Moses, William Stainton (1839-1892)

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Moses, William Stainton (1839-1892)

Medium and religious teacher who became one of the most prominent late nineteenth-century British Spiritualists. He was born November 5, 1839, at Donnington, Lincolnshire. His father was headmaster of the Grammar School of Donnington. In 1852, the family moved to Bedford to give young William the advantage of an education at Bedford College. In his school days he occasionally walked in his sleep, and on one occasion in this state he went down to the sitting room, wrote an essay on a subject that had worried him on the previous evening, and then returned to bed without waking. It was the best essay of the class. No other incidents of a psychic nature of his early years were recorded.

He won a scholarship to Exeter College, Oxford. Owing to a breakdown in his health he interrupted his studies, traveled for some time, and spent six months in a monastery on Mount Athos. When he recovered his health he returned to Oxford, took his M.A., and was ordained as a minister of the Church of England by the renowned Bishop Wilberforce. He began his ministry at Kirk Maughold, near Ramsey, in the Isle of Man, at age 24. There he gained the esteem and love of his parishioners. He was remembered for his activity during an outbreak of smallpox, when he helped to nurse and bury a man whose malady was so violent that it was very difficult to find anybody who would approach him.

His literary activity for Punch and the Saturday Review began at this time. After four years, he exchanged his curacy with that of St. George's, Douglas, Isle of Man. In 1869 he fell seriously ill. He called in for medical aid Stanhope Templeman Speer. As a convalescent he spent some time in Speer's house. This was the beginning of a lifelong friendship.

In 1870, he took a curacy in Dorsetshire. Illness again interfered with his parish work and he was obliged to abandon it, and for the next seven years he was the tutor of Speer's son. In 1871, he was offered a mastership in University College School, London. This office he filled until 1889, when failing health made him resign. He lived for three more years, suffering greatly from gout, influenza, and nervous prostration. He died September 5, 1892.

Moses as a Spiritualist

The period of his life between 1872 and 1881 was marked by an inflow of transcendental powers and a consequent religious revolution that led him away from the Church of England and his former distrust of Spiritualism. He had considered all its phenomena spurious and had dismissed Lord Adare 's book on D. D. Home as the dreariest twaddle he ever came across. Robert Dale Owen 's Debatable Land (1870) made a deeper impression.

On Mrs. Speer's persuasion, he agreed to have a closer look into the matter and attended his first séance, with Lottie Fowler operating as the medium, on April 2, 1872. After much nonsense he received a striking description of the spirit presence of a friend who had died in the north of England. Charles Williams was the next medium he went to see. A séance with D. D. Home and sittings in many private circles followed. Within about six months, Moses became convinced of the existence of discarnate spirits and of their power to communicate. Soon he himself showed signs of great psychic powers. In 1872, five months after his introduction to Spiritualism, he reported his first experience of levitation.

The physical phenomena continued with gradually lessening frequency until 1881. They were of extremely varied nature. The power was often so enormous that it kept the room in constant vibration. E. W. Cox describes in his book What am I? (2 vols., 1873-74) the swaying and rocking in daylight of an old-fashioned, six-foot-wide and nine-foot-long mahogany table that required the strength of two strong men to be moved an inch. The presence of Moses seemed to be responsible for the table's extraordinary behavior. When Cox and Moses held their hands over the table, it lifted first on one then on the other side. When Moses was levitated for the third time, he was thrown on to the table, and from that position on to an adjacent sofa. In spite of the considerable distance and the magnitude of the force, he was in no way hurt.

Objects left in Moses' bedroom were often found arranged in the shape of a cross. Apports were frequent phenomena. They were usually objects from a different part of the house, invariably small, coming mysteriously through closed doors or walls and thrown upon the table from a direction mostly over Moses' head. Sometimes their origin was unknown. Ivory crosses, corals, pearls, precious stones, the latter expressly for Moses, were also brought from unknown sources.

Psychic lights of greatly varying shapes and intensity were frequently observed. They were most striking when the medium was in trance. They were not always equally seen by all the sitters, never lit up their surroundings, and could pass through solid objects, for instance, rising from the floor through a table. Scents were produced in abundance, the most common being musk, verbena, new mown hay, and one unfamiliar odor, which was said to be spirit scent. Sometimes breezes heavy with perfumes swept around the circle.

Without any musical instruments in the room, a great variety of musical sounds contributed to the entertainment of the sitters. There were many instances of direct writing, demonstrations of matter passing through matter and direct voice, and materializations, which, however, did not progress beyond luminous hands or columns of light vaguely suggesting human forms.

Moses' continuing circle was very small. Dr. and Mrs. Speer and F. W. Percival were generally the only witnesses of the phenomena. Sergeant Cox, W. H. Harrison, a Dr. Thompson, a Mrs. Garratt, a Miss Birkett, and Sir William Crookes were occasional sitters. As a rule, the invisible communicators strongly resented the introduction of strangers. The physical phenomena in themselves were of secondary importance. They were produced in evidence of the supernormal power of the communicators to convince Moses and the sitters of the spirits' claims.

Writing in the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research (vol. 9, pt. 25), F. W. H. Myers asserts that:

" they were not produced fraudulently by Dr. Speer or other sitters. I regard as proved both by moral consider ations and by the fact that they were constantly reported as occurring when Mr. Moses was alone. That Mr. Moses should have himself fraudulently produced them I regard as both morally and physically incredible. That he should have prepared and produced them in a state of trance I regard both as physically incredible and also as entirely inconsistent with the tenor both of his own reports and those of his friends. I therefore regard the reported phenomena as having actually occurred in a genuinely supernormal manner."

Moses' character and integrity were so well attested that Andrew Lang was forced to warn the advocates of fraud that "the choice is between a moral and physical miracle." Frank Podmore was almost the only critic to charge Moses with trickery. He suggested that the psychic lights at the séances could have been produced by bottles of phosphorized oil and quoted a report by Moses himself in the Proceedings of the SPR (vol. 11, p. 45) stating: "Suddenly there arose from below me, apparently under the table, or near the floor, right under my nose, a cloud of luminous smoke, just like phosphorous" It seems most improbable that the medium would write such a report if guilty of fraud, and even Podmore himself concluded: "That Stainton Moses, being apparently of sane mind, should deliberately have entered upon a course of systematic and cunningly concerted trickery, for the mere pleasure of mystifying a small circle of friends, or in the hope of any petty personal advantage, such, for instance, as might be found in the enhanced social importance attaching to a position midway between prestidigator and prophetthis is scarcely credible."

Moses' famous automatic scripts are known from his books Spirit Teachings (1883) and Spirit Identity (1879) and from the full séance accounts he commenced to publish in Light in 1892. The scripts began in 1872 and lasted until 1883, gradually dying out in 1877. They filled 24 notebooks. Except for the third, which was lost, they were preserved by the London Spiritualist Alliance, where both the originals and typed copies were accessible to students. They have been complemented by four books of records of physical phenomena and three books of retrospect and summary. In his will Moses entrusted the manuscripts to two friendsC. C. Massey and Alaric A. Watts. They handed them to F. W. H. Myers, who published an exhaustive analysis in the Proceedings of the SPR (vols. 9 and 11).

The automatic messages were almost wholly written by Moses's own hand while he was in a normal waking state. They are interspersed with a few words of direct writing. The tone of the spirits towards him is habitually courteous and respectful. But occasionally they have some criticism that pierces to the quick. This explains why he was unwilling to allow the inspection of his books during his lifetime. Indeed, there are indications that there may have been a still more private book into which very intimate messages were entered, but if so it did not survive.

Moses' Controls

The scripts are in the form of a dialogue. The identity of the communicators was not revealed by Moses in his lifetime. Neither did Myers disclose it. They were made public in a later book The "Controls" of Stainton Moses by A. W. Trethewy. Considering the illustrious biblical and historical names the communicators bore, Stainton Moses's reluctance was wise. He would have met with scorn. Moreover, for a long time, he himself was skeptical, indeed, at first shocked, and was often reproved for suspicion and want of faith in the scripts.

Moses emerged as the medium for an organized band of 49 spirits. Their leader called himself "Imperator." For some time he manifested through an amanuensis only, and later wrote himself, signing his name with a cross. He spoke directly for the first time on December 19, 1892, but appeared to Moses's clairvoyant vision at an early stage. He claimed to have influenced the medium's career during the whole of his lifetime and said that in turn he was directed by "Preceptor" in the background. "Preceptor" himself communed with "Jesus."

The identity of the communicators was only gradually disclosed and Moses was much exercised as to whether the personalities of the band were symbolical or real. They asserted that a missionary effort to uplift the human race was being made in the spirit realms and, as Moses had the rarest mediumistic gifts and his personality furnished extraordinary opportunities, he was selected as the channel of these communications. Like "Imperator" and "Preceptor" every member of the band had an assumed name at first. The biblical characters included the following names, as revealed later: "Malachias" (Imperator), "Elijah" (Preceptor), "Haggai" (The Prophet), "Daniel" (Vates), "Ezekiel," "St. John the Baptist" (Theologus). The ancient philosophers and sages numbered 14. They were: "Solon," "Plato," "Aristotle," "Seneca," "Athenodorus" (Doctor), "Hippolytus" (Rector), "Plotinus" (Prudens), "Alexander Achillini" (Philosophus), "Algazzali or Ghazali" (Mentor), "Kabbila," "Chom," "Said," "Roophal," "Magus."

It was not until Book XIV of the communications was written that Moses became satisfied of the identity of his controls. In his introduction to Spirit Teachings he writes:

"The name of God was always written in capitals, and slowly and, as it seemed, reverentially. The subject matter was always of a pure and elevated character, much of it being of personal application, intended for my own guidance and direction. I may say that throughout the whole of these written communications, extending in unbroken continuity to the year 1880, there is no flippant message, no attempt at jest, no vulgarity or incongruity, no false or misleading statement, so far as I know or could discover; nothing incompatible with the avowed object, again and again repeated, of instruction, enlightenment and guidance by spirits fitted for the task. Judged as I should wish to be judged myself, they were what they pretended to be. Their words were words of sincerity and of sober, serious purpose."

Later, when the phenomena lost strength he was again assailed by doubts and showed hesitation. It is obviously impossible to prove the identity of ancient spirits. "Imperator's" answer to this objection was that statements incapable of proof should be accepted as true on the ground that others that could be tested had been verified. For such evidential purposes many modern spirits were admitted for communication. In several cases satisfactory proofs of identity were obtained. "Imperator's" statement was therefore logical. It should also be noted that each of the communicators had his distinctive way of announcing his presence.

Moses was also well aware of the possible role his own mind might play in the communications, and observed:

"It is an interesting subject for speculation whether my own thoughts entered into the subject matter of the communications. I took extraordinary pains to prevent any such admixture. At first the writing was slow, and it was necessary for me to follow it with my eye, but even then the thoughts were not my thoughts. Very soon the messages assumed a character of which I had no doubt whatever that the thought was opposed to my own. But I cultivated the power of occupying my mind with other things during the time that the writing was going on, and was able to read an abstruse book and follow out a line of close reasoning while the message was written with unbroken regularity. Messages so written extended over many pages, and in their course there is no correction, no fault in composition and often a sustained vigour and beauty of style."

These precautions do not exclude the possibility of the action of the subconscious mind.

Moses' life and activity left a deep impression on Spiritualism. He took a leading part in several organizations. From 1884 until his death he was president of the London Spiritualist Alliance. The phenomena reported in his mediumship served as a partial inducement for the founding of the Society for Psychical Research. He was on its foundation council. Later, owing to the treatment the medium William Eglinton received (he was accused of fraud), Moses resigned his membership and censured the society for what he considered its unduly critical attitude.

He edited Light, contributed many articles on Spiritualism to Human Nature and other periodicals, and published a number of books, primarily developed from his automatic writings, under the pen name of "M. A. Oxon," a reference to his degree from Oxford.


Berger, Arthur S., and Joyce Berger. The Encyclopedia of Parapsychology and Psychical Research. New York: Paragon House, 1991.

Gauld, Alan. The Founder of Psychical Research. New York: Schrocken Books, 1968.

Oxon, M. A. [Stainton Moses]. Higher Aspects of Spiritualism. N.p., 1880.

. Psychography; or, A Treatise on the Objective Forms of Psychic or Spiritual Phenomena. N.p., 1878. Reprinted as Direct Spirit Writing. N.p., 1952.