Davis, Andrew Jackson (1826-1910)
Davis, Andrew Jackson (1826-1910)
Medium, channel, and one of the founders of modern Spiritualism. He was born August 11, 1826, at Blooming Grove, Orange County, New York. Young Davis had gifts of clairvoyance and heard voices at an early age. On advice so obtained he pursuaded his father in 1838 to move to Poughkeepsie, New York (Andrew would later be known as "the Poughkeepsie Seer"). Up to age 16 he received no formal education. Apprenticed to a shoemaker named Armstrong, he worked at the trade for two years.
In 1843 Dr. J. S. Grimes, professor of jurisprudence in the Castleton Medical College, visited the city and delivered a series of lectures on mesmerism. Davis attended and was tried as a subject with no result. Later, a local tailor, William Livingston, made fresh attempts; he threw Davis into "magnetic sleep" and discovered that in this state the human body became transparent to Davis's eyes, enabling him to give accurate diagnosis of disease.
In 1844 Davis had a strange experience that was to have an enduring effect on his life. In a state of semitrance he wandered away from home and awoke the next morning 40 miles away in the mountains. There he claimed to have met two venerable men—whom he later identified as the ancient physician Galen and the Swedish seer Emanuel Swedenborg —and experienced a state of mental illumination.
He began teaching and published a small pamphlet, Lectures on Clairmativeness, about the mysteries of human magnetism and electricity. He did not include this pamphlet among his later works but explained in his Autobiography that the title was meant to be Clairlativeness.
During a professional tour he met a Dr. Lyon, a Bridgeport musician, and the Reverend William Fishbough. Lyon was appointed his magnetizer (i.e., mesmerist) and Fishbough his scribe. With their assistance, in November 1845 Davis began to dictate his great work, The Principles of Nature, Her Divine Revelations, and a Voice to Mankind. The dictation lasted for 15 months. Lyon repeated each trance utterance, and Fishbough transcribed them. They both insisted that except for grammatical corrections they performed no editing. During the dictation, the sole means of livelihood for the trio was the seer's earning power in giving medical diagnoses. When this proved insufficient the lady whom Davis later married came to their assistance.
There were many enthusiastic witnesses to the delivery of the dictation. Dr. George Bush, professor of Hebrew at the University of New York, declared that he heard Davis correctly quote Hebrew. The seer's good faith was also established by his answers to impromptu questions put to him as tests while he was in the clairvoyant state. Bush said, "Taken as a whole the work is a profound and elaborate discussion of the philosophy of the universe, and for grandeur of conception, soundness of principle, clearness of illustration, order of arrangement and encyclopaedic range of subjects, I know no work of any single mind that will bear away from it the palm."
It was partly due to Bush's enthusiasm that the book, published in 1847, was received with such interest. Within a few weeks of its appearance, however, Bush published a pamphlet, Davis' Revelations Revealed, warning the public against being misled by the numerous errors, absurdities, and falsities contained in Davis's work. It was clear to him, he said, that Davis, although apparently an honest and singlehearted young man, had been made the mouthpiece of uninstructive and deceiving spirits. This rapid change of opinion was later explained by Frank Podmore in his book Modern Spiritualism (1902) as stemming from the seer's attitude toward Christianity in the section of the book on divine revelations, which Bush probably did not read in advance and which contradicted Davis's views as expressed in his Lectures on Clairmativeness.
The book soon went through many editions, which testified to the appeal of the style and the remarkable qualities of this extraordinary work. This opening passage about the Creation is an example:
"In the beginning the Univercoelum was one boundless, undefinable, and unimaginable ocean of Liquid Fire. The most vigorous and ambitious imagination is not capable of forming an adequate conception of the height and depth and length and breadth thereof. There was one vast expanse of liquid sub-stance. It was without bounds—inconceivable—and with qualities and essences incomprehensible. This was the original condition of Matter. It was without forms, for it was but one Form. It had not motions, but it was an eternity of Motion. It was without parts, for it was a Whole. Particles did not exist, but the Whole was as one Particle. There were not suns, but it was one Eternal Sun. It had no beginning and it was without end. It had not circles, for it was one Infinite Circle. It had not disconnected power, but it was the very essence of all Power. Its inconceivable magnitude and constitution were such as not to develop forces, but Omnipotent Power.
"Matter and Power were existing as a Whole, inseparable. The Matter contained the substance to produce all suns, all worlds, and systems of worlds, throughout the immensity of Space. It contained the qualities to produce all things that are existing upon each of those worlds. The Power contained Wisdom and Goodness, Justice, Mercy and Truth. It contained the original and essential Principle that is displayed throughout immensity of Space, controlling worlds and systems of worlds, and producing Motion, Life, Sensation and Intelligence, to be impartially disseminated upon their surfaces as Ultimates."
The first part of the book is the exposition of a mystical philosophy, the second reviews the books of the Old Testament, contests their infallibility, and describes Christ as a great moral reformer but not divine. The third advances a system of socialism.
The originality of the book as a whole was never contested. Bush, however, pointed out a strange coincidence. The revelations, for the most part, express views similar to Emanuel Swedenborg's; the language is in several cases "all but absolutely verbal [verbatim]," and there is a striking similarity to Sweden-borg's book The Economy of the Animal Kingdom, a few English copies of which had just reached the United States.
Bush used this as an argument for Davis's supernatural powers, because it was doubtful the book could have reached him. In fact, Davis believed he was controlled by Swedenborg while he produced the book. In his publication Mesmer and Sweden-borg (1847) Bush printed a letter from Davis accompanying a paper written in a cave near Poughkeepsie, on June 15, 1846. The paper accurately quoted long passages from Swedenborg's Earths in the Universe. Bush was satisfied that Davis had never heard of the book, but it is difficult to believe that Davis had not read it.
An apparently more serious charge could have been leveled against Davis's The Great Harmonia (1852). There are long passages in the book that correspond with the text of Sunderland'sPathetism (1847). But even Frank Podmore, a noted skeptic, believed that Davis could not have copied these passages and that the explanation lay in an extraordinary memory.
The statements concerning astronomy in the divine revelations section of The Principles of Nature are revealing. In March 1846, when the existence of an eighth planet was yet an astronomical supposition (the discovery of Neptune, verifying Leverrier's calculations, did not take place until September 1846), the book spoke of nine planets. The density of the eighth planet as given by Davis agreed with later findings. (The ninth planet, Pluto, was discovered in 1933.) On the other hand, Davis spoke of four planetoids—Ceres, Pallas, Juno, and Vesta—whereas there are now believed to be hundreds. He also said that the solar system revolves around a great center together with all the other stars. Davis further believed Saturn to be inhabited by a more advanced humanity than ours, Jupiter and Mars were also inhabited, and on Venus and Mercury the development of humanity was less advanced than on Earth. The three outer planets he declared lifeless.
His prediction of the coming of Spiritualism was often quoted:
"It is a truth that spirits commune with one another while one is in the body and the other in the higher spheres—and this, too, when the person in the body is unconscious of the influx, and hence cannot be convinced of the fact; and this truth will ere long present itself in the form of a living demonstration. And the world will hail with delight the ushering-in that era when the interiors of men will be opened, and the spiritual communion will be established such as is now being enjoyed by the inhabitants of Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn."
In his notes dated March 31, 1848, the following statement occurs: "About daylight this morning a warm breathing passed over my face and I heard a voice, tender and strong, saying: 'Brother, the good work has begun—behold, a living demonstration is born.' I was left wondering what could be meant by such a message."
The publication of The Principals of Nature made Davis famous and he was soon surrounded by a band of enthusiasts. As their mouthpiece, on December 4, 1847, the first issue of the Univercoelum (apparently coined from Swedenborg's "universum coelum") appeared. Universalist minister S. B. Brittan became editor in chief. Assisting were a number of outstanding contemporaries, including Fishbough, Thomas Lake Harris, W. M. Fernald, J. K. Ingalls, Dr. Chivers, and Frances Green. The object of the publication was "the establishment of a universal system of truth, the reform and the reorganization of society." Davis contributed many articles that were later incorporated into The Great Harmonia.
After 12 months in existence, the Univercoelum absorbed the Christian Rationalist, a similar organ, however, its publication came to an end in July 1849. It was succeeded by W. M. Channing's The Present Age, a largely socialist organ to which Davis and his friends no longer contributed. They accepted as their new mouthpiece The Spirit Messenger of Springfield, Massachusetts, which was jointly edited by Rev. R. P. Ambler and Apollos Munn. As Davis's friends were scattered, other periodicals were founded and his "harmonial philosophy" was independently carried on.
About the time the Univercoelum was founded, Davis disposed of the services of his mesmerizer. By an effort of will he could by that time throw himself into what he called "the superior condition." He also remembered his experiences while in trance and wrote his subsequent books in his own hand. He disclaimed dictation by the spirits and said that he could write them by a process of inner perception. Except for seeing apparitions, he was unacquainted with abnormal physical phenomena until 1850, when he paid a visit to Dr. Eliakim Phelps 's house in Stratford, Connecticut, which was the scene of violent poltergeist disturbances. In the same year he published a pamphlet on his observations, entitled The Philosophy of Spiritual Intercourse.
Davis's teachings left a deep impression on his age. The Great Harmonia passed through 40 editions. His autobiography The Magic Staff extended only to the year 1857, but was later supplemented with a sequel, Beyond the Valley (1885). In 1860 he started the Herald of Progress, a weekly that absorbed the Spiritual Telegraph. In the late years of his life he had a small bookshop in Boston. There he sold books and, having earned a degree in natural medicine, prescribed herbal remedies for his patients.
Davis died January 13, 1910. He was an important influence in the early development of Spiritualism, particularly in his association of mediumistic revelations with religious principles. His concepts of after-death spheres for departed spirits, which he named "Summerland," are still part of the beliefs of many modern Spiritualists. He influenced most subsequent Spiritual-ist movements, including those of Thomas Lake Harris. It even seems possible that Edgar Allan Poe's "Eureka" owes its inception to Davis's Principles of Nature.
In his practice of diagnosing and treating illness in a trance condition, Davis also anticipated the rationale of the modern seer Edgar Cayce.
Brown, Slater. The Heyday of Spiritualism. New York: Hawthorn Books, 1970.
Davis, Andrew J. Answers to Ever-Recurring Questions from People: A Sequel to the Penetralia. Boston: Banner of Light Publishing, 1862.
——. Beyond the Valley; A Sequel to the Magic Staff: An Autobiography. Boston: Colby & Rich, 1885.
——. The Great Harmonia. New York: J. S. Redfield, Fowler & Wells, 1853.
——. The Magic Staff: An Autobiography of Andrew Jackson Davis. New York, 1857.
——. Penetralia: Being Harmonial Answers to Important Questions. Boston: Bela Marsh, 1858.
Doyle, Arthur Conan. The History of Spiritualism. 2 vols. London, 1926. Reprint, New York: Arno Press, 1975.
Podmore, Frank. Modern Spiritualism. 2 vols. London, 1902. Reprinted as Mediums of the 19th Century. 2 vols. New Hyde Park, N.Y.: University Books, 1963.