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Spiritualism and Mesmerism

The Spiritualist movement originated in certain peculiar manifestations in the USA and spread throughout the West, eventually becoming a fully-fledged religion. Its ontology was dualistic: a belief that human beings possess a material part and an inner spiritual being, an immortal 'Divine Spark'. Believing in a multi-dimensional universe that interpenetrates our own world, and an evolutionary view of the moral progress of the soul, Spiritualist eschatology was direct and immediate: the dead survive and can be communicated with.

Spiritualism and mesmerism were important to the intellectual life of 19th-century Melbourne. Tracing its origins to Swedenborgianism, mesmerism and related heterodoxies, the Victorian Association of Progressive Spiritualists, founded in 1870, was the first association of its kind in Australia. William Terry founded the Melbourne Progressive Lyceum and edited the monthly Harbinger of Light for over 40 years. Spiritualism was grounded in mesmerism; the hypnotisation of 'sensitives' became the basis for the entrancement of 'mediums'. Terry also believed that 'the projection of spiritual force, directed by the benevolent will of the operator' was 'adequate by steady application to overcome the most obstinate cases of dipsomania' (alcoholism).

The rise and fall of the movement in Melbourne was related to the wider intellectual and religious currents in colonial society. Spiritualists sought to 'prove' empirically the continued existence of the human personality after death, while maintaining, somewhat paradoxically, the advent of the movement as a genuine religious dispensation. With the rapid ascendancy of a dynamic evolutionism, scientific naturalism as a worldview began to prevail. Spiritualism attempted to reconcile religion and science in a unique and culturally significant way. For most believers, the seance was not a 'scientific' enterprise but a religious and highly ritualised event.

Spiritualism was both a counter claim against a dominant materialist ideology and a vehicle for reformist ideas. Its principal adherents represented various strands of reform: William Terry and John Hunt were anti-clerics and temperance men; Walter Lindesay Richardson, father of the novelist H.H. Richardson, promoted Biblical criticism; John Ross was a radical communitarian, and the young Alfred Deakin held an incipient notion that the movement heralded a special purpose for the southern continent.

Al Gabay

Gabay, Alfred J., Messages from beyond: Spiritualism and Spiritualists in Melbourne's golden age 1870-1890, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 2001. Details