Associate Professor Matt Tomlinson
Perfection is a human ideal, one often expressed in religious terms. Sometimes perfection is imagined as a place, such as the Garden of Eden – an irrecoverable paradise. Sometimes it is an existential state: Nirvana, perhaps, or heaven – something to be inhabited (rather than kicked out of). Shimmering between lure and loss, religious models of perfection often summon up ideas of holiness, an absolute sacred quality.
But perfection has a notably different look and feel in modern Spiritualism, the religious movement sparked in 1848 by two young sisters in Hydesville, New York. Kate and Maggie Fox were not personally concerned with perfection, but the religious movement they started would come to take perfection seriously as a philosophical principle.
The Fox family lived in a haunted house. Knocking sounds seemed to come from nowhere. The girls cleverly addressed the unseen source of the knocks, urging it – whatever it was – to use rapping sounds to communicate in code. What began with simple yes/no questions quickly became complicated when people called out letters of the alphabet to receive knocks spelling out messages. Eventually, a story grew: the spirit was of a peddler who had been killed on site and buried under the cellar.
From this beginning, Spiritualism – and the Fox sisters – gained fame through public demonstrations and parlour séances. (They later said they had made the sounds, although some Spiritualists insist the confessions themselves were false.) In the latter half of the nineteenth century especially, the movement grew in popularity, and those who embraced it worked to give it a textual and philosophical foundation. A key moment came when the British medium Emma Hardinge Britten put forth seven principles, which she said she had received from the spirit of the utopian social activist Robert Owen. By the time Arthur Conan Doyle wrote his two-volume History of Spiritualism in 1926, the movement had become so well known that Doyle went so far as to call it “the most important [movement] in the history of the world since the Christ episode”.
Emma Hardinge Britten’s seven principles are still referred to by Spiritualists today. The one that matters most for an understanding of perfection is the seventh: “Eternal progress [is] open to every human soul”. This statement means humans travel on a path, spiritually speaking, toward continual improvement. Spiritualists insist on free will to the extent that all the events in your life are said to have been chosen and determined by your spiritual self. In other words, if you have an accident, it wasn’t an accident at all: your spiritual self knew that you needed to undergo physical suffering in order to grow spiritually. The arc of the Spiritualist universe bends inexorably toward the perfection of your existence, although your growth is spurred by achingly less-than-perfect events. There are qualifications to this belief, of course, and Spiritualists are no happier than anyone else when their bodies are in pain and their plans thwarted. But the principle of eternal progress means that perfection is a real possibility in Spiritualist understandings.
I have been conducting research at the Canberra Spiritualist Association, which meets on the first, third and fifth Sundays of each month. As part of my research, I have recorded many services with the permission of the Association and the mediums who conduct readings there. During services, participants typically sing four songs and hold a brief meditative healing ceremony before the person serving as chair for the day welcomes the medium, recites the seven principles and comments on one of them. Then the medium herself – for it is usually a woman who is the medium – delivers a speech on a spiritual topic and then performs her mediumship, giving people messages from deceased family members and friends. Some mediums are members of the Canberra Spiritualist Association, others are invited in for the day. One medium performs during each service.
From this beginning, Spiritualism – and the Fox sisters – gained fame through public demonstrations and parlour séances. In the latter half of the nineteenth century especially, the movement grew in popularity, and those who embraced it worked to give it a textual and philosophical foundation.
In mediums’ speeches, the nature of perfection is made explicit. For example, at a service in April 2017, Blanche (I am using pseudonyms) spoke on the theme of ‘change’, and referred to the principle of eternal progress open to every human soul. The path we follow as humans, Blanche said, “can be a hard one, it can be full of challenges, but for every challenge that you face, there is a lesson learned”. She offered the intertwined claims that people always think they are right, yet need to recognise that other people are right in their own ways, and right for themselves. As she explained, “each one of you has an opinion on everything in the world. Each one of you has … an idea of how to live your life … And each one of you is perfectly right … I may disagree with what you think, how you behave, what you say, but that doesn’t make me superior. It doesn’t make me more right. It just makes me who I am. And it makes you who you are”.
Blanche, who is in her mid-seventies, told the gathering that Spiritualism had greatly improved her life. But it took work on her part, she said, and a willingness to change from the Catholic she once was. Her Christian upbringing had been challenged when events made her ask, “Why do I have to be like everybody else?”. She resolved that she definitely did not need to be the same as other people, because she was perfect in her own terms. “I can’t be somebody else,” she declared. “I can only be me. And as [of] now, as of today, and as of every day of my life, I am perfect. I’m perfect when I’m angry. I’m perfect when I’m sulking. I’m perfect when I’m annoyed with everybody else, because that’s who I am.” Being true to herself, for Blanche, meant recognising her inherent perfection. But this recognition was hard-won.
At a service in October 2017, Olivia, who is in her mid-fifties, mentioned that her grandmother had died about 15 years ago. She was then drawn to Spiritualism, Olivia said, because she “wasn’t ready to let go”. She described her study and practice of Spiritualism over the past decade and a half as a model of perfection: “This learning over the last 15 years has had a number of branches, just like a tree, and all these branches … end in perfection. They’re perfectly formed, just as a tree. When we first plant a tree, it’s a stick of wood, maybe one or two leaves, about a foot high, perfect. And then each day, when you look at it, or each month, it’s grown … but every time you look at this tree, it is always different, but it is always perfect”.
As the words of Blanche and Olivia make clear, perfection is a present reality for Spiritualists: you are perfect now, in your own way. Yet it is also a goal to work toward continually as your spirit matures. In short, perfection is both relative and absolute, a reality for a person in his or her present moment and also an ultimate state, the complete future condition of all people.
Considering this emphasis on perfection, as well as the belief that difficult situations result from your spiritual self choosing to endure them for growth and improvement, Spiritualism may sometimes seem to have a Panglossian aspect: all for the best, always. I vividly recall the discussion of a crime and my surprise at the positive comment on it. The discussion took place during a class on spirit mediumship in 2017. The story was of a young woman who had been raped and murdered in Sydney 30 years ago. Blanche, commenting on the case, said that a person spiritually accepts their death before it happens. One of the students in the class mentioned a detail of the story: the victim had told one of the criminals she would report him to the police, so he returned to kill her. The student seemed to think that things would have been better if the victim had not said that. Blanche, believing the student had missed the essential point, clarified: “It was something that the whole group agreed to before they came”. By this, she meant that both the victim and her assailants had agreed beforehand, in the spiritual dimension, that this event would happen. Blanche added: “When you start looking at it in a detached way, you can see that everything is just perfect”.
“I can only be me. And as now, as of today, and as of every day of my life, I am perfect. I’m perfect when I’m angry. I’m perfect when I’m sulking. I’m perfect when I’m annoyed with everybody else, because that’s who I am.”
I find it compelling that a religion grounded in a philosophy of perfection features rituals that often highlight imperfection.
This claim might sound jarring, but the philosophy is consistent in its treatment of perfection. And this philosophy goes back to Spiritualism’s early days. For example, consider a book titled Affinity that William Bowley published in Melbourne in 1872. The title page announced it had been “received, & written under spirit-impression”. In other words, Bowley claimed that the spirits had given him the information to write down. Some of their information was about the nature of perfection. Describing how a person’s spiritual progress is not hampered by early death, Bowley (with the spirits) wrote that a person’s nature, which had not yet “matured”, would be “perfected in spirit life … Spirit life is material life perfected and made natural”.
The emphasis on perfection in Spiritualist philosophy does not mean Spiritualists do not worry about loss, or that they suffer less than anyone else. But the overarching vision is resolutely uplifting, one in which humans progressively achieve finer and more advanced levels of spiritual growth.
There is a practical paradox in Spiritualist services, however. Whereas in many mainstream Christian denominations, services are fairly tightly scripted and not likely to produce many unexpected or awkward moments, Spiritualists – with eyes fixed on the perfect – engage in rituals where awkwardness, hesitation and doubt hold centre stage. Contrary to the popular image of mediums’ audiences as naïve dupes who will agree to any vague statement (“I see an old lady in a kitchen”; “That must be my grandmother!”), people receiving readings during Canberra Spiritualist Association services openly voice confusion and uncertainty. Indeed, sometimes readings fail in the sense that no one in the audience recognises the spirit being identified by a medium.
I find it compelling that a religion grounded in a philosophy of perfection features rituals that often highlight imperfection. And this is exactly to the point: ritual difficulties are meaningful to Spiritualists because small failures can prove larger truths. For Spiritualists, truth and existence – what it means to be human, which for Spiritualists means to be essentially spiritual – are pulled together tightly in understandings of what it means to be perfect.
Matt Tomlinson is an Associate Professor of Anthropology in the School of Culture, History and Language, ANU College of Asia and the Pacific. He is the author of three monographs based on his work in Pacific Islands societies: In God’s Image: The Metaculture of Fijian Christianity (2009); Ritual Textuality: Pattern and Motion in Performance (2014); and the forthcoming God Is Samoan: Dialogues Between Culture and Theology in the Pacific. His research on Spiritualism in Australia, co-conducted with Associate Professor Andrew Singleton of Deakin University, is funded by an Australian Research Council Discovery Project grant.
Header Image: The Fox Sisters: Margaretta (Maggie), Catharine (Kate) and Leah