Reverend William Stainton Moses
by Adrian Bean
Who would have thought that a former pupil of Bedford Grammar School might become a spiritualist medium, exponent of levitation, and a founder of the Society of Psychical Research? Perhaps he was a charlatan, but he was certainly an interesting character.
Born in Lincolnshire in 1839, William Moses was an outstanding student but definitely out of the ordinary; he was a sleepwalker. His mother once saw him write an essay in his sleep, and he was unaware of it the next day, even when it got top marks. After Bedford School, he eventually gained a degree, but only after several years of seclusion following ill-health. He took holy orders and was a respected curate in Dorset and the Isle of Man. Then, as a lecturer at University College School London, he became increasingly interested in Spiritualism, seances and the nature of mediums. Although sceptical at first, he found that he, too, had mediumistic powers.
In the 1870s he held seances with a small group of people who claimed they heard footsteps, hammering sounds, musical instruments and the scent of beautiful flowers. He raised a solid mahogany table, nine feet by six feet, several inches into the air. Moses himself was then seen to levitate. Various spirits made themselves known to the group, including a famous person called “Imperator,” a friend of the philosopher Erasmus, a medieval monk from Bury St Edmunds monastery, and a soldier of the American War of 1812. Research afterwards indicated that the soldier and the monk had indeed existed, though Moses could have found this out beforehand.
Between 1872 and 1883 he produced 24 notebooks of automatic writings, mainly the words given to him by 49 different spirits, chiefly Imperator. He wrote automatically when perfectly lucid, sometimes even reading a book, never in any kind of trance. The writing was unconnected with whatever else he was doing. One published collection of these writings, “Spirit Teachings,” was considered so important that it was known as the “Bible of British Spiritualism.” In 1881, he claimed to have been told by a spirit about the death of President Garfield several hours before it was common knowledge in this country. He normally had just three regular companions who witnessed the strange phenomena that he claimed to produce.
He became a founder member of the British Spiritualist Alliance, and was its President until his death in 1892. In 1882 he was a founder member of the Society for Psychical Research, and was the editor of the periodical “Light.”
He occasionally visited Bedford, such as to attend the unveiling of the Bunyan statue and the stone-laying of the Grammar School, but normally to see his mother, who lived in St Peter’s Street. Probably few people recognised him as the leading spiritualist of the land. He was ill for much of his life, and deteriorated quickly from 1888 until his death four years later.
He was buried in Foster Hill Road cemetery, and his headstone proudly describes his achievements, but adds: “He being dead yet speaketh.”
(Grave ref: H3 230 )
(Research by Adrian Bean and Linda Ayres)
May 21, 2021