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.