The Prophet of the New Revelation"The History of Spiritualism"
Volume I, Chapter 3
by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Andrew Jackson Davis was one of the most remarkable men of whom we have any exact record. Born in 1826 on the banks of the Hudson, his mother was an uneducated woman, with a visionary turn which was allied to vulgar superstition, while his father was a drunken worker in leather. He has written the details of his own childhood in a curious book, "The Magic Staff," which brings home to us the primitive and yet forceful life of the American provinces in the first half of last century. The people were rude and uneducated, but their spiritual side was very much alive, and they seem to have been reaching out continually for some new thing. It was in these country districts of New York in the space of a few years that both Mormonism and modern Spiritualism were evolved.
There never could have been a lad with fewer natural advantages than Davis. He was feeble in body and starved in mind. Outside an occasional school primer he could only recall one book that he had ever read up to his sixteenth year. Yet in that poor entity there lurked such spiritual forces that before he was twenty he had written one of the most profound and original books of philosophy ever produced. Could there be a clearer proof that nothing came from himself, and that he was but a conduit pipe through which flowed the knowledge of that vast reservoir which finds such inexplicable outlets? The valour of a Joan of Arc, the sanctity of a Theresa, the wisdom of a Jackson Davis, the supernormal powers of a Daniel Home, all come from the same source.
In his later boyhood, Davis's latent psychic powers began to develop. Like Joan, he heard voices in the fields-gentle voices which gave him good advice and comfort. Clairvoyance followed this clairaudience. At the time of his mother's death, he had a striking vision of a lovely home in a land of brightness which he conjectured to be the place to which his mother had gone. His full capacity was tapped, however, by the chance that a travelling showman who exhibited the wonders of mesmerism came to the village and experimented upon Davis, as well as on many other young rustics who desired to experience the sensation. It was soon found that Davis had very remarkable clairvoyant powers.
These were developed not by the peripatetic mesmerist, but by a local tailor named Levingston, who seems to have been a pioneer thinker. He was so intrigued by the wonderful gifts of his subject, that he abandoned his prosperous business and devoted his whole time to working with Davis and to using his clairvoyant powers for the diagnosis of disease. Davis had developed the power, common among psychics, of seeing without the eyes, including things which could not be seen in any case by human vision. At first, the gift was used as a sort of amusement in reading the letters or the watches of the assembled rustics when his eyes were bandaged. In such cases all parts of the body can assume the function of sight, and the reason probably is that the etheric or spiritual body, which possesses the same organs as the physical, is wholly or partially disengaged, and that it registers the impression. Since it might assume any posture, or might turn completely round, one would naturally get vision from any angle, and an explanation is furnished of such cases as the author met in the north of England, where Tom Tyrrell, the famous medium, used to walk round a room, admiring the pictures, with the back of his head turned towards the walls on which they were hung. Whether in such cases the etheric eyes see the picture, or whether they see the etheric duplicate of the picture, is one of the many problems which we leave to our descendants.
Levingston used Davis at first for medical diagnosis. He described how the human body became transparent to his spirit eyes, which seemed to act from the centre of his forehead. Each organ stood out clearly and with a special radiance of its own which was dimmed in case of disease. To the orthodox medical mind, with which the author has much sympathy, such powers are suspect as opening a door for quackery, and yet he is bound to admit that all that was said by Davis has been corroborated within his own experience by Mr. Bloomfield, of Melbourne, who described to him the amazement which he felt when this power came suddenly upon him in the street, and revealed the anatomy of two persons who were walking in front of him. So well attested are such powers that it has been not unusual for medical men to engage clairvoyants as helpers in diagnosis. Hippocrates says, "The affections suffered by the body the soul sees with shut eyes." Apparently, then, the ancients knew something of such methods. Davis's ministrations were not confined to those who were in his presence, but hi; soul or etheric body could be liberated by the magnetic manipulation of his employer, and could be sent forth like a carrier pigeon with the certainty that it would come home again bearing any desired information. Apart from the humanitarian mission on which it was usually engaged it would sometimes roam at will, and he has described in wonderful passages how he would see a translucent earth beneath him, with the great veins of mineral beds shining through like masses of molten metal, each with its own fiery radiance.
It is notable that at this earlier phase of Davis's psychic experience he had no memory when he returned from trance of what his impressions had been. They were registered, however, upon his subconscious mind, and at a later date he recalled them all clearly. For the time he was a source of instruction to others but remained ignorant himself.
Until then his development had been on lines which are not uncommon, and which could be matched within the experience of every psychic student. But then there occurred an episode which was entirely novel and which is described in close detail in the autobiography. Put briefly, the facts were these. On the evening of March 6, 1844, Davis was suddenly possessed by some power which led him to fly from the little town of Poughkeepsie, where he lived, and to hurry off, in a condition of semi-trance, upon a rapid journey. When he regained his clear perceptions he found himself among wild mountains, and there he claims to have met two venerable men with whom he held intimate and elevating communion, the one upon medicine and the other upon morals. All night he was out, and when he inquired his whereabouts next morning he was told that he was in the Catskill Mountains and forty miles from his home. The whole narrative reads like a subjective experience, a dream or a vision, and one would not hesitate to place it as such were it not for the details of his reception and the meal he ate upon his return. It is a possible alternative that the flight into the mountains was a reality and the interviews a dream. He claims that he afterwards identified his two mentors as Galen and Swedenborg, which is interesting as being the first contact with the dead which he had ever recognized. The whole episode seems visionary, and had no direct bearing upon the lad's remarkable future.
He felt higher powers stirring within him, and it was remarked to him that when he was asked profound questions in the mesmeric trance he always replied, "I will answer that in my book." In his nineteenth year he felt that the hour for writing the book had come. The mesmeric influence of Levingston did not, for some reason, seem suited for this, and a Dr. Lyon was chosen as the new mesmerist. Lyon threw up his practice and went with his singular protege to New York, where they presently called upon the Rev. William Fishbough to come and act as amanuensis. The intuitional selection seems to have been justified, for he also at once gave up his work and obeyed the summons. Then, the apparatus being ready, Lyon threw the lad day after day into the magnetic trance, and his utterances were taken down by the faithful secretary. There was no money and no publicity in the matter, and even the most sceptical critic cannot but admit that the occupation and objects of these three men were a wonderful contrast to the money-making material world which surrounded them. They were reaching out to the beyond, and what can man do that is nobler?
It is to be understood that a pipe can carry no more than its own diameter permits. The diameter of Davis was very different from that of Swedenborg. Each got knowledge while in an illuminated state. But Swedenborg was the most learned man in Europe, while Davis was as ignorant a young man as could be found in the State of New York. Swedenborg's revelation was perhaps the greater, though more likely to be tinged by his own brain. The revelation of Davis was incomparably the greater miracle.
Dr. George Bush, Professor of Hebrew in the University of New York, who was one of those present while the trance orations were being taken down, writes:
I can solemnly affirm that I have heard Davis correctly quote the Hebrew language in his lectures, and display a knowledge of geology which would have been astonishing in a person of his age, even if he had devoted years to the study. He has discussed, with the most signal ability, the profoundest questions of historical and biblical archeology, of mythology, of the origin and affinity of language, and the progress of civilization among the different nations of the globe, which would do honour to any scholar of the age, even if in reaching them he had the advantage of access to all the libraries in Christendom. Indeed, if he had acquired all the information he gives forth in these lectures, not in the two years since he left the shoemaker's bench, but in his whole life, with the most assiduous study, no prodigy of intellect of which the world has ever heard would be for a moment compared with him, yet not a single volume or page has he ever read.
Davis has a remarkable pen-picture of himself at that moment. He asks us to take stock of his equipment. "The circumference of his head is unusually small," says he. "If size is the measure of power, then this youth's mental capacity is unusually limited. His lungs are weak and unexpanded. He had not dwelt amid refining influences-manners ungentle and awkward. He has not read a book save one. He knows nothing of grammar or the rules of language, nor associated with literary or scientific persons." Such was the lad of nineteen from whom there now poured a perfect cataract of words and ideas which are open to the criticism not of simplicity, but of being too complex and too shrouded in learned terms, although always with a consistent thread of reason and method beneath them.
It is very well to talk of the subconscious mind, but this has usually been taken as the appearance of ideas which have been received and then submerged. When, for example, the developed Davis could recall what had happened in his trances during his undeveloped days, that was a clear instance of the emerging of the buried impressions. But it seems an abuse of words to talk of the unconscious mind when we are dealing with something which could never by normal means have reached any stratum of the mind, whether conscious or not.
Such was the beginning of Davis's great psychic revelation which extended eventually over many books and is all covered by the name of the "Harmonica Philosophy." Of its nature and its place in psychic teaching we shall treat later.
In this phase of his life Davis claims still to have been under the direct influence of the person whom he afterwards identified as Swedenborg-a name quite unfamiliar to him at the time. From time to time he received a clairaudient summons to "go up into the mountain." This mountain was a hill on the farther bank of the Hudson opposite Poughkeepsie. There on the mountain he claims that he met and spoke with a venerable figure. There seems to have been none of the details of a materialization, and the incident has no analogy in our psychic experience, save indeed-and one speaks with all reverence-when the Christ also went up into a mountain and communed with the forms of Moses and Elias. There the analogy seems complete.
Davis does not appear to have been at all a religious man in the ordinary conventional sense, although he was drenched with true spiritual power. His views, so far as one can follow them, were very critical as regards Biblical revelation, and, to put it at the lowest, he was no believer in literal interpretation. But he was honest, earnest, unvenal, anxious to get the truth and conscious of his responsibility in spreading it.
For two years the unconscious Davis continued to dictate his book upon the secrets of Nature, while the conscious Davis did a little self-education in New York with occasional restorative visits to Poughkeepsie. He had begun to attract the attention of some serious people, Edgar Allan Poe being one of his visitors. His psychic development went on, and before he reached his twenty-first year he had attained a state when he needed no second person to throw him into trance but could do it for himself. His subconscious memory too was at last opened, and he was able to go over the whole long vista of his experiences. It was at this time that he sat by a dying woman and observed every detail of the soul's departure, a wonderful description of which is given in the first volume of the "Great Harmonia." Although this description has been issued as a separate pamphlet it is not as well known as it should be, and a short epitome of it may interest the reader.
He begins by the consoling reflection that his own soul-flights, which were death in everything save duration, had shown him that the experience was "interesting and delightful," and that those symptoms which appear to be signs of pain are really the unconscious reflexes of the body, and have no significance. He then tells how, having first thrown himself into what he calls the "Superior condition," he thus observed the stages from the spiritual side. "The material eye can only see what is material, and the spiritual what is spiritual," but as everything would seem to have a spiritual counterpart the result is the same. Thus when a spirit comes to us it is not us that it perceives but our etheric bodies, which are, however, duplicates of our real ones.
It was this etheric body which Davis saw emerging from its poor outworn envelope of protoplasm, which finally lay empty upon the bed like the shrivelled chrysalis when the moth is free. The process began by an extreme concentration in the brain, which became more and more luminous as the extremities became darker. It is probable that man never thinks so clearly, or is so intensely conscious, as he becomes after all means of indicating his thoughts have left him. Then the new body begins to emerge, the head disengaging itself first. Soon it has completely freed itself, standing at right-angles to the corpse, with its feet near the head, and with some luminous vital band between which corresponds to the umbilical cord. When the cord snaps a small portion is drawn back into the dead body, and it is this which preserves it from instant putrefaction. As to the etheric body, it takes some little time to adapt itself to its new surroundings, and in this instance it then passed out through the open doors. "I saw her pass through the adjoining room, out of the door and step from the house into the atmosphere. Immediately upon her emergement from the house she was joined by two friendly spirits from the spiritual country, and after tenderly recognizing and communing with each other the three, in the most graceful manner, began ascending obliquely through the ethereal envelopment of our globe. They walked so naturally and fraternally together that I could scarcely realize the fact that they trod the air-they seemed to be walking on the side of a glorious but familiar mountain. I continued to gaze upon them until the distance shut them from my view."
Such is the vision of Death as seen by A. J. Davis-a very different one from that dark horror which has so long obsessed the human imagination. If this be the truth, then we can sympathize with Dr. Hodgson in his exclamation, "I can hardly bear to wait." But is it true? We can only say that there is a great deal of corroborative evidence.
Many who have been in the cataleptic condition, or who have been so ill that they have sunk into deep coma, have brought back impressions very consistent with Davis's explanation, though others have returned with their minds completely blank. The author, when at Cincinnati in 1923, was brought into contact with a Mrs. Monk, who had been set down as dead by her doctors, and for an hour or so had experienced a post-mortem existence before some freak of fate restored her to life. She wrote a short account of her experience, in which she had a vivid remembrance of walking out of the room, just as Davis described, and also of the silver thread which continued to unite her living soul to her comatose body. A remarkable case was reported in LIGHT, also (March 25, 1922), in which the five daughters of a dying woman, all of them clairvoyant, watched and reported the process of their mother's death. There again the description of the process was very analogous to that given, and yet there is sufficient difference in this and other accounts to suggest that the sequence of events is not always regulated by the same laws. Another variation of extreme interest is to be found in a drawing done by a child medium which depicts the soul leaving the body and is described in Mrs. De Morgan's "From Matter to Spirit" (p. 121). This book, with its weighty preface by the celebrated mathematician Professor De Morgan, is one of the pioneer works of the spiritual movement in Great Britain. When one reflects that it was published in 1863 one's heart grows heavy at the success of those forces of obstruction, reflected so strongly in the Press, which have succeeded for so many years in standing between God's message and the human race.
The prophetic power of Davis can only be got over by the sceptic if he ignores the record. Before 1856 he prophesied in detail the coining of the motor car and of the typewriter. In his book, "The Penetralia," appears the following:
"Question: Will utilitarianism make any discoveries in other locomotive directions?"
"Yes; look out about these days for carriages and travelling saloons on country roads-without horses, without steam, without any visible motive power moving with greater speed and far more safety than at present.
Carriages will be moved by a strange and beautiful and simple admixture of aqueous and atmospheric gases-so easily condensed, so simply ignited, and so imparted by a machine somewhat resembling our engines, as to be entirely concealed and manageable between the forward wheels. These vehicles will prevent many embarrassments now experienced by persons living in thinly populated territories. The first requisite for these land-locomotives will be good roads, upon which with your engine, without your horses, you may travel with great rapidity. These carriages seem to me of uncomplicated construction."
He was next asked:
"Do you perceive any plan by which to expedite the art of writing?"
"Yes; I am almost moved to invent an automatic psychographer-that is, an artificial soul-writer. It may be constructed something like a piano, one brace or scale of keys to represent the elementary sounds; another and lower tier to represent a combination, and still another for a rapid re-combination; so that a person, instead of playing a piece of music, may touch off a sermon or a poem."
So, too, this seer, in reply to a query regarding what was then termed "atmospheric navigation," felt "deeply impressed" that "the necessary mechanism-to transcend the adverse currents of air, so that we may sail as easily and safely and pleasantly as birds-is dependent on a new motive power. This power will come. It will not only move the locomotive on the rail, and the carriage on the country road, but the aerial cars also, which will move through the sky from country to country."
He predicted the coming of Spiritualism in his "Principles of Nature," published in 1847, where he says:
It is a truth that spirits commune with one another while one is in the body and the other in the higher spheres-and this, too, when the person in the body is unconscious of the influx, and hence cannot be convinced of the fact; and this truth will ere long present itself in the form of a living demonstration. And the world will hail with delight the ushering-in of that era when the interiors of men will be opened, and the spiritual communion will be established such as is now being enjoyed by the inhabitants of Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.
In this matter Davis's teaching was definite, but it must be admitted that in a good deal of his work he is indefinite and that it is hard reading, for it is disfigured by the use of long words, and occasionally he even invents a vocabulary of his own. It was, however, on a very high moral and intellectual level, and might be best described as an up-to-date Christianity with Christ's ethics applied to modern problems and entirely freed from all trace of dogma. "Documentary Religion," as Davis called it, was not in his opinion religion at all. That name could only be applied to the personal product of reason and spirituality. Such was the general line of teaching, mixed up with many revelations of Nature, which was laid down in the successive books of the "Harmonial Philosophy" which succeeded "Nature's Divine Revelations," and occupied the next few years of his life. Much of the teaching appeared in a strange paper called "The Univercoelum," and much was spread by lectures in which he laid before the public the results of his revelations.
In his spiritual vision Davis saw an arrangement of the universe which corresponds closely with that which Swedenborg had already noted, and with that afterwards taught by the spirits and accepted by the Spiritualists. He saw a life which resembled that of earth, a life that may be called semi-material, with pleasures and pursuits that would appeal to our natures which had been by no means changed by death. He saw study for the studious, congenial tasks for the energetic, art for the artistic, beauty for the lover of Nature, rest for the weary ones. He saw graduated phases of spiritual life, through which one slowly rose to the sublime and the celestial. He carried his magnificent vision onward beyond the present universe, and saw it dissolve once more into the fire-mist from which it had consolidated, and then consolidate once more to form the stage on which a higher evolution could take place, the highest class here starting as the lowest class there. This process he saw renew itself innumerable times, covering trillions of years, and ever working towards refinement and purification. These spheres he pictured as concentric rings round the world, but as he admits that neither time nor space define themselves clearly in his visions, we need not take their geography in too literal a sense. The object of life was to qualify for advancement in this tremendous scheme, and the best method of human advancement was to get away from sin-not only the sins which are usually recognized, but also those sins of bigotry, narrowness and hardness, which are very especially blemishes not of the ephemeral flesh but of the permanent spirit. For this purpose the return to simple life, simple beliefs, and primitive brotherhood was essential. Money, alcohol, lust, violence and priestcraft-in its narrow sense-were the chief impediments to racial progress.
It must be admitted that Davis, so far as one can follow his life, lived up to his own professions. He was very humble-minded, and yet he was of the stuff that saints are made of. His autobiography extends only to 1857, so that he was little over thirty when he published it, but it gives a very complete and sometimes an involuntary insight into the man. He was very poor, but he was just and charitable. He was very earnest, and yet he was patient in argument and gentle under contradiction. The worst motives were imputed to him, and he records them with a tolerant smile. He gives a full account of his first two marriages, which were as unusual as everything else about him, but which reflect nothing but credit upon him. From the date at which "The Magic Staff" finishes he seems to have carried on the same life of alternate writing and lecturing, winning more and more the ear of the world, until he died in the year 1910 at the age of eighty-four. The last years of his life he spent as keeper of some small book-store in Boston. The fact that his "Harmonial Philosophy" has now passed through some forty editions in the United States is a proof that the seed which he scattered so assiduously has not all fallen upon barren ground.
What is of importance to us is the part played by Davis at the commencement of the spiritual revelation. He began to prepare the ground before that revelation occurred. He was clearly destined to be closely associated with it, for he was aware of the material demonstration at Hydesville upon the very day when it occurred. From his notes there is quoted the sentence, under the vital date of March 31, 1848: "About daylight this morning a warm breathing passed over my face and I heard a voice, tender and strong, saying, 'Brother, the good work has begun-behold, a living demonstration is born.' I was left wondering what could be meant by such a message." It was the beginning of the mighty movement in which he was to act as prophet. His own powers were themselves supernormal upon the mental side, just as the physical signs were upon the material side. Each supplemented the other. He was, up to the limit of his capacity, the soul of the movement, the one brain which had a clear vision of the message which was heralded in so novel and strange a way. No man can take the whole message, for it is infinite, and rises ever higher as we come into contact with higher beings, but Davis interpreted it so well for his day and generation that little can be added even now to his conception.
He had advanced one step beyond Swedenborg, though he had not Swedenborg's mental equipment with which to marshal his results. Swedenborg had seen a heaven and hell, even as Davis saw it and has described it with fuller detail. Swedenborg did not, however, get a clear vision of the position of the dead and the true nature of the spirit world with the possibility of return as it was revealed to the American seer. This knowledge came slowly to Davis. His strange interviews with what he described as "materialized spirits" were exceptional things, and he drew no common conclusions from them. It was later when he was brought into contact with actual spiritual phenomena that he was able to see the full meaning of them. This contact was not established at Rochester, but rather at Stratford in Connecticut, where Davis was a witness of the Poltergeist phenomena which broke out in the household of a clergyman, Dr. Phelps, in the early months of 1850. A study of these led him to write a pamphlet, "The Philosophy of Spiritual Intercourse," expanded afterwards to a book which contains much which the world has not yet mastered. Some of it, in its wise restraint, may also be commended to some Spiritualists. "Spiritualism is useful as a living demonstration of a future existence," he says. "Spirits have aided me many times, but they do not control either my person or my reason. They can and do perform kindly offices for those on earth. But benefits can only be secured on the condition that we allow them to become our teachers and not our masters-that we accept them as companions, not as gods to be worshipped." Wise words-and a modern restatement of the vital remark of Saint Paul that the prophet must not be subject to his own gifts.
In order to explain adequately the life of Davis one has to ascend to supernormal conditions. But even then there are alternative explanations. When one considers the following undeniable facts:
1. That he claims to have seen and heard the materialized form of Swedenborg before he knew anything of his teachings.
2. That SOMETHING possessed this ignorant youth, which gave him great knowledge.
3. That this knowledge took the same broad sweeping universal lines which were characteristic of Swedenborg.
4. But that they went one step farther, having added just that knowledge of spirit power which Swedenborg may have attained after his death.
Considering these four points, then, is it not a feasible hypothesis that the power which controlled Davis was actually Swedenborg? It would be well if the estimable but very narrow and limited New Church took such possibilities into account. But whether Davis stood alone, or whether he was the reflection of one greater than himself, the fact remains that he was a miracle man, the inspired, learned, uneducated apostle of the new dispensation. So permanent has been his influence that the well-known artist and critic Mr. E. Wake Cook, in his remarkable book "Retrogression in Art,"* harks back to Davis's teaching as the one modern influence which could recast the world. Davis left his mark deep upon Spiritualism. "Summerland," for example, as a name for the modern Paradise, and the whole system of Lyceum schools with their ingenious organization, are of his devising. As Mr. Baseden Butt has remarked, "Even to-day the full and final extent of his influence is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to assess."
Hutchinson's, 1924. Occult Review, February, 1925.