by Loren Seibold | 17 October 2023 |
In a recent issue of the Adventist Review, author Adam Ramdim wrote about his visit to one of the historical sites of spiritualism:
In the United States and Western Europe the birth of modern spiritualism is linked to the Fox sisters from New York State. Mysterious rapping/knocking sounds were heard in the house, said by many to be the result of supernatural forces.… When I visited the Fox sisters’ house… I met the husband of the manager of the site, who told me clearly that it was all real.
I found it interesting that he took as truth the testimony of a modern spiritualist, but not the retractions and confessions of the original spiritualists themselves.
The Fox sisters
Although the Fox sisters got tremendous publicity at the time, spiritualism wasn’t as popular or long-lasting as most Adventists assume it was, based on all the writing and talking we’ve done about it.
First, by 1888 the Fox sisters had all confessed that they’d made it up. They admitted that they’d spun a yarn about a spirit of a dead person, and that the rapping sounds came from popping foot joints and an apple tied to a toe. Though one sister retracted her “confession” when she got older and ran out of money, wise people realized that the jig was up: it was a hoax.
The other reason is that not everyone back then was as gullible as we have supposed. As early as 1850 some who sat through their séances noticed that the “rapping” came from beneath the young women’s skirts. Some smart person insisted that they try it with their feet on cushions, and lo and behold, the “spirits” couldn’t rap!
When séances became popular, spies turned on lights in the middle of the session (which were always conducted in full darkness) to expose fine wires holding up phosphor-painted speaking trumpets, roses, or fans. The infamous moving tables were shown to be operated by knees or some mechanical contrivance.
One of the debunkers was none other than the famous magician Harry Houdini, who was himself an expert at fooling people. “This thing they call Spiritualism, wherein a medium intercommunicates with the dead,” he told a congressional hearing in 1926, “is a fraud from start to finish.”
Whatever the Adventist Review believes, what passes for spiritualistic manifestation is (I believe, always, though some will disagree with me) trickery combined with psychological suggestion and susceptible clients. People come to the medium longing to hear from grandma, and so are prepared to believe they have. Add a bit of showmanship—some funny voices, a spooky setting, a bit of sleight-of-hand that creates an illusion something unusual is going on—and they go home satisfied.
Why defend spiritualism?
It was important to Ellen White that we believe that there were real “evil angels” doing these things. She argues that
Many endeavor to account for spiritual manifestations by attributing them wholly to fraud and sleight of hand on the part of the medium. … The mysterious rapping with which modern spiritualism began was not the result of human trickery or cunning, but was the direct work of evil angels, who thus introduced one of the most successful of soul-destroying delusions. Many will be ensnared through the belief that spiritualism is a merely human imposture; when brought face to face with manifestations which they cannot but regard as supernatural, they will be deceived, and will be led to accept them as the great power of God (The Great Controversy, p.553).
In short, if people believe that spiritualistic manifestations are merely tricks, they will be fooled when the devil really shows up! Our journalists in Silver Spring think the same: they want you to believe that spiritists’ “signs and wonders” are necessarily Satanic.
It seems to me there is more danger in this belief than the other, however. The danger is that naive believers in supernatural powers, when there are perfectly rational explanations at hand, will become fearful, credulous dupes. They will be unable or unwilling to believe sensible explanations for things they don’t understand and instead see supernatural manifestations around every corner.
Perhaps the reason so many Seventh-day Adventists fall for the silliest of conspiracies is that Ellen White warned them that if you don’t quickly understand what’s happening, it’s probably beyond your rational understanding. There is no incentive to dig deeper, no desire to debunk exciting fictions. So, dumb lies about Jesuit infiltrators in Silver Spring and microchips in your vaccine are assumed by many among us to be truth, too.
The real danger
Someone might think I’m saying there’s nothing to fear in dabbling in these things. Not at all! They’re very dangerous—but not for the reasons you think.
They’re dangerous because they exploit the weaknesses—the bugs, in software language—of the human mind. Floating fans and glowing roses and moving Ouija board planchettes aren’t supernatural. They are merely tricks. The same is true of palm readers and crystal ball fortune tellers and tarot card readers and the guy who says he hears the voices of your dead relatives. The Satanic component is those crafty individuals who are willing to fleece weak and vulnerable people by psychological manipulation, tricks, and lies in order to enrich themselves. A few convincing outcomes draw the gullible in deeper, until they think they’ve found a new truth, when it is just cunning flimflam.
Perhaps it would be illustrative of this point to consider that it is not just spiritualistic mediums who lead people to believe that something amazing is happening to them by supernatural means. For example:
Fake supernaturalism can be done in the name of God. If you’ve ever attended or even watched on television a pentecostal healing service where the evangelist can tell the woman who comes forward just what it is God is revealing to him about her, and then assures her that her cancer is gone when the preacher shouts Jesus’ name and strikes her on the forehead, you’ve seen both trickery (assistants gather information from vulnerable seekers before the meeting and convey it to the healer) and skillful psychological manipulation in a controlled setting.
Then there’s the charming, scripture-quoting church member who looks you square in the eye and offers you an investment deal too good to pass up (“Really, sister, doesn’t God want us believers to prosper too?”) and whom you’re inclined to trust because he’s a “brother in Christ.”
And yes, such chicanery is evil even when done by a man holding a Bible and speaking Jesus’ name. The sin of the Fox sisters wasn’t that they talked to spirits, because they didn’t; it was that they were liars, cheaters, and deceivers.
Messing with our narrative
Why do Adventists continue to defend the “truth” of spiritualism? Because we need it. Our founding story is that there’s a supernatural war raging around us. If there is a good God, we must supply him with an unusually powerful and easily identifiable opponent. I’ve heard Adventists go so far as to say they’d love to see a blatant example of Satan’s power, because that would prove to them that there’s a God!
I don’t know about Satanism, but evil is common enough. And the greatest danger isn’t in séances. Anger and dishonesty and violence and cheating cause a lot more misery than Ouija boards. Sin shows up in our broken families, our addictions, our loneliness and unhappiness.
We see it in church whenever defending doctrine and saving the organization becomes more important than caring about people. When the end justifies the means in pressuring people to get baptized. When doctrinal purity and eating the right foods causes people to hate those who disagree with them.
I think I can say with some surety that most Christians aren’t going to be lost because they tried to talk to dead grandpa or played with a Ouija board; few of us are even tempted by those things. If people are lost, it will be because they were greedy, or proud, or lustful, or hateful, and they didn’t want to be transformed to be like Jesus.
Ellen White and the other early Adventists were right to be suspicious of the Fox sisters and their spiritualist kin. They were wrong to discourage people from exposing it as trickery and deception. Because that’s what it is. Hundreds of thousands of Seventh-day Adventist young people would have been saved a lot of teen-age terror if only their teachers had told them that Satan has little to gain by scaring the living daylights out of them, and instead taught them to rationally and sensibly deconstruct lies and frauds.
Because the “proof” of God is not that there exists a Satan who moves lightweight objects around in the dark, but that there are people who, through the power of the indwelling Christ, embody love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
Loren Seibold is the Executive Editor of Adventist Today.