A Sermon on Andrew Jackson Davis and Spiritualism
From the Religion Philosophical Journal, Chicago, April 6, 1872
Rev W. E. Copeland

“No course of lectures on the great religious movements of Christendom would be complete without a consideration of that religious development called American Spiritualism; or, as Davis has termed it, “The Harmonial Philosophy.” No one of the sectarian leaders is more remarkable than Andrew Jackson Davis. Spiritualists will deny that Davis is their leader. No embodied being is a leader; many have been used as instruments by disembodied spirits, yet to the outside observer it becomes apparent that Davis has impressed upon Spiritualism the peculiar ideas and phraseology of the Harmonial Philosophy. So far as this religion is orderly and definite, it is through the labors of Davis. He passed his early life in poverty, and surrounded by ignorance. He had none of those advantages which other religious leaders enjoyed. From early youth he was frequently in that passive state peculiar to all clairvoyants. His mind was inactive and sluggish. In his normal condition he was ignorant, ordinarily beneath the average in mental ability; in the clairvoyant condition all was changed. He was by some power illuminated; his vision pierced beyond the matter by which we are surrounded ; his English, though peculiar, is good; his mind is active, and he towers above all the minds about him. We may laugh at his philosophy; we may deny his vision, and yet that philosophy has not only become the religion of millions, but has influenced largely all Christendom.

“Davis, like Swedenborg, tells us what he has seen and heard. He does not imagine, but records his actual experience. He had no education; could scarcely read and write when he began his truly remarkable career. His father was, during the early part of Davis’s life, a drunken cobbler; his mother, a hardworking, suffering woman, often fell into those peculiar spiritual states which her son all his life exhibited. His father thought the boy an imbecile, not worth his salt. The mother shielded him from the drunkard’s violence, and had faith in his future.

“At an early age he was mesmerized, and under mesmeric influence prescribed for the sick, giving exact descriptions of their disease, and with remarkable accuracy indicating the remedy. During this period he heard voices not belonging to mortals, and saw strange but inspiring visions, lie not only examined patients present, but those at a distance, describing their surroundings, and then the patients themselves.

“Another peculiar development was added to the medical practice, under the mesmeric power of Dr. S. S. Lyon, of New York. Davis, in the clairvoyant state, delivered the course of lectures published under the title of Nature’s Divine Revelations. When we remember that the young man could not speak a grammatical sentence, much less write one, this book is one of the wonders of the world. Treating of creation, physical science, mental science and theology, a treatise is prepared, in many important points agreeing with the most advanced thought upon these subjects. I do not say too much when I assert that, considering the source from whence it came, — a sickly, ignorant boy, — that work is the most remarkable book ever written. If a man has ever been inspired, Davis was. Not one theory contained in the Great Harmonia could have been originated by the young man in his normal state. If experience is worth anything, it would teach us that Davis was assisted by some power outside of himself; nor were any of his companions better prepared than himself.

“Davis was soon enabled to enter this clairvoyant state independent of any mesmerizer.

“Other books in rapid succession followed, all marked by their advanced thought, a plainness of speech upon subjects usually neglected, and a keenness of insight unusual even in the best educated. In the clairvoyant state Davis saw plainly the interior of the body, read the thoughts of those present, clearly described localities and individuals at a distance, and finally, like Swedenborg, saw the angels and the spirit-world.

“In his latter books Davis describes the spirit-land with the minuteness formerly applied to the earth. He does not speculate, but simply relates what he saw and heard. I have no hesitation in declaring that A. J. Davis is the most remarkable man of modern times,—However much we may differ with his conclusions or laugh at his descriptions. We cannot but wonder at the power which enabled an ignorant boy to propound a system of philosophy at once simple and comprehensive, which no thinker, carefully prepared for his work by life-long study, has excelled.

“In many particulars I would amend the Harmonial Philosophy. From some conclusions I would dissent. Much trash is mingled with profoundest wisdom, but the series of books written by Davis contain a compendium of theology and morality which, made a part of one’s life, cannot well fail to make of the disciple a genuine Christian.

“As regards physical science, Davis in general taught Darwinism before Darwin wrote a word. In psychology he approaches Herbert Spencer. In theology he is a liberal Christian of the advanced school. Without study he has become an educated man, and now lectures in the natural state as much as he formerly did in the abnormal condition. The Harmonial Philosophy, which he substitutes for religion, consists in knowledge of the laws of God, and obedience thereto. On all questions of reform he is on the right side. Practical morality is the remedy for all evils, and this he applies to all departments of life, approaching boldly the sexual relations, defining their laws, and demanding obedience. Some have insisted that he was merely an instrument in the hands of some great thinker; but among his friends and associates, we look in vain for said thinker. None of his friends agreed with him. He shocked their prejudices. Some laughed; some sneered; all objected; and yet he calmly preaches the Harmonial Philosophy. No one at the time accepted his views in their entirety. Today millions are his disciples. No one can study his character, his life and his works, without confessing that they have a problem which they are unable to solve. The Orthodox talk much of the devil, and reject Davis’s system as heretical; but it none the less deserves our careful consideration.

“It is not my purpose to consider at length the Harmonial Philosophy. Read the books, listen to the lectures, and you can learn what it is.

“We find all about us, in town and country, in the church and out of it, Spiritualists, or men and women who believe that the spirits of the departed communicate to us who are living on the earth. This is simply a fact which we may accept or reject; but these Spiritualists claim to have a new religion. We may accept the fact, and remain Christians; accept the Philosophy, and we must go outside the churches!

“This wonderful reformation, revival, or whatever you choose to term it, is worthy the careful study of scientist, philosopher, or theologian. Whether the fact of spirit communion be true or false, there are millions of Spiritualists who claim that the miracles of the New Testament are repeated today. Reject them now, and you must reject the New Testament record. Indeed, in the admitted facts of Spiritualism, I find the strongest argument for the authenticity of the gospel narrative. I find in them the best weapons to defend the miracles of the gospels from the attacks of those who deny them. The churches, when they reject the facts of Spiritualism, are throwing away the very means ordained of God to firmly establish the truth of the New Testament. But I wish to consider, rather, Spiritualism as a religion, and Davis’s connection therewith. The faithful will tell you that their religion is derived from the teachings of spirits through mediums. This is partly true; hundreds have thus formed their philosophy; and yet, tracing the progress of this wondrous movement, we find its origin in the Harmonial Philosophy of Davis.

“I have for years watched Spiritualism, read its books and heard its lectures, and I can find but little which Davis did not teach before a medium spoke, and that little is only an amplification of some points in the Harmonial Philosophy. Davis is the father of the religion called Spiritualism. His lectures are the fountains from whence flows the water of life, with which our Spiritual brethren sate their thirst.

“We are more interested in considering the religious part of Davis’s works, and these are mainly a repetition of Unitarianism, differing in some points, but in the main agreeing. On the whole, so far as theology is concerned, Unitarianism and Spiritualism are one. The same unity of God, and humanity of Jesus, continued inspiration, human divinity, eternal progression, certain punishment, implicit obedience, is taught by each. Yet Davis knew nothing of Unitarianism, and his Universalist friends soon parted company with him. I do not hesitate to say that the world owes as large a debt for religious light to Andrew Jackson Davis as to Luther, Wesley, or Channing. To use the language of the Quakers, he has borne persistent testimony against the evil of war, of intemperance, of profanity, of prostitution, legal and illegal,—of slavery, whether civil or religious. He has written extensively on the importance of a careful selection, after close study of each other’s nature, of husband and wife. He has raised a loud protest against legal prostitution. He has written plainly and reasonably concerning marriage and maternity. He has fearlessly investigated those evils of society which others have shrunk from, and has plainly indicated the remedy. I know of no teacher or reformer who has said so much that is true and philosophical on the subject of social science. His writings have been read far and wide, and have exercised a deservedly great influence on the religious life of America, — contemned by men of science, — persecuted by theologians. No reformer of modern times has done more to advance the moral life of the community. A radical he undoubtedly is, but, unlike many of the other radicals, he constructs as well as destroys. His style is peculiar, not easily understood, bombastic and puerile, yet the thought is most valuable, and many popular writers and preachers owe more than they would confess to A. J. Davis. Certain is it that no living American has exercised so potent an influence on the religious thought of his country. He has many followers even among those who scorn his pretensions. I do not deny that absurdity and error are found in his books; but truth and sound reason are there too, and no one can read the Great Harmonia without benefit.

“The other reformations which we have considered have either been popular movements or more frequently the work of some master mind.

“American Spiritualism, the religion of millions, alone looks to an ignorant, sickly, common-place boy as its parent and inspirer. Andrew Jackson Davis stands today among the wonderful phenomena of this new reformation as the most wonderful. I am not ashamed to confess that he has taught me many things, while I do not rank myself among his followers. I should be faithless to my position if I did not place him among the leaders of religious thought; did I not assign to Spiritualism a place among the religious systems. Like the other denominations about us, Spiritualism has crystallized into a sect, perhaps as bigoted as any other. It has confirmed the faith of hundreds of skeptics in the immortality of the soul;is the most effective cure of materialism. It has directed the attention of the people to social Science; it has revealed many laws of God neglected by others; it has insisted on personal righteousness; and yet it is, in some respects, a superstition as degrading as Romanism. For an infallible pope has an infallible medium. Davis has never claimed for himself supernatural powers, though to him and other mediums such powers have been attributed by the multitudes.

“Spiritualism as a religious system is deserving of more attention than has yet been bestowed upon it; both as containing much truth, and as being the faith of thousands of good men and women. While I deplore the creed theories, — the exploded hypotheses of the past re-stated as new truths, — the extravagancies of many Spiritualists, the superstition of others,—I cannot but admit its important contributions to the theology of the church of the future. When Spiritualism lays aside its superstitious reverence for mediums, its fanaticism, its extravagant pretensions, and submits its theories and revelations to the crucial test of reason and common sense; when it is content to take its place among other views of truth as one among many, and not the only one, — then, in the study of comparative theology, it will take a high position. When Christians cease to treat Spiritualists as pretenders, and Davis as a false prophet, the movement and its father will be ranked among the chosen agents of God for the perfection of humanity. In forming the theology, the religion of the church of the future, Davis and Spiritualism have an important part to play. Let me say again, that sufficient attention has not been given to a religious movement which numbers more adherents than even Methodism; which, in many respects, has showed admirable adaptation to the genius of the American people; which is progressive and receptive of new truth. But its doom is sure unless it presents to the people some well-digested system of truth; unless the wild vagaries of its teachers are superseded by severe thought; unless it has something to depend upon other than the temporary enthusiasm of its media.

“As regards the basis of Spiritualism,—that individual spirits speak through human organisms, — so far as I am concerned, I can only say not proven. As regards the claim of the Harmonial Philosophy to a place among the religions of the world, and Davis to a place among religious teachers, I can only say that to no system of modern times, to no sect or leader, do I more gladly assign a place as a system and teacher of true religion. Spiritualism, with all its absurdities and vagaries, is doing more than all the sects put together to establish a rational religion, and to confirm a true morality and a correct science of society.

“While rejecting the claims of media to possession by disembodied spirits, while deploring their many extravagances, I honor their courage in fearlessly discussing the most vital questions of the day. I applaud their attempts to reform a corrupt church in society. I cannot forget how, single-handed, amid laughter and contempt, they have probed the festering sores of the body politic, and prescribed a remedy. I cannot forget the workers, while I grieve at their hostility to Christianity. I d not wonder, as I recall the bitter hatred and malignant lies of Christian preachers, and am willing to excuse many of those attacks directed rather against the form than the spirit of Christianity. And I can see that because of those attacks false forms and erroneous doctrines are crumbling, and I can, with certain expectation, look forward to a union between Spiritualists and Christians on the common ground of a rational Christianity or true religion, when the wonders of Spiritualism, with those of an older time, shall receive a correct scientific solution; when the perturbed waters shall settle, the froth and scum blown away by God’s spirit, and the true Christ, once more seen and formed within us, shall lead all sects and religions to a common union, and the true church shall be reared enduring foundations.

To secure this much wished-for result, I call upon Christians to lay aside their bigotry, prejudice, and superstition, and use their reason, acknowledging the truth by whomsoever revealed; and I call upon Spiritualists in studying Christianity to look to the spirit rather than to the letter, and no longer cherish a sectarianism almost as narrow as that shown by some Christian sects.”

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