Reverend Charles Cox on mediumship, White House seances and talking to the dead
Reverend Charles Cox is a Spiritualist minister, which means he performs the rituals most ministers do: weddings, christenings and funerals. But Charles Cox also communes with the dead, and Cox will teach a class tonight at Isis Books and Gifts on the history of mediumship and the meaning religion of Spiritualism. In advance of this class, we caught up with Cox to talk about seances in the Lincoln White House, the evolution of mediumship, and his own experiences communicating with the beyond.
See also: - Over the weekend: Ghost hunting at the Spirits of Victor Paranormal Convention - Ten spooky stories from Denver's own Croke-Patterson mansion - Local ghosthunters on the Bio channel's My Ghost Story Saturday
Westword: What is your class going to cover?
Reverend Charles Cox: To put the class in context, it's for the Aspen Program for Psychic Development, which is a small company here in town that teaches folks how to develop psychic abilities. I am a Spiritualist minister, I have been for nearly 22 years, and a lot of these folks that want to be psychics, they don't have any context for this work. They don't know where it started. In their minds it started with Sylvia Browne or something like that, when in fact the history of this goes way back to Emanuel Swedenborg up through New England, where it really took off. What we understand as Spiritualism and psychic development took place in the 1800s in New York and it spread across the country.
So the class is four hours covering the history of this so that people in their path understand that they're actually a part of something bigger, that it's not just something that started last week or last month. For a lot of people, I know me, something starts when I first hear about it. [Laughs.] A lot of these folks, they just heard about Sylvia Browne ten years ago and they just figured that Sylvia Browne started it. Well, she's part of a long tradition of different people.
What do you think people will get out of learning about the history?
For sure they'll get that it's everywhere, that we live in a much more uptight world than, say, a hundred years ago when Spiritualism in the 1850s was sweeping across the country. President Lincoln and Mary Todd Lincoln had seances in the White House because they had lost a young child and Mary Todd Lincoln was so grief-stricken that they had seances. I think there have probably been other seances, but during the Lincoln White House that was covered, like, in the New York Times. Can you imagine a headline today? Barack and Michelle Obama held a seance in the Lincoln bedroom? It would be the scandal of all scandals.
What I want them to get is that this has been around both in humor and in real life. A lot of movies made in the '30s and '40s had images in them that were borrowed directly from Spiritualism. People are aware of the funny movie and the mist in the room and the torso that doesn't have any legs, but they don't know why any of that is. I've seen movies where there's a musical instrument or a trumpet flying around the room, but the history is that Spiritualists used to use a trumpet, which was just a piece of aluminum that was made into a cone shape like something a cheerleader would have, and that's part of the seances of yesteryear are these folded aluminum trumpets. This comes up all the time.
I've taught the class for four years now, and on YouTube there used to be a ten-minute segment of I Love Lucy where she hosted a seance in her house. The last time I went to go look at it CBS had pulled it stating copyright infringement, but even back in the '50s people in their little homes all across the country were being exposed to this, but it was Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz so it was funny. But there it was, the subject matter being introduced into our society. I bring it up into current times and into mediumship today, and one of the things that I talk about is how so many kind of new-age, self-empowerment type stuff has infiltrated itself into modern day religion. Joel Osteen is a guy who has a big church down in Houston, and he's on every television station; I see him all the time. He's a nice-looking guy, but a lot of what he talks about is less hardcore, beating-you-over-the-head religion and more about how you are the master of your own choices and your choices have implications and that God wants to work with you, which is not really out of the Bible. But it appeals to people, because who wants to go through life with the philosophy that your life is slated to this and it's gonna end someday and that's it? That sucks. It's depressing. [Laughs.] Why save money 'cause if God's gonna crash the stock market, God's gonna crash the stock market. Why be kind to people or why take care of your health or why anything?
A lot of the messages that come through and came through from early mediums were about those very specific things and about social issues. In the 1850s there were these Spiritualist women across the country who were in favor of women's rights and abolishing slavery and all kinds of social issues that were not popular at the time were being popularized by predominantly women, and it gave them a political voice. No one cared what you thought as a woman, but all of a sudden you're talking to the great beyond and the great beyond says we shouldn't have slavery. It's very fascinating.
Spiritualism itself, which I'm a minister of, is a religion. It's a very small religion, but it's a religion, and it was rebuffed when it first came into being because so many of its ministers were women and in the 1850s that was a no-no. Mainstream religions were turned off by this because they didn't want their women talking about social issues or talking to dead people or anything. It was basically just, don't talk. It's always timely, because I think it puts a lot of what we do and say today in context. It's no big deal if you drive over to Isis Books or For Heaven's Sake up in north Denver or whatever, but within my lifetime, and I'm fifty, that's come into being okay. Before, there used to be small shops where the only reason you knew that metaphysical shop was there was because someone told you, or small booksellers would have metaphysical and psychic sections. It was akin to an adult section in a video store. [Laughs.] So I'm just trying to put people into a context of what they're doing and what they're a part of. I talk a lot about my experiences and what I've seen in the thirty years that I've been involved with Spiritualism, and hopefully they walk away with a greater understanding of the role they might play and the history of it.
How did it become less taboo in the past few years?
The Internet has helped tons, because imagine being a housewife in the middle of Nebraska and you just have an interest in this. Who do you talk to? Do you go down and talk to your Southern Baptist minister and say, "I feel like my mom after she passed away came and talked to me?" Hello, they're gonna do an exorcism on the spot. So now these people who were previously disconnected became connected. Under the same heading as the Internet then also is Amazon. There's not a bookstore in the world that could carry all of the stuff that Amazon carries. It allowed people access to books and tapes and classes and stuff that just would not have existed before that for them. They would not even know where to look, and now they can look in the privacy of their own home. The last time I ordered something from Amazon it came in a package that said "Amazon." It didn't say "Caution! Scary psychic book inside" or anything like that. You can have some privacy and the ability to explore your own beliefs. And then just in pop culture, starting with the '50s, we become okay with stuff because we see it and we know that it's not threatening. Even back with the I Love Lucy, I just cannot put myself in the place of being a housewife in the 1950s watching I Love Lucy and being fascinated with watching a seance. And it's all funny, and if you laugh at stuff it takes all the energy off of it, so even something that might be a little uncomfortable you can laugh at it a little bit and then all of a sudden it's not really as scary as it was a minute ago.
What do you think people in the class will be surprised to learn?
I think they'll be surprised to learn how socially active early mediums were, this idea of attacking subjects like suffrage and slavery. They were always very socially active in that they wanted to make sure that everybody in the community ate. They set up a lot of social organizations. For me, a lot of the new-age stuff that's out there today like The Secret and other things like that, is about if I say the right word it's gonna get me stuff. Those early mediums were about making a change in the world, they weren't about if I say the right word I'm gonna get the house of my dreams or the woman of my dreams. Our culture today is all about what can I get, what's in it for me? Take this class and you can make all the money that you've ever wanted to make, or attract the love that you want as opposed to being open to the flow of life. And the truth is we're in that flow of life anyway, so you might as well acknowledge that it's there, because nobody lives outside of it. Once in a while I'll read a book or I'll see a TV program where they talk about how they've gotten everything that they wanted. It's just a lie. At that point they're just a lying infomercial like any other one. It's just not true. That doesn't happen in the real world. So I think the emphasis of being of service to other folks and an emphasis on social issues would surprise people.
The specific type of mediumship you're talking about in the class, is it mostly based in seances and communicating with spirits?
Yes, mediumship is almost exclusively talking to dead people. It's people in your family that are coming forward, friends and loved ones that you've lost, and that is the historical definition of mediumship. But it has expanded out more to kind of doing psychic readings as well. Early Spiritualists were only concerned with contacting people that had passed on. That was their gig.
Is connecting with spirits something that you believe anyone can do?
It is. I do believe it's something that everyone can do with a little practice. I believe that wholeheartedly. It's a skill like anything else. If you write for Westword, my guess is that the first couple of times you wrote something down it didn't go well and you probably still have an editor who looks at stuff and makes minor changes and whatever, but as you get more experienced your skill becomes stronger, you become more confident, you learn new things. Doing this work is the same way. When I started I was a young man: I was first introduced to Spiritualism when I was seventeen, and there was no other outlet. I grew up in Omaha, Nebraska. There were no metaphysical bookstores, there was no Internet, and so these women that I worked with focused on practice. For some people, they go to the gym and lift weights. For some people, they bake until they get the dish right, and for me it was just sitting and doing this work until I got better at it. And once I got better at it I thought, I could do this. The classes that we teach with the Aspen Program are based on that same train of thought, that everyone can do this and it's just a matter of practice. It may take years, but to be a good writer or to be ridiculously physically fit -- unless you're eighteen and it comes naturally -- all of those things take time and focus. I think anyone can do it and it's just a matter of practice.
How would you describe Spiritualism to someone who doesn't know anything about it?
Spiritualism is a religion and it believes in the continuation of life after the body dies, and that continuation of life is proven by the communication that comes through. When I read for someone, I'm not really good with names. It would be unlike me to say, "Robin, there's a man standing here, oh, it's your father and his name is Jack." I'm not good at that. And that's all flashy when you can do that and I don't make any faces at that at all, but for me when someone comes through, generally what they'll do is they'll give me a piece of information, they'll show me something or say something to me that then confirms in your mind that that's who I'm talking to. That's Grandma I'm talking to. And then you know it. So Spiritualism is the pursuit of those communications that prove that life continues after death.
My sister passed away a year and a half ago very suddenly -- she was 45 -- and about six months later I was laying on my bed reading and all of a sudden I realized that I could hear her talking, much how if you were laying on the bed you could hear someone talking in the hallway. I could hear her talking. I just laid the book down on my chest and said, "I don't have that kind of relationship with you," just really friendly. Not that we were unfriendly, just that she had married young and had kids and they lived somewhere else and she just laughed out loud and said, "You do now." I don't know who you share that with, because it's just so personal and kind of weird. So that very week in a class we were doing a circle where we train people to get messages from the other side. So this woman came to class who I've never seen before and she said, "Charles, can I come to you? I have a message." And she said, "There's a sister here. Oh, it's a younger sister. She says she laughs at your stupid jokes, she thinks you're a goofball." Which, if you talk to me even the period of time that you've talked to me today, I'm a funny guy and I can be a goofball, so I was like, you're not really blowing my skirt up with that, right? But then the lady pauses and she says, "Yep, she thinks you're a goofball. But she likes the relationship you have now." That's what my sister said to me privately. To me, that's how messages come through that speak to you. Something that is meaningful to you. It wouldn't mean anything to me if someone said to me, "Your grandma's here." I'm fifty years old. I probably don't have any living grandmas.
Where do you think the spirits are speaking to us from?
I believe as we become more and more familiar with new physics that we're going to find out that of course consciousness survives the body. In a hundred years it's just gonna be a well, duh. But that consciousness is existing in another plane and they're talking across a chasm. Whenever I do a reading for someone, spirits don't just pop in. It's like they have to slow down or they have to make an effort for me to see them and to get a message across. And I love that, actually. That speaks to me about where they're coming from. I think they're on another plane. I think there's another plane of existence. New physics now believes that the space that you're in, the space that I'm in is being occupied not only by planes that are sharing the same point in space that you and I are, but that that time and space may be different. If you watch any paranormal shows, some of the paranormal activity guys will find a haunting where you see a woman walk down the hall and pet a cat and then it starts over like a loop in a videotape. I've heard some of these folks, they believe that some of these are energetic imprints on that space. That some lonely woman walked down that hall and pet her only friend that was the cat and that left like an energy imprint.
What are your duties as a Spiritualist minister?
I'm ordained in a church in the middle of Kansas that has been there since 1881 and I studied out there and was ordained in 1991. I serve the church. I'm really a teacher -- I've never been drawn to have my own church here in Denver even though there's a giant, huge, sucking need for it. I've had more fun teaching. I love being able to show people that they can do this and that this particular skill is available to them and showing them how to better their life. As a minister, I truly believe that the other side or whatever that means, that there are people who want to help us to be happy, healthy, to be loved, to be connected, and that in this really noisy world that we live in with hundreds of radio stations and thousands of cable stations and billions of websites that it creates a noise that we're less connected to that voice that just wants to guide you towards these really simple things. At the end of your life, that's all that's left are the happinesses that you've found along the way. It's not so much about the money in the bank, it's really about these really personal things. My job as a teacher in the church is to teach people the principles of Spiritualism and what can be used in their life, but secondly is to minister to them one on one and talk to them about what's really important, which isn't whether or not you get that Maserati.
I had this experience myself when I was just about thirty. I bought this Mustang and, oh my God, it was this beautiful sky-blue convertible Mustang. And the car payments were $500 a month. And people would swoon over that car and I was like, oh my God, I'd run this off a cliff if I could after a year of car payments. I try to be real with people about things that have happened in my life and how it applies to their life. At fifty I've lost both my parents and I've lost my only sibling, so when someone comes to me and they have a parent who's sick or a sibling or a close friend, I can relate to that and talk to them about those experiences. Not because I read about it, but because I've been there. I serve the church once a year and do readings and teach and serve the church in whatever way they want so they can keep on going. I've done christenings and funerals and weddings galore. But I also talk to the dead.
For more information about the Aspen Program for Psychic Development and to register for classes, visit their website. Check out Cox's church, Sunset Spiritualist Church, and the Denver Psychic Development Group, which he founded.
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events happening in the Denver art and theater scene.