AUSTIN, BENJAMIN FISH, educator, Methodist minister, editor, author, spiritualist, and publisher; b. 21 Sept. 1850 in what was soon to become Brighton Township, Upper Canada, son of Benjamin Franklin Austin and Mary Ann McGuire; m. 16 June 1881 Frances Amanda Connell (d. 1928), a music teacher, in Prescott, Ont., and they had one son and three daughters; d. 22 Jan. 1933 in Los Angeles, and his ashes were buried in the family plot in St Thomas, Ont.
After a public-school education in Brighton and several years of teaching and lay preaching, Benjamin Fish Austin attended Albert College in Belleville, earning a ba in 1877 with first-class honours in oriental languages and literature. That same year he was ordained in the Methodist Episcopal Church of Canada. He subsequently obtained an ma (1878) and a bd (1881) at his alma mater. Victoria University in Toronto would award him an honorary dd in 1896. In 1881, after brief ministerial charges in Prescott and Ottawa, Austin moved with his wife to St Thomas, where he became the first principal of Alma Ladies’ College, opened that year by the Methodist Church in Canada. He met with the students’ approval and he increased enrolments and faculty, but he was not adept at fund-raising. Citing personal reasons, including “family affliction and much anxiety of mind over various matters,” he resigned in 1897 to pursue literary activities – at, in his own words, “a much ampler salary” – in Toronto. He then joined the editorial board of the Linscott Publishing Company; in 1900 he incorporated the Austin Publishing Company Limited.
Over the years Austin had been involved with a series of publishing ventures. At Albert College he had been joint editor of the Temperance Union, of which little record remains. In 1879 he edited The Methodist Episcopal Church pulpit … (Toronto), a collection of sermons by ministers of his church in Ontario. A year later he brought out in Toronto 12 of his sermons under the title Popular sins …. Other publications included The Jesuits … ([St Thomas], 1889), a pamphlet inspired by the Jesuit estates agitation [see D’Alton McCarthy*; Honoré Mercier*]; with an introduction by James Laughlin Hughes, this work went through a number of editions and brought Austin into conflict with the Roman Catholic priest of St Thomas, William Flannery*. Austin’s most substantial venture was Woman: her character, culture and calling (1890), which contains articles by him and others under his general editorship. This work marks him as a champion of women’s issues, a side of his career still largely unexplored by academics.
The release of Glimpses of the unseen (1898) revealed his shift to more esoteric topics. This publication is an objective, well-researched introduction to parapsychology. It was followed by What converted me to spiritualism, a compendium of personal experiences with the occult collected from Canadian, American, and British sources that he brought out in 1901. It includes Austin’s own conversion statement, as well as that of Flora MacDonald Denison [Merrill*], a fellow Canadian whom he had met at the spiritualist camp in Lily Dale, N.Y. (In the same year he published Denison’s novel Mary Melville, the psychic.) Rare in their original format, these texts remain valuable resources for the history of parapsychology in Canada. There seem to have been a number of factors in Austin’s conversion to spiritualism: the influence of apparent psychic manifestations among his students at Alma Ladies’ College, his increasing interest in the study of psychology, his distress over his daughter Kathleen Dell’s death at the age of two, and perhaps the existence of a pragmatic element in his personality that sought physical evidence of life after death to augment church dogma.
While his books on the occult caused little stir generally, his beliefs inevitably led to conflict with the Methodist Church of Canada, which had absorbed the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1884 [see Albert Carman*]. On 8 Jan. 1899 he preached at the Parkdale Methodist Church in Toronto. Arguing that “all truth is sacred and divine,” Austin developed a case for an open inquiry into such things as “telepathy, clairyvoyance [sic], soul flight, psychometry and prophecy.” If some members of the congregation were a bit shocked, they raised no protest. It was the Reverend Arthur H. Going of Port Stanley who, having heard about the sermon, asked Austin to recant its contents. Austin refused and shortly afterwards Going accused him of heresy. A preliminary trial was held by the church on 15 May 1899 in Aylmer; Austin was found guilty on three of four charges and was suspended. At the annual meeting of the London Conference in Windsor the following month, Austin spoke for some three hours. Choosing not to address the individual counts against him, he dealt instead with the scientific evidence that supported a belief in spiritualism. His ministerial audience was not impressed and his expulsion from the ranks of the clergy was upheld. This experience would mark him for life in that he would never again accept any strict sectarian orthodoxy. Nor, it appears, would he return much to Canada.
In 1903–4 Austin was in Geneva, N.Y., intending to take up a position as head of the women’s college that philanthropist William Smith was planning to found, but the appointment did not materialize. He then moved to Rochester, where he became the minister of First Spiritual Church (Plymouth Spiritualist Church). From this pulpit he acquired a reputation as a speaker, and his sermons appeared regularly in the local press. By April 1913 he had relocated to Los Angeles, where he was ordained by the National Spiritualist Association of the United States of America in 1914. In the remaining years of his life he served as pastor for, or lectured in, most of the spiritualist churches in California. He also participated in frequent summer lecture tours across the United States, defending spiritualist beliefs. Publishing continued to interest him. Reason magazine, which he had begun in Toronto as the Sermon and taken with him to Geneva, Rochester, and Los Angeles, appeared for a number of years as a monthly. By the 1920s, however, it was being issued only four times a year. In 1926 it was joined by the Austin Pulpit; each issue of this quarterly carried two lectures given in the Church of Revelation in Los Angeles, presumably by Austin, who spoke there on a regular basis. It was reported that over his lifetime he authored approximately 27 pamphlets on various topics in support of spiritualism. The foundation of his publishing enterprise in the United States was a set of plates for the 27-volume work of the early spiritualist author Andrew Jackson Davis, which provided a substantial income. Austin Publishing nevertheless ran into debt, and it would cease operations the year after Austin’s death.
After being ousted from his Methodist pulpit and leaving Canada, Austin built a career as an important voice for spiritualism in the United States, a society he found more responsive to radical ideas. In his view, spiritualism was a modernist movement, and he maintained that its beliefs were convincingly supported by science and reason. He nevertheless retained his faith in the Christ of the New Testament. What he could no longer accept was the rigid dogma that defined Christian theology.
Benjamin Fish Austin’s main publications are Glimpses of the unseen … (Toronto and Brantford, Ont., ), The heresy trial of Rev. B. F. Austin, m.a., d.d., ex-principal of Alma College … (Toronto, ), which includes “Synopsis of the heresy sermon” (pp.8–13), and The A.B.C. of spiritualism … (Los Angeles, 1920). He also edited Woman: her character, culture and calling … (Brantford, 1890) and What converted me to spiritualism: one hundred testimonies (Toronto, 1901).
Information on the subject can be found in the UCC-C in the Benjamin Fish Austin fonds, F 3007, and in the material on Alma College held in several collections.
“Dr. Austin’s side,” Globe, 3 June 1899: 30. Ramsay Cook, The regenerators: social criticism in late Victorian English Canada (Toronto, 1985). E. W. Edwards, The history of Alma College, St. Thomas, Ontario (n.p., 1927). “In memoriam,” National Spiritualist (Chicago), 15 (1933), no.171: 6. Stan McMullin, Anatomy of a seance: a history of spirit communication in central Canada (Montreal and Kingston, Ont., 2004). J. M. Selles[-Roney], “‘Manners and morals’? or ‘men in petticoats’? Education at Alma College, 1871–1898,” in Gender and education in Ontario: an historical reader, ed. Ruby Heap and Alison Prentice (Toronto, 1991), 249–72; Methodists and women’s education in Ontario, 1836–1925 (Montreal and Kingston, 1996). W. H. Smith, Hobart and William Smith: the history of two colleges (Geneva, N.Y., 1972).