He was born Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle into a strict Roman Catholic household. He was sent away to Jesuit boarding schools until he was 17 years old and although some aspects of the religion appealed to him he believed that the foundations of Catholicism, and all Christian based faiths, were fundamentally weak so he chose to be an agnostic.
Conan Doyle received his degree in medicine from the University of Edinburgh Medical School in 1881 and by this time had already began investigating Spiritualism and had began attending séances, a fact that rebuffs the more common idea that he found spiritualism after his son Kingsley died in 1918. In fact, by that point not only had Conan Doyle believed in spiritualism for almost 30 years, but he had even declared this fact in The Light magazine in 1916 and spoken publicly about his beliefs in 1917. His first book to deal with the subject, The New Revelation, was published before Kingsley’s death, too, so it is fair to say that Arthur’s belief in spiritualism was not a knee-jerk reaction to his son’s death.
Conan Doyle didn’t immediately fill the void left by his loss of faith in Catholicism with spiritualism. It took him until 1887 to write two letters to The Light, in which he discussed his conversion to spiritualism, a fact that once again plays down any talk of an overnight and rash change of faith. He joined the British Society for Psychical Research in 1893 which at that time counted groundbreaking naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace, philosopher William James, scientists Williams Crookes and Oliver Lodge and future Prime Minister Arthur Balfour amongst its members.
During one of his investigations for the society in 1894 Conan Doyle was involved in a case that reinforced his beliefs when he, along with fellow researchers Frank Podmore and Dr Sydney Scott, was asked to look into a possible haunting case at the Dorset home of a Colonel Elmore. The Elmore family had reported strange, loud, pained sounds that were so disturbing that most of the staff left their jobs and the family dog would not enter the rooms where the noises emanated from. After spending some evenings at the home and hearing some very loud sounds, the party left unsatisfied as their findings were inconclusive. Not long after this, the body of a young child was found buried in the garden and Conan Doyle believed that it was the spirit of the dead child that was responsible for the phenomena in the house.
Although Conan Doyle had continued his research into spiritualism, he hadn’t spoken publicly about his beliefs although he did drop hints about his thoughts on the subject through his character Stark Munro in The Stark Munro Letters in 1895. This relative silence all changed as a result of World War I, as he himself is quoted as saying:
‘I might have drifted on my whole life as a psychical researcher… but the War came, and it brought earnestness into all our souls and made us look more closely at our own beliefs and reassess our values.’
In 1916, he wrote an article in The Light, discussing his change of attitude and reinvigorated belief in spiritualism, and from that moment on his life’s work became the spreading of the ‘new revelation’, even though he was fully aware of the damage it would do to his reputation.
The New Revelation, which was his first published work to deal with spiritualism, arrived in 1918 and the following year he released The Vital Message, which was solely concerned with spiritualist matters. By 1920 he had embarked on a tour of Australia and New Zealand promoting spiritualism, and had also written about the infamous Cottingley fairies, which would prove to be very damaging to his credibility.
In the early 1920s, Conan Doyle toured the United States and Canada. In 1924, he translated Leon Denis’s Jeanne D’Arc Medium from the French, and in the following year travelled through France lecturing. His book, The History of Spiritualism, was published in 1926 and from then on until his death in 1930 he continued to go from country to country lecturing, taking in Rhodesia, South Africa, Uganda, Tanganyika, Kenya, Scandinavia and Holland on his way.
Conan Doyle continued his staunch belief that some part of us survives our physical death right up to his own death of a heart attack at his home in Crowborough, East Sussex, on 7 July 1930.