns in ink blots, in clouds and the position of the stars. When we gaze into the darkness, we might see only shadows or we might faintly see a face, perhaps just a suggestion of someone who we loved once and lost.
Given the truly monumental loss of life sustained during the first world war it is easy to understand spiritualism’s appeal, the dead were not really dead, they were waiting just beyond the veil. The beloved who have gone before, come to welcome those who are now suffering bereavement, assured The Harbinger of Light. They tell us of the welcoming of the slain, of the comforting and helping of the newcomers fresh from the fields of carnage. Best of all they show that the immortal man lives on, that in the very truth our beloved cannot die.
It seems appropriate to be undertaking this study in Canberra, a city that is so full of monuments to the dead where no matter in which direction you look your eye will be drawn to a cenotaph or a shrine or a memorial. The memory of the first world war is alive here, its spirits are animated. I’ve been staying in the suburb of Deakin, named of course for Alfred Deakin, that most mystic of Prime Ministers. It’s strange to think that the reach of this belief system went all of the way to the hallowed halls of Parliament House.
But for all its focus on death, for all its occult concerns spiritualism was a belief system that was founded on a hopeful premise that humanity was in a state of unfurling toward a better future and that when death came it was just one more step on a journey toward a fully realised self. That people were having these supernatural experiences was not a cause for alarm but a sign that humanity was on the right path. We as humans are drawn to the unknown. Even at our most rational we want to believe. As J Arthur Hill writes in Man Is A Spirit, “…we are growing toward the light, the veil is thinning, some of us even now see through in gleams and a few of us with a certain amount of steadiness. If anything is a permanent feature of human consciousness, then perhaps this longing for revelation is it”.
Thank you very much.
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