One of the earliest books on the subject of communication amongst deceased persons was Dialogues with the Dead by George, First Baron Lyttleton, published in England in 1760. Among the notable spirits quoted in this volume are Peter the Great, Pericles, a "North-American Savage," William Penn, and Christina Queen of Sweden. The popularity of séances grew dramatically with the founding of the religion of Spiritualism in the mid-nineteenth century. Perhaps the best-known series of séances conducted at that time were those of Mary Todd Lincoln who, grieving the loss of her son, organized Spiritualist séances in the White House, which were attended by her husband, President Abraham Lincoln, and other prominent members of society. The 1887 Seybert Commission report marred the credibility of Spiritualism at the height of its popularity by publishing exposures of fraud and showmanship among secular séance leaders. . Contemporary séances continue to be a part of the religious services of Spiritualist, Spiritist, and Espiritismo churches today, where a greater emphasis is placed on spiritual values versus showmanship.
In the religion of Spiritualism, it is generally a part of religious services to communicate with the dead. The term "séance" is not often used to describe this, except by outsiders; a preferred term is "receiving messages." In these sessions, which generally take place in well lit Spiritualist churches or outdoors at Spiritualist camps (such as Lily Dale in upstate New York or Camp Cassadaga in Florida), an ordained minister or gifted contact medium will relate messages from the dead to the living. Generally Spiritualist "message services" or "demonstrations of the continuity of life" are open to the public. Sometimes the medium stands to receive messages and only the sitter is seated ; in some churches, the message service is preceded by a "healing service" involving some form of faith healing.
In addition to communicating with the spirits of people who have a personal relationship to congregants, some Spiritual Churches also deal with spirits who may have a specific relationship to the medium or a historic relationship to the body of the church. An example of the latter is the spirit of Blackhawk, a Native American warrior of the Fox tribe who lived during the 19th century. Blackhawk was a spirit who was often contacted by the Spiritualist medium Leafy Anderson and he remains the central focus of special services in the African American Spiritual Churches that she founded.
In the Latin American religion of Espiritismo, which somewhat resembles Spiritualism, séance sessions in which congregants communicate with spirits are called misas (literally "masses"). The spirits contacted in Espiritismo are often those of ancestors or Catholic saints.
This is the type of séance that is most often the subject of shock and scandal when it turns out that the leader is practicing some form of stage magic illusion or using mentalism tricks to defraud clients.
Mediumship is the term used to describe an act where the practitioner attempts to receive messages from spirits of the dead and other spirits that the practitioner believes exist. Some self-ordained mediums are fully conscious and awake while functioning as contacts; others may slip into a partial or full trance or an altered state of consciousness. These self called 'trance-mediums' often state that, when they emerge from the trance state, they have no recollection of the messages they conveyed; it is customary for such practitioners to work with an assistant who writes down or otherwise records their words.
"Channeling" is a modern term for mediumship and is found most often in descriptions of stage mediums and leader-assisted séances who convey messages from spirits who are thought to be teachers of wisdom. Channeling is a process by which the medium allows a spirit limited use of his or her physical body to communicate with the sitters present. This is distinct from the concept of possession, which is considered to be the complete, non-consensual takeover of a living being by a spirit. Channeling, on the other hand, is assumed to offer opportunities for more positive and mutually respectful interaction between the living medium and the spirit.
Spirit boards, also known as talking boards, or Ouija boards (after a well known brand name) are flat tablets, typically made of wood, Masonite, chipboard, or plastic. On the board are a number of symbols, pictures, letters, numbers and/or words. The board is accompanied by a planchette (French for "little table"), which can take the form of a pointer on three legs or magnifying glass on legs; home made boards may employ a shot glass as a planchette. A most basic Ouija board would contain simply the alphabet of whatever country the board is being used in, although it is not uncommon for whole words to be added.
The board is used as follows: One to all of the participants in the séance place one or two fingers on the planchette which is in the middle of the board. The appointed medium asks questions of the spirit(s) with whom they are attempting to communicate.
During the latter half of the 19th century, a number of Spiritualist mediums began to advocate the use of specialized tools for conducting séances, particularly in leader-assisted sessions conducted in darkened rooms. "Spirit trumpets" were horn-shaped speaking tubes that were said to magnify the whispered voices of spirits to audible range. "Spirit slates" consisted of two chalkboards bound together that, when opened, were said to reveal messages written by spirits. "Séance tables" were special light-weight tables which were said to rotate, float, or levitate when spirits were present. "Spirit cabinets" were portable closets into which mediums were placed, often bound with ropes, in order to prevent them from manipulating the various aforementioned tools.
The exposure of supposed mediums whose use of séance tools derived from the techniques of stage magic has been disturbing to many believers in spirit communication. In particular, the 1870s exposures of the Davenport Brothers as illusionists and the 1887 report of the Seybert Commission . brought an end to the first historic phase of Spiritualism. Stage magicians like John Neville Maskelyne and Harry Houdini made a side-line of exposing fraudulent mediums during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1976, M. Lamar Keene described deceptive techniques that he himself had used in séances; however, in the same book, Keene also stated that he still had a firm belief in God, life after death, ESP, and other psychic phenomena.
The exposures of fraud by tool-using mediums have had two divergent results: Skeptics have used historic exposures as a frame through which to view all spirit mediumship as inherently fraudulent,, while believers have tended to eliminate the use of tools but continued to practice mediumship in full confidence of its spiritual value to them.
The Jewish religion strictly prohibits taking part in anything to do with it.
Some Christians believe that spirits can be contacted (as presented in the First Book of Samuel, for example), but that the Bible specifically forbids contact with spirits, and they cite Biblical verses to support their belief.
Critics of channeling—including both skeptics and those who do believe in spirits—state that since the most commonly-reported physical manifestations of channeling are an unusual vocal pattern or abnormal overt behaviors of the medium, channeling is therefore quite easily faked by anyone with theatrical talent.
Critics of spirit board communication techniques—again including both skeptics and those who do believe in spirits—state that the premise that a spirit will move the planchette and spell out messages using the symbols on the boards is undermined by the fact that several people have their hands on the planchette, which allows one of the people to spell out anything they want without the others knowing. They claim that this is a common trick used on occasions such as sleepover parties to scare the people present.
Another criticism of spirit board communication involves what is called the ideomotor effect which has been suggested as an automatism, or subconscious mechanism, by which a Ouija-user's mind unknowingly guides his hand upon the planchette, hence he will honestly believe he is not moving it, when, in fact, he is. This theory rests on the embedded premise that human beings actually have a "subconscious mind," a belief not held by all people.
Among the notable people who conducted small leader-assisted séances during the 19th century were the Fox sisters, whose activities included table-rapping, and the Davenport Brothers, who were famous for the spirit cabinet work. Both the Foxes and the Davenports were eventually exposed as frauds.
Scientists have conducted a search for real séances and believed that contact with the dead is a reality include the chemist William Crookes, the evolutionary biologist Alfred Russel Wallace, the inventor of radio Guglielmo Marconi, the inventor of telephony Alexander Graham Bell, and the inventor of television technology John Logie Baird, who claimed to have contacted the spirit of the inventor Thomas Alva Edison