Spiritualism on the rise
This past week, I came across an alarming headline: Brits turn to occult to contact the dead, grieve pandemic losses. In fact, even more concerning for the church is the fact that some testified that they found “a greater sense of belonging (in spiritualism) than they would feel from the established Church.” Those words represent a real and present challenge to the church, for we must be capable of mirroring the compassion and understanding that Christ would show these people. Yet, it is very sad that somebody might actually feel they get a greater sense of purpose, belonging and support from a group dedicated to witchcraft.
Unfortunately, British history shows a pattern of people following the path of spiritualism and the occult, notably prevalent after World War I and the Spanish flu pandemic. But perhaps it was the Great Plague of London in 1665 which led to some of the most bizarre rituals witnessed in the modern era. Those who stayed in London did all they could to protect themselves from the plague. As no one knew what caused the plague, most of these were based around superstition. In 1665, the College of Physicians issued a directive that brimstone “burnt plentiful” was recommended for a cure for the bad air that caused the plague. Those employed in the collection of bodies frequently smoke tobacco to avoid catching the plague. In fact, AJ Bell (writing in about 1700) said this:-
For personal disinfections nothing enjoyed such favour as tobacco; the belief in it was widespread and even children were made to light up a reaf in pipes. Thomas Hearnes remembers one Tom Rogers telling him that when he was a scholar at Eton in the year that the great plague raged, all the boys smoked in school by order, and that he was never whipped so much in his life as he was one morning for not smoking. It was long afterwards a tradition that none who kept a tobacconist shop in London had the plague.
Other methods were also used to keep the plague away. When money was used in day-to-day transactions in shops or at a market, it was placed in a bowl of vinegar rather than being handed over to the recipient. The wearing of lucky charms was also common – and recommended by doctors! Ambroise Pare, a physician, introduced new methods for treating gunshot wounds, but he still believed that a lucky charm would keep away the plague. Another physician, Dr George Thomson, wore a dead toad around his neck!
When people are fearful and desperately sad, they will seek out anything which offers hope. Unfortunately, there are many within spiritualism that are happy to offer false hope and lies. Lest you think spiritualists are a fringe group, there were many famous devotees of spiritualism, including Mary Todd Lincoln (wife of Abraham Lincoln) and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries. During the late 1880’s, investigators began to expose many of the well-known mediums as charlatans, proving their demonstrations to be contrived. Harry Houdini gained early popularity by his campaign to expose fraudulent mediums.
Spiritualism attracted many followers who were unhappy with the established churches and sought reform (much like what is happening today). In fact, many of the early Abolitionists and women’s rights advocates were spiritualists. Spiritualist meetings provided some of the earliest venues for women to speak publicly and authoritatively in a male-dominated society. Unfortunately, the movement resulted in many people moving to a secular spirituality, focused on personal experiences and unsubstantiated messages from beyond. Furthermore, it de-emphasised a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
So, to combat this current rise in interest of the occult and spiritualism, we must once again boldly proclaim that a personal relationship with Jesus Christ will offer hope to the hopeless, help to the helpless and salvation to the lost.