Duringthe nineteenth century, the world met some of its most famous authors. One ofthese was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. He was born in Edinburgh, Scotland on May 22,1859, although he spent most of his professional career in London, England.
Doyle is most well known for his Sherlock Holmes novels however he also wrotemany pieces of fiction and non-fiction. Most of Doyle’s non-fiction centeredaround science and religion. Arthur Conan Doyle held varying religious viewsthroughout his life. Doylewas raised with a predominately Catholic background.
His father was raised in astrongly Catholic home and attended a Catholic school. His mother also held astrong Catholic view taking after her mother who according to Lycett “held withthe faith of a convert”(12). This lead to Doyle also attending a Catholicschool, which in turn lead to his eventual dismissal of the religion. Doyle was often displeased with the answersthe church provided for spiritual matters.
This lead to his dismissal ofreligion in favour of science. This was not a view that he held for long. Thisis mostly due to sciences inability to answer Doyle’s most burning questionsinvolving life after death. He eventually found other views that more fullyanswered his questions.
Afterfinishing his education Doyle was accepted to Edinburg University where hestudied medicine. In his biography “Arthur and Sherlock” Sims describes Doyleas “tall broad-shouldered” as well as “quick-witted, forthright anddiligent”(10). Doyle thrived at medical school and would quickly come to admireone particular professor, Dr. Joseph Bell.
Bell is often credited as beingDoyle’s inspiration for his character of Sherlock Holmes. It was only shortly after his graduation thatDoyle would suffer the first in many losses throughout his life. Doyle wastending a patient by the name of Jack Hawkins who was suffering from cerebralmeningitis; when the young man died quite suddenly, much sooner than expected.This is part of what lead Doyle to question what happens after death, beginninghis attempt to find answers.
This also lead to Doyle meeting his first wife,Louise Hawkins the sister of Jack Hawkins. The pair was married in 1885 andenjoyed a somewhat rough but overall happy marriage until Louise’s death in1906.Doylewrote over 200 pieces of both fiction and non-fiction aside from SherlockHolmes. Most of his non-fiction works centered around the existence of spiritsand his personal religious views. He also wrote fiction on these topics, mostlyas someone exploring his own beliefs. However of these works aside from “TheNew Revelation” most are not well known.Doyleis most well known for his logical detective Sherlock Holmes. He oftenpresented Holmes with a seemingly impossible problem which Holmes would solveusing his methods of deduction, while his friend Dr.
Watson recorded the story.When “A Study in Scarlet” was first released in 1887 it introduced a characterthat would captivate generations. Doyle often wrote these stories while waitingfor patients at his clinic, however, they quickly became much more profitableand Doyle turned his life to writing.However,as his career went on Doyle became concerned that Holmes was taking away fromhis more serious works. To this extent, Doyle decided the only course of actionwas to end the detective. So he wrote “The Final Problem” where the only wayfor Holmes to defeat the brilliant criminal Professor Moriarty is to plungeboth of them down Reichenbach Falls. While this worked for a short time Doylehad not counted on how popular Holmes had become eventually his solution becameanother problem. This lead to his resurrection of Holmes in “The Hound of theBaskervilles” an immediate fan favourite, and considered one of the best Holmesstories ever written.
WhenDoyle was first introduced to the idea of communication with spirits he wasintrigued, though skeptical. He did not believe that mediums were truly able tosummon ghosts, and were instead pretending. He went so far as to write”Selecting a Ghost” which told the story of a man hallucinating that he saw andcommunicated with spirits. Of this Sims writes “Arthur may have been mockinghimself in part because during this time he began to explore spiritualism, thebelief that after death disembodied spirits can communicate with theliving”(75).
Doyle would continue this exploration and later belief until hisdeath, with some interruptions in the 1880’s and 1890’s.Inthe fall of 1893, Doyle joined the Society for Psychical Research. This group’smain intention was to explore spiritualistic phenomena. Although he would laterturn his back on this society in favour of faith, Doyle was a very activemember originally. He would travel with the group to investigate seances aswell as houses believed to be haunted by spirits.
At the time spiritualism wasbeginning to become popular and was being seen as a science rather than abelief or religion, though this would change. Doyle himself believed that hehad seen his dead maternal grandmother prior to his fourth birthday, an eventthat lead him to join the society. When confronted about the irrationality ofbelieving in spirits Fowler writes “Those who are otherwise rational becomeirrational in the face of the spiritual according to Conan Doyle, himself notexcluded”(469).TheFirst World War was a turning point in Doyle’s life, leading him to fullyembrace spiritualism. According to the website www.
conandoyleinfo.com “By 1855 two million people were followersof the movement. However, as time went by disorganization within the movementand gradual the practices lead to the movement’s decline. But 1900 Spiritualismhad lost its popularity. After the First World War, the movement once againbecame popular as people struggled to deal with the loss of loved ones”.This was especially truefor Doyle who lost his son and brother in the war and post-war epidemicrespectively as well as many friends. Many believe Doyle turned to spiritualismin order to cope with these senseless losses.DuringThe War, Doyle was determined to not just sit on his hands while good men werekilled.
Although he was considered too old to fight Doyle determined that sinceit was likely if there was an invasion of English soil the first battle wouldbe fought on his doorstep; he pursued setting up a home defense, comprised ofmen considered unfit for active service. At first, this was not supported bythe military. However, as support grew eventually they officially set up thehome defense.Doylefound the most unlikely friends. One of the most prominent was Harry Houdini.Doyle and Houdini disagreed on the subject of spiritualism, with Doylebelieving that Houdini and all magicians used spirits to achieve their tricks,where Houdini saw spiritualism as an illogical fad. Despite these differences,the two became good friends, writing and sending items to each other often.
They would also attend events both about spiritualism and magicians and teasedeach other about their beliefs.AsDoyle became more involved in his spiritualist work he began to have moreserious differences and even arguments with Houdini. While they would stillwrite each other and attend events Doyle began to use these times to spread hisspiritualist ideas. An example of this was when Doyle and Houdini were at adinner for magicians when Doyle gave a speech lecturing on how magicians shouldnot attack spiritualism since they know nothing about it. Eventually, these differencesbecame too great and the two went from being friends to being adversaries.
Dueto the two strong personalities and different views points eventually, Doyleand Houdini had a falling out. Doyle continued to publish his belief that allmagmatic was done though spirits, that there was no trickery involved., Houdinidid not appreciate this personal attack and set about proving that magic wasreally all just illusions and clever tricks. Eventually, after Doyle publishedan article accusing Houdini of prejudice, to which his reply was to threaten tosue Doyle. Though nothing of this came to pass Houdini and Doyle had nowpublicly insulted each other to the point they could never be friends again.
Dueto his upbringing, Doyle was very concerned about Christianity and its place inspiritualism. Fowler writes “Conan Doyle’s rewriting of Christianity inthe ensuing chapters is perhaps his most radical discussion of spiritualism anda frequent target for his detractors. The movement itself was divided on thesubject: ‘Spiritualists disagree among themselves as to whether what they didwas compatible with the beliefs of Christianity or other faiths, butspiritualism is unlike other religious practices in its refusal to mystify’.The lack of mystification is Conan Doyle’s focus, and is critical targets arechurch practices rather than what he saw as the core of Christianity: the earlychurch. He points out that ‘Christianity must change or perish’ and then goeson to detail the spiritualist side of Christianity, even to the point ofstating that the ‘early Christian church was saturated with spiritualism’. hecriticizes contemporary Christianity as focussing too much on the death ofChrist and misinterpreting scripture due to ‘Oriental poetry treated literallyas if it were Occidental prose’.
He characterizes Jesus as a powerful medium,his and the apostles’ miracles as spiritualist powers, and the transfigurationas a séance. His rhetoric about spiritualism is self-consciously Christian: herefers to a ‘cloud of witnesses’ a reference to Hebrews 12:1, when discussingspiritualist evidence, he reassures with ‘tidings of great joy’ a reference toLuke 2:10, and even his title ‘The New Revelation’ is a reference toRevelations of the New Testament. His ‘new revelation’ he frames as a way toreconcile and reform Christianity to the larger world: but these modificationsof Christianity would be rather in the direction of explanation anddevelopment than of contradiction. It would set right grave misunderstandingswhich have always offended the reason of every thoughtful man, but would alsoconfirm and make absolutely certain the fact of life after death, the base ofall religion. It would confirm the unhappy results of sin, though it would showthat those results are never absolutely permanent. It would confirm theexistence of higher beings, whom we have called angels and of an ever-ascendinghierarchy above us, in which the Christ spirit finds its place, cumulating inheights of the infinite with which we associate the idea of an all-power or ofGod. It would confirm the idea of heaven and of a temporary penal state whichcorresponds to purgatory rather than to hell.
Thus this new revelation, on someof the most vital points, is not distractive of the believes, and it should behailed by really earnest man of all creeds as most powerful ally rather than adangerous devil-begotten enemy.”(464)Doyle strongly believedthat by rewriting Christianity to serve spiritualist ideals no intelligentperson would be able to reject it. This was also Doyle’s way of answeringquestions he believed Catholicism did not address or answer fully. Doylepublished many of his views on Christianity and spiritualism in his book “TheNew Revelation”.Duringthe latter half of Doyle’s life, he dedicated a large portion of his time toadvancing the ideas of spiritualism, but he also participated in variousspeaking engagements and public works. He advocated for war crimes trialsfollowing the end of the First World War and argued for grocers to havereasonable prices so everyone could afford food. However, a majority of thistime was spent speaking of spiritualism.
Smith writes “By 1924 Sir Arthur ConanDoyle was one of the most prestigious and well-known converts tospiritualism”(1). It is also noted by Lellenberg that “Enthusiasts and evenbiographers have been embarrassed by the last dozen years of Doyle’s life,which he dedicated to preaching the doctrine of spiritualism”(126). This islikely due to Doyle’s earnest and often overpowering need to convert others tohis belief.Doyle’sspiritualist dealings caused mixed feelings in his family members. His daughterMary grew increasingly uncomfortable with the constant spirits and had quiteupsetting disagreements with her father to that end. Doyle’s second wife Jeanwas much more supportive of his work, this may be due in part to her being ableto do automatic writing when in a séance. She supported her husbands attempt tocontact his dead son and brother and was a great source of comfort to Doyle whenhe questioned his beliefs.Consideredby Lellenberg to be “The oddest aspect of Doyle’s psychic work”(130).
Doyle wasvery involved in the Cottingley fairies. These were photos that the Cottingleysisters claimed to have taken proving the existence of fairies. The photosseemed to show fairies in the sisters garden. These pictures captured theinterest of Doyle, who had long been interested in such things as had the mostof his paternal ancestors. He immediately contacted the sisters and sent them acopy of “The New Revelation”. They began to write and Doyle became veryinvolved when a group in London set about proving whether or not the pictureswere genuine.Whenthe Cottingley sisters could not offer proof that the photos were real Kodak inLondon attempted to recreate them.
It was a complex procedure involving manypeople verifying that the negatives of the photos were unaltered and attractingthe attention of believers and unbelievers equally. Eventually, the resultswere released; while they could not prove that the pictures were fake theycould also not prove they were real. Since the photography company was able tocreate similar photos most people simply dismissed the photos as a hoax, anattempt for attention but nothing more.
Doylehad a different view than most people, he believed the photos were genuine.This is a belief that he would be ridiculed for and even his most dedicatedfollowers would question. Nonetheless, he continued with his contact with thesisters asking for more pictures and discussing different spiritual matters.
Most people dismiss Doyle’s fascination as being part of the Iris the Irish andScottish folklore he was told growing up. However Doyle is still the mostinfluential believer the sisters had that their pictures were genuine. Throughout his life Doyle went from Catholicism toquestioning everything to “An outspoken proponent for the spiritualistmovement”(conandoyleinfo.com). He is one of the most well known authors,popular to modern day. As Redmond says “Doyle is of importance as a socialreformer, a religious leader, and a public figure generally”(95).