This section is from the book "Faith - Healing. Christian Science And Kindred Phenomena", by James Monroe Buckley. Also available from Amazon: Faith-Healing, Christian Science and Kindred Phenomena.
The passage most frequently quoted on the subject of apparitions is that which Dr. Johnson, in " Rasselas," puts into the mouth of the sage Imlac:
That the dead are seen no more I will not undertake to maintain against the concurrent testimony of all ages and all nations. There is no people, rude or unlearned, among whom apparitions of the dead are not related and believed. This opinion, which prevails as far as human nature is diffused, could become universal only by its truth; those that never heard of one another would not have agreed in a tale which nothing but experience could make credible. That it is doubted by single cavilers can very little weaken the general evidence; and some who deny it with their tongues confess it with fears.
All authorities agree that Dr. Johnson was superstitious and credulous, and this passage when critically examined does not seem to be entitled to the weight which its clearness of statement and his great name have gained for it. The concurrent testimony of all ages and nations can hardly create a presumption, unless it be assumed that there have been no universal errors. The assertion that the opinion could become universal only by its truth compels the assumption that all universal opinions are true. To prove that the dead are seen no more, or cannot appear to living beings, is of course impossible. But that a thing cannot be proven impossible is not a reason for believing it actual. No one can demonstrate that the spirit of Mahomet is not now embodied in the present Sultan of Turkey, but no one believes it.
Belief in apparitions, common in all ages, generally dying out in the middle of the last century, was revived in the antagonisms created by the excesses of materialistic and infidel opinions, which denied the truth of the miracles recorded in the Christian Scriptures. John Wesley says, "It is true that the English in general, and indeed most of the men in Europe, have given up all accounts of witches and apparitions as mere old wife's fables." He expresses great sorrow at this, and adds, " If but one account of the intercourse of men with superior spirits be admitted, their whole castle in the air (deism, atheism, materialism) falls to the ground".
The discussion of Mr. Wesley's views of the relation of witchcraft to true Christianity is not in place here. His testimony as to the opinions of men of his time is the best of which the case admits, and the assertion quoted concerning the value of proof of that kind in the then pending conflicts with the free-thinkers justifies the use made of it by Dr. Hibbert in his "Philosophy of Apparitions," published not more than forty years after Wesley's death.
Two subjects which have a bearing upon any theory of apparitions, telepathy and modern spiritualism, arc also postponed. Telepathy does not bear directly upon apparitions in the sense of the direct manifestations of the dead only so far as it is connected with alleged perceptions by living persons of others who have just died or are in the very article of death at the time when it is alleged that they are perceived by the said living persons remote from them. At the close of the second part of "A Theory of Apparitions," published by the Society of Psychical Research, the writer says, " Of apparitions after death we say nothing here," and makes use of telepathy merely for the purpose of analogy. Modern spiritualism has so many phases, and its alleged and real phenomena are many of them so dissimilar in matter and manner to the spontaneous apparitions referred to by Lord Byron in:
I merely mean to say what Johnson said,
That in the course of some six thousand years,
All nations have believed that from the dead A visitant at intervals appears, as to make it necessary to consider it separately.
What I design is to show that when the evidence is rigorously though fairly examined, the Scotch verdict "Not proven" must be rendered concerning the reality of apparitions; and that the presumptions of their natural origin are so strong as to leave little doubt in minds not intoxicated by a love of the marvelous, or who do not desire to find by sensuous evidence an " Elysian road which will conduct man undoubtingly to such beliefs as his heart most craves".
Before the development of the scientific spirit belief in apparitions was universal. Scarce an instance can be given from antiquity of a talc of supernatural events carefully investigated, because to be told of the appearance of a ghost excited no more surprise than to be informed of a storm at sea, or of an extraordinary flash of lightning. In Greece and Rome such narratives furnish the materials of poetry, and for ages after the hold of the marvelous upon ordinary writers was broken the impression of primeval superstitions was so strong that the questions which science now asks—nay, more, the questions which practical men now ask — were not propounded.
To believe merely because antiquity believed is but to tighten the swaddling-clothes of the infant about the growu man and force him once more into the cradle.
The testimony of a single witness to an apparition can be of little value, because whatever he thinks he sees may be a spectral illusion or a hallucination. The state of mind of one who thinks that he sees an apparition is unfavorable to calm observation; and after he has seen it he has nothing but his recollection of what he saw, unsupported by analogies or memoranda taken during the vision. To say that immediately after he witnessed such a thing he made a note of it, is at best to say only that he wrote down what he could remember at that time.
Identification of the dead by a living person must be a matter of great difficulty, particularly as in many of the ghost stories the deceased had not been seen for twenty or twenty-five years, or perhaps was never seen by the individual to whom he is alleged to appear. In view of the mental excitement, not to say trepidation, induced by the belief that he sees a spontaneous and unexpected apparition, one who fancies that he sees the dead can hardly be competent to determine whether it be a subjective vision or an actual object.