Spiritists Seek the Unseen World and its Wisdom

by Theresa Welsh

Spiritism is almost unknown in the United States, but its adherents believe messages received from spirits have inspired millions around the world to lead lives of spiritual growth. The movement began in France 150 years ago with the writings of Allan Kardec and today is HUGE in Brazil. The Spritist Movement deserves more attention in the US.

Books About Spirit:


The Spirits Book by Allan Kardec (Allan Kardec Educational Society, 1996)
Nosso Lar (Allan Kardec Educational society, 2000) by Chico Xavier
The Unknown Power by Guy Lyon Playfair (Pocket Books, 1975)
Many Voices (Dell, 1968) by Eileen J. Garrett

Who are Spiritists?

The Spiritist movement is largely unknown in the United States, but worldwide it has millions of adherents, around five million in Brazil alone. There are also substantial numbers of Spiritists in Australia and New Zealand and in France. The very word "Spiritist" does not mean much to most Americans; some may associate it with people who hold seances and believe in ghosts. That's partly true, but conjuring up the spirits of the dead to comfort their living families is not what Spiritists are all about.

The movement — not a separate religion, as most identify themselves as Christian — is based on a belief in a spiritual world, where souls go after death and where they were before birth. Spiritists believe in reincarnation and the reality of another dimension of a lighter density where souls perfect themselves. Earthly lives are a testing ground for souls to learn and grow until they no longer need to live in material bodies. As they grow in spiritual wisdom, souls (or spirits) become lighter; eventually they lose the ability to communicate with denser earth-bound humans. Of necessity, those spirits who do communicate are of the lower order, or else they deliberately lower themselves to impart lessons of importance to incarnate people who are able to receive the message.


Messages may be received through automatic handwriting or while a "medium" is in a trance, although not all mediums are Spiritists. I have read the autobiography of the great American medium, Eileen Garrett (Many Voices by Eileen J. Garrett, Dell Publishing, 1968) and was startled to read that she did not buy into the idea that the voices that spoke through her while she was in trance were separate entities. In an explanation reminiscent of the "multiple-personality" controversies, Garrett declared that these entities were probably just an aspect of her own self. She had a big ego (her book is full of name-dropping; she seemed to know every important person who lived during her era, the early part of the twentieth century). It is possible she resented the "controls" — the entities who spoke through her. In later life she became a publisher and gave up being a medium. It was my impression that she did not like the "entities" getting the credit for the many correct predictions she made.

Garrett is best known for an incident that happened in October of 1930. She had gone into trance with friends present in an attempt to make contact with her deceased friend, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who was a Spiritualist. But instead, a male voice came through her, crying in anguish "The whole bulk of the dirigible was..too much for her engine capacity... useful lift too small. ..gross lift computed badly... elevator jammed... oil pipe plugged... " It was the voice of Flight Lieutenant H. C. Irwin who, two days before, had died in the crash of the British dirigible R-101. The details were so accurate that some in the British government accused Mrs. Garrett of being a spy! She also experimented, under controlled conditions, with LSD. It was she who first gave LSD to Timothy Leary, along with a grant so he could study the use of LSD and issue a report of his findings. However, Leary, who became the best-known spokesman for the mind-altering substance, never reported back to Garrett.

Garrett gives her views of mediumship in her autobiography:

"If I were to sum up my present views of mediumship, I would be inclined to interpret these powers as a manifestation of individual supersensitivity. As I have already indicated, I found my own powers to be intimately related to the events and experiences of my earliest childhood; and it may be that the mediumistic gift is an extreme intensification of infant awareness and response during the proverbial period, carried over into adulthood. In this respect, the mediumistic power may be of a similar order to those of the child prodigy in music or in mathematics. The prodigy's phenomenal abilitities obviously cannot be explained wholly on the basis of something that is consciously learned. It must inevitably spring from unconscious forces, perhaps including racial memories, that we do not fully understand."

Garrett died in 1970. Older editions of the book are available used, but Garrett's daughter has republished her mother's autobiography (in 2011) in a new edition titled Adventures in the Supernormal. There may be additonal insights from her daughter in this version. Go to the amazon page for Adventures in the Supernormal.

For people who believe mediums make contact with those who have passed on, but do not know about or believe in the other teachings of Spiritism, the term "Spiritualist" may apply. Spiritualism was a movement in the United States that began around 1850 with the Fox sisters, Margaret and Kate, who heard rappings in their childhood bedroom which they ascribed to spirits. Both women became mediums, holding seances; for money and launching the Spiritualist craze. In the years after World War I when many bereaved families wanted to communicate with men who had died in the war, mediums were sought after. Some of these mediums were frauds who faked voices and apparitions for paying customers. The movement waned and today we still have mediums, but they tend to work in daylight and generally do not go into a trance to get information from "the other side." We are more likely to call them psychic or channelers than to refer to them as mediums.

Allan Kardec

Spiritualism is not the same as Spiritism, which is based on the work of Allan Kardec, a Frenchman who published his seminal work, The Spirits Book, in 1857. Born in 1804, Kardec's real name was H. Leon Denizard Rivail. He was an educator with impressive credentials who did not become interested in spirits until he was 50 years old. Communication with spirits had become a hot topic in America where the mysterious rapping noises publicized by the Fox sisters had sparked interest in the spirit world. Kardec attended some demonstrations where spirits were contacted, thought the phenomena could be of great importance, and began his own investigations. He kept meticulous notes, finally putting what he'd learned from spirits into a question and answer format and assembling the material into The Spirits Book.

An Introduction to the 1876 edition of the book explains how Kardec came into the material:

...he entered at once upon a careful investigation of the new phenomena. A friend of his had two daughters who had become what are now called mediums. They were gay, lively, amiable girls, fond of society, dancing, and amusement, and habitually received, when 'sitting' by themselves or with their young companions, 'communications' in harmony with their worldly and somewhat frivolous disposition. But, to the surprise of all concerned, it was found that, whenever he (Kardec) was present, the messages transmitted through these young ladies were of a very grave and serious character; and on his inquiring of the invisible intelligences as to the cause of this change, he was told that spirits of a much higher order than those who habitually communicated through the two young mediums came expressly for him, and would continue to do so, in order to enable him to fulfill an important religious mission.

Much astonished at this so unlooked-for announcement, he at once proceeded to test its truthfulness by drawing up a series of progressive questions in relation to the various problems of human life and the universe in which we find ourselves, and submitted them to his unseen interlocutors, receiving their answers to the same through the instrumentality of the two young mediums, who willingly consented to devote a couple of evenings every week to this purpose, and who thus obtained, through table-rapping and planchette-writing, the replies which have become the basis of the spiritist theory."

The Spirits Book is divided by topic, with Kardec's comments interspersed. In the Introduction, Kardec gives his definition of Spiritism as "the fundamental principle of the spiritist theory, or Spiritism, is the relation of the material world with spirits, or the beings of the invisible world."

In America, the Allan Kardec Educational Society (AKES) has an issued an excellent translation of The Spirits Book and sells it for a modest price at their website. The book is also available from amazon.com. This is no light reading, but is full of thought-provoking ideas. The AKES edition of the book, in sturdy paperback, is beautifully printed with an attractive cover. The material in it is intellectually challenging and different from other books on spiritual topics. Spiritists are not dogmatic; they do not have a laundry list of beliefs you must adhere to. They are willing to discard old beliefs when those beliefs are shown to be nonsense. Nor do they assume that just because some idea came from a spirit that it must be true. Spirits are at different levels of development and only know what they have been able to learn through their own efforts. Spirits too can be ignorant or mistaken. You must still filter what they say through your own good sense.

For instance, in Kardec's time Christians held that the world was created about 4000 years before Christ. Kardec repeats this assertion, then states "Yet positively and inexorably science has advanced proof to the contrary. The history of the formation of our planet is written indelibly in the fossil record, which proves beyond all doubt that the six days of the creation were successive periods, each of which may have lasted millions of years." This was a radical statement at the time he made it. At many points in the book, Kardec advises that traditional beliefs have been shown to be wrong by science and advocates discarding the old belief. He says in his introduction, "Religion does not lose ground when it admits scientific advances. Rather, it gets stronger by becoming less vulnerable to the attacks of the skeptics."

  Some important ideas in The Spirits Book

  • There IS life on other planets and spirits from one world can be reborn on another (although Kardec talks about intelligent life in our solar system, which now seems unlikely)
  • Souls always advance toward enlightenment; they do not go backwards in development, only forward toward perfection; this may happen though over many, many lifetimes
  • There is no duality of good and evil; spirits are never totally evil, but some spend their time causing mischief and are not making progress (however, they WILL eventually make progress and continue on to perfection, as will ALL souls)
  • Matter is actually created in the spirit world and is activated by spirits -- "Matter exists in other states that are unknown to you."
  • Souls reincarnate in order to "redress previous mistakes and to effect human progress." Reincarnation makes for a just universe since acts of cruelty to others create a karmic debt that must be repaid.
  • Between incarnate lives, spirits study and learn as much as they can and participate in choosing their next life
  • When we sleep, our spirit travels and meets with other spirits; some of our dreams take us to places our spirits actually visit
  • Spirits progress through many levels, moving from the denser locations close to earth to higher planes where they associate with others like themselves and eventually do not need to return to material incarnations.
  • Service to others is a very important component of spiritual growth, in this life and in the spirit world we enter after death
  • Suicide is a huge mistake; ending this material life solves nothing, as you go on "living" in the spirit world and must still solve your problems and pay your karmic debts; death is not an escape and those who commit suicide are cowards

The AKES was founded in 1984. Their website states "The society adopts the moral teachings of Jesus as guide. However, it avoids the narrow definitions of established Christianity, preferring to focus on the Christ consciousness that transcends and unifies every major religious philosophy." Spiritism does not push a set of doctrines; its emphasis is on seeking truth. In Brazil, a country nominally Catholic, Spiritism touches many people through its "centers" where psychic healers assist the sick. There are other non-Kardecist movements that have similar practices; in Brazil, many follow the ways of condomble and umbanda, both of African origin, but with both black and white practitioners. Their colorful practices, which to many resemble voodoo, have attracted more attention from outsiders than the quieter Kardecistas. But the essential beliefs of Spiritists do not require any particular worship or ritual.

Spiritist Literature

When I emailed the AKES about The Seeker Books website, they generously sent me two more books, both by Francisco (Chico) Xavier. I was delighted to get them because I had read all about Xavier in the book that originally sparked my interest in Spiritism, another old book I found at a flea market called The Unknown Power, by Guy Lyon Playfair. Playfair devotes his first chapter to Chico Xavier, noting that he was a prolific writer. As best I figure, Xavier has produced over 400 books, all written in trance by various spirits. Xavier writes the books through automatic handwriting, devoting many hours each day to the task. Xavier was born in 1910 and died in 2002. A search of the internet for Chico Xavier turns up many sites written in Portuguese. As Playfair explains in his book, Xavier "began his work as a practicing medium in 1927. One of his sisters appeared to have gone insane and was seriously ill. She was visited by a local healing medium who decided it was a case of possession and promptly cured her, which so impressed the entire Xavier family that they renounced Catholicism on the spot and became Spiritists."

Francisco (Chico) Xavier was a major celebrity in Brazil (Playfair compares his fame to that of soccer giant Pele), and an outstanding role model for Spiritism. For many years, he operated a charitable Spiritist Center in Uberaba, donating the proceeds from his tremendous volume of book sales to care for the needy. Playfair's book, The Unknown Power, has a picture of a crowded gymnasium full of people waiting to have a book autographed by Xavier. Each person received a warm handshake and a red rose, besides having their book autographed. Chico always stayed and greets everyone, no matter how long it took, at these huge book signings. Chico's royalties for the books sold the day shown in the picture would have amounted to about $600, but he never took any of the profit from his books. Instead, all the money goes to his charitable work. Playfair described Chico as a "one-man welfare organization."

My first two books by Chico Xavier were both the work of Andre Luiz, a deceased Brazilian doctor who dictated many of Xavier's books. The books also have a Preface by Emmanuel, who is Xavier's spiritual guide. Emmanuel also dictated many of the books and is a revered spirit in Brazil. I've read both books and found them interesting as stories and full of enlightened ideas. More of Xavier's books have been translated into English. Books by Francisco Xavier available at amazon.com.

Lest you think this all a bit weird and that Xavier must be a fraud, consider that he had only a minimal education, always had poor eyesight, and many of the books are of a highly scientific nature. Playfair mentions two of his books (Evolution in Two Worlds from 1959 and Mechanisms of Mediumship from 1960) that he says "contain a mass of technical information on the functioning of both physical and spiritual worlds the like of which has never been received from any source, normal or otherwise, in the history of literature." Evolution in Two Worlds was partly received by Chico and partly by another medium in another part of the country. They each received alternating chapters three days apart during the first six months of 1958.

Brazilian Spiritism

Guy Lyon Playfair calls Brazil "the world's most psychic country." He gives a personal account of his trips there in his book titled The Unknown Power in a US edition but published in Great Britain (and now in the US) under the title The Flying Cow. In Brazil, Spiritist Centers are the focus for those who follow the teachings of Allan Kardec. At these Centers, mediums contact spirits and some hold healing services. Playfair gives first-hand accounts of what happens at these services, which generally begin with long lines of sufferers seeking treatment. There is never any charge for the services; it is an important part of Spiritist beliefs that the mediumistic gift must be used only in service to others. A number of mediums will be present at the healing service, but only one will act as "doctor." Playfair gained access to a well-known psychic healer named Edivaldo who had been giving up his weekends for many years to work -- for no pay -- at these services.

The room would usually feature a table where mediums sat who did not actively participate in the services, and a curtained-off area with two examining tables where the actual service took place, one patient at a time. Edivaldo himself knew nothing of what went on or how he did what would come next. He did his work by going into a trance and the personality of various spirit doctors would appear. The services to patients would happen very rapidly, some not even getting to the examining table, but just given a hastily-scrawled slip of paper with some kind of prescription or instructions. Operations can be physical, where blood appears and there may be red dots or scars left on the patient, or it can be totally invisible, with the only apparent actions some hand-waving near the patient. Some theorize that these psychic operations happen on the perispirit, a term the Spiritist use for the spiritual double of a living person.

Author Visits Psychic Doctor

Playfair himself visited a psychic doctor for a severe digestion problem. He waited with others in a long line and when his turn came, he was hastily diagnosed with a stomach problem before he could say anything and given a prescription for most of the same pills as the "real" doctor he'd been to before. But the psychic doctor told him he also needed a "small operation" and to return. Playfair was not a total beleiver; he considered himself a researcher, but his physical problem was getting worse and he'd gotten no relief. He decided to go for the psychic operation. Here is his description of what happened, as he sat nervously on the examining table, unbuttoning his shirt:

"I began to tear at the shirt buttons in a sudden effort to be cooperative and not keep Doctor waiting. The most vivid detail of the whole affair I recalled later was that I never got to the seventh and last button. The hands just came at me and began to feel around the belly area, like those of a lifeguard trying to revive a drowning swimmer.

"Then came the unmistakable moment of truth. Edivaldo's hands seemed to find what they were looking for and thumbs pressed down hard and I felt a very distinct plop as they penetrated the skin and went inside. My stomach immediately felt wet all over, as if I were bleeding to death. I could feel a sort of tickling inside, but no pain at all. The most unusual sensation was a sudden strong smell of ether, which seemed to come from my stomach area and drift upwards past my nose.

Then it was all over as suddenly as it had begun. Edivaldo mutters something I could not understand, a bandage was slapped casually and quite hard on my belly, and a lady said I could get up and go home."

Psychic surgery is not legal in Brazil or most countries, but many who have had it done to them or witnessed it are convinced something is going on that we don't understand. Playfair got complete relief from his stomach problem, but not right away. He went back to Edivaldo a number of times and had a second operation which brought a total cessation of his symptoms for over a year, "far longer than any of my pain-free periods over the past three years" according to the author.

As to how the psychic doctor does it, Edivaldo explains simply: "The spirits just come. I sit down and withdraw my own spirit and Dr. Calazans (the spirit doctor) takes over." While spirits can do tricks, like opening or shutting doors or raising tables off the floor, that is not of much interest to Spiritists. Their interest is in communication with spirits who can guide them to a higher level. As Playfair says in his book:

"The more advanced the medium, the better the phenomena are likely to be though not necessarily the most spectacular. Spiritists regard phenomena as merely a means by which the spirits offer proof of their existence. Once any given Spiritist group feels it is in touch with a good team of constructive spirits, it no longer has any need of such entertainment, and can get on with its more serious work, spiritual regeneration and raising the level of one's personal life in addition to helping others do the same."

Revelations From the Books of Chico Xavier

The books of Chico Xavier are a primary source of information about Spiritism as practiced in Brazil. Many of the books were dictated by the spirit, Andre Luiz. Nosso Lar ("Our Home" in Portuguese) is the story of Luiz himself, as he passed over and found himself in the spirit world. Unfortunately, he first found himself in the Lower Zone, a chaotic area where spirits wander in despair, with no knowledge of where they are or how they got there, and little understanding that there are other realms they can reach. These souls suffer, with no purpose to their existence until they are rescued by more advanced spirits and begin to understand their true nature. Luiz is lifted from his miserable existence by a spirit named Clarence (just like the angel in the Jimmy Stewart movie, It's a Wonderful Life; I wondered if this was a joke by the translator) who takes him to a city called Nosso Lar. This place is walled off from the Lower Zone and inside is an orderly and beautiful city, managed by a Governor, along with many "ministries" and subordinates, all busily working to keep the buildings and functions of the city humming along.

Clarence explains:

"Near-earth institutions all have their own particular nature and history. Nosso Lar is an old settlement. A group of distinguished Portuguese pioneers founded it in the sixteenth century. After death, they chose to settle in the spiritual planes over Brazil. According to colony records, they struggled mightily at first, just as settlers would on earth. There were huge areas largely untouched in these planes, very much like earth's uncultivated and inhospitable regions."

But the first stop was a hospital (Interesting — that was what Michael reported too, in The Stars Still Shine — see my review). A person who has been in the Lower Zone is always in need of help and many spirits in Nosso Lar work in the hospitals helping others who have just arrived. That became the work of Luiz once he was stronger. However, he is not a doctor here, as he was in life, but works instead with nurses who comfort the distressed spirits who are brought to Nosso Lar by rescuers from the Ministry of Renewal whose job it is to find souls ready to leave the Lower Zone. Luiz makes friends with other healers, including a wonderful nurse named Nacissa who later assists him when he returns to earth as a spirit to visit his family. He finds that his wife has remarried and her new husband is gravely ill. At first upset that his wife has found another, he conquers his feelings and summon Narcissa, who is there instantly and works a cure.

The citizens of Nosso Lar all work at something, many involved with the care of new souls and the advancement of each other. Luiz goes to live with the family of his rescuer and there meets Laura, an older woman who teaches him a great deal about the spirit world and its meaning. He longs to see his mother, who has passed on and learns she is also eager to see him, but she lives in a higher plane. His mother has been advocating for him and was partly responsible for his rescue from the Lower Zone. Eventually he does get to meet his mother. Everything he does seems to be planned with the help of the other spirits of Nosso Lar. He asks many questions — the same ones we would ask, like why don't I remember my past lives? He is told that it is better to not remember until you are ready for the possible shock of who you have been. He also learns that everyone, except those who are already close to perfection, must reincarnate. When Laura decides it is time for her to return to earth, he realizes the truth of this.

Nosso Lar is an uplifting story of one man's redemption in the afterlife. It also explicates the Spiritist ideals, both through its story and through the words of its characters. The Minister of Renewal states:

"In every way the Spiritist Doctrine is the Comforter promised to humankind, but it has spread slowly. It's a divine gift, but unfortunately most people on earth still haven't seen that. The biggest percentage of new believers come to Christian Spiritism under the influence of old religious training, which is full of flaws. They want to reap the benefits of it, but not give anything of themselves. They appeal to the truth but won't search it out. The more scholarly ones often end up making guinea pigs out of mediums."

Other great Chico Xavier books that I've personally read are And Life Goes On, The Messengers, Action and Reaction, Two Thousand Years Ago, and even more are now available in English .

For more information on Spiritism, check out this web site:
  The Allan Kardec Educational Society and see the web site for The Spiritist group of New York City .

More reviews of books about spirit:

  - The Airmen Who Would Not Die by John G. Fuller

  - The Ghost of Flight 401 by John G. Fuller

  - Messages: Signs, Visits, and Premonitions from Loved Ones Lost on 9/11 by Bonnie McEneaney

  - The Messengers by Chico Xavier / Andre Luiz

Buy The Spirits Book
at amazon.com

More Books About Spiritism

Seeker Book Reviews

Flickr Photos