Arthur Conan Doyle’s Wisdom on Death and the Afterlife

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It is probably safe to say that many if not most of us are familiar with classic detective Sherlock Holmes. His creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930), actually was ambivalent about his creation, and here we will honor that sentiment and focus on an element of Doyle’s life that was much closer to his heart: his conviction that there is an afterlife and his involvement in pioneering paranormal research. Significantly, Doyle’s contributions did not end at his physical death: we will also explore the wisdom he offered the world through mediumistic communications from beyond the grave. What we can learn from Doyle has vital ramifications for our own ethical behavior and spiritual growth and offers profound comfort about death.


Doyle’s biography can be found easily on the internet, so we will just present a thumbnail sketch of his long, active and multi-faceted life here.

  • Born in Edinburgh, Scotland
  • Studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh Medical School
  • Practiced medicine for a few years but preferred writing short stories and other works of fiction
  • Married Louisa (“Touie”) Hawkins in 1885
  • Published his first work featuring Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, A Study in Scarlet, on November 20, 1886
  • Wrote seven historical novels between 1888 and 1906
  • Daughter Mary Louise born January 1889 (died June 1976)
  • Son Arthur Alleyne Kingsley born November 1892 (died October 1918; his death accelerated Doyle’s spiritualist leanings)
  • The Final Problem, published December 1893, has Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty plunging to their deaths at The Reichenbach Falls, Switzerland, to the great distress of fans
  • During Boer War, volunteered as a medical doctor, sailing to Africa in February 1900
  • Publishes The Great Boer War in October 1900; this five hundred-page chronicle “was not only a report of the war, but also an astute and well-informed commentary about some of the organizational shortcomings of the British forces at the time.”
  • Resurrection of Sherlock Holmes: The Strand magazine published first episode of The Hound of the Baskervilles, August 1901
  • The Strand starts serializing The Return of Sherlock Holmes 1903
  • Wife Louisa died July 1906.
  • Married Jean Elizabeth Leckie in 1907; Jean died in London June 1940
  • Son Denis Percy Stewart born March 1909 (died March 1955)
  • Son Adrian Malcolm born November 1910 (died June 1970)
  • Daughter Jean Lena Annette born December 1912 (died November 1997)
  • Contributed in various ways to war effort, 1914-16; lost his son, brother, two brothers-in-law and two nephews in World War I
  • Personally investigated two closed cases, which led to two men being exonerated of the crimes of which they were accused.
  • Toured America, Australia, Africa, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and Norway on lecture tours on Spiritualism, 1918-29
  • Died at his home surrounded by family July 7, 1930

A History of Spiritualism

Doyle had a long interest in the mystical and spiritual side of life, which took a number of twists and turns; involved such luminaries as Harry Houdini; and resulted in nearly two dozen books on Spiritualism and related topics between 1918 and 1930.

A History of Spiritualism, in two volumes, is arguably the pinnacle of Doyle’s engagement with paranormal research. (For some reason, this significant work is virtually ignored by the Wikipedia article on Doyle, nor is it cited under Further Reading or in the notes. This omission and other statements in the article point to Wikipedia’s bias against paranormal research, even when someone as learned and expert as Doyle is a proponent.)

A History of Spiritualism (1926) is important and note-worthy at many levels, however, even nearly a century later. Using clear, direct prose and citing extensive research, Doyle traces Spiritualism and related phenomena from the visions of the Swedish seer Emanuel Swedenborg through little-known but significant experiences of the Shakers, other early Americans, and researchers in England. Doyle provides a full account of the controversial Fox sisters, concluding that their “rappings” and other testimonies, were authentic. Doyle described admiringly the amazing career of medium Daniel Dunglas Home and the scientific research of highly respected chemist Sir William Crookes, and provided fair treatments of the medium Eusapia Palladino (who showed traces of both authenticity and fraud) and other mediums of Doyle’s time. Doyle related the story of the founding of the Society for Psychical Research and some of its early investigative work, and he covered less verifiable topics such as ectoplasm, spirit photography, and voice mediumship, taking care to point out that fraud was always possible but citing ample available facts and evidence for the phenomena. Doyle ends the book with a rational treatment of the religious aspects of Spiritualism (including harsh criticism of established clergy members’ disparagements of the movement) and the wisdom Spiritualism offers about the afterlife.

It is impossible to summarize Doyle’s work here, but suffice it to say that A History of Spiritualism is a must-read, still today, for anyone interested in Spiritualism, psychic phenomena, paranormal research, and the attitudes of venerable 19th– and early 20th-century figures toward these phenomena. Doyle was a true believer and did not hide his convictions.

Book of the Beyond

Doyle died in July 1930. For 18 months thereafter, he appeared in a number of fully monitored and documented séances. The medium was Grace Cooke; the wisdom disseminated by Doyle from the other side via automatic writing was recorded by Cooke’s husband Ivan in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Book of the Beyond (this is the third iteration of the writings, the first being Thy Kingdom Come in December 1933, the second being The Return of Arthur Conan Doyle in 1956). While this entire tale may sound like a fabulous contrived fraud, the complicated story around the sittings, as outlined in Book of the Beyond, and the content of Doyle’s observations about the afterlife are too remarkable to dismiss out of hand. There are too many insights, in my opinion, that contradict (but are superior to) standard religious notions and/or that provide information that cannot easily be derived through normal means.

Some of the many learnings are worth presenting here.

“. . . if you will study the scriptures of world religions, and the writings of the mystics; or if you will open yourselves to the realization that God is a God of Love, and that there is harmony, order and reasonableness throughout the universe. Then you will see that the progression of man through death to the afterlife is based on a man’s own nature and deserts; that his after-state is the logical outcome of his own growth and expansion, and the development of the life within him. Finally, that after death you live still in a rational and not a fanciful universe, where facts are yet facts.” (Cooke, page 137)

“A power unknown came to my aid, giving me a vision of my true state. . . . Every soul must pass through such a condition, such a period of time, short or long, according to the mental condition of the man when he leaves his body. To some this is a matter of a few hours or days; to others of years. Remember, even the Master Jesus himself descended into a condition of uncertainty and what is described as ‘Hades’, the sphere of the disquieted spirits. So, too, must every man on leaving the earth pass through that belt of the disquieted souls of men. As I said before, it is very difficult to escape from these astral attachments, mental and physical – only the enlightened soul rapidly traverses the sphere of astral, lower astral, and denser astral matter. ¶ Time is nothing in spirit life. . . . At the last trump – but this does not mean at the end of the world, as our Christian friends are wont to believe. It means at the end of the soul’s world of matter.” (page 168)

“The Buddhists refer to the heavenly condition as nirvana, which well expresses that peace, the tranquil retracement of the experiences gained by the soul on its long march.” On the ‘waiting halls of heaven’: “there he waits until the call comes or he accepts the order to descend, to take another dip into earth life.” (page 176)

“The Indians, bless them, lived nearer their God than any of the proud intellectualists of the western world, did we but realize it. ¶ Here, then, is my last thought: simplicity. That is the keynote, simplicity. Life is not complex. . . Life is great in its simplicity and simple in its greatness.” (pages 186-87)

According to the sittings, both freewill and destiny exist. “. . . [T]he beloved ‘guides’. . . work persistently and consistently to piece together the broken fragments and disharmonies of human life, to bring to the human soul some degree of the Christ-consciousness. . . ¶ [W]here does freewill come in? ¶ . . . You are continually making choices, either of the upward or the lower path.” (page 189)

“I would hold out to all a hope beautiful and true beyond compare. I would assure them of progression to be won by desiring and striving after beauty, love and wisdom.” (page 200)

“There was a time when I renounced the saving grace of Jesus Christ, and, as I was led into Spiritualism I believe that Spiritualism helped me to become a little less materialistic. I gradually began to see the light and the beauty of that life the Nazarene. I accepted Him as a wonderful medium at first, as a noble Brother and comrade to man. . . .” (page 206)

Protestantism is a “religion based upon wonderful truth and pure teaching, but unfortunately over-ridden by creed and dogma. ¶ It is my work to unify, to create harmony, and not to destroy, so you will understand that I have to choose my words and give carefully thought-out answers to your questions. Therefore I prefer not to split the various denominations of orthodoxy, but to take the Christian teaching as a whole, and relate it to the life of the spirit as I find it in these realms of the discarnate. ¶ Take the teachings of the Master Jesus . . . truth, simplicity, and yet a vast depth of spiritual understanding.” (page 212)

“We do not propound a gospel of vicarious atonement. . . . To every soul, of whatever skin colour, whatever religion, there comes the dawning of the Great White Light . . . in other words, the Cosmic Christ; or, in yet other words, Jesus, the Christ, the One Beloved; the one Supreme Being.” (page 217)

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a gift to the world during his earthly life – and he lives on and, through Book of the Beyond, continues to dispense wisdom to us from the other side.



Abrahamsen, Valerie A. Paranormal: A New Testament Scholar Looks at the Afterlife. Manchester Center, Vermont: Shires Press, 2015.

Cooke, Ivan. Arthur Conan Doyle’s Book of the Beyond. New Lands, England: The White Eagle Publishing Trust, 2006.

Doyle, Arthur Conan. A History of Spiritualism, two volumes. New York: Arno Press, 1975; originally published 1926.