The Theosophical Odyssey of D. M. Bennett, Part One

Originally printed in the SEPTEMBER-OCTOBER 2001 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Bradford, Roderick. "The Theosophical  Odyssey of D. M. Bennett, Part One." Quest  89.5 ( September-October 2001): 172-175.

By Roderick Bradford

Bennett . . . was a very interesting and sincere person, a Freethinker who had suffered a year’s imprisonment … despite the fact that a petition, signed by100,000 persons, was sent to President Hayes on his behalf. . . . There was a candor and friendliness about the man which made us sympathize at once.

—Henry Steel Olcott
Old Diary Leaves, 2:328 -30

roderick bradfordD. M. Bennett arrived in Bombay, India, aboard the Cathay steamer at 2:00 am on January 10, 1882. Because of the late hour and the high tide, the ship cast anchor in the bay and passengers had to wait until morning to disembark. Bennett was standing on deck soon after day break, viewing the city of nearly 80,000, when he received a note from Colonel Henry Olcott instructing him to remain on board until Olcott arrived by boat to take him ashore. Bennett had corresponded with Olcott from Suez, accepting an invitation to call upon him and Madame Blavatsky. “I of course was glad to meet them,” Bennett wrote, “and renew our old acquaintance and to see in India those whom I had known in America.”

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De Robigne Mortimer Bennett (1818 -1882) was the founder, publisher, and editor of the Truth Seeker, the largest and most radical free thought and reform journal in the world. The popular sixteen-page New York weekly was “Devoted to Science, Morals, Freethought and Human Happiness.” D. M. Bennett was the country’s leading publisher of freethought literature, including philosophical, biographic, scientific, and anti-religious books, tracts, and pamphlets—and the most controversial.

D. M. Bennett’s life was spent in three seemingly unrelated phases.Throughout his life, Bennett made and lost several small fortunes. But only in his last decade did he become a lightning rod for controversy while publishing the Truth Seeker. However, he was involved with less notoriety in other controversial movements, including Shakerism, Spiritualism, and alternative medicines. His first twenty-seven years were spent as a devout Christian and prominent member (scribe and physician) of the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, or Shakers as they were commonly known. In the mid-nineteenth century, the Shakers were the most successful and enigmatic utopian movement in America.

Bennett played an important role during the Shakers’ spiritualistic revival period— the Era of Manifestations. As a ministry-appointed journalist, he recorded his fellow believers’ “divinely inspired” messages. When the revival period subsided, some of the younger members began losing their religious fervor. In 1846, Bennett and another member, Mary Wicks, left their Shaker family to get married. Their departure and apostasy was a shocking event for the celibate society and demoralized the remaining believers for years.

For the next three decades, the couple lived in different parts of the country, operating various businesses, including drugstores, and successfully marketing patent medicines known as Dr. Bennett’s Family Medicines, which Bennett developed with his Shaker herbal and homeopathic knowledge. Besides reading the Bible, he began studying the scientific and philosophical works of Darwin, Huxley, Spencer, and Mill. He also read everything written by Thomas Paine, and it was the revolutionary author’s deistic Age of Reason that converted Bennett to freethought.

After an argument with a clergyman about the efficacy of prayer, Bennett decided to start his own publication as an alternative to the Christian-controlled press. Inspired by Thomas Paine, Bennett became America’s most passionate and prolific critic of religion. His editorial policy favored birth control, labor reform, women’s rights, and taxation of church property. The Truth Seeker and its crusading editor soon became seen as threats to the nation’s most influential religious leaders and wealthy manufacturers.

The Truth Seeker was founded at the height of the anti-religious movement in America, coinciding with the proliferation of organized liberal leagues and the beginning of what would later be called the Golden Age of Freethought. D. M. Bennett and Robert Ingersoll, “the Great Agnostic,” both served as vice presidents of the National Liberal League, an organization devoted to the complete separation of church and state. Madame Blavatsky (CW5:119) lauded the thriving movement and “the wonderful increase of the party of Freethought, the rapid growth of Infidel Societies and Infidel Literature” as a counter balance to “theological exotericism.” When criticized for promoting freethought literature in the Theosophist magazine, Blavatsky defended “the outspoken fearless books of Paine, Voltaire, Ingersoll, Bradlaugh and Bennett.”

For a decade during the Gilded Age, D. M. Bennett was arguably both the most revered and the most reviled publisher in America. His devoted subscribers to the Truth Seeker, numbering in the tens of thousands, practically venerated the Shaker-turned-freethinker. But he also had powerful enemies. In 1877 he became the target for America’s self-appointed arbiter of morals— Anthony Comstock. With the support of some of the country’s most powerful Christian citizens, Comstock, the self-described “weeder in God’s garden” went after the“infidel” publisher with a vengeance.

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Anthony Comstock (1844 -1915) at the age of twenty-nine founded the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice and successfully lobbied Congress for the passage of a federal statute popularly known as the “Comstock Law.” As the society’s chief vice-hunter, Comstock waged war on “obscene” books (including classic works of literature) and the writings of freethinkers, whom he considered satanic “infidels.” He bragged of driving 15 persons to suicide, and his name has been enshrined in our language in the term comstockery “censorious opposition to alleged immorality.” Bennett was one of his favorite targets.

D. M. Bennett’s hard-fought battle against censorship (he was arrested three times) culminated in one of the historically unjust trials of the nineteenth century. He was sent to prison for mailing Cupid’s Yokes, a twenty-six-page polemic by Ezra H. Heywood, critical of Comstock and advocating the abolition of marriage. It was a fifteen-cent pamphlet he did not write or necessarily agree with— but which he believed he had the right as an American citizen to sell. His arrest, trial, and conviction for sending “obscenity” through the United States mail caused hundreds of thousands of supporters, including Shakers, to come to his defense, sending money, signing petitions, and writing personal letters to President Rutherford B. Hayes.

Bennett was the most polarizing figure in freethought. In 1879, the National Liberal League was at its zenith and on the verge of developing a third political party—The National Liberal party. Organized freethinkers were becoming a political force, and hoped that their most prominent member— Robert Ingersoll— would run for the highest office in the land. But Bennett and his advocacy for total repeal of the Comstock censorship laws divided the National Liberal League. Complicating matters was the publication of love letters written by Bennett to a woman not his wife. Scribner’s Monthly, one of the country’s most popular magazines, denounced Bennett as the “Apotheosis of Dirt.” The exposé provided ammunition for Anthony Comstock.

Bennett’s free speech advocacy and the monumental petition campaign of 200,000 signatures in his support infuriated the nation’s most powerful men and women, including the First Family. Although it was the largest petition campaign of the nineteenth century, it failed to persuade the President. Hayes was influenced by his devout wife and swayed by a counter-petition campaign orchestrated by Comstock. Although Hayes pardoned Ezra Heywood, the author of Cupid’s Yokes, he let Bennett, elderly and in poor health, languish in one ofthe worst prisons in America, where he nearly died from the harsh conditions. Decades later, the former president admitted in his diary that he had made the wrong decision and that the pamphlet was not obscene.

After Bennett’s eventual release from prison, his supporters provided funds for a year long tour around the world. On the final leg of that tour, Bennett came to the Theosophical Society headquarters in Bombay. The Theosophical Society had attracted a wide range of people, including many prominent freethinkers. Many of its “infidels” were former believers in orthodox Christianity, still searching for some form of spiritual sustenance to fill the void. Several of Bennett’s close friends and associates had promoted Theosophy, including Albert Rawson and Charles Sotheran. Both were early prominent members of the Theosophical Society in New York.

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Albert Rawson was secretary of the National Liberal League and president of the National Defense Association, an organization founded to defend persons arrested for violating the puritanical Comstock laws. He was also a high-ranking member of several secret societies, including the Scottish Rite Masons and the Rosicrucians, and a founding member of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine. Rawson was also a close friend and early supporter of Madame Blavatsky. He contributed a detailed account of his adoption as a “brother” while visiting the Adwan Bedouins of Moab and his initiation by the Druze in Lebanon, to Blavatsky’s Isis Unveiled (2:313 -5). In 1882, the year Bennett traveled to India, Rawson went to Rochester, New York, at the request of Abner Doubleday, to organize the first branch of the Theosophical Society outside New York City.

D. M. Bennett and Albert Rawson, who were close personal friends, often traveled together, including a trip to Europe in 1880. However, Bennett seems to have been either unaware of or uninterested in Rawson’s deep involvement with Theosophy and secret societies. Nevertheless, in 1881, soon after arriving home from their trip abroad, Bennett commented in the Truth Seeker on a newly published book, Knights Templarism Illustrated. “Not being a Knight Templar, a Mason, or a member of any secret order,” he wrote, “we are not able to say whether the book tells the truth or not, but we presume it is mainly correct. The reader will have an opportunity to judge for himself.”

Charles Sotheran was one of the forming members of the Theosophical Society in New York and the Society’s first librarian. Also a friend of Blavatsky, Sotheran published a letter in her Isis Unveiled (2:388 -91), regarding Masonry and claiming a connection between America’s founding fathers and the Illuminati. Bennett published Sotheran’s Allesandro di Cagliostro, Imposter or Martyr? in his Truth Seeker Tracts series. Cagliostro was an eighteenth-century occultist persecuted by the Inquisition as a heretic. The mysterious martyr was admired by some early Theosophists— including Rawson, Sotheran, and Madame Blavatsky.

D. M. Bennett began reporting Colonel Olcott’s investigations into Spiritualism in the Truth Seeker in August 1875 shortly before the founding ofthe Theosophical Society. Subsequently Bennett noted the Society’s activities and announced the departure of Olcott and Blavatsky for India in 1879. When Bennett renewed his acquaintance with Olcott and Blavatsky during his world tour, his imminent arrival in India was announced in one of the Mahatma Letters (no. 37) to Alfred P. Sinnett, the editor of the most influential newspaper in India, the Pioneer, and the author of two books, The Occult World and Esoteric Buddhism, that introduced Theosophy to the general public around the world.

Sinnett received letters signed by certain figures known in Theosophical lore as “Masters” or “Mahatmas” and their chelas (disciples). In a letter from one of the latter, he was informed:

I am also to tell you that in a certain Mr. Bennett of America who will shortly arrive at Bombay, you may recognise one, who, in spite of his national provincialism, that you so detest, and his too infidelistic bias, is one of our agents (unknown to himself) to carry out the scheme for the enfranchisement of Western thoughts from superstitious creeds.

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Within a few hours of the note from Olcott having reached Bennett aboardship off Bombay, the Colonel arrived with the Hindu Damodar K. Mavalankar and the Parsi Kavasji M. Shroff to take the sixty-three-year-old editor ashore.Colonel Olcott’s carriage was waiting on the busy dock ready to convey the party to the Society’s headquarters four miles from the landing. After a brief stop allowing Bennett to get mail from America, they proceeded through the lively streets of Bombay to the Theosophists’ residence, called the “Crow’s Nest,”situated on a hill northwest of the city.

“Madame Blavatsky and Col. Olcott occupy very commodious premises,” Bennett noted, “commanding a beautiful view of the bay and ocean that is not often excelled.” Bennett learned that the house was rumored to be haunted, perhaps explaining why its rent was surprisingly low, considering the luxurious estate with palm groves, gardens, and breathtaking vistas. But for two of the world’sleading investigators of the occult, it was perfect. “They are not the kind of people to be afraid of ghosts,” he commented, “and were not at all disinclined to live in a house where ghosts and phantoms are said to congregate.”

Bennett was cordially welcomed at the Crow’s Nest, and found himself “agreeably surprised” by the Society’s remarkable success in India. Within days of arriving, he had conversations with native Indians including Hindus, Brahmans, and Parsees, who all gave “uniform testimony” of the good work Olcott and Blavatsky were doing in gathering the diverse creeds “and especially in opposing the work of Christian missionaries” in India and Ceylon (Sri Lanka).Bennett was pleased to learn that some Truth Seeker Tracts had been translated into Sinhalese “and circulated among the truth-seeking people.” These publications, he proudly reported, were interfering with the Christian missionaries, who “are doing their utmost to add this portion of the world to Christendom.”

In Colonel Henry Steel Olcott, or the “White Buddhist,” as he was called, Bennett found a kindred spirit in the fight against Christianity and for“universal mental liberty.” He praised Olcott and Blavatsky’s magazine, theTheosophist, devoted “to oriental philosophy, art, literature, and occultism, embracing mesmerism, Spiritualism, and other secret societies.” Bennett reported that the Theosophist, which began publication in October 1879, “is ably conducted and contains many interesting and original articles.” He was especially impressed with the Colonel’s indefatigable work on behalf of the native population.

It is evident from Old Diary Leaves that Olcott admired D. M. Bennett and his mission. One of the Colonel’s hobbies was “reading” a person’s face for character. His extensive and complimentary description included an overview of Bennett’s Shaker background and the “sham case . . . manufactured against him by an unscrupulous detective [Anthony Comstock] of a Christian Society.” He depicted Bennett’s forthcoming book, A Truth Seeker around the World, as an“interesting work.”

H. P. Blavatsky also had a high regard for Bennett. “Mr. Bennett’s path to authorship and leadership in the Western Freethought movement,” she wrote in theTheosophist (CW 4:147), “did not run through the drowsy recitation rooms of the college, nor over the soft carpets of aristocratic drawing rooms. When his thoughts upon religion filled his head to overflowing, he dropped merchandising and evoluted into editorship with a cool self-confidence that is thoroughly characteristic of the American disposition, and scarcely ever looked for in any other race.” However, Olcott and Blavatsky’s respect and almost reverence for D.M. Bennett and his work put him and the Theosophical Society in a quandary.

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The weary Bennett was hoping to enjoy a few days’ rest at the storied bungalow. But his arrival in Bombay coincided with a debated and controversial period in the history of the Theosophical Society, a time when the organization was coming under increased scrutiny and criticism, Blavatsky’s alleged psychic feats were at their height, and secret letter-writing “Masters” were most prolific. Bennett would, as a result, remain in Bombay for more than two weeks, embroiled in a rancorous and well-publicized argument with an enemy of both freethought and Theosophy.

In an on going crusade, Christian missionaries were attacking Theosophy and “heathen Buddhists.” One of the most vociferous critics was the Rev. Mr. Joseph Cook (1838 -1901), who pronounced Theosophy “a combination of mist and moonshine” and its founders “charlatans.” Cook had gained notoriety in the 1870s as a firebrand minister, author, and lecturer who aggressively defended his Congregational faith. In 1882, he was at the pinnacle of his fame as Boston’s most popular preacher;  his Monday lecture series was attended by thousands of enthusiastic followers.

While the Boston Globe praised Cook’s “abstruse knowledge and great command of the language,” he also had critics. In the North American Review, John Fiske challenged Cook’s attempts to reconcile science and religion as “Theological Charlatanism.” The Dictionary of American Biography found “no reason to doubt Cook’s sincerity, but his learning was not accurate or profound, and he was often unfair to those whose views he opposed. Even his friends acknowledged that his belief in his own learning and ability was exaggerated.”

Bennett and Olcott had a mutual enemy in Cook, who was a staunch Comstock supporter and whom the Colonel described as “a burly man who seemed to believe in the Trinity with himself as the Third Person.” In what may or may not be a bizarre coincidence, Cook arrived in Bombay only a few days before the Theosophical Society’s anniversary celebration and simultaneously with the notorious editor of the Truth Seeker. Cook’s arrival was the cause of additional controversy for Bennett, resulted in a personal dilemma for Colonel Olcott, and negatively affected Theosophy as a whole.

The same day Bennett arrived in Bombay, Cook gave a lecture attacking Olcott and the Theosophical Society. Olcott and Bennett attended the lecture, together with a large audience of European missionaries and their followers, as well as “intelligent” natives, who, Bennett reported, “take but little stock in Christian dogmas.” The Bombay Gazette proposed a debate between Cook and Olcott. Two days later, during his speech at the Theosophical Society’s anniversary meeting, Olcott mentioned the debate proposal to the audience but told his listeners he disapproved of controversies and had no time for such a debate but perhaps Mr. Bennett “may have a few words to say upon the subject.”

Bennett reluctantly made a speech giving a brief account of his arrest, trial, and imprisonment. As to the Christian-sponsored opposition to Theosophy, “I know something of this sort of opposition,” he declared; “I know something of Christian love and charity. I have had an opportunity of tasting it.” He reviewed Cook’s lecture, finding the preacher’s hypothesis that nature is controlled by some “imaginary weaver,” dishonest and depriving “her [nature] of the credit which is justly due to her.” Bennett concluded his speech arguing against Cook’s assertion that the doctrine of immortality originated with Christianity. He told the largely Hindu audience that Christianity had nothing new to offer them and nothing superior to what they had “many hundreds of years before Christianity was known in the world. Probably better morals have never been taught than were in the passages by the sages and philosophers of your country.”

(To be concluded)




References

  

Bennett,

De Robigne M., ed. The Truth Seeker: Devoted to Science, Morals, FreeThought, Free Enquiry and the Diffusion of Liberal Sentiments. Paris, IL: Liberal Association of Paris, IL, vol. 1, no. 1 (Sept. 1873)

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A Truth Seeker around the World: A Series of Letters Written While Making a Tour of the Globe. 4 vols. New York: D. M. Bennett, 1882.

Blavatsky,

Helena Petrovna. Collected Writings. 15 vols. Wheaton, IL: TheosophicalPublishing House, 1966 -91.

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Isis Unveiled. 2 vols. 1877. Reprint. Wheaton, IL: TheosophicalPublishing House, 1972, 1994.

de Zirkoff,

Boris. “Bennett, De Robigne Mortimer.” In Collected Writings of H. P. Blavatsky, 4:625 -33. Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House,1969.

Heywood,

Ezra Hervey. Cupid’s Yokes; or, The Binding Forces of Conjugal Life. Princeton, MA: Co-operative Pub. Co., 1878, 188?.

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The Mahhatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett from the Mahatmas M. and K.H. in Chronological Sequence . Ed. Vicente Hao Chin, Jr. Quezon City, Manila, Philippines: Theosophical Publishing House, 1993.

Olcott,

Henry Steel. Old Diary Leaves, Second Series, 1878 -83. London: Theosophical Publishing Society, 1900.

   Warren,

Sidney. American Freethought, 1860-1914. New York: Gordian Press, 1966.




Roderick Bradford (rodbradford51@hotmail.com) is a freelance writer and documentary video producer in San Diego, California. He has recently finished the manuscript of his first book, tentatively titled “TheTruth Seeker: The Biography of D. M. Bennett, the Nineteenth Century's Most Controversial Publisher and First-Amendment Martyr.” This article is abstracted from that work.


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