Benjamin Fish Austin (1850–1933) was a Methodist minister, editor, author, spiritualist lecturer, and publisher. Benjamin Fish Austin began his career as a Methodist minister, but became a spokesperson for Spiritualism. For 30 years, Austin was an editor and leading publisher of spiritualist and occult literature in North America.
Benjamin Fish Austin was born in Brighton, Ontario, on September 21, 1850. He worked as a teacher, apparently while still a teenager. He entered the ministry in 1871 and was ordained by the Methodist Episcopal Church about 1872, serving in Prescott and then Ottawa. In 1877, he earned a bachelor of arts degree from Albert College in Belleville, followed by a divinity degree (B.D.) from Victoria College, Cobourg, in 1881. Victoria University granted him an honorary doctor of divinity degree (D.D.).
In 1881, Austin married Frances Amanda Connell, in Prescott, and the couple moved to St. Thomas, Ontario, where he had been appointed first principal of the newly established Alma College for women. The Austins’ four children were born in St. Thomas.
Austin found that students at the college were interested in psychic phenomena. In March 1896, the Austins’ two-year-old daughter, Kathleen, died, propelling Austin into researching Survival After Death and spiritualism.
In 1897, Austin resigned and moved his family to Toronto, where he wrote a massive book, Glimpses of the Unseen: A Study of Dreams, Premonitions, Prayers, and Remarkable Answers, Hypnotism, Spiritualism, Telepathy, Apparitions, Peculiar Mental and Spiritual Experiences, Unexplained Psychical Phenomena (1898). He expressed the conviction that a great deal of natural phenomena could only be explained as being “caused by the spirits of the dead.”
Austin talked about his spiritualist views in a sermon in Toronto, making the Methodist Church unhappy. In June 1899, the London Conference of the Methodist Church found Austin guilty of heresy and expelled him from its ministry.
In his self-defense, Austin cited John Wesley’s acceptance of psychic phenomena he had experienced as evidence of spirit return. He said he, too, concluded that spirit communication was the only theory that could account for the phenomena he himself had witnessed.
Austin resigned from the church and became a fulltime advocate of spiritualism. Around 1901, he witnessed Slate-Writing by Medium Fred Evans in New York. Based upon careful observation, he believed that the messages received could not have been fraudulently produced because some of the slates were on the floor out of reach of the medium. He also stated his belief in the genuineness of Materializations produced by Mrs. Wilcox, a medium in Philadelphia, California.
In 1904, he moved to Rochester, New York, and went on to Los Angeles in 1913. In 1914, the National Spiritualist Association of Churches ordained him. He spent most of the rest of his life serving in churches in California and lecturing at Spiritualist Camps.
In 1901, Austin began the Austin Publishing Company in Toronto, and continued it in Rochester and Los Angeles. The company published at least 50 mostly spiritualist or psychic titles by other authors, among them Jenny Pincock O’Hara and reprints of works by Andrew Jackson Davis and Sir William Crookes.
Austin published his own work, What Converted Me to Spiritualism: One Hundred Testimonies, followed by other spiritualist works, among them
- The Mission of Spiritualism and Original Poems (c. 1902);
- The A.B.C. of Spiritualism: One Hundred of the Questions Most Commonly Asked about Spiritualism, Answered Tersely and Plainly (1920), which continues to be a favourite among contemporary spiritualists;
- Letters to Clergy: On Orthodoxy and Spiritualism. Facts, Philosophy, Scientific Testimony and Bible Teaching (nd); Fundamentalism (1924);
- Conundrums for the Orthodox Clergy: One Hundred Questions about the Bible, Revelation and Spiritualism, respectfully Addressed to Believers in the Old Theology (c. 1924);
- and The Prophet of Nazareth and the Seer of Poughkeepsie: Points of Agreement and Contrast (nd).
Austin applied critical analysis to spirit phenomena. For example, he explained that spirit messages “are a mixture of telepathic communications from the sitter or the circle and the outpourings of the subconscious mind of the medium, and furnish no proof whatsoever of originating in some discarnate mind.” Spirit messages are shaped by “the original idea or thought projected from the spirit friend; the modifying influence of the medium’s brain and expression, and the modifying influence of the sitter or circle or environment.”
Austin’s company was plagued by debt and ceased operation in 1934, following Austin’s death. Daughter Alma Austin sold the printing plates for the Andrew Jackson Davis imprints to cover debts.
- Austin, B. F. Glimpses of the Unseen: A Study of Dreams, Premonitions, Prayers, and Remarkable Answers, Hypnotism, Spiritualism, Telepathy, Apparitions, Peculiar Mental and Spiritual Experiences, Unexplained Psychical Phenomena. Toronto and Brantford, Ontario: Bradley-Garretson Company, 1898.
- Cook, Ramsay. “Spiritualism, Science of the Earthly Paradise,” Canadian Historical Review 65, no. 1 (March 1984): 4–27.
- McMullin, Stan. Anatomy of a Séance: A History of Spirit Communication in Central Canada. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2004, pp. 42–62.