Sarah Stanley Grimké’s Esoteric Lessons

Starting in December 2018 and continuing through June 2019 this blog will serialize the bio-bibliographical appendix of Letters to the Sage, Volume Two on the posthumously published author who was the only collaborator of Thomas H. Burgoyne. Burgoyne’s later career is the topic of my upcoming presentation at the preconference intensive duringthe biennial Church of Light convention.

Sarah Eliza Stanley was born in Scriba, Oswego County, New York in April 1850, the first year of her father’s career as a Free Baptist clergyman.  The following year Moses Stanley became pastor of a Free Baptist church in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin; in 1855 he returned to New England to another Free Baptist church in Farmington, Maine, a few miles from Wilton where his wife Sarah Pease Stanley had been born in 1827.  In 1859 Moses was in Two Rivers, Wisconsin as pastor of a Congregational church, and beginning in 1860 he served Episcopal churches in Michigan and Indiana.   In the first ten years of her life, Sarah thus lived in four states with a father affiliated with three denominations. Throughout her life, she formed no stable attachments to any place she could call home nor any Christian denomination, which was foreshadowed in her early childhood. The geographical and spiritual mobility of Moses Stanley’s clerical career was reflected in his daughter’s career as a writer. Another connecting thread for decades was abolitionism. The Free Baptist movement had begun in 1780 in New Hampshire, with the name referring to belief in free will as opposed to determinism. By the 1850s, “Free” for northern Baptists also referred to the divine imperative to end slavery.  This denomination in which Sarah Stanley spent her early childhood had been strongly abolitionist, and Moses Stanley’s commitment to the abolitionist cause continued into his Congregational and Episcopal pastorates. Sarah by marriage became a part of the most renowned abolitionist family of the 19th century.

Sarah Stanley graduated from Boston University with a PhB awarded by the College of Liberal Arts.  Her Senior class of 1878 included twelve women and fifteen men. The “Philosophical course” leading to the PhB was discontinued upon their graduation of the class of 1880. Admission requirements for the College of Liberal Arts were daunting by modern standards, with preliminary examinations involving Greek and Latin Grammar and literature, Arithmetic, Algebra, English Grammar and Rhetoric, Modern History and Geography. Required philosophy courses for all students included Theistic Philosophy, Ethical Philosophy, Evidences of Christianity, and History of Philosophy. Electives in Philosophy included Metaphysics, Logic and Theory of Knowledge, and Aesthetics. All philosophy courses were taught by Borden P. Bowne, remembered today as one of the foremost proponents of Personalism, a theistic Christian philosophy emphasizing the immanence of God. Bowne identified himself as a Berkeleyan idealist modified by Kantian epistemology. He taught psychology as well as philosophy, and published books on all major branches of philosophy as well as on theology.[i] In an obituary for the American Journal of Theology, John Alfred Faulkner lamented Bowne as a “severe loss not only to Boston University and American Methodism…but to American philosophy and theology and well” whose “writings cover almost every important branch of philosophy.”[ii]

Sarah converted to Unitarianism in Boston and was strongly influenced by the Transcendentalist Unitarian clergyman Cyrus Augustus Bartol. In April 1879 Bartol presided at her wedding ceremony when she married Archibald Henry Grimké, a native South Carolinian and the eldest of three sons of a white plantation owner and his enslaved mistress. Sarah’s letters home announcing her engagement have not survived, but her father’s reply dated February 21, 1879 is preserved in the Moorland-Spingarn Center at Howard University. He blamed both Bartol and her prospective in-laws for the engagement:

There is not one of us who finds any pleasure in what seems to elate you.  It may be a source of fun to the Unitarians of Boston but it has filled our hearts with mourning. You speak of the delight of Dr. Bartol and others. Do you think they would find the same delight if it were one of their daughters? We look upon it as a sad day when you went to Boston and especially when you associated yourself with the deniers of Christ and the insane theorizers of that infidel city. Boston will nevermore have any charms for me. We have always prided ourselves in you, but we are sorely, sorely disappointed.  You seem to have lost your reason—deceived by the Weld[s] and the delusive theorizers of the sickly and pestilent sentimentality of Boston. They are not your true friends who urge you on to this cause.[iii]

Moses Stanley’s dismay at his daughter’s associates in Boston might be explained as a consequence of his earlier faith that she was in respectable company there in terms of Christian orthodoxy. Boston University’s philosophy program was strongly theistic and influenced by the Methodist affiliation of the institution. Sarah’s first year of philosophy education at the University of Michigan, in 1872-73 prior to her transfer to BU, was in a department led by another Methodist theologian, Benjamin Franklin Crocker. Hence her conversion to Unitarianism and abandonment of orthodox Christian theism would have been as shocking to her father as her interracial marriage.

Cyrus Bartol was one of the founding teachers of the Concord School of Philosophy. As pastor of West Church in Boston from 1837, and sole pastor from 1861 through retirement in 1889, he was the most visible exponent of Transcendentalism in the city in a career spanning five decades. Although Archibald Grimké was a resident of Boston and recent graduate of Harvard Law School, his aunt, uncle and cousins lived in Hyde Park where they were founding members of the Unitarian congregation. By referring to “the Weld,” Moses Stanley accused his future son-in-law’s white relatives of encouraging the marriage for ideological reasons. When Sarah Stanley married Archibald Grimké she took the surname of the most celebrated abolitionist women of the 19th century. Theodore Weld, like his wife Angelina Grimké Weld and her sister Sarah Moore Grimké, had begun as a traditional Protestant and passed through many phases of belief before finding a spiritual home among Unitarians in Hyde Park. The Grimké sisters’ spiritual beliefs had inspired their long careers as abolitionist speakers and writers. Sarah Moore Grimké’s dedication to the anti-slavery cause emerged after an 1823 conversion to Quakerism following several visits to Philadelphia.  Angelina followed suit eight years later, both in joining the Friends and in support for abolitionists. Later they both developed an interest in Spiritualism, but ended life as Unitarians as did Theodore, who also in his final years embraced “mind cure.”

Sarah Moore Grimké died in 1873 before Sarah Stanley went to Boston University; Angelina Grimké Weld had suffered a stroke the same year and died in 1879. They had discovered their biracial nephews Archibald and Francis, sons of their brother Henry, in 1871, and assisted their educational advancement in Massachusetts. Neither of the famed sisters could have been a direct influence on young Sarah, but Angelina’s husband Theodore Weld was a definite presence in her family life.  In his twenties, Theodore became a fervent apostle of the abolitionist cause, and early in his career he encountered the accusation that abolition of slavery would lead to race mixing, described by his biographer Robert Abzug as “one word, amalgamation, which was code for the mixing of the races.”[iv] Thinking of himself “as the John the Baptist of the antislavery movement,” Weld had worked closely with free blacks for decades.[v] When young Archibald first encountered his aunts Sarah and Angelina, Weld fully supported their embrace of him and his brothers as family members. Abzug writes that Theodore “viewed the discovery of Archibald and Francis as the completion of the fateful union he had entered into so many years before with Angelina, coupling the destiny of the Weld family forever with that of the Grimkés—the black Grimkés—of Charleston…a chance, finally, to put into practice what they had all been preaching for so long.”[vi]

After the death of his wife, Theodore Weld, head of the extended Weld-Grimké clan, was a respected figure in his community. Mark Perry’s history of the family depicts him in the early 1880s “walking slowly, on the arm of Sarah Stanley Grimké, through the streets of Hyde Park, where he had once jogged.”[vii] A 1925 biography of Archibald by his daughter describes the thrilling social network into which he was introduced by his aunts and Theodore Weld: “He met the Fosters, Lucy Stone, the famous Miss Elizabeth Peabody, his old friends the Pillsburys, Judge Sewell, Dr. Bartol, Garrison, Sumner and Phillips, prominent and great men of his own race, such as Lewis Auden and Frederick Douglass.”[viii]

This was the world into which Sarah married in 1879. Child of an abolitionist minister, Sarah Stanley was fifteen years old at the end of the Civil War, and at twenty-nine she married a former slave. Themes of warfare and freeing slaves feature in her lessons written in the postwar era. Although her father Moses Stanley appears as her adversary at the time of her marriage, his moral evolution is apparent in his letters over the next two decades. He immediately saw “amalgamation” as an inevitable consequence, as Theodore Weld had insisted for decades, of abolishing slavery:

It is what has been flung at me scores & perhaps hundreds of times in years past when I have advocated the rights of the colored race but little did I dream it was an arrow that would pierce my heart.  I have advocated every measure for their full enfranchisement to civil & religious liberty & the opening of our schools & colleges for their education & culture, but amalgamation always seemed unnatural & revolting. Toward them I cherish none but philanthropic feelings but to give them my beautiful & accomplished daughter seems perfectly abhorrent, and that they should be willing to throw themselves into their arms for husbands is an infinite surprise & grief.  The very thought of it is withering to all the love, the charm, the ambition, the aspiration of life.  Death seems the only relief. I am ready to welcome death.[ix]

Despite the hard feelings Moses Stanley expressed towards Sarah’s conversion to Unitarianism in Boston and her marriage to Archibald, her geographical and spiritual mobility seems to follow his example.  She moved from Transcendentalism to New Thought to Hermetic astrology, from Massachusetts to Michigan to California, with the same freedom that Moses had demonstrated in his life. Religious and geographical mobility is thus a theme connecting the Stanley and Weld/Grimké families.

The marriage had begun with a great intensity of feeling on both sides, as evident from this May 29, 1879 letter from Sarah to Archibald:

“Love! Lord! ay===Husband!

Art thou gone so?”  And where am I? – I cannot tell who I am, nor what I should be doing here. I no longer have a separate being. My soul has gone and only a dull machine moves about – these rooms or the streets and commons of Boston.  All is an unmeaning haze until my Prince return and revivify with his breath and magic touch…The Moral Education Society meeting this morning was very interesting indeed.  Mrs. Woolson presided, and made a speech. Among the other speakers were Dr. Bartol, Rev. Mr. Withers, Mr. Allcott, &c – I met Miss Eddy on my way there so we were together.[x] (Allcott is Bronson Alcott; “Miss” Eddy is Mary Baker Eddy- ed.)

In this passage we find the best available clue in her letters to the combination of influences behind Sarah’s earliest writings. Her correspondence only refers once to Bronson Alcott and Mary Baker Eddy, but many times to Cyrus Bartol, a recurring presence throughout her married life. Moses Stanley, in response to Sarah’s announcement of her impending marriage, denounced Bartol’s “delight” at the prospect of her marrying Archie. After leaving him in 1883, Sarah mentioned Bartol and his wife as the only Boston acquaintances with whom she wished to remain in contact. The triangular configuration of Alcott, Eddy, and Bartol provides the context in which Sarah, a Unitarian, became a Mind Cure author and later an exponent of Hermetic and Neoplatonic esotericism.


[i] President’s Annual Report, 1878, Boston University.

[ii] John Alfred Faulkner, American Journal of Theology, July 1, 1910, 422-425.

[iii] Archibald H. Grimké papers, Series A, Box 1, Folder 5, Manuscript Division, Moorland Spingarn Research Center, Howard University.

[iv] Robert Abzug, Passionate Liberator (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), 103.

[v] Ibid., 154, 137.

[vi] Ibid., 230

[vii] Mark Perry, Lift Up thy Voice (New York, Viking, 2001), 26.

[viii] Angelina Weld Grimké, “Biographical of Archibald H. Grimké,” Collected Works (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 431

[ix] Archibald H. Grimké papers, Series A, Box 39-1, Folder 5, Manuscript Division, Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University.

[x] Ibid., Series C, Box 39-3, Folder 76.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

Sarah in Boston– 2017 convention presentation updated


Just as Letters to the Sage Volume Two was published I had the opportunity to talk about Sarah Stanley Grimke to a local audience, sharing the same slides as I had presented to the preconference before the 2017 Church of Light convention but adding a few new ones highlighting the contributors to the new volume.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

November 11, 1918

While the world honors the hundredth anniversary of the end of World War I, I am thinking of the fact that the Brotherhood of Light was officially inaugurated on the date of the armistice that brought peace.  After fourteen years it changed its name to The Church of Light, but Elbert Benjamine’s lessons continued to be published as the Brotherhood of Light lessons.

Next summer at the biennial convention of The Church of Light we will have a preconference intensive focused on the mysteries surrounding authorship of The Light of Egypt, which was regarded as source material from Brotherhood teachings.  The return of Norman and Genevieve Astley to California from England the previous year seems related to the public emergence of the Brotherhood of Light, as Benjamine/Zain later described them as his mentors.  The attached notice is taken from the church website’s description of events planned for 2019.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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.


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

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.


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

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



Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

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, and after reading it encouraged me to pursue biographical research on its author which is reported in the epilogue to this volume.


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

“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.


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

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. .

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

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.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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.



Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

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.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

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.


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment