Did 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.”