Some Older Reports of Shared-Death Experiences

In 2010, Raymond Moody and Paul Perry wrote and published Glimpses of Eternity, introducing "shared death experiences" to the public discourse. In these reports, loved ones or caregivers attending to a dying person describe anomalous perceptions and sensations. Some of the phenomena are distinctive: the feeling that the geometry of the room or space has “shifted” or witnessing strange mists or ethereal forms. Sometimes they correspond to classical features of NDE accounts, such as floating through a tunnel, sharing in the dying person’s life review, witnessing a brilliant light that doesn’t hurt the eyes, or even traveling into a “heavenly” realm.

The earliest recorded incidents of shared death experiences that Moody notes in Glimpses of Eternity were documented by founding members of Britain’s Society for Psychical Research in the late 19th century. Over the course of this past year, I have stumbled across three brief accounts that occurred even earlier. This is a helpful confirmation concerning shared death experiences; not, perhaps, to their metaphysical import, which is a much more difficult debate, but to their phenomenological reality. These accounts were recorded well before the emergence of spiritualism and psychical research; well before terms like “seance” and “paranormal” and “NDE” entered the lexicon.

17th Century England
The first one comes to us from Mary Penington, wife of the early Quaker leader Isaac Penington. Several months after Isaac had died, Mary wrote a “testimony” concerning her husband’s virtue and her love for him. It ends with this description of what she experienced upon his passing:

Ah me! He is gone! He that none exceeded in kindness, in tenderness, in love inexpressible to the relation as a wife. Next to the love of God in Christ Jesus to my soul, was his love precious and delightful to me. My bosom-one! that was as my guide and counsellor! my pleasant companion! my tender sympathizing friend! as near to the sense of my pain, sorrow, grief and trouble as it was possible. Yet this great help and benefit is gone; and I, a poor worm, a very little one to him, compassed about with many infirmities, through mercy let him go without an unadvised word of discontent, or inordinate grief. Nay, further; such was the great kindness the Lord showed to me in that hour, that my spirit ascended with him in that very moment that his spirit left his body; and I saw him safe in his own mansion, and rejoiced with him, and was at that instant gladder of it, than ever I was of enjoying him in the body. And from this sight my spirit returned again to perform my duty to his outward tabernacle, to the answer of a good conscience.

6th Century Italy
A much older narrative is provided by Pope Gregory the Great. It is found in his four-volume work Dialogues, which is a collection of miracles, healings, and other extraordinary experiences contemporary to his writing. Gregory relates the following:

While Probus, Bishop of Reate, was lying sick, a boy who was with him suddenly saw certain men clad in white robes coming to the man of God. The splendor of the vision alarmed the boy. He began to cry out, and disturbed the bishop. The latter saw and recognized the visitors, and began to comfort the boy. “Do not fear, my son, for the holy martyrs Juvenal and Eleutherius have come to me.” However, the boy ran away, and the bishop was found dead.

18th Century America
This last account was reported by a Particular Baptist in the colonies of British America. I deliver this third-hand, as it was recorded by a Baptist historian at the time, Morgan Edwards, and is reproduced by Thomas S. Kidd and Barry Hankins in the recent book Baptists in America: A History (Oxford University Press, 2015), pp. 27-28.

Philip James was a Pennsylvania native who became the first pastor of Welsh Neck Church in South Carolina in 1743. Ten years later, one of his children sickened and passed away. Overwhelmed by despair, James fell into some sort of coma. Upon his recovery, he related the following vision:

[M]y soul quitted my body [and] the resemblance of a man in black made towards me, and (frowning and chiding for wishing to die) took me up towards the sun, which filled me with fear. As I was ascending, a bright figure interposed and my black conductor was pushed off. The bright man took me by the hand and said, “We go this way,” pointing to the north. And as we ascended, I saw a company of angels and my child among them, (clothed in white and in the full stature of a man) sing with them as the company passed by us, whereupon my bright conductor said, “I am one of that company and must join them.” And as he quitted me I found myself sinking fast till I came to my body.

Kidd and Hankins make the following comment:

Edwards’s admiring account of James’s experience hints that this kind of spirit journey was acceptable among many early American Baptists, just as it was among American evangelicals more broadly.

In the future, I hope especially to do further research on trances, visions, and other anomalous phenomena as reported by Protestants who participated in the "Great Awakening" revival of the 18th century.
Last edited: