A.G. Gardiner on Stead & Spiritualism
Excerpted from The Review of Reviews (October, 1913) Reprinted in Frederick Whyte, The Life of W. T. Stead, (London: Johnathan Cape, 1925), vol. I, pp. 338-340
It must be admitted that Miss Stead is right in regarding her father’s interest in Spiritualism as fundamental to an understanding of his motives and activities. All that he did had its roots in the visionary. Spiritualism, automatic writing, telepathy, spirit photography, and the rest belonged to his later life, but they were the inevitable developments of a mind whose allegiance was never to the five senses of the normal man, but always to some sixth sense that constituted for him the only valid governance of life. “Voices” and visions were the substantial realities of this phantasmal world. Had he lived in an earlier age he would have been the founder of a new religion or the furious Crusader on behalf of an old one. He would have been worshipped by crowds of disciples, and miracles and legends would have gathered round his name.
It is not the purpose here, nor is it necessary, to discuss the merits of psychical phenomena. The sceptic, housed within his five senses, will never understand the visionary; but if he is wise he will leave room for potentialities that are hidden from him; he will admit that there may be a vision that transcends his material horizon and an audition that catches strains unheard by his ear. No doubt there is credulity and fraud. The ease with which fraud is practised, indeed, is one of the most serious obstacles with which the serious visionary has to deal. But, though Sludge the Medium no doubt deserved all Browning’s anathemas, there are a thousand testimonies that cannot be dismissed with Sludge, and at the end of all the sceptic will find the large tolerance of Hamlet’s phrase the truest wisdom. All that we are concerned with here is William Stead’s sincerity. He believed with all his heart and brain. He would have joyfully gone to the stake for his belief. And what a figure of triumphant exaltation he would have made at the stake! What hymns and psalms and spiritual songs he would have sung! What speeches and prayers he would have uttered! But he was denied this splendid penalty. He had instead to pay a less heroic, but heavier price. He saw himself looked at askance by old friends, mocked at, and passed by. He bore it all with extraordinary cheerfulness and courage….
But the point here is that he knew all the time the price that he had to pay for what the world regarded as his eccentricity, and that he paid it willingly. He ignored personal consequences and never based his calculations on material loss or gain. He was a visionary from his cradle – a visionary with an overwhelming love of his fellow-men – and he had the visionary’s recklessness and reliance upon emotion. “Great thoughts spring from the heart,” says Vauvenargues, and Stead always relied upon the impulse of the heart. “I never ponder; when I do I go wrong,” he said. This intensity of feeling was revealed in the boy. Miss Stead tells how as a child he sobbed himself to sleep at the thought of his lost condition, and how at school at Silcoates he shared in an extraordinary revival movement among the boys. He could date the moment of his boyish conversion, and his letter to his sister, pleading with her to “come to Jesus,” would be difficult to rival in the religious experience of a child of thirteen. Long before he began his career as the “St. Paul of Spiritualism” he had become the subject of premonitions, spiritual intimations, impulses from without which were the governing influences of his actions. He always felt himself in the hands of invisible powers, an instrument whose task was ordained, a soldier who was moving on to serve in great fields of action where his role was fixed. When the premonition came to him at Darlington that he was going to London he communicated the fact to friends as he might have communicated the contents of a letter. The story, told in his own words, of how he was “warned” to be ready by a certain date to succeed Mr. Morley as editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, of how he communicated the fact to the proprietor and Mr. Morley, of the rather chill disdain with which the latter received the prophecy that he was going into Parliament, of the fulfilment of that prophecy through the sudden death of Ashton Dilke and Mr. Morley’s election for Newcastle – all this shows the extent to which he was under the dominion of his supernatural counsellors and the candour with which he declared his faith. “No one,” he said, “can have premonitions such as I have had without feeling that such premonitions are the only certainties of the future. They will be fulfilled, no matter how incredible they may appear; and amid the endless shifting circumstances of our life, these fixed points, towards which we are inevitably tending, help to give steadiness to a career and a feeling of security to which the majority of men are strangers.”….
Whatever view we take of this phase of William Stead’s life it would be foolish to attempt to divorce it from his general career – to treat it as an aberration from the main current of his character. It was as proper to him as his youthful agonies over his lost soul or his pleadings with his little sister. He was a spirit who refused to remain in the prison of the senses. The passion to penetrate the mysteries of the unseen sprang from the same qualities as those which made him the incomparable journalist. He was aflame with enthusiasm for humanity. The slow processes of reform made no appeal to his impatient spirit. He must have a consuming fire from heaven, though he had to storm the invisible and bring the divine flame himself….
There has never been in English journalism a more versatile or bewildering figure, or one that challenged the judgment of his fellows in so many ways. But to all of us, whatever our opinion of his opinions, he was the prince of our craft. We shall not look upon his like again. With all his very obvious defects, there was in him a certain greatness of spirit, a spaciousness of atmosphere, a universal benevolence that make him a noble memory. He did not belong to our narrow ways and our timid routines. The wide waters of the Atlantic are a fitting grave for his bones