Thursday, November 28, 2013

"The Conjurer"

Blewett Lee, The Conjurer, 7 Va. L. Rev. 370 (1920-21)

My new research project is on what I call "freedom of religion at the margins": fortune-telling, witchcraft, and New Age beliefs.  I've had an enjoyable time reading the secondary legal literature on these topics, and one of the most prolific writers in the area was Blewett Lee.

In The Conjurer, Lee begins by discussing the historical distinction between "conjuration" (where a mortal compels the devil to obey his or her wishes by invoking the name of God) and "witchcraft" (where a mortal has a friendly relationship with the devil or a demonic familiar in order to carry out selfish wishes).  "The conjurer has really fared much better than the witch," Lee says, "who was considered from the start to be in voluntary league with the evil one."  (p. 372)

Lee goes on to discuss some medieval and English common law statutes and cases dealing with conjuration and witchcraft, some of which respect the distinction and others that do not.  Some note is made of American cases dealing with faith-healing.

The major thrust of the article, however, is whether and how mostly forgotten laws dealing with such topics apply to the then-burgeoning fascination with spiritualism (especially the practice of spiritual mediums conversing with the dead through seances).  As Lee writes, "The only thing that is left to us of the primitive magician is the spirit medium.  He has not only survived but thrived, while the witch, whose association with the powers of darkness was supposed to be friendly at all times, has entirely disappeared, at least where our law prevails." (p. 373-74)

Lee discusses how popular spiritualism is at the time, but makes an argument which I plan to question in my article:  "If spiritualism should be ultimately proved to have a real basis, the result would be simply that we would have to say that life is longer than we supposed.  There is nothing religious about this conclusion.  Indeed, it is a great mistake to treat spiritualism as a religion at all.  It should be regarded as simply a question of scientific fact."  (p. 376)

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