the nineteenth century, the world met some of its most famous authors. One of
these 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 wrote
many pieces of fiction and non-fiction. Most of Doyle’s non-fiction centered
around science and religion. Arthur Conan Doyle held varying religious views
throughout his life.
was raised with a predominately Catholic background. His father was raised in a
strongly Catholic home and attended a Catholic school. His mother also held a
strong Catholic view taking after her mother who according to Lycett “held with
the faith of a convert”(12). This lead to Doyle also attending a Catholic
school, which in turn lead to his eventual dismissal of the religion.
Doyle was often displeased with the answers
the church provided for spiritual matters. This lead to his dismissal of
religion in favour of science. This was not a view that he held for long. This
is mostly due to sciences inability to answer Doyle’s most burning questions
involving life after death. He eventually found other views that more fully
answered his questions.
finishing his education Doyle was accepted to Edinburg University where he
studied medicine. In his biography “Arthur and Sherlock” Sims describes Doyle
as “tall broad-shouldered” as well as “quick-witted, forthright and
diligent”(10). Doyle thrived at medical school and would quickly come to admire
one particular professor, Dr. Joseph Bell. Bell is often credited as being
Doyle’s inspiration for his character of Sherlock Holmes.
It was only shortly after his graduation that
Doyle would suffer the first in many losses throughout his life. Doyle was
tending a patient by the name of Jack Hawkins who was suffering from cerebral
meningitis; when the young man died quite suddenly, much sooner than expected.
This is part of what lead Doyle to question what happens after death, beginning
his 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 and
enjoyed a somewhat rough but overall happy marriage until Louise’s death in
wrote over 200 pieces of both fiction and non-fiction aside from Sherlock
Holmes. Most of his non-fiction works centered around the existence of spirits
and his personal religious views. He also wrote fiction on these topics, mostly
as someone exploring his own beliefs. However of these works aside from “The
New Revelation” most are not well known.
is most well known for his logical detective Sherlock Holmes. He often
presented Holmes with a seemingly impossible problem which Holmes would solve
using 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 character
that would captivate generations. Doyle often wrote these stories while waiting
for patients at his clinic, however, they quickly became much more profitable
and Doyle turned his life to writing.
as his career went on Doyle became concerned that Holmes was taking away from
his more serious works. To this extent, Doyle decided the only course of action
was to end the detective. So he wrote “The Final Problem” where the only way
for Holmes to defeat the brilliant criminal Professor Moriarty is to plunge
both of them down Reichenbach Falls. While this worked for a short time Doyle
had not counted on how popular Holmes had become eventually his solution became
another problem. This lead to his resurrection of Holmes in “The Hound of the
Baskervilles” an immediate fan favourite, and considered one of the best Holmes
stories ever written.
Doyle was first introduced to the idea of communication with spirits he was
intrigued, though skeptical. He did not believe that mediums were truly able to
summon 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 and
communicated with spirits. Of this Sims writes “Arthur may have been mocking
himself in part because during this time he began to explore spiritualism, the
belief that after death disembodied spirits can communicate with the
living”(75). Doyle would continue this exploration and later belief until his
death, with some interruptions in the 1880’s and 1890’s.
the fall of 1893, Doyle joined the Society for Psychical Research. This group’s
main intention was to explore spiritualistic phenomena. Although he would later
turn his back on this society in favour of faith, Doyle was a very active
member originally. He would travel with the group to investigate seances as
well as houses believed to be haunted by spirits. At the time spiritualism was
beginning to become popular and was being seen as a science rather than a
belief or religion, though this would change. Doyle himself believed that he
had seen his dead maternal grandmother prior to his fourth birthday, an event
that lead him to join the society. When confronted about the irrationality of
believing in spirits Fowler writes “Those who are otherwise rational become
irrational in the face of the spiritual according to Conan Doyle, himself not
First World War was a turning point in Doyle’s life, leading him to fully
embrace spiritualism. According to the website www.conandoyleinfo.com
“By 1855 two million people were followers
of the movement. However, as time went by disorganization within the movement
and gradual the practices lead to the movement’s decline. But 1900 Spiritualism
had lost its popularity. After the First World War, the movement once again
became popular as people struggled to deal with the loss of loved ones”.
This was especially true
for Doyle who lost his son and brother in the war and post-war epidemic
respectively as well as many friends. Many believe Doyle turned to spiritualism
in order to cope with these senseless losses.
The War, Doyle was determined to not just sit on his hands while good men were
killed. Although he was considered too old to fight Doyle determined that since
it was likely if there was an invasion of English soil the first battle would
be fought on his doorstep; he pursued setting up a home defense, comprised of
men considered unfit for active service. At first, this was not supported by
the military. However, as support grew eventually they officially set up the
found the most unlikely friends. One of the most prominent was Harry Houdini.
Doyle and Houdini disagreed on the subject of spiritualism, with Doyle
believing 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 teased
each other about their beliefs.
Doyle became more involved in his spiritualist work he began to have more
serious differences and even arguments with Houdini. While they would still
write each other and attend events Doyle began to use these times to spread his
spiritualist ideas. An example of this was when Doyle and Houdini were at a
dinner for magicians when Doyle gave a speech lecturing on how magicians should
not attack spiritualism since they know nothing about it. Eventually, these differences
became too great and the two went from being friends to being adversaries.
to the two strong personalities and different views points eventually, Doyle
and Houdini had a falling out. Doyle continued to publish his belief that all
magmatic was done though spirits, that there was no trickery involved., Houdini
did not appreciate this personal attack and set about proving that magic was
really all just illusions and clever tricks. Eventually, after Doyle published
an article accusing Houdini of prejudice, to which his reply was to threaten to
sue Doyle. Though nothing of this came to pass Houdini and Doyle had now
publicly insulted each other to the point they could never be friends again.
to his upbringing, Doyle was very concerned about Christianity and its place in
spiritualism. Fowler writes
“Conan Doyle’s rewriting of Christianity in
the ensuing chapters is perhaps his most radical discussion of spiritualism and
a frequent target for his detractors. The movement itself was divided on the
subject: ‘Spiritualists disagree among themselves as to whether what they did
was compatible with the beliefs of Christianity or other faiths, but
spiritualism is unlike other religious practices in its refusal to mystify’.
The lack of mystification is Conan Doyle’s focus, and is critical targets are
church practices rather than what he saw as the core of Christianity: the early
church. He points out that ‘Christianity must change or perish’ and then goes
on to detail the spiritualist side of Christianity, even to the point of
stating that the ‘early Christian church was saturated with spiritualism’. he
criticizes contemporary Christianity as focussing too much on the death of
Christ and misinterpreting scripture due to ‘Oriental poetry treated literally
as if it were Occidental prose’. He characterizes Jesus as a powerful medium,
his and the apostles’ miracles as spiritualist powers, and the transfiguration
as a séance. His rhetoric about spiritualism is self-consciously Christian: he
refers to a ‘cloud of witnesses’ a reference to Hebrews 12:1, when discussing
spiritualist evidence, he reassures with ‘tidings of great joy’ a reference to
Luke 2:10, and even his title ‘The New Revelation’ is a reference to
Revelations of the New Testament. His ‘new revelation’ he frames as a way to
reconcile and reform Christianity to the larger world: but these modifications
of Christianity would be rather in the direction of explanation and
development than of contradiction. It would set right grave misunderstandings
which have always offended the reason of every thoughtful man, but would also
confirm and make absolutely certain the fact of life after death, the base of
all religion. It would confirm the unhappy results of sin, though it would show
that those results are never absolutely permanent. It would confirm the
existence of higher beings, whom we have called angels and of an ever-ascending
hierarchy above us, in which the Christ spirit finds its place, cumulating in
heights of the infinite with which we associate the idea of an all-power or of
God. It would confirm the idea of heaven and of a temporary penal state which
corresponds to purgatory rather than to hell. Thus this new revelation, on some
of the most vital points, is not distractive of the believes, and it should be
hailed by really earnest man of all creeds as most powerful ally rather than a
dangerous devil-begotten enemy.”(464)
Doyle strongly believed
that by rewriting Christianity to serve spiritualist ideals no intelligent
person would be able to reject it. This was also Doyle’s way of answering
questions he believed Catholicism did not address or answer fully. Doyle
published many of his views on Christianity and spiritualism in his book “The
the latter half of Doyle’s life, he dedicated a large portion of his time to
advancing the ideas of spiritualism, but he also participated in various
speaking engagements and public works. He advocated for war crimes trials
following the end of the First World War and argued for grocers to have
reasonable prices so everyone could afford food. However, a majority of this
time was spent speaking of spiritualism. Smith writes “By 1924 Sir Arthur Conan
Doyle was one of the most prestigious and well-known converts to
spiritualism”(1). It is also noted by Lellenberg that “Enthusiasts and even
biographers have been embarrassed by the last dozen years of Doyle’s life,
which he dedicated to preaching the doctrine of spiritualism”(126). This is
likely due to Doyle’s earnest and often overpowering need to convert others to
spiritualist dealings caused mixed feelings in his family members. His daughter
Mary grew increasingly uncomfortable with the constant spirits and had quite
upsetting disagreements with her father to that end. Doyle’s second wife Jean
was much more supportive of his work, this may be due in part to her being able
to do automatic writing when in a séance. She supported her husbands attempt to
contact his dead son and brother and was a great source of comfort to Doyle when
he questioned his beliefs.
by Lellenberg to be “The oddest aspect of Doyle’s psychic work”(130). Doyle was
very involved in the Cottingley fairies. These were photos that the Cottingley
sisters claimed to have taken proving the existence of fairies. The photos
seemed to show fairies in the sisters garden. These pictures captured the
interest of Doyle, who had long been interested in such things as had the most
of his paternal ancestors. He immediately contacted the sisters and sent them a
copy of “The New Revelation”. They began to write and Doyle became very
involved when a group in London set about proving whether or not the pictures
the Cottingley sisters could not offer proof that the photos were real Kodak in
London attempted to recreate them. It was a complex procedure involving many
people verifying that the negatives of the photos were unaltered and attracting
the attention of believers and unbelievers equally. Eventually, the results
were released; while they could not prove that the pictures were fake they
could also not prove they were real. Since the photography company was able to
create similar photos most people simply dismissed the photos as a hoax, an
attempt for attention but nothing more.
had 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 dedicated
followers would question. Nonetheless, he continued with his contact with the
sisters asking for more pictures and discussing different spiritual matters.
Most people dismiss Doyle’s fascination as being part of the Iris the Irish and
Scottish folklore he was told growing up. However Doyle is still the most
influential believer the sisters had that their pictures were genuine.
Throughout his life Doyle went from Catholicism to
questioning everything to “An outspoken proponent for the spiritualist
movement”(conandoyleinfo.com). He is one of the most well known authors,
popular to modern day. As Redmond says “Doyle is of importance as a social
reformer, a religious leader, and a public figure generally”(95).