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The spiritualists: gnosis and ideology

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posted on 2022-03-28, 09:59 authored by Paul Gillen
Spiritualism originated in the U.S.A. in the mid nineteenth century. Its Australian heyday in the late 1870's has been followed by a lingering decline. Ostensibly centred on the idea that the personality survives physical death and can be contacted by mediums, in fact this aspect is less elaborated than beliefs in paranormal "phenomena" such as healing by touch, astral travel and various kinds of clairvoyance and divination. The main Spiritualist ritual, while having the outward form of a Christian church service, centres on a demonstration of mediumship. Spiritualists also participate in seances. Their organisations are fragile, and in spite of prevailing norms of tolerance and egalitarianism, mediums are competitive and often quarrelsome. Spiritualists tend to be "seekers" from religious backgrounds, but there is little evidence that social or economic "deprivation" is a very significant factor in attraction to the movement. Spiritualism is directed to the attainment of "ultimate knowledge" - gnosis. It is "occult", in that it searches for signs of gnosis in anomalous events, and pluralistic in allowing that there may be many paths to gnosis. I interpret Spiritualism as a marginalised ideology, constituted by a group of codes which are closely related to the codes of dominant ideologies. Six Spiritualist codes are discussed in some detail. They are concerned with (a) information exchanges, especially those between mediums and Spirit; (b) the nature and location of the person; (c) love of Spirit, other humans and self; (d) progress to higher states of being; (e) the scientific validation of Spiritualist claims; and (f) the elaboration of experience as a realm of metaphorical correspondences. These codes display the contradictoriness and incompleteness characteristic of ideology. Their "bardic" enunciation by "messages from Spirit" and other Spiritualist texts is analysed, and it is also shown how these texts work as "delphic" entertainments. I argue that fundamentally Spiritualism is caught between an ideological distortion of reality, and a gnosis that cannot be realised. The study is based upon participant observation of a group of Spiritualists in Sydney, and a range of written sources.


Table of Contents

Chapter 1. Mortfield Church -- Chapter 2. Spiritualist history -- Chapter 3. Spiritualist beliefs -- Chapter 4. Circles -- Chapter 5. Mortfield politics -- Chapter 6. The backgrounds of Mortfield Spiritualists -- Chapter 7. The Spiritualist movement -- Chapter 8. Discourse, code and text -- Chapter 9. The codes of Spiritualism -- Chapter 10. The delphic voice -- Chapter 11. The bardic voice -- Chapter 12. Gnosis, ideology and ritual.


"Thesis submittted for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, November 1981. This thesis is presented for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy" Bibliography: pages 212-226

Awarding Institution

Macquarie University

Degree Type

Thesis PhD


Degree conferred May 1983

Department, Centre or School

School of Behavioural Sciences

Year of Award


Principal Supervisor

Chandra Jayawardena


Copyright disclaimer: Copyright Paul Gillen 1981. This thesis was digitised for the purposes of Document Delivery. Macquarie University ResearchOnline attempted to locate the author but where this has not been possible; we are making available, open access, the thesis which may be used for the purposes of private research and study. If you have any enquiries or issues regarding this work being made available please contact Macquarie University ResearchOnline -






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