James Martin Peebles

One of the most visible leaders of Spiritualism in 19th century America, James Martin Peebles was also a pivotal factor in the intersecting histories of the Theosophical Society, the Arya Samaj of India, and the Buddhists of Sri Lanka.  This occurred in 1877 when he introduced  (via correspondence) Col. Olcott and Madame Blavatsky to various spiritual leaders he had met on a recent trip to South Asia.  As the story goes according to several biographers, Peebles recognized Arya Samaj leader Moolji Thackersey in a photograph on the wall of the New York apartment the Colonel shared with Madame Blavatsky.   This photograph had been allegedly taken on a transatlantic voyage from New York to Liverpool in 1870, where Olcott met Moolji and another Indian traveler named Tulsidas, long before the formation of the Arya Samaj.  Peebles is largely a marginal figure in Theosophical Society history except for this single day, when he gave Olcott the Bombay address of Thackersey, with results that eventually led the TS to relocate to India.   Here is the biographical sketch of him from a website maintained by his most recent biographer.

He condemned Blavatsky and supported her accusers the Coulombs during the SPR investigation of the TS, but after her death was on collegial terms with Olcott on an 1897 return trip to South Asia.  While Peebles was both a Spiritualist and a Buddhist during his public career, his political and Free Thought involvements are equally important to his role in the history of the adepts. In 1869 he became US Consul in Trebizonde, Turkey, and en route to his assignment he participated in a Free Thought conference in Naples.  Noteworthy in terms of the 1870s themes of the Theosophical Society is correspondence read from Garibaldi, the presence of his “chaplain,” and the Italian nationalist rhetoric of Peebles’s address to the group.   His association with diplomatic service in the eastern Mediterranean connects him to a network of early Theosophical Society supporters, most strikingly Richard Francis Burton.  Peebles described visiting the great explorer in Trieste in his first round the world trip.  This 1874 article describes all the connections he made while in Europe, including the London Archaeological Society, of special interest since Burton was a major player in that organization.

In his travel memoir Around the World (1874), Peebles describes meeting Brahmo Samajis in Calcutta, one of whom had translated Emma Hardinge Britten’s Spiritual Commandments into Bengali and distributed it as a pamphlet.  October 1873 is the last appearance of Peebles in ship passenger lists I can find for the 1870s.  This coincides with the chronology in Around the World, copyright 1874, and contradicts Olcott’s claim that Peebles had “just arrived” from India in 1877 when he saw a picture of Olcott with Indians taken in 1870.  I found no appearances of any Olcott, Tulsidas, or Thackersey in ship passenger lists from 1870 or adjacent years.  The story of Thackersey and Olcott meeting on board ship was possibly unfounded, which would explain why Olcott got caught in an apparent contradiction when later telling Richard Hodgson that he’d never met a Hindu before he went to India.

Peebles claimed to have met Blavatsky in Cairo and seen her again with Olcott at the Eddy farmhouse.  In fact, he spent an entire two weeks at the Eddy farmhouse during the period that Olcott and HPB met there.  Like Emma Hardinge (not yet Britten) and other Spiritualists, he travelled to Salt Lake City.  Their acquaintance dates back to at least 1870, and they remained friends until Emma’s death in 1899.  In search of historical background on Peebles, I found a letter to abolitionist author Sojourner Truth from Oliver Johnson at the Anti-Slavery Office, NYC , 7/29/1863, which begins with the words “Yours by the hand of J.M. Peebles came promptly.”  I found more on the Peebles/Sojourner connection here.  Peebles seems to be one the most ubiquitous of the 19th century occultists, perhaps more of a central node in the larger network than anyone else including Emma Britten and Helena Blavatsky, involved with Spiritualism, Theosophy, Free Thought, Buddhism, and Abolitionism.

Marc Demarest’s unfolding research has suggested to me at various points that American Spiritualists had as much influence on Emma’s evolving beliefs as did the earlier European associates she memorialized as the Orphic Brotherhood.   For the history of the Church of Light, these are very helpful puzzle pieces enabling us to reconstruct the history of the adepts.  One of the keynotes of the CofL has been an outspoken progressive/reformist political stance, which reflects the New Deal environment in which Zain lived his most productive years.   It seems odd that a group so American in spirit, so focused on progressive political values of US origin, grew out of an English occult group that drew largely on European and Middle Eastern inspiration.  But when we see Emma Hardinge Britten as mainly influenced in the 1850s/60s by American progressive reformers, Zain’s emphases of the 1930s/40s appear as a reflection of the 19th century Spiritualist roots of the body of teachings.

Peebles continues to be an important founding father for contemporary Spiritualists, and is regularly consulted by mediums as can be seen in a variety of online sites.