History of NZ Spiritualism

Brief Sketch of Early Spiritualism in New Zealand

by Harold S Sell

In 1866, Mrs Harris-Roberts arrived in New Zealand from England and became one of the first pioneers of Spiritualism in this Country.  She began conducting meetings at which she presented the beliefs and philosophy of the Movement.  About 1896, she settled in Auckland and founded the “Auckland Society for Spiritual Progress” with meetings held in the Choral Hall.  She later became affectionately know as “The Mater”.

During July 1879, we received a visit from that distinguished personality Mrs Emma Hardinge Britten, Inspirational speaker of great erudition, highly developed medium and authoress.  Mrs Britten had just spent the best part of a year touring Australia during the course of which she visited all the principal cities of that vast continent.  Her first meeting here was held in the Garrison Hall at Dunedin which drew an attendance of some 1800 persons.  Her chairman was the Hon. Robert Stout, New Zealand’s Attorney-General.  He later became Prime Minister and then Chief Justice when he was knighted.  At the time of the meeting he was President of both the Spiritualist and Freethought Associations and was strongly opposed to the introduction of the Bible in schools as a necessary element of education.

The subject of Mrs Britten’s first lecture was “Spiritualism Vindicated and Clerical Slanders Refuted” which consisted firstly of an address on psychic phenomena and Spiritualist philosophy followed by the simple presentation of some 70 to 80 quotations from the Bible concerning mainly the character, the lack of morality and humanity, of the Biblical god Jehovah.  On the whole she was well received but she did encounter the same conflicts with Christian opponents as she had met with in Australia.  Her visit gave considerable impetus to the efforts of our own pioneers and there was a marked increase in the number of meetings and circles in various parts of the country for she had also toured Nelson, Wellington and Auckland.

On New Year’s day 1897, Dr J. M. Peebles, M.A., M.D., PhD., learned American exponent of the Movement, arrived in Auckland from Samoa on the third voyage of five journeys from the USA propagating Spiritualism.  He gave lectures on our philosophy, phenomena and comparative religion.  He spent time among the Maori people and their medium-priests and learned something of tohungaism.  He considered the native people highly civilised but felt there had been some decline with the introduction of missionaries.

Although Spiritualist gatherings were being held in many parts of the country by 1875, it was not till around 1900 that these really began to emerge as organised meetings and Church services in Christchurch and elsewhere.  In Wellington they were conducted by the Hon. Mr W. McLean, M.P. who was ably assisted by Mr W.C. Nation who was held in high esteem as the G.O.M. of New Zealand Spiritualism.  Mr Nation also edited the “Message of Life” which he commenced in 1903.  He continued publication till his passing to spirit in 1929.  The journal itself ceased in 1934.

During the early part of this century we were receiving regular visits from overseas mediums and speakers.  These, together with our local speakers and demonstrators gradually spread the tenets of our Movement and demonstrated survival after physical death.  In 1907, most of our established Spiritualist Churches federated into a National Association of Spiritualist Churches which was the forerunner of the present The Spiritualist Church of New Zealand.

In 1919, between 900 and 1000 persons attended a meeting in the Auckland Town Hall with leading Spiritualist and renowned meteorologist Professor Clement Wragge in the chair.  This meeting was called primarily for the purpose of replying publicly to a number of Christian ecclesiastics who had publicly denounced Spiritualism without having any semblance of knowledge of the subject.

In 1920, that great British crusader Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, paid us a visit which aroused great interest.  His visits to a number of centres on lecture tours gave further stimulus and direction.

In June 1922, English medium, lecturer and author Mr Horace Leaf arrived in Auckland from Sydney after an Australian tour.  He was met by Mr A. T. Miles, Secretary of the National Association in Wellington and Mr J. W. Poynton, Stipendiary Magistrate of Auckland.  Mr Leaf toured extensively and like Dr Peebles, spent a considerable time among the Maori Peoples gaining an insight into their tohungaism.  He had a high opinion of both the psychic and spiritual attributes of the Maori.

From the 18 April to the 22 April 1924, the first exhibition of psychic art was held in the country in Auckland and later the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts accepted for hanging, a number of designs drawn through the mediumship of Mrs Bertha Sinclair Burns.  This lady was also the Editress of a magazine “Aquarius” which was devoted to Spiritualism and creative thought.

During this same decade we witnessed the amazing and varied mediumship of Pearl Judd, a Dunedin born girl.  She was discovered to be a natural medium as a teenage girl by her uncle Mr Clive Chapman, himself a medium.  Through his painstaking methods and guidance she developed into one of the most outstanding mental and physical mediums.  About the same time another physical medium was in course of unfoldment, this time in Christchurch.  His particular forte was direct voice phenomena.  He was Lancelet Brice, later considered one of the finest of trumpet mediums. Because of continued interference with our mediums and violent denunciation from orthodox pulpits, resulting in several prosecutions for alleged “Fortune-telling” under the New Zealand equivalent of the archaic Witchcraft Act operating in Britain, the National Association of Spiritualist Churches decided that if Spiritualism was to continue in this country, early steps would have to be taken to place if on a legal footing.  For this reason, the first Conference of the Association was convened in April 1923, at Kent Terrace in Wellington.  Prior to this, all business had been conducted by a Board of Management under the chairmanship of Mr Nation and under a constitution registered under the Companies Act.

At this Conference, represented by delegates from Auckland, Christchurch, Dunedin, Levin, Napier, New Plymouth and Wellington, it was resolved to draft a Bill for presentation to Parliament.  After careful preparation under the guidance of Magistrate Poynton it was presented to Select Committee by Mr G L Anderson of Wellington and sponsored by Mr Alexander Young, M.P. (later Sir Alexander) who, together with the Hon. G. J. Garland, and the Hon. J. A. Hanan, later steered it through the House without amendment.  The Bill became Act of Parliament No.2 of 1924 giving The Spiritualist Church of New Zealand legal persona.  This was no mean feat as the climate in those days was such that our Movement was, interalia, regarded as one of His Satannic Majesty’s numerous agencies.

If one browses through Spiritualist journals of the Victorian days, one is appalled by the virulence of the assaults made on our Movement and on individual Spiritualists by Christian clerics and their devotees.   Whilst our early Spiritualists in New Zealand did not have to put up with the extent of the indignities suffered by their counterparts in the USA and Britain, they certainly did not get off scot-free for moving and remaining outside the mainstream of Christian tradition.

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