Varley, C F - 04 Experiments in spiritualism
Type of Spiritual Experience
A description of the experience
Cromwell Varley FRS, electrical discharge and Victorian spiritualism - Richard Noakes
The troubled status of spiritualism deeply concerned Varley, who regarded it as his scientific duty to persuade the public that it rested on a ‘natural basis’. On 6 October 1870 he outlined one strategy to the leading British spiritualist Benjamin Coleman:
It has for some time past been my intention to bring together in a lecture those portions of scientific research with material or physical questions which indicate the existence of spiritual bodies, or rather show that the limits to matter as indicated by the eye and touch are not the only limits.
You have my whole sympathy in your present movement, and I should be very happy to occupy one or more evenings on some occasion to demonstrate by actual experiment that there is no hard and fast boundary between the material and the spiritual existences.
Only a few days before Varley wrote this he submitted to the Royal Society his paper on electrical discharge through rarefied gases.
The close proximity of the events suggests that he probably had aspects of the paper in mind when alluding to research on ‘material or physical questions’.
As far as Varley was concerned, there was already a range of phenomena known to natural philosophers and electrical experimenters that resembled some of the manifestations of spiritualism and could therefore be used to make spiritualism more scientific.
The ‘scientific research’ in the 1871 paper was concerned with just such phenomena. These were phenomena that, like the luminous forms of ‘od’ and furniture moving under the willpower of invisible intelligences, were often invisible and difficult to replicate and which appeared to challenge hard and fast distinctions between conceptions of the material and immaterial.