”Nearer the invisible world”: spirits and the supernatural in the eighteenth-century town

by Kate Gibson

One of the most significant grand narratives of modernity is the idea that as urbanisation and industrialisation increased, beliefs in ‘magic’ and supernatural interference in the world decreased. This was central to sociologist Max Weber’s understanding of the development of capitalism, and to historian Keith Thomas’ highly influential argument that post-Reformation England underwent a process of ‘disenchantment’. More recently, historians such as Bob Scribner, Sasha Handley and Karl Bell have complicated Thomas’ thesis, suggesting that beliefs in the supernatural not only persisted into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but were reinvented and revitalised in response to the pressures of urbanisation, scientific developments, and religious and political change. Sasha Handley’s study of eighteenth-century ghost beliefs suggests that many people in this period were open to the possibility of supernatural phenomena, and that beliefs in providence, ghosts and spirits were compatible with mainstream Protestant Anglican theology, as well as with many types of Dissenting religion.


The evidence that we have collected from individuals living in Northern towns certainly supports arguments that belief in the supernatural not only continued into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but were also integral to many people’s understanding of their religious faith. The most significant way in which individuals invoked the supernatural was by talking about ghosts, often within a narrative of conversion and repentance. One such narrative appears in a bundle of letters of applicants seeking to join the Lowther Street Congregational Church in Carlisle in the early 1800s. W. Ashton’s life story starts conventionally enough: although brought up by pious parents, he was led astray as an apprentice and fell into a life of pleasure and vice. His religious epiphany came when he was visited by a ghost in a dream: ‘While I laid upon my bed on Sabbath morning I think I was awake, and like Eliphaz [a spiritual guide in the biblical book of Job] a spirit passed before my face, an image was before my eyes, but I could not discern the form thereof, there was silence, and I heard a voice, saying – Repent – fear came upon me, I arose and from that time by the grace of God attended to a preached gospel with benefit.’ Ashton protested ‘I am not superstitiously thoughtful about dreams… Though some might think this account borders a little upon the marvellous, yet it is not without a precedent and I am fully persuaded it was the means employed by an all wise providence to call me from darkness to light.’ As with many of the examples found by Handley, this ghost story was rooted within biblical precedent, invoked as a compelling instance of God’s providential interference in the world, and accommodated within the presentation of an otherwise sceptical worldview.


Other examples suggest that belief in the existence of ghosts was entirely compatible with some of the basic tenets of Protestant theology. Evangelical Anglican Mary Dikes wrote to her relative Margaret Hey in 1813 following the death of Margaret’s sister Lucy at the age of just twenty-six. Mary stated: ‘Her loss will be long and deeply felt, but O! what a different thing is it to part with friends without hope, and with a well founded assurance of their unspeakable happiness, and an humble trust that the separation will not be final’. She then quoted a sermon she had recently heard from her parish clergyman Mr Scott: ‘”think them not in their better part dead, or no longer concerned for your welfare! Think that their eye is still upon you – Suppose that you hear them, the dead yet speaking – encouraging you when cast down, reproving you when grown slack; warning, animating… you to see that you fail not of making your salvation sure”’. Mary stopped short of suggesting that the dead could actually appear to the living, but presented ghostly surveillance as an important moral example and encouragement to the pious. The continued existence of the dead was integral to the Anglican belief that the faithful would be reunited in heaven, and was often invoked in condolence letters as a way to comfort the bereaved.

Edward Scriven (engr.), ‘Brutus and the Ghost of Caesar’, from Josiah Boydell’s A Collection of Prints… Illustrating the Dramatic Works of Shakespeare (London, 1803), British Library (Public Domain)


The idea of an ‘invisible world’ beyond immediate human understanding was not only based on communication between the living and the dead. Belief in a spiritual connection between the living based on a shared faith was expressed by some individuals, particularly those who practised a more revelatory religion. Doncaster Quaker Martha Smith wrote regularly to her cousin Susanna Hawsley, endeavouring to maintain a close emotional relationship with someone who lived over seventy miles away. In one letter, though, she suggested that this closeness owed more to a preternatural, spiritual connection than to the eighteenth-century postal system. She stated: ‘tho we have little outward intercourse, yet that at seasons is felt, wch needs not the medium of words, & under this precious feeling my mind salutes thee, believing we are both desirous to be journeying forward, towards the land of rest & peace, & if obedient to devine requirings, shall I do believe be joined together never more to separate… ah! It is both good & pleasant, how do I feel it flows even while writing, it is an intercourse that the world knoweth not of’. They were connected through their shared religious goal, in a way that elided worldly description. Liverpudlian merchant William Rathbone similarly alluded to a spiritual connection in a letter to his relative Hannah Greg: ‘Tho you are not, I believe, one of the disciples of Swedenborg, yet perhaps you are not quite an unbeliever in the intercourse of spirits, tho I fear you are not fully sensible how often my Wife & I have been visitors in your sick chamber, how often we have held ideal converse with you.’ Rathbone felt that a connection based on both emotional and religious closeness could transcend worldly distance, but this time suggested that this belief in a spiritual bond varied according to denomination. On one end of the spectrum were the followers of Emanuel Swedenborg, who claimed divine revelation through dreams and visions, and on the other, perhaps, more latitudinarian types of dissent such as Unitarians. The difference was one of degree, however: there was no distinct line between belief and unbelief as far as supernatural phenomena were concerned. Rathbone himself had been raised a Quaker and became Unitarian in adulthood, but still felt that the Unitarian Greg would respond to his appeal to spiritual connection. And, as Handley suggest, certain beliefs, such as ghosts or spiritual connection, were strengthened by their compatibility with theological doctrines of the afterlife and revelation.



Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century England (London, 1971)

Robert W. Scribner, ‘The Reformation, Popular Magic, and the “Disenchantment of the World”, The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 23.3 (1993), pp. 475-94

Sasha Handley, Visions of an Unseen World: Ghost Beliefs and Ghost Stories in Eighteenth-Century England (London, 2007)

Karl Bell, The Magical Imagination: Magic and Modernity in Urban England, 1780-1914 (Cambridge, 2012)

Cumbria Archive Service (Carlisle): DFCCL/7/3/16, W. Ashton to the trustees of owther Street Congregational Church, n.d.

York Explore Library and Archives: GRF/7/5, Account of the illness of Lucy Gray, pp. 45-52, Mary Dikes to Margaret Hey, 6 February 1813

Doncaster Archives: DD/CL/3/18, M. Smith to Susanna Hawsley, 12 January 1807

University of Liverpool Special Collections: RP II.1.51, William Rathbone IV to Hannah Gregg, 3 December [n.d.]



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