Henry Steel Olcott, co-founder and first president of The Theosophical Society, was a descendant of a family which had settled in America many generations earlier when the Puritan, Thomas Olcott, came to this country. His father was Henry Wyckoff Olcott, and his mother Emily Steel—both of New York City. He was born in Orange, New Jersey, on August 2, 1832, the eldest of six children.
During his early years, he was absorbed in agricultural experimentation, and by the age of 23 he had gained international notice for his work at the Scientific Agricultural Farm near Newark, New Jersey. His success there brought him offers of a directorship of the Agricultural Bureau at Washington, and the Chair of Agriculture at the University of Athens, Greece, both of which he declined. Instead, he founded the Westchester Farm School near Mt. Vernon, New York—a model farm for experimentation and agricultural education and the first American scientific school of agriculture. Here, he conducted experiments with sorghum and published his first book, Sorghum and Imphee, the Chinese and African Sugar Canes, which became a school textbook.
Considered an agricultural expert by age 26, Olcott was again the recipient of many offers in that field, including an invitation to join a government botanical mission. He declined these offers, however, and traveled to Europe to study agricultural methods and developments. His report was published in the American Cyclopedia.
Upon his return to America, he became Associate Agricultural Editor of the New York Tribune, which position he held until 1860. At the same time, he was American correspondent of the Mark Lane Express, London. In 1859, while reporting the hanging of John Brown, the abolitionist, for the Tribune, Olcott was arrested as a spy and condemned to death. However, he was released upon his appeal to his captors under the seal of confidence as a Freemason.
It was in the year 1860—April 26—that he married Mary Epplee Morgan, of New Rochelle, New York, daughter of the Reverend Richard U. Morgan, rector of Trinity parish in that city. They had three sons and a daughter, but unfortunately the daughter and one son died in infancy.
In 1862, he enlisted in the Northern Army and fought through the North Carolina campaign under General Burnside. Continuing in the Northern army after that campaign, he became ill and was sent to New York in 1865 for recuperation. Colonel Olcott possessed extraordinary courage, both physical and moral, and it was during this period of his life that this characteristic began to show itself strongly.
When he was well enough, instead of returning to active service in the army, the government asked him to conduct an inquiry into suspected frauds at the New York Mustering and Discharging Office. For four years, in the face of the most active opposition, Olcott continued this investigation despite threats, false accusations, and offers of bribes. At the end of that time, he had secured enough evidence to result in the conviction the leading criminal, who was sentenced to ten years imprisonment and also the dismissal of others implicated. For this service, he received a letter of recognition from Secretary Stanton stating that his service was "as important to the Government as the winning of a great battle."
Now, the War Department, and two years later, the Navy Department asked for Colonel Olcott's services in like capacity. In both of these appointments he distinguished himself, receiving again the highest praise from the heads of both departments and the added comment, "That you have thus escaped with no stain upon your reputation, when we consider the corruption, audacity and power of the many villains in high position whom you have prosecuted and punished, is a tribute of which you may well be proud" (The Theosophist, August 1932, p. 475).
Colonel Olcott had been admitted to the bar in 1868, and at the end of his government service, he entered private practice. Among his clients were many of the large corporations of the country.
During all of these years, Colonel Olcott had been interested in Spiritualism, and in 1874 he was asked to take a special assignment for the New York Graphic to report the psychic phenomena at the Eddy farm in Vermont. As a result of this experience, he published his second book, People From the Other World.
It was at Chittenden, Vermont, while he was on this assignment, that he met Madame Blavatsky who had come there on instructions from her Master. Joining forces with her, from this point onward he worked to carry out the purposes of the Great White Brotherhood, especially as those purposes related to the specific mission assigned to HPB by her Master. "Bound together by the unbreakable ties of a common work—the Masters' work—having mutual confidence and loyalty and one aim in view, we stand or fall together…" (The Theosophist, August 1932, p. 471).
Of their personal relationship, Colonel Olcott says, "Neither then, at the commencement, nor ever afterwards had either of us the sense of the other being of the opposite sex. We were simply chums; so regarded each other, so called each other." (Old Diary Leaves, vol. 1, p. 6) And again, "She looked at me in recognition at the first hour, and never since has that look changed . . . It was teacher and pupil, elder brother and younger, both bent on the one single end, but she with the power and the knowledge that belong but to lions and sages (Claude Bragdon, Episodes From an Unwritten History, p. 23).
When the Theosophical Society was founded a year later in 1875, Colonel Olcott was elected president for life. From that time until the end of his life, the Society was his first care. He guarded it jealously from every threat to its existence; he gave his physical strength and the benefit of his wide experience to its organization, and his administrative ability to nourish it and foster its growth. For he believed with his whole heart that the good of mankind depended upon a channel through which the Brotherhood of Adepts could work to destroy the gross materialism of the day and awaken the spiritual nature of man. To this end, after the founders moved to India in 1878, he traveled through India and Ceylon in the interests of the Society, lecturing on Theosophy, trying to get people to see that they could live together in understanding and brother-hood, despite the difference of religious background and race.
He traveled all over Europe, England, South America, back to the United States three times, China, and Japan. With the exception of South America, he visited these countries again and again. Dr. Annie Besant said at the time of his death, "He traveled all the world over with ceaseless and strenuous activity, and doctors impute the heart failure, while his body was splendidly vigorous, to the overstrain put on the heart by the exertion of too many lectures crowded into too short a time." (Reminiscences of Colonel Olcott, p. 20) In the Olcott Centenary issue of The Theosophist, August 1932, there are seven and a half pages given to the listing of his travels in the interest of the work.
When, in 1878, they moved the international headquarters to India, Colonel Olcott had to relinquish his flourishing law practice; and in 1882, when the headquarters was established at Adyar, that property was purchased almost entirely from his own and Madame Blavatsky's funds. In fact, in the early years in India, the Society and the expense of lecture tours was supported primarily by the earnings from their writings and lectures.
Colonel Olcott's contribution as president of the Theosophical Society is covered in detail later in this paper. But the detailed mention of his great work for Buddhism, in his private capacity, should certainly not be overlooked. By formally taking Pancha Sila, in 1880, he began a concerted effort to a pubic commitment to live by Buddhist precepts. He united the Buddhist sects of Ceylon; and as a result of the great Buddhist revival which he began, three colleges and 205 schools were established, of which, 177 received government grants. Over 25,000 children were in attendance at these Buddhist schools—children who in former years would have had available only the schools of the Christian missionaries. He united the twelve sects of Japanese Buddhists into a joint committee for promotion of Buddhism; he brought the Burmese, Siamese, and Ceylon Buddhists into a Convention of Southern Buddhists; and he formulated the Fourteen Propositions of Buddhism, a document which was the basis upon which the northern and southern Buddhists were united. He wrote and published a Buddhist Catechism, which was translated into twenty languages and 44 editions. He designed the Buddhist flag, which is made up of the six colors of the aura of the Lord Buddha. That flag is flown throughout Ceylon, especially on Buddhist holidays when it waves from every temple and home. He was successful in getting the government to declare Wesak, the birthday of the Lord Buddha, a holiday. Before that came to pass, the government recognized only the Christian holidays and punished children who were absent from the missionary schools on their own religious holidays. Once the Buddhist holidays were recognized by the government, other religions quickly secured like recognition.
Colonel Olcott did not confine his activities to strengthening the Buddhist religion alone. He worked zealously to revitalize the Hindu religion in India, and helped to establish many Hindu schools. He started the Olcott Harijan Free Schools (Children of God) for the benefit of the Panchama outcastes of India and in 1948 between 500 and 600 children were in attendance at the school near the Adyar compound. Five of these schools were established in Madras corporation, and the government was considering taking over the school near Adyar.
For his interest and efforts on behalf of Hinduism, Colonel Olcott was adopted into the Brahman caste.
He also was interested in the revival of the ancient Zoroastrian teachings, and his efforts bore much splendid fruit. Typical of his work for that religion is his fiery letter to K. R. Cama, who was one of the "best, wisest and most honorable" Parsi leaders of that time. That letter is a classic. In it, Colonel Olcott reproached the Parsis for being content with their wealth and modern culture and valuing so little their ancient teachings and the spirituality shown by the Parsis of old. He says: "They were led by the holy Dastur Darab whose purity and spirituality were such as to make it possible for him to draw from the boundless akash the divine fire of Ormuzd . . . Are you such men today with your wealth, your luxuries, your knighthoods, your medals and your mills? Have you a Darab Dastur among you, or even a school of the Prophets where neophytes are taught the divine science? . . . The question your humble friend and defender asks is whether you mean to keep idle and not stir a hand to revive your religion, to discover all that can be learnt about your sacred writings, to create a modern school of writers who shall invest your ethics and metaphysics with such a charm that we shall hear no more about Parsi men preaching Christianity . . . I believe not." He goes on to warn them of the dangers that threaten them as a result of their excessive worldliness and proceeds to make definite practical suggestions for the revival of their religion and their unique culture (The Theosophist, 1932).
Soon after they came to India, Colonel Olcott organized the first exhibit of Indian products, and urged Indians to get together and use their own products instead of imports, and to develop an appreciation of them without regard to the religion or race of those who produced them. This was the beginning of Swadeshi, later adopted by the Indian National Congress.
Colonel Olcott founded the Adyar Library in December 1886, and invited representatives of Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, and Islam to be present for its dedication ceremonies and bless the work. All accepted except the Christian clergy. This was the first time that representatives of these various religions had been brought together to participate in one meeting, and was considered a remarkable accomplishment on the part of the Colonel.
One other activity which occupied Colonel Olcott in his early years in India was his healing work. He had great mesmeric healing power and was known all over India for effective cures. So many came to him for healing that it finally became necessary to ask the cooperation of the press to make it known that he would only treat such cases as received written permission to be brought to him. Eventually, he was instructed by his Master to cease that work, because of its drain on his own health and vitality and the fact that his energies must be conserved for the performance of his duties as President.
During the years of his Presidency, he stood unflinchingly through many upheavals and tribulations suffered by the Society; he "steered the Society through the crisis which rent from it for a time nearly the whole American Section, to see that Section welcome him to his native land with pride and exultation." (The Theosophist, August 1932, p. 477). He stood staunchly by HPB through all of the attacks upon her, though he often felt forced to place the Society's good before the defense of her reputation. Where he was mistaken in his attitude, he was always willing to admit his error and reverse his position when his Master made the issue clear to him. "He is one who never questions, but obeys; who may make innumerable mistakes out of excessive zeal, but never is unwilling to repair his fault even at the cost of the greatest self-humiliation..." (The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett, p. 14).
Colonel Olcott had to pilot the Society without the stimulus of HPB’s spiritual teaching for sixteen years after her death. He bravely continued the work for human brotherhood and understanding, and built the organization of the Society into an increasingly useful channel for the Masters to use in Their work for the world. He gave everything, his devotion, his health, his energy, his worldly goods, and family ties to Them gladly, as he had done from the beginning.
The Leaders of The Theosophical Society seem to be notable for their courage, and Colonel Olcott was no exception in that respect, meeting every disturbing element, every grave and often seemingly disastrous issue fearlessly, with the determination to bring the Society through with its strength undiminished. Numerically, this was not always accomplished; but spiritually the Society grew in strength as the Truth behind it was ultimately revealed after each time of turmoil. Crises were frequent and often shocking during the early years because they centered on HPB, who was a complete mystery to the world at large, a mystery that could not be explained in terms acceptable to the world. Because of her relation to her Master, she was like a Secret Service man whose actions can never be wholly explained to others; and often even Colonel Olcott himself was not permitted to know the full truth about her. Yet, in the face of this, it was his responsibility to support her and at the same time, to resolve each situation to the best interests of the Society. This he did with characteristic honesty and fairness and great courage.
In 1906, on board ship while he was returning from his last American visit, Colonel Olcott fell and received an injury from which he never recovered. Though otherwise his body was in vigorous health, his heart failed from the strain of overwork and he was not able to recuperate. He died the following year, on February 17, 1907, at Adyar.
What had been said of him by government officials in Washington could still be said of him with regard to his service to the Theosophical Society: that he had performed his task "with zeal, ability, and uncompromising faithfulness to duty."
As Mr. Jinarajadasa has stated, "With HPB alone, there would have been Theosophy; but without Henry Steel Olcott, there would have been no world-wide Theosophical Society" (Introduction to The Original Programme of The Theosophical Society).
And, greater still, the tribute paid him by the Master, "Where can we find an equal devotion? He is one . . . who esteems the sacrifice of comfort and even life something to be cheerfully risked whenever necessary; who will eat any food, or even go without; sleep on any bed, work in any place, fraternize with any outcast, endure any privation for the cause" (Introduction to The Original Programme of The Theosophical Society).
All text came from A History of Theosophy and the Theosophical Society. p. 55-61. Published by the Theosophical Society (Madras, India) and Theosophical Society in America.