This essay is based upon a talk I gave to the Congress for Curious People that took place at Swedenborg House in September 2013. The talk was on the subject of the relationship between the Swedenborg Society and the Spiritualist movement and it was accompanied by an exhibition of material from the Swedenborg Society’s archives that I had selected. Some images of items in the exhibition are reproduced with this paper.
A character I have always wanted to expand upon is the nineteenth century doctor, activist and translator of Emanuel Swedenborg, James John Garth Wilkinson. As with all things that are held dearly, one begins to start loving them for their flaws as well as their strengths and I feel a sense of this in Wilkinson’s almost-greatness. Not quite managing to fly at the heights of his more famous friends, but displaying a heart that was no less brilliant, Wilkinson lovingly and compassionately supported those who were less fortunate in life, taking up his pen time and again to defend them. In this essay I will look at his interest in Spiritualism (something which he dedicated about a decade of his life to) as well as expanding more generally on some of his possessions from the Society’s archive which relate to Spiritualism.
Famous during his own lifetime but now lying half-forgotten, Wilkinson lived for most of the nineteenth century, his birth being in 1812 and his death in 1899. He originally started out as a doctor but also went on to become a high-profile translator of Swedenborg’s works and of Icelandic epics. His interests wandered through mesmerism, homeopathy, Spiritualism, the anti-slavery movement, early feminist movements, classical and Norse mythology and a host of other subjects both physical and metaphysical. Through his pen each of these subjects would enter the paradigm of his Swedenborgian belief and emerge shot through with such ideas, the whole tangled together into new shades of thought. Given the wide range of subjects that interested Wilkinson, it is of no surprise that his list of regular correspondents was equally as broad. He counted many famous Victorian figures amongst his friends: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Robert Browning, Thomas Carlyle, Coventry Patmore and Henry Crabbe Robinson to name but a few. These myriad acquaintances from the British and American literary elite account somewhat for the renewed interest in Wilkinson which has been occurring over the past few years. For the present purpose of discussing his interest in Spiritualism it should also be noted that Wilkinson was friends with many popular Spiritualists of the age, including Thomas Lake Harris, John Murray Spear and Daniel Dunglas Home, one of the most famous mediums of the nineteenth century, whose séances Wilkinson was known to have attended.
Figure one shows a selection of spirit photos that were found among Wilkinson’s papers along with some séance reports (which we’ll get on to soon) (fig. 1). The photos are by three different photographers. On the left is a photo by the French photographer Eduard Isidore Buguet; in the middle is a picture by the British photographer Frederick A. Hudson; whilst the picture on the right is anonymous. Frederick Hudson was actually one of Britain’s first spirit photographers and maintained huge popularity even though he was caught in the act of hoaxing on several occasions, at one stage being caught actually dressed up as a ghost. Something similar happened to Buguet who was arrested by the French police for fraud and confessed to faking his pictures by using superimposition and costumed dummies with photos attached to them. Nonetheless, Buguet’s admirers still defended him, claiming that the police had threatened him and forced a false confession out of him. The most intriguing thing about these photos is the wrapper they were found in (fig. 2). Written on the wrapper in Wilkinson’s handwriting is a small poem entitled The Spirit Play of Curds & Whey. It reads:
There be Grave birds
That tear the face to whey, the blood to curds,-
Provided they are facts not surds
For those who are curious, in this context ‘surds’ refers to ‘surd evil’, which is a type of natural evil outside of human agency (e.g. natural disasters etc.). I have no idea why this has been written on a wrapper containing spirit photography. It’s quite tempting to see it as some sort of magical charm (and it certainly has that sort of air about it) but I do not think Wilkinson would have held any sort of interest in something like that and so the mystery remains. I do, however, believe it to be an example of automatic writing, a practice that the owner of these photos was a fan of and a subject that I will turn to presently. Found along with these spirit photos were a set of transcripts of séances that Wilkinson had attended (fig. 3). These were not the wild affairs of table tilting, levitation and other spectacles that someone like Daniel Dunglas Home performed, but were, rather, séances with a bit more of a personal and domestic air about them. Most of these papers appear to be direct transcripts of a medium speaking while in a trance, projecting herself into a spirit world which has distinctly Swedenborgian imagery. While I do not want to get too much into detail about Swedenborg’s accounts of heaven, as that would require an entire essay all on its own (and many books have been written on this subject alone, not least by the man himself), Swedenborg describes heaven (and indeed hell) as environments where the inhabitants’ emotional states constantly inform the topography and architecture around them. Due to this, the buildings, peoples’ clothes and even the very landscape itself is constantly morphing and changing as peoples’ moods change, as if it were part of some shared hallucinatory experience. It is also a place where every object is instantly recognized for its symbolic meaning and, more than this, its symbolism supersedes its apparent physicality.1
The transcripts report these descriptions, with the medium supposedly bearing witness to the constant shifts in the environments she is moving through, all the while being presented with various objects by a host of angels which are symbolic messages for the other participants of the séance. For example, one of the séance reports starts with the participants asking the spirits if they have firework displays in heaven, a question inspired by a recent display they had attended. The spirits reply that a few days previous they had witnessed its spiritual counterpart, but that in heaven fireworks are not shot into the sky but fall down from it. They describe watching fireworks descend into a field of corn before bursting into myriad colours, shining with symbolic value and spiritual significance. I found this reliance on Swedenborgian imagery to be most interesting, so, being possessed of a curiosity for even the most mundane of topics, I went on a hunt to find out who the medium might be. Luckily some of the transcripts mention the medium by name – Annie Milner. After having a little hunt around I eventually managed to turn up a possible reference to her in the Encyclopaedia of Occultism and Parapsychology, vol. 2, which makes reference to a medium named Annie who presided over a group of Swedenborgians that were experimenting with holding séances.2 This was in the early 1854 which would make them somewhat of a pioneering group for the British Spiritualist movement given that Spiritualism did not really take off in Britain till the late 1850s and ‘60s.
Possessing a curious and experimental nature, it appears Wilkinson was keen to try his own hand at various forms of mediumship as we shall see with these next items. Figure four shows a collection of spirit drawings made by Wilkinson himself (fig. 4). These would have been channelled by him through some sort of mediumship, most likely automatic drawing. As for the drawings themselves, they appear to depict a particular section of heaven where fairies are meant to live. The various drawings are from different spiritual perspectives, one mapping how the spiritual correspondence of the fairy ring in heaven informs all other fairy rings in the ethereal world and the physical world, another displaying how that part of heaven would look if it could be perceived by the physical eye. Speaking of eyes, according to Wilkinson’s accompanying notes, fairies have a particular kinship with the all-seeing eye of providence which is why the eye is such a common theme in these drawings, but as to how and why he does not elaborate.3 A fundamental question which begs to be asked is why fairies have taken up residence in heaven in the first place. This can be explained through a synthesis of several ideas. Filtered through the rose-tinted spectacles of nineteenth-century Romanticism, the depiction of fairies in popular culture undergoes a shift from the malevolent, baby stealing beings of folklore past to a group of benevolent do-gooders, so saccharine and innocent in their portrayal that it borders on the sickening. The Victorian’s interest in fairies burgeoned on obsession, with any number of them invading literature and art as a popular symbol of all that is good and innocent in the world. Postcards were a particular favourite to festoon with an overdose of fairies, as were photographs of children, hand-tinted to make the subjects look like them. The British Spiritualist movement in particular latched firmly onto this popular notion of fairies, claiming that they could not only see them but commune with them as well. Amongst Wilkinson’s papers I once found the printing rushes for a particular Spiritualist’s biography (her name escapes me at the moment) who claimed that she first became aware of her powers through talking to fairies in her garden during her childhood and how this event led to her work as a medium. Through this we see fairies joining the same ranks as spirits, another being living on the periphery of physical reality, only contactable through those with either the right techniques or the right disposition. Now in the case of these drawings, two of Swedenborg’s concepts need to be taken into account: First, that all beings that inhabit the spirit world must come from the physical world first, meaning that, in Swedenborg’s view, everyone who ascends to heaven becomes an angel. The implication of this is that angels are not created spontaneously by God but are instead part of a process that intrinsically includes physical existence. Secondly, that everyone who goes to heaven or to hell is compelled to take up residence in a particular part of it based on what their loves and affections were in the physical world, here they form communities of like-minded people and go about the rest of infinity doing largely whatever it is they loved so much during their physical existence. Therefore, for a Swedenborgian who also believes in fairies they become a sub-set of angels with their own particular patch of heaven, hell-bent on being as overbearingly saccharine as they are compelled to be. According to Wilkinson’s notes these fairy angels originally spring from the twelve tribes of Israel, and are also ‘like the bees of the spirit world’.
While only a few fragments of these drawings remain, what we do have a lot of examples of in the Swedenborg Society’s archive are Wilkinson’s attempts at automatic writing as a form of mediumship. While artist André Breton would like to claim that he invented the practice as a tool for the Surrealist movement in the 1920s, automatic writing (as well as drawing) was actually a popular form of mediumship amongst nineteenth century Spiritualists and, even before that, references to its use date back to at least the eighteenth century. Wilkinson states that he originally became interested in the practice around 1856, no doubt through his experiences with Spiritualism. His practice of it took the form of poetry constructed, as he describes it, in this manner:
A theme is chosen, and written down. So soon as this is done, the first impression upon the mind which succeeds the act of writing the title, is the beginning of the evolution of that theme; no matter how strange or alien the word or phrase may seem. That impression is written down; and then another, and another, until the piece is concluded. An Act of Faith is signalized in accepting the first mental movement, the first word that comes, as the response to the mind’s desire for the unfolding of the subject.4
What is startling about the poems is that for a supposed act of automatic writing they are fairly concise and have complete, structured rhyming schemes. Later examples of automatic writing such as Surrealist novels and poetry lack structure and feel much more like a raw outpouring of information. While I personally would be unsure as to how to account for this, the Spiritualists would no doubt put this down to the channelling of various spirits and their words which, of course, would be precise and prophetic in nature as the medium’s hand would merely be the conduit for whatever intelligent agency was talking through them. Wilkinson’s ideas, however, as to what the activating agent was in the process of automatic writing seems to have moved a little away from general Spiritualist thought at this time. What Wilkinson now believed he was channelling through this practice was inspiration directly from the creator, God. He believed that by restricting reason and will, one could make contact with the part of the self that was always directly in contact with the spirit world, and therefore with God himself. At play here is another facet of Swedenborg’s theological thought called correspondences. Conceiving the Bible, and indeed the whole of the physical world as a symbolic language lost to modern man, Swedenborg’s interpretation of reality is that of one in which everything in existence is shaped by its corresponding abstract emotional counterpart which resides in the spiritual world. Further to this idea, one is shaped spiritually and physically by a constant influx of abstract emotive energy directly from God. Wilkinson writes:
In allowing your faculties to be directed to ends they know not of, there is only One Being to whom you dare entrust them: only the Lord. Of consequence, before writing by influx, your prayer must be to Him, for His Guidance, Influx, and Protection. And you must have faith that that prayer is answered according to your worthiness, in that which flows in. The Faith is the acknowledgement of the gift which becomes an ever-enlarging cup, for receiving fresh gifts, or fresh Influx.5
It seems Wilkinson was rather gratified with his experiments with automatic writing as, during the same year, he sought out subscribers to front the money for the publication of a small volume of poems. The resulting book, Improvisations from the Spirit, was then privately circulated. Reactions to it, from some of the letters I have read in the archive were quite ecstatic, with one of his friends going so far as to claim that Wilkinson was the new William Blake. This association would not have been lost on Wilkinson as just over a decade earlier he had published the first ever letterpress edition of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience (now as rare as the artist’s original illuminated copies themselves). Blake’s biographer Alexander Gilchrist also mentions the book Improvisations in his Life of William Blake. Astonishingly, given the book’s limited run and subsequent slip into obscurity, Sigmund Freud was made aware of Improvisations from the Spirit through an essay by Havelock Ellis in which the physician, writer and social reformer compared Freud and Wilkinson and even went so far as to acknowledge Wilkinson as a precursor to psychoanalysis. Ellis, in his essay The Philosophy of Conflict, writes:
In 1857, Dr. J J Garth Wilkinson, more noted as a Swedenborgian mystic and poet than as a physician, published a volume of mystic doggerel verse (…). The method was, as Garth Wilkinson viewed it, a kind of exalted Laissez faire, a command to the deepest unconscious instincts to express themselves (…). Garth Wilkinson, it must be clearly understood, although he was a physician, used this method for religious and literary, and never for scientific or medical ends; but it is easy to see that essentially it is the method of psychoanalysis applied to oneself, and it is further evidence how much Freud’s method is an artist’s method (…)’.7
More interesting than Freud being made aware of Wilkinson’s experiments with free association is that Ellis (and therefore Freud) are in fact wrong here. Unbeknownst to the two of them, in 1857 Wilkinson published a pamphlet entitled The Homœopathic Principle Applied to Insanity. A proposal to Treat Lunacy by Spiritualism which, as we shall see, actually proposes an archaic model of psychodynamic therapy (fig. 5). Beginning with the homeopathic maxim of ‘a little bit of what harms can heal’ Wilkinson ruminates on the fact that while we can match physical maladies to physical cures, homeopathically speaking, there is no spiritual or abstract match for mental states such as madness. Wilkinson states:
Now, in looking over the known world to find the cure of some very common forms of insanity, our first homœopathic question is, What agent is there that in experience does sometimes clearly produce insanity? It is not necessary that it should always produce it, because agents operate differently on natural classes of individuals; thus, opium is a narcotic, though it does not send some people to sleep; and wine an exhilarant though it makes some melancholy, and others furious. In looking for our insanity-producing agent, my attention was directed by great cries proceeding from various quarters, in the direction of Spiritualism, which some at one time feared would turn the brains of all the world; and I said to myself, alone in the human wood, ‘That is one of the Lord’s plants for curing insanity (…) That a moderate dose of that which will cause, will cure, is God’s law: therefore Spiritualism will cure Insanity.’8
Having now identified his homœopathic remedy, Wilkinson sets about explaining how automatic writing (or indeed any other form of automatic activity), or ‘spirit writing’ as it is called here, could be used therapeutically to cure madness. Claiming that the insanity brought on by an overuse of Spiritualist techniques is only temporary; he notes the fact that when the madness passes, the victim of it seems much calmer and in a better mental state than before the attack set in.9 In this example which sounds almost as if it is straight from Freud’s own case studies he states:
When spirit-writing and drawing first seized her, dreadful and ominous messages about those dearest to her, and awful commands to herself, were written out through her hand. Shapes, thick-coming, fantastic, bewildering, yet all-fascinating, poured through her conceptions, and struck the inner canvas of the eye, and re-echoed from the roofs and vaults of the inward ear. She was nearly past control. I forbade the spirit-writing and drawing. What happened? The pictures were drawn, as she averred, upon her tissues and membranes; her frame was scribbled over with the spirit-hieroglyphics. She took her pencil again, and in letting forth the evil, saw it for its true worth; used the ointment of good sense to it, and grew convalescent in letting the stream of these disordered impressions, which checked would have been madness run away. All she wanted was, the presence at her side of some one who had gone through the same states; who could predict them, and thus command her faith, and enable her to control them.10
Later on in the pamphlet Wilkinson even goes on to identify repression as a central factor in the exacerbation of a given patient’s madness. He states:
Unless the crisis has been very great, and the excitement uncontrollable, experience shows that repression is not the most ready mode for the removal of the symptoms [of madness]. Let the state rather work itself out, and the exalted ideas which fever the mind come out upon the paper, or by the mouth, as the case may be. Watch the patient, and direct the manifestations; but do not seek to extinguish them rudely, or at once, or the whole train of impressions will simply go inwards, instead of deploying upon the canvas.11
Through this we see Wilkinson identify the basic model of psychodynamic therapy – that potentially negative psychological states are essentially brought about through the act of repression and that bringing forth what is repressed and confronting it in a controlled environment is a means to a cure. It must be noted here that Wilkinson was still operating within his previous ideas set forth in Improvisations of the Spirit in the sense that he believed automatic writing served as a direct conduit to God and therefore the patient would be cured through the restriction of reason, allowing an influx of positive emotive energy to run through them. Although, on the subject of whose agency is really at work in the therapeutic process, he does concede: ‘If you choose to say, it is your own spirit, I have no objections; but only aver that it is a new and unused faculty, or power of faculty. And so, without fixing whose spirit it is, I call it spirit.’12 If anyone is keen to read the entire pamphlet it can be found on Archive.org.
In conclusion, a question that begs to be asked is what leads Wilkinson to explore Spiritualism, a practice that was largely condemned by the majority of his fellow Swedenborgians? An interesting thing to note about Wilkinson’s life is that it is punctuated by a constant questing and many an attempt to expand Swedenborg’s writings into the age that he lived in. Part of what drove him may be a common facet of Swedenborg’s believers and that is to view their denomination as a religion of the mind and not so much of the heart, to attempt to try and intellectualize and explore their faith. Swedenborg himself once had a vision of a temple in heaven written in Latin over the door were the words Nunc Licet or ‘Now It Is Permitted’. What has been generally accepted from this is a legitimate decree to variously explore, to deconstruct and to rebuild faith and religious belief. For a person like Wilkinson this was actuated by the paths he chose to lead Swedenborgian thought into: the social reformist movements of the Victorian period and their relation to new modes of thought and worship. What marks the Spiritualist movement of the nineteenth century is its close relationship with the various reformist movements of the day. The social politics of the Spiritualist movement is a path that has been little explored, but they seemed to favour direct reformist action revolving around one simple statement – equality and unity for all. This was brought about by various activities on the Spiritualists’ behalf such as: forming experimental utopian communes; involving themselves in the operations of the Underground Railroad (a system used to smuggle slaves into free states and countries); emphasizing women’s rights and practising ‘free love’; or any other number of direct social activities. Another important factor to note regarding the inception of the Spiritualist movement is its synthesis of Swedenborgian doctrine. Both Andrew Jackson Davis and Thomas Lake Harris, two of Spiritualism’s earliest thinkers, were hugely interested in Swedenborg and actively used Swedenborgian doctrine in their visions and works. Possibly due to this, Swedenborg became an enduring figure to the Spiritualist movement as a whole. He was a common figure for various mediums to channel and his works were used as tenets for the founding of various groups, communities and communes throughout the Victorian Spiritualist movement.
This appropriation of Swedenborg was troubling to the New Church (the denomination founded on Swedenborg’s doctrines in the late eighteenth century, some fifteen years after his death). Favouring instead to focus on the more rational side of Swedenborg’s doctrines, it is not hard to imagine the threat they felt from the use of their church’s head as a means to personal mystical experience and radically progressive, reformist ideas. Amongst early New Church publications are a prolific number of replies to various attacks on the New Church and on Swedenborg himself, evidence of the fact they were receiving criticism from many Christian denominations. Theirs was the task to justify Swedenborg to wider society and to focus attention on the more practical aspects of his thinking. In Wilkinson’s case it is my belief that he was attracted to Spiritualism partly through his perceived successes from experimenting with mesmerism earlier in his life (he believed mesmerist led therapies could one day replace the use of pharmaceutical drugs), partly through Spiritualism’s somewhat looser religious framework which was already sympathetic to Swedenborgian ideas, and partly from a deep sympathy with its attempts at social reformation. It allowed Wilkinson an opportunity to explore his own religious ideology through new practices and modes while still being able to operate from the confines of Swedenborgian thought and also allowing him to associate this with a wider sphere of reformist activity. It was also a part of the wider narrative of his life which was punctuated by a constant quest to develop Swedenborg’s ideas through the use of new philosophical and theological frameworks that were afforded to him by the age he lived in – to view Swedenborg’s theology not as a complete model but as the genesis point from which a new spiritual truth could be developed. Wilkinson would eventually go on to denounce Spiritualism after a decade long focus on its practises. However, he continued to campaign for the rights of others worse off than him for the rest of his life. He dies virtually with a pen in his hand, an almost finished manuscript waiting for publication, after a long life of dedication to his fellow man.
All images reproduced with permission of the Swedenborg Society.
- The most authoritative text on this subject would be Swedenborg’s own work Heaven and Hell (1758).
- J. Gordon Melton (ed.), Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology, vol. 2, 5th ed. (Dale Group: Detroit et al 2001), p. 1469
- J J Garth Wilkinson, assorted drawings, notes and MS poems (c.1850), Swedenborg Society Archive shelf number A/150
- J J Garth Wilkinson, Improvisations from the Spirit (London: W White and Manchester: Dunnill and Palmer, 1857), p. 397-8
- Ibid., p. 400
- Clement John Wilkinson, J J Garth Wilkinson; A Memoir of His Life, with a Selection of His Letters (Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co, 1911), p. 95
- The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud: A Note on the Prehistory of the Technique of Analysis, 1920, Anna Freud et al (eds.) (Random House, 2001), p. 263-64
- J J Garth Wilkinson, The Homœopathic Principle Applied to Insanity. A proposal to Treat Lunacy by Spiritualism (London: William White, 36 Bloomsbury Street and Manchester: Turner, 1857), p. 5f.
- Ibid., p. 8
- Ibid., p. 9
- Ibid., p. 8
- Ibid., p. 16