When We Burned the Bonds

by Janet Kerschner
 
Originally printed in the SEPTEMBER-OCTOBER 2007 issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Kerschner, Janet. "When We Burned the Bonds." Quest  95.5 (SEPTEMBER-OCTOBER 2007):
 
 

Eighty years ago, the Theosophical Society in America moved into its new headquarters in Wheaton, Illinois. Envisioned as a serene retreat, centrally located and readily accessible to Chicago by President L. W. Rogers, the Wheaton complex has served generations of Theosophists as a spiritual home. The land, construction of the main building, and equipment cost $250,000, quite a large sum in 1927. Here is the story of how Theosophists financed our national headquarters, and how we burned the bonds.

Early in his presidency, L. W. Rogers instituted a search for a new headquarters location to replace the severely overcrowded Oakdale building in Chicago. Board Member Kay Campbell located a site in Wheaton, Illinois, which the Society purchased in 1925. A Building Fund was established, and excitement grew nationwide at the prospect of a new headquarters.

The May 1925 issue of The Messenger invited members to suggest ideas for raising $100,000, with a prize of $100 going to the lodge with the winning entry. Over forty responses ranging from little heart-felt notes to elaborate proposals with samples of forms and brochures arrived by the June 1 deadline. Entries included conventional plans for pledge drives, mortgages, and sale of bricks, but some were distinctly inventive. One writer asked each lodge to compose a song, preferably a popular ballad, which could be sold as sheet music. A "Soul's SOS" called for sacrificial gifts. Inspired by the Biblical parable of Mathew 25, "Talent Tithes" asked each individual to invest a small sum for the profit of the Society. An offbeat proposal was to earn money from a Society-owned sanitarium that would "concentrate on Mental Cases—naturally a Theosophical field—securing experts on curing obsessions etc. by Theosophical scientific methods." Most writers attempted to attract participation from as many members as possible to encourage a sense of brotherhood and ownership in the national home.

The winning proposal from the Houston Lodge asked each local branch to be responsible for bringing in pledges over a three-year period which were proportionate to their membership. The progress of this pro rata plan was reported in a Building Fund Bulletin in The Messenger, tracking the success of the lodges in eliciting pledges. Within a year, members pledged over $163,000, but only $39,122 cash was in hand.  President Rogers faced the need for short-term financing of $135,000. Reluctant to pay an extra $10,000 to banks for mortgage commissions and prepayment fees, he called upon the membership to invest in bonds paying 6% interest. Theosophists responded enthusiastically, investing in amounts from $10 to $5000. Issuance of bonds was finely calibrated to the monthly requirements of construction, and contractors were paid on schedule as the building took form.

On August 29, 1926, Annie Besant presided over the laying of the cornerstone in a Masonic ceremony, and one year later, staff moved into a headquarters building that was wholly owned by the Society. No mortgage debt had been incurred. Bonds were aggressively paid off as pledged donations arrived, before maturity when possible, until the Great Depression struck. In 1930, as the economy bottomed out, some members declined to renew their building bonds, or asked to cash them in early. National Treasurer Sidney Cook asked wealthier Theosophists "to give a practical expression of brotherhood" by taking on extra bond commitments to accommodate their fellows in need. He worked tirelessly through the Dust Bowl era to keep up with financial obligations.

As national president in 1937, Cook introduced a lively Burn the Bonds campaign to retire remaining debt. International President Arundale encouraged the effort, writing "these bonds are eager for cremation, for they know that their sacrifice is Olcott's freedom to do more even than it has done before." Sidney Cook said "The world needs Theosophy. Debt is a barrier. Fire, destroyer and regenerator, clears the way. LET'S BURN THE BONDS." During the summer Convention of 1938, busloads of onlookers delighted in a "dramatic incineration ceremony" on the front lawn at Olcott. Retired bonds totaling $301,000 filled a perforated barrel that was suspended from a rustic framework. A torch passed through the hands of Theosophists representing the past, present, and future, to Eugene J. Wix, head of the Burn the Bonds committee. His successful campaign reduced indebtedness to members by $20,000.  The final bonds were paid off in 1944, when, after almost twenty years of fundraisers, letters, articles, and pleas, the Theosophical Society was relieved of debt. Sidney Cook wrote, "Freedom won!"


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