The Theosophical Society in America

Oz - A Notable Theosophist: L. Frank Baum

By John Algeo

Reprint from American Theosophist 74 (1986): 270–3.

Lyman Frank Baum (1851-1919) is best known as theauthor of the popular children’s book The Wizard of Oz, on which the1939 movie starring Judy Garland was based. Mainly through that movie, Baum’sstory has become one of the most widely known and best loved of all modernfairy tales.

Although Frank Baum is famous primarily for that onebook, he wrote a good many other children’s stories, including 13 additional Ozbooks; a variety of other fairy tales, short stories, and verses; and severalseries of girls’ and boys’ books (published under various pseudonyms). Also,because of the popularity of The Wizard upon its publication in 1900,Baum converted it to the stage, and it became a highly successful musical playon Broadway, inspiring a number of similar works (such as Victor Herbert’s Babesin Toyland).

As a young man living in New York State, Baumauthored, produced, and acted in a play, The Maid of Arran, with which hetoured from Canada to Kansas. He gave up that theatrical career, however, whenhe married Maud Gage, because her mother took a dim view of acting as alivelihood for a son-in-law. Thereafter, for brief intervals, he ran hisfamily’s axle-grease company; moved to Aberdeen, South Dakota, where heoperated a store called Baum’s Bazaar; edited a weekly newspaper, the SaturdayPioneer; worked as a reporter for a Chicago newspaper; became a travelingsalesman; was instrumental in founding the National Association of WindowTrimmers; and edited a magazine for the trade, The Show Window.Subsequently, he made motion pictures and pioneered the use of special effectsfor films based on his children’s stories. Baum’s genius, however, was as ateller of stories for children--initially for his own four sons. He was adevoted husband and a doting father.

Such facts about Baum’s life are widely known. Whatis not so well known, however, is Baum’s interest in theosophy. Michael PatrickHearn, one of the best of Baum’s biographers, has made the most extensive, andvirtually the only, acknowledgment of that interest:

His son Frank admitted the author’sinterest in Theosophy, but also reported that the elder Baum could not acceptall its teachings. He firmly believed in reincarnation; he had faith in theimmortality of the soul and believed that he and his wife had been together inmany past states and would be together in future reincarnations, but he did notaccept the possibility of the transmigration of souls from human beings toanimals or vice versa, as in Hinduism. He was in agreement with theTheosophical belief that man on Earth was only one step on a great ladder thatpassed through many states of consciousness, through many universes, to a finalstate of Enlightenment. He did believe in Karma, that whatever good or evil onedoes in his lifetime returns to him as reward or punishment in futurereincarnations.... He believed that all the great religious teachers of historyhad found their inspiration from the same source, a common Creator. [72-73]

Although he did not join the Theosophical Society forsome years, Baum seems to have believed in the central Theosophical concepts.It is not clear which Theosophical teachings Baum “could not accept”; possiblythat reservation means only that Baum did not consider every idea that had beenadvanced by individual Theosophists to be Theosophical--a reservation that mostof us would still want to make. Baum’s belief in the basic ideas of Theosophyhas thus been recognized, even though it has not been widely publicized. Whathas not hitherto been known, however, is that Baum became a member of theTheosophical Society, as did his wife, Maud, and his mother-in-law, MatildaGage.

In the early membership rolls of the Society, thereare entries recording the application for membership of Lyman F. Baum and Mrs.Maud G. Baum, of Chicago, Illinois, on September 4, 1892. They were admitted onthe same day to the Ramayana Theosophical Society upon the recommendation ofDr. W. P. Phelon and M. M. Phelon. William P. Phelon was a prominent earlymember and one of the organizers of the American Section in 1886. The Baums’permanent diplomas (or membership certificates) were issued by the parentorganization on December 5, 1892. Baum’s mother-in-law, Matilda Joslyn Gage,had joined the Society seven years earlier, when she was living inFayetteville, New York. Her application and admission to the RochesterTheosophical Society are dated March 26, 1885; she was recommended by JosephineW. Cables and E. M. Sasseville.1

It is likely that Baum learned about theosophy fromhis mother-in-law, a remarkable woman who was an active figure in the woman’srights movement and other social causes throughout her life. She was coauthor,with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, of the three-volume Historyof Woman Suffrage, and was one of the prominent early members of the NationalWoman Suffrage Association (Wagner, Declaration 2, 20).

In view of her concern for human equality andrights, it is not surprising that Matilda Gage was attracted to Theosophy. Shevalued it not only because it provided a philosophical basis for equality andsocial action, but also for some of its other teachings, such as reincarnation,which she explained to one of her grandchildren living in Edgeley, NorthDakota:

There is one thing I want you to rememberfirst of all: This is that what is called “death” by people is not death. Youare more alive than ever you were after what is called death. Death is only ajourney, like going to another country. You are alive when you travel toAberdeen just as much as when you stay in Edgeley, and it is the same with whatis called death. After people have been gone for awhile, they come back andlive in another body, in another family and have another name. [Cited byWagner, “Dorothy,” 6.]

Frank Baum supported his mother-in-law in her workfor woman’s rights, and he learned many things from her, including Theosophicalideas. While he edited the Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer, he wrote a seriesof articles called “The Editor’s Musings.”2 Before he joined theSociety, in the first issue of the paper under his editorship (January 25,1890), he wrote about the insecurity many Christians felt about the challengeof other religions and about a growing aspiration for knowledge outside thechurch. He wrote sympathetically of the Buddha, Mohammed, Confucius, andChrist, and he introduced his readers to Theosophy:

Amongst the various sectsso numerous in America today who find their fundamental basis in occultism, theTheosophist[s] stand pre-eminent both in intelligence and point of numbers.

The recent erection oftheir new temple in New York City has called forth the curiosity of the many,the uneasiness of the few. Theosophy is not a religion. Its followers are simply“searchers after Truth.” Not for the ignorant are the tenets they hold, neitherfor the worldly in any sense. Enrolled within their ranks are some of thegrandest intellects of the Eastern and Western worlds.

Purity in all things, evento asceticism is absolutely required to fit them to enter the avenues ofknowledge, and the only inducement they offer to neophytes is the privilege of“searching for the Truth” in their company.

As interpreted bythemselves they accept the teachings of Christ, Budda, and Mohammed,acknowledging them Masters or Mahatmas, true prophets each in his generation,and well versed in the secrets of nature. But the truth so earnestly sought isnot yet found in its entirety, or if it be, is known only to the privilegedfew.

The Theosophists, in fact,are the dissatisfied of the world, the dissenters from all creeds. They owetheir origin to the wise men of India, and are numerous, not only in the farfamed mystic East, but in England, France, Germany and Russia. They admit the existenceof a God--not necessarily a personal God. To them God is Nature and Nature God.

We have mentioned theirhigh morality: they are also quiet and unobtrusive, seeking no notoriety, yetdaily growing so numerous that even in America they may be counted bythousands. But, despite this, if Christianity is Truth, as our education hastaught us to believe, there can be no menace to it in Theosophy.

A month later in the Saturday Pioneer (February22, 1890), Baum turned to writing about fiction with occult and mysticalthemes. He dealt with Bulwer Lytton, one of H. P. Blavatsky’s favorite writers,to whom she often referred; H. Rider Haggard, especially his novel She;and Mabel Collins, whose Idyll of the White Lotus and Light on thePath were already Theosophical classics.

A few months later in the same periodical (April 5,1890), Baum wrote about mediumship and elementals. Mediumship was a subject ofintense interest in the late nineteenth century (as witnessed by the fact thatOlcott and Blavatsky met at a séance). Baum’s explanation of mediumisticphenomena, while perhaps partly his own interpretation, owes a great deal toBlavatsky. She attributed many of the apparent marvels of the séance room tothe activities of elemental beings attracted to the medium. Baum’sinterpretation of mediumship is certainly derived, directly or indirectly, fromHPB.

The foregoing articles show that while he was editingthe Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer Baum had a considerable interest in Theosophy,occultism, and related subjects--an interest that he was not reluctant to writeabout. However, in spite of his keen interest, he did not join the TheosophicalSociety in 1890.

It was two years after writing these pieces in the SaturdayPioneer that he actually joined, and for a considerable time thereafter hesustained his Theosophical interests. His niece, Matilda Jewell Gage, who stilllives in Aberdeen, South Dakota, visited the Baums after they moved fromChicago to San Diego, California. She remembers that her famous uncle and grandmotherboth were interested in Theosophy and Theosophical literature.3

Further evidence for Baum’s involvement withTheosophy is found in his children’s books, especially The Wizard of Oz.Although readers have not looked at his fairy tales for their Theosophicalcontent, it is significant that Baum became a famous writer of children’s booksafter he had come into contact with Theosophy. Theosophical ideas permeate his workand provided the inspiration for it. Indeed, The Wizard can be regardedas Theosophical allegory, pervaded by Theosophical ideas from beginning to end.The story came to Baum as an inspiration, and he accepted it with a certain aweas a gift from outside, or perhaps from deep within, himself.

Frank Baum was one of the most notable yet unknown Theosophistsof the turn of the century and was our first and perhaps greatest Theosophicalwriter for children.


Notes

  1. This information was kindly supplied by Grace F.Knoche and Kirby Van Mater, of the Theosophical Society headquartered inPasadena, California. The Baums’ membership is recorded on Register 1, page561, and Matilda Gage’s on the same Register, page 49.

  2. For access to Baum’s newspaper, I am indebted tothe kindness of Janus Olsen and Dolores Campton of the Alexander MitchellPublic Library, Aberdeen, SD, and of Barbara Rystrom of the University ofGeorgia Library.

  3. This information is from a personal interview withMiss Gage conducted in January 1985 in Aberdeen.

References

  • Baum, Frank, ed. TheAberdeen Saturday Pioneer, Aberdeen, SD, Jan. 25, 1890--Mar. 21, 1891.

  • Hearn, Michael Patrick, ed. The Annotated Wizard of Oz.New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1973.

  • Wagner, Sally Roesch. The Declaration of Rights ofWomen: 1876. Aberdeen, SD: Aberdeen Area Chapter of NOW, 1975.

  • ———. “Dorothy Gage and Dorothy Gale.” Baum Bugle28.2 (Autumn 1984): 4-6.