THEOSOPHY, Vol. 8, No. 4, February, 1920
(Pages 97-104; Size: 26K)
(Number 2 of a 34-part series)



THE Theosophical Movement of the nineteenth century was publicly inaugurated with the founding of the Theosophical Society at New York City.

The formation of the Society was inspired by the nature and teachings of H. P. Blavatsky. By birth a Russian of noble family, Madame Blavatsky had been a wanderer for more than twenty years in many lands, oriental and occidental. She had twice or thrice been in the Americas, North and South, before coming to New York in July of 1873. She lived in retirement there and in Brooklyn for more than a year. In October of 1874 she journeyed to the Eddy farmhouse near Chittenden, Vermont, and there made the acquaintance of Col. Henry S. Olcott.

Col. Olcott was by birth an American and had acquired his title in the American Civil War. He had been agricultural editor of the New York "Tribune," had written many articles for various publications on many subjects, had been admitted to the bar, and was at the time a well-known lawyer, with a very wide acquaintance among prominent men. For many years he had been a Spiritualist. Interested in an account he had seen of the manifestations taking place through the mediumship of the Eddy brothers, he had visited Chittenden in July and written an account of what he had witnessed for the New York "Sun." This article was copied and commented on in many papers. In September Col. Olcott returned to the Eddy place under commission to investigate the phenomena and report on them to the New York "Graphic." It was while he was engaged in this congenial work that Madame Blavatsky arrived at Chittenden.

Although Madame Blavatsky apparently took no part in the proceedings other than as a visitor and interested witness, Col. Olcott noted that the phenomena changed greatly in character and variety immediately after her arrival. He was so impressed by what he saw and by his conversations with Madame Blavatsky that he followed up the acquaintance after her return to New York.

At the request of Madame Blavatsky he introduced to her a young lawyer of his acquaintance named William Q. Judge. Mr. Judge was of Irish parentage, and had been brought by his family to America while still a boy. From his earliest years he had been markedly religious in temperament, and, as he grew older, had delved in religions, philosophies, mystical writings, and had taken great interest in mesmerism, spiritualism and kindred subjects. He was many years younger than either Madame Blavatsky or Col. Olcott, who were born, respectively, in 1831 and 1832, while Mr. Judge's birth-date was 1851. Both Col. Olcott and Mr. Judge became pupils of Madame Blavatsky and passed all their available time in her company.

In the winter of 1874-5 Madame Blavatsky spent several months in Philadelphia, where she made the acquaintance of several noted Spiritualists. With them and Col. Olcott she attended the séances of Mr. and Mrs. Holmes and others. Certain sceptical investigators having attacked in the press the genuineness of the Eddy and Holmes phenomena, and questioned the bona fides of any mediumship, both Col. Olcott and Madame Blavatsky replied vigorously, defending the phenomena in question, the fact of mediumship itself, and urging the necessity for impartial investigation of the claims of spiritualism, both as to its philosophy and its alleged facts. This was Madame Blavatsky's first appearance in print in the English language. The peculiarities of her style of expression, the boldness of her statements, the apparent range of her knowledge on the subject, all conspired to attract the attention of spiritualists, investigators, and the public generally.

In January, 1875, Col. Olcott's book, "People From the Other World," was issued, describing in detail the Eddy and Holmes phenomena, and giving a curiosity-provoking account of Madame Blavatsky. Whatever opinion any reader may form of the marvels described, or of Col. Olcott's comments and conclusions, there can be no question of his good faith. Nor, as the book was written during the very period of the occurrences, can there be any question that it reflects accurately the opinions and state of mind of Col. Olcott at the time.

On Madame Blavatsky's return to New York from Philadelphia she took apartments at 46 Irving Place. The wonders recited by Col. Olcott and her own letters to the newspapers had drawn so much attention to her that her rooms became a center of attraction. Nearly every evening was given over to visitors. One of the newspaper reporters dubbed her apartment "the lamasery," and the name quickly became current as typifying the flavor of mystery surrounding her and the subjects discussed at her soirées. To these evening gatherings came spiritualists, kabalists, Platonists, students of modern science and of ancient mysteries, the profane, the sceptical, as well as the curious and the seekers after the marvelous. Col. Olcott and Mr. Judge were nearly always present, and, after the departure of the casual visitors would remain far into the night immersed in study and discussion.

In their many conversations she told them more or less of her travels and their purpose. Amongst other experiences she had endeavored unsuccessfully to establish a group at Cairo, Egypt, in 1872, to investigate the rationale of mediumship and its phenomena. Moved by what he had seen and heard, no less than by his ardent desire to explore more deeply the phenomena which fascinated him, Col. Olcott had proposed, as early as May, 1875, to form a secret "miracle club" for the production and examination of phenomena. Col. Olcott's own account, written many years after the event, states that the "miracle club" plan failed because the expected medium could not be obtained for the experiments he desired to conduct. The collateral circumstances indicate that the "expected medium" was none other than Madame Blavatsky herself, and that the failure of his attempt was due to her refusal, then as thereafter throughout her career, to lend herself to the production of phenomena under his or any one's directions, or for the purposes he and others desired.

On the evening of September 7, 1875, a talk was given in Madame Blavatsky's apartment by Mr. G. H. Felt, who had been a student of Egyptian mysticism, and who professed to be able to control "elementals." While the assemblage was discussing the talk, Col. Olcott wrote on a slip of paper which he handed to Mr. Judge these words: "Would it not be a good thing to form a society for this kind of study?" Mr. Judge read the paper, passed it to Madame Blavatsky, who nodded assent, and then Mr. Judge proposed that the assemblage come to order and that Col. Olcott act as chairman to consider the proposal. Another meeting was arranged for the following evening at Madame Blavatsky's rooms and at that time sixteen persons gave in their names as being willing to join in founding a society for occult study. Other meetings were held at Col. Olcott's law-offices, and at the residence of Mrs. Emily Hardinge Britten in furtherance of the proposed society. On September 13 the name of The Theosophical Society was chosen. On October 16 a preamble and by-laws were adopted. On October 30 additional names were added to the list of "Founders," and officers and a Council were elected. The principal officers were Col. Olcott as President, Madame Blavatsky as Corresponding Secretary, and Mr. Judge as Counsel. On the evening of November 17 a formal meeting was held at Mott Memorial Hall, 64 Madison Avenue. Colonel Olcott delivered an "Inaugural Address" and 500 copies of this address were ordered electrotyped "for immediate distribution."

Thereafter, stated meetings continued to be held from time to time; various talks and lectures were given, much discussion ensued and many plans for experimentation in phenomena were proposed. Neither Madame Blavatsky nor Mr. Judge took any active part in the meetings after the first few sessions. The former busied herself in correspondence, in communications to the press, in discussion with the steady stream of visitors to "the lamasery," and in the writing of "Isis Unveiled." Mr. Judge, occupied with the necessities of his daily living, gave his evenings to study under Madame Blavatsky's direction and instruction. Col. Olcott alone was active in the meetings of the Society. Additional Fellows were admitted from time to time, both Active and Corresponding, and great efforts made to procure phenomena. Mr. Felt's promised "revelations" failed to materialize and after a time he left the society, as did most of the other early members when it was found that the expectations aroused were not fulfilled. Very early in the history of the society Mr. Felt had exacted a pledge of secrecy regarding the disclosures he had promised to make, and this was signed, at his and Col. Olcott's request, by most of the attendant Fellows. It was this pledge which was many years later published in the New York "Herald" as the original pledge of secrecy of the Theosophical Society, and afterwards incorporated in "Hours With the Ghosts," by Henry Ridgely Evans, published by Laird & Lee, Chicago, in 1897. The material for the "Herald" attacks was supplied by Mr. Henry J. Newton, one of the original Founders, who had been elected Treasurer of the Society at its inception. He was a well-known and ardent Spiritualist who became bitterly hostile to the Society after the publication of "Isis Unveiled." Others among the Founders were Mrs. Emily Hardinge Britten and her husband, Doctor Britten. Both were Spiritualists and Mrs. Britten was herself a well-known medium, very widely known as the author or reputed author of "Ghostland," "Art Magic," "Nineteenth Century Occultism," and other writings. She had also been active in the investigations conducted by the London "Dialectical Society." Another Spiritualist Founder was Mr. C. C. Massey, an English Barrister and well known writer for British spiritualist publications. On his return to London after the formation of the society he interested a number of others, among them the famous W. Stainton Moses ("M. A. Oxon."), and Miss Emily Kislingbury, at that time Secretary of the British Spiritualist Association, and the British Theosophical Society was established in 1876, with Mr. Massey as its first President. The members of the British society were accepted as "Corresponding Fellows" of the New York Parent Society, but were not formally recognized until the summer of 1878, when John Storer Cobb, the Recording Secretary of the New York society, journeyed to London for the purpose under commission from the Parent Society. With the exception of Miss Kislingbury nearly all the original and early London Fellows later became antagonistic. Both in London and New York nearly the entire membership consisted of Spiritualists and as phenomena were not forthcoming, as the teachings of Madame Blavatsky came to be recognized as fatal to the theory that mediumistic communications were messages from departed human beings, the great majority of Spiritualist members either silently dropped out or became the most active enemies of the new Society.

Another early Fellow was Dr. Alexander Wilder, the learned Platonist, who remained friendly to the society and its purposes throughout his life. It was he who read the manuscript of "Isis Unveiled" and recommended its publication to Mr. J. W. Bouton. He also wrote most of the prefatory article "Before the Veil," which precedes chapter I of volume I of "Isis." In other ways, also, he was helpful to Madame Blavatsky and her mission, and his services were often gratefully referred to by her. Other early members were Rev. J. H. Wiggin, a Unitarian clergyman, Dr. Seth Pancoast of Philadelphia, a life-time student of the Kabbala, and Major-General Abner W. Doubleday, U.S. Army, retired. General Doubleday remained a consistent and devoted member of the society to the day of his death. He became at one time President pro tem., and spent much of his time in correspondence and other activities in behalf of the society. Some unique manuscripts and rare books given by him to the original library of the New York Society are in the possession of the writers. One of his last services was to present the society with a complete file of the first six volumes of "The Theosophist," completely indexed in manuscript prepared and written out by himself.

Through the labors of Madame Blavatsky, Corresponding Fellows were obtained in many lands. In this way the Ionian Theosophical Society was established at Corfu in 1877. Other activities by correspondence resulted in an affiliation with the Arya Samaj, a Hindu association ostensibly for the revival of interest in the ancient scriptures and philosophical systems of India. It was presided over by the Swami, Dhyanand Sarasvati, well-known in his native country. Joint diplomas were issued to many Fellows of the T.S. as members of "The Theosophical Society of the Arya Samaj of Aryavart" (the ancient designation of India). This alliance endured until 1881, when it was ruptured and the Swami and his partisans became violent opponents to the establishment of the T.S. in India. A very full account of the various difficulties is contained in the "Extra Supplement to The Theosophist" for July, 1882.

As originally constituted The Theosophical Society was entirely democratic in its by-laws and organization. All officers were elective. Changes in by-laws, whether by substitution or otherwise, had first to be submitted in writing at a stated meeting at least thirty days prior to a vote, and then ratified by the affirmative action of two-thirds of the Fellows present. All nominations for Fellowship were required to be in writing, to be endorsed by two Fellows in good standing, and approved by the Council. Three classes of Fellows were provided for: Active, Corresponding, and Honorary, whose degrees are sufficiently indicated by their designations. The earlier societies established after the foundation of the Parent body adopted the same preamble and by-laws, and made additional rules and by-laws not in conflict, to suit themselves. Intercourse between the various societies was more or less desultory and informal, but all Fellows received their diplomas from the Parent society until branch societies began to be formed in India, when diplomas were signed by Col. Olcott and Madame Blavatsky. In America diplomas were signed after 1878 by General Doubleday as President pro tem. and by Mr. Judge as Recording Secretary, until 1883, after which date diplomas were signed in the first instance in India or America as exigency might require, until 1885, after which time H.P.B. being in Europe, Mr. Judge in America, and Col. Olcott in India, all regular diplomas were signed in the first instance by Col. Olcott as de facto President of all the Theosophical Societies. Diplomas, when issued, were recognized as valid certificates of Fellowship by all Lodges wherever situated.

No formal Convention of all the societies was ever held during the existence of the Parent body, but in India a species of gathering or convention was held as early as 1880. No Sections were organized during the first ten years of the Society's history.

The Parent Theosophical Society had three declared Objects, and these were formally adopted by all subsequently formed societies except a few of the Indian branches. Those Objects were:

I. To form a nucleus of a Universal Brotherhood of Humanity, without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste, or color;

II. The study of ancient and modern religions, philosophies and sciences, and the demonstration of the importance of such study; and

III. The investigation of the unexplained laws of nature and the psychical powers latent in man.

Assent to the First Object only was required of all Fellows, the remaining Objects being set forth as subsidiary and optional. Originally, and until as late as 1884, a form of initiation, several times changed, was used for the induction of new members, and the proceedings of the several societies were quasi-private.

In the beginning the Parent Society and the other Theosophical bodies had no literature of their own. The Kabbala, translations of Plato, Oriental philosophies and religions, the Spiritualist publications, the numerous writings of Christian mystics, and the existent Western works on magic, hypnotism, mesmerism and related subjects, supplied the only material for study.

Madame Blavatsky had begun the composition of "Isis Unveiled" in 1874, and this work she continued steadily, subject to the multifarious interruptions and activities occasioned by her increasing acquaintance and the labors incident to her work as Corresponding Secretary of the new Society. In order to be near at hand in the writing and preparation of "Isis" for the press, Col. Olcott took rooms in Madame Blavatsky's apartment. Much of the proofs of "Isis" were read by him, and the arrangement of the text is his. Both Col. Olcott and H.P.B. were greatly hampered by the lack of works of reference, by attendant circumstances, and by special difficulties. English was a foreign tongue to H.P.B. and had never been acquired by her except in a colloquial sense in childhood. She was entirely unfamiliar with current literary usages or the exigencies of the printer's art. On his side Col. Olcott had but the slightest acquaintance with many of the subjects treated, and was totally ignorant of many of the terms, the languages ancient and modern necessarily referred to, and the authors and authorities whose statements were quoted and discussed. The almost endless ramifications of principles, laws, topics, meanings and applications, were for the most part unknown to him, and in many cases no exact equivalents or corresponding terms existed in English to convey the desired meanings and interpretations. A further difficulty developed in Madame Blavatsky's having occasion to re-write large portions of the text, or to incorporate new matter in the proofs, even after the stereotype plates were cast. When the many obstacles are considered, it is remarkable that so few errors exist in the work as finally published by J. W. Bouton of New York in the early autumn of 1877. Two editions of "Isis" were immediately exhausted, and new editions followed from the original plates for many years. An edition of "Isis" was also issued many years later by Mrs. Tingley's theosophical organization from the original Bouton plates, with additional matter. Still another edition of "Isis" reset throughout has been published by the same organization. An entirely new edition was also issued in London in 1907 by the Theosophical Publishing Society, affiliated with Mrs. Besant's theosophical organization.

Some corrections of the more glaring errors in the original Bouton editions of "Isis" were made at various times by Madame Blavatsky, in "The Theosophist," "The Path," and "Lucifer," but the original plates, being stereotyped, could not be corrected.

"Isis Unveiled" having been completed and the Society in America being on as firm a footing as possible, active preparations began to carry its propagandum to other countries where beginnings had already been made. Accordingly, a little over a year after the publication of "Isis," Madame Blavatsky and Col. Olcott sailed for India as a "committee" of the Society. A fortnight's stay was made in London, arrangements were made at Paris for the immediate formation of "The Theosophical Society of French Spiritists," and the two Founders proceeded on their way, arriving at Bombay, India, February 16, 1879.

Almost at once accessions to the Society began in India, both among English residents and natives. Learned members of the various sects and castes, pundits, professors of the various schools of Hindu philosophy, native rulers, writers, lawyers, gave their adhesion to the Society. Among noted English Fellows in India were Major-General Morgan, British Army, retired, and his wife, Mr. A. O. Hume, late Secretary to the Government of India, and Mr. A. P. Sinnett, editor of the official Government organ, the Allahabad "Pioneer." Of Hindu members the most noted was the celebrated T. Subba Row. In October of 1879 Madame Blavatsky began the publication of "The Theosophist." The magazine soon attained a wide circulation not only in India, but in Europe and America as well. In 1881 Mr. Sinnett's book, "The Occult World," was published at London, republished in America, and passed through many editions. It was followed in 1883 by "Esoteric Buddhism," which circulated as widely. In India "Hints on Esoteric Theosophy, No. 1," was issued in 1882, and "No. 2," a year later. In 1881 Col. Olcott published his "Buddhist Catechism," a work which was adopted as accurate by both the Northern and Southern wings of the Buddhist faith, and which speedily passed through a score of editions and is still being published. In the period from 1879 to 1884 there were established in India and Ceylon an even hundred Theosophical Societies; and for the first time in recorded history some approach to fellowship in a common society with a common aim was brought about amongst members of sects and castes which from time immemorial had considered it a sin and a degradation to meet and mingle on equal terms.

Correspondence with the Parent, the British and the French societies, and with H.P.B. resulted in the formation of several additional societies in America and Europe in the first decade of the Movement. Thus the "St. Thomas" Society in the Danish West Indies was formed in 1881, the "Post Nubila Lux" Society at The Hague, Holland, the "Odessa Group" in 1883, the "Scottish" at Ayre, the "Germania" at Elberfeld, in 1884. The Queensland Society in Australia was formed in 1881. In the United States the first society established after the Parent body was the Rochester T.S., organized in July, 1882, under the presidency of Mrs. J. W. Cables. The first publication in America devoted to theosophical subjects was the "Occult Word", the first number of which was issued by Mrs. Cables in April, 1884. The "Pioneer" T.S. was formed at St. Louis in the summer of 1883, and the "Gnostic" at Washington, D.C., in 1884.

Thus the first decade of the Society's existence was a period of remarkable and almost uninterrupted growth. From a handful of mostly unknown persons of diverse opinions and beliefs it had attained to a large and influential membership, had spread into many lands, and its literature was being widely read. The external contributory factors to its rise were many, and the most important of these require consideration on the part of the student of the Theosophical Movement.

(To be continued)

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