Publisher: Methuen & Co., London

First Published: 1909

Pages: 306


"Mesmerism and Christian Science: a short history of mental healing"

By Frank Podmore

 - Reviewed by T. W. Mitchell M. D. -

          IN SETTING out to write a short history of mental healing, Mr. Podmore may well have been embarrassed by the amount of material at his disposal, and he must have had difficulty in deciding where to begin and where to end. For the beginnings of mental healing must be looked for in the opening chapters of man's history, its persistence through the ages may be discovered in the records of all peoples, its development in our own time has taken place along widely diverging paths, and in no direction can it be said that the end has yet come. Instead of beginning with Mesmerism, which was really the first attempt at rationalising the mystical practices of former generations, he might have traced these practices to their roots in the superstitions of barbarism or in the magical rites of early civilisations.

Instead of ending with Christian Science, which seems the final abandonment of reason in the interpretation of the results obtained by mental healing, he might have traced the vicissitudes of hypnotism since the days of Braid and brought his story to a close with an account of the psychotherapeutic methods of the present day. We are told in the preface that ''the aim of the present work is briefly to describe the various phases of the movement initiated by Mesmer, and to trace the successive attempts made by those who came after him to get below the surface to the underlying reality."

It cannot be Mr. Podmore's intention to imply that after a hundred years of striving to get below the surface to the underlying reality the attempt must be abandoned, or that all the phases of the movement initiated by Mesmer culminate in the doctrines and practice of Mrs. Eddy. Yet there is no break in the story from Mesmerism to Christian Science just as there is no real discontinuity between Mesmerism and the psychic treatment of orthodox physicians at the present time. With the rise of Mesmerism two lines of thought which had existed for hundreds of years, at first inextricably mingled, then side by side, came once more for a time into contact with each other. At the close of the Mesmeric period these lines again diverged, there was a parting of the ways, and it is along only one of these ways that Mr. Podmore leads us.

For a long time after the Renaissance the practice of the art of healing displayed a curious blend of occultism and empiricism. Natural remedies were eagerly sought after and employed with effect in the treatment of disease, yet the virtues of medicaments were almost universally believed to depend on the due performance of magical rites. The desire for natural explanations was frustrated by the uncertainty of the results, and such definite therapeutic effects as were obtained seemed to receive their most reasonable interpretation in the doctrines of Hermetic Science. With the dawn of the scientific era an ever widening gulf developed between occultism and physical philosophy, and towards the close of the eighteenth century a mystical explanation of any natural phenomenon was as little likely to obtain credence as it would be at the present day. Yet about this time certain teachings of the mystical writers of an earlier period were forced upon the attention of the scientific world by the work of Mesmer. And although Mesmer failed to convince his scientific contemporaries of the truth of his doctrines, or even of the genuineness of the phenomena on which he based his claim to be heard, he was without doubt the means of bringing under the scrutiny of science certain facts of nature which in the Age of Reason were only too likely to be neglected and forgotten. Mr. Podmore says that "Mesmer's first claim to our remembrance lies in this - that he wrested the privilege of healing from the Churches, and gave it to mankind as a general possession." But if Christian Science were to be regarded as the sole outcome of the movement initiated by Mesmer, it would seem as if his work had been in vain. Rather should we say that Mesmer's first claim to our remembrance lies in this - that he compelled scientific men to investigate a class of natural phenomena whose very existence they would fain have denied.

Mr. Podmore dismisses in a few pages the scientific work that has been done in connection with this subject since the close of the Mesmeric period. It is no part of his plan to record the history of Hypnotism which is, he says, "only the youngest and at present by no means the most prominent of the progeny of Mesmer." His purpose rather is to trace the pedigree of Christian Science and allied schools of thought from their roots in "that universal system of knowledge whose boast it was to unite two well known sciences - Astronomy and Medicine." And in doing so he has given us a most fascinating work. The fullness of knowledge which he shows in regard to every stage in the development of his story marks him out as peculiarly fitted for the task, while the impartiality of judgment and the critical acumen which he brings to bear on all the subjects dealt with are in striking contrast with the mental attitude of most writers who have dealt with these matters in the past.

The first half of the book is devoted to the history of Animal Magnetism, and it is doubtful if there exists in any language so complete and yet so succinct an account of that extraordinary movement. The book opens with a short description of Mesmer's early life and studies, followed by a rapid survey of the main incidents which attended his first appearance in Paris in 1778. His methods are described, and a record of some of the cases of cure by Animal Magnetism is given. Before proceeding to treat of Mesmer's later life and the reception which he met with at the hands of the medical faculty and scientific authorities generally, Mr. Podmore shows how Mesmer derived his methods and his doctrines from the faith healers and the mystical philosophers of a former generation.

Many features of Mesmer's practice at the beginning of his career may be found in the methods employed by Valentine Greatrakes and Gassner, and the philosophical doctrines summarised in the famous twenty-seven propositions are implicitly contained in the writings of Paracelsus, Van Helmont, Fludd, and Maxwell. "To Van Helmont the Magnetic system is still primarily a spiritual affair, a link between the heavens and the earth. Man can only obtain a complete mastery over the powers which sleep in his own nature by assimilating his will to the Divine Will. In the writings of Maxwell and Fludd greater stress is laid upon the material operations of the fluid; the theory tends to become less mystical and more scientific. . . . But in Mesmer's exposition this spiritual aspect of the doctrine has entirely disappeared. For him the Magnetic system is purely a question of matter and motion."

Such at all events was the claim put forward by Mesmer in the paper which he presented to the Academy of Sciences in 1778. It was as a physicist rather than as a physician that he asked to be recognised. It was not so much a new method of treating disease, but a new physical force which he claimed to have discovered. But apart from cases of alleged cure of disease, the only evidence h could bring forward in support of his contention was the subjective sensations of those operated upon. "When Leroy and his colleagues undertook to explain all these sensations as due simply to imagination, Mesmer was confounded. He forgot his resolve not to leave his great discovery to the uncertain arbitrament of the consulting room, his reluctance to embroil himself with the medical faculty, and he decided against his better judgment to offer the proofs demanded of him."

Then followed the long series of abortive attempts to have Mesmer's claims investigated by the learned Societies of Paris, culminating finally in the appointment by the Government of two commissions, one chosen from the Faculty of Medicine and the Academy of Sciences, and one from the Royal Society of Medicine. The reports of both commissions were unfavourable to the claims of the Animal Magnetists. The commissioners appointed by the Faculty of Medicine contented themselves with showing that there was no proof of the existence of Mesmer's postulated fluid, and since the fluid did not exist they thought there was no need to inquire into its utility. This Report, drawn up with great skill by Bailly, was signed on the eleventh of August, and as Mr. Podmore says in his preface, this date "should be observed as a day of humiliation by every learned Society in the civilised world, for on that date in 1784 a Commission, consisting of the most distinguished representatives of Science in the most enlightened capital in Europe, pronounced the rejection of a pregnant scientific discovery - a discovery possibly rivalling in permanent significance all the contributions to the physical Sciences made by the two most famous members of the Commission - Lavoisier and Benjamin Franklin."

The Report of the Royal Society Commission was to the same effect, although one of its members, Jussieu, issued a separate Report on his own account, in which he showed himself to be a better observer than his colleagues. But Jussieu's Report had as little effect on his scientific contemporaries as the Report of Bailly's Commission had on the wider public who were interested in Animal Magnetism, and the movement continued to spread up to the time of the Revolution.

The most important names connected with this period are those of Puysegur, Petetin, and Deleuze, and Mr. Podmore gives all adequate account of the work of these three men. The discovery of Somnambulism by Puysegur marks an important stage in the history of the subject, and in his belief in the influence of the will in directing and controlling the magnetic fluid we may recognise the growing tendency towards the inclusion of the human element in the interpretation of Mesmeric phenomena and so towards what we regard as the true explanation. With the outbreak of the Revolution the progress of Animal Magnetism almost stopped, but after the Restoration it reappeared and flourished more vigorously than ever. So widespread did its practice become that in 1825 it was again brought before the Academy of Medicine, and a Committee of investigation was appointed in February of the following year. The Report of this Commission, prepared by Husson and delivered in 1831, was as indiscriminately favourable to the claims of the Animal Magnetists as Bailly's Report had been unfavourable. But although the Commissioners were men of scientific standing, their favourable judgment had but little influence on the medical profession, and did nothing to alter its resolute determination to have nothing to do with Animal Magnetism. The attitude of the official medical world may be judged from the splenetic work of Burdin and Dubois. In their "Histoire Academique du Magnetisme Animal", published ten years after the issue of Husson's Report, these authors poured out their contempt on everything and everybody connected with the subject. So blinded by prejudice were they that they could see nothing of truth or of value in any part of the story from Mesmer to Teste.

The final abandonment of Animal Magnetism by the medical faculty in France came about through the repeated discovery of fraud in connection with the Magnetists' attempts to demonstrate the reality of clairvoyance by their magnetised subjects. As so often happens in research on matters of this kind, the discovery of fraud was held to justify the investigators in dispensing with further inquiry into related phenomena in which fraud had not been discovered.

It was in the period following the Restoration that Alexander Bertrand lectured and wrote on Animal Magnetism, and although his work had but little effect on his contemporaries, it may now be recognised that he alone of all the medical men of that time succeeded in distinguishing in some measure between the false and the true in Animal Magnetism. It is surprising how modern much of Bertrand's writing appears, and it was perhaps inevitable that the importance of his views should have been missed by his contemporaries and by later writers. His work has hardly yet had justice done to it, and it is gratifying to find that Mr. Podmore has done something to restore to its proper place in the history of the subject the name of one of the most careful observers in the annals of Animal Magnetism.

There was in Paris about this time another Magnetist, to whose merit Mr. Podmore hardly, perhaps, does justice. The Abbe Faria was one of the most successful operators of his day, and his doctrine of Suggestion as the cause of the Mesmeric state and its associated phenomena is more modern even than that of Bertrand. The name of Faria is of particular interest to us in this country, for it was he who taught Richard Chenevix to magnetise, and it was Chenevix who introduced Elliotson to the study of Mesmerism. If Elliotson had only paid some regard to the teachings of Faria, the story of Mesmerism in England might have been very different, and we might have been spared the most deplorable chapter in the annals of British Medicine.

Mr. Podmore brings his history of Animal Magnetism to a close with an admirable chapter, in which he recounts the main incidents of the struggle with official medical science in this country. As he well says, "The intolerance of the medical profession from 1839 onwards to Mesmerism, and especially its obstinate rejection of the cumulative evidence of the relief from pain occasionally afforded by its means in surgical operations, is one of the most noteworthy episodes in the history of medical science." But recognition of the reality of some of the facts of Mesmerism and some insight into their probable explanation must surely have followed the work of Braid had it not been for the discovery of chloroform and the rise of modern Spiritualism. To the few unprejudiced medical men who were inclined to look with favour on the practice of Mesmerism, the hope that it might become of use in surgical work was the main incentive to its study, and the introduction of an anaesthetic, which was found to act with certainty in all cases, seemed to deprive the less reliable method of the Mesmerists of all utility. The effect of the rise of Spiritualism on the progress of Animal Magnetism is well told by Mr. Podmore. "When table-turning and spirit-rapping were introduced into this country from America, the Mesmerists soon identified the mysterious force which caused the phenomena with the mesmeric or neuro-vital fluid. A little later, when the trance and its manifestations were exploited in the interests of the new gospel of Spiritualism, many of the English Mesmerists, who had been prepared by the utterances of their own clairvoyants for some such development, proclaimed themselves adherents of the new faith. Elliotson himself before his death became a convert to Spiritualism. The Mesmerists generally found the marvels of the magnetic fluid insignificant in face of the new revelation. Mesmeric operators became spiritual healers, and their subjects trance mediums; the spiritualist platforms were thronged with magnetic clairvoyants who had developed into 'inspirational' speakers. The two movements naturally became identified in the minds of the public, and shared in a common condemnation. No physician who valued his professional reputation could afford to meddle with the subject, and the study of the induced trance and its attendant phenomena was relegated to oblivion, in these islands at any rate, for more than a generation."

But the cessation of scientific interest in Mesmerism did not stop the development of the movement, and the outcome of this development is not to be measured by the amount of scientific work that has been done in this connection since the days of Braid, or by the conclusions that have been arrived at in the course of the rise of modern psychotherapy as practised by more or less orthodox physicians. As Mr. Podmore says, "The deliberate negligence of the scientific world left the whole field to be cultivated by the visionary and the charlatan. The abundant crop of false beliefs and extravagant systems which flourish at the present time is the direct result of the apathy or obstinate incredulity shown by the physicians of two generations ago.

All the mysticisms and pseudo-sciences of the present day no doubt owe something to Mesmer, but there are, as Mr. Podmore shows, three distinct schools of thought, each claiming a scientific foundation, whose descent may be traced directly back to the system of knowledge on which Mesmer's work was based. "The three faiths in question are the fluidic theory, which finds its headquarters, appropriately enough, in modern Paris: the religion of Modern Spiritualism: and the movement of Mental Healing, of which the sect known as Christian Scientists are the most prominent representatives." It is to tracing the connection between Mesmerism and these modern phases of thought that the second half of Mr. Podmore's book is devoted.

Believers in Animal Magnetism had, in the face of all adverse criticism, persistently clung to a belief in the existence of some form of fluid emanation which passed from the operator to the subject in the process of magnetising, although they were often hard pressed to explain how the fluid operated in producing the so-called higher phenomena of Mesmerism. A welcome support to their belief was found in the experimental researches of Reichenbach, and although counter experiments were made by Braid which pointed the way to the true explanation, Reichenbach's work exercised considerable influence in this country. But still the higher phenomena called for some further explanation, and the growing wonders of clairvoyance recorded on all sides at this time gradually convinced the most orthodox of the fluidists that in clairvoyance there was something which transcended all their physical interpretations and compelled them to revert to the mystical explanations of earlier times. Even Deleuze thought that the phenomena of somnambulism proved clearly the spiritual nature of the soul, and that the soul, "though it generally makes use of the sense organs, can in certain states receive ideas and sensations without the mediation of these organs." As Mr. Podmore says, "If a man, gifted with such sobriety of judgment as Deleuze, could write in that strain, it is not to be wondered at that less cautious students should see in the magnetic trance an open door into the spiritual world."

During the next few years their expectations seemed to be abundantly realised. Under the influence of the teachings of Swedenborg revelations of a spiritual world had formed a not infrequent feature of magnetic or spontaneous trance, especially in Germany, from the beginning of the Mesmeric movement and at the time when Husson's Commission was investigating the claims of the magnetists, Justinus Kerner was recording the sayings and doings of the Seeress of Prevorst. At a later date revelations of a similar kind were given through Adele Maginot, one of Cahagnet's somnambules, and other less notorious clairvoyants, and the avidity with which such outpourings were accepted as authentic revelations from another world is an indication of the prevalence of the ideas and beliefs that made possible the rise of Modern Spiritualism.

The insistence by the Mesmerists on the reality of clairvoyance was always the chief stumbling block in the way of general recognition of the truth that was in Mesmerism, and the clairvoyant records of this period still give rise to our main difficulty when we endeavour to interpret the results which were claimed to have been obtained. Mr. Podmore devotes a chapter to the more important of these records which is a model of scientific caution. In summing up his discussion, he says "the so-called clairvoyance at close quarters, when not due to fraud, would seem to indicate extreme acuteness of vision, the result sometimes of training, sometimes apparently of hyperaesthesia in the trance. But the manifestations of community of sensation and of clairvoyance at a distance, so far as they appear to be genuine, furnish some support to the hypothesis of thought transference." But he admits that there are a few cases "which compel us at least to enlarge the meaning of thought transference."

The final stage in the history of the movement initiated by Mesmer is reached with the "Coming of the Prophets." This is the title which Mr. Podmore gives to the chapter in which he describes the development of mental healing in America after 1848. Prior to this date magnetic clairvoyants and spirit mediums laid claim to no special sanctity, they arrogated to themselves no spiritual authority. "But in the land of democracy we are confronted with a singular development unknown to the older monarchies. The transatlantic seers constantly tend to be independent; they assume the authority of the prophet: they grasp at a spiritual autocracy - an autocracy by no means confined to the spiritual concerns of those subject to it." This tendency was prominently shown in the careers of Andrew Jackson Davis and Thomas Lake Harris, but the supreme example of it is to be found in the person of Mrs. Eddy, the founder of Christian Science.

Although Davis at the beginning of his career essayed to diagnose and treat disease when in trance, both he and Harris are chiefly noteworthy, in connection with mental healing, for the systems of philosophy which were founded on the contents of their automatic writings. For in their scheme of things the unreality of disease and its conquest by spiritual regeneration are first clearly insisted on, and this revelation of divine truth becomes later the foundation stone of the doctrines of Christian Science. But of more immediate importance in the development of Mrs. Eddy's opinions regarding the nature and treatment of disease was the teaching of Phineas Parkhurst Quimby. After starting his healing career as a professional mesmerist Quimby came to the conclusion that the cures which he effected must really have been due to faith and expectation on the part of the patients. He became convinced that all disease is a delusion, an error of the mind, and, discarding Mesmerism, he set himself to cure diseased bodies by ministering to sick souls. In doing so he appealed exclusively to the understanding of his patients, and it is interesting to observe that this mode of psychic treatment has been rediscovered within recent years by orthodox physicians who believe that all that has hitherto been achieved by suggestion may be as certainly and more reasonably attained by persuasion. The description of Quimby's procedure, quoted by Mr. Podmore from Mrs. Julius Dresser, might have been written yesterday by a patient of Dubois or of Dejerine: ". . . instead of telling me that I was not sick, he sat beside me and explained to me all that my sickness was, how I got into the condition, and the way I could have been taken out of it by the right understanding. . . . I felt the spirit and life that came with his words, and I found myself gaining steadily."

But although Quimby may be regarded as the founder of the modern movement of Mental Healing and the original source of all that is most characteristic in the doctrine and practice of the Christian Scientists, he is not the only link between the past and the present. The various phases of the New Thought movement have also had some influence in shaping the form which the development of Quimby's teaching was ultimately to take. While Quimby in his reliance on appeal to the reason in the treatment of disease showed himself to be a modern of the moderns, the mind-curers generally tended to revert to the old view of the Animal Magnetists in believing in some specific action of the operator on the subject. A patient may, they say, be healed without his consent and even without his knowledge, so that "absent" treatment is as efficacious as treatment when healer and patient sit and converse in the same room. But in a wicked world such a power may be used in injurious ways, and we have in Mrs. Eddy's denunciations of Malicious Animal Magnetism an indication of the terror that may be inspired by such a reversion to belief in the bewitchments of ancient Magic.

Notwithstanding all the vagaries and strange philosophies of the Mind Healers and Christian Scientists, notwithstanding the remoteness of their mental outlook from that of ordinary men and women, there is one matter connected with their teaching which must interest every one. Do they really cure disease? Mr. Podmore says, as does every unbiased person who has taken the trouble to investigate the facts, that they unquestionably do. There are no good grounds for doubting the testimony of thousands of honest people who describe the relief from suffering and the mental and bodily vigour which have come to them with their acceptance of Christian Science as the true gospel. But when we are asked for the explanation of these extraordinary stories our only answer is "suggestion." That is as far as science authorises us to go, and there for the present the matter must rest. But in reading Mr. Podmore's story from Mesmer to Mrs. Eddy, we cannot help speculating on the evolutionary significance of the movement and the bearing which the growth of this phase of thought may have on man's life and destiny in the future. Nor can we help feeling that behind all the extravagances of Animal Magnetism, behind all the futilities of Christian Science, there lies some profound truth which we have not as yet even dimly comprehended. 

The above book review was taken from the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, Volume XXIV Part LXI (August 1910).


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