Roots and Shoots: Theosophy in the United States

By Dorothy Bell

Originally printed in the Winter 2010 issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Bell, Dorothy."Roots and Shoots: Theosophy in the United States." Quest  98. 1 (Winter 2010): 22-26.

Dorothy BellSome members have expressed an interest in finding out about Theosophy beyond our own organization, the Theosophical Society in America (Adyar). In response, TSA president Betty Bland commissioned me to do a ready-reference family tree of American Theosophy. The accompanying diagram is introductory to more detailed ones that show events and personalities who shaped the family tree of American Theosophy. While they are a work in process, they may be accessed on the TSA Web site, www.theosophical.org/about/FamilyTreeTheosophy.pdf [pdf]. This article is an informal commentary on the original purpose and the issues that were instrumental in shaping the tree.

The names, events, and dates in the history of United States Theosophy can disguise the true nature of its cycles and patterns of growth, decline, and rebirth, and within them the struggles to bring the original purpose of the Theosophical Society to fruition. In this context, it is useful to remember the original purpose of the TS.

The idea of forming the Society was experimental. It was a"trial" (Mahatma Letters, 49) initiated from the inner realms to bring about a public organization that would reflect the inner Brotherhood. It was to be a channel, a vessel of light from the inner world, radiating outwards to help humanity rise to the next level of consciousness. It was a philanthropic work by those who initiated it, to build the "foundations of a new continent of thought" (Mahatma Letters, 68) for the next stage of the evolution of humanity, and it was chosen as"the cornerstone, the foundation of the future religion of humanity"(Mahatma Letters, 478). Since it was a trial or experiment, there was no guarantee of success, as the Brother Koot Hoomi acknowledged:"We are playing a risky game and the stakes are human souls" (Mahatma Letters, 58). KH also displayed his understanding of the human condition when he advised,"You must be aware that the chief object of the T. S. is not so much to gratify individual aspirations as to serve our fellow men" (Mahatma Letters, 8).

"The Original Programme of the Theosophical Society," written by H. P. Blavatsky in 1886, offers further insights, including this advice from a master (she does not specify which one):

Theosophy must not represent merely a collection of moral verities, a bundle of metaphysical Ethics epitomized in theoretical dissertations. Theosophy must be made practical, and has, therefore, to be disencumbered of useless discussion . . . It has to find objective expression in an all-embracing code of life thoroughly impregnated with its spirit"the spirit of mutual tolerance, charity and love. (Blavatsky, Collected Writings, 7:169)

Thus the Theosophical Society can be said to be a vehicle that is to stand for Life and Light "truth, wisdom, compassion, and love "for unity and Universal Brotherhood, assisting individuals towards Self-realization, towards wholeness and oneness in discovering the divinity of their true nature. It is for Theosophists to build an"all-embracing code of life"an ethical mode of living"to be firmly anchored in their true spiritual nature rather than in the ignorance and delusion of socially conditioned thought and belief. Blavatsky underscores the need for independent and original thought:"Be what he may, once that a student abandons the old and trodden highway of routine, and enters upon the solitary path of independent thought "Godward" he is a Theosophist; an original thinker, a seeker after the eternal truth with 'an inspiration of his own' to solve the universal problems" (HPB Teaches, 56).

So the great "work in progress" for members since its inception has been that of building a nucleus of Universal Brotherhood, which is an expression of natural law, and enabling each individual to break out of second-hand beliefs and perceptions of temporal identity. The TS was created to support individual self-enlightenment, to restore a connection to the divine that has been obscured by thought and belief, and thereby to restore our connection to the divine in each other.

Organizationally, the Theosophical Society was formed in New York in 1875, under the leadership of Blavatsky (general secretary), Henry Steel Olcott (founder-president), and William Quan Judge (counsel). In 1878–79, Blavatsky and Olcott moved to India, settling first in Bombay and in 1882 in Adyar, near Madras (today's Chennai). In 1884, Olcott ordered a Board of Control to be established in order to serve as a central management for lodges in the United States. In 1886, the General Council of the TS in Adyar instructed Judge to organize the American branches into a"Section of the General Council of the Theosophical Society." That year, the American Section of the TS was officially formed in Cincinnati, with Judge as general secretary.

From the early beginnings in New York, when the experiment began and the seed of the Theosophical Society was planted, there were times of exciting growth and expansion. The pioneering spirit inspired the trailblazers to surmount the many obstacles that come from building an organization from the beginning without a blueprint, at a time when practically the only models were those of the established churches. The latter were, in fact, models that the Theosophists were explicitly instructed to shun. In"The Original Programme of the Theosophical Society" Blavatsky wrote,"If the two Founders were not told what they had to do, they were distinctly instructed what they should never do, what they had to avoid and what the Society should never become. Church organizations, Christian and Spiritual sects were shown as the future contrasts to our Society" (Blavatsky, Collected Writings, 7:146; emphasis HPB's).

As the Society evolved, there were times of consolidation as well as conflict, and (to pursue the metaphor of the family tree) storms damaged branches, sometimes splitting them asunder. New seasons saw some branches thicken and extend offshoots, while others withered and died. In addition, runners from the main roots found their own place in new garden beds. The accompanying diagram illustrates only some of these offshoots. It does not depict the many small groups or magnetic centers that have formed around Theosophists or others that have been deeply influenced by Theosophy and have played an important role in what could be called the underground spiritual movement.

Perhaps Blavatsky had foreseen, even encouraged, this more informal but more natural model of organizing and teaching when she said in her letter to the American Convention in 1888,"The multiplication of local centres should be a foremost consideration in your minds, and each man should strive to be a centre of work in himself. When his inner development has reached a certain point, he will naturally draw those with whom he is in contact under the same influence; a nucleus will be formed, round which other people will gather, forming a centre from which information and spiritual influence radiate, and towards which higher influences are directed" (Blavatsky, Collected Writings, 10:242).

So what were the issues that contributed to these splits and offshoots in the family tree? Across the spectrum of national and international controversies large and small, a number of contributing factors seem to emerge: freedom of thought versus conformity; termination of membership; codes of conduct or regulatory frameworks to deal with"unbrotherly" or"untheosophical" behavior and other matters; teachings and phenomena related to psychic and spiritual powers; independence from other organizations; succession of leaders; use of power and position; the mix between serving humanity and individual aspirations; concern with personalities and positions rather than teachings; dilution and purity of teachings; the balance among intellectual knowledge, experiential learning, and service; the"right" policies and methods to achieve the perceived original purpose of the Society. But all of these can be summed up in a remark by a delegate to the American convention in 1895, who said that for many, the commitment to"being right" was far stronger than the commitment to Universal Brotherhood. Sometimes intransigent views led to separation and divorce, and new cycles of birth and growth"or decline and decay"were begun.

The first big storm to have far-reaching effects in the United States began after the passing of Blavatsky in 1891, when issues relating to coleadership of the Esoteric Section by Judge and Annie Besant created early tensions. Blavatsky's final letter to the Americans at the 1891 convention (read two weeks before her death) warned prophetically of such dangers.

Now I have marked with pain a tendency among you, as among the Theosophists in Europe and India, to quarrel over trifles, and to allow your very devotion to the cause of Theosophy to lead you into disunion. . . . Advantage is often taken . . . of your noblest qualities to betray and to mislead you. . . . Some of you may put small faith in the actual existence of the terrible forces of these mental, hence subjective and invisible, yet withal living and potent, influences around all of us. But there they are, and I know of more than one among you who have felt them. . . . On those of you who are unselfishly and sincerely devoted to the Cause, they will produce little, if any, impression. On some others, those who place their personal pride higher than their duty to the T.S., higher even than their pledge to their divine self, the effect is generally disastrous.

Self-watchfulness is never more necessary than when a personal wish to lead, and wounded vanity, dress themselves in the peacock's feathers of devotion and altruistic work. . . . If every Fellow in the Society were content to be an impersonal force for good, careless of praise or blame so long as he subserved the purpose of the Brotherhood, the progress made would astonish the World and place the Ark of the T.S. out of danger. (Blavatsky, Collected Writings, 13:172–73)

Tensions also arose between Olcott (the founder-president), Besant (the vice-president), and Judge (general secretary of the American Section). As a result of ongoing concerns and misunderstandings"for example, Olcott submitting, then withdrawing, his resignation"the process became polarized. Controversy about letters received and used by Judge, allegedly from the Brothers, snowballed into protests and petitions, claims and counterclaims, charges, and a call for a formal inquiry. Despite attempts at reconciliation, the impetus of the conflict was never really halted until 1895, when, with an Act of Secession, most American lodges and members, under Judge's leadership, broke with the American Section. This body was named the Theosophical Society in America (confusingly, this name would be adopted by three different organizations in subsequent decades). This new organization underwent its own teething problems, particularly after the passing of Judge in 1896. At this time Katherine Tingley assumed leadership of the splinter group, which in 1898 was renamed the Universal Brotherhood and Theosophical Society (UB & TS). This organization moved to Point Loma, California, in 1900. After the death of Katherine Tingley in 1929, it was led by Gottfried de Purucker until his own death in 1942. It relocated and renamed itself several times in the first half of the twentieth century. Today it is called the Theosophical Society (Pasadena), although its present headquarters are technically in neighboring Altadena. In 1951 William Hartley broke with this organization to form his own branch of the Theosophical Society, now headquartered in The Hague and called the Theosophical Society (Point Loma–The Hague).

Further conflicts occurred at different times and for various reasons, and more offshoots carried Theosophy in a number of different directions, as the accompanying diagram indicates. In 1898, Judge's secretary, Ernest T. Hargrove, split with Tingley to form a second organization called the Theosophical Society in America. (This body disbanded in 1943.) In the same year William H. Dower and Francia A. LaDue also split with Tingley to form the Temple of the People, today located in Halcyon, California. In 1909, Robert Crosbie, another student of Judge's who broke with Tingley, formed the United Lodge of Theosophists (ULT) in Los Angeles. Yet another body, the Blavatsky Association, was founded in 1923 by William Kingsland and Alice Cleather; it disbanded in 1947.

After the 1895 split, the American Section of the TS"that is, the lodges and members that stayed loyal to Adyar"began the task of reorganizing and rebuilding. The organization rapidly expanded, and many members returned, particularly after popular lecture tours by international personalities including Besant, Olcott, and C. W. Leadbeater. In 1926 it established a new center in Wheaton, Illinois, and in 1934 it renamed itself the Theosophical Society in America (Adyar), the name it still carries. To this day the Society continues to provide stability, outreach, and support for thousands of members.

Perhaps those who have been disillusioned by these events and by the behavior of some of the main characters in the past historical dramas of our Society would take heart from HPB's earlier comments in"The Original Programme of the Theosophical Society":

It was never denied that the Organization of the TS was very imperfect. Errare humanum est. . . . the TS cannot be destroyed as a body. It is not in the power of either Founders or their critics; and neither friend nor enemy can ruin that which is doomed to exist, all the blunders of its leaders notwithstanding. That which was generated through and founded by the"High Masters" and under their authority if not their instruction"must and will live. Each of us and all will receive his or her Karma in it, but the vehicle of Theosophy will stand indestructible and undestroyed by the hand of whether man or fiend. No;"truth does not depend on show of hands." (Blavatsky, Collected Writings, 7:150, 164–65; emphasis HPB's)

How, then, can we make use of these insights in taking Theosophy into the third millennium?

It is reasonable to suggest that the original purpose of the Society"to form an external brotherhood in the light of the wisdom tradition"might be revisited and the means and ends of educational activities reviewed. Sometimes in institutions, means gradually become ends. Questions could be asked about how Theosophy is being made practical. How are teachings being presented as a way of living, a road to peace, a way of being without fear, a way of thinking, feeling, and acting? How are the impediments to walking the way of wisdom explored and resolved? Is Universal Brotherhood seen as an unattainable ideal, or is it being seriously explored as a higher level of consciousness and being towards which a student might work? What is the role of psychology in designing educational programs and choosing methods of teaching and learning? Do they vary according to the needs and beliefs of those who seek? Are they aligned to the self-empowerment of the seeker?

In a letter to the turbulent London Lodge in 1884, Koot Hoomi made some relevant observations:"Thus it is plain that the methods of Occultism"though in the main unchangeable"have yet to conform to altered times and circumstances. . . . The only object to be striven for is the amelioration of the condition of man by the spread of truth suited to the various stages of his development and that of the country in which he inhabits and belongs to" (Mahatma Letters, 410).

Do altered times and circumstances require different policies? Should the teachings be disseminated in a manner suited to the level of individual development and the social context? Such questions may seem heretical to some, but to others they mean that there is still work to be done and new insights to be gathered from, for example, theories in education and psychology. There is also a need to develop more understanding of and experience in the methods of intuitive and contemplative inquiry and learning. In addition, over the last thirty years, the mushrooming of diverse New Age groups in many Western countries attests to the search for personal meaning and spiritual growth across all age groupings in our societies. Perhaps in the success and growth of these groups there is also something to be learned.

 

 

References

 

Blavatsky, H.P. Collected Writings. Fifteen volumes. Wheaton: Theosophical Publishing House, 1950–91.
Chin, Vicente Hao, Jr., ed. The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett in Chronological Sequence. Adyar: Theosophical Publishing House, 1998.
Gomes, Michael. HPB Teaches: An Anthology. Adyar: Theosophical Publishing House, 1992.
Harris, Philip S., ed. Theosophical Encyclopedia. Quezon City, Philippines: Theosophical Publishing House, 2006.
Mills, Joy. One Hundred Years of Theosophy. Wheaton: Theosophical Publishing House, 1987.
Santucci, James M."The Theosophical Society." In James M. Lewis and Jesper Aagaard Petersen, eds. Controversial New Religions. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

 

 

Dorothy Bell completed degrees in arts and education at the University of Melbourne and at the University of New England in Australia, and first visited America in 1990 as a Fulbright Scholar. Since joining the Theosophical Society in 1999, she has lectured at TS conferences in the United States, New Zealand, India, and Australia. She is also a Reiki master.


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