Troubled Emissaries

In 2016, Alexandria West, a non-profit based in Turlock, California, published Troubled Emissaries: How H.P. Blavatsky’s Successors Transformed the Theosophical Society from 1891 to 1895 by Brett Forray. The conflicts over spiritual authority leading to eventual breakup of the Theosophical Society discussed in this book shed light on Letters to the Sage and vice versa. In discussing the 1895 convention of U.S. Theosophists in Boston that formalized the secession of the former American Section, Forray quotes “Jasper Niemand,” pen name of Julia Keightley, arguing that this was the fourth transformation the organization had undergone in the U.S. in twenty years:

The T.S. took on a third form, and passed out of the Board of Control stage into that of the late American Section, and the fourth stage was reached at Boston Convention, 1895, when the original parent body [Aryan Lodge in New York City] and branches voted autonomy and became the Theosophical Society in America by an overwhelming majority. In each instance the society outgrew the old form and reincarnated anew in conditions more favorable to the work. (p. 289)

Here Niemand describes the original Theosophical Society of the 1870s as the first form or stage, the 1884-6 Board of Control as the second, the American Section established in 1886 as the third, and the 1895 autonomous Theosophical Society in America as the fourth. This helps to explain why both Alexander Wilder and Thomas Moore Johnson were much less involved in the TS in the 1890s than they had been in the 1870s and 1880s. Wilder was a very prominent figure in the first 1870s “incarnation,” having edited and written the introduction to Blavatsky’s Isis Unveiled and becoming a Vice President of the Society for a time. As part of the Board of Control, Johnson was deeply involved in the Society during the second phase which coincided with the rise of the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor in the mid-1880s.   During this phase, five of the seven original members of the T.S. American Board of Control (Buck, Cables, Johnson, Page, and Shelley) were also members of the HBofL.

Forray quotes a Canadian Theosophical editor, A.E.S. Smythe, in a 1939 explanation of why there was still a need to delve into the painful sectarian splits of the 1890s TS:

I have been arraigned from time to time for ever alluding to some of these past incidents. I have done so without malice and only as historically necessary in order to explain why some things are as they are. But if we import personal prejudices and hostile sentiment into historical study it will never get anywhere. Why mention these matters at all? I am asked. The psycho-analysts will tell you that as long as they lie concealed in the mind there can never be peace. Let us not be afraid to face either the past or the future in our present consideration of the life before and around us. Otherwise we may continue to make the same old mistakes that our predecessors made, and what is often worst of all, be proud to make them. (A.E.S. Smythe, Digging Up Old Bones, The Canadian Theosophist, Oct. 15, 1939)

Forray’s 2016 statement about the present need for a fresh consideration of the period suggests that little progress has been made in understanding the bitter controversies of the 1890s between partisans of Annie Besant and William Q. Judge:

What is especially missing in a discussion about the relationship between Judge and Besant is an objectivity to closely review and analyze, for example, their explanations about Mahatmic messages that is detached from the ideologies and apologies professed by the remaining Theosophical groups favoring either protagonist. It is one thing to recognize a person’s achievements; it is another as an extension of those achievements to idolize that person beyond the possibility of examination.(pp. 352-3)

By the early twentieth century, this tendency to idolize Theosophical leaders and engage in conflict over their competing claims was apparent to Alexander Wilder and became a source of frustration for him. Three letters from Wilder to Johnson in the forthcoming second volume of Letters to the Sage show that by the twentieth century the divisions among Theosophists had created a mine field for him as a writer and editor. On September 20, 1900, he wrote to Johnson about the fate of a translation he was working on:

Another matter is that of possible publication.  On that I am at sea. Col. Olcott of The Theosophist a year or more ago offered to print it at Madras and furnish me 500 copies. That was quite generous. Yet I apprehend it would appear in an unattractive form.

Mr. J.B. Fussell now of Point Loma (San Diego, California) wrote me that may be Mrs. Tingly, of the American Theosophists (illegible) might be induced to publish it; allowing me nothing for my work. As I have not undertaken it with any expectation of pay, that consideration does not influence me. Whether it would be advisable to publish it under these auspices is worth considering. I wish it to stand on its own merits, and not to entangle myself with any class of individuals.

On February 22, 1906, Wilder reported to Johnson that he had met H.W. Percival in October 1904, when he stated the intention to start a new magazine for which he wanted a series of papers on Plato’s dialogues, which Wilder agreed to provide. The new magazine, The Word, described itself as “Theosophical” but Wilder was unenthusiastic about the label.

Since the establishment of the Theosophical Society in 1875, it has split into several minor rival bodies. The American Society divided from those of the Eastern Continent; then the friends of Dr. Buck divided from those of Mrs. Tingley, and I apprehend that those at 244 Lennox Avenue [headquarters for Percival] are separate and apart from the others. I have taken no pains to ascertain, and I wish to hold aloof from their quarrels.

Two later letters indicate that the Plato series Wilder wrote for Percival’s Word continued until his death in 1908. In one of his last letters, dated August 1, 1907, he wrote to Johnson about his frustrations with G.R.S. Mead:

He visited me once, some 15 or more years ago. I was much pleased with him. But I have been diverted by his curious treatment of myself. When Lucifer was published and Theosophical Review, they sent me several volumes. But Mr. Hargrove desired me to write articles in the Later Platonists, etc. So the London men cut me off. Some seasons after, I was reinstated, and then again discarded. 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.

Several correspondents who appear in Volume I of Letters to the Sage figure prominently in Forray’s new book. Dr. J.D. Buck appears as a fanatical proponent of American secession from Adyar, and G.R.S. Mead as a passionate opponent thereof. James Pryse also plays a prominent role in pivotal events both in London and in the U.S.  Any readers of Letters to the Sage will find Troubled Emissaries a reliable, well-researched, and instructive guide to the 1890s experiences of American Theosophists.  As the above excerpts reveal, in the forthcoming second volume, Wilder’s last letters to Johnson give a twentieth century retrospective glance at the effects of the 1890s disruptions within the Theosophical Society.