Conan Doyle and Demons: A 1922 Debate



I see that those fresh-faced girl exorcists are at it again, causing renewed trauma to rape victims and thinking that the spells of Harry Potter are not only real, but constitute a kind of gateway drug to Satanism or witchcraft. I haven’t spoken to them on the subject, but I’m pretty sure that the girls would consider ghosts to be demons and, as such, fair game for casting out.

Over the course of several decades of interviewing people about their ghosts, I’ve also run into a fair number of people identifying themselves as Christian who say that there are no such things as ghosts—that the kindly apparition of your grandmother who pats you on the shoulder is, without exception, a demon in disguise seeking to lure you to your damnation.

The notion is not a new one. Here is an article which pits charismatic spiritual celebrity, Wilbur Glenn Voliva against Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the 1922 equivalent of a celebrity cage-fight. It’s Spirits vs. Demons!  

Conan Doyle’s Spirits “Demons”—says Voliva

It Is Wicked People Who Attract Wicked Spirits, Says Conan Doyle—Good Men Will Attract Good Spirits.

The Evening World Asked Voliva, Over-seer of Zion City, to Discuss Conan Doyle and His Claims of “Spirit Materialization.” Voliva’s Article, Specially Telegraphed to The Evening World, Follows.

By Wilbur Glen Voliva

The claims of this man in recent addresses delivered in New York and Chicago in the name of that system called spiritualism contain nothing new.

His general claim is that he and others have had communications with the spirits of the departed dead through the agency of mediums, and by signs and so forth. He has presented certain messages claimed to have been received, though certain mediums, from loved ones and other persons who have lived on this earth, but who are now numbered among the departed dead. He has repeated certain statements which he claims to have come from the spirits of the departed with reference to their present place of abode and also their occupation.

In considering these claims, it is first of all necessary to settle the question whether or not any communications from spirits have been received, and if so, then to determine the source of the communications.

While we know that there is a great deal of fraud practised on the part of so-called mediums in spiritualism, yet we unhesitatingly admit that, after eliminating all fraud, there is a reality in spiritualism. But do the communications come from the spirits of the departed dead or from some other spirits? We answer emphatically that the communications are from the demons, through mediums who, exercising their free will, open the door for these demons who are ever seeking re-embodiment, to enter in and take complete possession of their spirits, souls, and bodies. These demons impersonate the departed dead, and though the mediums, who are their willing tools, grossly drive men and women who, in absolute disobedience to the plain word of God, seek to communicate with the spirits of their departed loved ones.

Spiritualism is as old as the devil himself. The devil, being the “Prince of the Demons” (Matthew xii., 24-30) sends them forth to prey upon men and woman who are willing to become their victims. In the Old Testament these demons are called “familiar spirits.” Read Leviticus xx, 6 and 27. Read Deuteronomy xvii, 10 to 12. Read Isaiah viii, 19. From these passages of Scripture you will see that Spiritualism—communication with “familiar spirits”—was precisely the same then as that which is now indulged in by Conan Dye and others who are tricked and deceive into believing that they are getting communications from the spirits of their departed loved ones.

In the New Testament the same beings are called “familiar spirits” and “seducing demons.” In Luke viii, verses 26 to 33, Jesus held a conversation with a demon, and the demon showed that he possessed certain knowledge, namely, that Jesus was the Son of God  and that, at some time, he, with his fellow-demons, would be subjected to torment. Through the Apostle Paul in first Timothy, the fourth chapter, God plainly predicted that, at the close of the Christian dispensation, Spiritualism, or demonism, would have a great revival, and this prophecy is now being literally fulfilled—and, sad to say, Conan Doyle, terribly deceived by these lying demons, is one of the principal agents in spreading these diabolical doctrines, which can only result in the damnation of multitudes of people.

Who are these demons that prey upon humanity? Personally, we believe they are the disembodied spirits of inhabitants of the preadamite earth, and that the chief place of their abode is the bottomless pit, from which they come forth as directed by their Commander in Chief, the Devil. These spirits, having been disembodied as a judgment for their sins, now seek to re-embody themselves in human beings, even being willing to embody themselves in homes, as we are told in Matthew, viii, 31-32. [The story of the Gadarene Swine.]

The plain prophecy in First Timothy, the Fourth Chapter is, “That in the latter times—that is, the close of the Christian dispensation—some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits and doctrines of demons; speaking lies in hypocrisy; having their conscience seared with a hot iron; forbidding to marry and commanding to abstain from meats,” Conan Doyle is “giving heed to the doctrines of seducing demons,” and Spiritualism, in many places and at different times, has advocated, in fulfilment of this prophecy, free love and vegetarianism.

The doctrines as set forth in the so-called messages presented by Conan Doyle are a direct contradiction of the whole revealed word of God; and, furthermore, these messages are absolutely silly, and are a disgrace to a seventh-rate intelligence.

Let it be noted that the rank and file of spiritualistic mediums are women, and that they must work in the dark, so surrounding themselves with all the paraphernalia possible in order to maintain their claims, no matter how much deceit and fraud they are compelled to practise in order to do so.

Doyle’s statement that when you make fun of Spiritualism  you may be making fun of your own mother need not worry anybody in the least. Your mother, when living on the earth, would not have been on the same side of the street with these old hags of mediums through whom Doyle claims your mother, now departed, is sending a message to you.

Those who dabble in Spiritualism are playing with the insane asylum and with hell fire. Poor Doyle is to be pitied, and all the Christians in this and other lands should earnestly pray that he may be delivered from the demons who now possess and control him; that he may be brought to a sincere repentance, accept Jesus Christ as the Son of God, experience the new birth, and take his stand for  God, and for the Bible as the inspired Word of God.

Conan Doyle’s Claims, and His Answers to Such Critics as Voliva, Together With Extracts From His Various Writings on the Subject of Spiritualism, Are Set Down in This Article.

By Marguerite Mooers Marshall.

“I know that religious leaders have gone so far as to say these truths” (of spiritualism) “are of the devil. My answer is that if this were so, he never made a bigger mistake in his life. It’s a sign that he’s falling down ion his job.”

That is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s own answer, as he gave it to me just after his arrival in this country, to such critics as Wilbur Glenn Voliva, overseer of Zion City, who charges that Sir Conan is a “tool of the devil.” And that his spiritualistic faith in life after death and in the communication between the dead and the living is the work of demons and unclean spirits.

These are some of Sir Conan’s most remarkable assertions, which Voliva challenges.

“I have talked with and seen twenty of my dead.

“I have seen my dead son and have talked with him. He has placed his hands on my shoulders. He has kissed me.

“I know absolutely what I am going to get after death—happiness. I know better what will happen in the next world plane than I do if I were to be carried and dropped into the wilds of Asia or Africa, knowing as I do the tribes and conditions.

“Spiritualism is the religion of the future. It gives new assurance of New Testament truths.”

As against the arguments of Mr. Voliva, Sir Conan Doyle declares that there is a close analogy between the phenomena of the early days of Christianity and of the early days of Spiritualism. He maintains that “Christ himself is the greatest exponent of psychic power that ever appeared on earth.” And in his book, “The Vital Message,” he quotes chapter and verse of the Bible to support his position—just as Voliva brings forward the Bible on his side.

But first, taken the charge that the communications through mediums come from bad spirits—“demons,” to use Voliva’s word.

When shown this declaration by the Zion City overseer, Sir Conan answered, simply: “Good men who take up spiritualism will attract good spirits, and doubtless wicked people who take up spiritualism will attract wicked spirits.”

He goes into the matter at greater length in his book, which is published by Doran. In speaking of automatic writing, he compares it to the telephone and admits, frankly, that “You have no assurance as to who is at the other end.”

“You may have wildly false messages suddenly interpolated among truthful ones,” he continues; “messages so detailed in their mendacity that it is impossible to think that they are not deliberately false.

“When once we have accepted the central fact that spirits change little in essentials when leaving the body, and that in consequence the world is infested by many low and mischievous types, one can understand that these untoward incidents are rather a confirmation of Spiritualism than an argument against it.

“Personally I have received and have been deceived by several such messages. At the same time I can say that after an experience of thirty years of such communications, I have never known a blasphemous, an obscene or an unkind sentence come through.

“I admit, however, that I have heard of such cases. Like attracts like and one should know one’s human company before one joins in such intimate and reverent rites. In clairvoyance the same sudden inexplicable deceptions appear.”

In another passage Doyle says in effect: “Don’t be afraid of evil spirits—if they come through, do your best to reform them!”

“A word should be said,” he points out, “as to that fear of friends and evil spirits which appears to have so much weight with some of the critics of this subject. When one looks more closely at this emotion it seems somewhat selfish and cowardly.

“These creatures are, in truth, our own backward brothers, bound for the same ultimate destination as ourselves, but retarded by causes for which our earth conditions may have been partly responsible.

“Our pity and our sympathy should go out to them and if they do indeed manifest at a séance, the proper Christian attitude is, as it seems to me, that we should reason with them and pray for them in order to help them upon their difficult way. Those who have treated them in this way have found a very marked difference in the subsequent communications.”

And then Sir Conan tells of a remarkable personal experience of his own in quieting one of these bad spirits.

“In a recent case, “ he says, “I was called to endeavour to check a very noisy entity which frequented an old house in which there were strong reasons to believe that crime had been committed and also that the criminal was earthbound. Names were given by the unhappy spirit which proved to be correct and a cupboard was described which was duly found, though it had never before seen suspected.

On getting in touch with the spirit I endeavoured to reason with it and to explain how selfish it was to cause miser to others in order to satisfy any feelings of revenge which it might have carried over from earth life.

We then prayed for its welfare, exhorted it to rise higher and received a very solemn assurance, tilted out at the table, that it would mend its ways. I have very gratifying reports that it has done so and that all is now quiet in the old house.”

While Voliva finds Biblical texts condemning spiritualistic practices, Doyle quotes St. Paul: “Our gospel came unto you not in word only, but also in power,” and adds that Paul evidently is referring to the vibrations that accompany psychic phenomena.

Admitting that we have no record of the methods by which the early Christians communicated with sprits Doyle goes on: “The words of John, ‘Brothers, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God,’ show very clearly that spirit communion was a familiar idea, and also that they were plagued, as we are, by the intrusion of unwelcome spiritual elements in their intercourse. Some have conjectured that the ‘Angel of the Church,’ who is alluded to in terms which suggest that he was a human being, was really a medium sanctified to the use of that particular congregation.” And Doyle points out that various orthodox Jews who had themselves seen Christ’s miracles, or talked with witnesses, “declared roundly that the whole thing was of the devil,” while others put no credence in them. “The same two classes of opponents, the scoffers and the diabolists, face us today,” adds Doyle.

Finally, as against Voliva’s denunciation of mediums, this is what Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has to say on the subject:

“As to the personality of mediums, they have seemed to me to be very average specimens of the community, neither markedly better nor markedly worse. I know many.

“In the two finest séances I ever attended the psychic, in each case a man of moderate means, was resolutely determined never directly or indirectly to profit by his gift, though it entailed very exhausting physical conditions. I have not heard of a clergyman of any denomination who has attained such a pitch of altruism—nor is it reasonable to expect it.”

He names four of the best mediums in England—all men—and says that one is a collector of old books, another is employed loading canal barges, a third is s weaver, a fourth is a working coal miner.

“Most mediums,” he adds, “take their responsibilities very seriously and view their work in a religious light. A temptation to which several great mediums have succumbed is that of drink. This comes about in a very natural away, for overworking the power leaves them in a state of physical prostration and the stimulus of alcohol affords a welcome relief and may tend at last to become a custom and finally a curse. Alcoholism, always weakens the moral sense, in that these degenerate mediums yield themselves more readily to fraud. Tippling and moral degeneration are by no means confined to psychics.

“I have a great respect for the church and its teachings, “sums up Sir Conan Doyle. “Far from being antagonistic to religion, this psychic movement is destined to revivify religion. We come upon what is sane, what is moderate, what is reasonable, what is consistent with gradual evolution and with the benevolence of God. This new wave of inspiration has been sent into the world by God.”

The Evening World [New York, NY] 3 June 1922: p.  9

Oh, where to start? Apples and oranges? Fruits and Nuts? Pot meet Kettle?

We all know (and some of us make fun of) Sir Arthur’s gullibility about mediums and fairies. Whatever his personal vulnerabilities and foibles, I believe that his intentions were good and that he had no thought of exploiting or defrauding anyone.

The same could not be said of Wilbur Glenn Voliva, General Overseer of Zion City, Illinois and head of the Christian Catholic Church.

Sir Arthur’s remark about “a clergyman of any denomination who has attained such a pitch of altruism” is a dig at Voliva, who succeeded the venal founder of Zion, Alexander Dowie, and who personally owned all of the city’s/religious cult’s assets, which were valued at millions of dollars.

Voliva’s talk about “preadamite” spirits seeking “to re-embody themselves in human beings,” is, ironically, the same doctrine as that of Spiritualist Dr. Carl A. Wickland, who wrote Thirty Years Among the Dead and believed that he could cast out “obsessing” entities who were trying to get back into a human body.

Here is a bit from an article about Voliva’s death which sums up some of his obsessions. He was most noted at this late date for being a Flat-earther and for his Harold-Camping-like gift of prophecy.

Chicago, Oct. 12. Funeral services were being arranged today for Wilbur Glenn Voliva, who died “48 years before his time.”

The 72-year-old political and religious leader of Zion, Ill., north of Chicago, predicted, among other things, that he would live to be 120 because of his abstinence from “meat and a diet of brazil nuts,”[after railing against Conan Doyle’s followers’ vegetarianism] that the world was flat.

Although Voliva had travelled around the world several times, he never yielded his belief that the earth was a “flat as a flapjack or a stove lid.”

“At the center of the lid is the North Pole,” Voliva said. “Modern science is bosh. The firmament is solid and the sky is a great tent with a solid dome. The Sun is about 27 miles from the earth and has a diameter of about 32 miles.”

He forecast at various times that the world would end in 1923, 1927, 1930, 1935, and 1943. His most recent prophecy was that a new “Battle of Armageddon” would be followed by a “second coming of Christ.” San Francisco Chronicle 13 October 1942: p. 7

This short article gives a flavour of his obsession and rhetoric.

 Voliva Will Brand Smokers of Zion City

Zion City, Ill., Nov. 6 Chalk marks will be placed on the doors of tobacco users in Zion City, Wilbur Glenn Voliva announced today.

The prophet of Zion City declared that he had taken a tip from history and would inaugurate a “St. Nicotine’s Eve,” patterned after St. Bartholomew’s Eve in 1572.

No bloodshed, however, will follow the tobacco massacre, such as took place in France, he added.

“I hope to banish every user of tobacco in any form from Zion,” he declared “by ostracizing him.” The Washington [DC] Times 6 November 1922: p. 3

 Voliva also preached against alcohol, women’s rights, profanity, immodest dress, chewing gum, oysters, and vaccination (leading to a measles outbreak in Zion.) He was the absolute dictator of the city and the church and even arranged marriages among his followers. He was almost constantly in the news from the early 1900s through his death in 1942. In 1935, after 28 years of iron-fisted despotism and eloquent-tongued oratory, he was voted out of office. He had lost a fortune in the 1927 Depression.

One headline read, “Hosts of Zion Hail Voliva’s Downfall As Prophet of City. Huge Fete Marks End of Reign of Proclaimer of Doom.”

And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it.  Matthew 7: 27 

One wonders what the harvest will be when TV or web producers lose interest in the girl exorcists’ nubile charms, their resin crosses from TJ Maxx, and their creepy overlord Bob Larson. Perhaps these spiritual warriorettes, who seem unacquainted with the idea of hubris, could use their black-belt skills to go head-to-head in a cage fight with any of the goateed TV ghost hunters. It’s Ghosts vs. Demons! EMF detectors vs. the Cross! Didja hear that? vs. Spiritual Pride!

Let’s get ready to humble.


Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.

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