Edward Irving: The Shakers

[This is taken from Arthur Conan Doyle's The History of Spiritualism.]


The story of Edward Irving and his experience of spiritual manifestations in the years from 1830 to 1833 are of great interest to the psychic student, and help to bridge the gap between Swedenborg on one side and Andrew Jackson Davis on the other. The facts are as follows:

Edward Irving was of that hard-working poorer-class Scottish stock which has produced so many great men. Of the same stock and at the same time and district came Thomas Carlyle. Irving was born in Annan in the year 1792. After a hard, studious youth, he developed into a very singular man. In person he was a giant and a Hercules in strength, his splendid physique being only marred by a bad outward cast of one eye - a defect which, like Byron’s lame foot, seemed in some sort to present an analogy to the extremes in his character. His mind, which was virile, broad and courageous, was warped by early training in the narrow school of the Scottish Church, where the hard, crude views of the old Covenanters-an impossible Protestantism which represented a reaction against an impossible Catholicism-still poisoned the human soul. His mental position was strangely contradictory, for while he had inherited this cramped theology he had failed to inherit much which is the very birthright of the poorer Scot. He was opposed to all that was liberal, and even such obvious measures of justice as the Reform Bill of 1832 found in him a determined opponent.

This strange, eccentric, and formidable man had his proper environment in the 17th century, when his prototypes were holding moorland meetings in Gallo way and avoiding, or possibly even attacking with the arms of the flesh, the dragoons of Claverhouse. But, live when he might, he was bound to write his nacre in some fashion on the annals of his time. We read of his strenuous youth in Scotland, of his rivalry with his friend Carlyle in the affections of the clever and vivacious Jane Welsh, of his enormous walks and feats of strength, of his short career as a rather violent school-teacher at Kirkcaldy, of his marriage to the daughter of a minister in that town, and finally of his becoming curate or assistant to the great Dr. Chalmers, who was, at that time, the most famous clergyman in Scotland, and whose administration of his parish in Glasgow is one of the outstanding chapters in the history of the Scottish Church. In this capacity he gained that man-to-man acquaintance with the poorer classes which is the best and most practical of all preparations for the work of life. Without it, indeed, no man is complete.

There was at that time a small Scottish church in Hatton Garden, off Holborn, in London, which had lost its pastor and was in a poor position, both spiritually and financially. The vacancy was offered to Dr. Chalmers’s assistant, and after some heart-searchings was accepted by him. Here his sonorous eloquence and his thoroughgoing delivery of the Gospel message began to attract attention, and suddenly the strange Scottish giant became the fashion. The humble street was blocked by carriages on a Sunday morning, and some of the most distinguished men and women in London scrambled for a share of the very scanty accommodation. There is evidence that this extreme popularity did not last, and possibly the preacher’s habit of expounding a text for an hour and a half was too much for the English weakling, however acceptable north of the Tweed. Finally a move was made to a larger church in Regent Square which could hold two thousand people, and there were sufficient stalwarts to fill this in decent fashion, though the preacher had ceased to excite the interest of his earlier days. Apart from his oratory, Irving seems to have been a conscientious and hardworking pastor, striving assiduously for the temporal needs of the more humble of his flock, and ever ready at all hours of the day or night to follow the call of duty.

Soon, however, there came a rift between him and the authorities of his Church. The matter in dispute made a very fine basis for a theological quarrel of the type which has done more harm in the world than the smallpox. The question was whether the Christ had in Him the possibility of sin, or whether the Divine portion of His being was a complete and absolute bar to physical temptations. The assessors contended that the association of such ideas as sin and Christ was a blasphemy. The obdurate clergyman, however, replied with some show of reason that unless the Christ had the capacity for sin, and successfully resisted it, His earthly lot was not the same as ours, and His virtues deserved less admiration. The matter was argued out in London with immense seriousness and at intolerable length, with the result that the presbytery declared its unanimous disapproval of the pastor’s views. As, however, his congregation in turn expressed their unqualified approval, he was able to disregard the censure of his official brethren.

But a greater stumbling-block lay ahead, and Irving’s encounter with it has made his name live as all names live which associate themselves with real spiritual issues. It should first be understood that Irving was deeply interested in Biblical prophecy, especially the vague and terrible images of St. John, and the strangely methodical forecasts of Daniel. He brooded much over the years and the days which were fixed as the allotted time before the days of wrath should precede the Second Coming of the Lord. There were others at that time-1830 and onwards-who were deeply immersed in the same somber speculations. Among these was a wealthy banker named Drummond, who had a large country house at Albury, near Guildford. At this house these Biblical students used to assemble from time to time, discussing and comparing their views with such thoroughness that it was not unusual for their sittings to extend over a week, each day being fully taken up from breakfast to supper. This band was called the “Albury Prophets.” Excited by the political portents which led up to the Reform Bill, they all considered that the foundations of the deep had been loosened. It is hard to imagine what their reaction would have been had they lived to witness the Great War.  As it was, they were convinced that the end of all things was at hand, and they looked out eagerly for signs and portents, twisting the vague and sinister words of the prophets into all manner of fantastic interpretations.

Finally, above the monotonous horizon of human happenings there did actually appear a strange manifestation. There had been a legend that the spiritual gifts of earlier days would reassert themselves before the end, and here apparently was the forgotten gift of tongues coming back into the experience of mankind. It had begun in 1830 on the western side of Scotland, where the names of the sensitives, Campbell and MacDonald, spoke of that Celtic blood which has always been more alive to spiritual influences than the heavier Teutonic strain. The Albury Prophets were much exercised in their minds, and an emissary was sent from Mr.  Irving’s church to investigate and report. He found that the matter was very real. The people were of good repute, one of them, indeed, a woman whose character could best be described as saintly. The strange tongues in which they both talked broke out at intervals, and the manifestation was accompanied by healing miracles and other signs of power. Clearly it was no fraud or pretence, but a real influx of some strange force which carried one back to apostolic times. The faithful waited eagerly for further developments.

These were not long in coming, and they broke out in Irving’s own church. It was in July, 1831, that it was rumored that certain members of the congregation had been seized in this strange way in their own homes, and discreet exhibitions were held in the vestry and other secluded places. The pastor and his advisers were much puzzled as to whether a more public demonstration should be tolerated. The matter settled itself, however, after the fashion of affairs of the spirit, and in October of the same year the prosaic Church of Scotland service was suddenly interrupted by the strange outcry of the possessed. It came so suddenly and with such vehemence, both at the morning and afternoon service, that a panic set in in the church, and had it not been for their giant pastor thundering out, “Oh, Lord, still the tumult of the people!” a tragedy might have followed. There was also a good deal of hissing and uproar from those who were conservative in their tastes.  Altogether the sensation was a considerable one, and the newspapers of the day were filled with it, though their comments were far from respectful or favorable.

The sounds came from both women and men, and consisted in the first instance of unintelligible noises which were either mere gibberish, or some entirely unknown language. “Sudden, doleful, and unintelligible sounds,” says one witness. “There was a force and fullness of sound,” said another description, “of which the delicate female organs would seem incapable.” “It burst forth with an astounding and terrible crash,” says a third. Many, however, were greatly impressed by these sounds, and among them was Irving himself. “There is a power in the voice to thrill the heart and overawe the spirit after a manner which I have never felt.  There is a march and majesty and sustained grandeur of which I have never heard the like. It is likest to one of the simplest and most ancient chants in the cathedral service in so much that I have been led to think that these chants, which can be traced as high as Ambrose, are recollections of the inspired utterances of the primitive Church.”

Soon, moreover, intelligible English words were added to the strange outbursts. These usually consisted of ejaculations and prayers, with no obvious sign of any supernormal character save that they broke out at unseasonable hours and independently of the will of the speaker. In some cases, however, these powers developed until the gifted one was able, while under the influence, to give long harangues, to lay down the law in most dogmatic fashion over points of doctrine, and to issue reproofs which occasionally were turned even in the direction of the longsuffering pastor.

There may have been-in fact, there probably was-a true psychic origin to these phenomena, but they had developed in a soil of narrow bigoted theology, which was bound to bring them to ruin. Even Swedenborg’s religious system was too narrow to receive the full undistorted gifts of the spirit, so one can imagine what they became when contracted within the cramped limits of a Scottish church, where every truth must be shorn or twisted until it corresponds with some fantastic text. The new good wine will not go into the old narrow bottles. Had there been a fuller revelation, then doubtless other messages would have been received in other fashions which would have presented the matter in its just proportions, and checked one spiritual gift by others. But there was no development save towards chaos. Some of the teaching received could not be reconciled with orthodoxy, and was therefore obviously of the devil.  Some of the sensitives condemned others as heretics. Voice was raised against voice. Worst of all, some of the chief speakers became convinced themselves that their own speeches were diabolical. Their chief reason seems to have been that they did not accord with their own spiritual convictions, which would seem to some of us rather an indication that they were angelic. They entered also upon the slippery path of prophecy, and were abashed when their own prophecies did not materialize.

Some of the statements which came through these sensitives, and which shocked their religious sensibilities, might seem to deserve serious consideration by a more enlightened generation. Thus one of these Bible-worshippers is recorded as saying, concerning the Bible Society, “That it was the curse going through the land, quenching the Spirit of God, by the letter of the Word of God.” Right or wrong, such an utterance would seem to be independent of him who uttered it, and it is in close accord with many of the spiritual teachings which we receive to-day. So long as the letter is regarded as sacred, just so long can anything, even pure materialism, be proved from that volume.

One of the chief mouthpieces of the spirit was a certain Robert Baxter-not to be confused with the Baxter who some thirty years later was associated with certain remarkable prophecies. This Robert Baxter seems to have been a solid, earnest, prosaic citizen who viewed the Scriptures much as a lawyer views a legal document, with an exact valuation of every phrase-especially of such phrases as fitted into his own hereditary scheme of religion. He was an honest man with a restless conscience, which continually worried him over the smaller details, while leaving him quite unperturbed as to the broad platform upon which his beliefs were constructed. This man was powerfully affected by the influx of spirit-to use his own phrase, “his mouth was opened in power.” According to him, January 14, 1832, was the beginning of those mystical 1,260 days which were to precede the Second Coming and the end of the world. Such a prediction must have been particularly sympathetic to Irving with his millennial dreams. But long before the days were fulfilled Irving was in his grave, and Baxter had forsworn those voices which had, in this instance at least, deceived him.

Baxter has written a pamphlet with the portentous title, “Narrative of Facts, Characterizing the Supernatural Manifestations, in Members of Mr.  Irving’s Congregation, and other Individuals, in England and Scotland, and formerly in the Writer Himself.” Spiritual truth could no more come through such a mind than white light could come through a prism, and yet in this account he has to admit the occurrence of many things which seem clearly preternatural, mixed up with much that is questionable, and some things which are demonstrably false. The object of the pamphlet is mainly to forswear his evil and invisible guides, so that he may return to the safe if flattish bosom of the Scottish Church. It is noticeable, however, that a second member of Irving’s congregation wrote an answering pamphlet with an even longer title, which showed that Baxter was right so long as he was prompted by the spirit, and wrong in his Satanic inferences. This pamphlet is interesting as containing letters from various people who possessed the gift of tongues, showing that they were earnest-minded folk who were incapable of any conscious deception.

What is an impartial psychic student who is familiar with more modern phases to say to this development? Personally it seems to the author to have been a true psychic influx, blanketed and smothered by a petty sectarian theology of the letter-perfect description for which the Pharisees were reproved. If he may venture his individual opinion, it is that the perfect recipient of spiritual teaching is the earnest man who has worked his way through all the orthodox creeds, and whose mind, eager and receptive, is a blank surface ready to register a new impression exactly as received. He becomes the true child and pupil of other-world teaching, and all other types of Spiritualist appear to be compromises.

This does not alter the fact that personal nobility of character may make the honest compromiser a far higher type than the pure Spiritualist, but it applies only to the actual philosophy. The field of Spiritualism is infinitely broad, and on it every variety of Christian, as well as the Moslem, the Hindu or the Parsee, can dwell in brotherhood. But a mere acceptance of spirit return and communion is not enough. Many savages have that. We need a moral code as well, and whether we regard Christ as a benevolent teacher or as a divine ambassador, His actual ethical teaching in one form or another, even if not coupled with His name, is an essential thing for the upliftment of mankind. But always it must be checked by reason, and acted upon in the spirit and not according to the letter.

This, however, is digression. In the voices of 1831 there are the signs of real psychic power. It is a recognized spiritual law that all psychic manifestations become distorted when seen through the medium of narrow sectarian religion. It is also a law that pompous, inflated persons attract mischievous entities and are the butts of the spirit world, being made game of by the use of large names and by prophecies which make the prophet ridiculous. Such were the guides who descended upon the flock of Mr. Irving, and produced various effects, good or bad, according to the instrument used.

The unity of the Church, which had been shaken by the previous censure of the presbytery, dissolved under this new trial. There was a large secession, and the building was claimed by the trustees. Irving and the stalwarts who were loyal to him wandered forth in search of new premises, and found them in the hall used by Robert Owen, the Socialist, philanthropist, and free-thinker, who was destined twenty years later to be one of the pioneer converts to Spiritualism. Here, in Gray’s Inn Road, Irving rallied the faithful. It cannot be denied that the Church, as he organized it, with its angel, its elders, its deacons, its tongues, and its prophecies, was the best reconstruction of a primitive Christian Church that has ever been made. If Peter or Paul reincarnated in London they would be bewildered, and possibly horrified, by St.  Paul’s or by Westminster Cathedral, but they would certainly have been in a perfectly familiar atmosphere in the gathering over which Irving presided. A wise man recognizes that God may be approached from innumerable angles. The minds of men and the spirit of the times vary in their reaction to the great central cause, and one can only insist upon a broad charity both in oneself and in others. It was in this that Irving seems to have been wanting. It was always by the standard of that which was a sect among sects that he would measure the universe. There were times when he was vaguely conscious of this, and it may be that those wrestlings with Apollyon, of which he complains, even as Bunyan and the Puritans of old used to comes plain, had a strange explanation.  Apollyon was really the Spirit of Truth, and the inward struggle was not between Faith and Sin, but was really between the darkness of inherited dogma, and the light of inherent and instinctive reason, God-given, and rising for ever in revolt against the absurdities of man.

But Irving lived very intensely and the successive crises through which he had passed had broken him down. These contests with argumentative theologians and with recalcitrant members of his flock may seem trivial things to us when viewed far off down the vista of years, but to him, with his eager, earnest, storm-torn soul, they were vital and terrible.  To the unfettered mind this sect or that seems a matter of indifference, but to Irving, both from heredity and from education, the Scottish Church was the ark of God, and yet he, its zealous, faithful son, driven by his own conscience, had rushed forth and had found the great gates which contained Salvation slammed and barred behind him. He was a branch cut from the tree, and he withered. It is a true simile, and it is more than a simile, for it became an actual physical fact. This giant in early middle age wilted and shrank. His great frame stooped. His cheeks became hollow and wan. His eyes shone with the baleful fever which was consuming him. And so, working to the very end and with the words, “If I die, I die with the Lord,” upon his lips, his soul passed forth into that clearer and more golden light where the tired brain finds rest and the anxious spirit enters into a peace and assurance which life has never given.

* * * * *

Apart from this isolated incident of Irving’s Church, there was one other psychic manifestation of those days which led more directly to the Hydesville revelation. This was the outbreak of spiritual phenomena among the Shaker communities in the United States, which has received less attention than it deserves.

These good people seem to have had affiliations on the one side with the Quakers, and, on the other, with the refugees from the Cevennes, who came to England to escape the persecution of Louis XIV. Even in England their harmless lives did not screen them from the persecution of the bigots, and they were forced to emigrate to America about the time of the War of Independence.

There they founded settlements in various parts, living simple cleanly lives upon communistic principles, with sobriety and chastity as their watchword. It is not surprising that as the psychic cloud of other-world power slowly settled upon the earth it should have found its first response from such altruistic communities. In 1837 there were sixty such bodies in existence, and all of them responded in various degrees to the new power. They kept their experiences very strictly to themselves at the time, for as their elders subsequently explained, they would certainly have been all consigned to Bedlam had they told what had actually occurred. Two books, however, “Holy Wisdom” and “The Sacred Roll,” which arose from their experiences, appeared afterwards.

The phenomena seem to have begun with the usual warning noises, and to have been followed by the obsession from time to time of nearly all the community. Everyone, man and woman, proved to be open to spirit possession. The invaders only came, however, after asking permission, and at such intervals as did not interfere with the work of the community. The chief visitants were Red Indian spirits, who came collectively as a tribe. “One or two elders might be in the room below, and there would be a knock at the door and the Indians would ask whether they might come in. Permission being given, a whole tribe of Indian spirits would troop into the house, and in a few minutes you would hear ‘Whoop!’ here and ‘Whoop!’ there all over the house.” The whoops emanated,-of course, from the vocal organs of the Shakers themselves, but while under the Indian control they would talk Indian among themselves, dance Indian dances, and in all ways show that they were really possessed by the Redskin spirits.

One may well ask why should these North American aborigines play so large a part not only in the inception, but in the continuance of this movement? There are few physical mediums in this country, as well as in America, who have not a Red Indian guide, whose photograph has not infrequently been obtained by psychic means, still retaining his scalp-locks and his robes. It is one of the many mysteries which we have still to solve. We can only say for certain, from our own experience, that such spirits are powerful in producing physical phenomena, but that they never present the higher teaching which comes to us either from European or from Oriental spirits. The physical phenomena are still, however, of very great importance, as calling the attention of skeptics to the matter, and therefore the part assigned to the Indians is a very vital one. Men of the rude open-air type seem in spirit life to be especially associated with the crude manifestations of spirit activity, and it has been repeatedly asserted, though it is hard to say how it could be proved, that their chief organizer was an adventurer who in life was known as Henry Morgan, and died as Governor of Jamaica, a post to which he had been appointed in the time of Charles II. Such unproved assertions are, it must be admitted, of no value in our present state of knowledge, but they should be put on record as further information may in time shed some new light upon them. John King, which is the spirit name of the alleged Henry Morgan, is a very real being, and there are few Spiritualists of experience who have not seen his heavily-bearded face and heard his masterful voice. As to the Indians who are his colleagues or his subordinates, one can but hazard the conjecture that they are children of Nature who are nearer perhaps to the primitive secrets than other more complex races. It may be that their special work is of the nature of an expiation and atonement-an explanation which the author has heard from their lips.

These remarks may well seem a digression from the actual experience of the Shakers, but the difficulties raised in the mind of the inquirer arise largely from the number of new facts, without any order or explanation, which he is forced to encounter. His mind has no possible pigeon-hole into which they can be fitted. Therefore, the author will endeavor in these pages to provide so far as possible from his own experience, or from that of those upon whom he can rely, such sidelights as may make the matter more intelligible, and give at least a hint of those laws which lie behind, and are as binding upon spirits as upon ourselves. Above all, the inquirer must cast away for ever the idea that the discarnate are necessarily wise or powerful entities. They have their individuality and their limitations, even as we have, and these limitations become the more marked when they have to manifest themselves through so foreign a substance as matter.

The Shakers had among them a man of outstanding intelligence named F. W.  Evans, who gave a very clear and entertaining account of all this matter, which may be sought by the curious in the NEW YORK DAILY GRAPHIC of November 24, 1874, and has been largely copied into Colonel Olcott’s work, “People From the Other World.”

Mr. Evans and his associates after the first disturbance, physical and mental, caused by this spirit irruption, settled down to study what it really meant. They came to the conclusion that the matter could be divided into three phases. The first phase was the actual proving to the observer that the thing was real. The second phase was one of instruction, as even the humblest spirit can bring information as to his own experience of after-death conditions. The third phase was called the missionary phase and was the practical application. The Shakers came to the unexpected conclusion that the Indians were there not to teach but to be taught. They proselytized them, therefore, exactly as they would have done in life. A similar experience has occurred since then in very many Spiritualistic circles, where humble and lowly spirits have come to be taught that which they should have learned in this world had true teachers been available. One may well ask why the higher spirits over there do not supply this want? The answer given to the author upon one notable occasion was, “These people are very much nearer to you than to us. You can reach theta where we fail.”

It is clear from this that the good Shakers were never in touch with the higher guides-possibly they did not need guidance-and that their visitors were on a low plane. For seven years these visitations continued. When the spirits left they informed their hosts that they were going, but that presently they would return, and that when they did so they would pervade the world and enter the palace as well as the cottage. It was just four years later that the Rochester knockings broke out. When they did so, Elder Evans and another Shaker visited Rochester and saw the Fox sisters. Their arrival was greeted with great enthusiasm from the unseen forces, who proclaimed that this was indeed the work which had been foretold.

One remark of Elder Evans is worth transcribing. When asked, “Don’t you think your experience is much the same as that of monks and nuns in the Middle Ages?” he did not answer, “Ours were angelic but these others were diabolical,” as would have been said had the situation been reversed, but he replied with fine candor and breadth of mind, “Certainly. That is the proper explanation of them through all the ages.  The visions of Saint Theresa were Spiritualistic visions just such as we have frequently had vouchsafed to the members of our society.” When further asked whether magic and necromancy did not belong to the same category, he answered, “Yes. That is when Spiritualism is used for selfish ends.” It is clear that there were men living nearly a century ago who were capable of instructing our wise men of to-day.

That very remarkable woman, Mrs. Hardinge Britten, has recorded in her “Modern American Spiritualism” how she came in close contact with the Shaker community, and was shown by them the records, taken at the time, of their spiritual visitation. In them it was stated that the new era was to be inaugurated by an extraordinary discovery of material as well as of spiritual wealth. This is a most remarkable prophecy, as it is a matter of history that the goldfields of California were discovered within a very short time of the psychic outburst. A Swedenborg with his doctrine of correspondences might perhaps contend that the one was complementary to the other.

This episode of the Shaker manifestations is a very distinct link between the Swedenborg pioneer work and the period of Davis and the Fox sisters. We shall now consider the career of the former, which is intimately associated with the rise and progress of the modern psychic movement.






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