Update, June 25: I mistakenly attributed quotes from Testimony of Light to a different book by a different author. The error is corrected now. Thanks to Robert McLuhan for noticing the mistake.
I've often commented on the biggest inconsistency in ostensibly channeled communications about the afterlife — the question of whether or not spirits reincarnate. The same concern shows up in Stafford Betty's worthwhile book The Afterlife Unveiled, which consists largely of excerpts from channeled material.
Betty, a PhD in Theology, teaches religuous studies at California State University and has a special intetest in mediumship. In his concluding chapter, Prof. Betty writes:
I wish I could report that there was unanimity on this very important subject [of reincarnation], but the facts don't permit it. This lack is the main reason I leave open the possibility, however slight, that this entire literature could be coming from the subconscious beliefs of mediums rather than from spirits. There are many reasons for thinking otherwise, and they impress me far more than this lone thorn among so many flowers growing together harmoniously, but there is no denying the prick.
Still, Betty's own book showed me that explicit references to reincarnation are found in some of the oldest modern mediumistic accounts. It does not appear to be the case, as I'd previously believed, that reincarnation scarcely makes an appearance in the older messages but starts appearing regularly in the more recent ones. Instead, there seems to have been a certain tension over this issue right from the start.
I was already somewhat aware of this, having read The Spirits' Book (free PDF here). This well-known volume was compiled by Allan Kardec and originally published in 1857, not too long after the modern Spiritualist movement began. Kardec's communicating spirits make no bones, so to speak, about reincarnation, which they view as a natural part of any spirit's evolution.
Asked, "How can the soul that has not attained to perfection during the corporeal life complete the work of its purification?", the spirits answer: "By undergoing the trial of a new existence…" Additional questioning brings out the clarification that the new existence must be a physical one:
The soul, in purifying itself, undoubtedly undergoes a transformation; but, in order to effect this transformation, it needs the trial of corporeal life… we all have many such existences. Those who maintain the contrary wish to keep you in the same ignorance in which they are themselves… In each new existence, a spirit takes a step forwards in the path of progress; when he has stripped himself of all his impurities, he has no further need of the trials of corporeal life.… he who advances quickly spares himself many trials. Nevertheless, these successive incarnations are always very numerous, for progress is almost infinite.
Returning to Stafford Betty's book, we find a discussion of reincarnation in his chapter on the 1914 book Letters from the Afterlife, in which Elsa Barker channeled Judge David Hatch. The discarnate Hatch tells us:
You should get away from the mental habit of regarding your present life as the only one, get rid of the idea that the life you expect to lead on this side, after your death, is to be an endless existence in one state. You could no more endure such an endless existence in the subtle matter [of Hatch's world] then you could endure to live forever in the gross matter in which you are now encased. You would weary of it. You could not support it…
I could probably force the coming back [to earth], but that would be unwise, for I should then come back with less power than I want… it is better for me to rest in the condition of light matter until I have accumulated energy enough to come back with power. I shall not do, however, as many souls do; they stay out here until they are as tired of this world as they formerly were tired of the earth, and then are driven back half unconsciously by the irresistible force of the tide of rhythm. I want to guide to that rhythm…
When the soul enters matter, preparing for rebirth, it enters potentiality, if we may use such a term, and all its strength is needed in the herculean effort to form the new body and adjust to it.
Hatch goes on to explain that “the tendencies of any given life, the unexplained impulses and desires, are in nearly all cases brought over" to the new incarnation, though specific memories are usually forgotten.
Another thing I noticed when reading The Afterlife Unveiled is the sharp similarity between some channeled accounts and the accounts given by the hypnotically regressed patients of Michael Newton and other therapists interested in between-lives memories. Typically, these patients describe an afterlife environment that is more abstract and unearthly than "Summerland" accounts, while saying that their own bodily forms are essentially patterns of light and color.
As I wrote in an older post,
There also is very little discussion [in Newton's accounts] of what has been called Paradise or Summerland -- the earthlike environment of the afterlife, featuring gardens, meadows, houses, birds, etc. Some of Newton's subjects do recall studying in a beautiful library, but for the most part the afterlife environment, as they depict it, seems to consist of blobs of color (which are souls) zipping around in a rather abstract geometric setting. It reminds me a little of the old sci-fi movie Tron.
Newton's patients also report being part of a group soul — an organizational unit that allows spirits to learn from each other and make progress together.
Compare all this with the discussion of reincarnation in another of Betty's sources — The Road to Immortality, channeled by Geraldine Cummins and published in 1932. (Complete text online here.) The communicating spirit, allegedly famed psychical researcher F.W.H. Myers, tells us that on the fourth spiritual plane the spirit acquires
a body entirely dissimilar from the human body. As regards appearance, it can only be described as being apparently a compound of light and colors unimaginable. The shape of this form is influenced by all the ego's past acts so far as they have impressed themselves on his deeper consciousness. This colored compound may be grotesque, bizarre in form, may be lovely beyond words, may possess strange absurdities of outline, or may transcend the loftiest dream of earthly beauty…
Within the subtle world of which I speak you will perceive a variety of forms which are not known on earth and therefore may not be expressed in words. Yet there is a certain similarity, a correspondence between the appearances on this luminiferous plane. Flowers are there; but these are in shapes unknown to you, exquisite in color, radiant with light. Such colors, such lights are not contained within any earthly octave, are expressed by us in thoughts and not in words…
Betty summarizes the book's presentation of the group soul concept:
Myers introduces us to the Group Soul, one of the hallmarks of the Fourth Plane. A Group Soul is “a number of souls all bound together by one spirit.” There are countless Group Souls, each headed and inspired by a single spirit of uncommon power. Each Group Soul might contain as few as 20 souls or as many as a thousand. And there is some unifying interest, for example music, that acts as the thread that binds the group together.… Most Group Souls significantly quicken progress. Myers is himself a member of one: “The interesting feature of my state here is that I am within a larger mind, and many of my affinities are contained in it.” He tells us we will “realize how fine and beautiful is this brotherhood within the one being; how it deepens and intensifies existence; how it destroys the cold selfishness so necessary to an earth life.”
Of special interest is the economy of the Group Soul. Each soul is so privy to the experiences of its fellows that the lessons normally learned only by a succession of many reincarnations can be speeded up. It works like this:
“… what the Buddhists would call the karma I had brought with me from a previous life is, very frequently, not that of my life, but of the life of the soul [in my group] that preceded me by many years on earth and left for me a pattern which made my life. I, too, wove a pattern for another of my group during my earthly career. We are all of us distinct, though we are influenced by others of our community on the various planes of being.”
Myers tells us he will not reincarnate. The surrogate experiences of his brothers and sisters, which he feels with as much intensity as if he were the actor, are teaching him all the remaining lessons of earth needed for his advancement.
Another point made by Newton's patients is that they plan out their earthly lives before birth, even choosing their parents. Yet the vicissitudes of life and the vagaries of free will mean that the plan — mostly forgotten by the conscious mind while incarnated — is often not carried out successfully. This idea is paralleled in Betty's excerpts from Testimony of Light (1980), by Helen Greaves, a book of material purportedly originating with a deceased nun, Frances Banks. Note that Greaves' book was published 14 years earlier than Newton's first book, Journey of Souls.
Here is how the life plan is described by "Frances Banks":
Somewhere in the deeps of my mind two ‘blueprints’ are brought forward into my consciousness. These are so clear that I can (literally) take them out, materialize them and study them. One is the Perfect Idea with which my spirit went bravely into incarnation. The other is the resultant of only a partially-understood Plan… in fact my life as it was actually lived… First of all the mind looks at the whole comparison, and sets the blueprints side-by-side. This is the first shock; a true humbling of yourself to find that you did so little when you would have done so much; that you went wrong so often when you were sure that you were right. During this experience the whole cycle of your life-term unfolds before you in a kaleidoscopic series of pictures. During the crisis one seems to be entirely alone. Yours is the judgment. You stand at your own bar of judgment. You make your own decisions. You take the blame.… You are the accused, the judge and jury.
Readers of Newton's accounts obtained from hypnosis sessions will find this description strikingly familiar.
And here is Frances on the group soul:
Whilst I was meditating in my golden garden, I found myself ‘transported’ to… a cluster of entities about a Teacher. Immediately I experienced a rise of consciousness, an upsurge of joy, a mingling of unity and harmony which colored my hole being. I cannot explain this in any of the terms, though I doubt whether they will have the same connotation for you. I knew this was right for me. I had come into my own. There was no definite acceptance, the entire operation was unobtrusive and simple, yet I had the conviction that all was well, that I was amidst my fellow-travelers on the Way.
This "upsurge of joy"and sense of belonging are typical of the reactions of Newton's hypnotized patients, often expressed in highly emotional terms.
Finally, it's worth mentioning a little-known channeled book called The Afterlife of Leslie Stringfellow, which Betty discusses in one of his early chapters. Stringfellow died in 1886. Thereafter, his mother obtained fifteen years of mediumistic communication allegedly from him. Eventually she wrote up the best of these and published just one hundred copies of the resulting book, which she called Leslie's Letter to His Mother. Betty writes, "Leslie's Letter to His Mother was lost to the world until a librarian at the University of Arkansas, Stephen Chism, stumbled across a copy and was so intrigued by it that he undertook to bring it out in a new edition (2005) with the title The Afterlife of Leslie Stringfellow."
What does Leslie say about reincarnation? I'm not sure. I did not see it mentioned in Betty's overview, but in his last chapter, Betty reports, "One of our seven sources (Benson/Borgia) says nothing about [reincarnation] and even implies that it doesn't occur. The other six do mention it, and five of those six endorse it."
"Benson/Borgia" refers to the famous book by Anthony Borgia, Life in the World Unseen* (1956). Presumably, then, the Stringfellow book does contain some discussion of reincarnation — and given its early date and near-total obscurity, I'd be interested to know what it says. So I've ordered it. (Amazon sells only used copies, starting at $95, but the book is available from the publisher for $14.95.)
It should be noted that even some contemporary channeled material throws cold water on reincarnation. The Risen, by August Goforth and Timothy Gray, quotes its discarnate coauthor as stating emphatically that reincarnation does not occur.
So what can we conclude from all this? First, reincarnation has been part of Spiritualist literature from early days, and is not a later accretion inspired by the Theosophy and similar movements. Second, there has never been unanimity on this issue. Third, there are interesting parallels between some channeled material and the accounts of between-lives hypnotic regressions.
If reincarnation is a fact, it would seem most likely that the group soul concept is intimately connected with it, and that the whole process is more subtle and complex than it might appear. The channeled material attributed to Seth and to Silver Birch tends in this direction also.
Voltaire may yet be proved correct in his observation: "It is not more surprising to be born twice than once; everything in nature is resurrection."
*By the way, I should note that Borgia's book, Life in the World Unseen, has always read like fiction to me. Prof. Betty's summary of the book does nothing to change my impression.