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Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Four Near-Death Experiences of the Nineteenth Century

Ever since Raymond Moody's best-selling 1975 book Life after Life, the common characteristics of a near-death experience have been well-known. A particular near-death experience may have between 1 or more of these characteristics. The characteristics include:
  • a sensation of floating out of the body, which may include seeming to view the body from above;
  • feelings of peace, joy or tranquility;
  • a life-review in which previous life events are reviewed or relived in some sped-up manner;
  • a passage through a tunnel;
  • an encounter with a very bright light or a “being of light” or a light that is somehow sensed to be numinous or a source of thought or feeling;
  • an experience of seeing some heavenly or supernatural realm;
  • an experience of seeming to see one or more deceased relatives;
  • an experience of being told that you must “go back” and continue to live your regular life;
  • an experience of having heightened consciousness, mentality or perception.

Could it be that such experiences are just a kind of modern myth that arose about 45 years ago, and that people continue to have such experiences because they are kind of “following a cultural script”? One way to test that idea is to see whether there are any accounts of such experiences very long before the publication of Life After Life.

As it happens, a few nineteenth century books contain accounts that have some of the characteristics listed above. One such book is the 1873 book Biography of Mrs J.H. Conant the World's Medium of the Nineteenth Century by Allen Putnam. The book can be read in full here. On page 36 of the book we are told Mrs. Conant received a bad overdose that caused a doctor to declare that “she must die.” Mrs. Conant then fell into a “deathly stupor.” She then experienced a near-death experience described below:

Nature rallied, and she rapidly recovered. When she regained full consciousness, she remembered that she seemed to have been in some beautiful place, she thought was heaven. Here she met the mother who left her in earlier years, and when she wept and begged to be allowed to stay with her, her parent gently but firmly told her that she must return to earth life — that she had yet a mission to perform — and her poor tempest-tossed bark was again obliged to put to sea from out the haven of peace where it hoped to rest; but blessed were the assurances she received, that in due time she should again and finally cast anchor amid the golden sand that sparkles in the river of Paradise.”

So we have in this 1873 account three of the common characteristics of a near-death experience: a trip to a heaven-like place, a meeting with a dead relative, and a communication that the person must return to earthly life because the time was not right.

Another account of a near-death experience can be found in the 1863 book From Matter to Spirit: The Result of Ten Years of Experience in Spirit Manifestations, Intended as a Guide to Enquirers by Sophia Elizabeth de Morgan and Augustus de Morgan. On page 176 to 179 of the book (which you can read using this link), we read the account of an Admiral Beaufort who almost drowned at sea while he was a captain. Beaufort states the following:

"I was soon exhausted by my struggles; and, before any relief reached me, I had sunk below the surface – all hope had fled, all exertion had ceased, and I felt that I was drowning....From the moment that all exertion had ceased – which I imagine was the immediate consequence of complete suffocation – a calm feeling of the most perfect tranquility succeeded the most tumultuous sensation. It might be called apathy, certainly not resignation; I no longer thought of being rescued, nor was I in any bodily pain....Though the senses were thus deadened, not so the mind; its activity seemed to be invigorated to a degree which defies all description; for thought rose after thought with a rapidity of succession that is not only indescribable, but also inconceivable to anyone who has not been himself in a similar situation...Thus, traveling backwards, every incident of my past life seemed to me to glance across my recollection in retrograde progression; not, however, in mere outline as here stated, but the picture filled up, with every minute and collateral feature; in short, the whole period of my existence seemed to be placed before me in a kind of panoramic review, and each act of it seemed to be accompanied by a consciousness of right and wrong, or of some reflection on its cause or consequences – indeed, many trifling events, which had been long ago forgotten, then crowded into my imagination, and with the character of recent familiarity."

This astonishing account matches closely the “life review” accounts told in modern near-death experiences. There is also a very strong element of heightened mentality, heightened memory and heightened consciousness that matches accounts of heightened mentality often told in near-death experiences. Similarly, in 1892 Albert Heim described what it felt like to fall from a high height while mountain climbing.  His account included a feeling of tranquility and a life review:

"Then I saw my whole past life take place in many images, as though on a stage at some distance from me. I saw myself as the chief character in the performance. Everything was transfigured as though by a heavenly light and everything was beautiful without grief, without anxiety and without pain. The memory of very tragic experiences I had had was clear but not saddening. I felt no conflict or strife; conflict had been transmuted into love. Elevated and harmonious thoughts dominated and united the individual images, and like magnificent music a divine calm swept through my soul. I became ever more surrounded by a splendid blue heaven with delicate roseate and violet cloudlets. I swept into it painlessly and softly and I saw that now I was falling freely through the air and that under me a snowfield lay waiting. Objective observations, thoughts, and subjective feelings were simultaneous. Then I heard a dull thud and my fall was over."

life review

According to this book (page 108), Heim later published a book about the experiences of other people who had survived falls from heights. He said that almost 95% of such people reported a common set of characteristics. There was:

"rather calm seriousness, profound acceptance, and a dominant mental quickness and sense of surety. Mental activity became enormous, rising to a hundredfold velocity or intensity....Time became greatly expanded....In many cases there followed a sudden review of the individual's entire past."

Another nineteenth century near-death experience can be found in the 1897 book Mediumistic Experiences of John Brown, the Medium of the Rockies by John Brown, which you can read here.  In Chapter VI (page 87-89) Brown reports of an experience he had near death, when he could no longer see, could no longer speak, and no longer use his limbs, at a time when he was convinced he was dying. Brown states the following:
"In a few moments, my head fell to one side, my heart having ceased to vibrate; then the whole involuntary machinery made one last effort for breath, but in vain. In a moment my entire nervous system gave one shake and all was still; all was quiet. I heard the doctors say, “that is the last; he will not move again; he is dead.” Yes, I heard all, but I did not see with my eyes. At this time it seemed to me, that I was moving slowly through a warm atmosphere; and in the distance I began to perceive a lighter or whiter spot in the darkness. As this light gradually increased in size, it came nearer to me, till finally it filled the room, and all outside. It was not like the light of our sun—it was more white, more still. It appeared to carry with it a life principle. At this moment I found myself lying horizontally above my body and about two feet from it. With no effort on my part I moved off from over my body and stood upon my feet, about five feet from it. I knew that I had left my body. I could see it on the bed..."

Here we have two of the characteristics of near death experiences: a report of floating out of the body and observing your own body from above; and a report of a mysterious bright light that has numinous characteristics.

It is rather clear from these three accounts that the typical near-death experience described by Moody is not at all some cultural creation of recent decades, but is instead something matching experiences people had more than a century before Moody's book was written. Collectively these accounts have every one of the main characteristics of a near-death experience except for the “traveling through a tunnel” characteristic that only occurs in a minority of such experiences. I may note that each of the books I have cited are little-known books of very low readership, and their accounts have been almost never reported. We cannot at all suppose that accounts in recent decades were derived from these nineteenth century accounts that were so little known.  

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