People v. Elmer Supreme Court of Michigan.
May 26, 1896. 67 NW 5506

Arthur Elmer was convicted of being a “disorderly person,” when be published a newspaper ad saying:   

Will Arrive at Ionia, Mich., July 23, 1895. A modern day seer is now in the city, and can be consulted on all conceivable affairs of life and human destiny. This strange gift, which he only uses to the advantage of the human race, excites the wonder and admiration of the most skeptical, and will drive doubt from your mind, and slay skepticism on the threshold of the interview. Being born with this marvelous power, and thoroughly conversant with the occult science, his revelations are truly wonderful, and acknowledged to be of the highest order. It has been said of him: ‘Never in the annals of clairvoyancy have future events been so truthfully foretold.’ He permits you a peep through the keyhole of the mysterious future, by which you may obtain the key of your future life and success. Advises you with a strange certainty of the proper course to pursue in life. If business affairs concern you, he gives advice on business transactions, lawsuits, wills, mortgages, speculations, pension claims, and other financial difficulties. If affairs of the heart or emotions of love interest you, he gives you some astonishing revelations of courtship, marriage, divorce, and domestic troubles. Restores lost affection, peace, and confidence to lovers and discordant families on a positive guaranty. Tells the name of your future husband or wife, and date of marriage. Locates lost, stolen, and buried property and treasures, on positive guaranty. No money taken until goods are in your possession. Also locates friends and relatives. No charge until you find them. Psychometry, or soul reading. Doctor gives delineations of character, and tells what you are best adapted for.

And then, in the same paper:

Will Arrive at Ionia, Mich., July 23, 1895. A Modern Day Seer, the Noted Dr. Arthur Elmer, Clairvoyant, Trance Medium, and Healer. Calls you by name; tells you what you called for; can give you your age, even the day and hour you were born; tells your mother’s maiden name; date of your marriage; how many children you have; gives the full names of your friends, both in life and beyond the grave; the name of the street and the number of the house in which you live; gives the number of your watch, check, bank note, etc.; tells how much money you have in your pocket; will even tell you what you have eaten within the last twenty-four hours.

The court then summarized his further claims:

The respondent also advertised himself as a “magnetic healer” and “clairvoyant physician.” This advertisement was accompanied by several letters from those who claimed to have been treated by him and cured. Several witnesses testified that they went to the respondent; that he pretended to go into a trance, and that, either while in it, or after he came out of it, he told them what would happen to them in the future. One witness testified: “He said the reason he went into a trance was to tell the future and the past.” The justice of the peace before whom the respondent was tried testified that the respondent was a witness for himself upon the trial in justice court; that he there testified that he had advised Mrs. Webber, a witness for the people, “to leave her husband; that he had been in a trance, and had seen her husband in the act of killing her; that he called his business ‘prognosticating,’ ‘looking into the future;’ not ‘telling fortunes.”’

The appellate court affirmed the conviction, both citing English law, which said that “every person pretending or professing to tell fortunes . . . shall be deemed a rogue and a vagabond” and favorably citing the observation, “No person who was not a lunatic could believe he [the respondent] possessed such power.”

Elmer was making some fantastical claims, but did his presumed failure to have these powers mean that they were impossible. Is it conceivable that a person could “peep through the keyhole of the mysterious future”? Could even God? That question seems odd, even blasphemous, but it surfaces in what’s called the Philosophy of Time.

Philosophers, Christians included, have been puzzling over the nature of time for ages. Augustine wrestled with it in Confessions in the late fourth century, and, today, members of the Society of Christians Philosophers and the Evangelical Philosophical Society still tackle it. Among the questions, we find:

  • If the past is gone and the future isn’t yet, then is the present all that really exists currently?
  • If so, how long is now?
  • If the future does not yet occur, then how could anyone, including God, see it when there’s nothing there to see?
  • Besides, wouldn’t God lock in the future if he saw it, for he couldn’t be wrong about what he saw? So what room would there be for human freedom and moral responsibility?
  • We hear sometimes that God created space and time? What sort of thing is time that he might create it? Eden and Adam and aardvarks are tangible things, but what is time?

Regarding the last of these questions, Aristotle suggested centuries before Christ’s birth that time was somehow tied to motion, such as the movement of heavenly bodies. For instance, a rotation of the earth could mean a day’s worth of time, and its revolution around the sun could mark a year. (Of course, Aristotle didn’t grasp the structure and operation of our solar system, but the idea still carries over.)

In the Christian era, in an effort to maintain God’s omniscient foreknowledge, Boethius, in the sixth century, pictured God outside of time, as if on a hill viewing, all at once, the whole span of history, with 400 BC and 400 AD simultaneously available to his gaze. (And yes, we have to use time talk, such as ‘simultaneous’ to explain time here.) So it’s no problem for the Lord to be looking directly at our next year as he looks directly at our previous year. And this solves the problem of our being brutally predestined to make damnable choices, for there’s no genuine “pre” to our destination. We just do it, and he sees it and says, “So be it,” with consequences to follow.

While some have no problem with the notion of a God who indeed shapes us and our destinies, who is able to “see” the future because he knows precisely what he will do and do with us in the future, others choose a mediating account associated with the sixteenth-century’s Luis de Molina—Molinism. Knowing our natures, he works with “middle knowledge” or “counterfacturals” (if-then truths) whereby he can channel our choices in directions he desires without violating our wills. (It’s not entirely unlike my knowing that if I tell you not to think of an elephant, then I know you will.)

Those who construe God as “atemporal” (before and outside of time, with the letter ‘a’ or “alpha privative” signally that he is not timeish, the way the ‘a’ in ‘atheist’ signals that the person is not god-accepting). But there is an option, that of calling God “everlasting,” not outside of time, but the eternal master of it. According to this way of thinking, time is essentially a matter of transition—of any sort—and the sequence of thoughts and acts of mutuality among the members of the Trinity before Creation insured that time was flowing. Things were going on, one after another; hence, the passage of time, albeit without Creation and its populace present.

Not surprisingly, Christians aren’t the only ones at work on these matters. For instance, a British philosopher, J.M.E. McTaggart wrote, in the early twentieth century, there were two strikingly different notions of the phenomenon. He labeled them “A” (that the span of time and its events have fixed, objective places in reality) and “B” (that time is a fiction, essentially a matter of relationships with the present, whether “earlier,” “later,” or “simultaneous with”). And then there are the scientists who pitch preach the relativity of time and a time-space continuum.

Of course, Arthur Elmer didn’t lose any sleep over these distinctions and problems (though he likely lost some sleep over what repercussions he might face should people judge him a “lunatic” or a “rogue and a vagabond.”). But, before proceeding, we should ask what the Bible has to say on this. After all, being a Christian philosopher entails taking the counsel of Scripture seriously.