James Martin Peebles in the Brotherhood of Light Lessons

This chapter from The Masters Revealed (SUNY Press, 1994) describes one of several figures in Spiritualist and Theosophical history whose natal chart is mentioned in the Brotherhood of Light Lessons.

ONE OF THE LEAST-KNOWN yet most influential figures in Theosophical history, Dr. J.M. Peebles was a catalyst without whom modern Theosophy  might have evolved very differently. Peebles was born in 1822 in Whitington, Vermont, not far from Chester, where Albert Rawson was born a few years later. His parents were middle-class farmers, and Peebles was educated for the Universalist ministry. He remained a minister into the 1860s, when he began a career in diplomacy. In 1868 he was a member of the Northwest Congressional Indian Peace Commission, and in 1869 was appointed U.S. consul at Trebizonde, Turkey. But in his fifties he changed careers again, earning an M.D. from the Philadelphia University of Medicine and Surgery in 1876, an M.A. from the same institution the following year, and a Ph.D. from the Medical University of Chicago in 1882. He practiced and taught medicine in Philadelphia, Cincinnati, and San Diego before moving to Battle Creek, Michigan in 1896. Around 1910 he moved to his final home, Los Angeles. He interrupted his practice in 1886 to represent the U.S. Arbitration League at the conference of the International Peace Commission held in Berlin.’ His transition from ministerial to medical studies is a striking similarity to Rawson. More suggestive of their being kindred spirits is Peebles’s participation for many years in Freemasonry, the Odd Fellows, and the Independent Order of Good Templars, of which he was a founder and first chaplain. Among his other enthusiasms were abolitionism, temperance, woman suffrage, and vegetarianism, all of which he actively supported. He was also affiliated with the Free Thought movement, and preceded Rawson on the platform of the 1878 convention cited in the latter’s biography.

Most important for the evolution of Theosophy is Peebles’s role as a Spiritualist writer and traveling lecturer, which occupied much of his time and energy for the last half of his long life. His first books on the subject, The Practical of Spiritualism and The Spiritual Harp, appeared in 1868. In the following year he published Seers of the Ages, which promoted Spiritualism as a means of reconciling world religions. Most of his published works were about Spiritualism and his travels on its behalf. He made three tours around the world as a traveling lecturer, the first of which is crucial to Theosophical history. Much of his time abroad was spent in Egypt, India, and Ceylon, and in each country his activities are relevant to the mystery of the Masters. HPB appears in his narrative of his visit to Cairo:

“Madame Blavatsky, assisted by other fine brave souls, formed a society of Spiritualists about three years since [written 1874]. They have fine writing-mediums and other forms of the mani­festations. They hold weekly seances during the winter months. Madame Blavatsky is at present in Odessa, Russia. The lady whose husband keeps the Oriental Hotel, is a firm Spiritualist. Fired with the missionary spirit, I left a package of pamphlets and tracts in her possession, for gratuitous distribution.”

Much of his time abroad was spent in Egypt. The allusion to the lady married to the keeper of the Oriental Hotel presumably refers to Emma Coulomb. Perhaps his first meeting with HPB was simultaneous with Olcott’s, as he was present at the Eddy brothers’ seances in Chittenden where the founders first met. However, an uncanny succession of coincidences involving Peebles suggests that he may have been in league with HPB before her arrival in America. The most peculiar of the coincidences occurred in the fall of 1877, when Peebles, just returned from India, paid a visit to HPB and Olcott at their West 47th Street apartment, the ”Lamasery.” Marion Meade reports that he ”noticed on the wall a photograph of two Indians, shipboard passengers with whom Henry had traveled to England in 1870,” and was surprised to see that one of them was a man he had recently met in Bombay, Moolji Thackersey. When Peebles told them of Moolji’s current activities in the Arya Samaj, Olcott took his address and wrote to him in Bombay the following day.

As a result of this letter the TS became allied with the Arya Samaj, but another, more durable alliance with the Buddhists of Ceylon also resulted from the same conversation. In a 1927 reminiscence, Anagarika Dharmapala explained how this came about. He remembered that when he was ten years old there was a great debate, lasting three days, between Christian missionaries and a Buddhist priest, Mohottiwatte Gunananda. The High Priest Sumangala assisted his young colleague with preparations for the debate. Peebles happened to be in Ceylon at the time, and read of the event in a report in English, which he showed to Olcott and HPB when he visited them in New York. As a result, ”they wrote to Gunananda and Sumangala that, in the interest of universal brotherhood, they had just founded a society inspired by oriental philosophies and that they would come to Ceylon to help the Buddhists. The letters from Colonel the first of which is crucial to Theosophical history. Much of his time abroad was spent in Egypt, India, and Ceylon, and in each country his activities are relevant to the mystery of the Masters. HPB appears in his narrative of his visit to Cairo:

Burton’s trip to America never materialized, but it is interesting that he would have chosen Peebles for a traveling companion. While Around the World yields little in the way of specific clues about the Masters, it provides abundant evidence of the cultural milieu in which Theosophy emerged. Peebles portrays Spiritualism as part of a progressive cultural trend which he calls Liberalism or Free Thought. His passage through Italy evokes condemnation of the Pope and glorification of Garibaldi. Although not entirely free from racist assumptions (especially about ”Aryans”), he is sincerely and sympathetically interested in all the peoples he encounters. Every non-Christian religion is treated with honor and respect, although he condemns the ”shrewd, selfish conduct, and theological dogmas” of Christian missionaries as a ”curse to the native mind.”

The literary career of Dr. Peebles has extended well beyond his long lifetime. In 1990, a book entitled To Dance with Angels was published under the alleged authorship of his discarnate spirit. Novelists Don and Linda Pendleton co-wrote the portions that are not direct dictations from Peebles. The trance medium with whom they worked was Thomas Jacobson, but Peebles reportedly dictates to twenty-five mediums in North America alone. The messages are standard Spiritualist homilies, but are relevant to Theosophical history because they allege that Olcott and Peebles are working together now in the Spirit world. The discarnate Peebles makes frequent references to Masters, although it is not quite clear whether he claims that status for himself. The respect and love he inspires among his followers, who call him a Great Spirit, would seem to entitle him to Mahatmic status.

KPJ comment: Peebles is like Albert Rawson in that he gives conflicting testimony about the early New York TS that contradicts not just other witnesses but their own previous comments supporting or attacking Blavatsky. Her own testimony is equally confusing. As Marc Demarest’s latest blog post reports from his own inquiries– all these people mix fact and fiction in their commentaries about one another, and are misunderstood by subsequent writers according to biased versions of “who do you trust?” In 1994 I trusted misinformation about Peebles in printed books; my later research shows he was not the visitor recently returned from India to the US in 1877; the editorial material in the reprint of Hurrychund Chintamon explains that it was David E. Dudley, MD.