The daughter of a sea captain, Emma Hardinge Britten was born Emma Floyd in London, England in 1823. She began demonstrating psychic abilities at a young age including the ability to predict people's futures. She also had a talent for piano playing. By the age of 11, she was already teaching music following the death of her father. Britten had been close to her father and was devastated by his death, but she had to work in order to help support the family.
While still a youth, she also became involved with a secret London occult society. She referred to this group as the Orphic Circle in her writing but explained that she could not actually identify them. A number of her associates in this circles were people from high society. By this time, she had also begun performing publicly as a pianist as well as writing music under the pen name Ernest Reinhold. She was also known for predicting what her audience wanted to hear played without their verbal requests.
Britten began working in theater as well where she claimed to have befriended and worked with the writer Charles Dickens, and around 1844, she adopted the pseudonym Emma Harding to use in her acting work. In 1855, she traveled to the United States to begin working as an actress there. She opened a show on Broadway as a leading lady, and she also began to learn about Spiritualism.
She had her first big breakthrough as a medium around this time when she was possessed by the spirit of a sailor who had died in the sinking of his steamer, Pacific. She also met a woman named Elizabeth French who was a prominent medium though not without controversy; French had been sued by a farmer for fraud, but her career survived. She and Harding went into business together running galvanic medicine clinics. Galvanic medicine involved using bits of metal, batteries and other devices that conducted electricity to treat illness.
All the same, Harding found the next few years difficult. Her theater work lessened, and she advertised as a private music teacher who would visit people's homes. She began developing her psychic abilities further and rising to prominence in Spiritualist circles in both the United States and Europe.
Britten began traveling all over the United States as a medium and psychic. She visited the Northeast, the Midwest and the South as well as remote Western towns. In the various regions and cities she came into contact with different interpretations of Spiritualism as well as different circles of people including prominent intellectuals and writers of the time such as Bret Harte. She was so widely sought after as a lecturer that Abraham Lincoln's campaign asked her to speak on their behalf in 1964. Britten accepted; her fame was growing outside of Spiritualist circles. Her talks became more political, and she delivered a eulogy at Lincoln's death.
In 1865, she returned to London. Around this time, she was increasingly adding the “e” onto her last name and was referred to as Miss or Mrs. Hardinge. Unfortunately, in London, her non-Spiritualist lectures were not as popular as they had been in the United States. She went back to the United States in 1866 and where she began giving Spiritualist lectures again only to return again to England a year later and begin work on a book, “Modern American Spiritualism.” She spent two years writing the book, and by 1869 and 1870 she was lecturing again in the United States. Her book had also been published. She married a Boston spiritualist named William Britten, and over the next few years, she moved back and forth between London and the United States delivering lectures.
In 1872, she attempted to publish a regular spiritualist paper, “The Western Star,” but she managed only half a dozen issues before it folded. She and her husband also promoted themselves as practicing galvanic medicine. In New York, she met Helena Blavatsky, Henry Steel Olcutt and others and assisted in the formation of the Theosophical Society. In 1876, she edited “Art Magic.” The author was anonymous, and the book dealt with both magnetism and psychology.
It was a significant Spiritualist text for many years. Following its publication, Britten began a series of lectures on the topic in the United States, and she and her husband then went to New Zealand and Australia where she continued lecturing. In 1879, she published “Faiths, Facts and Frauds,” which was heavily based on the sections about religion in “Art Magic.”
The following year she and her husband returned to San Francisco where they spent several months with area occultists; they subsequently went back East where she lectured in New York during part of the summer and fall. In 1881, she and her husband moved to Manchester, England where she began working on another book about Spiritualism. By this time, the movement had received some bad press due to the high-profile exposure of a number of frauds. Britten wrote in defense of the movement and also took on a heavy lecturing schedule.
Her book “Nineteenth Century Miracles” was published in 1884, and she returned to the United States shortly after. After several speaking engagements, she went back home to Manchester, and in 1887, she started the Spiritualist newspaper “The Two Worlds.” She resigned as editor in 1892 amid some financial scandals, and that same year, she started a new publication, “The Unseen Universe.”
Throughout this final decade of her life, she wrote a number of books of both fiction and nonfiction. William Britten died in 1894, and Emma Hardinge Britten followed in 1899.
Britten is responsible for the seven principles of Spiritualism that Spiritualist associations in both the United States and the United Kingdom use to this day. Of her books, “Modern American Spiritualism” and “Nineteenth Century Miracles” are considered particularly significant in their exploration of Spiritualism in the nineteenth century. Her speaking and publishing brought many people to Spiritualism, and she is one of the most significant figures in the movement of the nineteenth century.