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The Rise of Spiritualism During the First World War: Raymond, Or Life and Death

Dying and the Dead module

Our series of blog posts from MA students continues with a turn to spiritualism, through a blog post by Megan.

By Megan Schofield, MA Student, University of Leeds

Sceptics of spiritualism will ask: how can rational men and women believe in a religion that convinces them a channel of communication can be opened with the spirit world?

Spiritualism was an important belief system in post-First World War Britain. Following the events of the First World War the majority of families had experienced a loss; the grieving process was not an individual process but in fact, shared by a nation. It is this grieving process that initiated the growing belief in Spiritualism. The movement took a sturdy foothold in the culture of twentieth-century Britain and the shared grief of a nation allowed its legacy to continue in modern society at the turn of the century.

Schofield, Megan. Photograph of Sir Oliver Lodge’s book, ‘Raymond Or life and Death’. Author’s Personal Collection.

My research into the rise of spiritualism, brought my attention to a fascinating text titled: Raymond, Or Life and Death. First published in 1916 by Sir Oliver Lodge, a British Physicist and keen contributor to the research surrounding Spiritualism, this text is written with a tone of rationality and logic whilst providing evidence of the communication he had with the spirit of his son. His son, Raymond, tragically died whilst fighting on the front line. The book is divided into three sections with the second segment been a documentation of all communication that had occurred with Raymond’s spirit including: letters, messages and a photograph.

The famous photo from Raymond, Or Life and Death, 1916. From:

A photograph with the upmost significance is included in the book. It provides evidence of Lodge’s communications with Raymond’s spirit as through the means of a séance, the spirit of Raymond described the content of the photograph before the Lodge family had chance to see it (page 105 in link.) The timeline of events is of extreme importance as from the Lodge family learning the existence of the photograph, Raymond communicated its content before it came into the possession of Sir Oliver. Lodge was quoted stating: ‘while as the amount of coincidence between the description and the actual photograph, that surely is quite beyond the chance or guesswork.’ At a time of such vulnerability in the twentieth century, this evidence provided in Raymond, Or Life and Death is all individuals needed to put their faith and belief in spiritualism, consequently, allowing it to grow into the movement it is today.

The text had critics, which is unsurprising due to its nature. James Hyslop summarises this negative view: ‘Lodge’s judgement was biased by a will to believe that his son had survived a death in battle.’ This process of grief, experienced by so many, left Sir Oliver in a helpless state casting a shadow of doubt on the validity of his evidence; he would have credited any person who told him he could communicate with his beloved son. However, this text is clearly a valuable contribution to my wider research surrounding the rise of spiritualism. If individuals in twentieth-century Britain were reading sources such as Raymond, Or Life and Death, it gives a clear indication on how it took over to become a practised religion in the twenty-first century.

The notions of grief and religion play an integral part in the rise of spiritualism and this source contributes to the historiography surrounding this. In twentieth-century Britain, some people believed in spirits and ghosts more than they believed in God due to a need for comfort after suffering so much loss. Jennifer Hazelgrove discusses the factor of religion stating ‘Anglican theologians did not imply acceptance of Spiritualist beliefs about heaven.’ The twnentieth century saw a battle by Catholic and Protestant representatives to condemn any superstitious thought. This allowed spiritualism to prevail. People wanted to believe in the idea of heaven which was available to them through the practice of spiritualism. The argument by Hazelgrove answers the initial question asked above; the notion of religion is essential to the significance of spiritualism in modern day society.

Through my research into spiritualism in the twentieth century, it is evident how it became such a significant movement in modern day society. More than half of the UK population identify as having no religion but, many have a spiritual side. It does not have a body of theology however, due to its rise during the First World War it was able to be identified as the eighth largest religion in Britain at the turn of the century. Works published in the twentieth century such as Raymond, Or, Life and Death, brought comfort to individuals suffering a momentous amount of loss by introducing them to the notion that they could communicate with their loved ones beyond the grave; a notion that is celebrated and taught today highlighting Spiritualism as a legacy of World War One.