International Theosophical History Conference, September 20/21, London


I am most grateful for the honor of giving in absentia the first presentation at this upcoming conference.

Being in the midst of other commitments, I regret that I am unable to deliver the paper in person, especially since every other presenter is someone I have either wanted to meet, or have already met and would love to see again. But several weeks ago I was at the Mary Baker Eddy Library for the Betterment of Humanity pursuing research on the relationships among Christian Science, Unitarianism, and New Thought, and in another few weeks I will be returning there to complete my research fellowship.

My next blog post will discuss the rewards and punishments associated with Theosophical research; the former coming largely from Europe and the latter almost entirely from the United States. (Rather than leave the remarks below as a separate blog post, I am appending them to this one. Although there were no negative reactions to the paper expressed at the conference, in its aftermath there was a passive-aggressive expression of disapproval from– guess which country; just call me “prophet without honor.”)

The history of the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor, and hence the prehistory of the Church of Light, overlaps with that of the Theosophical Society but extends beyond it. Of the two British founding figures, Peter Davidson was a former Theosophist, but Thomas H. Burgoyne was not. Among the American founders of the HBofL, Thomas M. Johnson was an active Theosophist but Henry Wagner was not. Going back to the previous generation of authors who inspired the HBofL, Emma Hardinge Britten was one of the Founders of the TS, but Max Theon had no known connection to the organization. So the emerging discipline of Theosophical history includes, but does not contain, the origins of the CofL. My recent research in Boston underscores the extent to which New Thought, Christian Science, and Unitarian Transcendentalism are equally part of the CofL heritage in America.

Last weekend I presented a paper in absentia at the London headquarters of the Theosophical Society. Today I’ve heard reports that Leslie Price, who read the paper, did a superb job and elicited a great discussion and that there was no hostility expressed toward me, its author, although the paper completely revises traditional understanding of the “cup and saucer” incident of October 1880. This brings back very happy memories of three such conferences I attended there in person in 1986, 1988, and 1989. But a couple of less happy experiences at Theosophical conferences in the US in 1992 highlighted a major difference in intellectual climate between Europe and my own country, as did the online reactions to my books on Blavatsky published in the mid-90s. For most of the last fifteen years my research, and therefore my conference presentations, have been focused mainly on 19th century North Carolina history. My last two publications, in 2008 and 2010, were in the local/family history genre, and this winter I will be returning to that field as an assistant editor writing a preface to a Backintyme Publications collection on a southern family with Carolina origins.

But since 2011 I have written or done research for four Typhon Press projects, one of which is the source of my conference paper delivered Saturday in London.. All of these relate to the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor in Theosophical context, and have provided the opportunity to tie up quite a few loose ends from my investigations of twenty years ago. That the opportunity to share them arises in England rather than the United States is unsurprising in light of the conviction repeatedly stated by a handful of Americans that Masters of Theosophy were inherently unknowable historically. Although 32 individuals were nominated in The Masters Revealed as possible “adepts” and “Mahatmas” who inspired Madame Blavatsky, American gatekeepers of Theosophical orthodoxy insisted that the thesis of the book was about 1) K. Paul Johnson’s “claim” to be able to know the unknowable Masters and 2) Morya and Koot Hoomi, against whom he was on a destructive crusade. In fact, the book was about Blavatsky’s relationships with 32 historical individuals, only tangentially about the pseudonymous correspondence of the Mahatma letters, and not at all about any claim to special insights into the facts presented. Despite the fact that such misreadings came mainly from Americans, I lately had a distressed foreboding that such antagonism might be expressed at the London conference. It was not, but I just discovered that precisely this line of attack had appeared in a recent book by a longtime London Theosophist, now deceased. In light of his demise I will not comment on the book other than to say that it is misguided and uninformed about my motives and approach to Theosophical history and the ideal of adeptship.

Elbert Benjamine has some very interesting things to say that relate to the phenomenon of a strangely avoidant reaction to the actual subjects of historical research, combined with an aggressive reaction to an author based on false accusations about motives and intentions:

Anything conceivable warrants having all the facts about it known and given thorough discussion. If it is something inimical, the facts logically handled will prove it inimical. If it is something beneficial, the facts logically handled will prove it beneficial. But if, as most things have, it has some good points and some bad points, when all the facts are brought out and given full public discussion, each will be revealed, and thus people will be able to reject the detrimental factors and adopt those beneficial.

There is only one logical reason why those in political authority or those in religious authority should try to prevent all the facts being made available and given thorough public discussion. That reason is that they fear the facts and the logical conclusions drawn from them will interfere with their own special privileges. (“Evolution of Religion,” Organic Alchemy, Vol. II, p. 10)

Every paper presented at the conference was of interest to me. I have been especially impressed by Erin Prophet’s book on her family legacy, and look forward to future writings from her. The presentation that related most directly to my past research was by Erica Georgiades, who is the first Theosophist in two decades to look “behind the curtain” into the early associations of Madame Blavatsky. Her paper on the true identity of the person known as “Agardi Metrovitch” will be published as a forthcoming journal article, so I will withhold comment on it here other than to say this is precisely the kind of fearless investigation that can revitalize a field of inquiry that until lately has seemed moribund.

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