Kabbalah in the Ozarks by Vadim Putzu at Rice University conference 10/28-30

In recent months I have become aware of developments in Kabbalah scholarship that augur well for publications discussing the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor and Max Theon by Israeli scholars.  Knowing that Vadim Putzu is now in Springfield at Missouri State University where the Johnson correspondence is archived is especially encouraging. Readers of Letters to the Sage will be pleased to know that Thomas Moore Johnson is his subject at the Kabbalah in America conference, which is preceded by a presentation by Julie Chajes of Tel Aviv University on Seth Pancoast, one of Johnson’s correspondents in Volume One. I look forward to learning more about the conference presentations after the fact, and hope to share updates on developments.  Boaz Huss of Ben Gurion University is working on multiple projects involving Max Theon, and is participating at the Rice conference delivering the keynote address featuring another individual of interest, Isaac Myer, who corresponded with Johnson.


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Alexander Wilder, the Platonist

Letters to the Sage, Volume Two is now available for order on Amazon.  Almost all the letters in this 438p volume are from Wilder to Thomas Moore Johnson; thirteen additional correspondents write letters to Wilder who then forwarded them to Johnson. This marks the end of a long journey of five and a half years, through more than 1300 pages of handwritten letters from 60 individuals. Contributors to the second volume include introduction author Ronnie Pontiac, glossary author Erica Georgiades, and co-editor Patrick Bowen.

Upcoming blog posts starting in December will excerpt the 25-page chronology I created to give context to the correspondence, but the next one will describe a late October conference of major significance to putting Thomas Moore Johnson and the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor on the “radar screen” of academic scholars of religion.


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Blowing Rock Commemorates Genevieve Stebbins

As publication date approached for the Alexander Wilder letters, I began anticipating new directions for research once this multi-year project was completed.  High on my to-do list was getting down to Blowing Rock, North Carolina, to pursue traces of the part time residence there of Genevieve Stebbins and Norman Astley around the turn of the twentieth century.  Unexpectedly in late July I learned of an upcoming presentation by an academic scholar, Carrie Streeter at the Blowing Rock Art and History Museum (BRAHM). Her topic Genevieve Stebbins was described in the attached notice on the website of the Museum.

On a weeknight it was encouraging to see 49 in attendance for an event that required an admission fee for non-members of the museum.  Carrie’s presentation was intriguing, and very well received.  I learned much more about Stebbins’s early life than I had known, and some details about her time in Blowing Rock that were completely new.

Publication date for the Wilder Letters is expected to be later this month and will be announced here and on the Letters to the Sage Facebook page.  The second print proofs are now in the mail, so final revisions should be finished by the last week of September. Streeter’s academic CV is found on her website carriestreeter.com



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Letters to the Sage, Volume Two goes to press

For the second volume, Alexander Wilder, the Platonist, I have been lead editor and as it goes to press this month the many contributors to the series are constantly in my thoughts.  The two volumes total 952 pages, with 60 correspondents, 465 letters, and 1038 footnotes and endnotes.  We started with 1318 pages of scanned handwriting.

Here is the section of the acknowledgments that tells something of how the series came to be.

The acknowledgments in Volume One of Letters to the Sage are reproduced here because everyone who assisted with that volume has also thereby assisted with the second, which relies on the same collection of letters, the same two libraries in Missouri, and the same research grants and support cited by the co-editors.  We would be remiss in not adding mentions of three individuals whose writing and editorial endeavors were independent of this project but which nonetheless deserve our gratitude. First and foremost is Ronnie Pontiac, whose introduction to the current volume builds on a series written for Newtopia Magazine in early 2013, just around the time when both co-editors of this volume were approaching the T.M Johnson correspondence. I had become interested in the Johnson Library and Museum the previous summer, after a research visit to Howard University’s Moorland-Spingarn Center in pursuit of information on Sarah Stanley Grimké; I hoped to consult the JLM to learn more about her connection to the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor. Around the same time, Patrick Bowen’s Ph.D. dissertation research was leading him to Springfield, where the Missouri State University Library had recently obtained temporary custody of the Thomas M. Johnson correspondence in order to make digital copies. Patrick and I thus approached the same correspondence with different research objectives unknown to each other, and Ronnie’s articles on Johnson and friends approached them from yet another angle, serendipitously at the same time.   Erica Georgiades’s studies in both Theosophical history and Greek philosophy contributed from yet another direction of expertise, without which the editors would have be unable to discuss Wilder’s Greek scholarship.

The epilogue on Sarah Stanley Grimké draws on research at the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University, which holds a large collection of the correspondence of her husband and daughter, including the only known letters from Sarah and several about her from her father Moses Stanley and family friends Frances Pillsbury and Emma Austin Tolles. I am very grateful to my friend Marvin T. Jones for his hospitality in Washington and for accompanying me to Howard in 2012 and 2014, where we were welcomed by Chief Librarian and Curator JoEllen el-Bashir, Senior Archivist Ida E. Jones, and Library Technician Richard Jenkins.  In two visits to the Center we found the staff well informed and helpful about the Grimkés, which complemented research in the Mary Baker Eddy Library. My research for this project thus began with Grimké family correspondence at Howard in 2012, proceeded with the Johnson correspondence from Osceola in 2013, and concluded with three weeks of intense focus on the Eddy correspondence in 2014.  Successive immersion in three different sets of letters from the same period enriched my appreciation and understanding of all three.

My first acquaintance with the writings of Sarah Stanley Grimké resulted from a suggestion made by John Patrick Deveney, after I developed an interest in Thomas H. Burgoyne’s literary collaborators in 2011. During research for The Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor (1995) he had encountered a rumor about a romantic and literary partnership between Burgoyne and Grimké. Marc Demarest acquired a rare copy of Esoteric Lessons which I scanned for IAPSOP.com, and after reading it encouraged me to pursue biographical research on its author which is reported in the epilogue to this volume.


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“The Mystic”– Bronson Alcott in Frothingham’s Transcendentalism in New England (1876)

Octavius Brooks Frothingham

This history of New England Transcendentalism by Octavius Brooks Frothingham first appeared in 1876, the year that Thomas Moore Johnson visited Concord to get better acquainted with Bronson Alcott and his associates.  It provides a uniquely intimate view of the founders of this literary and spiritual movement and is available in multiple free online editions. Here is an excerpt from the opening paragraphs of Frothingham’s chapter on Alcott.


If among the representatives of spiritual philosophy the first place belongs to Mr. Emerson, the second must be assigned to Mr. Amos Bronson Alcott,—older than Mr. Emerson by four years (he was born in 1779), a contemporary in thought, a companion, for years a fellow townsman, and, if that were possible, more purely and exclusively a devotee of spiritual ideas. Mr. Alcott may justly be called a mystic—one of the very small class of persons who accept without qualification, and constantly teach the doctrine of the soul’s primacy and pre-eminence. He is not a learned man, in the ordinary sense of the term; not a man of versatile mind or various tastes; not a man of general information in worldly or even literary affairs; not a man of extensive commerce with books. Though a reader, and a constant and faithful one, his reading has been limited to books of poetry—chiefly of the meditative and interior sort—and works of spiritual philosophy. Plato, Plotinus, Proclus, Jamblichus, Pythagoras, Boehme, Swedenborg, Fludd, Pordage, Henry More, Law, Crashaw, Selden, are the names oftener than any on his pages and lips. He early made acquaintance with Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress,” and[Pg 250] never ceased to hold it exceedingly precious, at one period making it a rule to read the volume once a year…

Mr. Alcott is a thinker, interior, solitary, deeply conversant with the secrets of his own mind, like thinkers of his order, clear, earnest, but not otherwise than monotonous from the reiteration of his primitive ideas. We have called him a mystic. Bearing in mind the derivations of the word— μυειν—to brood, to meditate, to shut one’s self up in the recesses of consciousness, to sink into the depths of one’s own being for the purpose of exploring the world which that being contains; of discovering how deep and boundless it is, of meeting in its retreats the form of the Infinite Being who walks there in the evening, and makes his voice audible in the[Pg 251] mysterious whispers that breathe over its plains,—it well describes him. He is a philosopher of that school; instead of seeking wisdom by intellectual processes, using induction and deduction, and creeping step by step towards his goal,—he appeals at once to the testimony of consciousness, claims immediate insight, and instead of hazarding a doctrine which he has argued, announces a truth which he has seen; he studies the mystery of being in its inward disclosures, contemplates ultimate laws and fundamental data in his own soul.

While Mr. Emerson’s idealism was nourished—so far as it was supplied with nourishment from foreign sources—by the genius of India, Mr. Alcott’s was fed by the speculation of Greece. Kant was not his master, neither was Fichte nor Schelling, but Pythagoras rather; Pythagoras more than Plato, with whom, notwithstanding his great admiration, he is less intimately allied. He talks about Plato, he talks Pythagoras.


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Occult Paris: The Lost Magic of the Belle Epoque

Tobias Churton is described by his current publisher as “Britain’s leader scholar of Western Esotericism, a world authority on Gnosticism, Hermeticism, and Rosicrucianism.” His 2016 study Occult Paris is therefore based on many years of study and wide reading. This makes it uniquely valuable as a source of information on individuals in that city who contributed to the esoteric milieu of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Although there was little known contact between the French and American members of the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor after Max Theon relocated to Paris in 1886, two Parisians were especially significant among the spiritual ancestors of The Church of Light. Marie, Countess of Caithness, was associated with Emma Hardinge Britten during the 1870s and 80s and influenced Britten’s books Art Magic and Ghost Land.  Gerard Encausse, best known as Papus, was the most influential individual ever involved with the French HBofL,  although his greatest fame was as the chief proponent of Martinism.  Churton’s expertise on the esoteric subculture of fin-de-siecle Paris makes him a reliable guide to the labyrinth of orders and magi that flourished therein: Rosicrucians, Freemasons, Martinists all being relevant to the ancestry of the HBofL. From the publisher’s web page for the book:

Exploring the magical, artistic, and intellectual world of the Belle Époque, Tobias Churton shows how a wide variety of Theosophists, Rosicrucians, Martinists, Freemasons, Gnostics, and neo-Cathars called fin-de-siècle Paris home. He examines the precise interplay of occultists Joséphin Peladan, Papus, Stanislas de Guaïta, and founder of the modern Gnostic Church Jules Doinel, along with lesser known figures such as Saint-Yves d’Alveydre, Paul Sédir, Charles Barlet, Edmond Bailly, Albert Jounet, Abbé Lacuria, and Lady Caithness. 

The book is so information dense that it reads almost as a reference work rather than a narrative written for popular audiences, but in that role it has great value for filling in many blanks in my own understanding of the era and that of comparable readers. Churton’s subsequent book, Deconstructing Gurdjieff, is more chronological and less thematic, hence more fun to read.  I am pleased that he found useful and cited my own research relating Gurdjieff to Mme. Blavatsky. But for readers of this blog interested in getting deeper into the French background and associates of the spiritual ancestors of the CofL, Occult Paris provides a wealth of relevant and useful background that no other book to my knowledge offers, and perhaps no other author could. .

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Subtitle Change

After reviewing the tag cloud for this blog, I realized that the previous subtitle for History of the Adepts (the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor in America) was misleading because incomplete.  Truth in advertising would suggest a subtitle more representative of the actual content of blog posts over the years.  The HBofL was short-lived in the United States, lasting just over two decades. While the group occupies a pivotal position in the story of the 19th century roots of The Church of Light, it is by no means the sole predecessor organization. Its name was problematic in that the Hermetic content of the lessons was just one part of a broader synthesis, and Hermeticism thrived not in Luxor (upper Egypt) but in Alexandria on the Mediterranean coast.  After the HBofL in America dissolved in 1908-09 following the death of Alma Theon, it took a decade to regroup as the Brotherhood of Light which was formed officially on Armistice Day, November 11, 1918. Then in November 1932 it was formally recognized as The Church of Light.

Source traditions for the Brotherhood of Light and The Church of Light are reflected in four authors specifically cited by Elbert Benjamine: Emma Hardinge Britten, Thomas H. Burgoyne, Sarah S. Grimke, and Genevieve Stebbins. Four other founders of the HBofL, Peter Davidson,  Hurrychund Chintamon, Thomas Moore Johnson, and Max Theon, identify several additional lines of spiritual influence.  Linking each with individual exponents, these would be 1) Spiritualism and Rosicrucianism (Britten) 2) Astrology and Tarot (Burgoyne) 3) New Thought and Transcendentalism (Grimke) 4) Yoga (Stebbins) 5) Freemasonry (Davidson), 6) Hinduism and Theosophy (Chintamon), 7) Hermeticism and Neoplatonism (Johnson) and 7) Kabbalah (Theon).

The short-lived HBofL was a microcosm of the macrocosm of the revival of esoteric traditions in late 19th century America. It was the sole direct ancestor of the Brotherhood of Light and Church of Light, but due to the diversity of its sources the collateral ancestry incorporates European and Asian esoteric teachings as well as several movements that emerged in late 19th century America. “Spiritual ancestors of The Church of Light” is therefore a more inclusive description of the range of topics covered in this blog than the previous subtitle.


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Anthony Hern– Acknowledgment and Gratitude

As we complete the second volume of Letters to the Sage, one enjoyable task has been writing additional acknowledgments for individuals and institutions whose assistance was crucial to research on the letters.  In this volume, there are twenty individuals and five institutions or organizations to thank, which is roughly average for my own books and the first volume of LTS.  In all the books I’ve authored or coedited, there are a total of 148 individuals and 58 institutions and organizations thanked in acknowledgments. Many of these were people I knew, and others communicated by correspondence or email. But the person who was my greatest literary benefactor was a man I never met, spoke to on the telephone, or communicated with by email, Anthony Hern of London, England. In 2000 he wrote a report of how his research at the Indian Office Library ended up being published in my book The Masters Revealed.

This research, undertaken in 1993, seems with hindsight to have been destined to occur. I live on the same street as the IOL building then was, and my long time friend Leslie Price had asked if I would do some research for him at the IOL, to follow up a lead he had been given in 1983 by Peter Hopkirk, author of a number of very readable books (‘The Great Game’ and ‘Silk Road to China’ etc.), that there may be records relating to Blavatsky in the IOL. I looked for and found the secret records of the British Government in India relating to HPB and Col Olcott’s visit to India in 1888/89 [sic-typo, 1878-9. KPJ.]

In addition K. Paul Johnson, who has known Leslie since 1986, was keen to see if there were any records in the IOL that would be relevant to his own research for his then forthcoming book ‘The Masters Revealed’ (SUNY Press 1994 ISBN 0791420639). Therefore, it was serendipity that we were also able to offer him the results of the main research that I had done at the IOL and it subsequently formed the basis of the third section of his book. Leslie Price and I considered that by allowing him to make use of the material we had found relating to HPB and Col. Olcott’s visit to India in 1888 [1878-9], we would be able to make the information widely available in the shortest possible time. We were also aware that we did not have the time, resources or enough subject matter to be able to produce a full blown book project. We also thought that, as K. Paul Johnson’s book dealt with the topic of likely candidates for HPB’s Masters, the information of the British India Government records relating to her travels in India at an important time, would be relevant to the theme of Paul’s book. Happily, Paul was amenable to our suggestion.

See the Blavatsky Archives for the full report by Hern.

Working on the acknowledgments for the Alexander Wilder letters has got me thinking about gratitude for decades of assistance from people all around the world.  At the time I wrote the various acknowledgments, I was grateful to the series of individuals who helped with individual projects. Now after decades of such help, I’m deeply thankful not just for the series of individuals who helped me, but for the fact that there were so many with such diverse expert knowledge. As stated in The Masters Revealed, first and foremost thanks for that book went to Mr. Hern and Leslie Price for adding the international diplomatic correspondence that was the core of the third section of the book.  Leslie continues to be a friend and benefactor to whom I can regularly give thanks. I am unable to thank Tony Hern personally as he died in 2008, but owe it to his memory to state that his research added enormously to the value of my SUNY Press books on Theosophy.  Since he wrote no other material on Theosophical history, his contribution is in danger of being forgotten so I want to make it clear that a treasure trove of 19th century letters was both “manna from heaven” for my research in the 1990s and an omen of the same kind of unexpected primary source discovery with Patrick Bowen and the Thomas Moore Johnson correspondence.

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New and Forthcoming Publications by Patrick D. Bowen

Collaborating with Patrick Bowen on Letters to the Sage has been a five year investment of time and energy, which we both look forward to completing this year. Meanwhile, he has two other recent publications in 2017 and another forthcoming in 2018. In Victorian Muslim Patrick addresses the milieu that led him to be interested in Thomas Moore Johnson: late 19th century Western converts to Islam.  Abdullah Quilliam, the most prominent figure in early British Muslim history, is the subject of a scholarly collection published by Hurst Publishing in England, and distributed internationally by Oxford University Press.  From the publisher’s description:

In this timely book, leading experts of the religion, history and politics of Islam offer new perspectives and shed fresh light on Quilliam’s life and work. Through a series of original essays, the authors critically examine Quilliam’s influences, philosophy and outlook, the significance of his work for Islam, his position in the Muslim world and his legacy. Collectively, the authors ask pertinent questions about how conversion to Islam was viewed and received historically, and how a zealous convert like Quilliam negotiated his religious and national identities and sought to indigenise Islam in a non-Muslim country.

Patrick’s chapter, “Abdullah Quilliam and the Rise of International Esoteric-Masonic Islamophilia,” identifies Quilliam as a member of more than a dozen fringe Masonic groups, most of them associated with John Yarker. This connects him to Letters to the Sage through Yarker’s correspondence with Johnson and their shared interest in Sufism (although Johnson was not a Mason.)

The second of three volumes of Patrick’s History of Conversion to Islam in the United States is subtitled: The African American Islamic Renaissance, 1920-1975.  Published by Brill Publications in the Netherlands, the book (in the words of the publisher’s website)

offers an in-depth account of African American Islam as it developed in the United States during the fifty-five years that followed World War I. Having been shaped by a wide variety of intellectual and social influences, the ‘African American Islamic Renaissance’ appears here as a movement that was characterized by both great complexity and diversity. Drawing from a wide variety of sources—including dozens of FBI files, rare books and periodicals, little-known archives and interviews, and even folktale collections—Patrick D. Bowen disentangles the myriad social and religious factors that produced this unprecedented period of religious transformation.

More directly relevant to Letters to the Sage is a chapter Patrick contributed to a forthcoming 2018 publication from Oxford University Press, Imagining the East: the Early Theosophical Society.  The chapter title, `”The real pure Yog”: Yoga in the Early TS and H.B. of L.’ is taken from a question asked by  Josephine Cables in one of her letters to Thomas Moore Johnson. Here is a summary by the author:

This chapter argues two main points: First, that the H.B. of L., the Western occult order that was the main competitor of the TS in the 1880s, obtained an interest in yoga directly from its being promoted in the Theosophist magazine in the early 1880s. Second, that, as a result of this Theosophical influence, in 1885 the H.B. of L. became possibly the first Western organization to require the study and practice yoga for all of its members. Using previously unmined letters of early members of the TS and the H.B. of L., this chapter traces the history of yoga in these organizations. Yoga was introduced into the Western organized occult community in the early 1880s when considerable attention was paid to it in the pages of the Theosophist. This led to some English and American readers of the journal to start independently studying yoga. Then, in 1885, the newly-formed H.B. of L., a Theosophist-heavy organization that focused on practical occultism, began instructing members to read about and practice Theosophy-connected forms of yoga as a way to prepare for occult initiation. After 1885, the order ceased explicitly recommending yoga, but it retained some of the practices and ideas that it had originally gained from yoga, incorporating them into its revised teachings. Meanwhile, when some of the early members of the H.B. of L. left the group, such as Rev. William Ayton, they continued to take an interest in yoga and encourage others to study and practice it. In fact, it appears that it was primarily through Ayton that Aleister Crowley and other British occultists became interested in yoga.  

I will also have a chapter in the same collection, “Theosophy in the Bengal Renaissance,” which relates to the second volume of LTS through Alexander Wilder’s admiration for Peary Chand Mitra which features in several of his letters.



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The Most Valuable Five Pages I Ever Wrote


This week a random thought led me to look on Amazon for a four volume reference book to which I contributed a biographical entry in 2005. The Dictionary of Modern American Philosophers, published by Thoemmes Press in Bristol, England, contains 2698 pages of which my entry on Helena Blavatsky occupies just under five. It was extremely encouraging to be invited to contribute in such august company, as almost all the 500+ contributors were academicians. But the official price for a new copy from Bloomsbury Publishing (which succeeds Thoemmes in a merger) is $1620.00, while the 2010 online edition, published after Bloomsbury was included under the Oxford University Press online imprimatur, is $975.99.

Just knowing I’d contributed one among 1086 entries made me want to see the physical book or the electronic version someday but the prices were well beyond anything I’d consider. However, I found a used copy for $58 and ordered it as a resource for the final annotations to the Letters to the Sage volume 2, written by Alexander Wilder. Wilder does not appear in the entries, but seven people of major interest in the forthcoming Wilder collection do: Bronson Alcott, Borden P. Bowne, Moncure Conway (of special interest to me as the only Transcendentalist Virginian of note), Mary Baker Eddy, Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Torrey Harris, and William James.

I expected it to be a USED copy but it was totally pristine and unused so it is especially pleasant to handle while checking for details to add to the footnotes of the Wilder letters about people he mentions. All of his acquaintances mentioned in the letters fall into the 1860-1960 time frame of the Dictionary and many were “modern American philosophers” so it could be a gold mine of information for a lot of minor characters. I will be writing future blog entries about some of the seven figures of special interest, but for a month will be diving into this treasure trove for background on our entire cast of correspondents.


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Alexander Wilder on the Rosicrucians

(Slides shown below are taken from the June 2017 pre-conference presentation on Letters the Sage in Albuquerque.) One of the last articles to appear under the name of Alexander Wilder was published in the July 1907 number of The Rosicrucian Brotherhood, edited by Sylvester C. Gould. Gould was allied with Thomas Moore Johnson at the time in a neo-Sufi group that is discussed in the introduction to Letters to the Sage, Volume 1.

Johnson had first encountered Rosicrucianism in St. Louis in the 1870s:

The first known Rosicrucian order in the U.S. had been established by Paschal Beverly Randolph:

The man to whom Randolph left his group, Freeman B. Dowd, joined the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor during Johnson’s tenure as council president.

Wilder’s article provides a detailed summary of what was known and speculated about Rosicrucian history. Even though he was writing for Gould’s allegedly Rosicrucian Brotherhood’s journal, he concluded with a note of utter skepticism about contemporary claimants:

There have been secret fraternities as far back as the history of mankind. All the ancient priesthoods in every country had mysteries and a secret society among themselves. Ancient science was kept carefully hidden. It may have been necessary; some, like swine, tread all learning under foot; others, like dogs, tear the teacher.

The Pagans, who after Theodosius, adhered to their worship, hid their secrets, their initiation, and their mystic jargon. I conjecture the magic and witchcraft of the Middle Ages to have been the Mithraic Institute which had been disseminated through the Roman empire. I suppose that the Rosicrucians have existed; I doubt whether there are any now. All of whom I knew that pretended to be such were charlatans. None of our present secret societies antedate that Order; certainly they do not come up to its sublime ideal. There may be something of the kind in the East, but the Moslems have pretty effectually annihilated the most of them. The communes of later date can hardly be considered as heirs or successors of the old brotherhoods. If any test was required to show this it would be found in their love of display, their meritricious exhibitions, and their assiduous endeavors to become notorious.

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Alexander Wilder in a new series edited by Mark Jaqua

The first time I heard the phrase “bridge to nowhere” was in my first semester of college in Louisiana. Also called the “Sunshine Bridge,” this crossing of the Mississippi became the punchline of a joke because it was built before there were highway connections to it on both banks of the river. The allegation was that Governor Jimmie “You are my Sunshine” Davis had put the bridge where it would financially benefit his political allies rather than best serve the people of Louisiana. The phrase reappeared in recent years as description of a boondoggle public works project in Alaska. But for me, working with the letters of Alexander Wilder to Thomas Moore Johnson, I’ve wondered if this correspondence is a “bridge to nowhere” in terms of potential readership, since both Wilder and Johnson have been out of print for a century– so no one will care about their relationship. But in 2015, publication of the Collected Works of Thomas Moore Johnson, the Great American Platonist by Prometheus Trust brought back one of our heroes to print for the first time in a century. Important and valuable as that project was, it is equaled by Mark Jaqua’s bringing Alexander Wilder back into print in 2016 and 2017, which amounts to four volumes of about 400 pages each.  The editorial contributions are worthy of the texts and add to the reader’s enjoyment.

While editing the letters of Wilder to Johnson, which are almost entirely from the 1880s, I felt that both these men were erudite and honorable, but perhaps so focused on highly technical questions of Greek philosophy that modern readers couldn’t relate. The striking revelation of Jaqua’s series for me is that what I considered a sequel to Wilder’s literary career is actually more of a prequel. Even though he was over 60 in 1886 when his correspondence with Johnson nearly stopped, Wilder’s literary productivity was just beginning. The majority of the longer articles in Jaqua’s four volume reprint series were written in Wilder’s 70s and 80s. And instead of the stale preaching on behalf of this or that belief system we might expect from a man of this age, Wilder has a voice that is fresh, accessible, wide-ranging in explorations, and most of all RELIABLE. Although his writings for Johnson’s publication in the 1880s are as challenging and specialized as his letters of the period, in the 1890s and 1900s Wilder became a much more popularly-accessible author both in subject matter and style.

Although as a historical researcher I’d have preferred a chronological arrangement of the articles rather than by subject, as a spiritual seeker I commend Mark Jaqua for bringing back into print a 19thc writer whose voice is more fresh and compelling than any of his “movement leader” contemporaries in Theosophy, Spiritualism, New Thought or Christian Science.  My tribute to Jaqua’s labors will be to quote his Wilder series in future blog posts.  Meanwhile, and for what it is worth, my opinion as an individual is that Wilder deserves appreciation in the 21st century more than all those who were promoting idiosyncratic 19th century belief systems that exalted themselves as spiritual authorities.  Wilder didn’t care about competing 19thc belief systems nearly as much as he cared about ancient wisdom. Nor did he evince any “I’m the world’s greatest authority” egomania. That makes him, for this 21st century seeker, a far more reliable and unbiased guide than any of his contemporaries. Of course he had his biases, as we all do. But in his letters to Johnson he consistently comes across as the best friend an esoteric scholar and seeker could have wished for, someone spotlessly honest and sincere and generous in all his dealings.  This makes me welcome publication of his writings in this new series, as a rare combination of historical significance, spiritual inspiration, and engaging readability.


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Rainbow Body by Kurt Leland

The most educational reading experience for me is a book that includes a large amount of information with which I am already familiar, illuminated by a larger amount of new information which provides new context that makes it more meaningful. If most of the information in a book is familiar already, I’m bored, and if none is familiar I’m lost. Reading Kurt Leland’s Rainbow Body, I never felt for a moment bored nor lost. The concept of the book is inspired and the author’s voice engaging. Most impressively, the research connects what for most readers are heretofore scattered and unrelated fragments of knowledge, making a coherent historical narrative that brings order to seeming chaos. The author’s website provides a chapter outline.

The back cover copy summarizes the book:

Based on the teachings of Indian Tantra, the chakras have been used for centuries as focal points for healing, meditation, and achieving a gamut of physical, emotional, and spiritual benefits, from improved health to ultimate enlightenment. Contemporary yoga teachers, energy healers, psychics, and self-help devotees think of the chakra system as thousands of years old. Yet the most common version in use in the West today came together as recently as 1977.

Never before has the story been told of how the Western chakra system developed from its roots in Indian Tantra, through Blavatsky to Leadbeater, Steiner to Alice Bailey, Jung to Joseph Campbell, Ramakrishna to Aurobindo, and Esalen to Shirley MacLaine and Barbara Brennan.

Almost all of my experience with group meditation has involved Search for God groups sponsored by the Association for Research and Enlightenment, which use guidelines involving the Lord’s Prayer and the chakras. Familiar with the concept in Theosophical books and the Radhasoami Tradition, I had noticed some connections between the Cayce readings’ meditation technique and each of those source lineages and mentioned them in my book on Cayce in 1998.  After having not given thought to the subject in two decades, I was pleased to learn of Kurt Leland’s new book about various chakra systems, which can be fairly described as exhaustively thorough. I hoped it would deliver a lot of new information that would help contextualize what I already knew, and was more than satisfied on that score. But the book delivers far more than I had hoped for, being not just a catalog of all the different teachings on chakras from various sources but a masterpiece of detective work tracing all their intricate links. This is evident throughout the book but hit home for me with Leland’s discussion of Cayce’s role in the developments he surveys.

Leland notes that the Glad Helpers healing prayer group, which met from 1931 through 1944, presented various ideas and diagrams to the entranced Cayce, including a “correlation of churches with spiritual centers…identical to that in Pryse’s Apocalypse Unveiled.” Links of chakras to the endocrine glands, planets, and colors were also presented to Cayce for approval in trance. One chart approved in a reading had “correspondences between specific words of the Lord’s Prayer and the seven spiritual centers and glands. All were confirmed.” Leland notes that this derives from a diagram from the Rosicrucian Cosmo-Conception by Max Heindel which was slightly modified by Cayce after being presented to him by the Glad Helpers. These parallels are relevant to readers of Letters to the Sage for two reasons. Pryse was one of Thomas M. Johnson’s most intriguing correspondents, if not one of the more prolific, and addressed issues in his letters that foreshadow  those he wrote about years later in his books.  Letters to the Sage includes three letters from Pryse to Johnson, the first of which is the longest, dated November 20, 1887. Unlike most letters in the collection, this one goes into detail about occult physiology, the astral light, magnetism, and meditation techniques. Although Heindel is not mentioned in the correspondence, there is a neo-Rosicrucian subtext to the emergence of the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor (through literary links to Emma Hardinge Britten and Edward Bulwer-Lytton) which makes him a figure of interest to my research.

In his discussion of Cayce, Leland applies a typology of different types of teachers about chakras:

He was apparently not an innovator, consolidator, or disseminator. As a medium working with spiritual contacts, he could perhaps be called a validator– which was exactly his role in relation to the lists brought to him by the Glad Helpers. The Glad Helpers themselves played the role of consolidators in their synthesis of information from Pryse and Heindel, which was innovative in its application of the endocrine glands and the chakras to the Lord’s Prayer and Revelation.

The typology of innovator, consolidator, disseminator, validator used by Leland helps him trace the multiple lines of transmission of various models of the chakras from Blavatsky to the present. Although I was aware of the influence of Bhagat Singh Thind, a disseminator in Leland’s typology, on the Cayce readings, the book’s information on the influence of James Pryse and Max Heindel reveals them to be of equal or greater significance.

Rainbow Body provides a felicitous combination of thorough research, engaging narrative, and illuminating explanation. It deserves to reach a wide audience of readers approaching the topic from different backgrounds.


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G.R.S. Mead on The Light of Egypt


One pleasure of working with the T.M Johnson correspondence is that the most prolific writers of letters to Johnson– Alexander Wilder, Silas Randall, and Elliott Page– were also the most eloquent and judicious. Wilder, Randall, and Page were sympathetic and cooperative friends in their letters, but only Wilder remained a lifelong friend after the demise of The Platonist in 1888. I have just completed a preliminary step in creating a personal name index for the Wilder letters, and found 248 individuals mentioned therein. Only two are sharply criticized, a Christian clergyman and a high-ranking British Theosophist, for the same offense–unfriendly treatment of Wilder inspired by sectarian fanaticism. The Reverend Holland’s antipathy disrupted Wilder’s enjoyment of the Concord School of Philosophy and the American Akademe of Philosophy. G.R.S. Mead exemplified the rivalry among various Theosophical factions, leading Wilder to conclude:

The fact, I apprehend is that with “Brotherhood” this resembles the Parisians of 1792 when the demand was to be a brother or be killed. I always found Mr. Mead a very instructive writer. Every man has a niche in which he is valuable, and so I thought of him. But with factional bickerings I will have nothing to do.

It was most encouraging to see a review of LTS Volume I in the blog Blavatsky News, in which Mark Casady accurately notes that the heart of the book is the letters from Randall and Page, each of whom provides something of a spiritual autobiography unfolding over a few years of correspondence. Although the review mistakenly classifies Randall as a Theosophist, if this incites Theosophical readers to examine his letters they will not be disappointed; he is very critical of the TS but never mean-spirited in his remarks. Page likewise was invariably civil and engaging in his letters, up to the point where he broke with Johnson and the HBofL around the same time that Randall left the Brotherhood for family reasons.

Mead is an opposite case from Page and Randall in that his epistolary friendship with Johnson developed seven years after his bitter attacks on the HBofL. Casady’s blog post gave a link to Mead’s scathing review of The Light of Egypt, whose primary but not sole author was Thomas H. Burgoyne. Burgoyne and Mead were polar opposites in several dimensions. The former, a “smart, cute adventurer” from working class origins in the North, devoted his pen to writing for the HBofL, while the latter was a well-educated, upper middle class Londoner whose early writings were almost entirely Theosophical in nature. Both were highly partisan against various perceived enemies– based more on the mutual grudges of Emma Hardinge Britten and HPB than on their personal interests.  The harsh and unfair quality of Mead’s attack on Burgoyne and associates was a reflection of Burgoyne’s rhetoric against Theosophists. But in 1909 both men repudiated the organizations for which they had gone into battle against eacb other, and never sank to the depths of sectarian propaganda again. (While Burgoyne stopped being Burgoyne in the early 1890s, his subsequent persona entailed a burying of hatchets about which I have much more to say in upcoming posts.) In an effort to understand how Mead changed over time, I acquired a collection of his works with a very informative introduction by Clare Goodrick-Clarke. He was both an employee of the TS and a personal disciple of Blavatsky sworn to obedience, in 1889 when the TLOE review came out. The introduction explains:

In addition to handling all Blavatsky’s correspondence and working daily with her on her books and articles, Mead soon assumed further organizational responsibilities. In 1889 he was appointed, together with Bertram Keightley, joint-secretary of the Esoteric Section (E.S.) of the Theosophical Society, which Blavatsky founded in October 1888 for more advanced students. (p3)

The E.S. was founded at the suggestion of W.Q. Judge, who had recognized that 5 of 7 members of the TS  Board of Control were also involved in the HBofL, including Johnson. These prominent American Theosophists were targeted as “the enemy” against whom a rival secret society needed to be created as a bulwark. But the American HBofL dissolved in 1909 and was replaced by a public successor group, the Brotherhood of Light, nine years later. By contrast the E.S. that Judge suggested to unite Blavatsky loyalists against the HBofL renegades became within a few years the means whereby the TS broke up into multiple hostile factions most of which still survive.

What seems most tragic in hindsight is that Mead had more in common with Johnson and Wilder than he did with anyone else in the TS, and yet he targeted them as “enemies of the Faith” while embroiling himself in controversies that were beneath his dignity as a scholar. While in 1889 he had sided with Judge against the HBofL, in the 1890s he was literally inquisitorial in his fury at the TS Vice-President, demanding Judge’s resignation from office, and interrogating him at length for what amounted to a heresy trial.  He had formerly issued strong public criticism of Olcott in the Judge affair. He was equally public in his ultimate split with the TS over the autocracy of Annie Besant, but had been devoting his scholarship in Hermetic directions for several years:

From 1898 Mead extended his Theosophical studies to the Hermetic literature, named after its supposed authorship by Hermes Trismegistus or Thrice-Great. Like other currents of Hellenistic spirituality, the Hermetica had its origin in the interaction between Greek and Eastern ideas, and myths and religious beliefs at Alexandria in the first centuries A.D. (p. 16)

In February 1909 Mead resigned from the Theosophical Society…Mead and some seven hundred members of the British Section resigned in protest. While repelled by Leadbeater’s conduct, Mead felt that the case highlighted a more fundamental flaw in the mission and constitution of the Society. Mead particularly objected to the invocation of the Mahatmas’ authority concerning the internal affairs and governance of the society. He prized Theosophy as a quest for divine wisdom and a love of truth, with the aids of study, reason, and gnosis. He could not reconcile this search for divine wisdom with blind obedience to the Mahatmas’ supposed dogmas and directives…He intended this new association to be “genuinely undogmatic, unpretentious, claiming no pseudo-revelations, and truly honest inside and out.”(pp. 20-22)

He was one of the first Theosophists to articulate a Western theosophy rooted in Orphism and Neo-Platonism, which he then related to the Valentinian, Basilidean, and other Gnostic texts, and the Corpus Hermeticum. In this respect his path reflects that of other Theosophists such as Rudolf Steiner, Anna Kingsford, W.B. Yeats, and Dion Fortune, who each embraced Western esoteric sources after an experiment with the Orientalism of modern Theosophy.(p.32)

The evidence suggests to me that Mead and Johnson were excellent role models in their burying of the TS vs. HBofL hatchet by becoming friendly correspondents as each distanced himself from organizational responsibilities in the respective groups.  Had Wilder survived a few more years, Mead might well have patched up their relationship and welcomed him as a friend of the Quest Society, an organization that would have appealed to Wilder more than any of the competing Theosophical groups. 

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“The British Birth of the Occult Revival, 1869-1875” by Patrick D. Bowen

A groundbreaking article appeared in Theosophical History Vol. XIX Issue 1, January 2017, pp. 5-37. Co-editor of Letters to the Sage Patrick D. Bowen has analyzed the careers of Kenneth Mackenzie and associates and discovered evidence suggesting intertwined roots of many post-1875 occult groups in the work of a group of British Freemasons. He writes:

By 1875, this group of British Masons [i.e. Robert Wentworth Little, John Yarker, Kenneth R.H. Mackenzie, Richard Morrison (Zadkiel), and Francis George Irwin] and their ideas had instigated a chain reaction that ultimately resulted in a wide variety of occult groups springing up in England, the U.S., and many other Western countries over the next thirty years, some of which, such as the Theosophical Society and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, went on to become incredibly influential in Western religious culture…Most of the individuals connected to this were Masons who were members of the Masonic research group known as the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia (SRIA).(p5)…The present paper offers an explanation for not only why these particular men started producing new “occult” doctrines and orders, but also why these had the impact that they did on the ensuing florescence of the occult revival. (p6)

Patrick focuses on one book as especially influential. This is particularly important to the history of the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor because its name seems to be derived from two orders described in the Royal Masonic Cyclopedia.

Mackenzie in particular looms especially large in the story of the early stage of the occult revival. Although he did not have the reigns of a truly influential “fringe” Masonic organization like Yarker, he provided two significant intellectual resources for the revival: 1) a publicly available practical justification for creating new occult orders, which was accompanied by a model of an ideal occult order that many of the subsequent occult orders would share several similarities with; and 2) his Royal Masonic Cyclopedia (1875-77), a book that compiled the period’s occult ideas and information about the new orders in a single, easy-to-read work.(p.7)

Although Freemasonry was the shared affiliation of Mackenzie and his closest associates, a Rosicrucian theme is also prominent in the particular Masonic group that was most influential in what Patrick calls the “British birth of the occult revival”:

From 1869 through 1875, the English Masonic community was suddenly exposed to a relatively high concentration of new occult doctrines. Virtually all of the individuals responsible for this were members of a recently formed Masonic group SRIA, created to study Masonic history and esotericism… While we cannot say for certain how much these men believed in the historicity of their occult claims, we know that one of them, Kenneth R.H. Mackenzie, publicly acknowledged that inventing occult groups and doctrines was necessary if the world was to achieve true peace, unity, and justice.(p32)

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