Radiance from Halcyon: A Utopian Experiment in Religion and Science

Radiance from Halcyon: A Utopian Experiment in Religion and Science

Paul Eli Ivey
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013.
328 pp., paper, $25.

From its beginnings, Theosophy has always been associated with the scientific investigation of the cosmos. The Mahatma Letters specifically state that "modern science is [Theosophists'] best ally" Paul Eli Ivey's historical examination of the Temple of the People in Halcyon, California, in the first part of the twentieth century focuses on the relationship between spirituality and science. It also examines h ow a group of Theosophists chose to live in an intentional community based on Theosophical principles. Under the guidance of the Master Hilarion, as interpreted through Blue Star (Francia A. LaDue) and Red Star (William H. Dower), the Temple of the People developed a utopian community that embraced Theosophy as a way of life and was based on occult principles.

The first half of the book is organized chronologically, detailing the formation of the Temple movement. In 1895, a conflict between the TS leadership in America (under William Q. Judge) and the headquarters in Adyar (led by Henry Steel Olcott and Annie Besant) resulted in most of the American lodges breaking from Adyar and operating independently under the leadership of Judge and then Katherine Tingley. (The current American Section of the Adyar TS is descended from the lodges that remained loyal to Adyar or chose to reaffiliate later on.)

Initially the members of the Syracuse, New York, Lodge joined with the newly independent American lodges. However, by the beginning of the twentieth century, the members were moving away from this group (by then known as the Universal Brotherhood and Theosophical Society, today called the Theosophical Society in America [Pasadena]) and more towards an independent organization, the Temple movement. As part of this process, the members relocated from Syracuse to California, establishing the Temple of the People and the city of Halcyon.

The latter half of the book is more thematic. Focusing on the intersection of art, architecture, and music, these chapters document the way the community members applied Theosophical principles to their artistic endeavors. Yet throughout the whole book there is one reoccurring theme, and that is the way science, particularly medical science, was viewed as connected to spiritual science. Both were employed by the community at its central hospital, the Halcyon Hotel and Sanatorium, overseen by Dower, a licensed medical doctor. The residents of the Temple were convinced that science would demonstrate the Theosophical principles they understood to permeate the universe. As Ivey notes, "To Temple members, scientific investigations would prove the veracity of The Secret Doctrine" As a result, radiation, X-rays, electricity, magnetism, and other "invisible" rays were seen as evidence of the powers of the universe beyond the senses.

This point was stressed when the sanatorium opened and Dower demonstrated his X-ray machines, which allowed attendees to look at the bones in their hands and arms. It was also the basis of a large number of therapies Dower instituted at the sanatorium. By the early 1920s, he was experimenting with a variety of "radiant rays," from standard radiology to the electricitybased therapies developed by Dr. Albert Abrams. In each case Dower's medical practice became the place where people combined rest, nature cures, scientific therapies, and occult principles in order to restore their health.

In terms of the history of Theosophical teachings and the emergence of a larger metaphysical spirituality in America, Ivey pays particular attention to how ideas from other traditions, particularly New Thought and, to a much lesser degree, Christian Science, also become integrated into the teachings of the Temple members. Ivey writes, "New Thought ideas of healing did have a place in Temple theology, and one pamphlet claimed that the Masters, through Helena Blavatsky, inaugurated both Theosophical and New Thought organizations"

Of course all intentional communities have their troubles and conflicts. The Temple of the People was no different. Ivey documents the various challenges and internal struggles among members. Initially the community was organized along socialistic lines, but this plan did not work, and eventually opportunities for private ownership of land and proceeds were devised to keep the community functioning. Similarly, there were conflicts about leadership, messages from the Masters, and the overall direction of the community. In each case compromises were made, directions were changed, or, in some cases, individual members left the community.

The last chapter traces how a few of the children living in the community grew to become world-renowned scientists and engineers. George Russell Harrison taught at various schools, including Stanford University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, won prestigious awards, and had numerous patents. Russell and Sigurd Varian developed early radar systems that were essential parts of the Allied defense in World War II. For all these figures, the Theosophical principles learned at the Temple were applied practically and became the basis of their successful engineering careers.

Radiance from Halcyon is an excellent historical account of one utopian community that applied practically the principles of Theosophy as they understood them. It gives rich details of both highs and lows in the utopian experiment, all without losing the human dimension that made the community so attractive and enduring. Anyone interested in the history of intentional communities, the history of Theosophy in America, or how one group of people interpreted and implemented Theosophical principles will find Ivey's narrative both thought-provoking and instructive.

John L. Crow

John L. Crow is a Ph.D. candidate in American religious history at Florida State University. Currently he is writing his dissertation, which focuses on how Theosophists lived Theosophy and understood the cosmos and its relationship to their bodies during the early twentieth century.