Esoteric Christianity

Esoteric Christianity

Annie Besant
Wheaton, IL: Quest Books, 2006. Paperback, $16.95, 245 pages.

More than a century after its original publication in 1901, Annie Besant's classic text on the Christian mysteries has been reissued in an attractive new edition with an introduction and notes by Richard Smoley, author of Inner Christianity. Contemporary interest in such approaches to Christianity should guarantee renewed attention for this book. Besant writes:

We begin to understand the full truth of the apostolic teaching that Christ was not a unique personality, but "the first fruits of them that slept" (I Cor. 15:20), and that every man was to become a Christ. Not then was the Christ regarded as an external Saviour, by whose imputed righteousness men were to be saved from divine wrath. There was current in the Church the glorious and inspiring teaching that He was but the first fruits of humanity, the model that every man should reproduce in himself, the life that all should share.... Not to be saved by an external Christ, but to be glorified into an inner Christ, was the teaching of esoteric Christianity.... (132-33)

Besant, who was once married to a conservative clergyman and came to new understandings of Christianity through Theosophy, offers a guide to this path in her engaging and inspiring style. She can only give us a certain amount in a small volume—and much of any true mystery is only revealed in living experience. Nonetheless, like Clement of Alexandria (whom she quotes in the epigraphs), she may not have fully unfolded the mystery, but she has indicated what is sufficient.

Toward the end of the book, Besant states: "For the visible and the invisible worlds are interrelated, interwoven, each with each, and those can best serve the visible by whom the energies of the invisible can be wielded." The dynamics of such service are explored in her chapters on the sacraments, which I found to be the most enduringly insightful part of the book. Besant sees a sacrament as "a method by which the energies of the invisible world are transmuted into action in the physical.... a kind of crucible in which spiritual alchemy takes place." She makes many interesting points regarding the importance of the spiritual knowledge of the priest on the "operative power" of the sacraments. She also anticipates later theological developments in seeing a sacramental aspect to scripture: "These Books, indeed, have something of a sacramental character about them, an outer form and an inner life, an outer symbol and an inner truth." One might well follow this book with the later works of Besant's colleagues, Charles Leadbeater (e.g., The Science of the Sacraments, available through Quest Books) and James Wedgwood (e.g., The Collected Works of James I. Wedgwood, San Diego: St Alban Press, 2004), to see further development of her perspective.

Besant's book inevitably reflects her time and culture. Scholarship and sensibilities have moved and changed since her day. Richard Smoley's notes and introduction provide extremely valuable context in this regard. Despite the passage of time, Esoteric Christianity is not simply an interesting relic from a past century, but a vibrant and inspiring vision for renewal of the mysteries hidden in Christianity. May this new edition bring Besant's vision to a wider audience.

John Plummer

The reviewer is a member of the Theosophical Society currently residing in Nashville, Tennessee. He is a freelance theologian, and the author of several books and articles on independent sacramental churches and esoteric Christianity.