Society for Psychical Research

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Society for Psychical Research (SPR)

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

In 1882, a group of Cambridge University scholars and others in the London area founded the Society for Psychical Research. Its purpose was to thoroughly examine paranormal subjects such as clairvoyance, telepathy, and precognition, to see whether or not there was any basis of fact. At the inaugural meeting, Professor Henry Sidgwick was elected President; he held that position for nine years. The first council included Professors William Fletcher Barrett and Balfour Stewart, Edmund Gurney, Richard Hutton, Frederick W.H. Myers, William Stainton Moses, E.T. Bennett, Dawson Rogers, Morell Theobald, and Dr. George Wyld.

Early activity was devoted to experimental investigation of extrasensory perception, which the society established as a fact. They also felt safe in confirming a connection existing between death and apparitions. The society collected and published a massive amount of research, finding a great deal of fraud among Spiritualist mediums but also finding many instances of unexplainable phenomena.

In 1885, the American Society for Psychical Research was founded in Boston by Sir William Fletcher Barrett of the British society. Barrett was visiting the United States at the time. Originally independent, the American society affiliated with the British one in 1889.

Led by Dr. Richard Hodgson, the SPR spent many years investigating the trance mediumship of Mrs. Leonore Piper. Hodgson was so impressed with her performances and the evidence she produced that he became converted to the cause of Spiritualism himself. E. Dawson Rogers, President of the London Spiritualist Alliance, said of this that he (Hodgson) had been “a very Saul persecuting the Christians.” His conversion was seen as an achievement for Spiritualism.

The society built up a bias against physical mediumship and its phenomena, and refused to accept any evidence of it. Eventually the bias became so pronounced that in 1930, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and a number of other prominent members resigned from the society. Over the past fifty years the society has spent most of its time with mass experiments evaluated by statistical methods, with most of its interest in extrasensory perception and in psychokinesis.

Sources:

Buckland, Raymond: The Fortune-Telling Book: The Encyclopedia of Divination and Soothsaying. Detroit: Visible Ink Press, 2004
Fodor, Nandor: Encyclopedia of Psychic Science. London: Arthurs Press, 1933
Guiley, Rosemary Ellen: Harper’s Encyclopedia of Mystical & Paranormal Experience. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991
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