Carlos S. Alvarado, PhD, Research Fellow, Parapsychology Foundation

From the beginning of his career in Spiritism Allan Kardec argued for the reality of reincarnation. This spiritual process, important for expiation and improvement, could take place on Earth and in other planets, and did not involve spiritual retrogression (A. Kardec, Les Livre des Esprits. Paris: E. Dentu, 1857, Chapter 7). As I pointed out some years back (click here), while reincarnation was accepted in Kardecian Spiritism, it was rejected by many in the context of Anglo-American Spiritualism, a topic I revisit here. My interest is historical. I do not pretend to discredit the concept of reincarnation, nor to praise its detractors.


Allan Kardec

Kardec Livre Esprits 1857

In 1865 an author in the Spiritual Magazine, published in England, referred to reincarnation as an “absurd doctrine,” an “excrescence on Spiritualism” with nothing to support it, and dispensing with the comfort of finding our loved ones in the beyond (Anonymous, Spiritualism in France. Spiritual Magazine, 1865, 6, 318–322).

There were some interesting mentions of reincarnation in the English publication Spiritualist Newspaper for 1875. Alexandre Aksakof was of the opinion: “That the propagation of this doctrine by Kardec was a matter of strong predilection is clear; from the beginning Reincarnation has not been presented as an object of study, but as a dogma. To sustain it he has always had recourse to writing mediums, who it is well known pass so easily under the psychological influence of preconceived ideas . . .” (A. Aksakof, Researches on the Historical Origin of the Reincarnation Speculations of French Spiritualists. Spiritualist Newspaper, 1875, August 13, 74–75, p. 75).

Alexandre Aksakof

Alexandre Aksakof

Another commentator remarked on the difficulties to verify reincarnation: “Indeed, the theory seems utterly at variance with the known facts of Spiritualism as they stand accepted before us” (Anonymous, An Inductive Philosopher, Correspondence: Metempsychosis. Spiritualist Newspaper, 1875, September 17, 142).

Another writer in the Spiritualist Newspaper held ideas similar to Aksakof’s. He stated that mediumistic communications in England in support of reincarnation were rare. “The prevalence of the teaching of this doctrine by mediums in France, may be attributed to the circumstance that the sitters at the circles expect such teachings, and the minds of the mediums are full of them . . . The foregoing arguments have little or nothing to do with the truth or error of the doctrine of reincarna­tion, they merely attempt to show that not one tittle of evidence of its truth is contained in Allan Kardec’s book, that the book is of a theological and not of a scientific order, and that it requires to be accepted, if accepted at all, upon authority” (Anonymous [maybe W.H. Harrison], Allan Kardec’s “Spirits Book.” Spiritualist Newspaper, 1875, October 8, 169–170, p. 170).

In the same publication, medium D. D. Home wrote skeptically that he had met many Marie Antoinettes, Mary Queen of Scots, kings and Alexander the Greats, “but it remains for me yet to meet a plain ‘John Smith’ ” (D.D. Home, Correspondence: Mr. D.D. Home on Reincarnation. Spiritualist Newspaper, 1875, October 1, 165).


D.D. Home

The famous trance speaker and writer Emma Hardinge Britten entered the debate arguing that the concept of reincarnation was both irrelevant and bane. (The Doctrine of Reincarnation. Spiritual Scientist, May 20, 1875, 128–129; May 27, 1875, 140–141). She wrote:

“The hapless believer in Re-incarnation can be as little sure of himself or his own identity, as his most intimate acquain­tances are for him. He has not a chance to know who he is himself; who he was yesterday or who he will be to-morrow: and as to the precious ties of parentage, or the divine impulses of family love, kindred and friendship, they are all floating emotions to be blotted out in the grave, and lost in new successions of new lives, new relationships, new deaths, and succeeding oblivions. The most remarkable and certainly not the least indefensible part of the Re-incarnationist’s theory is, however, not only that they have no facts on which to ground their assertions, like the majority of their fellow believers in Spiritualism, but that they infer there must be countless millions of spirits communicating through other channels who have no knowledge of Re-incarnation, and even emphatically deny its truth.”

“Can the controlling spirits of the Re-incarnationists be the only ones enlightened on such a stupendous item of the soul’s destiny?— an item, which if not common to all, must be known So all— and that in realms where such changes must be perpet­ually going on as would render ignorance of the subject impossible?” (p. 129)

Emma Hardinge Britten 2

Emma Hardinge Britten

Britten later referred to “the groundless character of the testimony which the apostles of the Re-incarnation theory rely upon, not one item of which affords the profound analyst a shadow of evidence that their theories are correct” (p. 140). She argued that we should follow the majority of mediumistic communications who do not mention reincarnation, instead of the few that do.

William Howitt, a well-known English writer and spiritualist, joined critics of the “gross and pagan delusion of Re-incarnation” with his article “Re-Incarnation, Its Champions and Delusions” (Spiritual Magazine, 1876, 2(s.3), 49–60). After rejecting the importance of a long conceptual history to defend reincarnation, our author wrote: “Lord deliver Spiritualism from the slime and venom of this devil’s creed” (p. 59).

William Howitt

William Howitt

A little-known figure today, the polemic American spiritualist William Emmette Coleman, addressed the topic in a five-part article (Re-Incarnation—Its Fancies and Follies. Religious-Philosophical Journal, 1878, Part 1: Genes and Growth, November 23, 1, 8; Part 2: Inconsistensy and Contrediction, November 30,1; Part 3: Credulity and Fanatism, December 7, 1; Part 4: Absurdity and Fatuity, December 14, 8; Part 5: Immortality and Demoralization, December 21, 8). Coleman, considered reincarnation a demoralizing dogma, and a “fungus growth” (Part 1, p. 1). Similar to Aksakof, Coleman stated: “Two frivolous French mesmeric sensitives, under the over powering psychological influence of the mind of Kardec … give him a series of responses to questions respecting re-incarnation  and the soul’s destiny, in exact accordance with his own pre conceived opinions; in fact, questions and answers alike, are virtually Kardec’s, the girls only simply giving back his own ideas and principles as reflected and impressed upon their susceptible mentalities” (Part 1, p. 1).

William Emmette Coleman

William Emmette Coleman

Coleman argued that there were many contradictions in the ideas about reincarnation from different authors. Furthermore, in his view: “If the theory of re-incarnation were true, one of the most disastrous of the results there from occurring, would be the utter destruction or all family relationship; the fact that this ensues, as a necessary sequence of its fundamental principles is sufficient in itself to everlastingly damn the vile enormity in its entirety” (Part 4, p. 8).

In addition, Coleman believed that there were contradictions with beliefs in American Spiritualism. “The universal teaching of Spiritualism is, we all know, that the spirit-world is a progressive state of existence. By growth and effort the spirit passes from circle to circle, and from sphere to sphere; but re-incarnation negatives this beautiful philosophy. There is no progress in spirit-life, we are told; the spirit’s progress can only be made on earth during successive bodily incarnations” (Part 4, p. 8).

Finally, Coleman argued that acceptance of reincarnation “leads to the grossest immoralities, and to general demoralization and laxity of conduct” (Part 5, p. 8).

The last person I will consider here is American physician and student of psychometry Joseph Rodes Buchanan (“The Doctrine of Reincarnation, and its Amusing Absurdities.” Buchanan’s Journal of Man, 1889, 3(n.s.), 176–185). He wrote: “The insurmountable objection to my mind, is the absence of corroborating facts. It is maintained that certain spirits, and according to some theorists an immense number, feel a desire to renew their experience of earth-life, and to do that, they abandon their supernal life and enter the womb of some woman in conception, to develop as a foetus and be born as an infant.”

“Have we the slightest evidence that such an event ever occurred? If it did, the reincarnating spirit would be absent from its supernal home during its whole earth-life. But in the millions of interviews or intercourse between spirits and mortals, who has ever heard of any spirit being absent or lost from its spirit-home? Had reincarnationists looked at this subject logically, they would have felt the necessity of proving that the reincarnated spirit was not in spirit-life, but on the earth. In the entire absence of such evidence, I assume that such an event never occurred …” (p. 177).

Joseph Rodes Buchanan 2

Joseph Rodes Buchanan

Buchanan stated that explorations of the opinion of spirits via mediumship or psychometry do not provide evidence for reincarnation. He wrote: “I do not perceive that reincarnationists have ever demanded a rational proof before accepting their theory. They should demand positive evidence that some intelligent spirit has abandoned the spirit-world, and cannot be heard of in spirit-life; that some mortal can give a full account of the details of his former existence, and manifest the possession of his old spiritual identity and capacities; that children should develop regardless of the laws of heredity, and become able to reveal their former life on earth as in heaven, and. that intelligent spirits should give a rational narrative of the lives through which they have passed, capable of being verified. If none of these things are possible, the reincarnation theory as commonly presented must be classed among delusions” (p. 182).

Of course, there were exceptions to these negative beliefs, as seen in Kardec’s translator, journalist, and poet Anna Blackwell (see her book The Philosophy of Existence. London: J. Burns, 1871; and “The Law of Re-Incarnation.” In H. Tuttle and J.M. Peebles (Eds.), The Year-Book of Spiritualism for 1871 (pp. 69–79). Boston: William White, 1871).

Anna Blackwell

Anna Blackwell

Certainly, some of the critiques may be questioned. For one, the assurance that the minds of the French mediums presenting positive communications about reincarnation was affected by the influence of suggestion over the medium’s minds, while a theoretical possibility, has no clear evidence it its support.

The topic deserves further study considering the intellectual context in which each author was writing from. The problem of lack of evidence changed in later years with the rise of research on the subject, a topic discussed in a recent author interview in this blog.