The Dawn of the New Cycle: Point Loma Theosophists and American Culture

The Dawn of the New Cycle: Point Loma Theosophists and American Culture

By W. Michael Ashcraft
Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2002. Hardback, xviii + 258 pages.

For approximately the first three decades of the twentieth century, a community of Theosophists flourished on a promontory of land in southern California, overlooking the Pacific Ocean and adjacent to the city of San Diego, known as Point Loma. Lomaland, its legal name and officially the international headquarters of the Universal Brotherhood and Theosophical Society, was established and directed under the charismatic leadership of Katherine Tingley from 1897 until her death in 1929. In this tightly packed narrative, Michael Ashcraft tells the story of the Point Lama community within the context of three confluent streams of cultural and religious influence: Western esotericism, late American Victorian culture, and the culture of communitarian experiments within late nineteenth-century American society. By and large, Ashcraft succeeds in his aim, bringing to life a unique community that included an educational program for children that, as Ashcraft points out, "combined the child-rearing philosophies current in the United States during the nineteenth century with Theosophical assumptions about children."

Ashcraft begins, appropriately enough, with a brief history of the Theosophical Society, outlining in general terms some of the key concepts of the theosophical worldview as expounded by H. P. Blavatsky. As to the organization of the Society itself Ashcraft seems content to pass over the fact that H. S. Olcott was its president, mentioning only that the Society received considerable leadership from him and later identifying Olcott simply as one of the original members. As Ashcraft's concern is the story of the Point Loma community, he focuses on the work of W. Q. Judge, who, as the book states, led the American lodges to declare their independence (from Adyar, the world headquarters in India established by Olcott and Blavatsky) in 1895 forming the Theosophical Society in America. It was as successor to Judge that Tingley wore the mantle of leadership, changing the name of the organization to Universal Brotherhood and Theosophical Society. And it was Tingley who, building on the theosophical concept of cycles and “Judge's... transmission of ... progressive millennial expectation enunciated in Blavatsky's writings, saw in the founding of the Point Loma community the realization of cyclical expectations." Thus, as Ashcraft points out, "the seedbed, conceptually and organizationally, for what later became an extensive educational enterprise at Point Loma was the School for the Revival of the Lost Mysteries of Antiquity."

The question of why California should be chosen is an interesting one, and Ashcraft in discussing the selection of Point Lama as the site for Tingley's community asks, "Was the success of the [Theosophical] movement a result of esoteric forces at work on the West Coast, or was the success of the movement itself the reason for Tingley's interest in that area?" He adds, “Whatever the esoteric importance of California, from a more mundane perspective, its demographic and historical setting favored Theosophical expansion. Not surprisingly, Spiritualists and other peripheral religious groups of the nineteenth century thrived in California. So, too, did the Theosophists." Having thus chosen the site, Tingley next faced the question, as Ashcraft puts it, Who should come? The peopling of Point Loma makes a most interesting story, both in terms of the lives of many of the original residents-teachers, workers, leaders in Tingley's enterprise-and in terms of population numbers. Ashcraft records that in 1900 there were 95 people at Lomaland, 37 of the initial inhabitants being children. "The first decade ... was a time of optimism, hope, and construction of both buildings and organization, with the population in 1910 numbering 357.” The community peaked during the 1910sAfter World War I, the community gradually declined, until in 1929, at the time of Tingley’s death, there were only 171 adults and 78 pupils, while two years later the population was 131 adults. As Ashcraft notes in his concluding chapter, opinions vary among former residents concerning Point Loma's decline. The Depression of 1929, financial problems, the change of direction instituted by Tingley's successor, Dr. G. de Purucker-all are cited as possible causes.

As Ashcraft proceeds with the story of Lomaland, he places each aspect of the community's activities within the context of the social and cultural milieu of the late nineteenth century, noting both the similarities and the contrasts between theosophical assumptions and the prevailing attitudes and philosophies current in late Victorian America. First, he examines in some detail the idealist consensus among child-rearing theorists that existed when Tingley was establishing her Raja Yoga school for children at Point Loma. Noting the aspects of the educational philosophies becoming dominant during the 1890s and into the early years of the new century, Ashcraft points to those that influenced Tingley's approach, while at the same time acknowledging that "the Point Loma Theosophists were unique ... [they had] a cyclical view of the coming age and were preparing their children to enter the next cycle," so that consequently a Theosophical philosophy of child rearing complemented an age-graded network of schools. While the Raja Yoga curriculum did not include Theosophical doctrine as such, Ashcraft emphasizes that Point Loma educators "modeled the moral life for their pupils and in so doing pointed to the deeper truths of Theosophy."

Following the pattern he uses for examining the educational work at Point Lorna, Ashcraft next looks at the role of women and assumptions about gender, again contrasting and comparing ideas espoused at Lomaland with Victorian concepts that endured well into the twentieth century. "Assumptions about gender were crucial in understanding late Victorian culture. They were also important in understanding Theosophical definitions of gender. The Theosophists who moved to Point Loma incorporated Theosophical doctrine with prevailing notions of women's roles." In considering national patriotism, he again contrasts prevailing views about America's role in the international community with those held by Point Loma Theosophists, which also often reflected both national and international distinctions among the residents. Stating that Point Loma Theosophists practiced "higher patriotism," a phrase that is synonymous with the brotherhood of humanity, Ashcraft cites Blavatsky's exposition of Root-Races as the basis for Tingley's emphasis on patriotic symbols from American history at the same time as she advocated the universalism implied by the ideal of brotherhood. Tingley's leadership of the Universal Brotherhood and Theosophical Society encompassed the period of two wars: the Spanish-American War, which Point Loma residents fully supported, interpreting it, as did many middleclass Americans, as a moral struggle, and the First World War, which the Lomalanders joined other Americans in condemning, calling for peaceful solutions to international problems.

Having examined the social, cultural, and moral values of early twentieth century America both as similar to and contrasting with those derived from theosophical ideals and concepts, Ashcraft concludes that Point Loma Theosophists "lived comfortably with the new and the old, the innovative [theosophical views] and the conventional [the environment of the period], which could be seen in any number of activities and accomplishments throughout the history of the Point Loma community." He adds further, "Point Lorna suggests that people of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries could conceive of a world where such binary opposites were not really opposites, but complementaries." In summary, Ashcraft proposes that Point Loma Theosophists teach us that "people who march to the beat of a different drummer still hear some of the same cadences as the rest of us.” As to Point Loma's legacy, the author is quite correct in stating that as part of the larger stream of esoteric thought and practice called Theosophy, it contributed to the blossoming of the New Age that emerged in the 1950s and 1960s.

Meticulously researched, drawing on extensive archival materials, including interviews with many who lived at Point Loma during some part of the community's existence or with relatives of those who were resident at various periods of Lomaland's heyday, as well as the usual books and other sources (including some unpublished documents) necessary for understanding both American social and cultural history and the theosophical context of the community, Ashcraft has produced an absorbing commentary. One could wish that his care in research had prevented his making such an egregious error as alleging that Dr. Annie Besant's Theosophical organization spawned a semi-Masonic movement called Co-Masonry, The International Co-Freemasonic Order, Le Droit Humain was founded in Paris in 1893 by individuals involved in social reform, none of whom were Theosophists. Although Besant joined the Order in 1902 and came to hold high offices in it-both in England and in India-the Order was and still is totally dissociated from the Adyar-based Theosophical Society.

The book betrays its origins as a doctoral dissertation, suffering from an almost overreferencing of paragraph after paragraph to notes that all too frequently consist of only a repetitious and lengthy listing of works-a-books, interviews, magazine articles, archival sources-on which the author has based his statements. Would it not have sufficed to reference only quotations, while leaving all other references to a comprehensive bibliography? On the whole, however, there is little to fault in Ashcraft's survey of what he terms a remarkable experiment in esoteric community life, the Point Loma Theosophists. It is indeed a fascinating story, and Ashcraft has done a worthy service in providing the cultural underpinnings for the experiment that was meant to herald the dawn of the new cycle.


March/April 2004