Harold Anson

Canon Harold Anson, Master of the Temple, was part of a committee appointed in 1937 by the Church of England and headed by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York to investigate mediumship. He wrote "Concerning Prayer: Its Nature, Its Difficulties and Its Value" (Macmillan and Company, 1916), "Spiritual Healing: A Discussion of the Religious Element in Physical Health" (University of London Press, 1923), "A Practical Faith" (London: George Allen Unwin, 1925), "Thinking Aloud" (London: George Allen Unwin, 1928), "Looking Forward" (William Heinemann, 1938), "The Truth About Spiritualism" (London: Student Christian Movement Press, 1941), "I Believe in God" (Frederick Muller Ltd, 1943), and "T. B. Strong: Bishop, Musician, Dean, Vice-Chancellor" (London: S.P.C.K., 1949).

The Technique of a Sťance

 - Harold Anson -

          TO THOSE who are unfamiliar with the procedure of an ordinary sťance with a medium it might be interesting to give an account of what might be usually expected to happen.

Mediums vary immensely in quality and character. There are some mediums who are definitely fraudulent and who make a practice, for the sake of gain, of pretending to have acquired from supranormal sources facts which they have either picked up elsewhere, or cleverly extracted from the more gullible kind of sitter. There is probably another class of mediums who have begun by being entirely honest, but seeing that mediumship is their only source of income, gradually accustom themselves to pretending, almost without realizing that they are pretending, to give information as from the other world, which is, in fact, nothing but their own uninspired commentary on the situation with which they have to deal. They may be compared, perhaps, to the clergyman who begins his professional life by genuinely preaching the message which he believes to have been given to him by God, but who, when confronted with the legal necessity of making two or more sermons every Sunday, very easily slips into a habit of rattling off totally uninspired, utterances which have little or no claim to be considered as messages given to him from on high. The paid clergyman and the paid medium suffer alike from the necessity of producing results which they might find it difficult to reconcile with perfect sincerity.

But I will assume that we are dealing with a perfectly honest medium such as, for instance, would be provided by the London Spiritualist Alliance. This would be a person who is vouched for as being one of known probity of character. He would, indeed, like the clergyman, make his living by giving messages from the world of spirit. It is probable that in every case, even with the best mediums, this message is profoundly influenced by the medium's own character and, indeed, by his state of health, and by the personality of the sitter.

The medium will be sitting in an arm-chair in a partly darkened room (a bright light always seems to interfere with the mediumistic trance). The sitter is perhaps accompanied by a friend who takes short-hand notes of the sitting. It is very probable that the medium will first offer prayer. These prayers, in the case of a good medium, would be obviously genuine, dignified, and earnest. The subject of the prayer will be that no spirit may approach who is not in touch with the Divine Will, and that we may be guarded against evil influences. In a few, minutes, after perhaps a few deep sighs and small muscular movements of the medium's body, the medium will become entranced. Then a totally new voice will emanate from the medium's mouth.

It is curious that in many cases this control, as it is called, appears to be of a childish and uneducated mentality. These controls often have childish names, very often they claim to be Red Indians, or South Sea Islanders, or Egyptian Priests. It is thought by some students of psychical research that the control is not, in fact, a separate individual, as it claims to be, but is only a detached part of the medium's mind which is able to enter into relations with some other mode of existence.

Be that as it may, the control will begin conversing with the sitter with ease and familiarity, asking and answering questions. Generally the conversation will start by the control mentioning the names of various people who are not recognizable, giving descriptions which might easily apply to a great variety, of cases, as for instance, "I see an old man. His hair is white and rather sparse, he is short of breath, he was very ill before he passed out, he is, of medium height, neither very tall nor very short, he is nearly related to you, he is perhaps your uncle or your father. You do not know him? 'Never mind,' he says, 'you may not have known him but he knows you.'"

This is always the most unconvincing part of the sitting. The medium will go on to ask whether you know John, or Jim, or Mary, or Alice, and you begin to be, if you are at all critical, highly suspicious of the whole business. Then, if you are fortunate, the medium may possibly begin to describe people whom you have known in this life. In one sitting that I can think of the control said, "I will try and drive away all these other spirits and shut the door and bring alone the spirits that want to talk to you." Immediately afterwards I was given the initials of three men that I have known intimately, then the name by which they knew me, then the name of the place where I was working. I had every reason to believe that the medium could not have known who I was, or who were my friends. There are very numerous cases in which people have been given proofs which they regard as absolutely convincing, that they have conversed, through the medium, with people they have known and loved on earth. Such an experience is shared by thousands of men and women today.

The baffling and disappointing part of the ordinary sťance is that, even when we do feel convinced that we have indeed come into communication with people whom we have known, the quality of the communication is disappointingly meagre. If we ask the best mediums why this is so, they will reply that we must always remember that these communications pass through an almost incredibly difficult series of channels. Our friend in the other world has first of all to get into touch with the control, the control very often having the mentality of a young kitchen maid. The control then has to try impress the message upon the brain substance of the vocal organs of the medium who is entranced, and this brain substance of the vocal organs hag to try to make the message audible and comprehensible to you. We may almost compare the process to two highly educated men trying to send a message to one another when both are at the mercy of an almost illiterate messenger. The one, perhaps, has to transmit the message to an uneducated South Sea Islander. She, in turn, gives the message, we will say, to a schoolgirl, and the school girl then transmits it to the friend. The message will reach its destination probably ill-spelt and ungrammatical, and so full of mistakes that the friend at one end will feel great uncertainty as to whether it is a genuine message, and, if it be genuine, will marvel that his friend shows so little mental capacity as to have almost forgotten how to speak grammatical English.

Most of these messages then are unsatisfying, even when we feel persuaded that they are genuine. People often complain that instead of informing us about the life of the other world and giving us messages which will be of aid to our religious or philosophical interests, they merely recall to us, let us say, the name of our friend's pet dog or cat, or some absurd incident which happened to us both when we were in a punt on the river. I think we have got to remember that, for purposes of identification, a sermon or philosophical disquisition on the after life would not be very good evidence of identity, whereas the mention of some quite unimportant incident, giving the pet name of a person or an animal or recalling some foolish accident, may be, for purposes of identification, far more convincing than any really serious message. My own opinion is that we very seldom get much farther than receiving a definite proof that such and such a person has survived death, by relating some convincing incidents of our past life, and we are wise if we do not ask for more than this; but I must own that many friends whose opinion I trust have been far more successful than I have been in this respect, and have constantly received messages which they regard as not only genuine but informative and reassuring in the highest degree.

The sťance may go on for over an hour, the control becoming chatty and loquacious. We shall be told details about our future health and prospects which sometimes come true and sometimes do not (nearly all mediums prophesied that there would be no war). After about an hour the control will probably say that the light or the power is failing, and will then say good-bye with many expressions of goodwill. After a few sighs the medium will then wake up and will be totally ignorant as to what has happened, whether there has been any success or none. It may be well to say here that where a medium is carefully looked after and not allowed to accept too many engagements, there seems to be no reason to suppose that the medium's health suffers, any more than that of any other professional person.

It must not be supposed that all communications through entranced persons are as little satisfactory as the one that I have outlined. There are a few (I should say very few) that contain very much more detailed evidence. I have already referred to Mr. Stainton Moses's "spirit teachings." We may read Mrs. Willett's script professing to come from Mr. F. W. H. Myers, and commented on elaborately by the present Lord Balfour in Proceedings of the SPR, Part 140. No one could possibly say that these messages are trifling or irrelevant, wherever they may come from. They are serious, important, and detailed. They have convinced men like Lord Balfour, Sir William Barrett and Sir Oliver Lodge that they are genuine, that is to say they have come from persons who have passed into the other world and who can be identified as showing a consistent personality and identity. Anyone who has not studied the literature of psychical research, as for instance in that great book we have mentioned, Human Personality and its Survival of Bodily Death, can have no idea how much evidence there is of messages from persons who have passed into the other world, how dignified, carefully weighed and characteristic they are, and how carefully those messages have been sifted by critics eminently fitted for such a task.

The great difficulty remains that it is exceedingly hard to devise any test which will make us certain that what professes to be a message from our friend in the other world may not be in fact the evocation by the medium of recollections drawn from the subconscious strata of our own memory. There is no doubt, I think, that many of these "messages" do have this origin. The question remains as to whether this explanation fits all of these so-called messages.

Is there any way of escaping this uncertainty? The only real proof of the identity of any person professing to speak from the other world is whether they give a message the content of which is unknown to the medium or the sitter and can only be afterwards verified. Where this is the case, I find it very difficult to escape from the belief that I am receiving a message from an extra-mundane source, and that it comes from the person from whom it professes to come. It has indeed been suggested that we all of us may possibly, in our subconsciousness, have access to all the information which there is in the world, and that even if we do not consciously know this information, we may know everything subconsciously. This really does seem to me, to be pressing the theory of telepathy to absurd and incredible extremes. I believe that if we are told some fact of which we cannot have any knowledge, and never have had any knowledge in our past life, and this turns out on investigation to be true, then we may well assume that this is a proof of the survival of the conscious intelligence of the personality from which the message purports to come. Now although nine-tenths of the messages which come through even a very good and successful sťance may have a very possible explanation in telepathy between the sitter and the medium, there is a very definite residuum of the satisfactory messages which cannot be accounted for by telepathy.

The following is a typical instance of communication from the other world given by Henry James, the novelist, in his Letters, volume two:

I have had from or through a medium in America near Boston a message purporting, to come from my mother, who died twenty-five years ago, and from whom it ostensibly proceeded during a sťance at which my sister-in-law, with two or three other persons, was present. The point is that the message is an allusion to a matter known (so personal is it to myself) to no other individual in the world but me - not possibly either to the medium or to my sister-in-law, and an allusion so pertinent and initiated and tender and helpful, and yet so unhelped by any actual earthly knowledge on anyone's part, that it quite astounds as well as deeply touches me. If the subject of the message had been conceivably in my sister-in-law's mind it would have been an interesting but not infrequent case of telepathy but, as I say, it could not thinkably have been: and she only transmitted it to me, after the fact, not even fully understanding it. So, I repeat, I am astounded.

Sir Oliver Lodge, speaking of the difficulties which surround all these communications, remarks:

The process of communication is sophisticated by many influences, so that it is very difficult, perhaps at present impossible, to disentangle and exhibit clearly the part that each plays.

Sir William Barrett, speaking of the result of his investigations, says,

Certainly, for our own part, we believe there is some active intelligence at work behind, and apart from, the automatist, an intelligence which is more like the deceased person it professes to be than that of any other we can imagine. And though the intelligence is provokingly irritating in the way it evades simple direct replies to questions, yet it is difficult to find any other solution to the problem of these scripts and cross-correspondences than that there is an attempt at intelligent co-operation between certain disembodied minds and our own ... Some of the evidence, indeed, seems rather to indicate a more or less truncated personality, a fragment of earthly memories partly roused by, and mainly connected with, those through and to whom the communications come ... The intelligent and characteristic messages, however, suggest that the vague ones are due to the fading and dissolving of earthly memories and ties, as the departed become more absorbed in their new life, the very nature of which we are in our present state incapable of conceiving. Our own limitations, in fact, make it impossible for the evidence to convey the assurance that we are communicating with what is best and noblest in those who have passed into the unseen.

There are also the so-called "book tests," when a spirit purporting to speak through a medium refers to some book in the sitter's library or some other library, mentioning, for example, that in the fourth book from the right-hand end on the fifth shelf, on page 321, the fifth line down, will be found such and such a message. It may be a book which the sitter has either never read or has never looked at for many years. Though it is conceivable that our subconscious may retain the memory of a passage in a book which, we have not read for years past, remembering also the page and the position in the page where the passage is to be found, this does seem to me a very improbable explanation. If again we are told the name of a person who was born in 1721 and we are told where to find the baptismal register and where to look for his gravestone, this being a person whom we have never heard of, it seems to me to be unreasonably sceptical if we refuse to accept this as a genuine of supra-normal knowledge.

We have indeed to beware of supposing that, even if such a genuine message is given, it necessarily means that we must accept all the other messages given from the same source as being either valuable or necessarily true. Mr. Stainton Moses was constantly reminded by his "guides" that they were very far themselves from being infallible, though they claimed to have access to a much greater volume of knowledge than he could have in this world, and he was also warned that these proofs of identity had little value in themselves, and that the sooner he could give up asking for signs and wonders the better it would be for his spiritual progress.

Now, as I am rather taking for granted in this book that my readers are for the most part members of the Christian Church, or at all events accept the main facts of the Christian revelation, I am anxious to point out once again (and I feel it is exceedingly important that we should realize this) that the proofs which we have of Our Lord's miracles, and especially of Our Lord's resurrection, are very far from being such as would be accepted by men of science to-day.

This thought leads us to ask ourselves on what evidence we do accept or deny the report of supranormal happenings in ancient records. We no doubt begin by accepting them because we are taught them by authorities whom we respect, our parents, our school, the Church, or the Bible. But when we come to a point, as we must all do, when we have to ask ourselves whether these authorities are to be trusted or not, we are largely influenced by our conception as to what we believe is consonant to our ideas about the nature of the universe.

We are ready to accept the record of a man like St. Paul, when he tells us of his vision of Christ on the road to Damascus, and we accept also his explanation of that experience because we feel that the story bears a stamp of veracity and fits in to our general belief in the constitution of the universe. After all, our commonest and most everyday beliefs are subject to a test of this kind. Our only assurance that our everyday experiences are not dreams, but do correspond to actual happenings in the outside world, is due, not to any possibility of conclusive proof, but to our belief that to accept these occurrences as true makes life rational and intelligible.

To sum up then, I believe there is a small residuum of psychical facts which have, happened in our own day, which can only be explained on the theory that certain individuals who have lived upon this earth are now alive, and are able to communicate with their friends, and that if we reject this evidence we ought also logically to reject the evidence on which the great facts of our Christian faith are founded.

Source: "The Truth About Spiritualism" by Harold Anson (London: Student Christian Movement Press, 1941).


Other articles by Harold Anson...

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