Suspicious Séances

lincolnsDid you hear about the séances that were held at the White House? It’s true, but it’s not recent news. They were conducted for Mary Todd Lincoln, and her husband, the president, apparently joined in attendance at some of them.

The Lincoln’s had lost their eleven year old son Willie to Typhoid in February 1862. Nearly all historians describing Mary’s grief accurately use the word “inconsolable”.

Since the Lincoln’s were not Christian, Mary sought the illusion of comfort in spiritualism, a thriving movement in the mid-nineteenth century. Spiritualism typically contends that the spirits of the dead survive in a manner where they can, and do, communicate with the living. This interchange is typically facilitated by a “medium,” someone particularly attuned to the “spirit world.”

Mediums sometimes allow themselves to become physical vessels for these spirits.

Christians either dismiss such experiences as fraud, or as demonic possession. Which depends on their own worldview. Some Christians dismiss the spiritual realm, while others recognize it is quite real.

C.S. Lewis would be in the latter camp, as his preface to The Screwtape Letters amply illustrates.

There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.

Christians who acknowledge the spiritual warfare which is waged beyond our physical senses understand the meaning of Paul’s words: “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).

Returning to the 1800s

The reason I have been thinking about Mary Lincoln—who would later be institutionalized and attempted suicide—is because I’m finishing up an article for the online journal I edit about the military chaplaincy. It’s called Curtana: Sword of Mercy, and the new issue will be posted by the end of the month.*

The specific article relates the story of Ellen Elvira Gibson (Hobart),** who was the first woman chaplain in the American military. She served a Wisconsin regiment, and her story is nothing short of fascinating.

Hobart was a spiritualist, and “ordained” by a group of the same who banded together to provide just such credentials. Interestingly, although she gave hundreds of (paid) lectures in a spiritual “trance” state, she would ultimately reject spiritualism. She turned to a more radical and secular “freethinking” as spiritualism was waning in popularity, but still a formidable presence.

Chaplain Hobart would gain renown in anti-Christian circles for her book The Godly Women of the Bible by an Ungodly Woman of the Nineteenth Century. Numerous atheist websites cite a quotation from the volume. “The abominable laws respecting [women in the Bible] . . . are a disgrace to civilization and English literature; and any family which permits such a volume to lie on their parlor-table ought to be ostracized from all respectable society. . .”

Contemporary readers will find it odd that one of the reasons spiritualism received a warm welcome in Europe and America was precisely because it seemed to offer measurable, “scientific” evidence of the afterlife. In This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, Drew Faust writes:

To an age increasingly caught up in the notion of science as the measure of truth, spiritualism offered belief that seemed to rely on empirical evidence rather than revelation and faith. If the dead could cause tables to rise, telegraph messages from the world beyond, and even communicate in lengthy statements through spirit mediums, an afterlife clearly must exist. Here was, in the words of one popular spiritualist advocate, ‘proof palpable of immortality’” (180-81).

Returning to the Inklings

One of Lewis’ dearest friends was Owen Barfield. Sadly, the two remained separated throughout life by their religious beliefs. Barfield had helped Lewis come to believe in God (i.e. theism) but could not journey with Lewis on to Christianity. Barfield, instead, became one of the greatest of Anthroposophist evangelists.

Anthroposophy possesses elements of philosophy, but is also inarguably a religion in its own right. It also holds a view of the afterlife distinct from both Christianity and historic spiritualism.

But the nature of the religion created by Rudolf Steiner (which evolved from his involvement in Theosophy) is not the subject of our reflections here. However, if one is interested in learning more about Owen Barfield, a 1992 documentary can be viewed here.

The image above is a famous example of “spirit photography” taken by William Mulmer, who made it popular. He was once placed on trial for fraud, but the case was dismissed for lack of evidence.

* I may delay publication of this particular article since the issue will already carry the biography of another chaplain.

** The reason “Hobart” is bracketed, is because it was her married name at the time of her military service. However, the marriage was short lived, and most of her life she went by “Ella E. Gibson.”

13 thoughts on “Suspicious Séances

  1. Spiritualism was quite a popular widespread movement during that period? I had vague memory about Mary Todd Lincoln and seances, but did not realize they were not Christian in beliefs.
    Very interesting post.
    Real people are so much more fascinating that made up characters sometimes

    1. It was quite popular from the 1840s on. Christians don’t practice mediumship, which is a mainstay of spiritualism. The Old Testament command remains true in forbidding it: “Do not turn to mediums or necromancers; do not seek them out, and so make yourselves unclean by them: I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 19).

      The New Testament understanding is that mediumship (possession) is the mark of the presence of demonic spirits (i.e. fallen angels, sometimes “impersonating” deceased people, but not ghosts). A complicated subject, but the Bible is consistent and clear in its teaching on the subject.

      1. I knew there had to be a specific verse somewhere. (Guess it would have been announced to us as kids)
        The movement’s popularity seems odd. But science was making advances and prominent – society was changed. It’s seen in literature/articles/ even photos of that time period. Then it did shifted back?
        Maybe a mirror of more recent times? We can hope.
        Thanks for the response – just not taught much about this time period except for battles and monuments

      2. The other side of the equation is that supernatural spiritual interaction is real. It just depends on how you interpret (e.g. biblically, or more subjectively) it. I knew a medical missionary (psychiatrist, not ordained) who was a missionary doctor in Africa. It didn’t take very many encounters with spiritual warfare (e.g. witnessing exorcisms) before he became utterly persuaded of the reality of demonic possession.

        Most people are shielded from this, of course. As Lewis well recognized and related in the Screwtape Letters, the Devil’s smart enough not to waste time with spiritualistic antics when encouraging people to worship materialism can accomplish his goals just as well.

  2. When I first read this, I realized why my husband had brought up Lincoln and his brand of Christianity out of the blue the other day! The “something” he’d been reading seems to have been this blog and it’s a welcome reminder that we share the same tastes, some even unbeknownst to one another :)

    1. That would certainly be serendipitous. Of course, the Lincoln connection with spiritualism has been well documented so he may have encountered the thought in many other places. Still, it’s nice to see wives and husbands enjoying the same things.

    1. You beat me to answering your question. The regiment started out as a couple of batteries that ended up in a little combat. In 1864 they were authorized to recruit more to fill out an entire regiment, with the new folks (vast bulk of the unit) in the defense of Washington, where they because a “Heavy” artillery unit. Hobart was their only chaplain.

      There was another Hobart chaplain… her husband John, who was chaplain of the 8th Wisconsin Infantry. (They divorced shortly after the war and she resumed her maiden name, Gibson, but which she is far better known.)

      1. Heh thanks for the details. The 8th WI was the “Old Abe” regiment named for a real live bald eagle mascot. I wonder if John was a Christian?

    2. Sorry to disappoint. He received his ordination through the same spiritualist association. And, when Ella divorced him it was due to his dissolute lifestyle. Apparently he had a mixed record as a chaplain too, but I’ve not researched his service.

      1. Interesting. I thought it interesting that chaplains were elected by their regiments. Says something about the lack of orthodoxy in those regiments if a spiritualist could elected and no one really caught on.

      2. We can’t blame the entire regiment… it was really the officers who voted. And, being retired military, I assume that if the colonel is pushing for someone, most of the field and company grade officers would simply salute smartly and concur. (The federal regiments, in contrast to state volunteer regiments, received their chaplains in a manner similar to the practice today.)

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