Brief History of the Theosophical Society


The Theosophical Society was founded in late 1875, in New York City, by Russian noblewoman Helena Petrovna Blavatsky and American Colonel Henry Steel Olcott, along with attorney William Quan Judge and a number of other individuals interested in the philosophy expounded by Madame Blavatsky.


Madame Blavatsky was the first Russian woman to be naturalized as an American citizen. Her mother was a social novelist and her grandmother was an accomplished amateur scientist. As a young woman, she traveled all over the world in search of wisdom about the nature of life and the reason for human existence. Eventually, Blavatsky brought the spiritual wisdom of the East and that of the ancient Western mysteries to the modern West, where they were virtually unknown. Her writings became the first exposition of what is today known as modern Theosophy.

Colonel Henry S. Olcott, a prominent lawyer and journalist, became the first President of the Society. He was a veteran of the Civil War, during which he had been a special investigator into corruption in the armed services and after which he was a member of the commission appointed to investigate the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. He was also an internationally renowned agricultural authority. Olcott related the timeless wisdom of Theosophy to the cultures of both East and West, applied it to everyday life, and built the Society into an international organization.

In 1879, the principal founders, Mme Blavatsky and Col Olcott, moved to India, where the Society spread rapidly. In 1882, they established the Society's International Headquarters in Adyar, a suburb of Madras (currently Chennai), where it has since remained. They also visited Sri Lanka, where Olcott was so active in promoting social welfare among oppressed Buddhists that even now he is a national hero of that land.

After his two major co-founders departed for India in late 1878 to establish the international headquarters of the Society in Adyar, India, young attorney William Quan Judge diligently carried on the work of advancing interest in Theosophy within the United States. By 1886 he had established an American Section of the international Society comprised of branches in fourteen cities. Rapid growth took place under his guidance, so that by 1895 there were 102 American branches with nearly six thousand members.

Madame Blavatsky died in 1891, leaving Colonel Olcott and English social activist Annie Besant as the principal leaders of the international movement based in Adyar, and William Quan Judge heading the important American Section.

During the Ninth Annual Convention of the American Section in 1895, eighty-three lodges voted for autonomy from the international Theosophical Society in Adyar. The international President-Founder, Colonel Olcott, interpreted this action as secession and revoked charters of those lodges, whose members reorganized under the leadership of William Q. Judge. The five American lodges that had opposed the 1895 secession retained their affiliation with the international Society in Adyar. Under the leadership of Alexander Fullerton, they formed a new American Section of the TS known then as the “American Theosophical Society.” Extensive lecture tours by Annie Besant and Constance Wachtmeister elicited much new interest, so that by 1900 our organization claimed 1286 members and 71 branches. The “American Theosophical Society” was legally renamed "The Theosophical Society in America" (TSA) in 1934, and has existed under that name ever since. Like other Theosophical groups, the organization aspires to educate the public about the principles of Theosophy through publications, public programs, and local group activities.

The administrative center of the TSA (called "Olcott" in honor of the President-Founder) is located in Wheaton, Illinois. Approximately 110 local groups in major cities of the country carry on active Theosophical work. A considerable number of members-at-large are affiliated directly with the national center.



Today the International TS has members in almost 70 countries around the world. The Society was influential in the founding of many later esoteric movements, a number of which were founded by former TS members. Some notable cases are Dr. Gerard Encausse (Papus), founder of the modern Martinist Order; William W. Westcott, co-founder of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn; Max Heindel, founder of The Rosicrucian Fellowship; Alice Bailey, founder of the Arcane School; Rudolf Steiner, founder of the Anthroposophical Society; the Russian painter Nicholas Roerich and his wife Helena, founders of the Agni Yoga Society; Guy and Edna Ballard, founders of the “I AM Movement”; among others.


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1 – Articles

Early History of the Theosophical Society by International Headquarters of the TS (Adyar)

The Backgroung to the Founding of the Theosophical Society by Geoffrey Farthing

Famous People and the Impact of the Theosophical Society Compiled by Katinka Hesselink


Theosophical Chronology Compiled by Katinka Hesselink

"Family Tree" of the Theosophical Movement by Dorothy Bell

List of books on Theosophical History by the Henry S. Olcott Memorial Library

Personal Reminiscences on the Origins of the Kern Foundation by John Kern

Recalling the Beginnings by Joy Mills




2 – Videos

Who Are the Founders? Chaos, Plan, and Order in the Society's History by John Algeo

Adyar: Home of the Theosophical Society Documentary by Steve Schweizer

The Theosophical Society in America: An Illustrated History: 1875-2000 Documentary by Steve Schweizer

The Olcott Campus by Susan Ohlhaber

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