MR. HOWITT'S work is one of the most worthless and at the same time one of the most important books recently published. If the object of a history be to convoy reliable information, the "History of the Supernatural" is utterly valueless. Half the tales which it narrates are manifestly untrue, and the few interesting facts which it tells aro stated with so littlo discrimination and so little accuracy, that, even when in a sense true, they are worth little more than fictions. But if the importance of a book depends, not upon its intrinsic merits, but upon the light which it throws on the sentiments and beliefs which influence large masses of men, Mr. Howitt's history, ill-written, indigested, ill-arranged as it is, deserves attention as a curious sign of the ignorance and credulity prevailing in a century which cants of enlightenment and progress. Tho work is meant for an historical vindication of so-called spiritualism. Its aim is to prove that the experience of all ages justifies the faith of those enthusiasts who believe in tables which rap, bells which sound unexpected peals, and pianos which play uncallod-for melodies, and to throw the deepest discredit on sceptics who, like Faraday and Brewster, venture to put miracles to the test of experiment, and cannot see in the proceedings of Mr. Home the enunciation of what Mr. Howitt terms “the new lex magna of the universe."
Yet it is only just to allow him to expound the object of his writings in his own words. This is the more necessary, because throughout his work runs a curious confusion of ideas, which makes the task of fairly representing its scope almost impossible of performance. He "intends," his preface tells us, "by the supernatural, the operation of those higher and more recondite laws of God, with which being yet most imperfectly acquainted, we either denominate their effects miraculous, or, shutting our eyes, firmly deny their existence altogether." He professes, therefore, to produce a history of the development of these laws, but the curiously expressed definition of his theme may at once be seen to cover two subjects totally different in their nature, which he nevertheless confounds and perpetually interchanges under the vague name of spiritualism. At times the object of his book seems to be to establish a thesis which men of greater acquirements than Mr. Howitt have treated and still treat with all the powers of their heart and intellect. To show that God takes part in the concerns of the world, that He is not very far from any one of us, has, as Mr. Howitt asserts, been the labour of men like Luther and Bunyan, and of all the great theological teachers in past ages, or in modern days. In this sense, no doubt, the greatest men the world has seen have been spiritualists; but while at times Mr. Howitt seems to aim at nothing more than (to use the expression of a certain school, exhibiting God in history, the habitual tendency of his writings is to produce a totally different result. The real, though possibly unconscious, end of his labours is to establish, not the existence of a spiritual element in man, but the truth of the claims put forth by that last form of materialism which has, quaintly enough, dubbed itself "spiritualism." From this unconscious confusion flow the strangest consequences. Mr. Howitt hails as friends persons who would vehemently denounce and entirely disbelieve the doctrines he propounds. He calls up Bacon, Locke, Hallam among the dead, and the Bishop of London, Mr. Kingsley, and Mr. Maurice among the living, as witnesses to the truth of his creed. On the other hand, he uses precisely the arguments of the men whom he most bitterly derides and attacks. His denunciations of Douglas, of Middleton, and of Paley are vehement, and are intended to be overpowering; yet he himself obviously shares the fundamental doctrine of thesoe teachers, that miracles are the test of revelation, and sees in Luther's comparative indifference to the evidence afforded by miracles nothing but a proof that the great Reformer had a weak side. While, therefore, it is just to confess that Mr. Howitt does understand something mor3 by spiritualism than tablerapping, no substantial injustice is done him by treating his work as a defence of modern spirit-rappers.
The book itself, whatever its design, is absolutely chaotic. It has neither plan nor arrangement. Chapter follows chapter without any discernible link of connexion. Whole pages read sometimes like the feeblest of ecclesiastical histories, sometimes like the weakest of replies to Dr. Colenso or to the Essayists. The “History” might, perhaps, be most fairly described as an ill-written and bulky appendix to Mrs. Crowe's "Night Side of Nature." Charity has suggested to us an explanation of the apparent anomaly, that a man of Mr. Howitt's acquirements should write two volumes utterly deficient in merit. We are inclined to believe that Mr. Howitt acts as an amanuensis to one of his tables—-that eccentric piece of furniture, for instance, which would for a whole week do nothing elso than ran about the house. He himself dilates on the fact that many works ostensibly written by human authors have been, in fact, the compositions of dictating spirits. Internal evidence confirms our surmise; there is something "jerky," if the expression may bo allowed, about the whole style in which the History of the Supernatural is composed. Little imagination is needod to hear the knocks by which each sentence was rapped forth. What, however, converts conjecture into certainty is, that it is easy to trace in the author of the work a mental characteristic which, Mr. Howitt assures us, is commonly found among spirits. "Modern spiritualism," he writes, "has shown how eager and ambitious departed spirits are to communicate their favourite theories." This eager ambition must be a ruling passion with Mr. Howitt's table. Unluckily this particular spirit has a weakness, occasionally found amongst theorists clothed in flesh and blood. Eager to defend his speculations, he is a little careless in making out his facts. We speak with submission, but in theology Mr. Howitt, or Mr. Howitt's table, are, in our opinion, not very safe guides. Their combined acquaintance with the Old and New Testament is somewhat creditable, for it rises a little above the standard required of young men about to take their degrees and their family livings; but our annalists of the miraculous, if not totally unacquainted with the more prominent facts of the New Testament, indulge occasionally in speculations which would assuredly startle an orthodox oxaminer, and which come rather strangely from the mouths of those who censure with extreme bitterness tho supposed heterodoxy of the Bishop of Natal [Colenso]. An impartial critic, for example, finds it hard to admit that every text in which the word "to knock" is used, has a reference to spirit-rapping; and men who, without being avowed champions of orthodoxy, do not like to treat sacred subjects with levity, find it impossible either to follow or to describe the strange inferences drawn, either by the table or its amanuensis, from the circumstances of Christ's Transfiguration. An age, however, which applauds Dr. Cumming may tolerate Mr. Howitt; but if it be conceded that theology is the appropriate field for fancy and vagary, ordinary history at least ought to be studied in the spirit of reason and common sense. Yet even here the table strikes us as out of its reckoning. To believe Livy's stories, to place undoubting reliance upon every tale collected by all the most unreliable authorities of antiquity, may possibly be an exercise of that undiscriminating faith which Mr. Howitt seems to consider the sum total of virtue; but to assert that "the history of Diodoras Siculus is the history of Thucydides as far as Thucydides goes, viz., through the Peloponnosian wars, Diodoras evidently basing himself upon him in the narrative of that period — and the miraculous portions aro common to both"—is to betray a large amount of ignorance, and not a small amount of disingenuousness. For Thucydides doos not "go through tho Peloponnosian ware," and the greatest of Greek histories has no miraculous portions. Not only does Thucydides scarcely touch upon any event which in Mr. Howitt's sense is miraculous, but the references he does make to prophecies are all calculated to show the futility of prophetic pretensions.
Mr. Howitt’s ignorance and want of judgment have prevented him from writing what might, in spite of all his theories, have been a not uninteresting book, since a careful investigation, or even a circumstantial account of the best known and best established miracles of modern times—such, for example, as the euros wrought by Abbé Paris, or of the offects really produced by what may be termed the moral treatment of physical diseases through which Gassner effected cures—would open to view an almost unexplored province of human nature. But Mr. Howitt, who bolieves in Livy's wonders, is little likely to sift or arrange the evidence in favour of more authentic miracles. Indeed, it is not proof of any kind which has really, we suspect, caused his belief in spiritualism. He avowedly looks on Mr. Home, Dr. Hare, Judge Edmonds, and oven Joe Smith, as the proclaimcrs of a now gospel. There is something almost pathetic in the fervour with which he urges the moral claims of his creed. "Five-and-twenty thousand persons," he proclaims, "have beon converted thereby from Deism to Christianity;" and again and again he insists that the soul's immortality, which is a matter of belief to other men, is a matter of experimental knowledge to spiritualists. We cannot sneer at or deride any grounds on which human beings find it possible to rest their belief in God and in a future life; but we absolutely dispute the truth of Mr. Howitt's assertion, that modern spiritualism tends to raise the moral character of mankind. There may, indeed, be men in that strange state of mind, that if they do not believe in rapping tables or in winking virgins, they can believe in nothing. But almost all men, except either spiritualists or professional apologists for the Christian faith, find that there is a mean between believing in nothing and believing in everything; and except to those who dread unlimited scepticism, there is little either of strength or of consolation given by Mr. Home's transitions through the air or by the bloody marks on Mr. Foster's arm. Spirits who rap on tables, who raise devotees in the air, who blunder through the alphabet, who dictate bad poetry and draw indifferent sketches, may amuse men of common sense and terrify men of uncommon credulity, but since, by Mr. Howitt's avowal, they give witness to the truth of all religions, they, in fact, give witness to the truth of none, and cannot pretend to confirm faith when they turn it into sight.
“Spiritualism.” The Reader: A Journal of Literature, Science, and Art. (7 March 1863): 236-37. London: “Published at 112, Fleet Street,” 1863. Hathi Digital Library Trust web version of a copy in the Princeton University Library. 17 July 2016.
Howitt, William. The History of the Supernatural in All Ages and Nations and in All Churches Christian and Pagan Demonstrating a Universal Faith. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott and Company, 1863.
Last modified 17 July 2016