Reverend Charles Cox on mediumship, White House seances and talking to the dead
Reverend Charles Cox is a Spiritualist minister, which means he performs the rituals most ministers do: weddings, christenings and funerals. But Charles Cox also communes with the dead, and Cox will teach a class tonight at Isis Books and Gifts on the history of mediumship and the meaning religion of Spiritualism. In advance of this class, we caught up with Cox to talk about seances in the Lincoln White House, the evolution of mediumship, and his own experiences communicating with the beyond.
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Westword: What is your class going to cover?
Reverend Charles Cox: To put the class in context, it's for the Aspen Program for Psychic Development, which is a small company here in town that teaches folks how to develop psychic abilities. I am a Spiritualist minister, I have been for nearly 22 years, and a lot of these folks that want to be psychics, they don't have any context for this work. They don't know where it started. In their minds it started with Sylvia Browne or something like that, when in fact the history of this goes way back to Emanuel Swedenborg up through New England, where it really took off. What we understand as Spiritualism and psychic development took place in the 1800s in New York and it spread across the country.
So the class is four hours covering the history of this so that people in their path understand that they're actually a part of something bigger, that it's not just something that started last week or last month. For a lot of people, I know me, something starts when I first hear about it. [Laughs.] A lot of these folks, they just heard about Sylvia Browne ten years ago and they just figured that Sylvia Browne started it. Well, she's part of a long tradition of different people.
What do you think people will get out of learning about the history?
For sure they'll get that it's everywhere, that we live in a much more uptight world than, say, a hundred years ago when Spiritualism in the 1850s was sweeping across the country. President Lincoln and Mary Todd Lincoln had seances in the White House because they had lost a young child and Mary Todd Lincoln was so grief-stricken that they had seances. I think there have probably been other seances, but during the Lincoln White House that was covered, like, in the New York Times. Can you imagine a headline today? Barack and Michelle Obama held a seance in the Lincoln bedroom? It would be the scandal of all scandals.
What I want them to get is that this has been around both in humor and in real life. A lot of movies made in the '30s and '40s had images in them that were borrowed directly from Spiritualism. People are aware of the funny movie and the mist in the room and the torso that doesn't have any legs, but they don't know why any of that is. I've seen movies where there's a musical instrument or a trumpet flying around the room, but the history is that Spiritualists used to use a trumpet, which was just a piece of aluminum that was made into a cone shape like something a cheerleader would have, and that's part of the seances of yesteryear are these folded aluminum trumpets. This comes up all the time.
I've taught the class for four years now, and on YouTube there used to be a ten-minute segment of I Love Lucy where she hosted a seance in her house. The last time I went to go look at it CBS had pulled it stating copyright infringement, but even back in the '50s people in their little homes all across the country were being exposed to this, but it was Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz so it was funny. But there it was, the subject matter being introduced into our society. I bring it up into current times and into mediumship today, and one of the things that I talk about is how so many kind of new-age, self-empowerment type stuff has infiltrated itself into modern day religion. Joel Osteen is a guy who has a big church down in Houston, and he's on every television station; I see him all the time. He's a nice-looking guy, but a lot of what he talks about is less hardcore, beating-you-over-the-head religion and more about how you are the master of your own choices and your choices have implications and that God wants to work with you, which is not really out of the Bible. But it appeals to people, because who wants to go through life with the philosophy that your life is slated to this and it's gonna end someday and that's it? That sucks. It's depressing. [Laughs.] Why save money 'cause if God's gonna crash the stock market, God's gonna crash the stock market. Why be kind to people or why take care of your health or why anything?
A lot of the messages that come through and came through from early mediums were about those very specific things and about social issues. In the 1850s there were these Spiritualist women across the country who were in favor of women's rights and abolishing slavery and all kinds of social issues that were not popular at the time were being popularized by predominantly women, and it gave them a political voice. No one cared what you thought as a woman, but all of a sudden you're talking to the great beyond and the great beyond says we shouldn't have slavery. It's very fascinating.
Spiritualism itself, which I'm a minister of, is a religion. It's a very small religion, but it's a religion, and it was rebuffed when it first came into being because so many of its ministers were women and in the 1850s that was a no-no. Mainstream religions were turned off by this because they didn't want their women talking about social issues or talking to dead people or anything. It was basically just, don't talk. It's always timely, because I think it puts a lot of what we do and say today in context. It's no big deal if you drive over to Isis Books or For Heaven's Sake up in north Denver or whatever, but within my lifetime, and I'm fifty, that's come into being okay. Before, there used to be small shops where the only reason you knew that metaphysical shop was there was because someone told you, or small booksellers would have metaphysical and psychic sections. It was akin to an adult section in a video store. [Laughs.] So I'm just trying to put people into a context of what they're doing and what they're a part of. I talk a lot about my experiences and what I've seen in the thirty years that I've been involved with Spiritualism, and hopefully they walk away with a greater understanding of the role they might play and the history of it.
How did it become less taboo in the past few years?
The Internet has helped tons, because imagine being a housewife in the middle of Nebraska and you just have an interest in this. Who do you talk to? Do you go down and talk to your Southern Baptist minister and say, "I feel like my mom after she passed away came and talked to me?" Hello, they're gonna do an exorcism on the spot. So now these people who were previously disconnected became connected. Under the same heading as the Internet then also is Amazon. There's not a bookstore in the world that could carry all of the stuff that Amazon carries. It allowed people access to books and tapes and classes and stuff that just would not have existed before that for them. They would not even know where to look, and now they can look in the privacy of their own home. The last time I ordered something from Amazon it came in a package that said "Amazon." It didn't say "Caution! Scary psychic book inside" or anything like that. You can have some privacy and the ability to explore your own beliefs. And then just in pop culture, starting with the '50s, we become okay with stuff because we see it and we know that it's not threatening. Even back with the I Love Lucy, I just cannot put myself in the place of being a housewife in the 1950s watching I Love Lucy and being fascinated with watching a seance. And it's all funny, and if you laugh at stuff it takes all the energy off of it, so even something that might be a little uncomfortable you can laugh at it a little bit and then all of a sudden it's not really as scary as it was a minute ago.