Ford, Arthur

Ford, Arthur (1896–1971)

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

Arthur Augustus Ford, an American Spiritualist medium, became an important force in the attempt to integrate psychic phenomena into mainstream religion in the generation prior to the New Age movement. Ford was born in Titusville, Florida, and early began a religious pilgrimage that led him to Transylvania College in Lexington, Kentucky, and into the ministry of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). He served briefly as a pastor before joining the army during World War I.

During the war his psychic abilities came to the fore, and he was known as someone who “knew” the names of people who were going to die several days ahead of time. After the war he became a Spiritualist medium, and he traveled widely, offering trance sessions to people. He eventually settled in New York City as the minister of a congregation affiliated with the National Spiritualist Association of Churches. While there he attained his first and most enduring bit of fame when he claimed that he had broken the code that magician and Spiritualist critic Harry Houdini had left with his wife, through which he would communicate if he survived death. The announcement, in 1928, made Ford known far beyond the relatively small world of Spiritualism.

In the 1930s Ford came into conflict with the Spiritualists as he had come to believe in reincarnation, an idea traditionally rejected by the American Spiritualist movement. Belief in reincarnation was growing in America, and Ford’s founding of the International General Assembly of Spiritualists in 1936 became just one of several schisms the movement faced as it splintered over attempts to accommodate reincarnationist perspectives.

In the 1940s Ford’s circle of acquaintances grew to include a number of ministers in various Protestant churches. His séances with them led to the 1955 formation of Spiritualist Frontiers Fellowship (SFF), an American counterpart of the Churches’ Fellowship for Psychical Research in England. SFF grew slowly through the 1960s, then rapidly after Ford’s 1967 televised séance with Episcopal Bishop James A. Pike. Pike, one of the most prominent Protestant church leaders of the era, became a believer. Pike’s subsequent book, The Other Side (1968), created a sensation at the time, although its long-term effect was blunted by the author’s accidental death the next year. Ford died in 1971.

Spiritualist Frontiers Fellowship expanded significantly in the early 1970s and became an early legitimizing organization for church members who were exploring issues soon to be institutionalized in the New Age movement. It was particularly affected by two events. First, author Allen Spraggett, who worked with the Rev. William Rauscher, (Ford’s literary executor), discovered that Ford had faked the 1967 séance with Pike. The evidence they produced not only called into question that event, but much of the evidential material produced by Ford in previous séances. Then in 1974, SFF went through a significant organizational shift. The new leadership made a series of disastrous decisions that cost the organization more than half its membership. It never recovered.

Ford’s involvement in the Houdini affair and the Pike séance have kept his name alive, if only to be periodically denounced by the skeptical debunking movement that arose in the 1970s to oppose the growing popularity of uncritical belief in paranormal phenomena. However, a generation after his death, his legacy appears to lie in the effort he made to reach out beyond the Spiritualist community and network with those who believed but would not affiliate with Spiritualism. That effort was a significant precursor of the New Age.

Sources:

Ford, Arthur. The Life Beyond Death. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1971.
___. Nothing So Strange. New York: Harper, 1958.
___. Unknown but Known. New York: Harper, 1968.
Spraggett, Allen, with William V. Rauscher. Arthur Ford, The Man Who Talked with the Dead. New York: New American Library, 1973.
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