The Religion That Started With a Knock-Knock Joke: Analysing Spiritualism and Channelling.


Introduction: The Birth of Spiritualism

White and purple candles, an old sheet a table cloth, and oft rhythmic voices repeating….all perfect sleep over’s have to have a séance. There is something about holding hands with friend in a circle just after eating too many cupcakes covered in pink frosting, with fresh painted nails covered with glitter and secrets just whispered that makes one feel full of life, love and mystery. At least that is how I felt at a summer sleepover in 6th grade. We were women embanking on some crazy adventurous thing. We were sleuths like Nancy Drew trying to find out the past. Our Romantics like Jane Eyre tumbling upon weird sublime visions. We wanted to help others and see if we could find a lonely lost soul and send it to the light. …And we wanted to scare each other and laugh about it over pillow fights crafts which would end in glitter, pompom and wiggly eye fights later.

We were not mystics or witches, but the formal action of setting up a table, using salt chalk and candles mad the whole set seem like this lovely secret we belonged to. We were sisters. Of course we, in our 90’s butterfly hairclips, sporting bonnie bell soda chap stick, and Lisa frank stickers on our face were not looking for spiritual guidance or at all trying to start a following. We were starting a baby sitters business and volunteer work for an organization called the Bunny bunch and that was complicated enough! Therefore it is extremely strange to visit this nostalgic spot of time and think the whole spiritualism movement of the 1800 started with girls very similar to us.


In Hydesville, New York two sisters Kate Fox and Maggie Fox would hear “raps” or knocks in their old house around bedtime. One of the sisters responded by knocking back and asked “sprits” of those who had died in the old house to respond by knocking a certain number of times. After demonstrating this “feat” to their mother Margaret, they showed their doubting neighbours. Soon they became neighbourhood celebrities.  Of course “Margaret Fox did not seem to consider the date, March 31—April fool’s eve—and the possibility that her daughters were frightened not by an unseen presence but by the expected success of their prank.” (Smithsonian).


(Leah, Kate and Maggie Fox)

The movement did not grow to a large scale however until Maggie and Kate went to live with their older sister, Leah Fox Fish, in Rochester. “ Rochester was a hotbed for reform and religious activity; the same vicinity, the Finger Lakes region of New York State, gave birth to both Mormonism and Millerism, the precursor to Seventh Day Adventism. Community leaders Isaac and Amy Post were intrigued by the Fox sisters’ story, and by the subsequent rumor that the spirit likely belonged to a peddler who had been murdered in the farmhouse five years beforehand. “ ( Smithsonian.) With significant leaders of the community involved with the Fox sisters performances they soon grew to fame as did the spiritualism movement. One of the major draws was that before spiritualism women had very few options when it came to religions where they could be the main spiritual leader. “Apart from a quorum of Universalists and a few Unitarians, its leadership was almost entirely lay, often women in a time when their sex had very slim opportunities to exercise spiritual leadership in most established denominations.
It was largely a proletarian religious movement in significant alliance with that class’s new literacy and sense of a power to make itself heard and, moreover, to remake the world. Early Spiritualism therefore perceived itself as a voice of the ‘progressive’ movements of the time.” (BBC) Spiritualism caught on throughout the classes. Séances and presentations of channelling and magic became a fashionable form of entertainment. It took off so well that places of worship started to appear. “In 1853 the first Spiritualist Church was established in the Britain at Keighley in Yorkshire, and the first Spiritualist newspaper, The Yorkshire Spiritual Telegraph, was published in 1855. By the 1870s there were numerous Spiritualist societies and churches throughout the country.” (The Spiritualists’ National Union).The Sisters under suspicion and ridicule from the authorities eventually confessed to fraud and apologized to their believers; however this did not detour others from the practice at all. In fact it lead to others trying to prove that mediumiship was real. Some tried to disprove the confession and many followers found it skeptical when upon investigating the Foxes old house the walls were found not to be hollow for anyone to hide in an were found to contain a skeleton. “The Fox sisters had seemingly fooled the world, but, after the turn of the century, new evidence for their supposed genuineness was allegedly discovered. As reported by the Boston Journal of November 23, 1904: “The skeleton of the man who first caused the rappings heard by the Fox Sisters in 1848 has been found between the walls of the house occupied by the sisters, and clears them from the only shadow of doubt held concerning their sincerity in the discovery of spirit communication. The Fox sisters declared that they learned to communicate with the spirit of a man, and that he told them he had been murdered and buried in the cellar. Evacuation failed to locate the body and thus give proof positive of their story.”’(csicop). Another way people tried to prove that mediumship was true and that not all séances involved hidden strings, vent and passages was through science.

Trying to Prove the Unprovable


It seems odd to a modern agnostic like me that people would attempt to prove mediumship and channelling through science when many frauds were being unmasked. However it is understandable when one thinks that this was happening after and during the great war. When a whole generation lay butchered in far off mass graves it seems very normal for their loved ones to wish to feel near them and seek connections. This overall feeling of loss, alienation and fragmentation was felt by followers, an the scientists studying mediums alike. Therefore the idea that the science aspect may have been tainted with want to prove an after life is not an outrageous one. French surgeon and medical researcher Charles Richet was drawn into the oddities of spiritualism an decided to investigate the work of ectoplasmic medium Eva C. Ectoplasm was thought to be physical manifestations of a spirits energy in the form of smoke, slime, or a weird cotton looking substance coming forth from an individuals nose, ears and mouth. “Richet was the discover of human thermoregulation an cutaneous transpiration, a pioneer in the treatment of tuberculosis, a recipient of the Nobel Prize for his work on anaphylactic shock, an the author of Gastric Juice in Man and Animals.”(Roach,Mary). Rochet began to document different channelling sessions by randomly taking photos in the dark an of what he saw. He searched for trap doors, switches, strings, mirrors ect and did find many acts of illusion and not true mediumship, however when ectoplasm was involved he had a hard time dismissing it. Although Pichet id not say that his studies conclude that mediumship was legitimate he did legitimize that ectoplasm was real. Richet in a 1890 report called the “Annales des Sciences Psychiques” stated: “Absurd and unsatisfactory though they were, it seems to me very difficult to attribute the phenomena produced to deception, conscious or unconscious, or to a series of deceptions. Nevertheless, conclusive and indisputable proof that there was no fraud on Eusapia’s part, or illusion on our part, is wanting: we must therefore renew our efforts to obtain such proof.”(spirit writings.) It was hard for the public to dismiss a man of Richet’s social and educational standing.


With important believers such as William Butler Yeats, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, physicist Sir Oliver Lodge, chemist Sir William Crooks, two prime ministers an queen Victoria herself it is easy to see how cotton, cheese cloth an gauze could be authenticate. Other odd science experiments such as weighting a persons body before and after they had died to see the weight difference of the soul leaving, also took place in the past but spiritualism is still a functioning religion today and an area of scientific study.

One modern Medium researcher is Gary Schwartz, who is a professor of psychology, medicine, neurology, psychiatry, and surgery at the University of Arizona and director of its Laboratory for Advances in Consciousness and Health. He is trying to disprove the “Death Hypothesis”.  That is, he believes that death is a hypothesis, that things do not necessary die but live on in a different realm of being. He is attempting this with an Asking Questions Study with different well known and followed mediums and is doing so with aid of a 1.8 million dollar grant. It works by the “[student researcher] assembles a list of thirty-two questions about the afterlife, which are posed into two discarnates, via four mediums. (Each medium takes a turn with each of the two dead folks.) The answers are printed out collected and analyzed.” If the info gathered is an even split of yes’s and no’s it is interpreted as: “My interpretation is that the mediums are just guessing, or the answer is based by the medium’s own ideas of what the afterlife is like, or the questions don’t have enough emotional interest for the discarnate to give a strong answer.”(Roach, Mary.) This study itself seems odd. Everyone mediums answers are vague or do not really fit. For instance when asked what the sprit body looked like now, one answered “can wear pleated pants”, another, “fat people are skinny here”, and others gathered no answer. How does one gauge if mediums are simply looking at the dead and coming to the same inferences? This does not seem like a sound study.

Asking people does not seem like a reliable test of validly. Some people try to prove mediumship with machines. People in fact go on weekend trips with The Ghost Hunter Society or different spiritualism sect with audio recorders to do just that. It is hard for humans to psychologically trust another human’s word for proof of supernatural beings. We all are naturally skeptical for our own safety, but machines lend a false credibility. The problem with using machines is that one is not using them to interpret data but to collect data and try to make that data mean something. Not everything has a meaning. In the 1960s a Cambridge student did something very similar to the ay hiking Ghost hunter society group. He would record in a room that would block radio signal and then ask others to write what they heard. Of course test subjects would write what they heard on the slowed down, sped up, found turned up tapes. But did they hear anything?, Humans very much like to see and hear other humans in things. If one has ever seen a face in the shape of woo, or in patterns or heard a dog bark on a over played youtube video sound like it says “I love you” you have experienced this. Thus, “psychologists would nominate the verbal transformation effect as a possible explanation. B.F. Skinner once played nonsense sequences of vowels to subjects and asked them to tell him when they heard something with meaning. Not only did they hear words (with consonants), they were quite solidly convinced that their interpretations were correct.” (Roach, Mary).

Countless other studies have been attempted, but it all comes down to what makes something valid. Normally the simplest answer is the one we as humans believe to be true, but no one can tell for sure. It seems like all of the studies have some sort of flaw. However how does one even go about designing a perfect study, in a world or with a subject where perfect studies cannot exist? Instead it is better to not check if Spiritualism or channeling is valid factually but rather if it is a valid as a religion.


Sociologically Interpreting Spiritualism

Two ways a sociologist can analyze the religious merits of Spiritualism is with Ken Wilber’s theoretic orientation and Nina Smarts 7 dimensions of religion. Ken Wilber’s theoretic orientation consists of 10 levels of consciousness that a follower of a certain religion may experience. There are lower evolutionary complex levels of consciousness such as Instinctive survival modes to an Ironist more global mind capable of interpreting different egos at once. The following chart illustrates this concept very well:


The Instinctive and magical/mystical cognation level would be the self protecting nature of spiritualism. It would be the sheer need to believe in humankind’s life meaning something and death not existing to cope with the fear of death. It could also be the need to religiously belong to a group for the support, and better chance of happiness and survival. It also goes with the 7th principle of Spiritualism that “Eternity does not begin at death; Progress is open to all now! Any action, or intent to change, to promote soul growth and progression, creates a positive reaction. There will always be the opportunity to develop and move forward, no one is ever deprived of the all embracing love of God.”(SNU). The idea that any action to grow equal enjoyment, satisfaction and positive reinforcement feels good is one of low complexity.

The need to rule or Egocentric –Exploitive is very similar to the previous low developmental level of thought. It is still pre-rational and about ones physical self.  This could be construe as a Mediums’ need to be in charge and rule the gateway between the dead and living but it would not be true of all mediums. Spiritualism itself seems to be more about a groups need than an individual. However the individuals need to feel important, needed and depended on could be a large part of spiritualism.

The next three levels Purposeful Absolutist, Multiplistic- Indivualistic and Personalistic-Relativistic all have to do with rules, social decorum, goals, plans, craft decorum and rules and the being to understand a small group mentality. Yes these rules could be formed out of fear (self protection) of poor treatment of supernatural energy or other beings which is a lower tier type of thinking but when applied to a groups physical and spiritual safety and thinking of the group as a whole it is more developmentally complex. This level would consist of the though put into forming the 7 principles which are:

“1.   The Fatherhood of God.
The core belief of the religious philosophy of Spiritualism is the acceptance of a Divine Energy. This force, whatever name given to it, has created all there is and sustains all its creation. The ‘Spirit of God’ exists within and around everything. It is within all of us: we are all children of God so are part of one family. We acknowledge God as our Father.

2.     The Brotherhood of Man.We are all part of the universal creative force and therefore one family in God. The operation of true Brotherhood throughout the word would create betterment to the lives of many, bringing equality, security and peace. Spiritualists try to understand the needs of others and help all people regardless of race, colour or creed

 3.     The Communion of Spirits and the Ministry of Angels.Communion with divine energy is a natural and essential part of existence. Communication between Spirit itself and its creations is an inbuilt ability. Spiritualists use this ability for communication directly, or via a medium, between those in the spirit world and ourselves. This is not supernatural; it is a normal activity. The main purpose of communication with the spirit world is to provide the evidence which supports our philosophy. The Ministry of Angels brings enhanced wisdom to enlighten the individual, society and the world in which we live. This includes those who are dedicated to the welfare and service of mankind bringing inspiration guidance and healing.

 4.     The Continuous Existence of the Human Soul.Spirit is part of the ‘Creative Force’ and thus indestructible. Energy cannot be destroyed; it can only change its form. After death the physical body is left behind whilst the soul continues to exist in a different dimension that we call the spirit world. The individual personality continues unchanged by the event we call ‘death’.

 5.     Personal Responsibility. In His wisdom, God has given us enormous potential; we can use that potential to improve our own lives and the lives of others. We have the ability to make decisions throughout our lives as we see fit. What each of us makes of our life is our Personal Responsibility no one can replace or override that right. No other person or influence can put right our wrong doings.

 6.     Compensation and Retribution Hereafter for all the Good and Evil Deeds done on Earth. This Principle expresses the natural law of ‘cause and effect’. This law operates now, on earth, as well as in the spirit world. As we move through life making choices, the outcome of those choices affects our soul growth. When we leave this earthly life there will be no divine judgement. We will have the opportunity to reassess, take stock and decide what might have been done differently.

7.     Eternal Progress open to every Human Soul. Eternity does not begin at death; Progress is open to all now! Any action, or intent to change, to promote soul growth and progression, creates a positive reaction. There will always be the opportunity to develop and move forward, no one is ever deprived of the all embracing love of God.” (SNU)

This also includes the rule that there is no exact dogma or strict rules in Spiritualism and that the journey of understanding and growing in the world’s energy and knowledge is open for the individual to form his or her own ideals of what is important. The rules to live a very open life and to be accepting of multiple interpretations are part of the social norm of this group. If one did not live a life for one’s own interpretation or tried to inflict harsh rules on others they would not be a good follower or a good medium. Minor rules or agreements such as one cannot learn to be a medium just develop the gift if they have it, that one has a spirit animal and spirit guides, and other shared agreements are still open to some interpretation of meaning to self. Also the idea that although physics are considered factual and legitimate, they do not necessary have to be spiritual would be a social norm.. Mediums and spiritualism go hand in hand. Mediums are more like religious leaders, where as physics are followers.

The highest cognitive levels have to do with thinking of a global mind outside of just the religious group. It is the ability to see things as both a follower, a religious group and of all humans. Interestingly enough Spiritualism is really about the energy level given off of all objects both living (biogonious) and objects. For one to be a good follower one must be able to decipher self knowledge with world knowledge. One must be aware of history and present events throughout the world and all other religions. For a good medium or follower believes in all of mankind’s goodness and ability to connect with one another as well as nature and objects. Although to myself and other skeptics one may see this religion as folksy, and simple for its lack of rules and formalities it is very complex when it comes to ones thought process. The idea that one’s life does not end and that they will be responsible to help other generations of people after they die in this life means that the individual must grow and make choices to better all of mankind’s future.

Because Spiritualism is cognitively complex it could be deemed as a respectable, true religion according to Wilber’s model. Smarts’ model also proves Spiritualism to be considered a true religion. She suggests that for a movement to be considered a legitimate religion it must contain levels of ritual, narrative, emotion, social institution, ethics, doctrines, and material.

The rituals in spiritualism vary in different followings. There are internal rituals to strengthen the individual’s spirit, connection, energy, and life force; as well external praising or connecting to the universal energy, cosmic force, god(s) or higher power. Te act of receiving a message through psychometry (focusing on a dead person’s metal object), using spirit guides to explore the realms the dead dwell, and holding hands in circles with other during mass, lighting white and purple candles to cleanse an area are all examples of rituals. Chanting, praying, and meditation also could be rituals.

The Narrative of Spiritualism of the doctrine is not clear. Many different religious texts become mixed. There are spiritualists that use stories from other religions and cultures. Just as different gods, deities or no go can be used. “Spiritualists are not anti-Christian any more than they are anti-Jewish, anti-Hindu or anti-Moslem.  Spiritualism is a universal religion recognizing such leaders as Buddha, Mohamed, Moses as well as Jesus.  We do not, however, claim a monopoly of religion.  One’s religion is a personal matter and any person adopting Spiritualism is free to interpret the principles according to their own awareness.”(BSNUC)

Emotion is used as a connective force in spiritualism and channeling. Ones emotion is suppose to fluctuate when connecting to others. As a whole spiritualism stresses calmness, peace and being one with others and feeling good or whole. There are no harsh rules to push guilt, read or fear. One is suppose to feel awe, loyalty, mystery, and inner peace.

The ethical rules are The Seven Principles of spiritualism (found 2.5 paragraphs up.)

The Social or institutional aspect takes the form of mass, readings, and group prayer or group energy transfer. A medium can be used to “conduct a church service or public meeting, in the smaller limits of a group or circle, or in the even more intimate contact between the medium and the person seeking communication or help in a private sitting. Mediums also hold circles for the development of potential clairvoyants or speakers, and the larger open circle for initial development in which those present can take part.” (BSNUC)

The materials used in Spiritualism also vary. The sunflower is a symbol of the religion. Rev. Cooper of the Spiritualism town of Cassadaga stated in an interview that “As the sunflower turns its face to the light of the sun, so Spiritualism turns to the face of humanity in the light of the truth.” (Christopher Balogh ). New age Spiritualists may use Tarot Cards however those who are classical o not. Some use crystal objects to help magnify electric currents as well as magnets. Metal objects from the dead act as a special form of connection to a loved one’s specific energy waves. Candles act as cleansing tools.


It is impossible to try to validate a religious movement on truth, and perhaps unethical to o so. If one views religion as an evolutionary coping mechanism to allow humans to survive it would be cruel to deny or force others to feel that their religion is not valid. It is especially tricky when it comes to theories that cannot be validated nor not validated, such as the presence of a soul. Spiritualism is a thriving religious movement that allows those who are alive to feel a sense of connection and peace when their loved ones pass. It is a new take on the channelling that was done by the ancient Chinese, Greeks, Egyptians and many others. It promotes peace between multiple religions and self responsibility. I may not personally believe in spiritualism but I believe in it’s values and validity as a helpful and real religious institution. It is sociologically sound as being a complex and true religion. So although I am sure the knocks on my wall and windows are mice, branches an old boards reacting to pressure from the air conditioner it is a lovely thought that humans are creatures that have enough worth and meaning to till be lurking about to help future generations.


Works Cited
“About Mediums.” B.S.U. Bournemouth Spiritualist Church, 2011. Web. 14 June 2013. <;.
Balogh, Christopher. “Inside Cassadaga, the Psychic Capital of the World.” VICE. Vice Media, Feb.-Mar. 2013. Web. 14 June 2013. <;.
“Charles Robert Richet Biography.” Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology. Ed. J. Gordon Melton. 5th ed. N.p.: n.p., n.d. 2001. Web. 14 June 2013. <;.
” The Fox Sisters.” The Pioneers of Modern Spiritualism. The Spiritualists’ National Union, 2011. Web. 14 June 2013. <;.
Golden, Seán. “Seán Golden’s Home Page.” A Short History of Spirit-Channeling. Universitat Autònoma De Barcelona, 13 July 2009. Web. 14 June 2013. <;.
“History of Modern Spiritualism.” BBC News. BBC, 28 Oct. 2009. Web. 14 June 2013. <;.
Nickell, Joe, Dr. “A Skeleton’s Tale: The Origins of Modern Spiritualism.” Csicop. CSI The Committee for Sceptical Inquiry, July-Aug. 2008. Web. 14 June 2013. <;.
“Past Imperfect The Fox Sisters and the Rap on Spiritualism Comments.” Smithsonian Institution, 30 Oct. 2012. Web. 14 June 2013. <;.
Roach, Mary. Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife. New York: W.W. Norton, 2005. Print

One thought on “The Religion That Started With a Knock-Knock Joke: Analysing Spiritualism and Channelling.

  1. Pingback: The Spiritualist Church, a Place Where the Paranormal World is Accepted as Fact! | GhostlyDramas

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