Alfred Deakin was Australia’s second Prime Minister and served three terms in the turbulent first decade after Federation. He had been an MP in the Victorian parliament from 1880 (when he was only 23) and one of the key figures in the movement for Federation. He was widely respected across the political spectrum, not only for his legendary skills as an orator, but as a man who put his belief in a Federated Australia ahead of his own career aspirations in politics, and as a down-to-earth pragmatist.

It’s surprising to learn, then, that Deakin was also a man very much interested in, and for a time strongly influenced by, a belief in his ability to be guided by the spirits of those who had departed this earth.

Deakin was born in George Street, Collingwood (now Fitzroy), just off Gertrude Street, but his family later moved to Domain Road in South Yarra. In his late teens, while studying Law at the University of Melbourne, he joined a group of spiritualists. Spiritualism was of growing interest as the Victorians confronted the dawning scientific age and sought to reconcile ideas like Darwin’s with those of traditional Christianity.

Deakin attended séances and then began holding them at his home with a regular group of young spiritualists. Some authors have suggested that séances were also a convenient way for young men and women to gather in a dark room and hold hands in an era renowned for being pretty conservative and strict on such matters!

But for Deakin, it seems to have been a very serious matter. For some time, he believed that his life was being influenced by spirits or intelligences from beyond the grave. In fact, over a number of sessions with another spiritualist, he wrote a lengthy and rather rambling book called A New Pilgrim’s Progress believing strongly that he was channeling the thoughts and words of the author of The Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan.

Clearly at this time, in the 1870s, he thought of himself as a medium, someone through whom spirits or intelligences could communicate with the living, although there’s no evidence that he ever fell into a trance at a séance in the “classic” style of the medium.

Deakin also taught in the Spiritualists’ version of Sunday School and became president of the Spiritualist Association for a time. But he was already distancing himself somewhat from the Spiritualist movement when he stood for election for the seat of West Bourke in the Victorian parliament. This didn’t stop his opponents seizing on his past activities in an attempt to ridicule him with scathing descriptions of the immorality that must underlie a work like A New Pilgrim’s Progress.

The young Alfred Deakin claims to be a medium, and he claims divine inspiration, and is also the author of a disgusting book… the fantasies of an impure mind

Nonetheless, he was elected and served as a Government minister, as Attorney-General, as Minister for Irrigation, and as Chief Secretary.

Through his years as PM and in Federal parliament, he continued to write poems and prayers and to take a very strong interest in spirituality more generally, and especially in what he could learn from Eastern religions. He spent time in India on his way to and from England when lobbying for Federation and an Australian constitution, and he read a lot about Islam and was very interested in the life of the prophet Mohammed.

One area where Deakin was well ahead of his time was animal rights and the prevention of cruelty. He sponsored an unsuccessful bill on animal cruelty and, in fact, he spent some years as a vegetarian for what appear to have been mainly moral and spiritual reasons, but this was kept relatively quiet – strangely, it seems vegetarianism may have been thought of as “weirder” than spiritualism at the time!

Yet at no time does Deakin’s decision-making or leadership appear to have been strongly influenced by his religious beliefs or spirituality, and he seems to have supported moves to enshrine separation of church and state in the Australian Constitution.

It’s interesting and revealing to contrast this complex spiritual life of Deakin, a life of exploration and openness in an era that we think of as having been ruled by narrow conservative values, against the focus of the media today on pigeon-holing politicians as either believers or non-believers, as being Catholic or atheist, and as being inevitably influenced by their spiritual or religious beliefs in how they go about making decisions. Imagine the scorn and ridicule if it emerged that one of today’s politicians regularly played with a Ouija board!