Hippolyte Léon Dénizard Rivail, who wrote under the pseudonym Allan Kardec, published Le Livre des Esprits (1857) that saw the beginnings of the Spiritist movement. By 1874, the book had been through 22 editions, each edition selling a minimum of 2,200 copies. Thus the movement gained considerable popularity, seeing Spiritism proliferate French society by 1862, particularly in urban areas such as Paris, Lyon and Bordeaux.

Why was the movement so popular?

  • Spiritist philosophy was very attractive and accessible to educated middle- and lower- middle class society. Communication with spirits was presented as a serious endeavour of worthy of the attention of the ‘enlightened classes.’
  • Being rooted in Romantic Socialism and Positivism the movement appealed to those seeking alternative cosmologies.
  • Created a tight knit community through regularly holding society meetings and séances. This practical dimension brought individual believers together and gave them opportunities to have a personal experience of the sacred.
  • Kardec was careful to avoid any appearance of extremism. He did not represent himself as a visionary or prophet but instead adopted the role of the rational expert


  • All humans are essentially immortal spirits that temporarily inhabit physical bodies for several necessary incarnations to attain moral and intellectual improvement.
  • Through passive and active mediumship, spirits may have influence on the physical world.

Difference From Spiritualism

Séances became were formal meetings, where attendees and spirits obeyed strict rules of order. When communicating with spirits, mediums no longer relied on moving tables or mysterious raps; instead they sat quietly, holding pencils writing when the otherworldly forces inspired them.

  • Espoused a cosmological vision in which the human soul purified itself through reincarnation. This belief was thought to explain the moral and intellectual differences among men.
  • Kardec calls Spiritism a science dedicated to the relationship between incorporeal beings (spirits) and human beings. Spiritists see themselves as not adhering to a religion by rather a philosophical doctrine with scientific and moral grounds.
  • Not religious, but a philosophical way of life.
  • Arthur Conan Doyle argued that Spiritism is spiritualism, but not vice versa. Thus the works of spiritualists are accepted in Spiritism, such as William Crookes and Oliver Lodge.

Spiritism’s New Direction

The movement took a new direction under the leadership of Karedc’s successor, Pierre-Geatan Leymarie. Leymarie was a lower-middle class radical who saw Spiritism as an opportunity to campaign for social change. He aligned the movement with the political left, for example Spirits Spiritists became deeply involved in the Ligue de l’ensignement which was a society that was devoted to providing lay education and founding of popular libraries.

Moreover, the movement adopted an anti-Catholic stance.

Leymarie decided to turn away from philosophical speculation to the scientific study of spectacular phenomena that occurred during séances. His aim was to prove the existence of spiritual forces.

They looked to Great Britain as the most potent source of scientific support for their beliefs.

However these researchers tended to conclude that these phenomena were a product of psychology rather than other worldly forces, which acted to undermine the Spiritist project. John Warne Monroe concludes that ‘for Spiritists, then, psychical research was a double-edged sword.’ (p.162)

John Warne Monroe, Laboratories of Faith: Mesmerism, Spiritism and Occultism in Modern France, (Cornell University Press, 2007).