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Professor De Morgan Gave Meaning to “Spiritual But Not Religious”

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Professor De Morgan Gave Meaning to “Spiritual But Not Religious”

Posted on 13 September 2022, 9:58

The biography of famed British mathematician and logician Augustus De Morgan (1806-1871) at Wikipedia is very informative and well presented, except for the section near the end when it cites psychologist John Beloff as declaring that De Morgan was barred from positions at Oxford and Cambridge because he was an atheist.  The Wikipedia biographer seems to take some relief in noting De Morgan’s (below) atheism after having explained his interest in psychic phenomena.


Having just read Memoir of Augustus De Morgan by his wife, (below) Sophia Elizabeth De Morgan (1809-1892), published in 1882, as well as rereading Mrs. De Morgan’s 1863 book, From Matter to Spirit: The Result of Ten Years’ Experience in Spirit Manifestations, I don’t see De Morgan as ever having been an atheist, unless one concludes that any person not accepting the teachings of the Church of England at the time was automatically an atheist.  As I understand it, De Morgan earned his bachelor’s degree at Trinity College, Cambridge, but he elected not to pursue an advanced degree there, or at Oxford, because he would have had to declare himself in complete accord with the teachings of the Church.  He could not accept the strict interpretations given to the Old Testament suggesting a wrathful God and had doubts about the nature of the Trinity, but he remained open-minded and his beliefs were in line with many Unitarians of his era.


“He believed that Jesus Christ, the Son of God by the gift of the Holy Spirit without measure, was, as to his nature, a man like ourselves, except in His power of receiving the Spirit of God,” Sophia De Morgan explained in her 1882 book. “That His divinity was not, like that of the Father, the Source of all things, underived and self-existent.  That the Father spoke through Him by the same Spirit, sending the message and the means of redemption or bringing back erring man to God.  That the mission was attested by His words and miraculous works, and that He rose from the dead, and was seen to rise to Heaven, from whence He sends the Spirit to whose who are able to receive it.”  She also recorded that he spent much time during his final years studying the New Testament.

De Morgan’s mother was a fundamentalist Christian who grieved over her son’s rejection of Church doctrine and dogma. In a lengthy 1836 letter to her, he wrote, in part: “Your expressions amount to the following: – If you do not take it for granted that King James’s translators chose the right Greek, and turned it into the right English, and more than that, drew all their inferences correctly, God Almighty will punish you to all eternity.”  Later in the letter, he added: “Before God I declare that I have examined closely the history of the early Church, together with abundance of controversy on both sides, not forgetting the books of the New Testament on which they are written, and can find nothing like the creed of the Churches of Rome or England. The former does not pretend to find what you call the essential doctrines of Christianity in the New Testament, but appeals to tradition. It is easy to rail at them, but to the best of my knowledge and belief, derived from historical reading and actual observation, the Church of Rome contains as much honesty as that of England, and a vast deal more knowledge. It would take one quarter as much evidence to make me a Catholic as to make me a Church of England man.”

De Morgan’s brilliance was such that he did not require an advanced degree and he therefore became professor of mathematics at London University at the age of 22, a position he would occupy for 35 years.  He is remembered today primarily for his contributions to mathematics, especially differential calculus, and logic (De Morgan’s Laws are credited to him, even though Aristotle offered much the same reasoning centuries earlier.)  Philosopher John Stuart Mill referred to De Morgan as a mathematician with the attainments of a philosopher, logician and psychologist.  While he is little remembered in the field of psychical research, his open-minded approach to psychic phenomena is said to have influenced Sir William Crookes, a renowned scientist of that era, to undertake his investigations of mediums D. D. Home and Florence Cook, even though many other scientists of his time scoffed at the idea and even refused to join Crookes in some of his experiments with Home.

Although the lengthy preface to his wife’s 1863 book is simply signed “A.B.” De Morgan later admitted to a friend that he was the author of the preface and that his ideas and observations were in complete accord with those of his wife.  The book explores the experiments, studies, and observations of both Mr. and Mrs. De Morgan in clairvoyance, clairaudience, automatic writing, deathbed phenomena and even near-death experiences, beginning in 1853, placing them, with Judge John Edmonds, Professor Robert Hare, and Rev. Adin Ballou, as among the earliest psychical researchers and possibly the first in Great Britain.  Sophia De Morgan, while referred to as a “spiritualist” in some current biographies with a materialistic slant (apparently because of her interest, not because of any memberships), emerges as an objective investigator of psychic phenomena and possibly the first woman to devote her time and energies to psychical research.

“When a strange tale reached us, twelve years ago, of noises which had been heard in America, and attributed to spirits, everybody laughed,” Sophia De Morgan wrote in the first chapter of her 1863 book. “As the stories multiplied, a few persons in England began to think they must have some origin at least, and to wonder why, if spirits could rap in the United States, they did not do so in our country…and at length curiosity was still further excited by the appearance of a medium in London. Mrs. [Maria] Hayden became the wonder of the day; but people fancied that they could detect imposture, and, though none was ever fairly proved, the interest flagged and the ‘medium’ returned to America, having sown the seed of a tree the extent of whose growth has yet to be measured…” 

Mrs. De Morgan recalled in their first sitting with Mrs. Hayden that they waited for 15 minutes or more before anything happened, and they were becoming impatient. They then heard some throbbing or patting sound in the center of the table, and Hayden said, “They are coming.” The sounds gathered strength and Hayden said that a spirit was there. The name of the spirit was spelled out by raps (Mrs. De Morgan would run her finger along an alphabet board until a rap sounded indicating the correct letter, the medium unable to see the board). “To my astonishment, the not common name of a dear relation, who had left this world seventeen years before, and whose surname was that of my father’s, not my husband’s family, was spelt. Then this sentence. “I am happy, and with F—- and G—-(full names given).” All three names were recognized by Mrs. De Morgan,

In the 1882 book, a letter from Augustus De Morgan to Rev. W. Heald, dated July 1953, is quoted, De Morgan described his experience with Mrs. Hayden, explaining that it was his wife’s sister who had communicated.  “After some questioning, she (I speak the spirit hypothesis, though I have no theory on the subject) was asked whether I might ask a question,” De Morgan recalled.  He received an affirmative rap and then asked if he could give the question mentally.  Again, the reply was in the affirmative.  The question he mentally put to his wife’s sister (without speaking)  had to do with the subject they once discussed in a letter.  The reply came: C-H-E-S-S, which De Morgan confirmed as the proper subject.

De Morgan then heard from his deceased father and after some conversation asked his father to give the first letters of an epithets applied to him (his father) by a periodical he was thinking of, one published in 1817.  (It would have taken too much time for the communicator to give the complete epithets).  The reply came, C-D-T-F-O-C, which De Morgan confirmed as correct, commenting that he was satisfied that somebody, or some spirit, was reading his thoughts.  “This and the like went on for nearly three hours, during a great part of which Mrs. Hayden was busy reading the ‘Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin,’ which she had never seen before, and I assure you she set to it, with just as much avidity as you may suppose an American lady would who saw it for the first time, while we were amusing ourselves with the raps in our own way.  All this I declare to be literally true.  Since that time, I have seen it my house frequently, various persons presenting themselves. The answers are given mostly by the table, on which a hand or two is gently placed, tilting up at the letters….Make what you can of it if you are a philosopher.”  (While De Morgan does not say exactly what the letters stood for, his words suggest that it was something like, “Colonel De Morgan, the fussy old codger.” )

At a later meeting with Hayden,  Mrs. De Morgan had the letters D, E, A, R, E, S, T come through the table and assumed that her name would follow, i.e., “Dearest Sophia,” but the complete message, which was from a long-deceased friend, read, “Dear Esther is with me, and we long to clasp you in our arms in this bright world of glory.”  (Nearly all the messages came through without spaces between words.) “ Mrs. De Morgan noted that the name of the communicator and Esther were both known to her. 

De Morgan continued to sit on the fence concerning the spirit hypothesis, but, also in the preface of the 1863 book, he stated: “I am perfectly convinced that I have both seen, and heard in a manner which should make unbelief impossible, things called spiritual which cannot be taken by a rational being to be capable of explanation by imposture, coincidence, or mistake, But when it comes to what is the cause of these phenomena, I find I cannot adopt any explanation which has yet been suggested. If I were bound to choose among things which I can conceive, I should say that there is some sort of action or some combination of will, intellect, and physical power, which is not that of any of the human beings present.”  He added that “the spiritual hypothesis is sufficient, but ponderously difficult.”  The fact that he did not put his name to the preface seems clearly to have suggested that severe sanctions from the academic world – both from the religious and the scientific sides – would have been imposed. 

Later, in 1866, he wrote, “I have for thirty years, and in my classroom, acted on the principle that positive theism may be made the basis of psychological explanation without violation of any law of the College.”  Wikipedia needs to rethink its branding of De Morgan as an “atheist.”

Michael Tymn is the author of The Afterlife Revealed: What Happens After We Die, Resurrecting Leonora Piper: How Science Discovered the Afterlife, and Dead Men Talking: Afterlife Communication from World War I.
His latest book, No One Really Dies: 25 Reasons to Believe in an Afterlife is published by White Crow books.

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