Letters to the Sage: Selected Correspondence of Thomas Moore Johnson, Volume One: The Esotericists

Forest Grove, Ore.: Typhon Press, 2016. viii + 505 pp., paper, $19.99.

One might think that at this late date the history of both the Theosophical Society and the wider milieu of the esoterically inclined during the late nineteenth century have been pretty well picked over. But new evidence keeps emerging that this is hardly the case. The book in hand, Letters to the Sage, offers remarkable evidence that there is still plenty to be dug up about this significant era.

I would be surprised if one in a thousand—or even one in a million—people have heard of Thomas Moore Johnson, the so-called “Sage of the Osage” (1851–1919). Yet this small-town Missouri lawyer (who lived near the Osage River) had an outsized impact on the early survival of the TS, on the spread of its most important rival, the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor (HBL), and even on the study of Platonism, Islam, and Sufism in the U.S.

Through an unusual bit of good fortune, Johnson’s descendants managed to preserve the Sage’s papers and correspondence, granting researchers Bowen and Paul Johnson access to review and transcribe the trove.

Letters to the Sage is the initial result, a volume devoted to the letters that Johnson received in his correspondence with many of the heavy hitters of early TS and HBL history and with other esotericists. These include Henry Steel Olcott, William Q. Judge, General Abner Doubleday, Anna Kingsford, Edward Maitland, Damodar Mavalankar, G.R.S. Mead, John Yarker, Thomas H. Burgoyne, and various lesser lights. (Unfortunately, Johnson did not make copies of his own handwritten letters to these folks, so these are mostly letters to—not from—the Sage.)

Patrick Bowen’s seventy-five-page introduction ably establishes Johnson’s significance: he edited and published The Platonist, a groundbreaking philosophical journal for a general, not academic, readership; he was a member of the Board of Control of the American TS in the wake of HPB’s and Olcott’s departure for India, establishing the first TS branch beyond New York at a time when the American survival of the TS was up in the air. In the pursuit of “practical occultism” he joined the HBL, became for a time its leader in the U.S., and assisted in the spread of interest in Tarot and astrology.

The letters collected here are presented in alphabetical order by the correspondents’ names, e.g., W.W. Allen, R.C. Bary, A.N. Breneman, J.D. Buck, Josephine Cables, and so on. This provides a more coherent grasp of Johnson’s sequential interactions with each individual. A short biography is provided for each correspondent, indicating their significance and role in fostering occultism and esotericism as the nineteenth century came to a close.

Admittedly, a certain portion of the letters is of the “I am enclosing $2.00 for a subscription to The Platonist” or the “I have not yet received the HBL manuscripts that were promised” variety. These are not exactly riveting, but they capture the travails of esoteric entrepreneurs and seekers trying to politely accommodate one another while nudging them to fulfill their roles as gurus and students.

More valuable for those interested in the history of esotericism are the letters that provide insight into the claims to wisdom and personal revelation. Thus James M. Pryse, a confidant of HPB in her final two years, writes to Johnson in 1887:

Placing the finger-tip in the ear, one can hear the blood coursing through the arteries, also one can, of course, easily hear the “beating” of the heart. Similarly, astral senses hear the astral light singing along the nerves and in the brain, and the musical tones of the heart.

The soul, being a magnetic force, that has created the body, possesses complete knowledge of magnetism, though obscured by its contact with “matter,” as the occultist progresses, the soul regains its knowledge, and the developed will can free the fluidic (or astral) body from the gross body.

Editors Bowen and Johnson show admirable restraint in judging whether Pryse is exhibiting profundity or shooting the esoteric breeze. The material collected here invites the reader to make his or her own judgment, which is a valuable exercise in its own right.

Letters to the Sage is an important contribution to our understanding of the early years of the TS and the HBL. Many of the correspondents collected here were members of both, hedging their bets on which group might deliver the most insightful goods. (The HBL soon faded from the scene, reincarnating later as C.C. Zain’s Church of Light, which survives to this day.)

The next volume of Letters to the Sage promises to provide Johnson’s extensive correspondence with Alexander Wilder, his closest esoteric friend, who incidentally served as editor for Blavatsky’s Isis Unveiled.

Books such as Letters to the Sage are clearly the beneficiaries of the recent revolution in print on demand publishing, which allows small publishers such as Typhon Press to issue books for highly specialized audiences without having to commit to the expense of initial print runs in the thousands. This work may be of primary interest to students of Theosophical and occult history, but the fact that this material is now able to see the light of day is a gift to everyone who has even the slightest interest in the roots of modern esotericism.

Jay Kinney

Jay Kinney was founder and publisher of Gnosis: A Journal of the Western Inner Traditions and is a frequent contributor to Quest.