Emma Hardinge Britten: Spiritualist Medium of the 1800s

Emma Hardinge Britten was an English advocate for the early Modern Spiritualist Movement and is remembered as a writer, orator, and practitioner of the movement. She was born in London, England, in 1823. Her father Ebenezer was a schoolteacher who died in 1834 when Britten was eleven years old.

Emma Hardinge Britten

Emma Hardinge Britten in 1884. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Long before Britten thought of spiritualism, she earned money playing the piano in Pierre Erard’s showroom for customers shopping for musical instruments. Erard had inherited his piano and pianoforte business and had manufacturing operations and shops in both London and Paris. She likely began working in his London shop and then was sent to Paris because of her musical skills.

By the age of nineteen, her musical skills evolved into a stage career and according to a 2015 dissertation written by Lisa A. Howe:

“[Britten’s] first acting jobs were with the Theatre Royal Covent-Garden and the Princess’s Theatre in Oxford Street in 1842 and 1843 as Miss Floyd. In 1844 she began working under the name Miss Emma Hardinge at Sadler’s Wells Theatre and the Adelphi Theatre.”[1]

Despite Britten’s musical and acting abilities, from early childhood she developed a reputation as a spiritual medium. This was because she had a habit of predicting people’s futures, relating what she saw seen in visions, and providing details about deceased relatives with whom she had no prior relationship. Of these times Britten wrote in her biography:

“Looking back upon my own earliest recollections, I fancy that I was never young, joyous or happy, like other children; my delight was to steal away alone and seek the solitude of woods and fields, but above to wander in churchyards, cathedral cloisters, and old monastic ruins.

Here strange sounds would ring in my ears, sometimes in the form of exquisite music, suggesting new compositions and pathetic songs, sometimes in voices uttering dim prophecies of future events, especially in coming misfortunes. At times forms of rare beauty of appalling ugliness flitted across my path, wearing the human form, and conveying impressions of identity with those who had once lived on earth.

At the time of these unchildlike experiences, no one around understood me, though the servants of the family would often say in low tones amongst themselves, that, the child had described some of their dead relatives, also that whatever I prophesied was sure to come to pass.[2]

During her stage career she signed an agreement to appear at the Imperial Theatre in Paris with the J.W. Wallack Company. The trip proved to be a total financial failure and no one from the troupe was paid. During this time when not performing Britten reported she attended séances and stated:

“[M]agnetism and magnetic experiment were just then the rage in Paris. Again invited to morning séances at Erard’s* pinaoforte rooms, my intense susceptibility to occult powers brought me prominently under the notice of the magnetisers, amongst whom were not a few of the highest personages in the land. Tempting offers of engagements as a magnetic subject were made, but these were determinately rejected by my good mother, whose aversion to my participation in such experiments was equally steadfast and unconquerable.”[3]  

After Emma Hardinge Britten found Paris a theatrical failure, she received an invite in 1855 to go to New York to appear on stage. The offer included paid passage for her and her mother and a nine-month engagement contract at what Britten considered to be an “excellent salary.” Part of the reason for her stage success in America may have had something to do with her looks because around 1860 she was described in the following fashion:

“blonde, with deep blue, handsome eyes, and light brown hair, falling about her neck in small ringlets, much in Lola Montez’s style. Her face is decidedly English, barring its vivacity and mobility, with an unusual degree of color, manifesting an excess of physical health, and organs unexceptionably eupeptic. Her figure is round and symmetrical with an approach to voluptuousness, and her toilette careful and tasteful.”[4]  

Despite being on stage Britten continued to think about spiritualism. However, she was pious and not necessarily convinced spirit returns were anything more than a farce practiced by “infidels.” Therefore, while in New York she decided to attend various spiritualist séances so she could write about the gullibility of Americans. Of this she wrote:

“I had promised some of my literary associates in London jottings from my American experiences, and what a capital article I might make as above suggested by exposing this ‘Yankee humbug’ of ‘Spirits’ talking through rocking tables! And now seeing that my engagement at the theatre would end in a few weeks, how very desirable it was that I should at once improve the occasion, and learn sufficient about the ‘horrid stuff’ to enable me to write a crushing article by and by before my return home on ‘American fooleries!’[5]

Things did not go as planned. During these séances Britten began to experience events from her childhood. She then became convinced of spiritualism and converted to it and under the guidance of medium Ada Hoyt, her mystical experiences resulted in her delving further into spiritualism and hosting spiritual séances for the Society for the Diffusion of Spiritual Knowledge.

After becoming a convert of spiritualism, she also began delivering speeches on the subject throughout America. For instance, in 1858 in Vermont the Burlington Daily Times reported on a free lecture given by her and promoting it with the following advertisement:

Advertising promoting Emma Harding Britten as a spiritualist. Author’s collection.

Britten soon developed a stellar reputation among spiritualists and became known among them as the “Silver-Tongued Lecturer.” She was said to be the only woman able to rival in “feminine oratory” the great Anna Dickinson, an advocate for the abolition of slavery and for women’s rights. Among some of the presentations given by Britten on spiritualism was those in Cincinnati, Ohio, in February of 1860. The Cincinnati Daily Press reported:

“Miss Emma Hardinge, during her present visit to this city, has created quite a sensation among the ‘Spiritualists’ who regard her as one of the most inspired and eloquent among their female mediums. She has given several lectures or discourses recently in a ‘trance state,’ as it is termed, that have been highly lauded by the disciples of the ‘Harmonial Philosophy.’ Last evening Miss Hardinge was announced to lecture at National Hall … her voice is full and melodious, and her enunciation clear and distinct … Her subject last evening … was Spiritualism regarded as a religion, regulating the acts of men and rewarding them hereafter. She considered Spiritualism in various lights … We observed in Miss Hardinge what we often have in Spiritualists ― the adoption of a sort of rhetoric that is showy often, but cheap, combined with a certain metaphysical terminology, lacking the spirit of philosophy, and a frequent superficial reference to learned authors and famous characters-all of which is likely to pass current for learning and eloquence with the half-thinking and semi-intellectual class.

Still Miss H. possesses capacity far above most spiritual lecturesses, and has the exact qualities that would be apt to draw, and even dazzle many of her sect, and which might interest the more conservative philosophers, if she would not overburthen them with fantastic witticism.”[6]

Anna Dickinson between 1855 and 1865. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

In addition, one of the best attested cases of spiritualism and spirit return involved Emma Hardinge Britten. According to author Raymond Buckland in his 2005 book, The Spirit Book:

“In trace, Britten was the channel for Philip Smith, a crew member of the mail steamer Pacific. The Pacific was the ship on which Britten and her other had originally traveled to America. They had gotten to know several members of the crew including Smith. The spirit of Smith claimed that the ship had sunk on the high seas, saying, ‘My dear Emma, I have come to tell you that I am dead. The ship Pacific is lost, and all on board have perished; she and her crew will never be heard from more.’ When Britten disclosed this tragedy the owners of the vessel threatened to prosecute her. But it turned out that the facts presented by the spirit-48 through Emma Britten were true, the Pacific had indeed sunk.”[7]

Victorians loved to be entertained. They therefore looked to music halls, theatres, pleasure gardens, freak shows, and places like Madame Tussaud’s wax museum to be amused. Britten, like other spiritualists, embraced this part of Victorian culture. She found that spiritual presentations that were amusing and entertaining ensured her large audiences. In fact, according to Lowe:

“Emma Hardinge Britten used entertainment strategically to attract people to her performances, to introduce and teach them about Modern Spiritualism and her political campaigns.  Britten was acutely business-minded and used economically charged strategies to attract customers. Those who attended her lectures … were intrigued by the subject matter, whether for intellectual, spiritual or entertainment purposes.”[8]

Besides giving entertaining spiritual lectures and speeches, Britten became politically active and supported Abraham Lincoln during his presidential campaign of 1864. She delivered a lecture titled, “The Coming Man; or the Next President of the United States.” It was a smashing success, and she was invited to continue her political work on a 32-lecture tour. Moreover, after Lincoln was assassinated by stage actor John Wilkes Booth, Britten was invited to deliver a funeral oration to upwards of the 3,000 people at the Cooper Institute in New York on 16 April 1865. Her speech was widely acclaimed and was later published in a 28-page, 25-cent pamphlet. In her oration she stated:

“Strong, brave, and immovable in the hour of trial and calamity, Abraham Lincoln practiced the last crowning virtue of a great man’s life, the divine attribute of mercy; and after having gallantly conquered, generously forgave the foe, and uniting again in one fraternal clasp the severed hands of North and South, and silenced every jealous lip or rebellious tongue by a clemency calculated to win more hearts by his kindness than the invincible armies of the North have subdued by their arms. In all his public acts, even to the very last, we see him ever casting himself trustingly and nobly on the fealty of the people. … Scarcely ten days have passed since these walls re-echoed to the gallant cheer that hailed my voice when I told you of the sterling worth, the loyal faith, and providential wisdom of this noble incarnation of earth’s best republicanism – the man of the people, the People’s Abraham Lincoln. Some of you heard me then, but none of you know that the highest hope that my ambition cherished was that some future day should see me clasp his honest hand in mine, as the noblest meed I ever could receive for unpaid and zealous service.  … Sooner or later, for us all, his summons will be ours. God only give us grace to follow him to the land of light and never-setting sun, to clasp his immortal hand again in eternal fellowship in our own Easter resurrecting day, and hear the glorious greeting that, with the arisen sun of his bright eternity, has welcomed [Lincoln] to the home he’s so justly earned: ‘Well done, thou good and faithful servant, enter thou into the joy of thy Lord.’”[9]

President Abraham Lincoln 8 November 1863. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Besides lecturing, giving speeches, and being political active, Emma Hardinge Britten also produced numerous publication. Her first was in 1858 and was an “Outline of A Plan For A Self-Sustaining Institution For Homeless And Outcast Females.” It was followed by “The Place and Mission of Women: An Inspirational Discourse” in 1859. One of her more notable publications was her 1870 “Modern American Spiritualism” that was a huge “encyclopedia” of the people and events associated with the early days of the Spiritualism movement.

Emma Hardinge Britten with spirit

Photo taken by William H. Mumler of Emma Hardinge Britten with a spirit. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

In 1870, the same year that Samuel Clemens married Olivia Langdon, newspapers carried reports of Britten’s marriage to a “fellow humbug” named William Godwin Britten.* He was a Bostonian who was considered an ardent spiritualist. They married on 11 September in New Jersey. However, because she was so well-known and established in her career, she continued to publish and present under the surname of Hardinge.

In 1871, Emma Hardinge Britten hoped to collaborate with Francis Ellingwood Abbot, a Unitarian minister turned American philosopher who sought to reconstruct theology in accordance with the scientific method. He had received a Ph.D. at Harvard University in 1881 and was contacted by Britten about working together on electrical healing. According to Lowe, “she [Britten] claimed to have the ability to treat ‘varied conditions of health and disease.’”[10] Nonetheless, it appears that Abbot was not interested in her theories and did not take her up on her offer to investigate “medical electricity.”

In 1872, Emma Hardinge Britten started a magazine titled, The Western Star. It lasted for only six issues before it failed. She then founded in 1887, in Manchester, England, The Two Worlds, a weekly Spiritualist newspaper that published the insights of Spiritualists from northern England. From 1878 to 1879 she and her husband then worked as missionaries proselytizing spiritualism in Australia and New Zealand.

Britten’s husband died in 1894 and she passed away in Manchester in 1899 on 2 October at the age of 76. News of her death appeared in local papers with the Manchester Evening News reporting:

“The death has taken place, at her residence at Old Trafford, of Mrs. Emma Hardinge Britten, a voluminous author and eloquent lecturer on Spiritualism, who was well-known both in this country and in America for her advocacy of ‘modern spiritualism’ between twenty and thirty years ago. One of her most important works was published in 1884, under the title of ‘Nineteenth Century Miracles, or Spirits and their Work in every country of the earth.’”[11]

Although Britten’s death was a loss to the Spiritualist movement, she is remembered for defining the seven principles of Spiritualism. These principles still exist today with a few minor changes and remain in use by the National Spiritual Association of Churches in the U.S. and the Spiritualists’ National Union in the United Kingdom. Here are the seven principles:

  1. The Fatherhood of God;
  2. The Brotherhood of Man;
  3. The Communion of Spirits and the Ministry of Angels;
  4. The Continuous Existence of the Human Soul;
  5. Personal Responsibility;
  6. Compensation and Retribution Hereafter for all the Good and Evil Deeds done on Earth; and
  7. Eternal Progress open to every Human Soul.


*Her marriage certificate shows that she was widowed and according to Lowe, Britten once also stated, “Married at fifteen a gentleman far above myself in rank; endured many reverses of fortune in various ways, and at eighteen found myself left a widow.”[12]

References:

  • [1] L. A. Howe, “Spirited Pioneer: The Life of Emma Hardinge Britten,” Florida International University Digital Commons, https://digitalcommons.fiu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=3474&context=etd, p. 3–4.
  • [2] E. H. Britten, Autobiography of Emma Hardinge Britten (London: J. Heywood, 1900), p. 3.
  • [3] E. H. Britten. 1900, p. 8–9.
  • [4] Cincinnati Daily Press, “Miss Emma Hardinge, the Spiritualist,” February 10, 1860, p. 3.
  • [5] E. H. Britten. 1900, p. 18.
  • [6] Cincinnati Daily Press, p. 3.
  • [7] R. Buckland, The Spirit Book: The Encyclopedia of Clairvoyance, Channeling, and Spirit Communication (Canton, Michigan: Visible Ink Press, 2005), p. 48.
  • [8] L. A. Howe, p. 25.
  • [9] E. Hardinge, The Great Funeral Oration on Abraham Lincoln (New York: American News Company), p. 7-8, 10, 27-28.
  • [10] L. A. Howe, p. 184.
  • [11] Manchester Evening News, “Death of a Notable Spiritualist,” October 4, 1899, p. 3.
  • [12] L. A. Howe, p. 4.

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