Concern for Knowledge in Communication with the Dead

face of a prisoner

Although the eminent nineteenth-century public figure John Edmonds communicated extensively with family and friends, knowledge-seeking dominated his documented communication with the dead. John’s brother Francis died on February 7, 1863. John claimed to have first established communication with Francis’ spirit on April 1, 1863. The communications medium was Mrs. Hayden and raps on a table. John published a transcript of the communication because he thought it provided useful knowledge about life beyond the grave. John described the start of communication thus:

Very soon the raps came on the table, rapid, distinct, and cheerful.
Mrs. H. asked the spirit to give his name.
It was spelled out, “Francis Edmonds.”
I said there was a middle letter.
It rapped out “W.”

One might have expected from John exclamations of joy at the first indication of communication with his dead brother. But John spoke with lawyerly precision to confirm the identity of the witness. John continued in this manner:

I asked who was with him?
He rapped out, “Sarah” (my wife), “Samuel” (my father), “John” (my brother), “Lydia” (my mother).

John now understood himself to be communicating with five dead members of his immediate family. John’s next words were a question regarding the phenomenology of dying:

I asked him if, when dying, he was conscious he was going?

After a two more exchanges concerning the phenomenological details of dying, Francis, unprompted by a “how are you?,” declared that he was “much happier than I can express.” Francis then immediately apologized for opposing John’s evidence concerning spiritual communication:

As you are aware I was always opposing you in this theory {spiritualism}, and now in all due honor to you, I feel it no more than duty to return and tell you that I was terribly mistaken, brother, while you were and are correct; and I crave your forgiveness, if I might unwittingly or though ignorance have opposed you, so as to have made myself disagreeable to you or your, and which I sincerely acknowledge to be wilful stubbornness on my part, fighting against well-authenticated facts.^

This apology and request for forgiveness are neither common substance nor in typical style of ordinary communication with family members. That John would publish this text indicates his concern for knowledge.

Edmonds documented relatively little communication with dead friends and family. Edmonds’ first published communication with the dead appeared in early 1852 in the spiritualist journal The Shekinah. Edmonds stated in that publication that he communicated with several dead family members:

I recognized my father, my mother, my children, and my brother and sister, some of whom had been thirty years in the Spirit-World.^

Edmonds, however, sparsely documented his communication with family. He seemed reluctant to even print his wife’s name: he usually referred to her in his spiritual transcripts only as “S–”. In this same article, Edmonds more extensively documented his communication with authoritative figures: William Penn, Isaac Newton, Emanuel Swedenborg, and Benjamin Franklin. Edmonds’ weightiest publication, Spiritualism, included a record of Edmonds’ spiritual communication from April 3 to August 28, 1853. That book primarily documented communication with Swedenborg and Bacon. Edmonds noted that he omitted records of spiritual communication that were not “of general interest.”^ Edmonds seems to have considered ordinary communication with dead family and friends not to be of general interest. But that is the type of spiritual communication that historically has been the most popular.

Edmonds argued that spiritual communication served the public interest as a source of knowledge. He asserted that knowledge from such communication, to the extent it could be developed, promoted private and public goods:

Distorted sometimes by the imperfection of the mediums through which the intercourse comes, and sometimes perverted by the passions of those who receive it, yet, carefully considered and patiently studied until understood, I can safely assert, after nearly nine years’ earnest attention to the subject, that there is nothing in it that does not directly tend to the most exalted private worth and public virtue.

For those who did not see any such development, Edmonds counseled patience:

its progress is slow; not from want of power to communicate, but from want of capacity to comprehend.^

Edmonds was aware of hostility to spiritual communication, but he considered the knowledge that it provided to have “immense consequences”:

I am fully aware of the strong prejudice there is in the public mind against spiritualism in all its aspects. …

But having imbibed my belief, after a most careful and painstaking examination of the whole subject in all its bearings – having satisfied alike my conscience and my judgment that I had found in it a religion fraught with immense consequences to mankind, I felt that I ought not to, that I could not, withhold the expression of my views frankly and fearlessly.^

As interests in spiritualism rapidly grew, Edmonds recognized media frauds and abuses, but never doubted that spiritualism offers the world “glorious truth”:

oh! amid what discouragements! With the subject so dear to me, tainted with man’s folly and fraud; destined to see fools run mad with it, and rogues perverting it to nefarious purposes; meeting in its daily walks, (owing to the sad imperfection of the instrumentalities used) much that was calculated to discourage and dishearten; and beholding how the world for whom this glorious truth comes, turns from it and reviles it, I have never for one moment, faltered from that hour in my belief.^

Edmonds did not specify systematically spiritualism’s distinctive truths and consequences. What these were was a matter of intense but unstructured controversy. To demonstrate the value of spiritualism as a source of knowledge, Edmonds published new texts from dead authorities and made ad hoc claims to knowledge. What made Edmonds spiritualism extraordinary was these claims to such knowledge.

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