Mediums and Mediumship

Mediums and Mediumship

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

The Spiritualist movement has traditionally been built around mediums, special people believed to be particularly sensitive to the subtler realities of the cosmos and hence particularly capable of communicating with spirit entities. The National Spiritualist Association of Churches asserts in its Declaration of Principles: “A Spiritualist is one who believes, as the basis of his or her religion, in the communication between this and the spirit world by means of mediumship, and who endeavors to mould his or her character and conduct in accordance with the highest teachings devised from such communion.”

Mediumship has largely been understood by analogy to the radio, which works by receiving waves of energy that vibrate at distinct rates. Thus a medium was defined as a person who was sensitive to the higher vibration of the spirit world. Mediums could thus serve as the voice box of spirits who spoke to or through them. Some mediums operated while in only a slightly altered state of consciousness and relayed material they perceived from their contact with the spirit world. Others operated in a full trance and allowed what were believed to be spirit entities to take control of the medium’s body and speak using the medium’s vocal cords. It was a common phenomenon for trance mediums to have one or more control spirits who would emerge first when the medium went into trance, then act as master of ceremonies for other spirits to appear and speak. One variation on mediumship was supplied by automatic writing, in which the medium allowed his or her motor function to be controlled by the spirit entity to write messages with pen and paper.

Spiritualism emerged around the rather primitive mediumship demonstrated by the youthful Fox sisters, Kate and Margaret, who heard rappings in their house, but the movement took a quick step forward with the full-trance mediumship of Andrew Jackson Davis. He not only operated as an instrument through which individuals could receive brief communications from deceased loved ones, but he also delivered lengthy treatises of spiritual teachings from reputedly evolved spirit entities, a practice more recently called channeling.

One especially controversial phenomenon attributed to mediums was materialization. Through the last decades of the nineteenth century, dozens of mediums emerged who claimed not only to communicate with the dead, but also to allow them to briefly manifest in a ghostly state. The materialization of spirit entities during the small gatherings for spirit communication called séances was but one of a variety of visible manifestations of spirits that mediums facilitated. For example, some mediums used cameras to take pictures of those who came to them. Mediums would also cause a variety of “impossible” physical phenomena, such as the levitation of objects placed in the center of the room during a séance, or the teleportation of small objects from other locations to the séance room. Overwhelmingly, the physical phenomena associated with mediumship has been shown to have been produced by fraud, a fact that has called appropriate reprobation on the movement as a whole. Today, with few exceptions, Spiritualism has been content to fall back on the basic verbal communications from the spirit world that gave the movement birth.

Mediumship is a phenomenon by no means limited to the Spiritualist movement. Analogous religious functionaries, special people who have access to information and contact with different spirit entities, operate in a variety of religious traditions and include shamans from indigenous religions and those who speak with angels in modern Christian churches. Mediumship itself expanded in the last generation as a result of the New Age movement. As a whole, Spiritualists did not positively relate to the New Age movement, but integral to the New Age were channelers. Through the 1980s literally thousands of channelers emerged, offering New Age believers the information they received from a variety of spiritual beings. That Spiritualism tended to distance itself from the New Age accounts in large part for its lack of growth while related movements were rapidly expanding during the 1980s and 1990s.

The investigation of mediums took center stage in the early decades of psychical research, beginning in the 1880s. It produced very mixed results, and interest in mediums waned significantly in the 1930s, with the emergence of parapsychology as a laboratory science and its emphasis on documenting the basic phenomena of extrasensory perception. New interest in channeling emerged in the 1980s, but no significant progress was made in advancing knowledge of the phenomena. While some mediums were shown to demonstrate extraordinary powers, the attempt to document the reputed source of such powers in paranormal entities or spirit beings proved beyond the methodologies and instruments available to researchers.


Christopher, Milbourne. Mediums, Mystics and the Occult. New York: Crowell, 1975.
Garrett, Eileen. My Life as a Search for the Meaning of Mediumship. London: Rider, 1939.
Gauld, Alan. Mediumship and Survival: A Century of Investigation. London: Heinemann, 1982.
Hastings, Arthur. With the Tongues of Men and Angels: A Study of Channeling. Fort Worth, TX: Holt, Rine-hart, & Winston, 1991.
Van Praagh, James. Talking to Heaven: A Medium’s Message of Life after Death. New York: Penguin, 1999.